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Remembering Robert Elgie – Scholar, Colleague, Friend

Robert Elgie (1965-2019)

Robert Elgie, our dear friend, colleague, supporter, and founder of the Presidential Power blog, passed away on July 14, 2019. We bid Robert farewell in this memorial post, with testimonials from current and former contributors.

“Sometimes the waiting can seem endless. But be patient and in time everything will turn out right”. Robert’s last post on his Half-Life Music blog is as inspiring in its simplicity as every other piece he ever wrote. His contribution to comparative politics scholarship is enormous, but it was his gift of clear, simple writing that always stood out to me. Even in the quickest of blog posts, Robert was able to pack a breakthrough idea in a single sentence that made more sense than whole chapters written before. Arguably, there are few things more daunting for a PhD student than to have their work read by somebody like him. His “this is not English” scribbles in the margins of the first thesis chapter I handed in were etched in my mind for a long time. Later on, I would never miss an opportunity to take him back to his harsh words, and he would always say that I fully deserved them. No need for sugar-coating then or ever. Undoubtedly, if my writing is any better nowadays, it is because I tried hard to reach (not successfully enough, I’m afraid) the high bar he had set. Sure enough, in his book, the wait never meant sitting idly by until things just happened. It was more about how hard work will eventually turn everything right. It was a great honour to be one of the founding members of the Presidential Power blog – and indeed witness the idea of the collaborative blog forming into his mind. I was simply astonished by the energy he put into making sure that not a day passed by without a new post, that we covered a wide range of regions, came up with new sections often enough, used every possible social media to spread the message… quite simply, the determination with which he made sure that every single piece of a project he ran was fine tuned to perfection, as if it had not been just one of the tens of things he was juggling with at the same time, was out of this world. I will deeply miss Robert’s kindness, wise words, his everyday “less-is-more” examples, and a myriad of other little caring gestures that he seemed to make so effortlessly…

Cristina Bucur

“Robert shared his knowledge, his experiences and his enthusiasm freely, he was a wonderful scholar and treated everybody with a great amount of respect. He will be terribly missed, not only as a scholar but as a mentor and a friend. And, I will never forget his pure joy in discussing a paper: both the big questions – of which he asked plenty –  and the very, very specific details – with his mountain of knowledge.”

Anna Fruhstorfer

“Robert and I first met in late 2013, yet as bloggers on presidential politics had ‘known’ each other ‘virtually’ for at least two years before then. Starting with the creation of the Presidential Power Blog, we were often in weekly contact. After Robert served as the external examiner for my PhD in 2014, emails were no longer limited to discussing aspects of the blog and he became a trusted colleague, resourceful advisor, and one of my most important mentors (only second to my doctoral supervisor). As such, Robert was always empathetic, supportive, and accommodating in my professional and personal struggles as an early career academic. This is also how I got to know him as a scholar. Robert was always curious and had an amazing ability to ask (very) critical questions without stifling enthusiasm or innovative thought. Despite his prestige as a scholar, he was approachable; he was always happy to reach out to others, particularly to junior scholars, for new insights; he did not mind when others disagreed with his work but valued them and their contributions regardless. Robert leaves an impressive scholarly legacy; however, and maybe more importantly so, he also leaves an unparalleled legacy of kindness to others.”

Philipp Köker

“I met Robert at the beginning of my PhD. He was my ‘research design’ lecturer. His classes were extremely clear and inspiring, I learned an awful lot in these months. I also got a lot of encouragement down the line; even if he was a senior faculty member, he was always available to give me clear feedback on my essays and related issues. One year after he asked me to contribute a guest post to ‘Presidential Power blog’ and, immediately after, he invited me to join as a regular contributor. For three years I was part of that project. Sometimes I wonder if Robert had more than 24 hours in a day. No matter what time I sent the blogpost in, it was always edited within a few hours. We all were motivated by the love and passion he put into the project. I will always remember Robert as an inspiring person, extremely competent and approachable at the same time. His premature departure is a loss not only for political science but also for all current and past researchers who had the luck to meet him.”

Chiara Maria Loda

“Robert was an outstanding scholar, friend and colleague. As a scholar of political institutions, he put semi-presidentialism on the academic map and vastly expanded the study of presidential powers, including by creating the Presidential Power blog. As a friend and colleague, Robert was extraordinarily generous with his time and advice, establishing networks across continents and specializations that we have all benefited greatly from. Fifteen years ago, he accepted to work with me on a book project though we had never met, and that became the start of a long friendship and collaboration I will forever be grateful for. His passing is a great loss. Though we will miss him terribly, the impact of Robert’s many scholarly contributions and friendship will live on.”

Sophia Moestrup

“I met Robert Elgie in 2008, when I started my doctoral studies at Dublin City University. I knew that he was a leading academic in comparative politics, and because of this, as a young PhD student who was trying to find his feet in academia, I couldn’t help feeling a bit intimidated by his wealth of knowledge and academic authority.
He was not directly involved in my studies, but I was fortunate enough to meet him in person and to get his advice in several occasions, be it to improve a paper, to understand the functioning of the academic market, or simply to encourage me to develop confidence. He did not receive a better salary for assuming those roles, he did it out of vocation. Many people who knew him or read his work know about his significant contributions to political science, but he was also a kind teacher and mentor who inspired many students like me.
I consider Robert one of my mentors, to whom I am also deeply grateful for taking me into account to participate in his latest projects, such as this blog.”

Juan Muñoz-Portillo

“Robert was the best colleague, a friend who was always ready to support people. In 2012 I was looking for a Mentor for my post-doctoral research project. In fact this was my first program abroad and I was worried. I wrote a letter via e-mail to a number of professors. To my surprise, Robert whom I did not know at all gave me the chance to be my host professor in Dublin. His immeasurable attention and daily support during that visit had a great influence on my career. I was surprised by his approach to professional activities. At the end of the visit, Robert suggested to me that I write a chapter on Georgia for his book, which was a great honor for me. From then on, I was a part of many important projects with Robert’s support and I was very proud to work with him. Finally we met in Oslo, Norway, where he offered me to think about a book on Georgia and gave me recommendations on the book structure with his usual attention. I don’t know of any other scientist who gave this kind of attention and support to young researchers. I will always appreciate his help and kindness, and I am very saddened by the sudden passing of Robert. My sincere condolences are with his family and all his friends.”

Malkhaz Nakashidze

“I had the great fortune to have Professor Robert Elgie as my PhD Supervisor. Beginning a PhD in my forties was a huge challenge, but one that was made infinitely easier thanks to Robert’s unstinting support and guidance. In spite of his innumerable achievements and responsibilities, Robert was never anything less than generous with his time and constructive with his opinions. I learned a great deal from Robert, both personally and professionally, and will be forever grateful that I got to work with him. May he rest in peace.”

Chris O’Connell

“I come to praise Robert, for there is so much about Robert to honour and praise.[1]
I met Robert some 15 years ago, at a three-day workshop and conference at the University of Edinburgh. We used to joke about the fact that our friendship was due in no small part to three-nights of whiskey drinking – almost all on my part, but Robert was always too English to say so – which was, in turn facilitated by the thoughtfulness of our hosts to put us up right next to an all-night pub.
He was a prolific, insightful, deep-thinker, with no fewer than 10 single-authored or co-authored books, 8 edited books, 58 journal articles, and 73 book chapters. So accomplished, dedicated and successful a scholar was Robert that he was inducted to the Royal Irish Academy in 2016.
But Robert was more than that: he was a generous and enthusiastic mentor, supporter, cheer-leader, champion. He founded the Presidential Power Blog, which has become a platform that many early career researchers find handy for information, disseminating research, and networking. So many have flourished with Robert’s help, support, encouragement, and guidance.
But Robert was more than that: he was also worldly. He could talk about soccer, music, food, whiskey, and, of course, politics. I have never seen Robert drink much at all, yet he knew and shared and suggested. And, wise about drinking: for instance, he shared the adage, “grape after grain, never more pain.” Or was that, “grain after grape, never more ache?” And don’t get him started on Thatcher, or May.
Yes, Robert was more than that: he had a great sense of humour. I can always count on him for a wry comment. I remember asking if he’d come through Australia to visit with me, to which he replied drolly: sure, with all the improvements to transportation, it only takes 2-3 weeks by boat now, doesn’t it?
Yes, Robert was remarkable in so many ways. I wish I wasn’t lulled by the complacency of expecting to see him, hear from him, talk to him, write to him, that I forgot how far-flung we are, as academics. Or how isolated we can be, as academics. Or how solitary our work usually is, as academics.
Robert, I will miss you deeply, and for a very long time. May you rest in peace, until we meet up again for whiskey, my dear friend.”

[1] With apologies to Shakespeare, capturing the spirit, if not the wording, here.

Fiona Yap

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership


This post was co-authored by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius.

Despite almost three decades of empirical research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister and her cabinet on the other. Our new book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership, published in the Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics series, breaks thus new ground by exploring how intra-executive coordination works (and does not work) in three European countries with roughly similar constitutional frameworks – Finland, Lithuania, and Romania.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with select informants (primarily ministers and civil servants from the offices of the president and the prime minister with long-standing experience of intra-executive coordination), official documents, as well as secondary material such as politicians’ memoirs, the purpose of our book was to go beyond cohabitation and constitutional powers and to dig deeper into the relations between the two executives. Our basic premise was straightforward: the less there is formal, regular coordination between the two leaders, the more there is space for presidential activism. Formal coordination mechanisms in a sense tame or constrain presidents – and should overall contribute to smoother intra-executive relations.

When deciding on our case selection, we wanted to compare countries that have sufficiently similar constitutional regimes but display variation regarding the socio-economic context and the dynamics of party politics. The presidents of Finland, Lithuania, and Romania enjoy broadly comparable constitutional prerogatives, although the Finnish presidency is vested with somewhat weaker powers. However, the difference lies not so much in constitutional rules as in the socio-economic context. Finland is an old democracy known for its political stability and low level of corruption. The constitutional reform process that culminated in the new unified constitution of 2000 was an orderly, calm process based on broad party-political consensus. Lithuania and Romania, in turn, are much younger democracies that needed to rapidly adopt new constitutions in the heated circumstances of the early 1990s. Their party systems tend to be less stable, with political parties often vehicles for the personal ambitions of individual politicians. Both countries, particularly Romania, have also had serious problems with corruption. Not very surprisingly, Finns tend to trust their political institutions whereas Lithuanians and Romanians do not (at least no to the same extent).

Our main findings need to be understood in the context of these rather fundamental societal differences. In Finland the politicians and legal experts responsible for amending the constitution opted for formal coordination instruments that essentially force the president and the prime minister to cooperate regularly. The Finnish president chairs the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and meets both the prime minister and the foreign minister on an almost weekly basis. But perhaps even more important is the legacy of Urho Kekkonen, who ruled the land with an iron hand for quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981. There was a shared understanding among the political elites that the balance of power had shifted too far in favour of the president. There was thus the political will to significantly reduce the powers of the president, but also a recognition of the need to bind the president to governmental decision-making. In Finland it is still perceived inappropriate for the president to become involved in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the cabinet and the Eduskunta. This applies particularly to government formation, as one of the key factors contributing to the position of Kekkonen was his ability to basically dominate government formation processes, cherry-picking prime ministers and vetoing ministerial candidates and even the inclusion of whole parties in cabinets. Finnish presidents do not criticize the prime minister and the cabinet publicly. Disagreements do occur, but they are mainly handled behind the scenes without public conflicts.

In Lithuania and Romania, on the other hand, it is certainly both legitimate and appropriate for the president to interfere in matters that constitutionally belong to the competence of the government. The transition to democracy in the early 1990s provided a critical juncture in terms of institutional design. Both countries opted for a stronger presidency than in Finland and, more importantly, decided against specific rules about intra-executive coordination mechanisms. Neither country utilizes ministerial committees that would enable regular exchange between the president and the government. Even though the president meets the prime minister often, the frequency of such bilateral meetings is very much dependent on individual office-holders. Both countries also offer evidence of communication breakdowns, with the president or the prime minister simply refusing to talk to one another. Crucially, it is the president that holds the initiative regarding interaction with the prime minister or the government. The level and forms of intra-executive coordination are thus very much determined by the president. Lithuanian and Romanian presidents have adopted even quite confrontational stances, unleashing harsh attacks on the government.

An interesting dimension is party politics, or the role of political parties in facilitating or hindering presidential influence. In all three countries the president as the head of state is not formally a member of any party, but here we see notable variation. Romanian presidents are quite openly involved in the work of their parties: the presidents have attended various party congresses, maintain in general close ties with their parties, and even campaigned in favour of their parties in parliamentary elections. In Lithuania such party ties are much weaker, although we must remember that two of the three presidents, Adamkus and Grybauskaitė, were elected into office as independent candidates. In Finland the non-involvement of presidents in party politics is strictly observed. Future research should examine more closely how presidents use their parties or friendly legislative majorities to achieve policy goals. The Lithuanian and Romanian examples illustrate how ‘outsider’ presidents, such as Constantinescu and Iohannis, have found it much more difficult to shape politics than incumbents that have long experience from party politics.      

Our analysis indicates the buffet table of strategies available for presidents to wield influence. Apart from using their constitutional prerogatives, presidents make active use of informal channels: they meet with individual politicians, including party leaders, hold important public speeches that typically enjoy wide media coverage, and establish close links with various interest groups and citizens’ associations. Again such activities are not regulated by any laws. Previous research has very much focused on visible actions – presidential vetoes or the role of the president in forming and dissolving cabinets. These are clearly important dimensions that deserve to be examined, but influential presidents may not need to veto bills or reject governments. Given favourable circumstances, not least a friendly prime minister and a legislative majority, presidents can achieve a lot without leaving any public trace of her actions. This is why we deliberately relied heavily on interviews with people in key positions. If we want to understand how individual presidents behave, one simply must talk to such informants and identify how presidents seek to influence politics.  

An important and so far under-researched theme is the role of presidential staff. In Finland the size of the presidential office is very small, and hence the Finnish president is strongly dependent on preparatory work carried out by the government. In Lithuania and particularly in Romania the presidential palaces have generous staff levels, meaning that the presidents have, if required, the capacity to look into policy questions in much more detail and to prepare various political documents. A striking and perhaps also a surprising finding concerns the portfolios that the staff focus on. Most of the staff working for the Lithuanian and Romanian presidents deal with policy areas that fall under the competence of the government – economic policy, education, social and health affairs, culture etc. Importantly, these persons follow developments in the ministries and the legislature, maintain active links with interest groups and other shareholders, and in general try to generate support for the positions and initiatives of the president. Future research on political leadership should therefore pay close attention to advisors and other staff, including of course also in the office of the prime minister.

Intra-executive coordination is most institutionalized and regular in foreign and security policy. Finland uses a specific ministerial committee in foreign and security policy that meets around twice a month and brings together the president, the prime minister and other cabinet members. Lithuania and Romania utilize national security councils that meet less often but are convened to discuss various topical matters related to security policy. While there have been some public disputes or disagreements between the president and the government in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania, normally the goal of speaking with one voice in foreign and security policy is achieved. There is routine, day-to-day administrative interaction between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, and in all three countries the president meets the foreign minister on a regular basis.

The findings are thus in line with our theoretical expectations. The more there is formal and regular coordination, the less space for presidential activism – and vice versa. And in line with institutional theory, our book illustrates path dependency and the stickiness of initially adopted courses of action. We also provide further evidence of some of the negative features often associated with presidents and semi-presidential regimes. Most of the intra-executive conflicts or tensions in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania result from actions of the president. At the same time we must underline the exploratory nature of our research. Our analysis covered only three countries, and thus the number of individual presidents in our data set was small. Various presidential activities – from public speeches, party links, to ties with various stakeholders – could be subjected to much closer examination and be linked to data on intra-executive conflicts or legislative vetoes. Finally, our research design and data should not be understood as criticism of more quantitatively oriented studies. However, an in-depth understanding of presidential behaviour and how the two executives work together is not possible without reaching ‘behind the scenes’ and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of intra-executive coordination.   

Tanzania – Opening salvo, or final shot? Factional challenges to President Magufuli

A recent letter from two former ruling party secretary generals—widely interpreted as an open criticism of President Magufuli—has caused something of a stir in Tanzanian politics over the past two weeks.

Yusuf Makamba and Abdulrahman Kinana took direct aim at the controversial newspaper publisher, Cyprian Musiba, who has been accused of libel for printing allegations that various high-profile figures within CCM and the opposition are plotting to undermine Magufuli. Addressing their letter to the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Council of Elders, Makamba and Kinana warned that these “unfounded allegations” pose a threat to the party’s “unity, solidarity and tranquillity” and called on the former presidents and party officials who make up the Council to take action. The two erstwhile secretary generals also emphasised that Musiba was being protected so that he could “carry out a special mission for important people and with evil intent.”

The letter triggered a flurry of reactions. Several CCM MPs lined up to defend the President. Among them was Hussein Bashe, a sometimes critic and strong backer of Magufuli’s main rival in the 2015 elections, Edward Lowassa. In this instance, though, Bashe was uncompromising in his support for the President, describing the letter as “a plot to deny President Magufuli of a chance to contest a second term in 2020”. Other responses, all coming from figures outside CCM, were more sympathetic to the letter writers, suggesting they were right to break their silence.

Why the excitement?

Since assuming the Presidency in 2015, Magufuli has made a concerted effort to tame CCM’s rival factions, centralising power under his control. In the process, he has alienated many party grandees as well as party-aligned economic elites. This re-balancing—and especially some of the violent means through which it has been executed—has fed simmering tensions in CCM with much speculation about whether and when they could boil over into open conflict.

In this vein, observers have wondered whether disgruntled CCM heavyweights—including Makamba and Kinana—might be coordinating in the background, preparing the groundwork to challenge Magufuli ahead of the 2020 elections. While such coordination efforts have seemed increasingly unlikely, the President and those closest to him nevertheless continue to demonstrate a high level of paranoia, expressed in part through the accusations published by the now infamous Musiba in his Tanzanite newspaper. For instance, the current Secretary General, Bashiru Ally, issued a public summons late last year, demanding that former contender for the CCM presidential nomination, Bernard Membe, come see him about allegations (again, published in Tanzanite) that Membe was plotting to supplant Magufuli in 2020.

Viewed against this backdrop, Makamba and Kinana’s letter implied the situation had finally reached the much-anticipated boiling point. As one paper intoned, it “raised a storm that exposed major cracks within CCM”.

Beyond simply exposing those cracks, though, the letter marked a moment of reckoning for the ruling party. As the political economist Mushtaq Khan argues, who has power is not obvious until that power is subjected to a contest, at which point the competitors see who can hold out and thus determine who has the upper hand. So long as internal CCM rivalries remain in the shadowy domain of rumour and allegation, there is room to doubt who is really in control—to query whether Magufuli’s grip is as strong as it appears.

So, who won?

Clearly, the President.

For all the excitement, Makamba and Kinana’s effort was a flop. The events that followed its release have left Magufuli’s dominance seeming greater than before.

The letter’s authors refer to conversations with supporters—fellow CCM members, religious leaders and the like—who share their frustrations. Yet none of these came forward to defend the letter once it was made public. As noted earlier, no CCM figure openly backed it.

In his response, the secretary of the Council of Elders, former CCM Vice Chair Pius Msekwa, simply reaffirmed the weakness of that body, saying it would refer the complaint to a “higher level”. The Council was created in 2012 under then President Jakaya Kikwete, who used it opportunistically to help block the presidential ambitions of his rival, Lowassa. Having served its function, the Council seemingly no longer has much relevance.

Another blow to the letter-writers, if more indirect this time, came when only days after they released their statement, Magufuli fired Yusuf Makamba’s son, January Makamba, who was serving as Environment Minister. Although Magufuli claimed his decision was motivated by frustrations with delays in issuing environmental assessment certificates to would-be investors, observers were sceptical about the timing of his move. Those close to January Makamba have reported that he was on borrowed time anyway, kept in post partially so that the President could keep a close eye on him. But the letter appeared to force the issue and led to his decisive ouster. Not in a position to hit back, Makamba simply thanked the President in a graciously worded tweet, after which his usually busy account went quiet.

While Makamba was on his way out, the above-mentioned Bashe rose up the ladder, seemingly rewarded for his interjection with an appointment as deputy minister of agriculture.

Wither CCM?

With no sign of effective factional coordination to challenge Magufuli from within the ruling party, his rivals face a choice; either they remain in the cold—with the added prospect of economic and physical coercion—or renegotiate an entry into the President’s inner circle.

Rostam Aziz—long-time Lowassa ally and one-time billionaire—has managed just such a re-entry. After a period of seemingly self-imposed exile following Magufuli’s election, he has returned, met privately with Magufuli, ushered Lowassa back into CCM after his defection to opposition party CHADEMA, and added to the volley of accusations thrown at the much-maligned Membe for his supposed efforts to undermine the President. Aziz’s latest business venture, a $60m liquefied gas plant, was inaugurated by Magufuli last month.

The apparent predictability of Magufuli’s continued dominance, at least through the 2020 elections, does not however reduce the prospect of further violence and paranoia. The recent spate of seemingly state-orchestrated abductions and murders shows no sign of abating. Nor do the accusations levied by Musiba and others against Magufuli’s supposed detractors.

Meanwhile, after 2020, it is the 2025 elections that will become the main focus. Barring a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, Magufuli will be stepping down and, in the CCM tradition, opening the floodgates for renewed factional manoeuvring ahead of a fresh CCM presidential nomination contest. Given the levels of tension and outright violence within the party at present, the prospect of that contest is scarier than in the past—its peaceful resolution, harder to imagine.

Through the looking-glass and what AMLO found there…

Children´s literary classics become so not only because of their appeal to young readers, but also because their themes, characters, dialogues and narratives can be constantly (re)discovered by very distinct audiences across time and space. We think of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince as classics because they shed light on a rather complex set of issues. Leaning on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in what follows, I limn the contours of Mexican politics a year after Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) landslide electoral victory.

I intend to illuminate the struggle analysts, advocates and critics face when attempting to elucidate whether what’s happening in Mexican politics is having —or going to have— either positive or negative consequences. The reader should be aware that, if effective, this depiction of Mexico’s political chiaroscuro is bound to raise more questions than answers. For clarity, I first offer a brief synthesis of Lewis Carroll’s tale. I then draw parallels between AMLO’s governing style and three memorable characters of the story. Lastly, the conclusion reflects on how fiction might —or might not— overcome reality.     

In Carroll’s sequel to Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters once again a fantastical world by climbing into a mirror. Inside this reflection, Alice unknowingly becomes part of a chess game. As the story unfolds, she moves across the board, meeting memorable characters like the Red Queen, Tweedledum & Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty along the way. Although in this world everything seems to be reversed, Alice manages to win the game and wakes up questioning whether her recent adventure or her sudden wakefulness are real at all.

Walking through…

In spite of dominating polls throughout the 2018 campaign trail, López Obrador’s victory shook pundits, critics and enthusiasts alike. Some have even claimed that MORENA’s (AMLO’s party) tsunami represents the first real rotation of political elites in almost a century, and that, just like walking through glass, was something that ex ante seemed or was thought of as impossible. Backed by 30 million votes, AMLO walked through the mirror. A decades-long stentorian opposition leader turned president.

One year in…

A year after the election, and seven months in office, close observers will quickly recognize how contemporary Mexican politics resembles several of Alice’s encounters and dialogues on her quest to win the chess match. The first and perhaps most dramatic example concerns time. Sworn to kick-start Mexico’s fourth transformation, AMLO is poised to beat Time.

Hailing ‘an overhaul of the political system’ rather than just a shift in administration, the pace at which AMLO’s government is introducing reforms and modifications seems to signal that for him and his cabinet, days necessarily have more than just 24 hours. AMLO’s government has been a true and tested example that time’s relativity is not only a physical phenomenon, but also a political one.

Examples of this precocity for change can be found across a wide array of policy dimensions and arenas: re-structuring of the federal budget, a deep (re)accommodation of the bureaucratic apparatus, the creation of the Guardia Nacional, an airport cancellation, as well as significant efforts to formally (or informally) stop most of former president Peña Nieto’s so-called structural reforms.

This re-interpretation of time has had, of course, drastic consequences. On the one hand, it has evidenced a lack of refinement and detail in the design and execution of governmental action. On the other hand, it has pressured an otherwise lethargic and feeble state apparatus to operate beyond its current capabilities. Recurring cabinet resignations and a media overload of information are additional symptoms of this change spree.

The advice the Red Queen gives to Alice upon entering the chess game can be closely linked to this stretching of time and accelerated transformation since, as the queen suggests, “if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast”. The risk, however, as she first points out, is that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”.

AMLO’s “Red Queen politics”, just like its counter parts in biology and marketing, runs the risk of trying to re-invent the wheel, launching new programs, creating new institutes and organizations and redefining policies, just so that Mexico —its economy and democracy— can (in the best scenario) remain the same.

That AMLO’s tempo is distinct and that he strives to foster ubiquitous change should be by now clear to anyone who has followed the president’s mañaneras. Every weekday by 7 a.m. López Obrador has a press conference in which, aided by cabinet members, he sets the agenda and has constant exchanges with media. While the image of an open, hard-working president has definitely helped Obrador to keep surprisingly high approval rates, these morning meetings have been marred by AMLO constantly rejecting criticism by retorting that he has “other information”.

When thinking about Mexico’s president alternative facts —or more broadly when thinking about the peculiar relation populist leaders from across the ideological spectrum have to data— I cannot help but remember Humpty Dumpty’s remark that “when [he] uses a word, it means just what [he] chooses it to mean”. When confronted by Alice –or the media— as the extent to which this conceptual stretching can go on, Humpty Dumpty replies that “the question is, which is to be master -that’s all”.

For the past year López Obrador has been master not only of the political agenda but also of the narrative and the language used to discuss politics in Mexico. His popularity and a majoritarian support in Congress, have allowed him to challenge and redefine the spectrum of what’s considered good or bad politics. His is the only effective truth and so far, no one has managed to challenge that.

Wrapping up…

With two years until mid-term congressional elections and five years left in the presidency, AMLO’s chess game has got a long way ahead. As it stands, the recent victory of MORENA in the state of Puebla exemplifies that the opposition has yet to find its ground and catch up with the times. To understand current Mexican political tidings, and perhaps to lessen polarization while enhancing the ability to articulate a critical alternative, it is necessary to grasp that AMLO’s government through its distinct looking-glass, has redefined the political coordinates of time, space and even language.

In the upcoming months, the Mexican landscape will consequently be redefined by an interplay between the opposition’s ability to rediscover its voice and AMLO’s maneuvering to overcome the limitations interwoven in (t)his “new” reality. In the meantime, advocates and critics continue to resemble Tweedledum & Tweedledee, the one saying that “if it [is] so, it might be” while the other one retorts “but as it isn’t, it ain’t”.

*All of the quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass were taken from an online version of the text available at <https://bit.ly/1WF0SZH>.

Turkey – Is there a way out of Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism?

In the March 2019 local elections President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party suffered a blow when it lost almost all big cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Adana and Antalya, to the opposition (the Nation Alliance of the Republican Peoples Party/CHP, the Good Party/IP). The greatest loss was undoubtedly Istanbul. Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising start of Turkish politics was a relatively unknown candidate for Istanbul before the election. He ran against the former PM Binali Yıldırım, but his real rival was President Erdoğan himself. President Erdoğan campaigned fiercely for his candidate, using state resources and public funds; the government controlled major media outlets ignored all opposition candidates, including Imamoglu.

Defying all obstacles, Imamoglu won the election with a small margin of 13.000 votes. The High Election Board, however, annulled the Istanbul mayoral election after the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alleged irregularities. While President Erdoğan called on the Board several times to rerun the election alleging vote rigging, the board found no evidence of election fraud. Its decision was based on a weak legal argument that certain ballot officers were not civil servants, despite the fact that they had been appointed and cleared by the Board itself.

Many Istanbul voters reacted negatively to this decision, convinced that the government had pressured the Board to cancel Imamoglu’s rightful victory. In the end, Imamoglu won again in the rerun, this time with more than 800.000 votes, thereby increasing his support nearly ten per cent in two months’ time. In a short time, Imamoglu transformed from a relatively unknown mayor of the not “so important district” of Beylikdüzü into a hugely popular politician, winning twice against president Erdoğan who had not lost a single election for a long time.

In the Turkish context, Imamoğlu’s victory may be more significant than a simple mayoral election win. President Erdoğan who was once the mayor of Istanbul himself, famously said that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Erdoğan’s regime has been said to have four distinct characteristics; electoral authoritarianism as its electoral system, neo-patrimonialism as its economic system, populism as political strategy, and Islamism as political ideology.[1] Losing big cities in general, and Istanbul in particular, has the potential to affect all four aspects.

Imamoğlu gives hope to people that it is still possible to win and transfer political power through the ballot box – meaning that Turkey’s electoral authoritarian regime is competitive in nature. There is an uneven playing field, but there may still be a slight window of opportunity for the opposition to gain political power through elections, no matter how unfair or unfree they are.

Imamoğlu’s campaign strategy was to reach people in the streets, talk, and listen without grand meetings. All major media outlets are controlled by Erdoğan and they all proved useless against this strategy. Erdoğan’s discourse is premised on the existence of an enemy. His often angry, divisive, and threatening rhetoric was beaten by Imamoğlu’s good natured, hopeful, inclusive, and pluralist approach. He has been backed not only by The Nation Alliance but also the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party/HDP and the conservative Happiness Party/SP. He managed to form a larger alliance to restore Turkish democracy which he called the “Istanbul coalition”. Many people believe that he now has an opportunity to create a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s regime by running Istanbul successfully. He might also prove that it is possible to beat populist, authoritarian politicians in their game.

As for the economic system, opposition wins in big cities including Istanbul means losing one of the biggest sources of patronage for the AKP. Funds and public companies run by mayors have been channels for charitable patronage as well as other types of economic “reward” and “punishment” mechanisms. Under the current poor economic conditions in Turkey, the government has been increasingly short of funds to feed its patron-client relations, especially through charitable patronage.

Campaigning fiercely for big cities, and especially for Istanbul and losing it twice, Erdoğan seems to find it hard to keep his political support intact. This display of political weakness affects his position as the patron of his neo-patrimonial regime, as the patron’s weakness pushes clients to search for other patrons or new positions under the changing conditions.  There are already signs of this happening as former Prime Minister Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Babacan have resigned from the AKP to form new parties. But the most important client disobedience has yet to come from the judicial elite which meters out punishments for the regime. The rule of law and constitutional rights have long been undermined in Turkey. Many journalists, academics, elected mayors, and members of parliaments have been imprisoned due to their opposition to Erdoğan’s regime.

As Erdoğan’s regime is rapidly losing legitimacy and funds to feed its patronage network, he may try to compensate by increasingly leveraging the judicial system to prosecute opponents. There is already a criminal case filed against the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and another case against Imamoğlu is to be filed. President Erdoğan has alleged that İmamoğlu insulted the governor of Ordu while visiting the town and the governor has declared his determination to file a criminal case, adding that Imamoğlu will lose his office if he is convicted. Erdoğan has also threatened breakaways from his party, saying that “they will pay the price for treachery”.

As for the ideological power of political Islam to support and sustain Erdoğan’s weakening regime, it is highly doubtful that it could replace legitimacy derived from the ballot box or economic performance, or that it could console voters for the lack of charitable patronage. In short, Erdoğan’s political charm is no longer unbeatable – there is a new rival in town charming voters by just being the opposite of everything that Erdoğan is.  

[1] Ihsan Yilmaz & Galib Bashirov (2018) The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey, Third World Quarterly, 39:9, 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371.

Presidents and term-limits in Africa: a tribute to Robert Elgie

There are three types of academics. Some work hard to publish their ideas, and have an influence through the body of work they leave behind. Others combine this with a zeal for teaching and mentorship, imprinting their ideas and approach on a new generation. A very select few somehow achieve combine this with also setting up new institutions and creating new ways for people to learn and share their ideas.

Robert Elgie, who sadly died earlier this month, belonged in the third category. In addition to publishing his own work – which was always greatly respected – he was a constant source of innovation and creativity. As well as running his own website, the Semi-Presidential One, he created Presidential Power, which has become an incredible resource for academics, journalists, and students. In doing so, Robert didn’t just start a website, he built a community.

Presidential Power has been sustained by an alliance of scholars from across the world who only have one thing in common: we had the good fortune to know Robert. I was particularly lucky in this respect. In addition to being part of the Presidential Power team, he invited me to contribute two chapters to his important book projects – one on presidential term-limits and the other on coalitional presidentialism with my colleagues Paul Chaisty and Tim Power.

That he did so demonstrates another key feature of Robert’s career: his determination to overcome regional boundaries and to take all parts of the globe seriously. Instead of adopting a narrow focus on Europe, Robert had a global interest. A genuine comparativist, he was rare in not only taking African cases seriously and asking for chapters from people like me on countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zambia – which so often left out of mainstream approaches to political institutions – but also wrote on Africa himself.

This blog is a tribute to Robert. The chapter it is drawn on would not have been written without him.


Encouraged by Robert’s prompting, I set out to explain the fate of term-limits in three African countries: Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. The struggle over the enforcement of presidential term-limits in Africa has received considerable media and scholarly attention. However, while there have been a number of studies about how often term-limits are respected, less attention has been given to the question of under what conditions term-limits are challenged and upheld.

The cases of Kenya, Uganda and Zambia are useful in this regard, because they provide the full range of possible outcomes. While term limits were overturned in Uganda, and respected after a struggle in Zambia, all presidents have respected term limits in Kenya without the need for opposition and civil society mobilization.

These cases are also suitable for comparison because, while they have very different economies, they are all former British colonies and all feature high levels of ethnic diversity. Moreover, all three countries fall within the category of competitive-authoritarian regimes, employ the same combination of direct presidential elections along with a Westminster style legislature, and have held uninterrupted elections since the transition to multipartyism. They therefore allow me to hold a number of important historical and institutional factors – though by no means all – constant, and so make it easier to identify the causal impact of others.

Based on a comparative analysis of these countries, I demonstrate that three of the factors that are most commonly cited in the wider literature – the presence of natural resources, the quality of democracy and the position of the international community – cannot explain the fate of term-limits. While Kenya and Uganda discovered oil very recently, none of the three states considered here was particularly resource rich when presidential term limits first came to be tested – unless one counts Zambia’s copper mines, but these have rarely generated sufficient income to sustain government expenditure.

Similarly, there is no clear relationship between respect for term-limits and international financial support: Kenya was the least aid dependent nation during this period but the only country in which they have never been threatened. The same is true when it comes to while the quality of democracy. While this proves to be an important background factor in all three countries, term limits have come under greater threat in Zambia than in Kenya, despite the fact that both countries featured the same level of democracy in the relevant period.

I therefore investigate alternative structural and contingent factors, and identify two issues that play an important but often overlooked role, namely the extent of organized opposition and the ability of the president to enforce unity within the ruling party. While the importance of international, opposition and civil society resistance has often been noted – for example in accounts of how the OASIS Forum campaigned against President Frederick Chiliba’s unsuccessful attempt to secure a third term in Zambia – the significance of the internal dynamics of the ruling party has often been underestimated.

This oversight has significantly undermined our ability to fully understand the battle over term-limits. For example, in Zambia it was not the OASIS Forum that ultimately put paid to his ambitions, but the fact that Chiluba could not marshal a majority of his own MPs to back his proposals within the National Assembly. The same was true in Nigeria, where President Olesegun Obasanjo might have used the country’s oil wealth to ignore complaints from international donors and stay for a third term, had his plans not been rejected by the Senate. By contrast, figures such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda, have been able to marshal strong support for their proposals from within the ruling party, smoothing their transformation into presidents for life.

Significantly, while these factors are shaped by the quality of democracy, they are not reducible to it. On the one hand, internal party unity clearly varies at each level of democracy as a result of the size of the party and the ethnic and economic cleavages that it contains. On the other hand, while authoritarian leaders have more tools at their disposal to deal with domestic opposition, it is also true that many of Africa’s less democratic regimes face strong resistance either in the form of political parties, as with the Movement of Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, or rebel groups, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I am grateful to Robert for encouraging me to take on this research, and for starting Presidential Power, which has taught me so much about how presidents govern. He will be sorely missed, but his influence will live on through this website, his writings and the people he inspired.


This chapter was published as ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go? Term-limits, elections, and political change in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia’, In Alexander Baturo and Robert Elgie (eds), The Politics of Presidential Term-limits, Oxford, OUP, 2019.


Acting with Impunity: Who Can Force Paul Biya’s Hand?

In the midst of the most serious crisis that Cameroon has faced since the 1950s, with over 1,850 people killed, 500,000 displaced, and perhaps as close as 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, President Paul Biya decided the time was ripe to vacation at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. The location is not new. Over his 35 years in power, Biya has spent approximately 15% of his time abroad, often in Geneva, at an astonishing cost of $50,000 a day. During this visit, over 250 Cameroonian demonstrators greeted him, and were dispersed by Swiss police using teargas and riot gear. A petition by Swiss parliamentarian Sylvain Thévoz to oust Biya from Switzerland went nowhere. Biya returned to Cameroon, where he is expected yet again to postpone legislative and municipal elections

The impunity with which Biya has been able to operate is remarkable. Almost two years into the crisis, the violence continues to take a heavy toll. Human Rights Watch has documented several new instances of abuse by security forces, including indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests, and scorched earth tactics. Separatist groups still attack security forces, but have increasingly turned toward kidnapping and intimidating civilians. John Fru Ndi, the once venerated chairman of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was kidnapped twice in the span of two months and pressured by separatists to authorize a recall of his parliamentarians. Meanwhile, political rights remain heavily constrained, and 350 supporters of imprisoned presidential candidate Maurice Kamto were arrested in June. The president has delegated the new Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, to visit Anglophone regions on a peace-seeking mission, but has also refused to support efforts to create an All-Anglophone Conference that could bring various groups together into dialogue.

What would lead to a breakthrough that could bring some modicum of dialogue and solution to the crisis? The gaps between Anglophones and the regime are large. The Anglophone movement now consists of numerous armed groups, a government in exile, civil society organizations, churches, and the SDF. These groups have held positions that range from addressing cultural grievances to decentralization to federalism to separatism. On the other hand, the government has vehemently rejected any changes to the structure of the state, and has only offered half-measures in support of decentralization, like constrainedregional elections. The government would have to be pushed to consider genuine decentralization, and Anglophone groups would be forced to coalesce around the idea. Moreover, it is not even clear what set of confidence-building measures any side would agree to, just to get people to the table. Sisiku Tabe, the imprisoned former president of the Ambazonia Interim Government, has called for the complete retreat of armed forces and civil servants from Anglophone regions and the release of all prisoners as a precondition for internationally sponsored talks. The SDF has specified a less stringent set of requirements, but these are also not likely to garner any regime support.    

There are signs that the international community is beginning to take this crisis more seriously. In February, the United States withdrew $17 million of military aid, and in March the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, visited Cameroon for the first time. The EU representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, described the situation in Anglophone areas as unacceptable. In May, the United Nations Security Council held its first informal meeting on the crisis.  The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned of escalating violence and criticized the security force’s scorched earth tactics. These efforts have not yet borne fruit, and to some are unlikely to unless international actors, and particularly the United States, significantly increase pressure on the Biya regime

But, the reality is that Cameroon has always been an astute player of international affairs, and has been able to position itself as a key strategic ally. The “special relationship” between Cameroon and France is well documented. After colonialism, France made it a key priority to maintain political support from Cameroon, in part because of existing economic interests (particularly French oil companies), and in part because it wanted Cameroon’s support in international organizations. Throughout the current crisis, France has maintained a lower profile, and presented itself as more diplomatic and private in its approach, in contrast with the growing public criticism and condemnation from other international actors. While French diplomats have privately pushed the regime toward some concessions like releasing prisoners, this is not backed up with any real pressure on the regime to enter into negotiations. This relationship limits the efficacy of other international pressure, and the ability of international institutions to coordinate a response.   

The United States was once a vocal critic of Cameroon, and withheld aid from Cameroon from 1992 to 2001. However, the second Iraq War and the global war on terror brought Cameroon back into the American fold. In my other research, I note how Cameroon was heavily lobbied by the George W. Bush administration to abstain on an Iraq War resolution, when Cameroon held a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. The United States returned the favor with support for Cameroon during the Bakassi Peninsula dispute. Cameroon has also developed elaborate security ties with the United States, as part of the coalition to combat Boko Haram and terrorism in the Sahel. Cameroon banks on its image as an “island of stability” to maintain these security ties. By the same token, Cameroon has spent large amounts of money on US-based lobbying and PR firms to bolster its image abroad. In one of the more blatant examples, in 2004 Cameroon paid $80,000 for an election observation mission organized by the US Association of Former Members of Congress. In my research, I also document how local embassy staff was acutely aware of the contradictions of their mission in Cameroon, and the difficulty of balancing national security incentives with a commitment to democracy and human rights.  

Changing these geopolitical incentives and perceptions of national security is quite difficult, absent substantially more lobbying and advocacy. But, might the mechanism of accountability instead come from insidethe regime? There is actually a divide in the governing elite of Cameroon’s ruling party, the CPDM. Most Francophone leaders are quick to defend the government’s military solution, and those who are critical of the government are not likely to express that sentiment publicly. By contrast, many Anglophone CPDM MPs have deep reservations about the government’s strategy, but little credibility among the Anglophone population. During the last legislative session in March (which I attended), the Anglophone MPs had basically decamped from their home regions to Yaoundé, and felt that it was unsafe to return to their constituencies. Fearful of massive public backlash, there was likely lobbying on their part to postpone the legislative elections. This divide extends to the military, where there is evidence of disagreement among senior officers about the sustainability and utility of the anti-insurgency campaign, absent greater political dialogue or strategy.

One visible internal effort at pressuring the Biya regime is the NW/SW Peace Movement, founded by Chief Robert Nangiya Mbile (a former MP and the son of a known CPDM elite from Ndian) and current CPDM MP Francis Ndi Enwe. The movement takes the position that the Cameroonian parliament should openly discuss the Anglophone crisis, and that it should be open to meeting with all leaders, including those who are jailed or in the bush. This places them at odds with the government’s attitude, which demands a full ceasefire before negotiations and refuses to recognize separatist groups. Nonetheless, the movement has been met with extreme skepticism from Anglophones, who doubt Enwe’s credibility and capacity to pressure the Biya regime. This is a valid criticism, especially given fear that the regime implicitly supports these kinds of initiatives as a way to stall and buy more time. The movement, while perhaps laudable in its goals, is unlikely to gain much traction under the current circumstances.  

These dynamics have emboldened the Biya regime. Stronger international pressure, seen by many as an essential step, is difficult to fathom without a change in how international actors view the question of regional stability in Central Africa. Highlighting the internal divisions within the CPDM also faces a problem since anyone associated with the regime (including opposition parties) are now viewed with intense suspicion by Anglophones. Solutions might only be possible in that ever-elusive “post-Biya world.” In the meanwhile, as the country burns and the economy suffers, Biya knows that he can wait all of this out with a taxpayer-funded vacation to Switzerland. 

Malkhaz Nakashidze – Anti-occupation protests in Georgia and the announced constitutional amendments

This blog is devoted to the memory of our dear friend, colleague, founding editor of the Presidential Power blog and  great scholar, Robert Elgie. I am very sad about his passing and will always be very grateful for his help and support.

Protests have been ongoing in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi over the past few weeks. On June 19, 2019 the 26th General Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Orthodox Church (I.A.O) opened in Tbilisi. The I.A.O. is an inter-parliamentary body formed under the initiative of the Greek Parliament in 1993.

Protests were sparked by the arrival of the Russian I.A.O. delegation to the plenary hall of the Georgian Parliament, and the decision to let a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, temporarily sit in the chair of of the speaker. This act was considered very insulting by Georgian opposition members and the public at large, as the Russian Federation has occupied 20% of the territory of Georgia and Georgia does not have diplomatic relations with Russia. It should be noted that most of the public and the opposition initially objected to hosting the I.A.O. Assembly and demanded to not allow Russian MPs to enter Georgia, including Sergei Gavrilov. Gavrilov had visited occupied territory, participated in armed conflict against Georgia and voted in 2008 in the Russian parliament to recognise regions of Georgia as independent states.

The opposition MPs protested the appearance of the Russian MP in the Parliament of Georgia. MPs from the “United National Movement” (UNM) and “European Georgia” gave the government half an hour for all Russian MPs to withdraw, saying that “if the government did not withdraw these people from the parliament building, they would start mobilizing and bringing people to the Parliament Hall”.[1]

The government was forced to suspend the assembly and remove the Russian MPs from the Parliament building. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling party, said he fully shared the concern of citizens with regard to the presence of a representative of an occupying state in the Parliament of Georgia. But he said that it was a protocol error, whose political significance, unfortunately, the organizers did not take into consideration. Ivanishvili noted that he had already talked to the Chairman of the Parliament, expressed his concerns and that his recommendation was to immediately terminate this session. [2]

Ivanishvili’s statement was not enough to calm the protest and citizens started gathering at the parliament building. A group of activists and political parties announced a large-scale demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, and in the evening several thousand people gathered outside the parliament. In parallel, the government started to mobilize law enforcement and special forces units. As the number of people at the rally grew, civil activists and members of political parties addressed the public. One of the leaders of the UNM, Nika Melia addressed the government and gave a one hour delay to replace the Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the State Security Service Vakhtang Gomelauri, and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Otherwise, Melia said that the citizens would enter the parliament.

The authorities did not consider these demands and deployed special forces units at the entrance of the parliament in front of the protesters.  A one-hour confrontation ensued between demonstrators and law enforcement services. The situation could not be solved by Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who came to the parliament to negotiate with the opposition leaders. Finally, riot police started to disrupt the rally. The government used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters to no avail. Finally, with the use of water cannons, the protest was disbanded. However, riot police pursued rally participants after the end of the protest, chasing them on various streets and using force. Ultimately, several hundred people were injured as a result of the violent dispersal, including policemen, journalists and peaceful protesters. Three rally participants lost their eyesight after being hit by rubber bullets.

Though the Georgian authorities succeeded in violently dispersing the rally, the citizen protest was not over. On the second day after the demonstration, protesters raised three demands. They demanded the resignation of the Interior Minister, the adoption of proportional representation for the next parliamentary elections, and the immediate release of the detainees. [3]

Though concerned about the high tensions, the government struggled to place political responsibility. Ultimately, at a session of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Irakli Kobakhidze resigned from the Speaker of Parliament position. His resignation was not enough to calm the protesters, however, who maintained their other political demands, including the adoption of proportional representation for the 2020 parliamentary elections. On June 24, 2019, a few days after the rally was dissolved, the Georgian Dream coalition acquiesced and said that the 2020 parliamentary elections will be conducted through a proportional system under a zero electoral threshold. [4]

This unexpected change to the electoral system was considered a victory for the protesters, but many remained suspicious of the annulment of the election threshold. Election observer organizations also commented on the abolition of the threshold which currently, in accordance with the constitution of Georgia, is set at 3% for the 2020 elections. On the one hand, the abolition of the election threshold is useful for the ruling party and on the other hand it could pave the way for different nationalist, pro-Russian or fascist groups. The opposition fears that the ruling party, which has the most financial resources, will facilitate the creation and purchase of various satellite parties, and has been vocal about its concerns. [5]

It should be noted that the adoption of a proportional electoral system could have a significant impact on politics in Georgia. In fact, since 1995, Georgia has been a single-party administration, with one party securing an absolute majority in parliament. This situation is partially the result of the current mixed electoral system, where 77 MPs are elected by a proportional electoral system and the remaining 73 MPs are elected in single member districts. MPs members of the majority consistently support the ruling party and always take pro-government positions. During the constitutional reform of 2017-2018, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition postponed the introduction of a system of proportional representation to 2024 despite demands from the opposition, NGOs and international organizations. The ruling party said its implementation would require a constitutional amendment process.

In order to change the constitution of Georgia, and thus the country’s electoral system enshrined therein, it is necessary to publish the bill, have public discussions during a one-month period, followed by discussions in Parliament. The bill must achieve the support of ¾ of the Members of Parliament; in the absence of such support, the initiative should be considered by the next elected legislature.

It is too early to say what the prospect are to achieve this significant change that requires broad consensus and agreement. In the past, the government has always been able to win time and get its way. To ensure that this initiative is implemented, it is necessary for the opposition and civil society to remain united and maintain pressure on the government.

[1] https://jam-news.net/სკანდალი-საქართველოს-პარ/?lang=ka

[2] http://41.ge/new/802-bidzina-ivanishvilis-ganckhadeba

[3] http://liberali.ge/news/view/45791/aqtsiis-monatsileebi-giorgi-gakharias-gadadgomas-itkhoven

[4] https://1tv.ge/news/bidzina-ivanishvili-2020-wlis-saparlamento-archevnebi-chatardes-proporciuli-sistemit-nulovani-saarchevno-bariebis-pirobebshi/

[5] http://unipress.ge/post/938

Timor-Leste: the shadow theatre and the powers of the President

President Francisco Guterres “Lu Olo” was the first to be elected on a partisan platform after the country had experienced three presidents who presented themselves as “independent”. Soon after the presidential election of 20 March 2017, parliamentary elections were held in July, but the president’s party, FRETILIN, obtained no more than a plurality of the vote and was unable to obtain a parliamentary basis to secure full investiture after the appointment of its leader to the post of Prime Minister. President Lu Olo responded to the vote of non-confidence in his party’s government by dissolving the assembly. The parties that had shown opposition to FRETILIN ran as a coalition which secured the necessary majority in the new parliament (May 2018). President Lu Olo accepted to appoint a representative of the winning coalition to the post of Prime Minister, inaugurating the first full fledged cohabitation in the history of the country. The course of the last year has shown that institutional life in Timor-Leste can be significantly different from real political disputes, and a sort of shadow theatre has emerged and seems to be set to persist, as will be shown in the first section of this post. In the meantime, questions about the nature and the limits of presidential powers have been brought to the fore, and these will be considered in the second part.

The first clash between rival politicians occurred when Taur Matan Ruak, the appointed Prime Minister, proposed his list of government members. Out of a total of 42 ministers, vice-ministers and secretaries of state (the three grades in the governmental hierarchy), President Lu Olo vetoed 12. One case was merely bureaucratic, and the question was solved within a week. Two others were replaced by the Prime Minister, and the new names were accepted by the President. Nine others, however, were not replaced nor accepted. President Lu Olo claims that the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste grants him the power to act in this way, which is an understanding of the presidential competences espoused by previous presidents who acted in the same way, blocking appointments to the government. Both José Ramos-Horta (2007-2012) and Taur Matan Ruak (2012-2017) publicly rejected names presented by prime ministers. In this occasion, the names in question were rejected by President Lu Olo on the basis of an alleged “lack of moral integrity” and more specifically, suspicions as to their involvement in corruption cases. If the former argument is elusive and difficult to oppose, the latter is institutionally linked to the activity of the judicial system. None of the nine vetoed ministers was at the time, or has since been brought under formal investigation – and thus the presidential initiative may be considered as an act that denies them presumption of innocence. Be it as it may, the presidential decision has been taken and politically criticised, but institutionally it remains in force, and reveals the extent to which presidents can actually use their powers. The response from the Prime Minister has been to insist on their appointment, refusing to propose other names.

These would be ministers were supposed to take important government portfolios, such as Finance, Natural Resources, Health and Internal Security. All of them belong to one of the parties supporting the government – Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT – which is the largest in the coalition. This party has two senior ministers, one serving as foreign secretary, the other as “Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers”, effectively taking the institutional functions of all 9 ministers. Simultaneously, those nine individuals are serving as “advisors” to the ministries which they were supposed to lead (popular voices saying they have larger salaries than would otherwise be the case). Officially, they are not entitled to take part in decision making, and do not attend cabinet meetings. All this instills the feeling among the population that there is a widening gap between institutions and real policy making. The economic atmosphere has also been sensitive to the difficulties faced by a government without key ministers, and several important investments have been put on hold. People on the street complain that government is running late on payments of different kinds, and there seems to be good reason to believe they are right.

The rationale for this attitude resides in two combined sections of the Constitution. First, section 86 h stipulates that the President shall “nominate, swear in and remove the members of government following a proposal from the Prime Minister”. Section 106.2 further stresses that the Prime Minister has the competence to propose ministers to the President (who cannot appoint any minister without the agreement of the Prime Minister), but the President retains the capacity to judge the suitability of the proposal and is not compelled to accept it. Second, section 107 stipulates that “the Government responds before the President of the Republic and the National Parliament for the conduction and execution of the internal and external policy of the country”. This section has been widely commented by different scholars who often cite a distinction between “institutional” and “political” responsibility. However, it is a fact that successive presidents have interpreted this section as defining a principle of double dependence, and found no reason to distinguish between the two kinds of responsibility. They have not been challenged in their views. Presidents tend to interpret this double responsibility as a way of granting them more than the powers of a notary who would be limited to the technicalities and formalities of the political process. In this light, there seems to be no way out of a presidential veto on the name of would be minister despite the fact that he may have the support of the Prime Minister and presumably that of the parliament.

The second aspect of the tug-of-war between the President and the Prime Minister refers to the veto powers of the head of state. In December 2018, President Lu Olo vetoed the State Budget approved by the National Parliament, and immediately a question emerged: how to overcome his veto? After some preliminary debate, the National Parliament bowed to the President’s remarks in the address he sent the deputies, and accepted to modify the Budget so as to please the President, who then promulgated it. It was a sound victory to the President. But the question remains: how can Parliament overrule the President in the case of the State Budget?

The Constitution grants presidents the competence to veto laws and decree-laws (Section 88). The latter cannot be overrun, the former can. The general rule is that an absolute majority of MPs can overrun a presidential veto, but there are exceptions: those that refer to matters contained in section 95. This is a section that establishes a general principle – the National Parliament legislates on the basic elements of national and international policy – and a more precise one: according to section 92.2., there are some areas in which the National Parliament is the sole organ with capacity to intervene (i.e., these cannot be delegated). The catalogue of these areas is substantial, and point q states that “the budget system” is included.

For matters falling into the catalogue of section 95.2., an absolute majority is not sufficient to overrule a presidential veto. It requires a qualified majority of two thirds of MPs (section 88.3). The question then is: is one State Budget something to be considered under the provisions for the “budget system”? In a very thoroughly argued comment on the Timorese Constitution, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos considers that section 95.2.q. refers to “budgetary matters”, thus seemingly inclined to offer a broad interpretation of this precise item.

This is consequential to the workings of the political system, and to ascertain the role of the President of the Republic. If one assumes that the President’s veto on a State Budget can only be overrun by a two-thirds majority, then his power is significantly increased in relation to what has been more commonly – but not universally – accepted as the limited boundaries of his competences. Faced with a veto on a budget, the National Parliament and the political majority would face an alternative (as happened early this year): either to accept the President’s views and modify the most critical element of governance, or to challenge it and risk a prolonged stalemate until some entity takes a decision on the legality of the President’s interpretation of the law . This latter course of action is problematic. In fact, the Supreme Court of Justice has the power “to review and declare the unconstitutionality and illegality of normative and legislative bills by the organs of the State” (Section 126.1.a), and this might be an avenue to explore. However, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos restricts this power to the laws of National Parliament and Decree-Laws of the Government – excluding presidential initiatives and actions from the scope of this norm.

Both in the case of the ministers he refuses to swear in and in the case of the effects of a presidential veto on the State Budget, Lu Olo has been testing the limits of presidential powers. So far, he has not been challenged in any institutional manner. The image these episodes project is one of significant powers in the hands of the President of the Republic, competences that he is using to assert his position in the centre of the political system and defying those who insist on granting him no more than cerimonial, institutional functions. The President of the Republic in Timor-Leste is a first rate political figure