Preparing for regional elections in Russia

Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has taken a hit within the last year. From an 82 percent rating in April 2018, the figure now stands at 64 percent.[1] Not disastrous, you might say – but it’s all relative.

The proximate cause of this fall is no secret: a set of unpopular changes to Russia’s pension system. Specifically, the ages at which men and women start receiving their pension will be raised – from 60 to 65, and 55 to 60, respectively.

Putin initially tried to keep a safe distance from this deeply unpopular change. He finally intervened publicly to amend the legislative initiative during its second reading on 26 September 2018 in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly (the national-level parliament) – revising down the retirement age for women from 63 to 60. This ‘softening’ did little, however, to dampen public anger, as seen in protest activity and sentiment.

This unpopular policy change also contributed to electoral upsets for the Kremlin in the 9 September 2018 regional elections. (For an early review of the results, see my post for this blog.) Of most concern to Russia’s political leadership were the victories for opposition-party candidates in three gubernatorial races. (See my discussion of this in another post for this blog.)

The Kremlin doesn’t like losing elections. But that’s no surprise: displeasure with losing is neither distinctive to modern-day Russia nor other polities, regardless of their democratic credentials. What is worthy of note, however, is the set of measures being implemented now to make sure – or, at least, increase the likelihood – that the Kremlin gets its way in the next set of regional elections that will take place on 8 September this year. (According to Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, this will involve more than 5,000 electoral campaigns in 82 federal subjects (regions), including 16 gubernatorial elections.)

The Kremlin is currently taking at least five steps to help make sure it gets its desired results in this next round of elections.

1. Allowing independent gubernatorial candidates

In many Russian regions, gubernatorial candidates are required to be ‘party candidates’ – that is, politicians cannot run as independents (unlike, it must be said, presidential candidates). The worry for Kremlin-backed figures, however, is that the party of choice – the ‘party of power’, United Russia – is currently toxic by association. In April 2018, approval for the party hovered at 50 percent; the figure now is around 32 percent.[2] As with Putin’s approval rating, the reason for the fall is found in the pension reform. Now that the party brand is more a liability than a benefit, legislation in a number of regions is being changed to allow gubernatorial candidates to run as independents. Thus, for example, Aleksandr Beglov – Acting Governor of St Petersburg – introduced a bill to that effect on 20 November 2018; the initiative was approved by deputies of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly on 19 December.

2. Changing the electoral rules for regional assemblies

Many regions in Russia fill seats in their regional legislative assemblies using a mixed electoral system. Like elections to the national-level State Duma, half the seats are filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races, with the other half filled through party-list proportional representation.[3] So, voters make two votes: one for a particular candidate and one for a particular party. A number of regions have approved, or are considering, changing the proportion of seats filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races to 75 percent. The reason for the change is clear: campaigns focused on individuals rather than the party will help shift the focus away from the unpopular ‘party of power’. In addition, ‘administrative resources’ – the advantages held by being Kremlin-backed, such as favourable state media coverage – are more easily deployed in candidate-centred, rather than party-centred, races. Unsurprisingly, opposition party leaders are not keen on a change that will likely benefit United Russia.

3. Removing governors before the elections

The easiest way to win an election is to field a genuinely popular candidate. The Kremlin has, as a result, been polling citizens in the regions to gauge the popularity of incumbent governors. If there are doubts about these incumbents’ chances of winning, then they are replaced with an individual with better prospects. Thus, for example, Grigorii Poltavchenko – Governor of St Petersburg since 2011 – was replaced by Aleksandr Beglov in October 2018. This is a prime example of ‘sovereign democracy’: popular opinion still plays a role, but the Kremlin uses this information to try to avoid embarrassing electoral defeats, thus depriving Russians of the opportunity to ‘throw the rascals out’ at the ballot box themselves. (See this interview of Alexander Kynev by Maria Lipman for an excellent discussion of the recent reshuffling of governors.)

4. Carrying out an information campaign against opposition politicians

Getting elected is only one hurdle faced by opposition politicians. Once in office, they not only need to deal with local elites, but they also need to develop a working relationship with Moscow. Even if they do establish a pragmatic arrangement with the Presidential Administration, this doesn’t guarantee a quiet life. Take, for example, Sergei Levchenko – the Communist Party (KPRF) governor of Irkutsk Oblast’, elected in 2015. In September 2018, footage was uploaded on YouTube of the governor shooting a hibernating bear at point-blank range. The footage might be shocking, but the timing of its release is telling: although the hunt apparently took place in 2016, its upload to YouTube coincided with legislative elections to the Irkutsk regional assembly. Moreover, a criminal case was initiated on 29 December regarding ‘illegal hunting’ – something that might continue to dog Levchenko, in addition to more recent accusations of embezzling budget funds. The Irkutsk governor is up for re-election in 2020, so the point is not that the Kremlin is trying to frustrate an election campaign running up to 8 September. Rather, this case of ‘black PR’ appears part of a broader attempt to smear opposition politicians in general.

5. Blocking attempts to soften registration requirements for election candidates

A Presidential Administration working group – headed by First Deputy Chief of Staff, Sergei Kirienko – has been tasked with exploring ways to amend electoral legislation, including softening the ‘municipal filter’.[4] Given the Kremlin’s desire not to see a re-run of opposition wins, however, these liberalisations are unlikely to be implemented, especially before the 8 September elections. Another sign that reform is unlikely comes in the planned rejection of a legislative initiative (introduced into the State Duma by senator Vladimir Lukin) to make passing the ‘municipal filter’ easier. Opponents of the change have branded it ‘populism’.

*

These five steps are some of the ways in which the electoral playing field is being tilted in the ruling elite’s favour, not to mention methods of outright electoral fraud. If the rules don’t suit, then just change the rules. This basic message is not new, but it’s worth emphasising that the long-term effects of this legal instability are unlikely to help the development of a rule-of-law state in Russia.


[1] Data from the Levada Centre – an independent polling organisation.

[2] Data from VTsIOM – a Kremlin-friendly polling organization.

[3] The 2007 and 2011 State Duma elections did not use a mixed system, involving only party-list ballots.  

[4] The ‘municipal filter’ requires politicians to collect a certain number of signatures from municipal deputies in order to register their electoral candidacies. Such ‘municipal filters’ did not prevent the candidacies of the opposition-party politicians who ended up winning gubernatorial elections in 2018, as the Kremlin – in another manifestation of ‘sovereign democracy’ – approved their participation as ‘technical’ candidates. Frustratingly for the Kremlin, however, they ended up proving more popular than anticipated, if only, or largely, through votes cast as protests, rather than cast as positive endorsements of opposition electoral platforms.

The Yellow Jerseys and the Macron paradox

This is the first blog for a few months.  Not that there is any diminishing interest in French politics on my part, on the contrary. But the speed of events has proved somewhat overwhelming. Too much has been written about the gilets jaunes, referring to the yellow jerseys that drivers are obliged to carry in their cars and wear in the case of accidents. Too much fake news has circulated on the social networks, feeding the conspiracy theories that have reached the core of the gilets jaunes themselves. The normal mediators – journalists, politicians, academic commentators – have been contested to such an extent that mediation and authoritative interpretation have been challenged as core principles. The degree of routine violence in the streets of Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and other French cities (and even small towns) leaves a bitter taste. The outbreak of open fighting between rival groups of ‘yellow jerseys’ in Lyon, my city for the past five years, demonstrates how the gilets jaunes movement  can be captured by ideologically charged groups of extreme left and extreme right protesters, with only the detestation of the orthodox centre in common. Attempts to force entry into the Elysée and – more recently – the Parliament bear worrying echoes of earlier periods in French history.

The French and foreign press has been replete with articles and special issues attempting to define historical precedents for the gilets jaunes movement and to set the events in historical context. The French weekly Le Point reminded readers, in its edition dated 13th December 2018, that most significant revolutionary events had been sparked by tax protests, including the most famous of them all, the French revolution of 1789. More recent explosions that came to mind were those of May ’68, or the protests of November – December 1995 that brought France to a standstill.  None of these comparisons were entirely satisfactory: for example, the 1968 movement had been one of students and workers,  while the gilet jaunes movement is better described, sociologically,  in terms of the mobilization of the lower middle classes haunted by the fear of downward social mobility, economic hardship and the descent into poverty. One general lesson of the gilets jaunes movement has been the need not to over-interpret the events in relation to past French events, or an ill-defined revolutionary tradition. But there are worrying precursors – and none of them bode well for democratic institutions.

The problem with over-interpreting the gilet jaunes movement lies in the changing and multiform nature of the movement itself. What started as a form of anti-fiscal protest has become a camouflage for the hard right and hard left and the nihilist designs of the casseurs, the specialists in urban disorder. To recall: on 17th November 2018, the gilets jaunes demonstrated for the first time in Paris (and certain cities), in the main peacefully. Successive weeks saw their numbers diminish, but the violence of the conflict increase. The protests spread from central Paris – the object of struggle in the French revolutionary tradition – to small towns and secondary cities.  Multiple interpretations of the gilets jaunes  are, of course, possible: for example, as an anti-fiscal protest, a concrete manifestation of territorial fracture, a quest for new forms of social relations in a world of anomie and alienation (the ‘roundabouts’ replacing the rural cafes), as a camouflage for social disorder and anti-parliamentary protest.

The gilets jaunes movement shook the presidency to its foundation. Many interpretations of the gilets jaunes movement have focussed on the challenge to Macron’s authority- and the fall from grace of an over-arrogant leader, caught up in hubris and undermined by demeaning one-liners. By mid-December 2018, Macron’s poll ratings seemed to be approaching the catastrophic levels of his predecessor Hollande after 18 months in office. But are these interpretations the right ones?  My argument is that the gilets jaunes movement is in the process of demonstrating that Macron is more resilient than recent French Presidents.   The anti-politics movement might have broken out under previous presidents. There are reminiscences of the period back in 1995, when President Chirac campaigned and was elected on the diagnosis of a ‘social fracture’ in France. Chirac set the standard for politicians saying one thing – and doing another. The former Gaullist President had u-turned by October 1995 and lost the election as a result in 1997.  Closer to the present day, Chirac was re-elected in 2002 only because he faced the far-right’s Le Pen on the second round. His successor Sarkozy was forced to change course to deal with the impact of the 2008 economic crisis. Though a highly active reformer, not much remained at the end of his presidency.  President Hollande (2012-2017) suffered almost from day one from his inability to narrate the sense of his presidency,  along with the sense of drift and decline.

In comparison Macron’s leadership has appeared as disruptive (breaking with norms and expectations), robust and, in some senses transformational.  A more modest President Macron might be emerging. Macron has no real choice, if he is to survive and eventually gain a second term. Macron’s reactions to the crisis have been moderate and tempered.  It is still too early to conclude definitively that this crisis is over. But Macron has ridden the wave of unpopularity and is starting to recover. He has demonstrated an astute capacity to respond. The major concessions made in December 2018 certainly had the ring of previous Presidents trying to buy off social discontent by reaching for the cheque book (President Macron announced 10 billion euros of new spending in his December 2018 address to the people). But he has also demonstrated the capacity to stand firm against popular pressure and continue his reform programme. Moreover, his launching of the Great National Debate is an astute move, renewing with the early innovation of the marcheurs, the supporters of Macron who knocked on doors across France to ask electors what their priorities were. The  Great National Debate is opposed by many yellow jerseys – but it is difficult to refuse to engage in public debate when the sense of exclusion was one of the main factors driving the movement in the first place.  Macron has personally demonstrated energy and commitment in animating debates across France: inter alia, with rural mayors in the Lot, with mayors from the Paris suburbs in Seine-St Denis; with young people in the Monts d’Or. Finally, though organised political parties have had great difficulty positioning themselves in relation to gilets jaunes, the two forces to emerge strengthened from the movement are, firstly, the National Rally of Marine Le Pen (former FN), who appears in pole position for the 2019 European election, and – rather paradoxically – Macron himself, as the seriously embittered President recovers from the ashes as a result of skilful manoeuvring and direct contact with the citizens.  The ultimate Macron paradox is that the gilets jaunes movement has undermined what remains of the ‘old’ world (the Republicans, the Socialists, even Mélenchon’s France Unbowed) except the privileged opponent, Marine Le Pen. The game is a dangerous one, but the calculation that a face to face clash between Macron and Marine Le Pen will, once again, turn in favour of the former is a hypothesis that rests on serious foundations.

Latvia – The Government is formed by Krišjānis Kariņš

The 13th Parliament (Saeima) elections in Latvia took place on October 6, 2018. According to the Constitution of Latvia (Satversme), Article 56, the Government shall be formed by the person who has been invited by the State president to do so.

The formation of government took more than three months after the parliamentary elections.

On October 18, 2018, on the twelfth day after the elections and one day before the official election results were announced, State president Raimonds Vējonis convened meetings with elected political parties. On October 30, the State president held meetings with three Prime minister candidates from political parties (Artis Pabriks from the Development/For! alliance, Jānis Bordāns from the New Conservative Party, and Aldis Gobzems from the KPV LV party). Meetings with those candidates continued November 7, one day after the 13th Saeima began to work. On that day, the State president invited Jānis Bordāns, the New Conservative Party, to form the government and gave him two weeks to set up the government with the notice, that if it fails, another candidate will be invited. After unsuccessful government-building talks, on November 14th, the State president withdrew the invitation. 

On November 14, and then further on November 20 and 26, the State president continued to have meetings with three Prime minister candidates from the elected parties and with other members from other elected parties.

On November 26, the State president invited Aldis Gobzems from the KPV LV party to form the government, but on December 10 due to the lack of majority support in Saeima, Gobzems withdrew his candidature from the Prime minister position.

On December 10 and 11, the State president continued to have meetings with elected parties and on December 21, the State president met with Krišjānis Kariņš, New Unity, as a potential candidate to form the government. Meetings with elected parties continued December 28, 2018 and January 4, 2019.

On January 7, 2019 the State president invited Krišjānis Kariņš to form the government. On January 21, one day before the Saeima approved new government, there was a meeting between Krišjānis Kariņš and the State president.

On January 22, 2019, the Saeima approved the new government. The five-party coalition (New Unity, the New Conservative Party, the Development/For! alliance, the National Alliance and most of the KPV LV party) is now headed by the Latvian-American dual citizen Krišjānis Kariņš. Previously, the newly nominated Prime Minister was a Member of the European Parliament. Krišjānis Kariņš holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware, USA in 1964. His party, New Unity, represents the smallest party elected in the Saeima, holding just 8 mandates out of 100. Meanwhile, the largest party in Saeima, Harmony, was not even included in coalition formation talks after all other parties refused to cooperate with it.

The coalition might be characterized as centre-right. 61 Saeima deputies voted in favor of the government and 39 voted against. The complicated government formation talks were the longest in the history of Latvia.

El Salvador – Nayib Bukele wins presidential election breaking two-party dominance

Last 3 February 2019 presidential elections were held in El Salvador. The young politician Nayib Bukele, 37, was elected president after running as candidate of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). These elections are significant for several reasons. Firstly, the two-party dominance in the executive office of the last 30 years was broken. The right wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) ruled the country from 1989 to 2004, whilst the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) did from 2009 and 2014. These were rivals back in the 1980s during the civil war. This makes their defeat ever more symbolic.  

Secondly, this electoral process shows features similar to those we recently find in different elections around the globe: little credibility in traditional political parties, and a politician who presents himself as an anti-establishment candidate who uses a populist discourse and resorts to social networks as key platform to communicate his message. In addition, as in last year’s presidential election in Brazil, Bukele competed as the candidate of a small political party who welcomed his skills and popularity as a way to reach for the first time the executive office.

Like its predecessors, Bukele’s government will have to face structural political and economic problems that will limit its presidential powers. Moreover, he will have to face a divided government situation. In a still very conservative society, the president-elect will have to exert control over politicians from older generations and different political backgrounds in both his cabinet and his party fraction in the Legislative Assembly.

A frail economy, high insecurity and corruption scandals erode confidence in traditional parties

In 1992, the Peace Accords were signed between the government of El Salvador and the FMLN guerrilla. One of the most successful aspects of this negotiation was the institutionalisation of the guerrilla as a political party. Since 1994, the first year in which it participates in legislative elections—in El Salvador the legislative elections are held every three years and the presidential ones every five years—the FMLN has constituted itself as the second largest party in the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, behind of the right-wing ARENA—founded in 1981. In 2009, the FMLN reached the presidential office for the first time with media figure Mauricio Funes as a candidate and in 2014 it won again with Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Although this party had a Marxist leaning as a guerrilla group, since the mid-1990s it has moved towards the centre.

Due to the dominance of the presidential elections by ARENA and the FMLN in the last three decades, several commentators refer to this period as a bipartisan system. However, while the two parties are the strongest forces in the Legislative Assembly, this is a relatively fragmented legislature. There are 84 seats but no party has won the necessary number of seats to form simple majority, none of them has obtained more than 35 seats in a single election. The effective number of parliamentary parties (ENPP) index—or number of parties that have effective decision-making power—on average between 1994 and 2015 has remained at 3.46[1]. In other words, normally the Executive has no choice but to negotiate. The presidential powers are hindered by separate legislative and municipal elections that become barometers of the current government performance.

Despite the success of the 1992 peace process, the structural roots that led to civil war—poverty and economic and social inequality—persist. This is compounded by the increasing social violence since the 1990s. El Salvador has one of the highest homicides rates on the planet and insecurity has become part of everyday life in this country of 6.4 million people. With the Peace Accords, thousands of Salvadorans exiled in the United States returned to their country. The US government found in the end of the civil war an excuse to deport hundreds of Salvadorans linked to criminal gangs. That was the germ of the famous Salvadoran vicious street gangs called maras. These have become so powerful that it is said that today they even contribute to the financing of the main political parties. The parties, as well as private businesses, have to negotiate quotas of power in the territories where the maras operate.

Insecurity and a weak economy that has affected the middle class in particular are two of the factors that contribute to explain the weakening of trust in political parties. The dollarised economy of El Salvador grows modestly. According to the World Bank, it is one of the slowest growing countries in Central America and poverty has only slightly decreased during the present decade. This is largely due to Salvadorans’ high reliance on remittances, which, as Benedicte Bull and her co-authors argue, [Business Groups and Transnational Capitalism in Central America: Economic and Political Strategies. New York: Palgrave MacMillian] generates few incentives for productive activities. Extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas. It is not surprising then that in recent months thousands of Salvadorans from these areas have joined the caravan of migrants that left from Honduras to the United States. On the other hand, the government’s efforts to reduce the fiscal deficit have led to a significant increase in various taxes which could have impacted the incomes of the middle and lower classes, according to ICEFI, a Central American fiscal policy think tank.

Corruption scandals are added to the pressing economic and social situation. Two ARENA ex-presidents, Francisco Flores (2004-2009) and Tony Saca (2004-2009), have been convicted of corruption. Former FMLN President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) remains in exile in Nicaragua, where he is under political asylum status granted by the Nicaraguan government. He is requested by the Salvadoran judiciary authorities who have led an investigation on embezzlement during his government. This and the Saca’s case both are linked to a corruption scheme that diverted public funds to pay bonuses to public officials close to the presidents and their parties. Just a week ago, previous to the election, it was published that one of the persons who would have received illegal bonuses during the Funes’ government is the current President of the Republic, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. This was probably the coup de grâce to FMLN’s campaign that the supporters of the anti-corruption candidate Nayib Bukele were expecting. Nonetheless, bear in mind that somehow he has to circumvent the fact that he won under the GANA flag, a party founded by Tony Saca in 2010. In August last year, Saca declared himself guilty of corruption charges against him.

A millennial’s road to presidential office

Nayib Bukele was born in San Salvador in 1981, in a family of Palestinian origin. His father was an public relations businessman and Nayib took over the family business when he was pursuing a law degree, which did not complete. In 2012, he was elected mayor of the small city Nueva Cuscatlán, under the FMLN banner. In 2015 he again competed in local elections as a FMLN politician but this time as mayor candidate of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. As a mayor of this very populous city, he has carried out works of reconstruction of historical streets and buildings, at the time that he also has promoted other works such as skateboard parks, while increasing the police presence in the capital city. This has contributed to galvanise his popularity among the poor and middle classes. To this it has also contributed the open criticism to the party that led him to become a mayor as well as his dressing style and way of approaching fans, through social media platforms, which many describe as millennial.

By 2016, Bukele was already a well-known public figure in El Salvador and their presidential ambitions were obvious. In October that year writer Lauren Markham, reporting for The Guardian wrote that he “is met with the fanfare and admiration of celebrity. In the past year, while reporting on the violence in El Salvador and the exodus of citizens that it has unleashed, I’ve heard Bukele’s name—Nayib, Nayib, Nayib—issued like a trumpet call, from schoolyards in Oakland, California, to cornfields in El Salvador’s sun-parched east. Even those who oppose his policies concede that he is making profound changes, and thus, at worst, speak of him with respect”.

In September 2017 he had conflicts with councillors of ARENA and of his own party. In reaction to this, he accused the government of El Salvador of being more of the same like previous ARENA governments had been. In response, in October of that year the FMLN expelled him from the party. That same month he founded his own party, Nuevas Ideas, but it was not until August 2018 that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) authorised its registration.

The pragmatism and presidential ambition of Bukele were evident in the process that led him to seal his candidacy with GANA. Due to the obstacles to register Nuevas Ideas, he tried to be the candidate of the leftist Cambio Democrático, but the TSE on 26 July 2018 cancelled its credentials on the grounds that it did not reach the electoral threshold of minimum share of votes in the 2015 elections. Two days later Bukele announced that he would be the candidate of the right-wing GANA.

With Bukele, quickly GANA was placed ahead at the top in intention of votes, well above ARENA and the FMLN, in at least two opinion polls. Bear in mind that Bukele since 2017 had seen his popularity increase with the slogan “give us back what was stolen” in allusion to the governments of ARENA and the FMLN, and his social media campaigning.

A cloudy future

To the very complex structural problems of Salvadoran politics, society and economy it can be added that the new president will have to govern until 2021, accompanied by a legislative caucus of only 10 deputies that he will have to convince of his leadership. Remember that he officially joined GANA at last moment and it is unclear how his caudillo politics will fit in once in government.

Indeed, both GANA and Nayib Bukele sealed a pragmatic alliance and both have incentives to keep it once the new government is sworn-in in June. It is also true that GANA, whilst founded as a right-wing party, it has played a pivotal role in the Legislative Assembly, sometimes in tune with progressive social policies of the current FMLN government, as with the most conservative faction of ARENA. Nevertheless, to reach simple majority agreements, the new government will necessarily have to negotiate either with the FMLN, with 23 deputies, or ARENA that has 37 deputies and is probably ideologically closer to GANA. Currently, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly is a deputy of ARENA and in October it will change to a Christian Democrat legislator who will remain in office until 2021. This situation poses a divided government situation, and considering the power resources of the speaker one could argue that that GANA deputies will tilt toward the right.

At the time of writing, negotiations are taking place between Bukele’s team of the newly created left-wing party, New Ideas and GANA. This is the first test to prove the flexibility of the electoral coalition of the president-elect. The team of the to-be-sworn president assures that it will be an inclusive cabinet. Added to this situation is the international environment. El Salvador is known for its high rates of emigration mainly to the United States, motivated since the 1990s by deficient economic conditions. Since the beginning of the current decade, thousands of Salvadorans have been deported and especially during the last two years US immigration policies have become more aggressive against immigrants. If the promises of the US president Donald Trump are fulfilled, the Bukele government could become more complicated. However, unlike the FMLN government, with which there have been disputes with the government in Washington DC following El Salvador’s recent diplomatic break with Taiwan to establish them with China, Bukele and his pragmatic allies may be more willing to have more harmonious foreign relations with the United States.

This post was co-authored with Ilka Treminio, of FLACSO Costa Rica.


[1] This was averaged using Matt Golder and Nils-Christian Bormann’s ENPP calculations in their Democratic Electoral Systems, 1946-2016 dataset.

Magna Inacio – Overshadowing the honeymoon opportunities: Bolsonaro’s first month in power

An overshadowed honeymoon has been giving contours and rhythm to Bolsonaro’s first weeks in power. During the honeymoon, the new administration’s first 100 days, presidents usually count on the public’s good will and send strong signals of presidential leadership when presenting a clear governing agenda on Day One. Since “not all presidents are created equal”, the honeymoon phase is an exceptional chance for the president to wisely allow voters, political representatives and opponents to update their feelings about the new incumbent. The value of the first weeks is even greater when strong polarization, political uncertainty, and distrust prevailed during the electoral campaign. Despite these well-known advantages, some presidents allow, or cannot avoid, the overshadowing of the initial steps of their administrations.

Stabbed during an electoral rally, Jair Bolsonaro did not intervene much in the debates of the political campaign. Instead, he intensively resorted to social media to rhetorically reinforce his image as an anti-system candidate. His populist appeals fed the hopes of social conservative groups, and he voiced fury against corruption and committed himself to ultraliberal economic reforms. Backed by a weak partisan coalition, but supported by a massive number of religious leaders, anti-corruption activists and radical opponents of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT), Bolsonaro defeated established parties and won the presidential race with 55% of the valid votes.

The first test of Bolsonaro’s leadership skills was the “presidential transition” process. It is quite an institutionalized process in Brazil when, for 55 days, outgoing and incoming administration teams work together and the latter organize themselves to assume governing responsibility. Bolsonaro’s limited participation in the presidential campaign, along with high expectations about the content of his governing agenda, raised political uncertainties about which policies he was committed to and on which policies he would be able to deliver. Reforms to overcome the economic crisis and the state fiscal deficit, such as the reform of the pension system, had been initiated by outgoing President Michel Temer, who conducted a pronounced pro-market policy-shift after the impeachment of the leftist president Rousseff. However, he became a lame duck president after corruption scandals broke the ruling coalition, interrupting the costlier reforms. Shifting the weight of economic decisions to the minister of economy was Bolsonaro’s only move toward these reforms. Everyone expected pronouncements from the president about these reforms during the transition, but the little we knew about Bolsonaro’s policy preferences did not increase much.

It was also expected that, after winning the presidency, Bolsonaro would signal how he was going to handle his minority status in Congress, to get support for his promised policies. During the campaign, Bolsonaro strongly associated Brazil’s problems with the prevailing model of “coalition presidentialism,” on which past governments have been building legislative support, as a source of corruption and wrongdoing. Avoiding commitments to partisan bases, he claimed that nationalism should be the true motivation for inter-branch cooperation. The president-elect left legislative parties’ leaders “out of the loop”, and placed loyal campaigners and the military at center stage. Thus, the transition period did not contribute to dissipating uncertainties.

President Bolsonaro was sworn into office on January, 1st, 2019. His honeymoon period began with 65% of Brazilians declaring their optimism over the economic prospects under the new administration. However, some missteps during its first 30 days have set off alarms about the strengths of the president’s leadership. In the following, we call particular attention to intra-government management and the relations with Congress.

Cabinet Management

Miscalculations in the formation and management of the inaugural cabinet may have cost the president some reputational losses. This is particularly a risk when a new party assumes power and the president, such as Bolsonaro, lacks experience in the executive branch. At the beginning of his term, politicization, flip-flopping, and erratic cabinet politics increased the misgiving or skepticism about this president’s leverage to coordinate the executive and advance economic structural reforms.

A radical politicization of the executive, with the nomination of campaigners loyal or ideologically close to the president, to ministerial and high-level positions, has engulfed even more the institutionalized and specialized agencies whose efficiency can be hurt by such a strategy. “True believers” in the conservative agenda voiced by Bolsonaro were nominated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, and promptly announced deep changes in the core policies carried out by these structures and bureaucracies. The dismissal of all nominees considered to be sympathizers of leftist parties was one of the first acts of the loyal campaigner and Chief of Staff.

Without party coordination, this politicization was led by the “president’s men”. It broadened the space for fights within Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition for open positions. Cross-pressured by these groups, Bolsonaro flip-flopped on the nomination of several would-be ministers. Flip-flopping became evident, for the most part, in the organization of state agencies. The candidate, who had campaigned for a drastic reduction of the cabinet to 15 ministries, ultimately admitted to the need for 22. Flip-flopping marked Bolsonaro’s attempts to dismantle or transfer agencies in charge of policies that he opposed. For instance, his initial announcement of the elimination of the Ministry of the Environment was cancelled following opposition from the agrobusiness sector, worried about the negative impact on exports.

These management missteps damage the reputation of the president; even more so, when a lack of communication strategy amplifies them. Bolsonaro’s insistence on communicating each decision by Twitter and live-streaming web videos has allowed everyone to follow this presidential flip-flopping closely. More dramatically, the 6-minute speech delivered by Bolsonaro during the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, followed by a cancellation of interviews, showed how costly these missteps can be for a reputation still being built.

Difficulties in accommodating the demands of his mixed coalition, left their marks on the final make-up of the cabinet. Nonpartisan super ministers of the Economy and of Justice had been appointed early; however, the whole cabinet was known only a few days before the inauguration. Loyal campaigners, or leaders of parliamentary fronts, were the only six ministers with previous legislative careers. Military officials assumed more ministerial and high-level positions than expected, corresponding to 7 out of 22 ministers. Beyond the defense policy, they are in charge or sharing responsibilities of inter-ministerial coordination and inter-branch relations inside the Presidential Office. Their significant participation in the government, for the first time since Brazil’s re-democratization, has raised concerns about civilian control over the military and potential intra-cabinet conflicts between civilian and military cabinet members.

Inter-branch (dis)coordination

Despite the presidential coattail effect on legislative and governorship elections, Bolsonaro was elected as a minority chief executive – as all members of the Brazilian “presidents’ club” have been. However, the president did not follow his predecessors in forming a coalition government to overcome this challenge. Instead, Bolsonaro has said he will govern with the backing of legislative coalitions, based on policy compromises.

The high levels of parliamentary fragmentation and legislative turnover could favor this presidential calculation. The effective number of parties is 16.5 and 13.5 in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, respectively.  The electoral endorsement from powerful “parliamentary fronts”, such as the famous “Beef, Bible, and Bullet” groups, boosted Bolsonaro’s expectations to coordinate executive-legislative relations based on these shifting coalitions.

This expectation is unrealistic: the president/his party are neither the median legislator nor are they able to cartelize the legislative agenda without a multi-party alliance. A party of amateurs is backing the president. It is unable to lead any efforts to build a stable legislative coalition. Despite its exceptional growth in the last election, it holds only 11% and 4.9% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Most legislators are either outsiders or newcomers recently affiliated with the presidential party, just like Bolsonaro. The election to speakership positions showed the continuing capacity of the established parties to control the agenda and to check executive moves inside the Congress. The current Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies won a new mandate by leading a large legislative coalition, with 58% of the deputies. Despite the presidential party having taken part in this alliance and grabbing some important committee chairmanships, it shows the persistence of the partisan bias of these Chambers, where all executive proposals must be introduced. 

There is a one-month lapse between the presidential inauguration and when the new legislature starts in Brazil. It makes the president and his cabinet the most visible actors in the spotlight, able to get media coverage for engaging the public and stakeholders in addressing governing challenges. Beyond the first-mover advantages derived from the presidential powers, the president can frame the legislative debate before the new Speakers and party leaders take their seats. Surprisingly, Bolsonaro and his team did not seize these opportunities. On the contrary, ambiguous messages and negative records marked this period. Under these conditions, legislative parties stepped back before compromising with the president.

The government has not really engaged in the lawmaking process since the transition. Congressional leaders’ expectations of discussing final adjustments to the 2019 budget law with the new administration were disdained by the future Minister of the Economy. This fed into misgivings about either his lack of expertise in the public sector or his willingness to make unilateral decisions.  The content of the most anticipated executive bill proposal, the reform of the pension systems, is still unknown, and ambiguous signals have suggested conflicts among government groups. The military personnel resists change to their special pension-system, while the Minister of the Economy defends broad reforms. To show some action, the president has resorted to regulatory and administrative decrees in order to implement some electoral promises. Through the issuing of decrees, the new administration has facilitated gun ownership in Brazil, the monitoring of NGOs – Non-Governmental Organizations – by the Presidency, and given more nominees the power to declare secrecy over official documents, among others.  These decrees are, of course, properly understood by the legislative parties to signal that the minority president is willing to engage in unilateral actions.

Yet, the honeymoon has been overshadowed by an event that challenges Bolsonaro’s ability to manage a crisis. A judicial investigation has put the president’s family on the spot in a very sensitive area, a corruption scandal. It was revealed that a friend of the president’s son has been investigated for suspicious bank transactions while he was a staff member in the office of Flávio Bolsonaro, a state representative until 2018. Afterward, it became known that Flávio has employed family members of an alleged gang leader, from Rio de Janeiro, in this office. After denying his involvement, Flavio claimed his right to legislative immunity since he was elected senator, which was later rejected by the Supreme Court. The president, his sons and close allies have been discrediting these accusations and aggressively attacking the press on social media. On the other hand, the vice-president gained his momentum by defending the free press and judicial institutions investigating any possible wrongdoing involving government members. Bolsonaro knows that any reputational losses in this anti-corruption territory can greatly reduce his political leverage for keeping the military under his leadership and getting support from Congress.

The first 30 days of Bolsonaro’s administration have been intense. His initial decisions and moves indicated potential problems in cabinet management and inter-branch relations which could aggravate, rather overcome, his political weaknesses inherent to having been elected as a minority president. However, if the honeymoon of his administration has been overshadowed, it was caused by the president himself.

Switzerland – The difficulties of speaking with one voice: intra-executive coordination in a collegial presidency

Our blog only rarely covers Switzerland – in fact, it has been only been covered in four of our over 1000 blog posts to date (three of which were cross-country comparisons). This is largely due to the fact that the Swiss presidency differs considerably from the other presidencies discussed here. Rather than the incumbent of a unipersonal office, the Swiss president is the chairperson ‘Federal Council’ – a seven-person collegial executive elected for a fixed four-year term in a joint session of the houses of parliament – and rotates annually among the members of the council.[1] As first among equals, Swiss presidents are effectively the country’s highest representative; yet, they have no authority over their fellow councillors. Given that the Federal Council is a voluntary all-party/grand coalition (its party composition is determined by a largely stable ‘magic formula’) and acts ‘in corpore’ (as one body), it is often presented as a unitary actor. However, a range of issues and discussion have highlighted a very interesting phenomenon in this respect – the lack of coordination between different councillors and the difficulties of the collegial presidency to speak with one voice.

Official portrait of the Swiss Federal Council © Schweizerische Bundeskanzlei 2019

Newly elected Federal Council president Ueli Maurer irritated national and audiences at the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago when he remarked that the Swiss government had “long since dealt with the Khashoggi case. We have agreed to resume the financial dialogue and to normalise relations [with Saudi Arabia].” This assessment was however not shared by his fellow councillors, and particularly those leading the foreign relations and trade departments were quick to stress that relations had all but normalised (and that trade restrictions remain in place). At the same time, the finance department, led by Maurer himself, is continuing its ‘finance dialogue’ with Saudia Arabia. Thus, Maurer’s remarks not only highlight a lack of coordination within departments, but also between the council and its highest representative.

A similar pattern emerged with regard to the new framework treaty between Switzerland and the European Union. The results of five-year long negotiations had been presented in December 2018, eliciting contradictory comments from federal councillors – while Ingazio Cassis (heading the foreign affairs department) praised the draft agreement, his colleagues criticised the deal and the Federal Council failed to present a common position (this had already been an issue in early 2018 during before the last phase of negotiations). Eventually, Maurer called for re-negotiations, despite clear signals from the EU commission that there would be no leeway to renegotiate the current agreement.

Last, parliamentarians have increasingly voiced their discontent with the lack of coordination among councillors and their government departments in important areas. Most recently, this was illustrated the lack of a common political and economic strategy on investments from and engagement with China – although promised over ten years ago, policy differs greatly among the departments which hold various responsibilities in this regard.

These examples show the problems of coordination in a collegial presidency in which there is only a first among equals, yet none above (primus inter pares vs primus supra pares). Nevertheless, none of these is (yet) sufficient to change the council’s modus operandi. Nevertheless, the new EU treaty may force councillors to adopt a more cooperative approach – both among each other as well as between the Federal Council and parliament. To date, such questions as well as that of political leadership of Federal Councillors has yet received little scholarly attention. Although the Swiss presidency is relatively unique (the closest comparable example are the Captains Regent in San Marino), the above examples demand further investigation and could well mirror patterns of intra-executive conflict in other regime types.


[1] Although the president is formally elected by parliament, the order of rotation is strictly based on the length of time that councillors served on the Federal Council.

Grant Godfrey – DRC: Can a democratic transition emerge from a flawed electoral process?

This is a guest post by Grant Godfrey, Program Director, National Democratic Institute (NDI)

In the months leading up to the December 30, 2018 presidential election, many Congolese would have reacted with both disbelief and joy to find out that Félix Tshisekedi would become the fifth president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as he did when he was sworn in on January 24.  Few believed that Joseph Kabila would relinquish power voluntarily after 18 years, and that if he did, his chosen successor Emmanuel Shadary would still be accountable to Kabila in what was expected to be a “Putin-Medvedev scenario.” Instead, Kabila transferred power to the son of the man who personified political opposition and democratic resistance to many in DRC, Etienne Tshisekedi. While there was indeed jubilation that day in his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) strongholds of Kasaï and Limete, the peaceful transfer of power—the first since independence day in 1960—was greeted cautiously in many parts of Congo and in foreign capitals.

This hesitancy to embrace Tshisekedi stems from claims, supported by data published by the Congo Research Group, that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, actually won the election. The fact that Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) allies now control a majority of votes in the newly elected National Assembly gives another reason to pause.  In addition, Kabila’s allies will control most provinces, and thus the governorships and national Senate, while their parliamentary majority also entitles them to the premiership.  These results, at odds with both the FCC presidential performance and research leading up to the election that showed a strong public desire for change, could confirm for some Congolese their expectations that the elections would not be fairly run.  This, and UDPS acknowledgements of transition talks before provisional figures were released, have led many Congolese and Congo-watchers to suspect that Tshisekedi attained the presidency through a corrupt bargain.

A number of Congolese democrats, including Tshisekedi’s former allies, and their allies around the world have accordingly raised their voices to protest his election.  They have rightly demanded the CENI publish the election results by polling station and by counting center.  Comparing these to results collected by political parties and civil society at polling station counts, would increase confidence in the announced vote totals, if warranted.  Fayulu has said he considers himself the president-elect, called on Congolese to disregard presidential orders from Tshisekedi, and invoked Article 64 of the constitution, which calls on the population to resist the unconstitutional exercise of power.  Should no leader be able to convincingly exercise power with legitimacy, some observers fear spreading unrest or even civil war.  Others simply expect that Kabila, whose FCC majority in the legislature will have arguably more power than Tshisekedi, will continue to rule through proxies.  Some Congolese wonder how, with his powers limited by the constitution, retaining only weak influence over the other institutions, and lacking a popular mandate, can Tshisekedi be expected to lead or govern the country?

The answer could be, paradoxically, to leverage the flaws of the December polls as an opportunity for reform, rather than seeking to minimize or dispute them.  Major controversies included that the most popular candidates were not allowed to run; free assembly had essentially been banned since 2016; campaign activities were repressed; the voter roll had a suspicious concentration of unverified voters; the CENI used a controversial, poorly understood voting machine; and there were reports of voters being intimidated on election day.  Moreover, legislative candidates, including in the FCC coalition, allege that the announced winners do not reflect the voters’ choices.  The credibility of the election was thus contested before a single vote was cast, leaving any outcome vulnerable to the charge that competition was not free nor fair.  

President Tshisekedi would therefore run a big risk if he seeks to reinforce his position by appealing to a popular mandate that may not be there.  However, by treating December’s electoral event instead as a stumbling step in a transition out of authoritarianism, the president could gain an opportunity to recoup allies and enhance his legitimacy with the public.  For example, an effort at comprehensive election reform could attract interest from Fayulu’s strongest backers, Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, both of whom were excluded from the presidential election.  The president would need the mobilizing power of these leaders to get reforms through legislators who may be fearful of the impact on their future careers.  It would also give the president leverage with the FCC, which many fear he presently lacks.

There is reason for optimism amid the uncertainty. In his inaugural speech, Tshisekedi signaled a desire to seize the moment, announcing he would identify and release political prisoners, begin a long-overdue national census and reform the election law.  Despite Mr. Fayulu’s refusal to participate in a Tshisekedi government, elements of the Lamuka coalition have begun to at least recognize his presidency, though not his election. Civil society groups that dispute the validity of his election, such as CENCO and LUCHA, have indicated a willingness to do the same, and offer ideas for reform efforts.  So, while the DRC’s 2018 poll may have been a flawed exercise in electoral democracy, it may have opened a window for the country’s ongoing transition to democracy to proceed.

Blog news

This is the time of year when the Presidential Power blog typically takes a short hiatus. This time it will be a little longer than usual.

I am stepping down as the manager of the blog. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog since it began over five years ago. This includes the current list of regular contributors, previous contributors, and guest contributors. It has been a pleasure managing the blog, reading the posts, and learning about presidential politics in so many countries.

I am delighted to announce that Sophia Moestrup and Fiona Yap are planning to take over the management of the blog. They will start posting again at the beginning of February. In the meantime, Philipp Köker will continue to re-post some of the highlights of the last five years.

Thank you for visiting the blog, for reading the material, and for commenting on the posts. Do please keep returning to the site, especially when it is relaunched in February.

Robert Elgie

Georgia – The results of the presidential election

On November 28, 2018, the second round of the presidential elections was held in Georgia and and the so-called ‘independent’ candidate Salome Zurabishvili was elected. The second round campaign was quite tense. This was not simply a battle for the president’s office. The first round showed that the opposition had a real chance to win the contest in a free and fair election.

Pre-election environment for the second round

Victory was a strategic goal for the ruling Georgia Dream team and they mobilized all kinds of resources to win. They displayed negative parties of the former ruling party, the United National Movement. The ruling party also presented the country with a stark choices: if their candidate did not win, it would mean the return of the former ruling party. One of the leaders of the parliamentary majority Gedevan Popkhadze also said that the victory of the opposition candidate, Grigol Vashadze, would be a step towards the start of a civil war. [1]  The authorities felt that it would be difficult to win the election and tried to scare people with the prospect of a  return to the party that has been in opposition for almost 6 years.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairperson of Georgia Dream, called on people to support him once again in the second round of election. He admitted he had made mistakes and that the country faced problems, but at the same time he asked people to support him and prevent the return of the former ruling party. Ivanishvili said he would correct all the shortcomings in one year and use all his resources to make the reforms in the country irreversible. [2] Shortly after this statement and a few days before the election, the government took the unprecedented step of removing all bank debt from 600,000 citizens. The debts will be paid by Ivanishvili’s bank. [3] Only a few days before the polls, the announcement showed that the ruling party was willing to use all legal and illegal means for victory. The decision was denounced by international observer organizations as voter bribery and was contested by the United Opposition.

Salome Zourabichvili was not actively involved in the second round campaign. Billboards appeared in different cities depicting Bidzina Ivanishvili and other party leaders instead of presidential candidate. The ruling party also had billboards against the “National Movement”[4] with slogans such as “Choose Vashadze, choose Saakashvili!” [5]on which former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his team were represented. The government has officially denied any connection with the billboards and said that they were put up by the private sector.[6] Following Ivanishvili’s statement, private TV company “Imedi” stated that its owners knew what a return to the “National Movement” would mean and that, therefore, they would change the airtime in the pre-election period to prevent returning of the former regime. [7]

There was also a big difference between the financial resources of the candidatest. Salome Zourabichvili spent 6,351,949 GEL in the first round  and theUnited National Movement (UNM) 1,133,536 lari. [8] In the second round, Zourabichvili spent 3 260 810 GEL and the “National Movement” 1 257 752 GEL. [9]

For its part, the TV company Rustavi 2 was actively working during the election period, reporting stories about election violations and corruption. 

The results of the second round and the opposition of the opposition

Following the closure of the polling stations, an exit poll by Rustavi 2 reported that Vashadze had won 45% and Zurabishvili 55%. ImediTV said that Zurabishvili had won 58% and Vashadze 42%.[10]  Vashadze said that he trusted the research but would still will wait for the final results. [11]  On the second day of the elections, the Central Election Commission announced that Vashadze had won- 40.46% and Zurabishvili 59.54%.[12] Vashadze won the elections in two districts and in all the districts abroad.

lVashadze told his supporters that “we have no presidential elections in Georgia. We had a criminal farce organized by the government under criminal terror. That’s why we do not recognize the results of these elections.” [13] Vashadze said that the opposition would demand early parliamentary elections, a change of the election commission, and a transition to a proportional electoral system. [14] The opposition held a protest rally outside the Parliament building and offered to create a working group. [15] The newly elected president, though, said that democracy demands that the elected president be recognized, that the country should move on, and that the political environment should calm down. [16]

President’s inauguration and renewed protest

According to the constitution, the inauguration of the president was scheduled on December 16, 2018. All 7 previous inaugurations have been held in Tbilisi. After the announcement of the demands of the opposition, the ruling party began to speak about changing the location of the inauguration[17] and eventually Zourabichvili said that it would be be held in Telavi, in King Eckerle’s palace. According to her, Telavi was chosen because she lost the election there and wanted to show that she was everyone’s president. [18] In fact, it was clear to everyone that the government was afraid of opposition protests.

The United Opposition said that “no one was going to break the so called inauguration, wherever they wanted to hold the show, [19] but they supported the statement of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who said that “we did not allow Shevardnadze in 2003 to open the Parliament. People should say that you do not have the right to put the stolen election in your pocket“. [20] He called for civil disobedience. [21] Saakashvili previously lost his Georgian citizenship and has been living in Holland, but he was actively involved in the election campaign. Often his statements are unacceptable, but his role is still great for supporters of the opposition.

In the end, the authorities decided to take a more unconventional decision, violating the constitutional tradition and moving the inauguration to Telavi. The inauguration was not as open and public as it is in many countries. It was held in one of the fortresses where guests attended by special invitation, journalists were not allowed inside, and where they observed the oath-taking process on a special monitor. It should be noted that in 2013 President Zourabichvili  wrote about the necessity of holding the inauguration as public event.

Thus, the inauguration of the 2018 was specially designed to prevent opposition protest in Tbilisi. However, the inauguration was still tense. The opposition decided to organize a protest in Telavi. Several thousand cars left Tbilisi. However, the police blocked the road and opposition supporters were unable to enter Telavi. Some people were injured as a result of clashes between the opposition and police and one of the leaders of the opposition was arrested. Salome Zourabichvili took the oath and began work on December 16, but tensions are ongoing.

Election assessments and international feedback

One of the main issues after the presidential election is democracy and the legitimacy of elections. The opposition still does not recognize the result and continues to protest. The authorities claim that the elections were held freely and fairly and were recognized as such by all international organizations. At the same time, both national and international organizations have indicated that significant violence was observed, as well as intimidation, the restriction of the free will of voters, the misuse of administrative resources, bribing and other violations.[22] Non-governmental organizations called the government’s initiative to write off the bank debt for 600,000 people “unprecedented” and voter bribery.[23] Non-governmental organizations also criticized holding the election on a Wednesday, which restrict citizens’ rights, especially for citizens living abroad. [24] Observers noted that the elections were competitive, free, but unfair. [25]

Overall, we can say that the presidential election was held in a very tense atmosphere. On theone hand, it was actually the first time when the opposition had a chance of winning the election. It was also the first time when theopposition had received such a high level of supports. On the other hand, it is sad that the government used all the methods it did, including many illegal mechanisms. This election has intensified the polarization in Georgia and has also caused significant damage to the country’s democratic image internationally.


[1] http://pirveliradio.ge/?newsid=115484

[2] http://pirveliradio.ge/index.php?newsid=115819

[3] http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/139950-premieri-ets-shav-siashi-mkof-600-000-ze-met-moqalaqes-valebi-gaunuldeba

[4] http://www.resonancedaily.com/index.php?id_rub=4&id_artc=60252

[5] https://on.ge/story/30497-ირჩევ-ვაშაძეს-იღებ-სააკაშვილს-ახალი-ბილბორდები-თბილისის-ქუჩებში

[6] https://marshalpress.ge/archives/206238

[7] https://imedinews.ge/ge/saqartvelo/83392/imedi-mushaobis-sagangebo-rejimze-gadadis

[8] https://monitoring.sao.ge/news/150

[9] რა რაოდენობის თანხა დახარჯეს ზურაბიშვილმა და ვაშაძემ მეორე ტურზე და ვინ რამდენი შესწირა კანდიდატებს http://kvira.ge/436720

[10] Edison Research-ისა და Gallup-ის ეგზიტპოლის შედეგებით, საპრეზიდენტო არჩევნებში სალომე ზურაბიშვილი იმარჯვებს https://primetime.ge/news/1543422134-Edisoიშვილი-იმარჯვებს

[11] დაველოდებით საბოლოო შედეგებს, რადგან ამომრჩევლის უზარმაზარი რაოდენობა 17:00 საათის შემდეგ მივიდა არჩევნებზე – ვაშაძე http://www.ghn.ge/com/news/view/216227

[12] საპრეზიდენტო არჩევნების წინასწარი შედეგებით, გრიგოლ ვაშაძემ – 40.46%, სალომე ზურაბიშვილმა 59.54% მიიღო http://www.newpress.ge/saprezidento-archevnebis-winaswari-shedegebit-grigol-vashadzem—40-46-salome-zurabishvilma-59-54-miiro

[13] გრიგოლ ვაშაძე: ჩვენ არ ვცნობთ არჩევნების შედეგებს https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29628429.html

[14] https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/გაერთიანებული-ოპოზიციის-შეკრება-ფილარმონიაში/29628705.html

[15] გაერთიანებული ოპოზიციის ულტიმატუმი მომავალ აქციამდე https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/გაერთიანებული-ოპოზიციის-ულტიმატუმი-მომავალ-აქციამდე-/29633412.html

[16] სალომე ზურაბიშვილი: დემოკრატია მოითხოვს, არჩეული პრეზიდენტის აღიარებას https://metronome.ge/დემოკრატია-მოითხოვს-არჩ/

[17] ზურაბიშვილი ინაუგურაციის ადგილზე: განიხილება ბევრი ვერსია, მათ შორის ქალაქგარეთ ჩატარების http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/141002-zurabishvili-inauguraciis-adgilze-ganixileba-bevri-versia-mat-shoris-qalaqgaret

[18] ზურაბიშვილი: თელავმა ხმა არ მომცა… მინდა ვაჩვენო, რომ ყველას პრეზიდენტი ვარ https://on.ge/story/31037-ზურაბიშვილი-თელავმა-ხმა-არ-მომცა-მინდა-ვაჩვენო-რომ-ყველას-პრეზიდენტი-ვარ

[19] “ე.წ. ინაუგურაციის ჩაშლას არავინ აპირებდა, სადაც უნდათ იქ ჩაატარონ ეს შოუ” http://www.resonancedaily.com/index.php?id_rub=4&id_artc=61295

[20] https://1tv.ge/news/mikheil-saakashvili-rogorc-ar-mivecit-sashualeba-2003-wels-shevardnadzes-gaekhsna-parlamenti-zustad-aseve-16-shi-khalkhma-unda-tqvas-ar-mogcemt-sashualebas-jibeshi-chaidot-moparuli-saprezidento/

[21] მიხეილ სააკაშვილი საზოგადოებას სამოქალაქო დაუმორჩილებლობისაკენ მოუწოდებს http://www.livepress.ge/ka/akhali-ambebi/article/26135.html

[22] არჩევნების  მეორე ტური და საერთაშორისო დამკვირვებლების მკვეთრი წინასწარი შეფასებები https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/არჩევნების-მეორე-ტური-და-საერთაშორისო-დამკვირვებლების-მკვეთრი-წინასწარი-შეფასებები/29628549.html

[23] არასამთავრობო ორგანიზაციები: საპრეზიდენტო არჩევნების მეორე ტურის წინ ამომრჩევლების მოსყიდვა ხდებოდა https://jam-news.net/საპრეზიდენტო-არჩევნების/?lang=ka

[24] არასამთავრობოები – ცესკოს გადაწყვეტილება არ ითვალისწინებს საქართველოს მოქალაქეების ინტერესებს https://www.interpressnews.ge/ka/article/521428-arasamtavroboebi-ceskos-gadacqvetileba-ar-itvaliscinebs-sakartvelos-mokalakeebis-interesebs

[25] International election observation mission press conference, 29 November 2018, Tbilisi https://www.facebook.com/osce.odihr/videos/2264573423788554/

Kyrgyzstan – Ex-Presidents and Democratic Fragility in the Developing World

Former presidents in stable democracies traditionally retreat into a dignified and comfortable retirement that removes them from the political front-lines.  Most leaders of authoritarian regimes also fade from the political scene, but for rather different reasons—a natural or unnatural death or an ignominious exile or imprisonment.  Between the poles of consolidated democracies and personalist dictatorships lies the increasingly expansive terrain of hybrid regimes and struggling democracies, where the afterlives of presidents offer cases worthy of serious political analysis. 

As Roger Southall and others have noted in their work on former presidents in African politics, the recent growth in democratic transitions on that continent has increased “the number of former heads of state who now have to be accommodated by their successors.”[i]  Thus, among the many causes of the fragility of fledgling democracies is the reluctance of former presidents to transfer fully the reins of power, even when they are in the hands of political allies. Such is the case with the former president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, whose single, six-year term ended in October 2017. 

As the accompanying table illustrates, since 1994 none of the countries in post-communist Central Asia—save one—has had living former presidents, which testifies to the dominance of authoritarianism in the region.[ii]  The exception is Kyrgyzstan, a flawed but surprisingly resilient young democracy whose four ex-presidents are still among the living.  The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents to leave office, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), did so involuntarily, overthrown in popular revolts that sent them into exile in Russia and Belarus, where they have remained largely detached from the political struggles in their home country.  The country’s third leader, Roza Otunbaeva (2010-2011), has served as a model ex-president in a democracy.  Although she has on occasion responded testily to provocative statements hurled in her direction by her mercurial successor, Almazbek Atambaev (2011-2017), she has generally worked quietly behind the scenes to advance good governance initiatives and to support her charitable foundation, which seeks to improve conditions for Kyrgyzstan’s children.  

Rather than follow the lead of Otunbaeva, former president Atambaev has chosen to interfere directly in high politics, and in so doing he has produced a crisis of authority in the country.  With the goal of shaping politics from behind the scenes after his departure from the presidency, Atambaev had used the administrative powers of his office as well as a smear campaign against the front-runner in the presidential race, Omurbek Babanov, to ensure the election of his chosen successor and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.[iii]   At the outset of the election campaign Jeenbekov had been the favorite of only three percent of the population, and as Atambaev himself noted recently, “I dragged him into the presidency” [ia dotashchil do prezidenta strany].  

Leadership Transitions in the Central Asia Region since 1994

Despite—or perhaps because of—the depth of his indebtedness to the former president, President Jeenbekov began to distance himself from his patronwithin weeks of his inauguration.  In Jeenbekov’s words, Atambaev had tried “to make me a front man controlled by third parties, and this does him no honor as a man, an ex-president, or a fellow party member and political ally.”[i]  By the spring of 2018, Jeenbekov had removed Atambaev loyalists in the presidential apparatus, most notably his chief-of-staff, and had engineered—or at a minimum acceded to—the launching of an anti-corruption campaign that targeted current and former high-ranking officials from Atambaev’s circle, including an erstwhile prime minister.  The result was a very public falling out between the two men and the re-sorting of the country’s governing elite into two hostile camps. 

For the next seven months, Atambaev sulked, allowing political confidantes and his network of friendly media outlets to take on the increasingly independent-minded new president.  But in the middle of November, Atambaev launched a frontal assault on his successor after returning from Moscow, where he had led the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) delegation at a conference of Asian political parties. In a lengthy television interview granted to Russian-language journalists, Atambaev accused Jeenbekov—whose relatives occupy several key political posts—of attempting to restore Bakiev-style “family rule,” a reference to a former president whose authoritarian policies had led to the April Revolution of 2010.[ii]  Atambaev also vouched for the authenticity of recently-leaked documents purportedly showing that President Jeenbekov’s presidential campaign had violated electoral laws by spending several times more than it had reported in filings with the Central Election Commission.[iii]  Furthermore, Atambaev insisted in the interview that a former prime minister, Sapar Isakov, was being prosecuted because he had resisted calls by Jeenbekov to protect a high-ranking customs official widely suspected of corruption, Raimbek Matraimov (a/k/a Raim Million).    

The interview illustrated Atambaev’s ability to play defense as well as offense in his deepening struggle with Jeenbekov and his supporters.  In order to deflect growing accusations that he had enriched himself while president at the expense of the nation, Atambaev laid out in unusual detail the domestic and foreign sources of his wealth.  He also exhibited in the interview uncharacteristic compassion and contrition toward some political adversaries who had been jailed on his watch, most notably the perennial presidential candidate and leader of the Ata-Meken Party, Omurbek Tekebaev.  He even lamented his frequent attacks on the press.

Atambaev’s revelations and regrets did little, however, to still mounting calls for his imprisonment on criminal charges.  Because Kyrgyzstan, along with only two other post-Soviet states, grants unlimited immunity to former presidents, some deputies supportive of President Jeenbekov have sought to lift this privilege for all ex-presidents.[iv] Just last week, on December 13, a bill to eliminate presidential immunity passed the country’s parliament in its first reading, 100-2.[v]  Touted as a means of discouraging abuse of office, the policy change would almost certainly have the unintended consequence of discouraging presidents from leaving office, given the widespread use of select prosecution in countries like Kyrgyzstan.   

Former President Atambaev faces serious threats on the political as well as legal fronts.  In order to undermine Atambaev’s position as leader of the SDPK, which has the largest number of deputies (38) in the highly-fragmented 120-person parliament, some party members aligned with President Jeenbekov launched a hostile takeover of the organization.[vi]  At the moment, Atambaev seems likely to retain control of the party, which he founded in the early 1990s and which he hoped would serve as his political base in his post-presidential years.  However, even if he beats back the current intra-party challenge, led by a group styling itself “SDPK without Atambaev,” the former president may find it difficult to prevent further defections in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections.  For his part, President Jeenbekov has the daunting challenge of cobbling together a reliable pro-presidential parliamentary coalition in the absence of a large and overtly loyal pro-presidential party.   

The conflict between president and former president has pushed Kyrgyzstan into an awkward and dangerous impasse, with two powerful patronage networks set against each other.  Of course, as Henry Hale has pointed out in his work on patronal presidentialism,[vii]presidents in struggling democracies like Kyrgyzstan have never been able to forge a single-pyramid patronage system, and so competing pyramids of patron-client networks have long been the norm. However, no out-of-power patronage network has ever been led by a former president, never mind one who can boast of enormous wealth, the chairmanship of the dominant party in parliament, and a web of allies who have occupied key posts in government and the economy. Moreover, the specter of the leader of the country’s northern elite (Atambaev) threatening Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent southern politician (Jeenbekov)—and tying him to a disgraced former southern leader (Bakiev)—threatens to revive regional rivalries in Kyrgyzstani politics, which, to Atambaev’s credit, had diminished during his six years in office.    

Missing from the litany of Atambaev’s attributes above are his almost limitless personal ambition and his refusal to accept the institutionalized uncertainty that is at the core of democratic politics.[viii]   In these he differs fundamentally from former president Roza Otunbaeva. To be sure, Otunbaeva was less well-positioned to insist on a prominent role in politics following her presidency.  First, she was appointed by fellow members of the Interim Government in the wake of the April 2010 revolution, and instead of contesting a presidential election, she won a popular referendum on whether she should be confirmed as president.  Second, she served as an interim president, and her tenure lasted for only eighteen months, though a momentous eighteen months it was.  Finally, she had neither the financial nor organizational resources of Atambaev. Otunbaeva understood, however, the fragility of democracy and the vital role of the individual agent in advancing or impeding democracy’s consolidation.[ix]  

Not so Atambaev.  Reneging on his earlier promises to retire from politics to pursue his favorite pastimes, he has openly challenged the authority and legitimacy of the president he was instrumental in electing.  Atambaev’s presidency may have limited parallels with that of Joseph Kabila, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, Atambaev’s approach to his life as ex-president aligns with that of the Congolese leader, who noted this week, on the eve of his slated departure from office: “The job is not over at all.”[x]


[i]Ekskliuzivnoe interv’iu Sooronbaia Zheenbekova. Chast’ II, 24.kg, November 16, 2018.  https://24.kg/vlast/101374_eksklyuzivnoe_intervyu_sooronbaya_jeenbekova_chastII/

[ii]A full transcript of the interview can be found at https://kaktus.media/doc/382695_intervu_eks_prezidenta_almazbeka_atambaeva._polnaia_versiia.html

[iii]Given that Atambaev’s right-hand man, Ikramzhan Ilmiianov, was in charge of campaign finance for Jeenbekov’s presidential race, the accusation against the current president appears less damning.  “Iurist opublikoval ‘real’nye’ raskhody shtaba Zheenbekova, v apparate prezidenta nazvali ikh feikom,” Radio Azattyk, November 15, 2018. https://rus.azattyk.org/a/29602199.html 

[iv]Viktoriia Panfilova, “V Kirgizii boiatsia vozvrashcheniia v politiku Almazbeka Atambaeva,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, October 2, 2018, p. 5.  In mid-November 2018, the Constitutional Chamber of the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court ruled that unlimited immunity for ex-presidents was unconstitutional. Sergei Kozhemiakin, “Okhota na eks-prezidenta,” Pravda, November 13, 2018, p. 3.

[v]“100 deputaty progolosovali za otmenu neprikosnovennosti eks-prezidentov,” KaktusMedia, December 13, 2018. https://kaktus.media/doc/383947_100_depytatov_progolosovali_za_otmeny_neprikosnovennosti_eks_prezidentov.html

[vi]Among the SDPK deputies is President Jeenbekov’s brother, Asylbek.

[vii]Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), especially chapters 4 and 9.  

[viii]For a discussion of this concept, see Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Latin America and Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[ix]Curiously, what unites all former presidents of Kyrgyzstan is their relative youth at leaving office—61 years old, which is the current age of President Jeenbekov, a fact that has engendered predictable speculation about his ability to break through this threshold.   

[x]Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Stepping Way from Office, Not Power,” New York Times, December 16, 2018, p. A6.



[i]Roger Southall, Neo Simutanyi and John Daniel, “Former Presidents in African Politics,” in Roger Southall and Henning Melber (eds.), Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics(Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2006). As Southall, Simutanyi, and Daniel argue, the role of the ex-leader is different in presidential and parliamentary models of government.  “[I]n the former, ex-presidents tend to stand down from partisan politics whereas in the latter, ex-prime ministers may remain politically active, often with the objective of regaining power.”  Ibid.

[ii]A minor exception concerns Azerbaijan, whose president, Haidar Aliev, stepped down in his last weeks of life in favor of his son.  Although not usually included in Central Asia, Azerbaijan’s culture and political economy make it a better fit for Central Asia than the Caucasus, the region with which it is usually linked.   

[iii]This strategy mirrors that of former president Bakili Muluzi of Malawi.