Bolivia: A Testing Year for Bolivia’s Democracy

The tide that swept leftist governments to power in Latin America over a decade ago has dramatically receded in recent years. The resulting political struggles between left and right have seen a rise in undemocratic tendencies, with dubious methods utilised both by presidents to retain power, as well as by opponents seeking to depose incumbents. 

Bolivia under Evo Morales has proved no exception, as previously outlined in this blog. In this context, 2019 increasingly looks like being a pivotal year for Bolivia’s democracy. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 20th, where visions of the past and present will vie to control the country’s future. 

In particular, current President Evo Morales will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, having managed to overturnthe result of a 2016 plebiscite in which a majority voted against the abolition of term limits. 

Since the shock of that result, Morales and his government have done what they tend to do when faced with setbacks: retrench and find a way around the problem by whatever means necessary. In this case a friendly Supreme Court acceded to the government’s petition to override the plebiscite, thus abolishing term limits. In turn the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified that rulingand registered the candidacy of Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera.

The government’s manoeuvrings prompted a significant backlash. In the immediate aftermath of the TSE decision, a series of protests eruptedinvolving work stoppages, blockades, marches and vigils. Opponents have come together under the heading of ‘Bolivia Dijo No!’(Bolivia Said No!). The coalition is an uneasy one, however, as it contains a mixture of right-wing opponents from wealthy sectors and disillusioned former Morales supporters. The former group, in particular, has shown violent tendencies, evidenced by the burningof the TSE building in Santa Cruz. Such behaviour is unlikely to win over wavering middle-class voters, however.

Morales has sought to prey on these doubts by offering stability, further poverty reduction, and continued economic growth, which has averaged five per cent during his 13 years in power. Furthermore, the recent launch of a system of universal healthcareis a departure from the more targeted and clientelistic social protection measurestypically employed by the government.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers have noted that Morales has a habit of launching big initiatives in the period before presidential elections. Nor was the healthcare plan well-received by doctors, who launched industrial actionand criticised the lack of funding for beds, supplies and staff.

Other recent initiatives, however, appear to be more overt attempts to utilise state power to influence the outcome of the election. One example was the holding of mandatory primary electionsin January. While on its face a move to enhance democratic processes, critics viewed the primaries as an attempt by Morales to expand his electoral base following the humiliation of the 2016 plebiscite.

Furthermore, the measure was imposed in late 2018with little warning, and provided opposition parties with a very short period within which to register candidates. In particular, the timeframe meant that the opposition was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The conduct of the processwas also hampered by low turnout – partly explained by many parties calling for a boycott – and allegations of significant irregularities. The result was that the opposition emerged divided, with nine candidates set to contest the election.

Nonetheless, the main rival that has emerged is a name from Bolivia’s past: former president Carlos Mesa. A mild-mannered journalist and historian, Mesa is widely respected. Nevertheless, his association with the unpopular government of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (‘Goni’) – who Mesa served as Vice-President before taking over when Goni was ousted – continues to dog his candidacy. Mesa’s refusal to formalise an alliance with any party is evidence that he is aware of this weakness.

In response to the threat of Mesa, Morales has used more direct tactics to damage his rival. These have included accusing Mesa of causing economic damageto the state due to his nationalisation of a Chilean company when president – ironic given that Morales’ signature promise when first elected was the purported nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves – and levelling charges of accepting bribesfrom a Brazilian construction company. 

The overall image forged by Morales’ actions over the past three years – commencing with the overturning of the result of the 2016 plebiscite, and running through the primaries to the use of the state apparatus to target a political rival – is of a government that increasingly adheres to the typology of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[i]

The reason underlying these actions is that Morales’s grip on power has loosened significantly in recent years due to the inherent contradictions of his governing model. Morales relies heavily on rents from gas, mining and agribusiness for redistribution and public spending. The end of the commodities boom has seen the government go to ever-greater lengths to boost income, even opening up protected areasfor oil and gas exploration. 

The result has been a series of conflicts between the self-styled ‘government of the social movements’ and social movements themselves[ii]. The disconnect between this model and Morales’ environmentalist discourse can no longer be overlooked.

Furthermore, the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have traditionally been sources of patronage and bribery in Bolivia. It is far from surprising then that Morales’ government has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and vanity[iii].

Nevertheless, Morales remains a popular and indeed historic figure in Bolivia whose importance as a symbol continues to resonate with many. Recent opinion pollsappear to show that Morales’s lead over Mesa is growing, albeit slowly.

The biggest problem facing Morales looks likely to be the electoral system, and in particular the run-off vote. In each of his three previous victories, Morales was elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, thereby avoiding a second round of voting. That outcome appears unlikely on this occasion.

Instead Morales’ core vote appears to be closer to 30 per cent. Even allowing for the fact that polls routinely under-estimate support for Morales, if the president fails to triumph over Mesa by more than ten per cent it would trigger a run-off. A second round would place the president in a very different situation, facing a single candidate around whom a diffuse and divided opposition could coalesce. Indeed, opinion pollsindicate that Mesa would win a run-off vote against Morales.

Were this to occur, it would represent a significant test for Bolivia’s institutions and its current president’s commitment to democracy.


[i]Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

[ii]The ongoing socio-environmental conflict in the protected area of Tariquiaover hydrocarbon concessions granted without any prior consultation with indigenous communities is just the most recent of such clashes.

[iii]The construction of a 29-storey presidential palace – named The Great House of the People – for a cost of $34 million is the most high-profile example of this tendency.

Guest Post. The Brazilian presidential election of 2018: Does a cartel of parties produce mavericks?

The results of the 2018 Brazilian elections have called into question recent academic conclusions on the institutional dynamics of the largest Latin-American democracy. In fact, prior to 2018, the so-called Brazilian duopoly was even praised for remaining stable for just over two decades.2 The remarkable fact was that such stability occurred thanks to a strange coexistence between a two-party system in the Executive branch and an extreme multi-party system in the Parliament.3 However, recent events seem to indicate that such stability was merely an illusion, constructed upon a party system in which the principal objective of its leaders was to prevent the emergence of new parties (or competitors) in order to continue exploiting the privileges and resources of the state. In other words, using the concept proposed by Katz and Mair,4 the established parties in Brazil developed behaviors similar in nature to a cartel of producers in an economic market. The Brazilian context was conducive to the rise of a marginal candidate with a strong critique of its dominant political parties like Jair Bolsonaro, who defied expectations by achieving victory in the 2018 presidential election and thereby fracturing the dominant parties which ruled Brazil with cartel-like behaviors over the two previous decades.

Literature Review on Brazilian democratic stability

Prior to the Brazilian presidential election on October 7, 2018, the predominant scholarly perspective on Brazilian democratic stability was entirely positive. For instance, Handlin pointed out that while in other countries political outsiders emerged, the representative democracy in Brazil remained consolidated. Handlin’s perspective attributed this tendency to the absence of a prior state crisis5 and the existence of a strong party organization (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) on the left. According to Handlin, the combination of both factors was enough to minimize political polarization and block or prevent the rise of radical outsiders.6

In turn, Mainwaring, Power and Bizarro developed a more moderate perspective. They considered that Brazilian stability rested on an unevenly institutionalized party system. According to their analysis, the PT was the only party that had taken root in specific sectors of society, while the rest of the political parties had failed to do the same. Nevertheless, they also noted that the percentage of partisan identification in Brazil never exceeded 40% of the population; moreover, in 2015, when a series of acts of governmental corruption were exposed to the public, the percentage of citizens with no partisan self- identification reached a historical high of 75%.7

But some interpretations went further and considered the Brazilian case as proof that the institutional combination that since Linz had been viewed as perverse —or the anti-ideal:  presidentialism plus a multi-party system— was plausible. Proponents of this interpretation argued that the key to successful governance —in terms of stability— is a constitutionally strong Executive branch. In practical terms, this system denotes a president who controls political assets (initiating laws, decrees, etc.) or “goods” (Cabinet positions, “pork projects,” etc.) which are crucial to building coalitions, and thus avoids having a minority or weak position in the government. Of course, the democratic nature of this institutional design should be complemented by reliable and effective institutions (Legislative, judiciary bodies or the media) to prevent the president from taking an autocratic path.

The cartel of parties and the emergence of a maverick

However, the features of the Brazilian case that were used to explain the political stability of a highly fragmented and unevenly institutionalized party system were also the root of its debacle. As Mello and Spektor mentioned, the institutional design of the Brazilian government —which facilitated the relationship between the Executive and the Legislative— “… [also] encouraged exactly the kind of graft that the Car Wash scandal revealed …”. 8 In other words, this institutional framework not only made it possible for the Executive branch to control the Congress based on perks, but also allowed private interests to gain more significant influence on governmental decision-making. The result of all the illicit exchanges/transactions required to sustain this system” was the neutralization of the checks and balances system, and the consolidation of representative institutions of non-democratic countries, such as clientelism, patronage networks, etc.

So, what happened? A viable response is to characterize the Brazilian party system as a cartel of parties. Indeed, after a long period of coexistence —and due to the institutional incentives described above— the PT, the PSDB, the MD9, and various medium-sized parties in the Congress morphed into a political cartel. The evidence of this phenomenon is clear: an increase in public funds directed to government-recognized political parties combined with an increase in legal barriers to the entry of new parties.10 These are precisely the types of party behaviours that Katz and Mair—the creators of the cartel of parties’ concept— identified in their analysis of Europe. 11 The only difference is that in the Brazilian case the parties not only exploited public resources but also channeled private funds in their favor.

In this highly cartelized political context, whenever corruption scandals were exposed by the mass media, the majority of citizens perceived that the uncovered acts of corruption were not exceptional, but rather a routine component of the institutional arrangements that defined relations between the Executive and Legislative branches —and interest groups— for almost two decades. This political environment, along with a period of economic contraction, provoked a low- intensity state crisis in Brazil. In other words, widespread corruption undermined the legitimacy of established political institutions, while economic contraction revealed the weak performance of the state in providing basic services like public safety.

This being the case, the political arena was propitious for the emergence of an external candidate with a strong anti-establishment position; however, as a feature of Brazil’s party system, an anti-establishment candidate was actually able to arise from within the system itself. Having served as a federal deputy in Brazil for more than three decades, Jair Bolsonaro was not an “outsider,” but neither was he an “insider,” despite his long party militancy in a small conservative party.12 In any case, Bolsonaro was a maverick working inside this so-called cartel of parties in Brazil. But, still, how did such a marginal figure within Brazil’s political party system become a strong candidate? Considering that the principal established political forces —both the opposition and the government— represented options from the center in political-ideological terms, Bolsonaro’s extreme political positions were seen as “a virtue” by a significant group of discontent citizens. Why? There was no doubt that his extreme ideological positions had prevented him from participating in the coalitions that governed Brazil during the two previous decades; therefore Bolsonaro was able to portray himself to the public as an unpolluted political figure. In sum, the growing public frustration with the Brazilian cartel of parties led many citizens to search for candidates on the margins of the party system; but the only ones readily available were those with extreme ideological positions.

If what has been said is true, then why was a right-wing and not a left-wing radical elected? The answer can be given considering the hegemony of the PT on the left. Indeed, it is clear that extreme options on left were non-existent; the PT, in its little more than ten years in power had absorbed or moderated such parties. Additionally, there was not a significant amount of free space open to leftist sympathizers for new political options since the PT hegemonically channeled the citizen preferences on the left, especially in northeastern Brazil. However, since no center-right party had been able to consolidate reliable sources of electoral support, the growth potential across the spectrum on the right was enormous; and the parties that did exist were utterly discredited.13 

Furthermore, Bolsonaro correctly perceived that his electoral support relied not only on his “anti-petismo,” (that is to say: anti-PT) but also on his anti-establishment speech.14 In addition, because of the overwhelming lead that he developed in the first round of voting (46,6% of  voters), he targeted his campaign at specific sectors or social groups (evangelicals, rural population, etc.) and not at significant political parties. Seeking the support of or forging an alliance with an established party – and therefore moderating his anti-establishment political posture— before a runoff election would have been a grave mistake on the part of Bolsonaro; in other words, a political maneuver that would have been interpreted by many in Brazil as an undesirable pact with the cartel of parties in power.

In summary, Bolsonaro’s victory has called into question some recent interpretations on the success of political minority presidents. In the case of Brazil, political stability relied on a type of cartel of parties in which incentives came not only from the state (cabinet positions or public funds) but also from the private sector (bribes, extra payments, etc.). Indeed, this reality forces us to rethink about whether there may be other institutional solutions to the consequences of this challenging combination: presidentialism plus a multi-party system. Additionally, extrapolating from the Brazilian case, one could assume that outsiders and mavericks have a similar origin: an ineffective state. Paradoxically, it doesn’t matter if the extreme ideological positions are on the right or the left —that would depend on the political configuration of each society— because both (radicals on the right or the left) share a critique of the incapacity of state to resolve the most prominent social problems of their societies (inequality, poverty, insecurity, etc.). The only difference would be that outsiders emerge more often in a weak institutionalized party system, while the mavericks frequently appear in a party system unevenly institutionalized but whose main parties look to ensure their privileged positions.

Guest post, Gerson Julcarima Alvarez, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Canada.

ENDNOTES

1 I thank Prof. Alan Siaroff for his comments on a previous version of this article.

Between 1994 and 2014 Brazil only had three finance ministers and with the victory of Dilma Roussef Brazil became the first country in Latin America where three presidents were successively re-elected.

3 In the last six Brazilian elections, two parties (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT and the right-center Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira- PSDB) reached between 70 and 90% of the presidential votes in the first run-off elections. However, in the Lower House, their joint vote was between 26 and 38%. See in this respect: Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power, eds. (2017), Democratic Brazil Divided, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, p.10; Scott Mainwaring, Timothy J. Power, and Fernando Bizzarro (2018), “The Uneven Institutionalization of a Party System: Brazil” in Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse, ed. Scott Mainwaring, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.174-75.

4 Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (2018), Democracy and the Cartelization of Political Parties, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.134-38.

5 The state crisis is the combination of a deficit of public services and a loss of citizen legitimacy towards political institutions. See: Samuel Handlin (20147), State Crisis in Fragile Democracies: Polarization and Political Regimes in South America, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 5-6.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 182.

8 Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor (2018), “Brazil: The Costs of Multiparty Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, no. 2, p. 115.

9 Political party created in 2013 from the merger of two left-parties: Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) and Partido da Mobilização Nacional (PMN).

10 Cynthia McClintock (2018), Electoral Rules and Democracy in Latin America, Oxford: Oxford  University Press, pp. 47-55; Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 192.

11 Katz and Mair, pp. 144-45.

12 Wendy Hunter and Timothy J. Power (2019), “Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Illiberal Backlash,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 1, p. 75.

13 Kingstone and Power, p. 13; David J. Samuels and Cesar Zucco (2018), Partisans, Antipartisans, and Nonpartisans: Voting Behavior in Brazil, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-39.

14 Hunter and Power, p. 80; Samuels and Zucco, pp. 48-49.

Kyrgyzstan Weakens Legal and Social Guarantees for Ex-Presidents amid Continuing Confrontation Between the Current and Former President

My previous post for this blog illustrated that approximately half of the post-Soviet states modeled their laws on immunity for ex-presidents on Russian legislation, which was put in place at the very end of 1999 when Boris Yeltsin transferred power to Vladimir Putin.[1]  In some cases, post-communist states copied provisions from the Russian Federation law word-for-word, a phenomenon known as diffusion by imitation.  In an important related study, whose results were just announced, Edward Lemon has discovered that “[a] whopping 79% of Kyrgyzstan’s and 56% of Tajikistan’s laws [on extremism] are identical to the Russian law (compared with 4% for Kazakhstan, 5% for Uzbekistan).”[2]  As Lemon’s work suggests, given the availability of software that makes it easy to do textual comparison, we are in a position to rigorously test the extent to which the Russian Federation has managed to shape the “legal space” in the Soviet successor states, especially in those countries that lie within what President Medvedev referred to in 2008 as Russia’s sphere of privileged interests.  

Comparing legislative practice allows us to assess not only the extent of policy diffusion but also the robustness of Soviet-era legacies.  My last post noted that Moscow’s role as law-giver was reminiscent of traditions from the Soviet-era, when a model law developed in the center served as a template for legislation in the 15 union republics.  When asked this month to justify Kyrgyzstan’s “plagiarizing” of Russia’s laws on extremism, Karima Amankulova, a spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, offered the following explanation.

“What some call plagiarism, others would label the unification of legislation.  The member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States develop model legislation and then countries may decide which norms they wish to implement [adopt as legislation].”[3]

Given Russia’s political prominence in the region and the depth of its technical expertise in legislative drafting, there is little doubt that Moscow still takes the lead in shaping model legislation.  The power of legacies and diffusion has its limits, however.  In the case of Kyrgyzstan, last year’s dramatic falling out between former President Almazbek Atambaev and his designated successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, led those in power in Kyrgyzstan to embrace some Russian-inspired norms on protections for ex-presidents while advancing others that diverge from the model established in Moscow. 

Following the arrest last year of Atambaev loyalists and calls for the prosecution of Atambaev himself—in part for his alleged involvement in fraudulent activities associated with the renovation of Bishkek’s heat and power generating plant—opponents of the former president launched efforts to strip all Kyrgyzstani ex-presidents of immunity from prosecution.[4]  These efforts took the form of parallel assaults in judicial and legislative institutions on the protections enjoyed by ex-presidents.  A lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber resulted in an October 2018 decision that invalidated what the court concluded was a blanket immunity granted to former presidents.[5]  The court accepted the need for limited immunity as a means of protecting ex-presidents from baseless investigations, and at the same time it insisted that any procedures put in place to overcome immunity guarantees for ex-presidents “should be no less complex than those employed in impeachment proceedings for a sitting president…”[6]  The Constitutional Chamber also took the highly unusual step of instructing the country’s Minister of Justice and parliament to enact a corresponding statute.[7]   

Prior to the issuance of the Constitutional Chamber’s decision, a group of parliamentary deputies had submitted a bill removing all protections from criminal prosecution for former presidents.[8]   In the view of these deputies, as well as the complainant in the case before the Constitutional Chamber, ex-presidents should be on the same legal footing as ordinary citizens.  This bill passed its first reading in December 2018, but amendments adopted during the second reading introduced two critical changes to the legislation.  The first, which accords with the language of the Constitutional Chamber ruling, permits the removal of immunity from criminal prosecution for ex-presidents only if (1) the Procurator-General issues an accusation of wrongdoing [obvinenie] in connection with the commission of a grave crime [tiazhkoe prestuplenie] and (2) the parliament votes to strip the former president of immunity by a two-thirds majority.[9] These provisions brought the Kyrgyzstani law into close conformity with Russian legislation on the subject.[10]     

The second revision, however, departed decisively from Russian practice.  It denied ex-presidents the traditional package of publicly-funded social and financial benefits, including medical care, housing, a salary, and free transportation, if he or she chose to remain active in politics or return to government service.  In other words, the revised legislation sought to encourage future ex-presidents to pursue the kind of quiet, apolitical retirement that President Atambaev claimed he would enjoy upon leaving the presidency.

On April 4, 2019, Kyrgyzstan’s 120-member parliament passed the law with the above revisions by a vote of 111 to 4.  Among the four no votes were sponsors of the legislation, for whom the amendments introduced in the second reading afforded legal protections for ex-presidents that they believed were excessively generous.   Notwithstanding the misgivings of these deputies, President Jeenbekov signed the bill into law on May 16, and in so doing limited the protections that he himself would enjoy on leaving office in 2023, at the end of his single, six-year term.[11] 

Numerous commentators have argued that because the Kyrgyzstani Constitution prohibits the application of laws retroactively if they impose new obligations or additional responsibility [otiagchaiushchaia otvetstvennost’] on citizens, the first ex-president to whom the new legislation would apply is the incumbent, President Jeenbekov.  In this reading, former presidents Otunbaeva and Atambaev would continue to enjoy the full range of protections from criminal investigation and prosecution contained in the laws in force when they left the presidency.[12]  However, in an effort to extend the reach of the law to Otunbaeva and Atambaev, deputies included a provision in the legislation which insisted that the new rules would apply to any actions committed by a president since 2007—a provision that will surely provoke a challenge in the Constitutional Chamber.[13] 

By weakening immunity from prosecution for ex-presidents, Kyrgyzstan has not only aligned itself more tightly with the Russian model on criminal responsibility for former leaders, it has also moved the country closer to the norms championed by Western-oriented organizations such as the Venice Convention of the Council of Europe and the OECD.  Both of these organizations have advised post-communist countries against introducing broadly-worded immunity for politicians because it encourages corruption.[14]  Paradoxically, one of the most robust defenses of the values espoused by the Venice Convention and the OECD was made by Almazbek Atambaev in 2011.  In his words:

“It’s going to be hard to establish order in Kyrgyzstan unless we can show that there aren’t untouchables, and there will no longer be untouchables in Kyrgyzstan.  And that includes the president himself.  If I’m somehow involved in something I am prepared to be held to account.  I don’t need any immunity.”[15]

Former President Atambaev may be rueing these words today.     

In closing, it’s worth repeating that the leverage and linkages enjoyed by centers of geopolitical power have their limits as explanations of policy diffusion.  The recent legislative changes regarding immunity for ex-presidents in Kyrgyzstan appear to draw their primary inspiration not from Moscow or Paris or Washington but from mundane maneuvers in a domestic political game, a game in which a sitting president and his allies have been under assault for more than a year by a former president who is also their erstwhile patron.  If there is one broader lesson to be taken from the specifics of the Kyrgyzstani case, it is that protections for ex-presidents are only viable when former leaders observe reasonable political restraint in their presidential afterlife. 


[1] “Post-Communist Countries: Policy Diffusion relating to Immunity from Prosecution for Ex-Presidents.”  http://presidential-power.com/?p=9483

[2] https://twitter.com/EdwardLemon3/status/1125427216739966983

[3] AzattyqTV, May 9, 2019, at 9:20 mark.  https://rus.azattyq.org/a/nastoyaschee-vremya-azia-8-maya/29930014.html

[4] The investigation into wrongdoing in the repair of the power plant appeared to trigger the initiatives for stripping Atambaev and all ex-presidents of immunity, though Atambaev has been subject to calls for his prosecution for numerous scandals dating to his time in office, including the release of a powerful ethnic Chechen criminal kingpin, Aziz Batukaev. 

[5] Whereas sitting presidents are subject to impeachment in Kyrgyzstan, ex-presidents are not, and therefore because they were immune from both judicial and legislative responsibility, former presidents have arguably been in a more impregnable legal position than presidents.  In this regard, Kyrgyzstan has for some time differed from Russia, where, as noted below, ex-presidents have been subject to prosecution if certain procedural hurdles are overcome.

[6] Reshenie Konstitutsionnoi palaty Verkhovnogo Suda Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki, 3 oktiabria 2018 goda 06-r.  http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/preview/ru-ru/9748/10?mode=tekst

[7] Some deputies insisted that the Constitutional Chamber exceeded its authority in giving these instructions to executive and legislative institutions.  See, for example, Bakyt Asanov, “Neprikosnovennost’ eks-prezidenta.  Chem reshenie suda vozmutilo ZhK,” Radio Azattyk, April 10, 2019.  https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan-ex-president-parliament/29664302.html

[8] The bill was in fact a set of revisions to The Law on the Activity of the President, O garantiiakh deiatel’nosti Prezidenta Kyrgyzskoi respubliki, ot 18 iiulia 2003 no. 152.  http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/1278

[9] Zhazgul’ Egemberdieva, “’Instrument protiv Atambaeva.’ Kak budet rabotat’ zakon o lishenii eks-prezidenta Kyrgyzstana neprikosnovennosti,” Nastoiashchee vremia, April 5, 2019. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/ex-president-kyrgyzstan/29863858.html

[10] In the Russian case, criminal cases against ex-presidents are initiated by the Head of the Criminal Investigative Commission rather than the Procurator-General, and only a majority of votes in each of the country’s two legislative chambers is needed rather than two-thirds approval.

[11] The Kyrgyzstani Constitution gives presidents 30 days to sign a law once it has been transmitted from the legislature.  For reasons that are unclear, in recent months President Jeenbekov has taken from 20 to 27 days to give his assent to legislation; in this case, he signed the bill into law on the 29th day. 

[12] Ekaterina Ulitina, “Podpishet li Zheenbekov zakon o lishenii eks-prezidentov neprikosnovennosti?” Vechernyi Bishkek, April 5, 2019.  https://www.vb.kg/doc/377646_podpishet_li_jeenbekov_zakon_o_lishenii_eks_prezidentov_neprikosnovennosti.html; Aidai Erkebaeva, “Pochemu lishenie neprikosnovennosti eks-prezidentov ne pomozhet privlech’ Atambaeva k otvetstvennosti,” Kloop, May 23, 2018.  https://kloop.kg/blog/2018/05/23/pochemu-lishenie-neprikosnovennosti-eks-prezidentov-ne-pomozhet-privlech-atambaeva-k-otvetstvennosti/  Among those disagreeing with this interpretation is the current head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Damir Sagynbaev, who insists that if Atambaev lost immunity he could be brought to justice.  According to Sagynbaev, “If there’s evidence, we’ll open a case.”  “Na Atambaeva mogut vozbudit’ delo, esli ego lishat immuniteta,–Sovbez,” Sputnik, 7 February 2019.  https://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20190207/1043226413/atambaev-delo-immunitet-sovbez.html  

[13] Emil’ Sultanaliev, “Parlament okonchatel’no odobril zakonoproekt o sniatii neprikosnovennosti s eks-prezidenta,” Kloop, April 4, 2019.  https://kloop.kg/blog/2019/04/04/parlament-okonchatelno-odobril-zakonoproekt-o-snyatii-neprikosnovennosti-s-eks-prezidenta/ Curiously, although the Constitution in place before 2007 granted immunity to presidents, since that time immunity provisions have only appeared in the Law on the Activity of the President and not in the Constitution itself. Adding an additional wrinkle to the uncertainty about the impact of the new law are revisions to the country’s Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that came into effect in January of this year.  Article 478, paragraph 4 of the amended CPC, which was adopted well before the Constitutional Chamber decision or the new law on immunity, places the decision on bringing an ex-president to justice in the hands of the country’s Procurator-General.

[14] Kyrgyzstan (Promezhutochnyi doklad) [March 2019], Chetvertyj raund monitoring Stambul’skogo plana deistvii po bor’be s korruptsiei.  OECD,  Set’ po bor’be s korruptsiei dlia Vostochnoi Evropy I Tsentral’noi Azii.  www.oecd.org/corruption/acn ; Zakliuchenie po proektu Konstitutsii Kyrgyzskoji Respubliki, Zakliuchenie No 582/2010, 8 iiuniia 2010 g.  Evropeiskaia komissiia za demokratiiu cherez pravo (Venetsianskaia komissiia).  https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2010)015-rus

[15] Kubanychbek Zholdoshev, “Nuzhna li eks-prezidentam neprikosnovennost’?” Radio Azattyk, March 1, 2019.  https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan-pravo-neprikosnovennost-ex-prezidentov/29184972.html  Iskhak Masaliev, a sponsor of the 2018 bill amending the immunity provisions, noted that there were efforts from 2011 to 2014 to strip ex-presidents of immunity from prosecution, but none was successful.  Kybanychbek Zholdoshev, “100 golosov ‘za’. Kogo iz eks-prezidentov mogut lishit’ neprikosnovennost’,” Radio Azattyk, December 14, 2018. https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_ex-president_neprikosnovennost/29655573.html  Curiously, although the Constitution in place before 2007 granted immunity to presidents, since that time immunity provisions have only appeared in the Law on the Activity of the President and not in the Constitution itself.

Negotiations continue on what will replace the al-Bashir regime in Sudan

In the end, the fall of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir seemed to come quickly, with rumours circulating on the morning of 11th April that a debate was underway within the state security services and the military about how it would be handled – and who would replace him. He was gone by that evening, after almost 30 years in power. But the dramatic events came after months of protests, which began in December over food price increases and quickly turned into a demand for his regime to go. They continued despite a harsh crackdown in which scores of demonstrators were shot dead by state forces, including medics. It is hard to overstate the importance of these events, even though it’s not yet certain that fundamental and lasting change will happen, or whether some factions in the security forces will manage to hold on to the real power.

The background to the demonstrations is explained in a previous blog post on this site, and the regime itself is also analysed here. The organisers remained relatively united and channelled the anger felt by many ordinary people. At a certain point, it seems that many lost their fear of the regime, felt that there was a realistic chance of change, or were simply prepared to risk sacrificing their lives. Eventually a demonstration outside the national military headquarters in Khartoum on 6th April became a round-the-clock affair, and then a remarkable thing happened: soldiers were seen on the streets supporting the protesters. The various elements and ranks of state security apparatus, which Omar al-Bashir had managed so skilfully over the years, were clearly at odds with each other. On a number of occasions, soldiers returned fire on units of the state security which turned up and shot at the protesters. Several soldiers lost their lives. The future of the country was no longer being decided on the streets, but now also through a struggle within the security services.

On 11th April, it was clear that a coup had taken place. Later in the day the country’s First Vice President, Lt Gen Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced that he was in control. The constitution was suspended and there would be a two-year transition period. However the protesters outside the headquarter in Khartoum remained determined, knowing that Auf was not only the defence minister but also a key figure in the old regime. He was replaced the following evening by another military officer, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, who is seen as more open to the protesters’ demands, and had in fact met with them in the previous days. There were scenes of joy, as soldiers and demonstrators mingled outside the headquarters.

Transition process underway

Power is currently held by the Transitional Military Council, under al-Burhan, while negotiations on a transition continue with an alliance of opposition groups. These talks were continuing as this piece went online. The opposition is grouped under an umbrella body, the alliance of the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”. Agreement apparently reached so far included a three-year transition period, with a parliament whose 300 members would be appointed rather than directly elected. Two thirds of the members would come from the Freedom and Change group. A cabinet of technocrats would be nominated by the opposition groups, however a “Sovereignty Council” would also have real powers, and be made up of both military and civilian representatives.

As a sign of ongoing tensions within elements of former regime as the talks continued, protesters continuing the sit-in outside the military headquarters were attacked on 13th May by unidentified elements wearing uniforms of one of the state security services. Five civilians and one army officer were killed. The Council later announced the arrest of those responsible, who it described as infiltrators. Meanwhile, the Popular Congress Party, which held power under al-Bashir, is unhappy with the power-sharing arrangements, in which they would apparently have little say.

There is some international pressure on the Transitional Military Council to finalise a handover of power, from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the EU. The AU’s Peace and Security Council called at the end of April for the transition to civilian rule to be completed within 60 days. However both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the Council, with an offer of $3 billion in budget support and aid.

The fate of the detained former President al-Bashir is a key question for whatever political order replaces his authoritarian regime. An indictment for genocide and other crimes in Darfur still hangs over him, despite which he managed to travel internationally as president without any attempt to arrest him. His fate is more likely to be decided within Sudan, however, although it is far from certain what will happen. Having been held initially in what the military called a “safe place”, he was later moved to the notorious Kobar prison in Khartoum, where so political opponents suffered at the hands of his regime. He has now been charged in relation to the deaths of protesters during the four months of demonstrations since December which ended his 30-year rule.

The resilience of different elements of the former regime is not to be underestimated – but neither is the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the civil groups staging these protests, along with a well-educated and mobilised diaspora. Whoever is control, the severe economic problems facing Sudan which prompted the protests last December, along with the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan, will be a significant challenge. But it is clear that things will never be quite the same.

The Philippines – The Stakes for Mid-term Elections 2019

Mid-term elections in the Philippines were held May 13, 2019. Voter turnout is estimated at 72 percent of the 63.6 million eligible voters in the country. Final results have yet to be announced. Initial results show four of the 12 Senate seats going to candidates from the President’s Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) party, but others affiliated with the President may mean majority support of the Senate for the President. The stakes are high: the lack of democratic checks and balances in the country may mean further setbacks to human rights, civil liberties, and political developments in the country. I discuss the elections and what the results may mean for the Philippines in the following.

The election season officially kicked off with campaigning for senate seats and party-list representatives on February 12, 2019. Presidential elections are held every six years in the country; midterm elections, then, see half of the 24-member Senate seats contested every three years in nation-wide elections, while the entire House of Representatives is up for elections. In 2018, 291 total Congressional members are listed in the House of Representatives, so that the 2019 elections will see 243 directly elected seats and 59 party-list seats. All 81 provinces will elect their respective governors, vice-governors, and provincial board members, as will the 1634 cities and municipalities, where mayors, vice-mayors, and 13,540 city and municipality councillors will be put into office following election day. While mid-term elections generally see lower turnouts, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) expected a record turnout of 63 million voters, a 5 percent increase from the 58 million in the 2016 general elections, based on voter registration, and this has come to pass. President Duterte entered office pledging to implement several controversial policies, including reimposing the death penalty, a literal drug-war, and constitutional change. It is, therefore, useful to consider key issues at stake with the President’s agenda, namely, human rights and civil liberties, and democratic checks and balances.

President Duterte’s Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) successfully elected only three representatives into the House of Representatives in general elections 2016. However, in the weeks following elections, Congressional members either jumped ship to join the President-elect’s PDP-Laban, or aligned themselves with the President, so that the President has enjoyed a super-majority in Congress since the beginning of his tenure. With a supermajority in Congress and high approval ratings, only the Senate and the judiciary may stand in the way of the President’s agenda. Thus far, the House has been true to form in advocating the President’s agenda: for instance, the House passed a legislation to bring back the death penalty in March, 2017; it even developed a draft of constitutional changes to push forward the President’s constitutional agenda that passed a second reading in December 2018. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has failed to check against the president: for instance, despite four separate petitions challenging the constitutionality of the extension of military rule in Mindanao, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the President’s imposition of martial law on the island. Perhaps more egregiously, Supreme Court Justices voted in May 2018 to oust its Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a vocal critic of the President, following the President’s campaign against the Chief Justice; by an 8-6 vote, Chief Justice Sereno’s appointment was invalidated.

This leaves the Senate as the remaining institution to check the President’s agenda and how his use of executive powers to pursue it, including his push for constitutional changes. Thus far, the Senate has done so: it has not passed legislation relating to the death penalty, and has also refused to consider the House’s version of constitutional changes. Indeed, the Senate launched an investigation into the President’s war on drugs. However, senate critics of the President – like other critics of the President – have been persecuted. For instance, President Duterte charged Senator Leila de Lima – who was then chairing an investigation into vigilante drug killings – with links to drug lords; the senator has been detained since February 2017. In September 2018, another staunch critic of the President’s drug war, Senator Antonio Trillanes, was arrested following the President’s order and revocation of an amnesty that the senator received in 2011. The senator remains free on bail but the perils of being a critic of President Duterte are unambiguous.

Much, then, is at stake, not the least of which seems to be the remaining vestige of democratic accountability in the country. The Presidency in the Philippines is term-limited to one six-year term; if constitutional change progresses in line with President Duterte’s agenda, he may be able to extend his stay in office. The President has repeatedly disavowed any intention to do so, to motivate support for the constitutional change. Still, the different drafts of the constitutional changes contain provisions that are considered highly controversial, which would expand Duterte’s powers even if he did not inhabit the office of the President.[i]

Results are expected for city and municipal elective offices within three days of elections, between May 13 to May 16, 2019, while the results for the higher offices are expected to be announced between May 17-19, 2019. Undoubtedly, many will be watching these results intently.


[i] Yap, O. Fiona. November 9, 2018. “The Philippines – The Road (Blocks) to Constitutional Changes”

Ukraine – Volodymyr Zelenskiy wins the presidency

On April 21, Ukraine held the second round of the presidential election. Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the election with 73.22% of the vote securing an overwhelming victory across almost all (but one) regions in the country. A preliminary assessment of the election observers declared the election “genuinely competitive” with voting, counting, and tabulation conducted in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, which is a significant achievement.

The incumbent president graciously accepted defeat and congratulated the winner. However, Poroshenko also announced his intention to stay in politics: “I am leaving office, but I want to make it clear that I am not leaving politics,” he wrote on Twitter.  What is ahead for the former President? This may depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in the end of this year and particularly the success of his party, Bloc Petro Poroshenko.

Given that Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential system, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be even more important for the president-elect. In particular, this ability to form a large, stable coalition in the new legislature will be crucial.  Failure to do so can jeopardize his reform agenda and his ability to govern effectively.

That said, the president-elect sounded committed in the aftermath of his victory, announcing “I promise I won’t mess up” and “I will not let you down.” These are the promises he will need to keep as the Ukrainian voters have shown for the past decade that they do not take broken promises lightly. Given that not much is known about his policies and plans for the presidency, many questions remain. Corruption has been one of the main problems in Ukraine and something that the voters seem to have held the president accountable for.

According to a poll conducted by RATING in April 2019, 83% of the respondents said that the country needs radical changes and 48% expected improvements as a result of the presidential election. Even though it is clear that the country is ready for radical changes, it is important to remember the difficulty of the situation that the new president will face – struggling economy, low trust, on-going war with Russia, and very high expectations.

Presidential power, consistency in constitutional design and its effect on democracy

This blog post summarizes some of the key findings from my article “Consistency in Constitutional Design and its Effect on Democracy” recently published in Democratization. In this article, I first ask whether the art of crafting and amending a constitution leads to a consistency among constitutional provisions. And second, if that is so, what effect has this consistency on a country’s democratic performance? Drawing from theoretical claims on the separation of power and electoral legitimacy, I develop a concept that identifies the institutional characteristics of consistency and inconsistency in the constitutional design with the example of the presidency and test its effect on the quality and level of democracy.[1]

The Idea

Research has provided us with substantive evidence that more presidential powers are associated with poorer democratic performance. But we also know of the problems of a causal argument because of the endogeneity of power (Cheibub 2007). Considering this, scholars have in recent years pushed the discussion in different directions, most importantly towards the advantages and disadvantages of individual constitutional provisions and their interaction when it comes to the power of the president (for example ,Elgie and Schleiter 2011; Sedelius and Linde 2018). Combined with the observation that the internal coherence of the classic categorizations of presidentialism, parliamentarism, and semi-presidentialism is not as strong as has been long assumed (Cheibub, Elkins, and Ginsburg 2014), I argue in this article that a new approach to understanding the mechanisms behind institutional effects on the quality of democracy is necessary.

Hence, I utilize a concept of consistency and inconsistency in the constitutional design of the presidency to assess institutional balances and effects. Constitutional designs usually combine ideas from different constitutional logics and sometimes also legal traditions. They rarely develop carefully mixed and matched institutions. Rather, constitutional designers go to a constitutional grab bag and often create a Frankenstein constitution with – presumably – very little attention to how different parts of the constitution might interact. The reasons to do so range from power considerations to historical legacies but can also be “caused by a polity’s commitment to apparently conflicting values” (Hirschl 2009, 1349). This grab bag is not necessarily a bad thing: Jacobsohn (2010, 16) for example stresses that “disharmony” in constitutional design can be a valued asset in the necessary process of renegotiation and recalibration. His idea is that inconsistency and disharmony in these designs may be more helpful in the democratic development of countries than harmonious or consistent constitutional solutions. This also informs the main hypothesis in which I assume that inconsistency benefits the level and quality of democracy.

Consistency and Inconsistency

But what is consistency in constitutional design? To develop a concept of consistency/inconsistency and assess its importance and impact on democracy, I focus on a core element of constitution making: the interaction of the way a president is elected and his/her constitutional power. This core element is often contested but is also central in nearly every modern republican constitution. This idea of consistency and inconsistency between election and power of the president touches upon two core principles of democratic government: the balance of power and the legitimacy of the presidency. Within the logic of checks and balances, a direct presidential election should be counterbalanced by a limited amount of power. But arguing in the logic of presidential legitimacy, a consistent constitutional design emphasizes the alignment of legitimacy and de jure power, and an inconsistent design reveals the counterbalance of legitimacy and de jure power. I follow the latter, relying on the rationale that a consistent constitutional design will align the way the president is elected with a coherent amount of de jure power. Hence, a constitutional design is defined as consistent when the introduction or abolition of the president’s direct election comes in tandem with matching constitutional powers or allows for an adaptation to the pre-existing order in a coherent way. Conversely, I define an inconsistent constitutional design (and amendment) when it counterbalances the mode of election with diametrically opposite powers.

Empirics

In order to empirically test my theoretical expectations, I focus on parliamentary and semi-presidential systems because the varying degree of the dual authority of a prime minister and a president. I rely on a new data set of the 79 republican countries that have experienced parliamentarism or semi-presidentialism at some point in their history since 1918 (Cheibub, Martin, and Rasch 2015; Elgie 2018). The constitutions and constitutional amendments analyzed in this study can be found in the repository of the Comparative Constitutions Project (Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton 2009).

Based on these data, we see that consistency in the constitutional design of the presidency is more frequent in parliamentary and semi-presidential republics. Also, to no one’s surprise, direct presidential elections mostly result in an accompanying higher level of constitutional power: Constitution-makers obviously consider the legitimacy of the direct presidential election and honor it by bestowing more de jure power.[2]

Depending on the measure I use to quantify the quality and level of democracy, the effect of a consistent constitutional design varies. But the results show that a consistent design of the presidency is not supportive to democracy but suggest that inconsistency is beneficial. The inconsistency of constitutional design, a directly-elected president with only little power or an indirectly-elected president with a constitutionally powerful position, explains a higher quality of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and horizontal accountability. As one could expect, we see the strongest positive influence of inconsistent constitutional design on horizontal accountability as measured by V-Dem (Coppedge et al. 2017).

Table 1. Effect of consistent constitutional design on horizontal accountability (GLS regression with random effects).

Source: Fruhstorfer, Anna. “Consistency in constitutional design and its effect on democracy.” Democratization (2019), Online First. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1590815.

This supports the assumption that a consistent design of the presidency creates either a president that is too strong or too weak and thus threatens the equilibrium between the core political institutions. Consistency and inconsistency are, an equally strong (in the case of the V-Dem measure an even stronger) explanation for the quality of democracy as the governmental type (parliamentary/premier-presidential/president-parliamentary system). Yet, as mentioned earlier, constitutional design is never picked in an absolute vacuum and the obvious endogeneity of this argument has to be taken seriously. But, the finding that constitutions that counterbalance the power and the election of the presidency are beneficial to the quality of democracy has major implications for the role of institutional design and the question of best institutional solution in democratization and democratic consolidation.

References

Cheibub, José A., Zachary Elkins, and Tom Ginsburg. 2014. “Beyond Presidentialism and Parliamentarism.British Journal of Political Science 44 (03): 515–44.

Cheibub, José A. 2007. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy: Cambridge University Press.

Cheibub, José A., Shane Martin, and Bjørn E. Rasch. 2015. “Government Selection and Executive Powers: Constitutional Design in Parliamentary Democracies.” West European Politics 38 (5): 969–96.

Coppedge, Michael, John Gerring, Staffan I. Lindberg, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jan Teorell, David Altman, Michael Bernhard, M. Steven Fish, Adam Glynn, Allen Hicken, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Joshua Krusell, Anna Lührmann, Kyle L. Marquardt, Kelly McMann, Valeriya Mechkova, Moa Olin, Pamela Paxton, Daniel Pemstein, Josefine Pernes, Constanza Sanhueza Petrarca, Johannes von Römer, Laura Saxer, Brigitte Seim, Rachel Sigman, Jeffrey Staton, Natalia Stepanova, and Steven Wilson. 2017. “V-Dem Dataset V7.1.”.

Elgie, Robert. 2018. “The Semi-Presidential One Blog.” Accessed May 01, 2010.

Elgie, Robert, and Petra Schleiter. 2011. “Variation in the Durability of Semi-Presidential Democracies.” In Semi-Presidentialism and Democracy, edited by Robert Elgie, Sophia Moestrup, and Yu-Shan Wu, 42–61. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. “The Comparative Constitutions Project: a Cross-National Historical Dataset of Written Constitutions.” Accessed February 22, 2013. http://www.comparativeconstitutionsproject.org/.

———. 2009. The Endurance of National Constitutions. Cambridge. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Hirschl, Ran. 2009. “The’Design Sciences’ and Constitutional Success.” Texas Law Review 87: 1339–74.

Jacobsohn, Gary J. 2010. Constitutional identity: Harvard University Press.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Jonas Linde. 2018. “Unravelling semi-presidentialism: Democracy and government performance in four distinct regime types.” Democratisation 25 (1): 136–57.

Shugart, Matthew S., and John Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies. Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press.


[1] The article also includes two important case studies on the inconsistent constitutional amendment in Czech Republic and the consistency of the constitutional design in Moldova that will not be discussed in detail here.

[2] In order to study the consistency of the constitutional design of the presidency, I rely on an original dataset of constitutional presidential power, which is measured with a revised and updated version of the measurement index (Shugart and Carey 1992). Based on this, I use the mean of de jure power, i.e., 23 points, as threshold for the distribution of power. An inconsistent design interlocks an indirectly-elected president with a score that exceeds the mean of de jure power (e.g., in Bangladesh) or a directly-elected president with a score that is below the mean of de jure power (e.g., in Czech Republic post- 2012). Conversely, a consistent constitutional design gives a directly-elected president a more than mean level of de jure power, and an indirectly elected president less than the mean level of de jure power.

Lithuania – Presidential Election Campaign to Reach the Finish

This weekend, on May 12th, Lithuanians will be electing their new president for the next 5 years. Presidential elections campaign, that some experts initially named “boring”, “indistinct”, and “without strategy”, currently is in full swing: from announcing the decision to run for a president in remote village to leaving the national debates in TV studio in a protest, presidential candidates reveal  a wide spectrum of possible choices for Lithuanians. However, it does not seem that the presidential elections of 2019 would transform Lithuania’s foreign policy: policy domain that is an prerogative of the president.

The final official list has 9 candidates: Arvydas Juozaitis, a writer, philosopher, one of the leaders of Sąjūdis (Independence from the USSR movement, established in 1987);  Gitanas Nausėda, a former chief economist of SEB bank; Ingrida Šimonytė, a former Finance minister, the only female candidate, current member of the parliament; Mindaugas Puidokas, political scientist, current member of the Parliament; Naglis Puteikis, a historian, current member of the Parliament; Saulius Skvernelis, former chief of police, current Prime minister; Valdemaras Tomaševskis, Polish origin Lithuanian politician, member of the European Parliament; Valentinas Mazuronis, member of European Parliament; Vytenis Andriukaitis, a former Health minister, current EU  Commissioner  for Health and Food Safety. According to the law, a person can run for president if he/she is at least 40 years old Lithuanian born citizen and has lived in Lithuania for the last 3 years. Latest public polls (by Vilmorus, for instance) suggest that the three frontrunners who could pass to the second round on the 26th of May are: Ingrida Šimonytė (22.3%), Gitanas Nausėda (21.9%), and Saulius Skvernelis (16.7%).

The frontrunners for the office seem to be appealing to a different kind of electorate. Current Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis chose to announce the decision to run for the president 300 km away from Vilnius, in Rusnė that was one of his first places to visit once he was appointed a Prime minister in 2016. Analysts suggest that in such a way he showed the focus on the electorate in the regions. Moreover, domestic policy issues card is used quite a lot by Mr Skvernelis: he promised to raise pensions, support for young families, full energy independence. Meanwhile, Gitanas Nausėda who declared his candidacy at the newest library of the Vilnius University aimed to be associated with innovations, critical thinking, and new ideas if to believe his team. This newcomer to politics might become “a pig in a poke” which usually is very appealing to Lithuanian voters. Moreover, his candidacy was publicly supported by the former president Valdas Adamkus. Ingrida Šimonytė, who creates an impression of a pragmatic personality and ability to handle criticism well, once asked why she had chosen a rather simple location (the stairs at the Parliament) to announce her decision to run for the office, laconically answered: “Because here the lightning is better for you, journalists”. Endorsed by the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, she might appeal to those who support current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. According to polling agency “Baltijos tyrimai”, Saulius Skvernelis is popular among men, Gitanas Nausėda appeals to the middle-aged electorate, while Ingrida Šimonytė would be elected by women and young people.

Despite the fact that Lithuania’s Constitution grants the right to settle basic foreign policy issues to the president, foreign policy issues have remained on the margins of the presidential elections campaign. Some analysts named foreign policy programs of the main presidential candidates “same wine in new bottles”. Indeed,  there does not seem to be a great divide between the key foreign policy ideas of Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis when finish line is approaching: all the 3 candidates highlight the intention to maintain the pro-western foreign policy, based on membership in NATO and European Union.

The aforementioned candidates also display similar foreign policy ideas about Lithuania’s international partners. Once asked, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis claimed that they would choose Poland as a country for the first official visit if elected (a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus but interrupted by Dalia Grybauskaitė). The United States is perceived as one of the most important allies of Lithuania and is security guarantor expressing the need for Lithuania’s bigger contribution to security and proof of its worth. Saulius Skvernelis has gone even further claiming that in case of meeting with Donald Trump as Lithuanian president he would apologize United States for voting in the UN against the U.S. decision to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

However, during the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis made some controversial statements: he suggested turning Astravets nuclear power plant into the gas power plant (the idea was rejected by Belarus), named Latvia a competitor of Lithuania, and expressed support for the transfer of Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was not completely clear whether he suggested the aforementioned issues as a Prime Minister or as a presidential candidate. He was harshly criticized by the president Dalia Grybauskaitė as not following the basic principles of Lithuania’s foreign policy as a result.

Meanwhile, Ingrida Šimonytė points out that Lithuania should act as a solid partner in the international arena, making more contributions, being a better listener and taking into consideration the interests of its partners. Analysts claim that if this idea was transformed into foreign policy practice, Lithuanian foreign policy would stop resembling 1 issue (security from Russia) country.

Russia’s issue has not been a dividing factor between the frontrunners: Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis. In their foreign policy programs, they stress that there is no need for changes in Lithuanian-Russian relations. Saulius Skvernelis refers that Russia violated international law, Ingrida Šimonytė encourages to prepare foreign policy guidelines for future Russia; Gitanas Nausėda emphasizes the importance of value-based foreign policy. However, it is worth mentioning that less than 1,5 years ago S. Skvernelis suggested to significantly improve relations with Russia.

In terms of China, Ingrida Šimonytė demonstrates the most cautious position indicating the potential threats from this country in both economic and national security sectors; while Saulius Skvernelis encourages focusing on the pragmatic interests in this regard. Gitanas Nausėda claims that he does not see any risks from trade with China and expresses the need for a more active role of the president in creating business opportunities.

In other words, despite some disagreements of opinions, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis mostly support Lithuania’s status quo foreign policy. Even though candidates’ foreign policy positions do not seem to be intriguing, there is still a chance for a surprise in elections results: data suggest (“Baltijos tyrimai”) that 25-30% of Lithuanian voters are undecided until the last minute in presidential elections.

Posted on behalf of Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer, Vytautas Magnus University, by Fiona Yap

Portugal: is Marcelo “popularist”?

Last March 9, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa completed three years as President of Portugal. His tenure has been widely acclaimed among the population, and stirred some controversies in academic and some political circles. What is Marcelo’s imprint on the political landscape of the country?

Recent opinion polls suggest Marcelo has reached very high levels of popularity. Although with a slight tendency to decrease over the last year, Marcelo still commands some 70% of positive opinions among the population at large – restoring the popularity of presidents to the levels obtained by Mario Soares (who left office in 1996 with 70%) or Jorge Sampaio (who also terminated his term with more than 55%), in sharp contrast with Cavaco Silva who, in spite of having had high marks, ended his tenure with negative (-13%) ratings. Cavaco Silva’s poor showing dramatically reduced his capacity to interfere in the political arena, and this fact has been widely acknowledged. So, restoring popularity is normally seen in Portugal as a necessary means to enhance the capacity of presidents to have a significant word on a multitude of aspects of political life, regardless of the constitutional provisions that remain unchanged. To dispose of high rates of popularity is thus a goal of every president.

Marcelo originates from the centre-right wing of politics, but his rise to power was mostly achieved by means of personal qualities and less by virtue of his line-up with the leadership of the parties of his political family, as his predecessor had done. His atitude towards the government issued from the 2015 elections was radically different from that of Cavaco Silva or the leaders of PSD and CDS: he recognised it as legitimate due to the existence of a parliamentary majority that supported the prime minister, even though the Socialist Party had only scored the second place in the popular vote. Throughout these three years, Marcelo has maintained the same position, not challenging the legitimacy of the government. He could then benefit from the positive atmosphere generated around a government that also benefits from the esteem of the electorate, as seen by the local elections of 2017 and consistent opinion polls that grant the left-wing parties a comfortable majority.

On the other hand, Marcelo has made a point of surgically distancing himself from the government in some critical instances, always intent on asserting the lineage of a centre-right politician. To start with, he broke with the tradition that assigns presidents a visit to Spain as the first foreign trip of their terms in office, and preferred to fly to the Vatican to meet the Pope (the country is nominally Catholic but the state is laic). Several other symbolic initiatives were taken along similar lines. But the confrontation that many expected he would pursue was not systematic. More than this, it did not derive from the use of his constitutional powers. For instance: veto power. In this area, Marcelo only used his veto power on eight occasions, and in all of them he forfeited the possibility of having the bills appreciated by the Constitutional Court, which might have produced a constitutional veto which would then require a special majority to be overturned, and preferred to use a political veto that could be overturned by simple majority. They were, so to speak, “friendly vetoes” that could be accommodated by the prime minister. In fact, as a former professor of constitutional law, Marcelo has never called upon the Constitutional Court to help in the analysis of controversial bills.

The source of Marcelo’s influence, paradoxically, resides in his extra-constitutional powers – namely the power of the word. As a former pundit who entered every house on Sunday nights for long years, commenting on every aspect of public life, Marcelo envisages his presidency much in the same vein: he offers his view on whatever issue is on the news. This technique of mass communication tends to generate an effect of proximity with citizens (illustrated by the fact that he excels in taking selfies with whoever asks for), and thus his presidency has been termed “the presidency of affections”. The photo that illustrates this post bears testimony to the proximity of the president with the people at large.

The power of the word, exercised in full view of the public, is critical to understand Marcelo’s presidency. Contrary to convention that suggests presidents and prime ministers exchange views in private (as Cavaco Silva has recently reminded us in bitter terms), or that their views are expressed after some bill has been presented for promulgation, Marcelo has inaugurated a new figure: to offer his opinion (and suggest the sense of his action) before the bill is presented to him, as to preempt the possibility of a veto. Two important pieces of legislation illustrate the presidential influence. Back in 2016, the prime minister announced he wished to propose a bill referring to the direct election of metropolitan areas governance bodies – and the president said it was not a good idea. Although the measure was in PS electoral manifesto and the government’s programme accepted by parliament, the prime minister did not pursue this initiative. More recently, Marcelo made it public he wished the proposed new law on the Basis of the Health System (framing the existence of the National Health Service) to be approved by more than the left wing majority in the House, and went further as he suggested that he would veto the bill if it were to exclude the private sector from participating in the management of units of the National Health Service. He even expressed his support to a draft bill proposed by a former Health minister which did not garner support in the parliamentary majority. Although the presidential position evolved (as he must have realised this is a bill which needs only a simple majority and therefore it would be possible for the left majority to impose its view whatever it would be), PS was split by this initiative and the original project was withdrawn in order to accommodate the presidential views. These examples make it clear that the weight of the president’s word is enhanced (or diminished) by their popularity and their capacity to stay tuned to the main stream of public opinion, even though one may not posit that in every instance the president expresses majoritarian views.

We have so far established that Marcelo is a popular character in Portuguese politics. For some people, however, the price of popularity is a concession to populism. Does the president enjoy high levels of popularity because he opens the doors to populism, i.e., to a form of political criticism that downplays the role of constitutional institutions? Or, conversely, is the president’s popularity an antidote to the rise of populism in the country (as many suggest), being able to contain criticism within the boundaries of established institutions?

Marcelo has been a moderate critic of the government, not less because the prime minister enjoys the sympathy of the electorate. But he has been tough on various occasions. Perhaps the most dramatic intervention of the president is the one linked to the great fires of 2017, which represented a very clear failure of the government to act swiftly. Public opinion turned then against the government, and the president expressed their voice. As mentioned in a post in this blog published at the time, Marcelo both expressed the view that the minister of Home Affairs was no longer able to keep her position (the prime minister proposed to replace her the following day) and the government needed to have its legitimacy refresh in the House (CDS presented a rejection motion that did not pass). Again, a tough intervention through the use of the power of the word – not the decision to dismiss a minister or the prime minister. On another count, Marcelo has made it clear time and again that he regards as a democratic imperative that the opposition to the government be strong and offers real alternatives. The fragility of the right of centre parties at a time when polls indicate they are at a loss and strategically divided offers the president an important arena to have his voice heard. However, he never hinted he would intervene directly over the party system (as he remains a member of PSD, albeit with his militancy suspended)

However, the frontier between the intervention of a popular president and that of a populist leader tend to be fluid. For this reason, it has been suggested that Marcelo should be considered as a “popularist” – i.e. both popular and at times populist. If so, it would be adequate to acknowledge that Portugal has so far been spared the plague of extreme right wing populism. The thesis that the Iberian Peninsula would avoid those dangers to democracy due to the long and painful experience of 20th century authoritarian regimes (Salazar and Franco) seems to be at odds with the reality of the emerging Vox party in Spain, and so new ideas are required to explain why Portugal has so far avoided the contagion of what seems to be a powerful force in modern Europe. So far, we may consider that Marcelo’s popularity has been a factor in mitigating its impact. The next elections will be a test. Will Portugal pass the test?

What’s next for Ramaphosa as South Africa heads to the Polls?

Just 15 months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s new head of state following the long-awaited departure of President Jacob Zuma. Now on the 8th of May, South Africa will hold its 6th national and provincial elections, marking 25 years since the fall of apartheid. How will Ramaphosa fare, as the country battles a slow-burn economic crisis, an electricity sector meltdown and simmering discontent among all strata of society?

As noted previously in these pages, Jacob Zuma was removed in February 2018 to allow the ANC to revive their waning electoral legitimacy and clean up the party’s image in the wake of damaging scandals. After the party’s bruising loss of major municipalities in the 2016 local government elections and the decline of the ANC’s national tally to just 54%, most pundits predicted that the Zuma-effect would pull the ANC under the 50% threshold in 2019.

Enter Cyril Ramaphosa. Having served as Zuma’s deputy for the last four years of the Zuma presidency, the sceptics noted that he had said and done little as the scandals piled up and the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Zuma administration was intent on personalising the proceeds of the state for himself and his friends. But nonetheless, his ascendance as ANC and state president was greeted with hope and optimism, a welcome break from the deepening gloom that marked the end of the Zuma presidency.

This positive sentiment – dubbed ‘Ramaphoria’ – bolstered the currency, helped stave off a downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and left the middle class sleeping a little easier. But it wouldn’t last long. Before long it became clear that there was a fight-back from the Zuma camp, and that many of the worst leaders from his cabal had remained within the upper echelons of the party and state. Ramaphosa inherited defunct institutions, a vastly increased state debt burden and an electricity crisis prompted by corruption, mismanagement and rapid debt accumulation.

The battle of the pollsters

Polling has relatively consistently – and somewhat unsurprisingly – pointed to yet another victory for the ANC at the national level. An Ipsos poll conducted between March and April predicts a minor recovery for the ANC from the 2016 polls – suggesting a final tally of 61% for the ANC, 19% for the Democratic Alliance and 11% for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

But a new poll released by the Institute for Race Relations (a Johannesburg-based conservative think tank) has suggested that the ANC’s numbers will fall even further this year than they did in the last local elections, and that the ruling party is likely to lose again in major metros and is likely to lose Gauteng – the country’s economic heartland – entirely to other parties. The IRR poll suggests that the party will take 49.5% nationally (on a predicted turnout of 100% of eligible voters) and 51% on a 71.9% turnout scenario. The same poll places the DA at 21.3% (100% turnout) or 24% on a 71.9% turnout scenario while the EFF takes between 14.9% and 14% across the two.

Of course, a 100% turnout scenario is unlikely – and levels of apathy across the country appear to be reaching alarming levels. Almost one in four eligible voters – nearly ten million people – declined to register, and another 5 million are expected not to turn out based upon previous turnout levels. The electoral commission’s data suggests that most of the disaffected are in urban areas – the most populous province, Gauteng, had the lowest registration rate at 67.1% of eligible voters. Young voters in particular seem to be staying away, with just 18% of the country’s 18-19 year olds registering, and a little over 50% of 20-29 year olds.

This will likely hamper the EFF’s electoral fortunes and play to the ruling party’s advantage. Older voters are more likely to vote on historical lines while younger voters generally express far more dissatisfaction with the slow pace of transformation over the last 25 years and have fewer deep historical ties to the ANC. But between these two polls, it is probably reasonable to expect that (barring a major crisis in the next 6 days) the ANC will likely win these elections with between 50-60% of the vote, that the EFF will make the most substantial gains amongst the opposition and the DA will maintain its place as the country’s formal opposition but fail to capitalise sufficiently on the discontent in the country.

What comes next?

In some ways the election represents a continuation of the status quo – that the ANC will continue a slow electoral slide, but that the two major opposition parties are unlikely to be sufficiently able to take advantage of growing public discontent to displace the ruling party. What will be more interesting to watch is what happens at provincial level.

Africa Confidential reports that at the provincial level, Zuma-supporters with a strong provincial base are encouraging voters to undermine the ruling party at national level by voting ANC provincially, but voting for other parties in the national polls. Several weeks ago, Zuma himself endorsed the populist Black First Land First movement-turned-party. It is alleged that some within this camp hope to use poor national election result to try to remove Ramaphosa in a special elective congress. For his part, Ramaphosa is believed to still be trying to clear some of Zuma’s allies out of the ANC using a Special Investigation Unit tribunal which will be established immediately following the polls.

This factionalism within the ANC is unlikely to be quickly resolved following the polls, and the country will still have to face the current dire economic circumstances. With persistently high unemployment figures (at 37%), unsustainable debt levels (50% of GDP) and low appetite for foreign investment, the country will remain in a sticky economic position. It remains to be seen which way Ramaphosa will take the ANC and whether he will pursue a more market-friendly growth path that potentially worsens the plight of some of South Africa’s poorest.

Ramaphosa has previously shown his proclivity for ‘order’ over fairness during the Marikana strikes, while his recent xenophobic statements on the campaign trail and support for entrenching traditional authorities’ control over rural communities appears to demonstrate a preference for expedience over principle. He will have to tread a fine path to walk South Africa back from the brink and help to build an inclusive and equitable economy. Cyril Ramaphosa needs to be up to the task – or he risks rushing the country down an ever more precarious path.