Mariana Llanos and Detlef Nolte – Brazil, Venezuela, and the Many Faces of Latin American Presidentialism

This is a guest post by Mariana Llanos and Detlef Nolte, both from the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, on their new paper, The Many Faces of Latin American Presidentialism.

In 1990 Juan Linz published an influential article in the Journal of Democracy entitled “The Perils of Presidentialism” in which he did not make many favourable prognoses for the recently established democratic, and presidential, regimes of Latin America. He argued that the instability of presidential regimes was connected to its essential features – that is, the principle of dual legitimacy, according to which both the president and the legislature equally derive their power from the vote of the people, and the fixed mandates for both elected institutions. The fixed term introduced rigidities to the system that made crisis and conflict resolution more difficult, and the direct election of the executive and legislative powers gave both president and congress direct democratic legitimacy, thus inducing inter-institutional struggles and making it unclear which would prevail in the event of lack of majorities and a conflict between the two.

Although Latin American democracy survived, and the problems that Linz attributed to presidentialism turned out to be less pervasive than he had initially thought, they did not disappeared. In effect, since the beginning of 2016 the region has witnessed two major political crises, in Venezuela and Brazil, which despite being extreme are predictable crises within presidential regimes. In these two cases the presidents face an adverse majority in Congress: in Brazil, congress is using the constitutional mechanism of impeachment to oust President Rousseff, while in Venezuela President Maduro is manipulating the rules of the decision-making process to disempower congress and to avoid a recall referendum that would take him out of the presidency.

While presidentialism may be prone to producing political stalemates, political actors are responsible for creating and resolving these stalemates. Brazil and Venezuela represent two different presidential traditions within the region, and the institutional mechanisms being used to solve the current impasse situations differ accordingly. We should bear in mind, though, that crises are profound in these countries and will persist beyond the short-term solutions to stalemate. It appears that the period of fine-weather democracy may be coming to an end and that some of the “perils” and less pleasant traits of presidential democracy may be resurging.

Coalition Presidentialism and Presidential Breakdowns

“Coalition presidentialism” is the consensual Latin American variant of presidentialism that is practiced in Brazil. Under this scheme, the directly elected president serves as a coalitional formateur and uses his/her appointment prerogatives to recruit ministers from other parties in order to foster the emergence of a legislative cartel that could support her/his proposals in congress for overcoming political deadlocks. Alongside the distribution of cabinet posts, presidents use a wide range of agenda-setting powers and pork-barrelling to maintain control of the legislative process.

Coalitions have helped overcome inter-institutional conflicts, but they are demanding for presidents, particularly when they face other challenges. A tough economic situation, scandals, popular discontent, and public mobilisation, expose the weakness of the presidential leadership and may lead to his/her demise. During the third wave of democratization, many presidents have been challenged and 17 presidents have actually been forced to leave before finishing their constitutionally fixed mandates under the pressure of unfavourable majorities in congress and often also of protests in the streets. A few weeks ago, the Brazilian Senate initiated an impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff who is suffering from extremely low popularity as a result of a serious recession, high inflation and unemployment rates, in addition to the Petrobras affair, a corruption scandal that involves her party (the PT) and many others and that has infuriated the public and motivated protests. Due to these events, latent rivalries among coalition members became apparent, leading to a major break between the PT and the main coalition partner, the PMDB, and giving impulse to the impeachment process. The impeachment resembles previous presidential breakdowns where the president had to leave power prematurely. In these solutions to stalemate where congress prevails, the president has to go and the succession line is activated, but democracy persist.

The Autocratic Phase of Presidentialism

The Venezuelan case belongs to another variant of presidentialism, one based on presidential dominance that has a long tradition in Latin America. It is characterized by the exalted status of the presidency, particularly when the presidential party controls the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Presidents may also use their formal powers to either bypass or manipulate the legislative and judicial branches. Presidents prone to unilateral excursions enjoying strong political backing have populated the regional landscape – for instance, as part of the pink tide during the first decade of this century. Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales have exemplified a delegative and hyperpresidential style of government, notwithstanding their participatory discourses.

In Venezuela, the president’s loss of a majority after congressional elections at the end of 2015 has left in evidence the autocratic tendencies of the regime. President Maduro managed that his outgoing majority appointed 13 new judges by blatantly violating the constitution. The new supreme court has since then proved to be a tremendous functional instrument for serving the executive and disempowering the opposing Congress. The latest of several controversial measures was to hold up the constitutionality of the two-month state of emergency that had been rejected by congress and that gave Maduro extra powers to impose tough security measures and to deal with an uneasy social context characterized by food and medicine shortage, the economy shrinking by 8 per cent, and an inflation rate of up to 500 per cent.

The congressional attempts to get approval for a recall referendum, the constitutional mechanism to depose the president, are also being boycotted by the president-controlled electoral judiciary. We understand that the way in which Maduro is prevailing in the conflict with congress has crossed the line in the direction of authoritarianism. This solution to the gridlock closely resembles the autogolpe solutions (such as that in Peru in 1992), where we saw congress unilaterally closed by the executive and the democratic regime break down. It is quite difficult to predict how the political stalemate, the partisan polarisation, and the economic crisis in Venezuela can be overcome. What would the military reaction be if they were asked to intervene?

For a More Sincere Solution to Gridlock

Whether a presidential triumph in case of gridlock may lead to an authoritarian variant of presidentialism, a congressional triumph also entails the risks of leading to more political polarisation. The latter is connected to the fact that impeachment concerns a president’s misconduct or violation of norms while, in the end, it is the size of the presidential majority that determines his/her fate. It would be more honest if impeachments were replaced by votes of non-confidence (by a two-thirds majority): the political debate would be framed less in normative and more in political-programmatic terms. Certainly, the call for earlier elections would be a more embracing solution for critical stalemate situations. We believe that either of these semi-presidential solutions to gridlock, which have often informally prevailed in similar crises during the last thirty years, are preferable to old-style Latin American authoritarian rule.

Mariana Llanos is a lead research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies and head of GIGA’s Accountability and Participation Research Programme.

Detlef Nolte is the vice president of the GIGA, the director of the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, and a professor of political science at the University of Hamburg.

Link to the Article: https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publication/the-many-faces-of-latin-american-presidentialism

Gustavo Plácido dos Santos – The 2017 presidential elections in Angola: clinging to the status quo?

This is a guest post by Gustavo Plácido dos Santos from the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS).

Gustavo

“I have taken the decision to quit political life in 2018,” President José Eduardo dos Santos said to the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) Central Committee, on 11 March 2016.

His words may lead us to think that he is willing to retire, after 37 years in power. The reality, however, is more complicated than that, as he did not clarify whether he was running for the 2017 presidential elections and it does not make much sense to “quit political life in 2018” with presidential elections scheduled for 2017.

In power since 1979, José Eduardo dos Santos will be 80 years old by the time his eventual new mandate ends in 2022. Irrespective of his age and possible intention to retire, it is only logical that President dos Santos is giving a deeper thought on ways to protect his interests and those of his family and close circle. Moreover, he is certainly seeking to ensure that a new political leadership won´t target him and his circle with criminal charges.

How likely is a post-José Eduardo dos Santos scenario?

In a speech given to the MPLA Central Committee, on 2 July 2015, José Eduardo dos Santos said that “[i]n certain restricted circles it was almost an established fact that the president wouldn’t carry out his mandate until the end, but it’s evident that it’s not wise to consider that option under the current circumstances.” The president added that “we should study very seriously how to build that transition.”

This said, and considering the worsening of “the current circumstances”, it would be hardly surprising that José Eduardo dos Santos decides to stay in power for as long as he is physically and mentally capable. In this setting, his announcement becomes nothing more than mere rhetoric, possibly aimed at testing his popularity within the party, assure a peaceful nomination and disarm internal contestation.

With this in mind, the President faces two options: end the presidential term prematurely or complete it. Both scenarios, however, ultimately require ensuring the protection of his interests and those of his close circle in the long-term. This is both a necessity and a priority, and implies naming an individual of his trust to be his number two in the elections, in view of succeeding him further ahead.

Given that the MPLA historical leadership looks with suspicion at the nomination of someone from José Eduardo dos Santos’s close circle, it is likely that he may seek a compromise solution.[1] Conversely, the President´s announcement also suggest that he may be aiming at increasing his room of maneuver to further consolidate control over strategic sectors before an electoral process and eventual succession.

The Constitution specifies how a power transition might be effected, although it leaves room for interpretation. As per the 2010 constitutional revision, the President is no longer directly voted into office. Instead, “[t]he individual heading the national list of the political party or coalition of political parties which receives the most votes in general elections” becomes Head of the Executive. Considering that José Eduardo dos Santos candidacy for the party’s presidency has been approved by the Central Committee, the current leader is poised to become the ruling party’s candidate.

Furthermore, the MPLA’s presidency allows him to actively influence the party and choose his number two, i.e. the Vice-President. In light of this, it is worth noting that Article 116 of the Constitution establishes that “[t]he President of the Republic may relinquish office”[2] and when the office “becomes vacant, the duties shall be performed by the Vice-President, who shall complete the term of office with full powers.” Therefore, the power transfer can be made in a legitimate manner and in accordance with the Constitution, thus not giving the opposition many legal arguments against it.

There is, however, one third option: to postpone the 2017 elections, such as in 1999.[3] This time now, with peace consolidated, it can possibly be argued that the country needs to address “current circumstances”, i.e. economic and financial challenges, before elections can be held.

 Who are his contenders?

Although there is still time left before the submission period of candidacies for the party’s presidency – between 15 June and 15 July –, it is highly unlikely that an internal candidate is willing to challenge José Eduardo dos Santos’ rule. Even if that would happen, any other candidacy faces a major challenge. According to MPLA Electoral Rules, “the competent body to verify the proposed candidacies, validate and organize them for the electoral act (…) is coordinated by the party’s high officials.” As such, José Eduardo dos Santos and his close circle can easily impede a challenging bid.

Regarding the political opposition, given that the person heading the list of candidates of the most voted party becomes President, the leaders of major opposition forces in parliament, Isaías Samakuva (UNITA) and Abel Chivukuvu (CASA-CE), are poised to be José Eduardo dos Santos’ main challengers. These two candidates, however, are highly unlikely to pose a significant challenge.

The opposition is divided amongst several political parties, hindering any chance of establishing a united opposition, while the President has the MPLA’s well-oiled electoral machine and state resources at his disposal to promote the campaign across the country.

Coupled with these factors, the government´s strategy of “divide and rule” and the ease with which opposition politicians and militants take political, economic and financial ´donations´, establishing a considerable challenge to the status quo becomes a near impossible task.

In addition, security forces and intelligence services embed a feeling of fear among any movement willing to stage an anti-government demonstration. Also relevant is the fact that the military leadership is deeply integrated in the country’s political and economic spectrum.[4]

The status quo will remain unchanged

Given that President will do its utmost to ensure a substantial degree of continuity, there will hardly be any major changes in government policy.  The same applies in an eventual post-José Eduardo dos Santos scenario, due to the intricate network of economic and political interests amongst the Angolan elite.

The powerful elite is so intertwined and accommodated to the perks associated with being close to power, that it is improbable they would challenge or change the status quo and risk losing those benefits by promoting a new, more democratic and transparent order. Therefore, this privileged sector of the Angolan society will certainly be the main opponent of any significant change to the political order, and its main preserver.

Of course, that is also the case with the elite’s response to the introduction of measures and reforms aimed at tackling the difficult economic and financial context. Although those initiatives might be favourable to the diversification of the elite’s sources of revenue beyond oil and a limited number of sectors, it is highly unlikely that Angola’s economic policy will change in a substantial manner. In fact, any alteration will certainly be limited to the strictly necessary, since an abrupt one would primarily hit the privileged sectors of the society that benefited the most from the status quo.

The same applies to foreign donors. The April 2016 “formal request” made by Angolan authorities to the IMF “to initiate discussions on an economic program,” is, at least in theory, what Angola needs. However, negotiations will certainly be long and difficult, especially if the IMF´s demands collide with electoral interests[5] and the elite’s stakes.

That is probably why the government has, since the start of this year, been charming Asian emerging powers, such as China and India, to open lines of credit and support project development. The aim is likely to be to diversify financing sources away from an undesired overly dependence on the IMF and benefit from external support that require a lesser degree of preconditions, hence better safeguarding the interests of the Angolan elite.

On the other hand, with external financing from emerging economies pouring into state coffers and project development, the government acquires tools to ensure that the elite and the rising middle-class continue to have access to the goods and services they became accustomed to. Additionally, the government has greater leeway to appease potentially dangerous social grievances linked to rising living costs and budget cuts in public investment.

Notes

[1] The Minister of Defence, João Lourenço, and the Minister of Territory Administration, Bornito de Sousa, stand as appropriate candidates in this context.

[2] By means of a message addressed to the National Assembly, also notifying the Constitutional Court. Article 130 establishes that, besides “Resignation from office, under the terms of Article 116,” other circumstances are valid: “Death”, “Removal from office”, “Permanent physical or mental incapacity”, and “Abandonment of duties”.

[3] When the National Assembly voted to do so, due to the renewal of conflict.

[4] Through positions in government, state companies, participation in private ventures and access to national wealth.

[5] There are rumours that an IMF assistance programme may lead to the introduction of a consumption tax, salary cuts and rationalization of public investment.

Gustavo Plácido dos Santos is a Senior Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS). He holds a Bachelor degree in international relations from Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon and a Master degree in international conflict from Kingston University in the United Kingdom. His work focuses on Africa-related political, defence and security issues, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa, Lusophone countries and maritime security. He tweets as @PlacidoGustavo and is the founder of the blog Africa Defence & Security.

James D. Boys – Hillary Clinton: Sloughing towards success?

This is a guest post by James D. Boys from Richmond University, London

After a lifetime in politics, Hillary Clinton finds herself at the threshold of greatness. The White House is tantalisingly close, yet the American people remain uncertain what to make of her. The 2016 campaign will either result in Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president of the United States, or it will undoubtedly mark the end of her political career. Though she is far ahead in the delegate count, she has yet to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, despite the smallest, weakest field of challengers the Party may have ever known. Until she secures the nomination, she cannot turn her energies to defeating her Republican opponent in the general election. To date, the 2016 primary season has demonstrated Hillary Clinton’s continuing struggle to overcome a series of formidable obstacles that have long-plagued her time in public life.

Her steadfast determination to appear tough and resilient has ensured that she remains an enigma, removed from the lives of the American electorate. Little, it seems, has been as important to Hillary Clinton as portraying a sense of control, either real or imagined throughout the course of her life. All things considered, this is perhaps not surprising. Raised by a cold and distant father, and married to the world’s most famous unfaithful husband, it is little wonder that Hillary Clinton appears to have created a seemingly perfect public persona that few can penetrate. In an era in which the American electorate has routinely demonstrated a propensity to elect presidents they would choose to share a beer with, however, her struggle to project personal warmth is a serious impediment to her election.

A fundamental challenge also exists in regard to Hillary Clinton’s liberal credentials. For many in her party, the New Democrat policies that she and her husband adopted in the 1990s was as unpopular as the New Labour project was with socialists in the UK; it felt like a betrayal of the party principles in a (successful) bid to gain power. Having been out of power for 12 years in 1992, the Democratic Party was inclined to accept such an approach. In 2016, having been in power for the last 8 years, this is no longer the case and explains, in part, why many members of the Democratic Party hanker after a candidate further to the left of the political spectrum. The self-described socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who no one expected to be any serious threat to Hillary Clinton, has defeated her in key battleground states and has repeatedly drawn tens of thousands to rallies across the country as he advocates an approach very different from that being offered by the Clinton campaign. Although he is now mathematically incapable of winning the nomination, his remarkable efforts have drawn Hillary Clinton to the left of the political spectrum in order to gain her party’s nomination, which will force her to reposition herself once again for the general election in the autumn.

Once she secures the Democratic Party’s nomination, can she win the presidency? A key determining factor will be Hillary Clinton’s continuing capacity to adapt and change. In 2008 she was determined to run on the basis of being the best-qualified candidate and was adamant that gender play no part in her campaign.  ‘I am not running as a woman,’ she told supporters at the Iowa State Fair in July 2007, ‘I am running because I believe I am the best-qualified and experienced person.’ This was perfectly encapsulated in her campaign advert that asked who Americans wanted to answer an emergency call at 3am. In seeking to pass the commander-in-chief test, however, Hillary Clinton appeared to be content to jettison her femininity and unique appeal to 51% of Americans. It was clear that her campaign took far too long to recognise that it had missed an opportunity to make Hillary Clinton’s candidacy about more than her, and to position it as an historic chance to break the gender lock on the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton appears far more content to utilise the gender issue if it will help secure victory in 2016, insisting that whatever her age, she would be ‘the youngest woman president in the history of the United Sates.’

Hillary Clinton has successfully maximised the financial opportunities that have accompanied her celebrity and political power in the United States. However, her highly publicised lecture fees and book royalties have elevated her income and personal net worth into the stratosphere, beyond the wildest imagination of most Americans. Her wealth is compounded by the amount of time she has spent in the public arena. When Bill Clinton first appeared on the national stage in 1992 he was relatively unknown and could introduce himself to the American public, to whom he was a virtual blank canvas. In the subsequent quarter century, however, the Clintons have rarely been out of the American eye, complicating efforts to present a ‘new’ Hillary Clinton to voters in 2016. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been omnipresent since 1992, through 8 years of her husband’s administration, 8 years in the Senate, a presidential campaign in 2008 and 4 high profile years as Secretary of State. First time voters in 2016 will have never known an American political landscape that didn’t include Hillary Clinton in one role or another, as she has become part of the establishment. Such a situation presents a challenge to her campaign, eager to portray her as a progressive candidate for change.

If elected in November 2016, Hillary would be 69 when she takes the oath of office in January 2017, making her America’s second oldest president; only Ronald Reagan will have been older. The Baby Boomer generation that Hillary Clinton represents is now retiring as the Millennial Generation comes to the fore. The fact that Bernie Sanders has managed to tap into the frustrations of the youth vote is an indication of Hillary Clinton’s status as a member of the establishment, rather than of a reform movement. The experience that she has gained since she last ran has actually proven to be a handicap for her as she seeks to project a readiness to lead, with a vitality that connects her to a youthful demographic. It is a circle she has thus far failed to square.

For all of the talk about personality, politics and policy, however, the presidential election is all about electoral mathematics. All considerations must be geared towards securing the 270 Electoral College votes that will secure the White House. Any electoral calculations, therefore, must address the state-by-state approach that the United States adopts on Election Day, for there is no national poll, but rather 50 individual polls that will provide a victor. The popular vote would be nice, but it is the Electoral College that will decide the election, as Al Gore discovered in 2000.

The Republicans have only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since 1988, ensuring that the Democrats have secured the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 elections and won 5 of the last 7 presidential contests. The national demographics appear to point to a Democratic victory irrespective of the party candidate, however, with Hillary Clinton’s unique appeal, such a result appears all the more likely. The route to electoral victory will need to ensure that Hillary Clinton retains the overwhelming ethnic minority support that secured Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House and build upon the large female vote that she secured in the 2008 primaries, but which Obama failed to secure in 2012. Such a combination of Latinos, African Americans and women, as well as the usual percentage of white men who would be expected to vote Democrat, should be sufficient to capture the White House in 2016 and propel Hillary Clinton into the history books as the first female president of the United States.

Dr James D. Boys is an Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University, London and is the author of Clinton’s Grand Strategy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) and Hillary Rising (Biteback, 2016). He maintains a website at www.jamesdboys.com and tweets at @jamesdboys

Austria – Alexander Van der Bellen wins presidential runoff with razor-thin margin

On Sunday, 22 May, Austrian went to the polls for the second round of presidential elections which – for the first time in Austrian history – did not include the candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP. Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens) narrowly beat his opponent, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), with a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes (0.6%) in a neck-and-neck race that was only decided on Monday afternoon after all postal votes had been counted. While a victory of the far-right Hofer, widely feared by international and a majority of national commentators alike, has thus been averted, the election marks without doubt a pivotal moment in Austrian politics. It spells the end of the dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP, the manifestation of ever stronger political divisions between the far-right and the remainder of the political spectrum, and seems to fall within a larger trend in support for right-wing parties and candidates in European politics.

Results of the Austrian presidential elections - Van der Bellen + Hofer

Already the results of the first round had shaken up Austrian politics. First, neither candidate of the governing parties SPÖ and ÖVP – who have dominated the Austrian presidency and government since the end of WWII – made it into the run-off. Both only polled a combined 22.4% of votes – far below their worst combined result yet. Following the election debacle and repeated calls for consequences, Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) eventually resigned, citing a lack of support in his party. There have not been any consequences yet in the the ÖVP, yet it is likely that the party will, too, try to reinvent itself at least partially before the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Analysts were unsure of whether Van der Bellen, a veteran Green politician (though formally independent), would be able to catch up to Hofer, who serves as one of the speakers of Austria’s federal parliament. Already shortly after the exit polls for the first round had been announced, parties categorically declined to make any kind of recommendations – only the third-placed candidate Irmgard Griss (independent) indirectly came out in support for Alexander Van der Bellen shortly before the second round, saying that she had given him her (postal) vote. The campaign of the two candidates was overshadowed by their widely panned performance during an experimental TV debate in which they went head to head without any TV presenter to moderate the discussion. Regardless, voters turned out in larger numbers to the polls on Saturday – turnout increased by 4% to 72.7% (the highest value since 1998).

During the election night (or afternoon, to be precise) tensions were running high after a first exit poll suggested a victory for Hofer, yet too narrow to exceed the margin of error. Subsequently, projections quickly suggested a stalemate between candidates and it became clear that the race would only be decided after counting the postal vote on Monday. Although Hofer had the majority of votes cast in ballot offices across the country (among these Van der Bellen only received a majority in Vienna and the state of Voralberg), Van der Bellen eventually won the election thanks to an overwhelming majority 61.7% among postal votes (with 746,110 they represented 16.6% of all votes). While some commentators suggested that parties might try to challenge such a narrow victory by either candidates, Hofer acknowledged his defeat on Monday afternoon.

Van der Bellen’s election introduces an unknown intro Austrian politics which – with regard to both chancellery and presidency – has hitherto been dominated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Although Van der Bellen formally ran as an independent, he is still formally a member of the Green party (which also supported his candidacy logistically and financially). While the Green party is part of the parliamentary opposition, it would be incorrect to speak of the advent of a period of cohabitation. Despite his general opposition to the dominance of the two mainstream parties voiced during the campaign, Van der Bellen’s relationship with the government is likely to be neutral and even if not unified at least supportive. Van der Bellen will have to show some moderate activism to please his electorate and while this could be markedly more than his predecessors (who largely refrained from interference in day-to-day politics) it will be far from the dramatic steps promised by his defeated contender Hofer (who signalled he would dismiss the government and dissolve parliament).

Irrespective of the fact that Hofer lost the runoff, he – and his party – will play a much more prominent role in Austrian politics from now on. Since January this year, opinion polls see the FPÖ at 32-34% which would make them the largest party in the next federal election (on overage, SPÖ and ÖVP only poll around 22% each). Hofer’s success also seems to fit in with a larger trend of gains by far-right parties across Europe. While these have partly been able to feed on anti-immigrant sentiments amidst the influx of refugees into (Western) Europe, in Austria the success of the FPÖ also seems attributable to an anti-establishment mood which is not sufficiently and/or successfully articulated by other political parties.

US – Can Donald Trump Win the Presidency?

I count myself among the legions of political scientists, pundits, and other so-called experts that got it wrong about Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination. When he first announced that he was running for president last June, especially in such a crowded field of Republican contenders, I thought that when serious campaigning got underway, the Trump candidacy would fade. Like so many others, I also thought that each subsequent gaffe would surely end his candidacy. Despite the overwhelming media attention, I was skeptical that Trump could turn the hypothetical support he enjoyed in poll after poll throughout the fall into real support from voters. But after losing the Iowa Caucuses to Ted Cruz, Trump did just that with victories in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and many subsequent states along the way to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee.

In defense of my profession, while political scientists like analyzing numbers, the credibility of polling in recent years has taken a beating. There are now more polls than ever before, but fewer reliable ones. Reliance on cell phones has made polling more difficult, more time consuming, and much more expensive, to achieve a true random sample through random digit dialing. The Federal Communications Commission forbids automatic dialing of cell phones, and as a result, response rates have fallen dramatically. National polls are also meaningless, despite the continual media coverage, since Americans do not elect presidents nor nominate presidential candidates nationally. Many of the state polls last fall that placed Trump and Ben Carson at the top of the GOP race had small sample sizes (around 400, as opposed to the more reliable sample size of 1,000) and would include “registered” or “lean Republican” voters as opposed to “likely” voters. The latter provides the most valid sample, though last fall was still too early to have an accurate read on who was likely to vote. Several polling organizations have gotten big political stories wrong of late, including the extent of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterm elections, recent elections in both Great Britain and Israel, as well as Gallup’s prediction on Election Day 2012 that had Mitt Romney winning the popular vote over Barack Obama 49-48 percent (while Obama won the actual popular vote 51-47 percent).

Presidency scholars like myself also like to rely on historical precedents when analyzing potential election outcomes. Dwight Eisenhower was the last political outsider to be elected president, though while he had never held nor ran for a political office, being a five-star general who served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II gave him tremendous credibility with voters in 1952. And while several “outsider” candidates have sought the presidency since then, the most notable success belongs to Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, whose independent campaign in 1992 garnered him 19 percent of the popular vote (though zero Electoral College votes).

To say that Trump has re-written many of the rules of presidential campaigns this past year would be an understatement. And now that Trump has proven so many of us wrong with his success in becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, the question is whether Trump can extend his winning streak to capture the White House in November. I recently told students in my Media and Politics course that I am officially out of the prediction business, but I offer this perspective as a political scientist on how Trump can win, and why many who say that Hillary Clinton (if she is, indeed, the Democratic nominee) will easily win in November might be wrong.

First, one of the most important tasks for Trump (or any nominee) is to unify the party before, during, and after the national convention. Despite the #NeverTrump movement, Trump’s bombastic style of campaigning, or the sometimes brutal way in which Trump went after his political opponents, one important fact remains—by early May, it was the Republican Party that had wrapped up its nomination contest. The Democrats, it seems, won’t have a final answer until June 7th, when California, New Jersey, and a handful of smaller states vote. One year ago, no one would have predicted this outcome, as Clinton was supposed to easily defeat Sanders and any other competitor for the Democratic nomination, and the large Republican field was supposed to battle it out until the last contest or even into the convention. Instead, Trump and the Republican Party have already shifted to focus on the general election, while Sanders keeps his slim hopes alive by continuing to beat Clinton in primary contests (like his win last week in Oregon, or the virtual tie in Kentucky due to the proportional allocation of delegates).

Second, as the momentum and enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign continues, so too does the overlap on key issues important to both Sanders and Trump supporters. Assuming Clinton will eventually win the Democratic nomination, the question remains, what will Sanders supporters do? Clinton has not generated enthusiasm among progressives, and Sanders’ anti-establishment message often hits the same points as Trump’s message: Creating better paying jobs, getting big money out of politics, ending corporate welfare and crony capitalism, and ending unfair trade deals. Whether Trump can co-opt any of this support remains to be seen, though the dissatisfaction with the Democratic establishment among Sanders supporters is palpable, as witnessed last Tuesday during a large Sanders rally in Southern California when the mere mention of the Democratic Party set off a loud round of boos from the crowd.

Third, Trump has promised to put new states in play this fall, shaking up the traditional red-blue divide of the Electoral College. Again, time will tell if that can happen. The so-called Rust Belt states will loom large, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. While Pennsylvania has not gone Republican since 1988, Nate Silver just last week identified it as the “tipping point state,” which means he predicts it to be “the state that provides the presidential winner his or her 270th electoral vote when all the states are rank-ordered by his or her highest to lowest margin of victory.” (See the article here: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/pennsylvania-could-be-an-electoral-tipping-point/). Much has already been made about Trump’s support among white, working-class men, and higher turnout among this demographic can help to offset the expected gender gap that Trump will face with women.

Finally, the most prominent theme of this campaign to date has been voter anger against the Washington establishment and political insiders. It is still too early to tell whether or not Trump can continue to turn that anger into votes come November. Yet, one of Clinton’s greatest weaknesses as a candidate is her Washington insider status as the former First Lady, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. The narrative of electing the first woman president is often lost among any number of more interesting story lines that have emerged from this campaign. While Trump wants to “Make American Great Again!” and Clinton wants voters to proclaim “I’m With Her,” perhaps the best slogan to describe the presidential race in 2016 is simply, “Anything Can Happen.”

Uganda – President Museveni buying loyalty of newly elected MPs

Uganda’s elections concluded three months ago, and yet political tempers remain high. Most obvious—and perturbing—is the continued state-led repression of the opposition, including most recently the treason charges levelled against opposition leader Col Kizza Besigye. All is not well within the ruling party itself either. As parliament convened this week, the National Resistance Movment (NRM) leadership were scrambling to stave off a rebellion over the party’s official candidate for the position of Deputy Speaker. While seemingly minor in and of itself, this incident shows that President Museveni has his work cut out for him handling backbench MPs. And already he has had to resort to his trump card: money.

Shortly after the February elections, the race to be House Speaker erupted in controversy. The outgoing Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, faced a challenge from her then deputy, Jacob Oulanyah. Both NRM heavyweights organized campaign teams, and started inviting their fellow parliamentarians to meetings with promises of up to Shs200k ($60) in ‘transport’ allowances. Kadaga, a Speaker with a reputation for being independent-minded, won the support of well-known dissident MPs. She attacked Oulanyah for being new to the NRM—he used to be a member of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC)—and for showing undue ambition. Oulanyah, in turn, questioned Kadaga’s loyalty to the ruling party.

With the parliamentary caucus fracturing into rival camps, the NRM Central Executive Committee (CEC) intervened to settle the dispute. CEC opted to preserve the status quo, recommending that the NRM parliamentary caucus nominateKadaga as the official NRM Speaker candidate and Oulanyah as Deputy. This move restored a degree of calm, and the NRM caucus approved both names to be the official NRM candidates ahead of a vote in the full House.

The twist came when one of the other contenders for Deputy Speaker, Mohammed Nsereko, refused to pull out of the race. Nsereko won his seat in February as an Independent. This come-back came after he was first expelled from the NRM, along with three other MPs, for disloyalty in the previous parliament. Ahead of the 2016 elections, President Museveni sought to mend fences with these four ‘rebel’ legislators, two of whom ran again on the NRM ticket, and all of whom were re-elected. After the elections, even those who remained Independents were invited to join NRM caucus meetings.

Nsereko’s‘rebel’ background made his refusal to withdraw his candidacy all the more provocative. Even more troubling for the NRM top brass was Nsereko’s apparent popularity within the caucus. He also showed his financial muscle, outspending both Kadaga and Oulanyah by rewarding supporters with Shs500k ($150) at campaign meetings.

With the very real threat of an embarrassing upset in the election for Deputy Speaker, President Museveni rushed to convene the NRM caucus on Sunday 15 May, four days before the parliamentary vote. He used this meeting to discipline Nsereko, who was escorted out by security after (again) refusing to withdraw his candidacy. Museveni then adopted a softer touch with the remaining MPs.He suggested he might reimburse their inauguration expenses, as many newly elected parliamentarians planned expensive parties for their supporters. He also promised to reconsider his decision to block the Income Tax Bill, which sparked a public outcry after MPs exempted their own allowances from taxation.

Seemingly fearful that money might not speak loudly enough, Museveni took a further, unprecedented step. On Thursday 19 May, he attended the parliamentary session, arriving shortly after Kadaga was elected Speaker and just as voting began for the position of Deputy Speaker.

After such an aggressive campaign, it was no wonder when Oulanyah won 300 out of 413 votes. But this clash between Museveni and the NRM caucus promises to be one of many as the 10th Parliament gets underway. It is in line with a recurring pattern in Uganda. At the start of a parliamentary term, a fresh cohort of NRM MPs—59% new in this parliament—arrive having fought a bruising and expensive election battle.  For many, loyalty to the NRM is conditional at best, leading President Museveni to buy MPs’ support at a seemingly ever more inflated price. This year the tug-of-war between Parliament and the President has started earlier than ever before.

Sensing, at least for now, that parliamentary independence is in vogue, newly elected Deputy Speaker Oulanyah urged his fellow MPs to “choose national interests over party allegiance.” Whether the irony was intentional is anyone’s guess.

 

 

 

 

Comoros – Presidential Election Threatens Fragile Stability

Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.

The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.

On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.

The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.

Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

Magna Inácio – Collapse of Brazilian coalitional presidentialism?

This is a guest post by Magna Inácio from the Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais

Twenty-four years after the impeachment of the first elected president since redemocratization, Collor, a new trial has suspended the current president, Dilma, from her powerful seat as the senate votes whether or not to impeach her. Two events of this magnitude, in six presidential mandates, have called into question the capacity of Brazilian presidentialism to maintain stable governments. Further, they have rekindled interest in the adoption of semipresidencialism or parliamentarism.

Brazilian presidents build coalitions and govern through them. Scholars have seen this as a cooperative solution to legislative-executive relations that might mitigate the risks of legislative gridlocks and democratic breakdowns. Since ongoing political crisis challenges this view, it is inevitable to ask: is it a crisis of coalitional presidentialism in Brazil? Alternatively, is it a crisis of a coalition and the president’s failures in its management?

The current crisis seems to describe the typical scenario of those crises that magnify the rigidity of a system without exhaust valves for inter-branch conflicts: an unpopular and recalcitrant president and decisional paralysis spasms provoked by greater activism of the legislative parties. After a hard-won victory, Dilma pushed the government into the crossfire of the opposition and discontented supporters. Diverging from her electoral platform, which was based on redistributive policies, a different economic outlook was revealed when a fiscal adjustment program and deep budgetary cutbacks were adopted in the first days of her second term. Two years after reaching a record presidential approval rating (65%), in her first term, Dilma’s popularity fell to the lowest level (8%) achieved by any recent presidents.

Cross-pressured by these ambiguous signals, her legislative majority has become increasingly hostile and volatile. The conflicts within the coalition deepened, feeding the opposition’s attractiveness and political polarization in the legislative arena and on the streets. The legislative gridlocks and intense opposition, exacerbated by the Chamber of Deputies’ Speaker and member of the major coalition partner, made the fracture of the legislative cartel, led by the president, very obvious. Corruption scandals and a massive investigation (“Operation Car Wash”) touched important leaders of the president’s party, including former president Lula as well as other coalition partners, and deepened these conflicts as uncertainty about the future of government spread.

Why did these political conflicts evolve into an impeachment trial? Some scholars have identified the impeachment events as a heterodox political solution to the lack of exhaust valves in the presidentialism. Recent literature has pointed to the new political instability in Latin America at the government level, but not at the regime level (Pérez Liñan, 2007). Given the fragility of horizontal controls to constrain, ex-ante, the abuse of presidential powers, impeachment could work as a mechanism, ex-post, to interrupt it. In this, context matters. According to Carlin et al. (2015, 2016), such breakdowns reveal a conditional accountability: presidential unpopularity and scandals can feed protests, but they will be decisive in the collapse of governments when economic insecurities magnify political uncertainties. From this perspective, the corruption scandals became decisive to Dilma’s impeachment trial because they occurred simultaneously with the disastrous economic performance of government: high inflation (10%), high unemployment rates (11%), and negative GDP growth in the last year (-3.80%).

External shocks are relevant factors, but I consider that the effects of the scandals, plummeting popularity and declining economic outlook on the collapse of the government are all dependent on the lack of coalition management ability of the presidency. Powerful Brazilian presidentialism is strong, and not only because the president relies on a broad array of institutional powers. Its strength is variable: it depends on the coordinating ability of the presidency to use these resources in the management of the coalition and, jointly with legislative parties, to pave the way for sustainable governance. However, it should be noted that, although coalitional presidentialism is a recurrent practice in Brazil, there is a lack of institutional mechanisms of coalition leadership or a collective decision-making committee, as a coalition or party summit. Therefore, cabinet governance strongly depends on presidents’ strategies and abilities to manage their multiparty alliance.

In a fragmented party system, the profile of coalition makes its management cost variable. Brazilian presidents count on a diverse toolbox for dealing with these costs (Raile et al., 2011). This includes legislative agenda powers, ministerial positions, budget, etc. In addition to the distribution of these resources, whether with partisan bias or not, the model of coalition governance also varies according to the degree of centralization of decision-making in the hands of the presidency and its staff (Inácio & Llanos, 2014).

Although presidential powers have remained relatively stable since redemocratization, the performance of the presidencies on cabinet coordination varies considerably. Only when the president´s coordinating capacity declined below a critical threshold did the impeachment take place. Thus, the collapse of government seems to require both endogenous and exogenous factors, affecting the process of government. Then, impeachment is not inevitable.

Since 1986, Brazilian presidents have faced severe economic crises, presidential popularity has remained at oscillating and moderate levels, and scandals have been frequent. The most stable periods of coalition governance in Brazil correspond to power-sharing cabinet-presidency relations. The governments of Itamar (successor to Collor), Cardoso and Lula coordinated their coalitions in such a way as to internalize management costs and the processing of conflicts behind the closed doors of the executive. Cardoso and Lula faced serious crises that weakened the operational ability of the coalitions to sustain government decisions. However, both presidents managed their resources to surmount these crises through cabinet reshuffling, centralization, pork goods, policy concessions, and administrative strategies to keep tabs on their partners and keep them together, in order to avoid a single-party cabinet or the collapse of the government as reversion outcomes.

The financial and energy crises in Cardoso’s second term led him to make concessions on high-priority policy agendas and to give more attention to clientelistic demands from his allies. With less presidential leverage, the president dealt with these constraints and postponed the reversion outcome. It effectively occurred with the rupture of his coalition, opening space for PSDB’s electoral defeat on his succession. Halfway through his first term, Lula faced a profound crisis with the “mensalão” scandal in 2005. Legislative threats to begin impeachment proceedings and declining popularity put Lula’s re-election at risk. However, the president handled these risks through cabinet reshuffling (three times in a semester), redesign of the hypertrophied presidential office (and reduction of the partisan bias favoring PT) and sharing the management of legislative-executive relations with coalition partners. After distancing himself from those PT members involved in the mensalão scandal, Lula assumed a more active role for himself in both cabinet coordination and the mobilization of his supporters.

Differently, presidents Collor and Dilma demonstrated clear limits in the coordination of their cabinets, endogenously fostering the escalation of interbranch and intracoalition conflicts. They both resorted to a model of centralized cabinet governance, restricting interparty and interbranch negotiations. It made them more vulnerable to political crises, particularly when allegations of corruption and the “crime of responsibility” opened space for impeachment trials.

Governing unilaterally from a minority and single-party cabinet, headed by a centralized presidency, Collor implemented a radical economic reform agenda. The unpopular policies and their distributive costs quickly pushed the legislative parties into the arms of discontented voters and economic groups. After revelations of Collor’s involvement in a corruption scheme, the dissatisfied congress impeached him quickly and almost unanimously.

Dilma’s first term was relatively stable throughout the first three years. However, legislative-executive relations were continuously tense. Although the ruling coalition has been the same as that of Lula’s administrations, these tensions deepened with the centralized decision-making process headed by Dilma, particularly in the economic area. The “new matrix” of economic policies pursued by the government, based on continued expanding credit and government spending, reinforced criticisms about the insulated decision-making process[1]. When the first signs of the failure of her economic policies and the new constraints from global economy were made clear, the administration strongly resisted changing the route on the eve of the president seeking re-election[2]. As a candidate, Dilma rejected the need for this policy shift in her campaign and condemned her opponents’ proposals about this agenda. This strategy had high reputational costs for Dilma, when she pursued did it after her re-election. The president did not explain to the voters the reasons for this turning point, nor did she open negotiations with those sectors and groups affected by these policies.

The delay of this policy shift reduced the leeway for policy-makers to implement reforms in a context of economic stagnation, fiscal deficit and low government credibility. Facing a more fragmented and polarized Congress, Dilma did not receive legislative support for her economic and fiscal reforms after reelection. Even the leaders of cabinet parties walked away from the executive agenda, revealing a real minority from this centrifugal dynamic. At this juncture, the corruption scandals, low approval ratings and economic stagnation pushed the political crisis to a point of no return. Could it be avoided?  Maybe we have to pay more attention to the management of the coalition, beyond the use of the presidential toolbox. It could mitigate the effects of exogenous shocks on the president’s fate. It could allows the president not only to foster cooperation in good times, but also to overcome political crises by widening their choices in bad times. But this management must not depend only the president’s wisdom. It must be a by-product of institutional, power-sharing mechanisms that support coalition leadership. Such strong dependency on presidential leadership is, maybe, a risk-taking feature of Brazilian presidentialism. Exhaust valves are important during extreme crises, but there is still room for institutional innovations that fill the gap between presidential and coalition leadership.

References

CARLIN, Ryan E.; LOVE, Gregory J.; MARTÍNEZ-GALLARDO, Cecilia. 2015. “Cushioning the Fall: Scandals, Economic Conditions, and Executive Approval.” Political Behavior, 37(1):109-130.

INÁCIO, Magna; LLANOS, Mariana. 2016. The Institutional Presidency in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis. Presidential Studies Quartely (forthcoming)

PÉREZ-LIÑÁN, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

RAILE, Eric D.; PEREIRA, Carlos; POWER, Timothy J. 2011. “The Executive Toolbox: Building Legislative Support in a Multiparty Presidential Regime.” Political Research Quarterly 64 (2): 323- 34.

[1] These policies undermined the confidence of the private sector in the government, as it was seen as deepening state interventionism and departing from the policies of fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting and a floating exchange rate pursued by Cardoso and Lula.

[2] Dilma is accused of the “crime of responsibility” for allegedly having violated budgetary laws by illegally covering budget shortfalls.

Bios

Magna. InacioMagna Inácio is an associate professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and legislative parties. Currently, her research is concerned with the institutional development of the Presidency in Brazil and Latin American. She has published co-edited books: Legislativo Brasileiro em Perspectiva Comparada (with Lúcio Rennó). (Ed. UFMG); Elites Parlamentares na America Latina. (Argvmentvm Ed, 2009) and chapters in “Algo más que Presidentes. El papel del Poder Legislativo en América Latina”. (co-edited by Manoel Alcantara Saez e Mercedes Garcia; Fundación Manuel Gimenez Abad 2011); O Congresso por Ele Mesmo. (edited by Timothy Powers e Cesar Zucco; Ed. UFMG 2011). She has published in journals such as America Latina Hoy and Jounal of Politics in Latin America. E-mail: magna.inacio@gmail.com.

Armenia: recognizing Karabakh? The Armenian debate and the reaction from Azerbaijan

In the aftermath of the “4 Days War” in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, declared that, in the case of resumed hostilities, his country would recognize the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. One month after, a bill titled “On recognition of Republic Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh]”, submitted by two opposition MPs, was approved by the Government and presented to the Parliament for discussion. Nevertheless, both political and media actors have bee equivocal about the suitability of the unilateral recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh. From the Azerbaijani side, it is remarkable the limited attention this event was given. In particular, President Ilham Aliyev, who in the past adopted a warmongering narrative, has not commented on this specific development.

Following the cease fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated itself as a de facto state after a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, its statehood remains completely unrecognized given that not even its Armenian patron has taken a formal stance in that direction. This choice has been mostly motivated by the commitment not to spoil the mediation effort of the Minsk Group, which is the OSCE group in charge of facilitating a resolution of the stalemate. For example, speaking to the representatives of the mass media in March 2013 President Sarkisian declared: “What will the citizens of NK and Armenia gain today if independence of NKR is recognized? (…) How dangerous will such a decision for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh be? (…) It means a slap in the face not only for the other side but also for the Co­chairs [of the Minsk Group]”. In brief, it is argued that recognizing Nagorno-Karabak would lead only to new troubles in the absence of tangible benefits. This position was widely shared by the Armenian political spectrum as demonstrated by the rejection of the various pro-recognition bills proposed by “Heritage Party”. However, in 2010 International Crisis Group pointed out that, in the case of resumption of full-scale hostilities, the de facto state may be recognized and a pact of mutual defense with Nagorno-Karabakh may be signed. After April 2016, political actors had to deal seriously with these issues.

“If military actions were to continue and escalate on a larger scale, the Republic of Armenia would recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh. With these words, on the 4th of April, President Sarkisian hinted at the possibility of formal recognition. However, after the end of the armed hostilities, no further declaration in this direction came from the Presidential office. By contrast, some actors in the opposition considered the time ripe to bring forward this issue again. = That translated into a bill called “On recognition of Republic Artsakh,” proposed by the opposition PMs Zaruhi Postanjyan (Heritage party) and Hrant Bagratyan (Armenian National Congress). On the 5th of May the Armenian government approved it for parliamentary discussion within 30 days. As expected, this triggered a debate not only in Armenia but also abroad.

Although most external powers did not openly comment on this decision, Russian officials manifested their opposition. Remarkably, at the beginning of May, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, spoke against unilateral recognition. It is reasonable to say that the Russian stance may have influenced the public debate. At the moment, politicians from both the government and the opposition are adopting a prudent attitude. Prime Minister Abrahamian said that, with Azerbaijan respecting the cease-fire, there is no need to rush into recognition. Similarly, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, reassured external powers saying that: “The conclusion of the Government does not imply an endorsement of that initiative. (… ) [In that event], the President of the Republic of Armenia, would inform his partners in advance and, first of all, the heads of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries”. This moderate position is also shared by the bulk of the opposition. Armen Rustamyan, the leader of the ARF faction in parliament, declared that recognition should not be unilateral, but instead in line with the Minsk Framework. Similarly, a few days previously, former President Ter-Petrosyan stated that a premature recognition of Karabakh would irremediably jeopardize the effort of the Minsk group. Turning to the media debate, most Armenian newspapers agree that an early recognition would harm the interest and the long-terms goals of the country[1].

Given the sensitivity of the issue, Baku may be expected to react to such a move. However, it = composed behaviour adopted by Azerbaijan has taken observers by surprise. This is in striking contrast to the previously assertive narrative. Whereas in the past President Aliyev continuously reaffirmed the military strength of his country and the commitment to the re-conquest of the lost lands, recently his declarations seem more conciliatory and less in favor of resuming hostilities. Consistent with that, the reaction to the possible recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained contained. Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Ministry’s acting spokesperson, declared that: “By recognizing the separatist regime formed in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Yerevan will put an end to the Minsk peace process and should this happen, the Minsk Group will possess no negotiating mandate”[2] Thus, no explicit declaration came from the President and the media debate remained limited. Speculating on the reasons behind that, it can be hypothesized that the country, which has been severely hit by the drop in oil prices, may be reconsidering its extra-assertive attitude and narrative of the previous years. The liberation of prominent political prisoners in the past months has already been read in this vein.

In sum, even though probably it will not have an immediate follow up, the Armenian debate on the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh is relevant not only for Yerevan but also for Baku. Thus, the fact that Armenia is acting cautiously makes new attempts of mediation possible. On 16th of May, the two presidents will meet in Vienna even though, given their irreconcilable positions, expectations for a breakthrough run low[3].

Notes

[1] “Armenian press say Karabakh recognition matter of time, but not now”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 10, (2016).

[2] Russia & CIS General Newswire, “Recognition of Karabakh independence by Yerevan to derail OSCE Minsk group’s mediation efforts – Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry”, May 3, (2016).

[3] “Armenian press skeptical about “favorable” outcome of meeting with Azerbaijan”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 14, (2016).