Author Archives: Robert Elgie

Paola Rivetti – Iran again? Rouhani’s new challenges

This is a guest post by Paola Rivetti, Lecturer in International Relations at Dublin City University

On Friday 19th May, Iranians residing in the Islamic Republic and abroad confirmed Hassan Rouhani as the president of the Republic. The electoral campaign had been particularly contentious, and since the first TV debate among the candidates, tones had turned harsh. “Iran again” (Iran dobare) is the post-election slogan that Rouhani’s supporters had chosen. However, in office again Rouhani will need to deal with a number of new challenges that will require a new approach. In particular, he will need to navigate the fractures and divisions within the elite in order to make sure that Iran’s position in foreign politics is credible, as the government prepares to deal with significant challenges ranging from the Trump administration and the Syria file, to the fate of the nuclear agreement of 2015. In order to do this, Rouhani will need to reach out to his conservative rivals in the elite, but this will come with a price. What will the president sacrifice in order to maintain stability? And who will pay the price for it?

Background

Iran has been a hybrid-type of presidential republic since 1989. The 1989 reform had the effect of giving a counter-power to the highest office in the Islamic Republic. While, constitutionally, the rahbar or Supreme Leader is more powerful than the president and may count on a religious and political legitimacy, the president has always acted as a competitor to the Leader. As Jason Rezaian wrote, no matters who the president is, “he’ll have a fight with the supreme leader” on the foreign politics, the economy or on issues related to the role of the judiciary in curbing dissent or shutting down the press that dares to criticise the elite in power. Since 1989, this contentious pattern has repeated itself, regardless of the ideological affinity of the Leader and the president.

During Rouhani’s first term in office (2013-2017), the fights between Rouhani and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mostly revolved around the 2015 nuclear agreement. Although it was reached thanks to the support of Khamenei (who has the last word in matters of foreign policy), the deal was criticised by Khamenei himself and other conservative voices for “selling Iran to the West”. This slogan referred to the conditions that Iran had to accept in exchange for going on with the nuclear programme. In particular, the continuation of sanctions and the limitation in missile activities and trade caused an angry reaction on the part of the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards (the paramilitary apparatus, under the control of the Supreme Leader), who are heavily involved in such military activities.

Khamenei will continue to fight with Rouhani, who received 57.31% of the votes cast. Rouhani’s main rival, Ebrahim Reissi, gathered 38.29% of the preferences. Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative former Minister of Culture, received 1.16% of the votes, and Hashemi-Taba, a reformist former vice-president, 0.52%. With a turnout of 70%, Rouhani received more than 23 and a half million votes, while Reissi less than 16 million.  Polls had to significantly delay the closing time in order to accommodate all voters who had waited long hours to cast their vote.

Ebrahim Reissi, Rouhani’s main contender, was the rahbar’s favourite candidate and a powerful man himself. He is a former general prosecutor in Iran’s judiciary, and he was involved in the mass executions of Leftists during the 1980s. He also is the guardian of the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad, to which a powerful bonyad (or economic foundation) is related, called Astan-e Quds Razavi. This foundation is one of the most powerful charities in the Muslim world. Reissi was appointed to that role by the Supreme Leader himself. He is usually referred to as a hard-liner in foreign politics and, socially, a conservative. It is important to keep in mind that all candidates are, to a different extent, insiders and part of the establishment. In fact, they all have to receive permission to run in elections by the Guardian Council, which assesses the suitability of every candidate. Rouhani is not different, and he also has a long history of service to the regime in key positions. He was a parliamentary member, the deputy of the parliament’s spokesperson, and, crucially, he has been the secretary of the Supreme Council of National Security for 16 years, a position that partly explains his diplomatic successes. In fact, the supreme council has taken part in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme since 2002, along with diplomats from Western countries and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rouhani was appointed to that post by the former president Hashemi Rasfanjani (1989-1997) and re-confirmed by Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He however resigned the position when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president (2005-2013). In 2013, Rouhani campaigned presenting himself as the candidate of moderation, calling for a moderate politics in the international as well as in the domestic arenas.

Although all candidates are insiders, and have to be so, differences exist. First of all, the landscape of domestic politics in Iran is highly factionalised and divided, although two main trends can be identified: the conservatives, who have the backing of the Supreme Leader and the security apparatus, and the reformists, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of the semi-private sector, the moderates and the technocratic elite. These groups have however overlapped and crossed paths during the years. For example, the electoral list that backed Rouhani’s government in the parliamentary election in 2012, namely the “Omid” (hope) list, also included staunch conservatives. Ali Larijani, the conservative spokesperson of the parliament, and Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, another well-known conservative, have publicly declared their support for Rouhani and his moderate agenda.

The electoral campaigns that preceded the 2017 election included however elements of conflict and political contention. For instance, diverging economic visions were on display, and different economic recipes for boosting the economy were presented to the electorate. While the conservative candidates resorted to the promise of increasing economic subsidies, Rouhani denounced these promises as unattainable and remained faithful to his purpose of attracting direct foreign investments (DFIs) in Iran and continuing with privatization. The candidates’ approach to foreign politics also presents important differences, with Rouhani emphasising the need for further engagement with the West and Reissi mostly condemning Rouhani’s past policies as subservient to the West. The economic aspect is fundamental here: while Rouhani promotes the presence of foreign capital in the country, to be attracted thanks to a mix of diplomatic engagement and public efforts, Reissi opposes it because he represents the domestic constituencies that benefit from the absence of foreign capital and privatization.

Also in terms of domestic politics, positions were different and the tone and the language used by the candidates varied as the campaign went on. Values such as national sovereignty and independence were emphasised by Reissi and his supporters, while Rouhani and his supporters focused attention on different issues. Beyond the economy, which was present topic in the electoral campaigns of all candidates, issues such as civil rights and the freedom of political prisoners also featured prominently in Rouhani’s campaign. An example is this video, in which the actress Baran Kosari addresses the audience during a rally in favour of Rouhani naming political prisoners, such as Bahareh Hedayat and her husband, and victims of violence such as Sohrab Arabi, a 19 year-old young man who died during the repression of the 2009 protest movement. This movement, known as the “green movement”, emerged in opposition to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2009. Another video shows Rouhani’s supporters celebrating his victory and chanting the slogan “Atena Daemi must be freed”. Daemi, a young woman, was incarcerated in 2014 for “insulting the Leader”, and is now on hunger strike. Rouhani resonated these calls for freedom, civil and political rights as he also did during his 2013 electoral campaign. According to the journalist Borzou Daraghi, Rouhani seemed to run “against the system he helped create” after the 1979 revolution. However, as Suzanne Maloney underlined, it is very unlikely that Rouhani’s strong criticisms of the system and its record in respecting human rights will be translated into actual policies. In a sense, Rouhani may have tried to play the card of the outsider, along with people such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, although in a very different context.

Seeds of a new system?

During the electoral race, two candidates, Eshaq Jahangiri and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, resigned in favour of the two main contenders, respectively Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Reissi.

Jahangiri is Rouhani’s former vice-president, while Ghalibarf is the current mayor of Tehran. The two candidatures had a different meaning. While it is common for weaker candidates to stand in order to create momentum for the election and later resign in favour of stronger candidates, as was with the case of Jahagiri, Ghalibaf’s candidacy did not serve that purpose. In fact, it was a real candidacy, at least it was until four days before election day.

The mayor of Tehran has run for the presidency three times now, with little success. However, he has been re-elected by Tehran’s city council twice as mayor, and his mandates (2005-2017) focused on developing Tehran’s civil infrastructures, from building an efficient metro network to rebuilding the road system. The mayor also developed the construction sector to an unprecedented level, according to some, making Tehran a city where living has become almost unbearable. In particular, he has been accused of not doing enough to solve the problem of pollution and other issues deriving from over-population and poor traffic management. However, he demonstrated that he was able to bring huge investments to the capital. It is not surprising, then, that his electorate is also composed of technocratic, wealthy people who benefitted from his work as the mayor of the capital and who may be in favour of integrating Iran in the free market international system.

Ghalibaf’s decision to drop out the presidential race, as Farzan Sabet comments, represented an attempt to unify the conservative vote behind Reissi. The conservative bloc in the parliament and in the institutions of the Islamic Republic has been, over the past years, increasingly factionalised. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the 2009 crisis and the very violent repression that repressed the “green movement” created multiple fractures within the conservative bloc. Ghalibaf’s decision was then intended to unite the conservatives and make them vote for Reissi with one single voice.

However, it is likely that part of Ghalibaf’s electorate diverted their vote in favour of Rouhani, who has worked in the past years to reach out and consolidate support among the semi-private sector, regardless of possibly different ideological orientations. It is no coincidence that during the first weeks of the electoral campaign, reformists and Rouhani’s supporters called for a “national dialogue” with “moderate conservatives” – a proposal the Supreme Leader labelled as impractical. The attempted goal was to isolate the hard-liners and reinforce the moderates in both the conservative and the reformist camp, to make support for Rouhani stronger and cross-factional.

Rouhani’s re-election, then, strengthens his position vis-à-vis Supreme Leader Khamenei. The rivalry between the two is feeding another debate that has recently haunted the Islamic Republic, namely the possibility of a constitutional reform. Politicians and opinion-makers have suggested that there are too many competing centres of power in the country, making governance arrangements and decision-making somehow dysfunctional. After favouring a type of presidential system over a parliamentary one, the same policy-makers are now suggesting that eliminating the president and establishing a parliamentary system would solve this problem. Here, executive power, in fact, would entirely rely in the hands of the leader and the legislative function would be in the only hands of the parliament. This proposal is supported by Rouhani. It is likely that Rouhani thinks of himself as the next Leader, considering that the incumbent one is old and, according to rumours, seriously ill. The proposal is backed by Khamenei too, who sees only benefits for his position, should the presidency be eliminated. The proposal would also have the benefit of eliminating potentially de-stabilising moments in the politics of the Islamic Republic, such as presidential elections. These elections mobilise Iranian society, empowers it and therefore create opportunities for major disruptions and protests, such as the 2009 “green movement”.

Rouhani’s challenges

Rouhani will need to square a circle, starting with Iran’s foreign policy. US aversion toward Iran (confirmed during Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20th) is not new to the Iranian establishment, but it may now manifest itself differently in the context of the regional, Syrian crisis. As the US and Russia seem to have grown closer on the Syria file, it remains to be seen how this will impact on Iran. In particular, the consequence of this will impact on Iran’s traditional anti-Israel policy in Syria. Not only have Russia and Israel already collaborated in military activities in Syria and have a flourishing weapons trade, but US rapprochement with Russia may strengthen the Moscow-Tel Aviv axis, with an effect on the Moscow-Tehran one.

Despite unfavourable circumstances, Rouhani’s election may re-unite the conservative front. This could happen if Rouhani’s rent distribution fails or if Rouhani’s international policies create major discontent. The question of foreign investments is crucial here. Iran is still a long way from being able to significantly increase the quantity of foreign investments because of a number of factors, among which is the fact that Iran has been under sanctions for decades and has therefore developed a quasi self-sufficient financial system. However, should FDI significantly increase and should Rouhani’s administration fail to distribute rents efficiently, Rouhani may face a significant challenge from powerful sectors of the establishment. Khamenei has made no mystery of the discontent that is mounting, and has invited Rouhani to look for investment within the borders of Iran.

This may jeopardise not only Iran’s international economic policies, but also Iran’s foreign policy. Should discontent with the nuclear deal reach higher levels, it may become difficult for Rouhani’s administration to advance the deal with hostile governments, such as Trump’s, in a consistent and credible way.

Rouhani may also enrage the part of his electorate that backed his candidacy not only to avoid a four-year term of socially conservative policies and tension in the realm of international politics, but also to advance political and civil rights, to free the political prisoners of the “green movement” and to improve the rights of workers. This is not a small part of Rouhani’s electorate. During Rouhani’s first term, respect for human rights did not improve. The nuclear deal and Iran’s integration in the free market economy came at the cost of stabilising the country, namely repressing all potential sources of instability. The further weakening of workers’ rights and the silence on the abuses of the judicial system and the security forces on individuals critical of the regime, have been a characteristic of Rouhani’s mandate. The images and videos coming from Iran of the people who retook to the streets upon the electoral result chanting slogans demanding freedom and justice, suggest that this may turn into a serious challenge – should the government fail to address demands for rights and social justice.

Petra Stykow – Turkmenistan: The 2016 Constitutional Reform

This is a guest post by Prof. Dr. Petra Stykow of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

During the last couple of years, presidents of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus have been busily engaged in constitutional reforms. Praised as major steps toward the “perfection” and “further democratization” of the political system, such reforms are mostly cosmetic. However, most of the time, from behind the mixture of minimally re-edited phrases and copy-pasted international standards of civic and human rights some important details peer out. Typically, they legalize the president’s stay in office beyond term limits or regulate questions of a looming succession in power. This also holds for the 2016 reform of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world.

Turkmenistan’s first constitution was embraced in May 1992, being the first new basic law across the territory of the former Soviet Union. It created a system of government that has been qualified as “presidential” in the literature, but was of a very special kind. It perfectly matched the preferences of President Saparmurat Niyazov who had led the Turkmen Soviet Republic as the First Secretary of the Communist Party since 1985. The head of state and chief executive and the Mejlis as “a legislative organ” were but constituent parts of an “ultimate representative organ of popular government,” the “People’s Assembly” (Halk Maslahaty). In addition to the president and the cabinet ministers, the members of the assembly and the top office holders of the court system, this Assembly included representatives of local assemblies and heads of administrative units, and—after 2003—also the leadership of political and social organizations, eventually reaching the impressive number of 2507 persons. It was the Assembly that “convinced” the Turkmenbashi (“Leader of all Turkmens”) in 1999 to accept the presidency for the rest of his life, approved his proposals about laws, such as seven-generations-background checks for aspirants of the public service or the renaming of all days of the week and months of the year[1], lauded the president’s achievements, awarded him medals, etc.[2]

Niyazov suddenly passed away in 2006. A few days later, the People’s Assembly stripped the parliamentary speaker—who was to replace the president according to the constitution—of his immunity (making his arrest possible) and abolished the ban on an acting president to run for the presidency. This cleared the way for Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. In 2008, he launched a new constitution, abolishing the People’s Assembly and consolidating the presidency as the lynchpin of the political system. While the president has extensive nonlegislative and legislative powers, making him one of the strongest presidents worldwide,[3] the Mejlis, in turn, is one of the weakest assemblies in the world, barely fulfilling the role of a rubber stamp to the president’s will. A peculiar feature of all editions of the Constitution consists of the lack of an impeachment procedure. Instead, “in case of violation of the Constitution and laws,” the Mejlis may express “no-confidence” in the president by a vote of “at least three-fourth” of the 125 deputies. In this case, a national referendum ultimately decides on whether the president has to quit.

A constitutional amendment to the 2008 Constitution was drafted by a president-led Constitutional commission since May 2014 and subjected to public discussion in March 2016. On 14 September 2016, the reform was unanimously adopted by the advisory Council of Elders and the legislature. After the president’s immediate signature, the Amendment entered into force the same day.[4] It addressed a total of 107 articles, of which 24 were newly added and four extensively revised. Further, a section was introduced that codifies “Economy and Financial System,” based on the “principles of market relations.”

Most changes result from a minor editing of the text. In addition, there are some subtle, rather symbolic amendments. For example, the principle of neutrality in foreign affairs, which is the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy since 1992, is now enshrined in a separate article (art. 2), after having been pooled with the principles of democracy, legalism and secularism (art. 1) in the previous version. Other amendments are influenced by consultations with the UN, the OSCE, the German aid society GIZ, or have been suggested during the public debate on the Draft Constitution, so at least officials have claimed. Thus, a number of human rights provisions have been adopted. The president became the guarantor of “rights and freedoms of people and citizens” and was granted the right to nominate a candidate for the soon-to-be-established post of a Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ODIHR/OSCE Comments on the 2016 Draft Amendment consists of a long list of recommendations for the adjustment of provisions that do not meet international standards.[5] Sometimes, the final document seems to respond, but this does not necessarily solve the issue in question. A telling example is a clause that can be found in the 1992 and 2008 constitutions as well as in the 2016 Draft. In full agreement with the traditional Soviet understanding, it is stated that “the exercise of rights and freedoms shall be inseparable from the performance by a person and a citizen of their responsibilities toward the society and the state.” In the final version of the 2016 Amendment, this sentence has been eliminated. However, what remains is Article 30 claiming that “the exercise of rights and freedoms must not violate the rights and freedoms of others, as well as the requirements of morality, law, public order, or cause damage to national security.” This preserves wide scope for interpretation.

Other OSCE suggestions about issues such as institutional mechanisms ensuring separation of powers or counter-balancing “the quite extensive presidential powers” have been ignored by the regime—which is no wonder, if we assume that even dictators tend to use constitutions as “operating manuals” for the daily functioning of the regime. An example is the regulation of political pluralism. The 2016 revision of the Constitution introduces an explicit commitment to “political diversity and party-based pluralism,” obliging the state to ensure an “enabling environment for the development of the civil society.” This is mostly “cheap talk,” but it also fits Berdymukhammedov’s engagement in controlled party- and NGO-building, a strategy he shares with much of his colleagues in Eurasia. However, the Constitution restricts the right to form political parties, banning not only violent organizations but also parties “encroaching on the health and morality of the people” and “parties with ethnic or religious attributes.” This clause has neither been welcomed by the OSCE in 2008 nor in 2016 but remains unchanged since 1992.

The huge cosmetic part of the 2016 Reform almost conceals the single most important change. It consists of a small omission concerning presidential tenure in office. While the Turkmenbashi had scrapped the typical post-Soviet re-election restriction—“nobody shall be elected for more than two consecutive terms”—as early as 1999, Berdymukhammedov has now removed the last hurdle to lifetime presidency. Aged 60, he foresightedly lengthened the presidential term from five to seven years and removed the age-70 cap for candidates.

The 2016 reform also tinkers with provisions regulating the question of succession in power. As a measure of precaution against the premature removal by a rival, all versions of the Turkmenistani Constitution prohibit an interim president from running for office. Since 2008, this interim president had to be chosen by the Security Council from the no less than ten deputy chairmen of the cabinet. Now, it is—as it was from 1992 to 2007—the speaker of the Mejlis who temporarily stands in for an ill or dead incumbent. Thus, it seems as if a deputy chairman, even if he competes with nine colleagues, is considered to be more dangerous for a sitting president than the speaker of a toothless assembly. After all, a deputy chairman is responsible for a certain policy, such as Economy and Finance, or Oil and Gas. This grants him access to important resources on which to build power against the incumbent.

Against this background, the newest proposal of the President is worth attention. In his inauguration address on 17 February 2017, Berdymukhammedov who had won his third election against eight government-nominated “competitors” by 97.7 percent of the votes announced a new reform. The Council of Elders, which is not mentioned in the Constitution and consists of 600 people who are not elected but selected, is planned to be granted a status above that of parliament.[6] It shall be entitled to approve the decisions of the assembly and the cabinet before they enter into force.[7] This idea revokes the “People’s Assembly” in the 1992 Constitution. Its realization would deprive the Mejlis of their rubber stamp and further downsize the position of the assembly’s speaker.

Notes

The full text of the 2016 revision of the Constitution of Turkmenistan can be found here: http://www.legislationline.org/documents/section/constitutions/country/51

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaming_of_Turkmen_months_and_days_of_week,_2002

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[3] http://presidential-power.com/?page_id=2151

[4] http://www.turkmenistan.ru/en/articles/18145.html

[5] OSCE/ODIHR (2016):  Comments on the Draft Constitution of Turkmenistan, Comments-Nr.: CONST-TKM/288/2016, 21.7.2016

[6] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[7] https://rus.azathabar.com/a/28320695.html

William Crotty – Donald Trump’s Presidency: Stage One

This is a guest post by William Crotty, editor of Winning the Presidency 2016 (Routledge, 2017)

Introduction: The first 100 days of a new presidency is considered a marking point. In this post, the recently inaugurated president is evaluated in relation to:

  • his (in this case) approach to governing; the quality, background and experience of his appointees to federal office;
  • his substantive initiatives and accomplishments in domestic and international affairs (trade, military actions and relations with other nations);
  • the operational efficiency and professionalism of his administration and its decision-making.

Comparisons are then made with previous administrations and in particular with that of his predecessor.

Donald Trump responded to his 100-day anniversary with one of his many unpredictable outbursts, calling it a false standard of no significance. Then he did his best to provide the media and voters with a sense of a hyper-active presidency, on the move and transformative.

It largely failed. The Trump presidency was criticized on a number of levels from his chaotic White House to his being an uninformed and even ignorant leader, leading an administration with no clear direction or substantive achievements of merit. Nonetheless, Trump, by accident or self-interest, was correct in scoffing at the first 100 days of a presidency as a marking point; it is one that shows little predictive power in determining the final perception of an administration. Still, accepting the conventional standard serves the purpose of providing an early assessment of an administrative ability to adapt to the demands of the world’s most powerful office.

Taken in this context, the evaluations have not been kind. Trump was seen as unprepared for the presidency; ignorant of its working of government; unfamiliar with the history of the country or its relation with other nations; favoring billionaires, military personnel, conspiracy theorists and nationalists in running his administration; an unpredictable and vengeful leader; and autocratic in style and thinking. Government appeared not to interest him and his issue concerns focused mainly on rewarding those of wealth and, through his family, continuing his business interests. As he would say, he never expected the presidency to be as complicated as it was. He considered Washington a “swamp,” as he said in the campaign, and did his best to spend time in Florida golfing and entertaining at his Mar-a-Lago estate, club and golf course. He had even used his property to conduct business fully in the public eye (his meeting with the prime minister of Japan and their reacting to a North Koran threat being one of the more dramatic instances).

The pattern and style of his decision-making and the values and priorities forming these are clear extensions of those found in the campaign. Basically the administration is run exactly like the campaign – it is a one-man operation – and the promises made in the election provide the blueprint for the administration.

A final point before looking at what has and has not been achieved. However Trump may be judged by the media and outsiders, his core supporters continue to back him. Unlike Barack Obama, he has made it a priority to continue the rallies that marked the campaign, which he enjoys, to give his followers his version of events. In two national polls (taken before the firing of the director of the FBI), 97 to 98 percent of Trump voters continue to support him and believe he is doing what he promised to do. However one assesses his actions, the political landscape has been in turmoil since his assuming the office of president.

Appointments: Trump has appointed Wall Street executives to his major economic positions in the administration, all with no government experience. He has appointed high-ranking military officers to defense and national security positions. Beyond these, he has chosen people to lead Cabinet and other agencies who are committed to ending them (Gov. Rick Perry of Texas in the energy department) or want to end their mission (Betsy DeVos heading the education department and wanting to stop funding for public schools, and Scott Pruitt, who has repeatedly sued the EPA, the agency he now heads) and/or who have no knowledge of the department’s mission (Dr. Ben Carson in housing). He has fired but is yet to replace federal prosecutors nationwide. Additionally, hundreds of other government positions have been left open.

Sources of Information: Given his lack of knowledge or experience in understanding government operations, Trump depends heavily on outside sources to keep him informed and up-to-date. He does not trust government agencies and he particularly distrusts the national security agencies and the CIA. Consequently, and given his predilection for conspiracy theories and nationalist commitments in policy matters, he relies on Fox News, a conservative network (he spends a considerable amount of time watching TV), and hard-core nationalist radio programs. Stephen K. Bannon, one of his closest advisors, is a product of such an environment.

Trump relies primarily on himself and his instincts, does not prepare himself for situations and comes across as disorganized, temperamental and unpredictable, qualities he appears to value. Add to this his family, and especially his daughter Ivanka who has an office in the White House, who are called on for advice and to run his business affairs. He also has a large if informal number of corporate executives who meet with him personally or on a semi-regular basis.

Trump’s major issues in the campaign were repealing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”); revising (“reforming”) the tax code to cut rates and further reward the wealthiest; and stopping immigration and deporting undocumented aliens and anyone who has entered the country illegally, regardless of length of residence.

The record:

  • Trump’s major preoccupation during his campaign as well as a major agenda item of the Republican party since it was passed by the Congress was the repeal of Obamacare. He promised a better, more efficient and less expensive replacement that would continue to be inclusive.

It turned out that neither Trump or the Republicans had a plan in mind. House Speaker Paul Ryan along with a handful of House colleagues did put together a bill that would largely end Obamacare, change the tax code to help the wealthy and cripple Medicaid which serves many of the medical needs of the poorest Americans. Trump signed on and promised a “bloodbath” if all Republicans did not vote for it. It fell short of 11 supporters to gain a majority and so was not brought to the House floor. The outcome was considered a disaster for the administration and Democrats claimed that Obamacare was now safe. They were wrong.

The Far Right Freedom/Tea Party Caucus opposition had sunk the bill. They then came up with a more restrictive bill that eliminated more services, cut Medicaid by $800 billion and changed the tax code to move the same amount to the wealthiest of Americans. The bill would deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, a particularly sensitive issue.  Trump and Ryan signed on. It passed by 4 votes. The bill passed a Republican-controlled House in a matter of days and without Congressional Budget Office review of the cost, making a mockery of the legislative process. The Republican Senate indicated it may write its own bill.

The second attempt at repeal (The American Health Care Act) makes changes to the subsidies for those who buy their own healthcare insurance. It includes a provision that states can opt out of some or all of the act’s provisions. Most of the state governments are now in the hands of the Republicans who have argued for the ability to opt-out from the beginning. It has a particular appeal to them and should the final bill keep this option, most states will enforce it, using this as the opportunity to limit or totally deny benefits to their residents.

Trump sent a one-page revision of the tax code to Congress. It would redraw the tax laws, again transferring wealth to the best-off, ending estate and other taxes that affected the richest and lowering the maximum tax a corporation or individual could pay to 15 percent (down from a standard of 35%). It offered minor changes to advantage the working and middle classes. The Congressional Budget Office has yet to calculate the losses in revenue for the government from the tax proposal or for the health care repeal bill passed by the House.

Trump increased arrests and efforts to deport undocumented aliens (a total of 22,000 from January to March, 2017) and attempted to shut down immigration from five Muslim countries. The administration has encountered court efforts to review or halt such actions. Trump responded to the courts’ questioning of his plans by saying he would restructure the federal court system to eliminate such delays in the execution of his orders.

These were Trump’s major initiatives.

In addition:

  • Trump is reviewing and cancelling as promised all Executive Orders issued by his predecessor Barack Obama. These include environmental restrictions on oil, gas and coal production and other (health-related) provisions; efforts to control climate change; limits on pipeline expansion throughout the country including approval of the Dakota Access pipeline and allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed; set-asides of public lands for national parks and recreation; safety guidelines; the Dodd-Frank bill limits on Wall Street; government support for the arts and PBS; and so on. He is attempting to reverse the Clean Power Plan and international agreements on air and water pollution, open national parks and protected waterways to oil drilling, reverse efforts to prohibit oil and coal companies from dumping toxic waste into waterways; and end any restrictions on corporate earnings. Further in this context, he proposes to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, along with related cuts in the budgets of other federal agencies concerned with domestic programs.
  • Trump’s off-hand remarks appeared to reverse the two states objectives for Israel-Palestine and reinstate the two nations approach for China and Taiwan.
  • He imposed tariffs on goods coming into the U.S. such as lumber and dairy products while threatening to withdraw from NATO and canceling the Trans-Pacific Partnership Obama attempted to have passed in his final days in office.
  • Trump appointed and had confirmed in close Senate vote hard-right conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
  • Trump ordered 59 cruise missiles fired into Syria in response, the White House said, to the Syrian government’s use of poison gas on its population.
  • With or without his direct approval, the military dropped the “mother of all bombs” second in impact only to a nuclear bomb and never before used on a reputed ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan.
  • He signed order for constructing a wall along the Mexican border but funding has been left uncertain.

The actions taken have been frantic and mostly unpredictable, a style that Trump likes and one that suits his temperament. In broad terms, the effort is to reduce domestic programs to a minimum; remove all restrictions in the public interest on economic activity; end environmental safeguards; stop immigration; and introduce a contentious and challenging foreign policy to international affairs, a phase that is just developing.

An issue that would not go away is Russia‘s role in the election in promoting Trump’s candidacy and in the number of advisors to Trump’s campaign and nominees for federal office with contacts of various kinds to the Russians. Most of these have been denied. They include the senator (Jeff Sessions of Alabama) chosen as Attorney General who lied on his ties to the Russians in his confirmation hearing and the national security director, former general Michael T. Flynn, who had lied to the Vice President and others about his Russian associations. He was fired by Trump. There have also been such alleged associations between other members of the administration and advisors to Trump’s campaign.

The White House refused to investigate the charges as to date has the Congress and the Justice Department which also has refused to appoint a Special Prosecutor to look into the matter. The FBI says it is investigating such ties but will not give out any information. Critics argue this is what the FBI should have been doing during the campaign.

Shortly after appearing before the Congress and indicating the Russian connections to the Trump campaign and White House appointments and advisors was under investigation, Trump fired the FBI director, James T. Comey. The firing caused a sensation and drew comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Presidential historian Richard North Patterson: “… this latest spasm of self-absorbed self-preservation carries the anomalous stamp of Trump’s disordered psyche.

… what is so distinctive and disturbing here is Trump’s naked desire to attack the legal system itself, reducing his presidency to a cage match between our institutions of justice and a man who does not even pretend to represent them.”  (Richard North Patterson, “A President Is Acting Guilty and Unhinged,” Boston Globe, May 11, 2017, p. A14).

Trump’s reaction was to meet with Russian government officials, including that county’s ambassador to the United States, a principal in the controversy, and to prohibit the American press from covering the meeting. The photo of the event to appear in the media was supplied by the Russians. Trump has also said he may stop daily press briefings for the media and limit these to one every two weeks which he himself may lead, rather than his communications staff.

One thing is clear: Trump loves strongmen. He has praised Vladimir Putin of Russia repeatedly. He personally called President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, charged with the mass killings of drug dealers, praised him and invited him to the White House. After having his Secretary of State threaten North Korea with the possibility of military action, he completely changed direction, praising North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un and while warning that “nobody is safe” from North Korea nuclear weapons said he would be “honored” to meet with him. Besides Putin and Duterte, Trump has congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a former army officer who instigated a ruthless purge of dissidents and Islamists. “. … Trump seems to have a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent.” (Ishaan Tharoor, Today’s Worldview: “Trump’s Invitation to Duterte Is a Sign of the Times,” Washington Post, May 1, 2017.

Donald Trump had begun his post–100 day presidency by:

  • Saying the Civil War (1861-1865) in which 600,000 Americans died was unnecessary. Abraham Lincoln was responsible for it. If Trump’s new hero, populist President Andrew Jackson, was in charge the war would not have taken place. Jackson was a slave holder. The two sides (North and South) should have made a deal, according to the president.
  • Said visitors logs to the White House will no longer be publicly available.
  • Changed May 1st, normally a day to celebrate labor unions, into “loyalty day” intended to honor nationalism, small government and his presidency
  • Announced an increase in military actions in Afghanistan
  • Said the United States government needed “a good shutdown” in the fall to force a partisan confrontation over federal spending
  • Waived all rules on the conflict of interests

There of course is much more but this should give an idea of the administration, how it operates and what it believes important.

Democratic Party Opposition: As for the Democrats, potential presidential candidates for the party’s 2020 nomination are beginning to stir. These include the familiar – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and possibly Hillary Clinton – and the not-so-well-known- members of Congress, mayors of major cities and governors. Meanwhile, while the congressional House and Senate parties have vigorously contested the Trump presidency, the 2018 congressional elections are coming up, for which the Democratic party has not prepared.

The party was devastated under Barack Obama. He had no interest in it, did little campaigning for candidates, ignored party-building and basically controlled the national party to ensure it offered no opposition to his presidency. In the process, he left the field to the Republicans. The results were the Democrats lost 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats and lost their majority in both houses of the Congress. They also lost just under 1,000 state legislative seats. The party is in its worse shape since 1922 and Democratic governors at their lowest ebb since 1865. To date, it has yet to begin recruiting candidates for the 2018 off-year congressional and state races.

The DNC during Obama’s presidency and under his control was a part-time operation. The then-chair’s one preoccupation was in advancing Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency. In the words of the Democratic leader of the Senate, the national committee was “useless.” And the neglect took its toll.

Given this, the battle for control of the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in early 2017 assumed unusual importance. It pitted a progressive Congressman committed to rebuilding the party against a member of the Obama administration, a centrist with no electoral experience, strongly backed by Obama in his last days in the White House. Obama’s candidate was supported by, in addition to Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. His opponent was supported by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, the major labor unions and grassroots Democrats hoping to mobilize those taking part in anti-Trump rallies nationwide. Obama’s candidate won a close race and the national committee has continued to remain essentially dormant while Obama has announced a $400,000 fee for a Wall Street talk. Such talks and his commitment to writing a book on his presidency are his present concerns (book contracts with Barack and Michelle Obama in the range of $60 million have been reported by The Guardian. The biggest problem for the National Democratic Party is not opposing Trump, although it has done little along these lines, but getting out from under Barack Obama’s control.

Conclusion: The 100-day reckoning may be a false standard as claimed. Still a number of things about Trump and his presidency have become clear. First, he is not prepared for the job of president. Second, while he enjoys exercising power he does not like the demands of the presidency, the public and media scrutiny and the criticisms of his behavior and he hates “the swamp,” Washington. Third, he with his family’s assistance will keep their main focus on making money and extending the Trump brand. Fourth, he is determined to destroy what is left of a soft social welfare state in the United States. Fifth, he is committed to increasing the already extensive polarization of wealth in the country, further enriching those at the top of the income pyramid (himself included), making a situation already the worst among advanced democracies that much worse. Sixth, he wants an aggressive, contentious and militaristic defense and foreign policy, the outlines of which are just becoming clear. And finally he is an autocrat determined to do whatever is needed to increase his personal power, testing the limits imposed by a democratic society.

Finally, Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times (May 3, 2017, p. A27) writes: “Has the first 100 days of the presidency made Donald Trump nuts? … You read all of Trump’s 100-day interviews and they are just bizarre.” It is an administration “… bound not by a shared vision but by a shared willingness to overlook Trump’s core ignorance, instability and indecency.”*

The question left is where do we go from here and the answer is likely more of the same.

 

 

*For Trump’s assessment of the first 100 days, see his speech to a rally of supporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on April 29, 2017.

(Note: As of May 12, 2017, the WhiteHouse.gov website has the link above “being updated,”
although video of the rally is available from various web sources.)

New publications

Anna Fruhstorfer, ‘Paradoxes of Constitutional Politics in the Post-Soviet Space’, 2017 U. Ill. L. Rev. 767 (2017), pp. 767-790.

Verónica Montecinos (ed.), Women Presidents and Prime Ministers in Post-Transition Democracies’, Palgrave, 2017.

Allison McCulloch and John McGarry (eds.), Power Sharing: Empirical and Normative Challenges, Routledge, 2017.

Benjamin Reilly, ‘An Elephant’s Graveyard? Democracy and Development in East Asia’, Government and Opposition, Volume 52, Issue 1 January 2017, pp. 162-183.

Mathew Y. H. Wong, ‘Presidentialism and Parliamentarism’, in Mathew Y. H. Wong, Comparative Hong Kong Politics: A Guidebook for Students and Researchers, Springer, 2017, pp. 139-154.

Enes Kulenović and Krešimir Petković,, ‘The Croatian Princes: Power, Politics and Vision (1990-2011)’, Croatian Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, 2016, pp. 105-131.

André Borges and Mathieu Turgeon, ‘Presidential coattails in coalitional presidentialism’, Party Politics , First published date: April-06-2017, DOI 10.1177/1354068817702283.

Christopher A Martínez, ‘Presidential survival in South America: Rethinking the role of democracy’, International Political Science Review, Volume: 38 issue: 1, pp. 40-55.

Octavio Amorim Neto, ‘A crise política brasileira de 2015-2016 Diagnóstico, sequelas e profilaxia’ (The 2015-2016 Brazilian political crisis: diagnostic, lessons and prophylaxis), Relações Internacionais  no. 52, 2017. Available at: http://www.scielo.mec.pt/pdf/ri/n52/n52a04.pdf

Special issue, The Five Faces of the President: Leadership, Presidentialism, and Public Policy in Brazil, five articles, Policy Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3, 2017.

Marcus André Melo and Carlos Pereira, ‘The Governance of Infrastructure in Multiparty Presidentialism’, in Kai Wegrich, Genia Kostka, and Gerhard Hammerschmid (eds.), The Governance of Infrastructure, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 225-249.

Jean Blondel, ‘Viewing African Presidencies Concretely and Positively: Six Case-Studies as Examples’, in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, and Thomas Poguntke (eds.), Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer, pp. 153-180.

Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, ‘Strong Presidents for Weak States. How Weak State Capacity Fosters Vertically Concentrated Executives’, in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, and Thomas Poguntke (eds.), Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer, pp. 205-226.

Titin Purwaningsih and Septi Nur Wijayant, ‘Concurrent Election in Indonesian Politics: Opportunities and Challenges of Political Perspective’, Journal of Asian Review of Public Affairs and Policy, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 26-44, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.222.99/arpap/2017.09

Gary Schmitt, Joseph M. Bessette, and Andrew E. Busch (eds.), The Imperial Presidency and the Constitution, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Štěpán Drahokoupil – Czech Republic: Back to instability

This is a guest post by Štěpán Drahokoupil, Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague

The Czech Republic has experienced a period of remarkable political stability since the formation of the coalition government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in January 2014[1]. But the political events of last week once again reminded many people that governments lasting four years – the regular term of the Chamber of Deputies – are very rare. One of the main causes of the recent development is the tense relationship between Prime Minister Sobotka and President Zeman, but also weak political practices during the process of accepting resignations and nominations of Prime Ministers in the Czech Republic.

Here is a summary of what happened in Prague last week: Prime Minister Sobotka held a press conference on Tuesday, May 2, where he was expected to announce a recall of Andrej Babiš, the Minister of Finance, due to accusations of illicit financial dealings. Instead, Sobotka announced his resignation and therefore the end of the whole government. The ceremony, where the President was supposed to accept the resignation of PM, was scheduled for Thursday. However, Prime Minister Sobotka unexpectedly informed President Zeman that he first wished to consult with the president about the next steps without formally handing in his resignation. President Zeman then held the ceremony anyway, even though there was no actual resignation from the prime minister. What is even more remarkable (although not entirely unusual for Zeman) is that the president behaved very disrespectfully towards the prime minister. At the end of the week, Prime Minister Sobotka decided to recall only minister Babiš after all and took back the announced resignation of the whole government. The main reason for this U-turn seems to be that Sobotka did not receive an assurance from the President that he would accept the resignation of the whole government – as is the custom – instead of only the resignation of Prime Minister Sobotka.

After more than two decades of the independent Czech Republic there is no political consensus on the very rules of how to dissolve a government or how to nominate one. When previous Prime Ministers (Václav Klaus, Vladimír Špidla, Stanislav Gross, Mirek Topolánek and Petr Nečas) handed their resignations to the presidents of the day, their government was considered to have resigned. This time, the president openly questioned this political practice – Zeman argued that Sobotka’s resignation could be perceived as  the resignation of only the prime minister not of the whole government. This is also not the first time that President Zeman has interpreted constitutional stipulations and political practice in a way that has suited his own political interests. After the resignation of Prime Minister Nečas in 2013, President Zeman appointed a new government led by Jiří Rusnok. However, he did so without consulting the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the parliament) and therefore without securing a majority for the new govenrment. Subsequently, Jiří Rusnok and his government failed to win the vote of confidence, but the President refused to appoint another candidate for prime minister (although parliament had previously presented an alternative). Therefore the government of Prime Minister Rusnok was in office without the confidence of the lower chamber of the Parliament for several months and was replaced only after the general elections in 2013, which were won by the CSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka and his allies.

The current political crisis also demonstrates that when there is a stable government, based on a functioning coalition of political parties, the prime minister can successfully challenge the president and his/her actions – irrespective of whether they are warranted by any constitutional stipulations. However, when one government party becomes an ally of the president, it considerably strengthens the position of the head of state. It is well-known that the Minister of Finance, Andrej Babiš, and President Miloš Zeman have made a political pact, resulting in a difficult situation for Prime Minister Sobotka. Moreover, President Zeman is seen as the clear frontrunner in the next presidential elections in 2018, while Andrej Babiš’ political movement, ANO, is polling around 30% (in contrast with PM Sobotka’s Social Democrats at 15 %).  The next general elections are scheduled for late October of this year.

Bohuslav Sobotka has been in office for 40 months as of May 2017. In terms of time in office, this makes him the third most successful Prime Minister in the history of the Czech Republic. Only the current President Miloš Zeman and his predecessor President Václav Klaus finished their whole terms as Prime Ministers, both 48 months (see Table 1 below). No government of the Czech Republic has finished its four-year mandate since 2002. Thus, the recent development seems much more like a norm of Czech politics rather than an exceptional situation.

Table 1: Prime Ministers in office (1992 – 2017)

Prime Minister Term Number of months
Václav Klaus 1992 – 1996 48
Václav Klaus 1996 – 1998 18
Josef Tošovský 1998 6
Miloš Zeman 1998 – 2002 48
Vladimír Špidla 2002 – 2004 25
Stanislav Gross 2004 – 2005 8
Jiří Paroubek 2005 – 2006 17
Mirek Topolánek 2006 – 2007 4
Mirek Topolánek 2007 – 2009 26
Jan Fischer 2009 – 2010 14
Petr Nečas 2010 – 2013 36
Jiří Rusnok 2013 – 2014 6
Bohuslav Sobotka 2014 – 2017 40+ (as of May 2017)

The average time in office of Czech governments is less than two years. The shortest government lasted only four months and the longest four years. When we take into consideration that some of the cabinets were technocratic governments – headed by non-political figures because there was no political majority in the Chamber of Deputies – the “political governments” lasted on average 25.6 months and technocratic governments 8.7 months.

Table 2: Average time of governments, shortest and longest governments (1992 – 2013)

Average duration of all governments 21.3 months
Shortest government: PM Mirek Topolánek (2006 – 2007) 4 months
Longest governments: PM Václav Klaus (1992 – 1996), PM Miloš Zeman (1998 – 2002) 48 months
Average duration of “political governments” 25.6 months
Average duration of “governments of officials” 8.7 months

Note: Since the final number of months of PM Sobotka in office is still unknown, it is not part of the calculations.

Notes

[1] The government was formed by the Social Democrats (CSSD), the political movement ANO and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL). It had 111 out of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

____________________
Štěpán Drahokoupil is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Charles University. He graduated in political science from Charles University and his research focus is comparative political science, specifically political systems and the theory of democratic, hybrid and undemocratic regimes.

Marisa Kellam – Why Pre-Electoral Coalitions in Presidential Systems?

This is a guest post by Marisa Kellam, Associate Professor, Waseda University. It is based on her recent article in the British Journal of Political Science.

Presidential politics goes hand in hand with coalitional politics in Latin America, especially in South America. As recently reported in this blog, presidents in the region often depend on the support of other parties to win election and to govern.

In this post, I will focus on pre-electoral coalitions. [1] To give some recent examples: President Bachelet in Chile, President Santos in Colombia, and former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff all ran for re-election with a multiparty electoral alliance.  Multiple parties also supported Argentine President Macri’s candidacy. In recent elections in other countries, the incumbent party candidate defeated an opposition pre-electoral coalition, such as in Ecuador’s recent election, Bolivia’s 2014 presidential contest, or the 2013 presidential election in Venezuela.

In fact, pre-electoral coalitions in presidential elections have been a feature of Latin American democracy since the third-wave, and even before. Yet the conventional wisdom has been that these coalitions were “not binding past election day.” [2] However, increasing attention to post-electoral coalition formation in comparative presidentialism research has led to new findings that winning pre-electoral coalitions usually go on to form post-electoral governing coalitions. [3] Does the strong empirical correspondence between pre-electoral coalitions and post-electoral governments call for a revision of the conventional wisdom? My recently published article in the British Journal of Political Science speaks to this puzzle.

Why do parties form pre-electoral coalitions in presidential systems? From the perspective of a presidential candidate, it would seem to be an easy answer—the more in my camp, the merrier—that is, unless she must give something in return. When considering potential partner parties, we might assume that the presidential candidate offers them government positions—just as presidents offer coalition partners in government negotiations—except that pre-electoral agreements involve only promises not actual offers.

Although I set out to overturn the conventional wisdom on pre-electoral coalitions, I found no convincing argument to support a contrary claim that presidential candidates’ promises to distribute government positions and resources to other parties are credible commitments in presidential systems. Presidents alone control cabinet appointments—even their own parties cannot hold presidents immediately accountable. Moreover, presidents’ partners will not necessarily punish them for breaking their pre-electoral commitments. A party that wants access to resources under the president’s control is unlikely to make a loud complaint, much less to pull out of the government completely.  And if parties do not reveal the extent to which presidents fail to honor agreements to share spoils, then neither presidents nor their parties will pay a reputational cost. This isn’t to say that presidents will break their promises; it is only to make the point that candidates’ pre-electoral promises to share spoils are “cheap talk” and party leaders know this.

I find it useful to contrast these behind the door negotiations with presidential candidates’ public campaigns.  A presidential candidate and her political party pays an immediate reputational cost if she publically campaigns on a policy compromise made with another party in order to gain its support. True, a president is not bound to her campaign platforms. But even so, the pre-electoral policy agreement reveals information about her policy positions.  A pre-electoral policy agreement also gives the president and her partners a shared mandate, or common purpose, after the election. And if the president ends up reneging on that policy agreement later, the coalition partner would likely refuse to go along, consistent with their own electoral incentives and policy motivations.

These differences between patronage promises and campaign platforms provide some insight as to why parties join pre-electoral coalitions to support other parties’ candidates in presidential systems. Political parties join pre-electoral coalitions in pursuit of policy goals, but not as part of an office-seeking strategy.  To provide empirical evidence to support this argument, I compare characteristics of the parties that joined pre-electoral coalitions with those that did not.

More specifically, I compare the probability of participation in pre-electoral coalitions of programmatic parties to that of particularistic parties.  Particularistic parties are those that experts classify as having no discernible policy position on the standard, left-right macroeconomic dimension of politics; instead, particularistic parties focus on the distribution of “pork” and patronage or serve single-interests.  According to my reasoning, if these parties do not have policy goals then they should be less likely to join pre-electoral coalitions (unless one of their own members is on the president-VP ticket). Programmatic parties, in contrast, may use pre-electoral coalitions to identify and help elect presidential candidates who are closest to them in terms of policy.

I analyzed coalitions formed, and not formed, in 77 elections held in 11 Latin American countries.  I found that programmatic political parties (i.e. policy-seeking parties) were more likely than particularistic political parties (i.e. office-seeking parties) to join pre-electoral coalitions in support of another party’s presidential candidate.  As expected, I also found that the greater the ideological distance between a programmatic party and the party of a presidential candidate, the less likely they are to join that candidate’s coalition.

While the once conventional thinking that presidents have little incentive to form governing coalitions has been overturned, this does not imply that the conventional wisdom regarding electoral coalitions should also be cast aside. As I have discussed, pre-electoral coalition bargaining differs from post-electoral government negotiations, with important implications for presidential politics in multiparty systems.

In conducting this research, I realized that the reason why parties join pre-electoral coalitions in presidential systems is less obvious than it appeared at first glance. Even if pre-electoral coalitions are not binding commitments to govern together after the election, the coalition formation process itself informs political parties about their respective policy positions and creates a shared mandate.

 

Notes

[[1]] On a side note, the prefix “pre” seems unnecessary to me, but I use it nonetheless because the term pre-electoral coalitions is widely used in the literature.

[2] Mainwaring, Scott, and Mathew Shugart. 1997. Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America. Cambridge UP, p. 397.

[3] As discussed previously in this blog, see Freudenreich, Johannes. 2016. “The Formation of Cabinet Coalitions in Presidential Systems.” Latin American Politics and Society 58(4): 80-102.  In my own work-in-progress with Cecilia Martinez-Gallardo, we also find a strong empirical relationship between pre- and post-electoral coalitions in Latin America.

France – Macron and Cohabitation: Don’t Worry About It

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron topped the poll at the first round of the French presidential election. This was in line with the polls, but it marked a shift in established French politics. Since 1981, elections have been won by candidates of the mainstream left or the right. These candidates have either immediately dissolved the legislature and returned a supportive majority, or they have won such a majority at the legislative elections that since 2002 have been held a month after the presidential election. The bottom line is that French presidents since 1981 have effectively begun their term in office with majority support in the legislature.

Macron is different because he is a centrist. He is also different because he does not have an established political party backing him. His movement is called en Marche! (or On The Move!). Macron is likely to win the second round of the presidential election. However, he has not yet chosen en Marche! candidates for the legislative elections that take place on 11 and 18 June. There are 577 seats to be elected at these elections. This has led to fears or speculation that Macron will not win a legislative majority in the June elections. Worse, it has led to claims that Macron would immediately be faced with a period of cohabitation. In this context, it is worth thinking a little about what is meant by cohabitation and why Macron is unlikely to have to worry about it.

Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different and opposing parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet at all. France provides the archetypal examples of cohabitation. Here, it has occurred three times – 1986-88, 1993-95 and 1997-2002. Cohabitation occurs because a party or coalition opposed to the president has an absolute majority in the legislature. This forces the president to appoint a PM and government that has the support of that majority and, therefore, that is also opposed to the president. The president is alone in the Council of Ministers without any supporters.

In this context, it is also worth thinking a little about what cohabitation doesn’t involve. It isn’t the situation where the president has formed a governing coalition that includes his supporters, perhaps including the prime minister, but where relations with the legislative majority are difficult, and where the president is unable to pass legislation in exactly the form that she wants. In other words, a weak, constrained, or even legislatively emasculated president is not necessarily a cohabitation president.

Cohabitation, therefore, is a very specific situation. It is clearly observable. Here is a list of all cohabitations that have ever occurred.

So, assuming Macron is elected president on 7 May, will he face a period of cohabitation six weeks later following the legislative elections? Matthew Shugart has convincingly argued that he will not. I agree. No period of cohabitation has never occurred when a presidential election has been followed by such a quick honeymoon legislative election. (In Portugal, the January 1991 presidential election was followed by the October 1991 legislative election. So, it is questionable whether this was a honeymoon election at all. Also, there was cohabitation prior to the presidential election, after the presidential election, and the legislative election confirmed the period of cohabitation. So, the political context was very different. A similar point applies to the Czech Republic after the January 2013 presidential election.) Cohabitation just doesn’t happen under the circumstances that will soon occur in France. So, don’t worry about it.

This is not to say, though, that any future President Macron will necessarily be supported by an en Marche! majority in the Assembly. French political history suggests various scenarios are possible in this regard.

The 1988 presidential election provides one possible scenario. Then, President Mitterrand dissolved the legislature immediately after his re-election. The Socialist party and their allies were returned with only a relative majority, but the divided opposition meant that the socialists were nonetheless able to govern effectively for the next five years without forming a coalition.

A further scenario is the one that occurred in 1958. This was the founding legislative election of the new Republic. It was before France had direct presidential elections. So, the context was very different. However, it did follow the referendum on the Constitution in September 1958, which was effectively a plebiscite on de Gaulle. At the November 1958 election the gaullist party was returned with only a relative majority. However, other deputies who were returned under a different party label were willing to support de Gaulle. My understanding is that some of these deputies were given the support of the gaullists at the election itself. So, they owed their election at least in part to de Gaulle. The government was a coalition, but the coalition also had the support of other deputies within the Assembly. Macron has promised to stand en Marche! candidates everywhere, but if he is not able to select 577 of them between 7 May and the elections, he may simply endorse existing right and left-wing deputies. With a cohort of en Marche! deputies and the support of these others, he is likely to reach a working majority. Even if he does stand candidates everywhere, he is still likely to endorse candidates of other parties at the second ballot of the legislative election in constituencies where his en Marche! candidates have been defeated. This could be difficult for Macron to manage and maintain, but it will not be cohabitation.

The other scenario is more straightforward. Macron may simply form a coalition with other parties. The Socialist party is likely to splinter after the election. There are also centrist and centre-right parties such as the UDI and Modem. With his en Marche! deputies, Macron may be able to build a coalition along the lines of the one forged by President Giscard d’Estaing in the mid-1970s. This could also be problematic to keep together in the long run, but it is not cohabitation.

So, parliamentary politics after the June legislative elections in France will be interesting and could be difficult for Macron, but commentators should not unduly worry about cohabitation occurring. Certainly, commentators should stop labelling something as cohabitation that isn’t.

France – A Very Unpredictable Election

The 2017 French presidential election has proven to be one of the most unpredictable ever. Just before Christmas, the election promised to be very boring. François Fillon, who had recently won the right-wing primary, was a shoe-in. He and Marine Le Pen were far ahead of any other candidates in the polls and Fillon was easily beating Le Pen at the second ballot. Four months on, these two candidates could still qualify for the second round in which case Fillon would most likely still win. However, it is now only one of a number of possible scenarios with the outcome of the first and second rounds of the election still very much in the air.

There are 11 candidates. There is Marine Le Pen, an extreme-right wing populist; François Asselineau, a right-wing populist; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a populist conservative; François Fillon, a conservative populist; Jean Lassalle, an anti-European centrist; Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist, Benoît Hamon, a left socialist; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist socialist; Nathalie Arthaud, a neo-Trotskyist; Philippe Poutou, a neo-neo-Trotskyist; and Jacques Cheminade, a cheminadiste. There are eight avowedly anti-European candidates, some of whom are competing with each other to claim that they would be the first to withdraw France from the EU. There are also at least nine conspiracy theorists, even though they disagree about which occult forces are responsible for what.

From this motley bunch, four candidates have emerged – Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon, and Macron. A fifth candidate, Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the left-wing of the Socialist party (PS) and winner of the left-wing primary in January, has since faded away, with the polls showing that he is unlikely to reach double figures. This doesn’t bode well for the survival of the PS after the election, not least because various incumbent ministers and senior party figures, including the former PM, Manuel Valls and the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, have refused to support their party’s own candidate and have backed Macron. The only other candidate who has caused any ripples in the election is Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (not the old one, note). He caused a stir in the presidential debate a couple of weeks ago with a brilliant one-liner in relation to the personal and party scandals that have dogged Le Pen’s and particularly Fillon’s campaign. He was a breath of fresh air in the debate, but he hasn’t been rewarded with a meaningful bump in the polls.

Since 1974, the French presidential election has been a battle between left and right. The interaction of two factors has changed things this time. The first was the left- and right-wing primary elections. They returned candidates from the relative extremes of their electoral groupings. On a scale from 0 (extreme-left) to 10 (extreme-right), the PS chose Hamon with a score of 2.8 and the right chose Fillon with a score of 8.1. Their main left and right-wing challengers are Mélenchon, who comes in at 1.5, and Le Pen at 9.1 respectively. This left a huge gap in the centre that Macron with a score of 5.2 was able to fill. This gave him the space to put across a difficult message in the current era – he is pro-European and wants the prudent management of the economy. He has been lucky in that the primaries meant that he has been able to differentiate himself from all other candidates with such a message. At the same time, he has also managed to avoid any gaffes. In addition, the Russians have not been able to target him successfully. Faute de mieux perhaps, he is still the most likely president. The second factor was the series of personal scandals that hit Fillon and his inability to react to them other than petulantly. This led to a dramatic decline in the polls. The interaction effect comes from the fact that because Fillon was selected in the right-wing primary, it was subsequently very difficult to get rid of him when he became toxic. There was no obvious mechanism for standing him down and in any case the person who replaced him would immediately have been branded a ‘loser’. Fillon also had no intention of going anywhere. So, he stayed in the race and the right had to accept the fact. He has since clawed his way back and he is now within a margin-of-error of qualifying for the second ballot.

The recent surprise has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He was a candidate in 2012. Then, his support increased from about 8% to a high in one poll of 17% in mid-April. However, he finished with a score of 11.1%. Five years later, he was running at about 11% in the polls in March and has reached a high of 20% in one poll only recently. This time he hopes to maintain his momentum. Mélenchon’s stock (an inappropriate metaphor in his case) has risen since the televised debate a couple of weeks ago. He has mainly benefited from the decline of the PS candidate. At the beginning of March the two left-wing candidates were equal at about 12.5 per cent each. Now Mélenchon is at about 18 per cent and Hamon around 7 per cent. In other words, support for the left has not really increased, but within the left Mélenchon now dominates. He needs Hamon’s support to fall to below 5 per cent to maximise his chances of winning through to the second ballot. Mélenchon is anti-European, arguing that France should leave the EU if a list of impossible-to-agree-to demands is not agreed to. He also believes that France should withdraw from NATO. He is not against all international alliances, though, because he is in favour of linking with Cuba and Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. He has also refused to blame the Assad regime for the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. He believes that the war there is all about gas pipelines. He may yet qualify for the second ballot.

So, three days out from the first round there is a four-way contest.

Macron is still best placed. However, we should be wary of the polls in his regard. He has no party. He has no electoral history. In this context, how should pollsters adjust their raw data to get an accurate picture of his support? Who knows? In short, the polls could be greatly overestimating his support (or even greatly underestimating it). What’s more, a lot of people have yet to make up their minds. Typically, this involves left-wing voters being indecisive about which left-wing candidate to vote for and the same for right-wing voters. This time, though, people are also unsure about whether to vote for the centre rather than either the right or the left. They could choose to go with the left or the right, probably meaning Fillon in reality. Macron was weak in the televised debate. En même temps, his centrist moderation is also being increasingly lampooned. He looks well placed, but he could be the most disappointed on election night.

Mélenchon could also get through to the second ballot, especially if PS and Green voters completely choose to desert Hamon. He is the least likely of the top four to qualify.

For his part, Fillon is proving remarkably resilient. He has the advantage that there is some sort of party organisation behind him and a cohort of committed right-wing voters who want to support him. He has put some of them off with his scandals, but there could be enough for him to win through. I wouldn’t write him off at all. In fact, Bruno Jérôme and Véronique Jérôme have just issued a new Nowcast that shows Fillon going through to the the second ballot, confirming the worst fears of Macron’s supporters.

This leaves Le Pen. She has had a terrible campaign from her perspective. Amid rumours of party infighting, she has abandoned attempts to build some sort of coherent Trump-esque coalition and has fallen back on her most egregregiously atavistic historical revisionism and anti-immigration discourse. Her core supporters remain delirious at her campaign rallies, though, and there is no doubt that she will win the support of new voters who are fed up with everyone. However, she has not campaigned well. On the one hand, she hasn’t tried to win the support of moderate voters. On the other, she has been overtaken at the extremes by some other candidates on certain issues, notably Europe where has signally failed to monopolise the anti-European agenda. She is still likely to qualify for the second ballot, but it has been much more of a struggle than it ever seemed it would be.

The level of undecided voters is high and the level of abstention is likely to be greater than at the previous election. With four candidates so close together, this makes the election difficult to predict. What is more, the idea of ‘le vote utile’, or casting a ‘useful vote’, is playing out in different ways than usual. For some, a useful vote means supporting Macron as the most sensible candidate of them all. For those on the left, though, it can mean supporting Mélenchon as the candidate with the only chance of getting the left into power. For those on the right, it can mean going back to Fillon both as a way of keeping out Mélenchon and as a way of restoring some sort of order to the system. After all, this was an election that the right was going to win for a long time.

The bottom line is that no-one knows what will happen at the first ballot. In that regard, this has turned out to be a very unpredictable election.

Chris O’Connell – Presidential Election in Ecuador: Government Candidate Profits from Divisions

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

The run-off vote for the presidency of Ecuador has been characterised by some as a crucial indicator of the political tendencies in Latin America. According to this logic, the victory of government candidate and former vice-president Lenin Moreno over banker Guillermo Lasso is proof of the continued relevance of the left in the region following a series of setbacks. Beyond this notional left/right divide, however, the results of the election highlight interesting dynamics and divisions in what is often referred to as a ‘weather-vane’ country.

Firstly, to the results. With all votes counted, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced victory for Moreno by a mere two per cent – a difference of just over two hundred thousand votes. In the previous blog I wrote that after the first round Lasso supporters made accusations of vote tampering and fraud. As Moreno’s vote approached the forty per cent mark which would have given him outright victory at that stage, members of CREO set up ‘electoral vigils’ outside CNE offices to pressure Moreno into agreeing to a run-off.

This time around, however, such tactics have proved less successful. Several thousand CREO supporters again congregated outside election centres in Quito and Guayaquil on the night of the election, with Lasso travelling between the country’s major cities to address the crowds. While there were some skirmishes between the protesters and police, overall the government appeared better prepared this time around. Nor were the crowds as large as previously, with spirits perhaps dampened by the results of pre-election polls.

As noted previously, a feature of this election has been the politicised nature of opinion polling. This trend appeared to have been overcome in the days before the run-off when polling firm Cedatos gave Moreno a four-point lead, having one month earlier reported a similar lead for Lasso. New controversy erupted over the results of exit polls, however, with Cedatos giving Lasso a six-point lead and prompting conservative newspaper ‘El Universo’ to briefly declare him president.

As a result of the huge gap between that projection and the official results, along with a mysterious eighteen minutes during which the CNE website went offline, Lasso has alleged fraud and stated that government forces had “crossed a line”. CREO supporters have attempted to sustain a popular campaign outside CNE, but participants have numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Nonetheless, the government has agreed to a partial recount of the votes from five provinces, in response to a formal appeal by CREO. While this count is taking place, however, police raided the offices of Cedatos, apparently in response to allegations by Correa that the polling firm was contracted by CREO to sow confusion with its exit poll. The recount is not expected to yield any change to the results of an election that has been ratified by the United Nations and OAS.

Thus an underwhelming election cycle, dominated by negative tactics on both sides, and featuring two largely uninspiring candidates, appears likely to end with the status quo intact.

In fact an election that should have been about Ecuador’s future – this was the first campaign not to feature outgoing President Rafael Correa in fifteen years – ended up hinging to a significant extent on visions of the country’s past. More specifically, the campaign focussed attention on differing visions of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ led by Correa, and of the preceding ‘neoliberal’ period characterised by political and economic instability.

The Lasso campaign focussed on the economic and democratic problems allegedly wrought under Correa. In particular the candidate pointed to the country’s level of indebtedness, and to the concentration of power that he compared unfavourably to Venezuela. Members of CREO also alleged that the Moreno campaign made use of state funds and public media to gain an unfair advantage.

In turn Moreno’s team, with the support of Telesur, reminded voters of Lasso’s past involvement in the banking crisis of 1999, and in several administrations during the neoliberal era. Many of the attacks were led by Correa, who dedicated much of his ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ (‘Citizens’ Link’) television show to allegations that Lasso enriched himself from the crisis and transferred funds to offshore accounts.

Moreno’s victory was certainly due in part to the identity of his rival. While opinion polls in advance of the first round of voting had shown a generalised desire for change, Lasso’s professional and political past meant that he was unable to convincingly project that image. Instead he found himself compared unfavourably to other wealthy heads of state, including Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and even Donald Trump.

Nor should the track record of the government be discounted. While the opposition alleged that achievements in the provision of healthcare, education and (in particular) infrastructure have been funded by excessive borrowing, for the moment these benefits are there to be seen. Furthermore, the Correa government has achieved significant reductions in levels of poverty and inequality, even if similar figures in neighbouring Peru would suggest a considerable ‘growth effect’[i].

The results of this election also throw light on a number of interesting internal political dynamics.

In the first place, the results highlighted the re-establishment of regional cleavages within Ecuador’s polity. The divisions between the mountainous Sierra, Amazon and coastal regions have been largely replicated in voting preferences throughout the country’s history. This provincialism led to the prioritisation of local incentives and militated against projects with national scope[ii]. This dynamic was altered with the elections for the national constituent assembly in 2007, and continued through to Correa’s first-round victory in the 2013 presidential election[iii].

The results in 2017, in both first and second rounds, reveal a return to a regionalised voting pattern. First of all, while Moreno won the popular vote, he carried a minority of voting districts (twelve to Lasso’s fifteen)[iv]. Secondly, it is striking the extent to which the government’s main base of support has shifted since its emergence in 2006 from the Sierra to the coast. Particularly notable was Lasso’s triumph in the province of Pichincha, home to capital city Quito – once considered the government’s heartland. Also of interest was Moreno’s failure to win more than a single province in the Amazon region.

There are several possible explanations for these changes, but many of them are rooted not in the campaign, but in government policy over the past decade. For example, the Amazon region has been particularly impacted by the government’s expansion of extractive activities like oil and mining, many involving Chinese companies. These projects have led to a notable rise in socio-environmental conflicts, resulting in violence and repression[v].

Agrarian policies have been a particular source of disappointment for peasant farmers in the Sierra. Despite enshrining the concept of food sovereignty in the Constitution of 2008, the trajectory of agriculture under Correa has favoured agri-business interests and exporters that are concentrated almost exclusively in the coastal region[vi]. Also of note in the coastal region is the government’s adoption of local political ‘bosses’ to bring in votes.

Nevertheless, these dynamics cannot entirely account for Moreno’s victory in the populous province of Guayas. Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil is traditionally conservative, and is further home to all of the major right-wing opposition figures, including Lasso, first-round candidates Cynthia Viteri and ‘Dalo’ Bucaram, and Mayor Jaime Nebot. Lasso’s failure there is instead explained by fractures within the right: not one of those influential figures actively campaigned for his candidacy.

While divisions on the right helped Moreno, divisions on the left between and within social movements were also beneficial. While indigenous and social movements may have paved the way for Correa’s victory in 2006 and provided crucial support through the turbulent constituent assembly process, relations between them soured as the government sought to exercise its authority over these so-called ‘corporatist’ bodies[vii].

As with previous elections, the leadership of these movements were unable to properly define a position, with most simply refusing to support Moreno, thereby creating a tacit alliance with Lasso. Meanwhile the government cultivated relations with ‘second-tier’ local organisations, resulting in around 1,200 of them declaring support for the Moreno candidacy and isolating the leadership of once-powerful national movements.

Finally, the election in Ecuador raises questions about some core analytical concepts in Latin American politics. In the first place, while Moreno’s victory is widely described as a triumph of the ‘left,’ for many the Correa project is one of the modernisation of capitalism rather than socialism[viii]. Thus rather than a right/left divide, this election could more accurately be said to have pitted the neoliberal outlook of Lasso against a ‘post-neoliberal’ government that promotes a strong state that seeks to regulate the market and redistribute income[ix].

The Moreno candidacy also raises new questions about the contested concept of ‘populism’. Correa neatly fit the bill with his personal charisma, Manichaean discourse, and redistributive economic and social policies[x]. The mild-mannered and diffident Moreno is harder to classify in those terms, however. Thus discussion has turned to the ‘populist’ nature of his policy offering, evoking an economic rather than political or discursive definition[xi].

To conclude, Moreno has promised to be a president for “all Ecuadorians”, but a review of the electoral map would appear to make that aspiration unlikely and potentially undesirable. Ten years of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ has yielded a segmented country, with both winners and losers from government policy. If Moreno has aspirations of emulating Correa’s longevity, it would appear that division would serve him far better than unity.

Notes

[i] See figures from ECLAC in its annual Social Panorama of Latin America: www.cepal.org.

[ii] For more see: Simon Pachano, 2006. ‘Ecuador: The Provincialisation of Representation,’ in Scott Mainwaring, Ana Maria Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Correa won a plurality in 23 of the 24 voting districts in 2013, according to the election report by Jason Eichorst and John Polga-Hecimovich, 2014. Electoral Studies Vol. 34.

[iv] Three additional districts have been added since 2013 to allow for Ecuadorians abroad to vote.

[v] A conflict over a Chinese-backed mining project in the Amazon region of the Cordillera del Condor in late 2016 led to clashes with indigenous Shuar peoples that resulted in the death of a policeman, numerous arrests, and the militarisation of the region.

[vi] For more see: Patrick Clark, 2016. “Can the State Foster Food Sovereignty? Insights from the Case of Ecuador.” Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 16(2); Isabella Giunta, 2014. “Food Sovereignty in Ecuador: Peasant Struggles and the Challenge of Institutionalisation.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 41(6).

[vii] See: Carlos de la Torre, 2013. “El tecnopopulismo de Rafael Correa.” Latin American Research Review 48(1); Mark Becker, 2013. “The Stormy Relations between Rafael Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador.” Latin American Perspectives 40(3).

[viii] Former government minister turned opponent Alberto Acosta is a leading advocate of this analysis.

[ix] For more see: Franklin Ramirez Gallegos, 2015. “Political Change, State Autonomy, and Post-Neoliberalism in Ecuador, 2007-2012.” Latin American Perspectives.

[x] For more see: Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (eds.), 2013. Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Johns Hopkins University Press; George Philip and Francisco Panizza, 2011. The Triumph of Politics. John Wiley & Sons; Kurt Weyland, 2013. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy Vol. 24(3);

[xi] See: Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, 1991. The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dmitriy Nurumov – Super-Presidentialism, Revised Edition: Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Amendments

This is a guest post by Dmitriy Nurumov

On 20 March 2016, the day of parliamentary elections, President Nazarbayev, answering a question from a journalist regarding possible changes to the Constitution, stated: “Changes should be made. The Presidential system of governance exists in Kazakhstan. We can only talk about re-distribution of power between the branches – President, Parliament and the Government. We are thinking in this direction.”  Signals that changes were being mooted had also come earlier, in 2015, both before and after the early presidential election. At that time the potential of the Constitution to absorb some changes was hinted at by high-ranking officials, in order to move to “the next stage of development of the political system”. These hints suggested the Parliament and the Government shouldering more responsibility along with the dominant figure of the President, who continues to retain an unqualified right to dissolve the Parliament, decide the fate of the Government or relieve any member of the Government of his/her duties.

The detailed analysis of why these changes were needed now lies beyond the scope of this post, but it is commonplace to link them one way or another with the looming transition dilemma, which may lead to political upheavals that are not in the interest of the ruling elite. Therefore, what emerged after a speedy process of amendments in early 2017 is that the President retains or even increases his control over the political system in hypothetical situations when his political dominance and, more importantly, the political system he created comes under threat. At the same time, the President relieved himself of the responsibilities or relinquished rights that are no longer used or deemed unimportant, as control is exerted in the uncontested political space by other means, often more effective or less straightforward.  In some cases, this responsibility for preserving the current system became “shared” with the Parliament or Prime Minister through introducing the requirement of consultations (e.g. if the President would like to dissolve a regional representative body) or assigning a more active role in legislating certain public domains (e.g. in the justice sector or the status and competencies of regional governors).

The President had an option to put the changes to a national referendum, but opted for the adoption of amendments through parliamentary procedure, which is more predictable as the Parliament is essentially composed of the President’s loyalists whose political future is fully in his hands.

After the constitutional reform, the President will not have powers to establish executive bodies that are not part of the Government. The Prime Minister will, after consultations with the Majilis of the Parliament, appoint members of the Government. The President will continue to directly appoint the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defence and will lose the right to appoint the Minister of Justice, whose appointment will go through a regular procedure, the same as for other members of the Government. The President will not have the responsibility to preside over the most important meetings of the Government, but this right will be at his discretion, depending on necessity. The President will also no longer have the right to suspend fully or partially the legal acts of the Government and Prime Minister.  However, the President will retain the right to do so in the case of legal acts of Regional Governors who are appointed by him upon approval from regional representative bodies (although as previously the option for their election will be retained in the Constitution). As mentioned above, the President will also have to consult with the Prime Minister or Speakers of the Parliament if he decides to dissolve a regional representative body.

The President will not be responsible any more for approval of state programmes or have the authority to approve the funding allocation and salary scales for the state servants of all state bodies that are funded by the state budget.  However, some consultations are possible between the President and Prime Minister on this matter.

At the same time the President will have a new right  “in the interest of protection of human rights and citizen’s rights, provision of national security, sovereignty, and unity of the state to request the Constitutional Council to consider a law that has entered into legal force or any other act in compliance with the Constitution of the Republic, as well as requesting a ruling in cases of amendment of the Constitution.” In theory, the President may also ask the Constitutional Council to review legal acts of the Government and the Prime Minister, which he could previously suspend. The President continues to play a crucial role in the formation of the Constitutional Council.

Some changes are purely symbolic. The amendment was also made that the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan is the supreme representative body that exercises the legislative power. Previously, the Parliament exercised “legislative functions”. The President under certain conditions could also “legislate”. These powers have not been used recently and it seems that they became obsolete in the current system, where any parliamentary elections consistently produce a pliant Parliament. As the President’s party fully controls the Parliament it is not deemed to be as important as in 1995, when the President had to confront a recalcitrant Parliament and legislate by decree to enact some unpopular economic reforms that benefited mostly the ruling elite.

The role of the Government was also slightly recast by introduction of the requirement of consultations between the Prime Minister and the Majilis of the Parliament, before the Prime Minister submits candidates for posts in the Government for approval to the President. Therefore, the Government is defined as the collegial body which is accountable not only to the President, but also to the Parliament.  In this way, the requirement of consultations is a symbolic competence, rather than an increase of Parliament’s competences.

The Senate is now given the right to appoint or relieve the Ombudsman of his/her duties, the authority previously exercised by the President. The President proposes the candidate for this position.  This scheme allows the President to effectively control the appointment of the Ombudsman.

One-third of each Chamber of the Parliament may ask a member of the Government to report to the Chamber about his/her performance.  Two-thirds of the total number of members of the Chamber, after the report has been made, may ask the President to relieve this member of the Government of his/her position in case of non-compliance with the laws of Kazakhstan.  The President should then dismiss such a member of the Government.  The previous wording of this provision allowed a simple majority to make such a request to the Parliament. If rejected, this request can be made by the simple majority within six months. In this case, the President should dismiss this member of the Government.  Such a situation is highly unlikely in the current political system, but if a more diverse parliament body were to be elected at some distant point in the future, it would be very difficult to get two-thirds of the total number of MPs to vote to ask the President to dismiss a minister.  This is a typical new provision that gives some power to the Parliament to control the Government, but at the same time makes it difficult to exercise it in practice.

The Parliament is also becoming more flexible as to how it organises its legislative process. The President retains the power to assign certain draft laws a priority status.  However, these priority draft laws should be considered during the current session, not within one calendar month, as was the case previously, when non-compliance of the Parliament gave the right to the President to adopt the law by his decree.

A revised provision also requires that the report of the Government is made not only to the President as before, but also to the Majilis (lower chamber) of the Parliament.

According to another amendment, the Government will have to be dissolved when a newly elected Majilis of the Parliament is convened. Previously, the Government had to be automatically dissolved when the new President is elected.

The Parliament now has more power to legislate over the criteria regarding judicial posts and the scope of the prosecutorial powers. All requirements will be decided at the level of Constitutional Laws. In fact, this is where the Parliament gains more real powers, in contrast to symbolic adjustments on control over the Government.

The 2017 constitutional reform also introduces amendments limiting the scope of immediate application of international treaties, requiring in all cases adoption of respective enabling national legislation.  There are also changes that would lead to deprivation of Kazakhstani citizenship where a citizen commits a terrorism-related crime or threatens important interests of the state, which were only introduced in the very last draft of amendments. The application of these new changes may have a chilling impact on the exercise of human rights in Kazakhstan, but the scope of such impact depends on how far the authorities are willing to operationalise the new provisions.  For example, calls to change the presidential system may also be considered as a threat to the interests of the state.  In this sense, read together the 2017 amendments are aimed both at preserving the current political system, while at the same time making it more stable by re-distributing some powers that may lead to better capacity of the system to absorb potential shocks of the future transition of power in Kazakhstan.

Of interest is also the amendment introducing a special legal status for the Astana Financial Centre, which should lead to the creation of a parallel legal system dealing with foreign investments based on a common-law system for commercial matters. This amendment, which is viewed with mistrust by Kazakhstan’s civil society, is proposed by the Kazakhstan authorities as a measure to boost the investment climate in Kazakhstan. It is also seen in the context of another amendment that did not make it to the final draft, giving foreigners full protection of their property in Kazakhstan. It was dropped due to fierce opposition from Kazakhstani civil society, which saw it as a way to sell the most sacred thing – the land – to foreigners by the corrupted ruling elite. Actually, this draft amendment was the only one that led to an overwhelming negative reaction from the civil society, which a few years ago had witnessed a failed attempt to introduce amendments to the land code with the effect to allow foreigners to rent agricultural land for extended periods.

The constitutional amendments also include new language of the current article that stipulates that unitary organisation, territorial integrity and the form of governance cannot be changed. Currently, the revised article reads “Established by the Constitution, independence of the state, unitary organisation and territorial integrity, the form of governance as well as the fundamental principles of activity of the Republic, that were established by the Founder of independent Kazakhstan, the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy[1], and his status are permanent.” All proposed changes, according to the new article, should be assessed by the Constitutional Council with regard to whether they comply with the above provision.  This provision is designed to further guarantee the long life of the political system created by the President.

The new revised text of the Constitution was signed by President Nazarbayev on 10 March 2017 and it entered into force on 14 March, the day of official publication.

Notes

[1] “Elbasy” (Kazakh) means “Leader of the Nation”