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Remembering Robert Elgie – Scholar, Colleague, Friend

Robert Elgie (1965-2019)

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

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

Anna Fruhstorfer

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

Philipp Köker

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

Chiara Maria Loda

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

Sophia Moestrup

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

Juan Muñoz-Portillo

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

Malkhaz Nakashidze

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

Chris O’Connell

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

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

Fiona Yap

Sad and untimely passing of Robert Elgie

We are profoundly sad to share news of the sudden passing of our dear friend, colleague, and founding editor of the Presidential Power blog, Professor Robert Elgie. Robert’s kind, gentle, and unstinting generosity as an academic, mentor, and friend will be greatly missed. Our deep condolences are with his family.

Robert’s funeral will take place Tuesday, July 23, in Dublin. More details on the arrangements can be found under this link.

Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

Lithuania’s new president to be sworn in on July 12, 2019

This is a guest post by Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University and Researcher at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania

On July 12th, Gitanas Nausėda will be sworn into office as president of the Republic of Lithuania.  Nausėda, who is 55, is a former chief economist at SEB bank. He defeated former Finance Minister Ingrida Šimonytė with 67% of votes in the second round of the presidential election. In his first address to the nation, on the evening election results were announced, Mr Nausėda promised that “from this day forward things will be different.”

Who is Gitanas Nausėda?

Lithuania‘s incoming president is a long-time chief economist of SEB bank, and an associate professor at the International Business School at Vilnius University. He has a degree in economics and holds a PhD in social sciences. He previously worked at the Competition Council of the Republic of Lithuania and at the Bank of Lithuania. During the presidential election campaign, Nausėda declared his intention to unite Lithuania‘s political parties and increase political cohesion, promote the openness of the presidential institution, and seek to establish a welfare state. Nevertheless, the presidential election campaign and Nausėda‘s public pronouncements tell us little of his political character and personality.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Nausėda demonstrated openness, participated in debates, visited Lithuania‘s regions and probably intended to distance himself from President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s style of communication. On the other hand, it has been difficult to pinpoint the ideology and main political principles that Mr Nausėda represents. Some analysts (such as Šarūnas Liekis) have referred to Gitanas Nausėda as a candidate who lacks character and is supported by business interest groups.

The composition of the president‘s team does not shed much further light on the new president‘s political program. The formation of the president‘s team is still underway and its membership remains unclear.  Although the new president has not been communicative about his new advisors, he has made it clear that he prefers professionals from academia and the diplomatic corps to political party members. So far, only a couple of names are known: Aistis Zabarauskas, who was responsible for communication during Nausėdas‘ election campaign, and Povilas Mačiulis, a former vice mayor of the Kaunas city municipality. Among potential foreign policy advisors, the name of Linas Kojala, director of Eastern Europe Studies Center, a PhD student at Vilnius University, was mentioned, but Mr Kojala declined the offer. Under circumstances such as these, when a president does not have extensive political experience, his choice of domestic and foreign policy advisors might give a strong indication of his future politics, but in this case Lithuanians will have to wait a bit longer.

Why did Gitanas Nausėda win the presidential election?

When Gitanas Nausėda announced his decision to run for president in the autumn of 2018, some analysts (Kęstutis Girnius, for instance) were sceptical about his chances to win the election as an independent, nonpartisan candidate without experience in politics. However, during the presidential campaign, public opinion polls (SPINTER, Baltijos tyrimai, Vilmorus) constantly mentioned Mr Nausėda as one of the top presidential candidates.

Several factors could have contributed to Nausėda‘s victory in the presidential election. First may actually have been the fact that he ran as an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Some analysts claim that in Lithuania‘s presidential election many people voted not for Gitanas Nausėda, but against Ingrida Šimonytė who was supported by the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. During the presidential election campaign, Gitanas Nausėda consistently highlighted his independence from any political party. This proved to be a wise strategy since Lithuanians do not trust political parties. Public polls demonstrate that political parties are the least trusted political institution in Lithuania: according to the latest polls (Vilmorus: June 2019), only 6.2% of Lithuanians trust political parties (in comparison, 58.2% of Lithuanians trust the presidential institution). Second, Nausėda‘s opponent‘s election campaign was not aggressive enough: under criticism for poor management of the 2008 financial crisis (she was Finance minister back then), Ingrida Šimonytė chose to talk about future plans instead of effectively countering criticism of her past performance. Third, for some of the voters Gitanas Nausėda embodied an example of the classical ideal family, in contrast to his opponent and current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Finally, Lithuania‘s 2019 presidential election once again shows that the electorate tends to vote for „hope“ and new faces in politics.

How might Nausėda‘s foreign policy look like?

So far, it seems that the new president will follow up on his earlier expressed foreign policy ideas. It is already known that for the first official state visit the new president of Lithuania will continue a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus (interrupted by D. Grybauskaitė) by going to Poland (the visit is scheduled for 16 July). Soon after the election, Mr Nausėda also reaffirmed his intention to maintain the current foreign policy line towards Russia, while also claiming that he will aim to be more diplomatic. The current minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius, states that there will not be any strategic changes in Lithuania‘s foreign policy.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Nausėda expressed support for Lithuania‘s status quo policy and pro-Western orientation based on membership in NATO and the European Union: he claimed to perceive the United States as a security guarantor and one of the most important allies of Lithuania; emphasized the importance of a value-based foreign policy and a strict position towards Russia; underscored the need for stronger cooperation with Poland; and stressed the need for closer cooperation with Latvia and Estonia, and for regular meetings with Baltic leaders.

Some analysts claim that in the 2019 presidential election the Lithuanian electorate demonstrated its political maturity. Indeed, Lithuanians gave their support for the candidates with a declared pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation. On the other hand, the electorate voted in the second round for the candidate who does not have any political experience. Thus, Lithuania‘s presidential election results still confirm a general trend to vote for new faces in politics.


Romania: the strategic use of referendums. Power to the people (later)!

by Veronica Anghel, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS Europe and Institute for Central Europe, Vienna

Spontaneous anti-government protest followed the result of EU elections and referendum on justice  under the eye of the gendarmerie. Bucharest has witnessed several large scale  protests that resulted in clashes with police forces  ©Marius Tudor

In broad strokes, we may identify the purpose of referendums as a useful tool to enhance democracy and citizen participation in policy outcome ( e.g. Bowler et al. 2007) or a populist weapon to mobilize supporters for electoral gains (e.g.Nemčok and Spáč 2019). Considering the increase of the use of referendums during the past decades (Qvortrup 2018), we are further motivated to better understand elite incentives to resort to this tool. In this text, I introduce the case of Romania as a study into the strategic use of this electoral institution by the executive branch– whether government or presidency. The Romanian case comes in support of the latter strand of scholarship and emphasizes how a referendum reveals its main use for the initiating actors to spread their message and gain popularity while the actual act of popular vote is irrelevant and has rather limited ability to shape policy outcome.  

During the past legislative year (2018 – 2019), the tool of referendum was used twice. In October 2018, Romanians voted to narrow the constitutional definition of family from a ‘marriage based on the union of spouses’ to ‘marriage between man and woman’. The governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and coalition partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) organised the referendum faced with a petition in favour of the constitutional change signed by 3 million citizens and supported by the Orthodox Church. Turn-out did not reach the 30% quorum needed. From the 21,1% of voters who turned –out for the referendum, over 90% supported the change.  This figure represents about 3,5 million Romanians. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition in a display of anti-government protest. This strategy was less as a show of solidarity with the human rights demands of the LGBTQ community than an oppositional stance.  President Klaus Iohannis, the most vocal contender of the government, nevertheless turned out to vote in the referendum. In a largely conservative country, it is of little worth to antagonise potential voters.   (see European Values Study and The Romanian Group for the Study of Social Values for useful data-bases). In this case, the motivation to organise the referendum lacked on all political sides, but mitigating potential loses not to have it became paramount.

The lack of interest in this issue was evident from the start. The PSD led cabinet set up a helpful legal context for the referendum to pass (lower threshold, two day voting process) and counted on the conservative values of the electorate and the involvement of the Orthodox Church to take effect. However, in a country where voter turn-out has constantly decreased in the last 30 years – averaging 40% – main parties’ ability to mobilise their active electorate is key for any election outcome. This requires willingness to invest significant financial and human resources and see potential gains out of such a feat. The dominant PSD calculated a lower investment return for this referendum and had no incentives for party activism compared to their usual display of organisational force during local and legislative elections. However, not organising it was a risk the government was not willing to take. The Orthodox Church has always served as an ally for the PSD. As in many Eastern European countries, politics and religion have an interdependent relationship. Incumbent politicians who associated their image with the church benefit from public acclaim and a positive standing with the well organised ecclesiastical network. The referendum had no actual effects over policy outcome and it did not lead to greater debate regarding same-sex marriage.

The second referendum was triggered by President Klaus Iohannis and organised on May 26th together with elections for the European Parliament. According to the Romanian semi-presidential constitutional system, the president has little formal powers to constrain the government or the parliament (see a previous blog post). Mr. Iohannis decided to use one of his prerogatives in response to what he considered ‘an assault through emergency ordinances on the justice system’ led by the PSD – ALDE governing coalition. In a country which witnessed massive anti-corruption and anti-justice reform protests, all association with this issue is electorally beneficial.  

Citizens were asked two yes/no questions: whether they agree to prohibit granting amnesty and pardons for sentences of corruption and whether they agree to outlaw issuing emergency ordinances regulating crimes, punishments and the reorganization of the judiciary. The results showed great support in favour of limitations to government led justice reform. Despite the complexity of the questions, their actual meaning was less debated. The underlying message was rather understood as a separation between those in favour of ‘tough justice’ vs. ‘lenience for corruption’. The referendum results are thus mostly symbolic. It is highly unlikely to see written into law the outcome of the vote.  They reconfirm the anti-corruption sentiment of Romanians who in recent years have often mobilized in protest to stop the governing elite from delivering self-serving justice reforms. 

The electoral gains of anti-government parties were far greater. With six month to go before the presidential elections in December 2019, front-runner and incumbent Klaus Iohannis benefited from an early electoral platform. Calling for this referendum gave him the opportunity to participate in rallies for the EU elections organised by his party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), despite the constitutional ban for the president to engage in partisan politics. The ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric primarily benefited newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) – PLUS 2020 Alliance and their leader and presidential hopeful Dacian Ciolos. USR – PLUS received 22% of the vote, a significant feat for a new comer. Mr. Ciolos is now also in the run for the same anti-government votes of enraged citizens. Similar to Mr. Iohannis, he will also employ an anti-corruption, anti-establishment strategy in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

In the first case, the exercise of the referendum was a way to fend off unwanted criticism and mostly employed a ‘nothing to lose strategy’. It failed as a result of lack of party mobilization in its favour, despite a favourable social values milieu. The second referendum benefited from heavy mobilisation on a salient issue. Regardless of the technicality of the questions, the mobilising message was perceived. Electoral gains were at the core of both of these decisions, while neither referendum will shape policy outcomes.

Guinea headed towards controversial constitutional change

It appears to be official. For months rumors have been swirling that President Alpha Condé was planning a constitutional referendum to adopt a new constitution and by the same token remove presidential term limits. Condé, who is 81 years old, is currently serving his second five-year term which will end next year. According to Guinea’s 2010 constitution, “no one may exercise more than two presidential mandates, consecutive or not.” The constitution also provides that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic may not be made the object of a revision.” So, logically, the only means of amending the presidential term limits is through the adoption of a brand new constitution.

On June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guinea reportedly issued a note to the country’s diplomatic representations across the world, confirming the government’s intention of submitting a new constitution to a referendum, and laying out the reasons for this initiative. The official reasons for the adoption of a new constitution include among others:

  • That the 2010 constitution was elaborated and adopted by a transitional council and not submitted to a popular vote;
  • That the roles and responsibilities between the president and prime minister are not clearly defined in the existing fundamental text;
  • The cumulatively short duration of legislative sessions during the year;
  • The need to reformulate the articles governing the constitutional court; and
  • The absence of a more elaborate bill of rights, including environmental, defense and women’s and children’s rights.

Interestingly, the note does not make reference to changing presidential term limits. However, revising term limits for the incumbent president is among the changes supported by Conde’s ruling RPG which include the following:

  • Replacing the prime minister with a vice-president;
  • Replacing the existing economic and social council with a senate;
  • Increasing the number of legislators and allowing for independent candidates;
  • Facilitating greater gender equity in elected positions;
  • Reducing the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 years of age; and
  • Allowing the incumbent president to run again.

Guinea’s opposition parties are, not surprisingly, less than thrilled with plans to change the constitution and allow President Condé to run for a third term. A coalition of opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions have come together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), in an effort designed to counter initiatives to change the constitution.

In the context of West Africa where countries have been gradually consolidating mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of executive power, notably through presidential term limits, Guinea would be rowing against the tide. Currently, President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the only president serving more that two terms in the subregion. Moreover, Togo just recently reintroduced presidential term limits – though they will not apply retroactively to the sitting president. In The Gambia, ongoing debates on constitutional reform are centered on entrenching, not eliminating presidential term limits. Even in Mauritania, not otherwise known for a stellar democratic record, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down at the end of his second presidential term, following presidential elections held on June 22.

Guinea is headed towards turbulent times, with presidential elections on the horizon for October 2020. Given the country’s history of violent demonstrations, significant loss of life is to be feared should the referendum to change the constitution proceed. Even if term limits are not revised, the adoption of a new constitution can reset the term limit counter, as we saw President Abdoulaye Wade argue in Senegal when he ran for a third term in 2012. Tensions in Guinea over the constitutional change debate have already boiled over with deadly consequences. At least one person was killed in clashes between police and demonstrators against a third term in the south-eastern city of N’Zerekoré earlier this month. As the announcement of the constitutional referendum becomes official, more violence is likely to follow.

The Piñera administration isn’t moving forward

President Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings dropped from 44% in April 2018 to 27% in May 2019, whereas those who hold a negative opinion toward his administration grew from 38% to 63% in the same period (source: MORI-CERC). After 15 months in office, the Piñera administration has nothing substantial to show for it yet. The economy still has not taken off, the president made a judgment error by having a “family trip” as part of a state visit to China in April, and the right-wing Chile Vamos ruling coalition has begun to see some infighting over the latest cabinet reshuffle.

Piñera’s campaign slogan was “tiempos mejores” (better times), which summarizes what the electorate expects from him: more and better jobs. However, better times have yet to come, and people seem to have grown tired of waiting. Economic perceptions are not optimistic. Only 19% of Chileans now believe the national economy will improve in the next 12 months, compared to 26% in October 2018 (source: CEP). As a matter of fact, Felipe Larraín, Finance Minister, has repeatedly found himself downgrading the economic growth expectations in the last months while promising that the economy will eventually turn around. Finally, unemployment is still close to 7%, and unemployment still seems higher under Piñera’s first year in office than during Michellet Bachelet’s last year in the presidential palace, La Moneda.

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)
Source: Own elaboration based on data from Chile’s Central Bank.

However, the shape of the economy is not the only reason for the Piñera government’s waning popularity. In late April, as part of a state visit to China, Piñera brought with him his two adult sons, Sebastián and Cristóbal. Both of them even sat in a business meeting with Chinese investors and entrepreneurs of the tech sector. Piñera and his closest ministers adamantly argued that this action did not break any legal rule and that it did not cost taxpayers any extra money. The opposition took this issue to the Comptroller General, whose ruling backed the president’s version. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Piñera brothers had privileged access to a state visit just for being related to the president. Nepotism is not new in the Piñera administration, though. Last year, he designated his brother as ambassador in Argentina and the young daughter of a friend of his (with no government experience) as a commercial attaché in the New York office with an annual salary of US$ 180,000. The president only backed down from the appointments after receiving intense backlash from the opposition. This time, critiques did not only come from the opposition but also from members of his own coalition. Deputy Ximena Ossandón (RN) and Senator Andrés Allamand (RN) labeled the president’s actions as a mistake for which Piñera should apologize in order to move on. Rather, La Moneda has been haunted by this issue for over a month, hampering the president’s ability to control the agenda.

Moreover, Chile Vamos has faced some internal troubles lately. In March 2019, Piñera’s personalistic leadership style was singled out as preventing potential candidates of his coalition from getting more media attention. Then, the “family trip” to China as part of the state visit took over the agenda. Now, it is the distribution of portfolios after the latest cabinet shake-up. Leaders of UDI, one of the parties of the ruling alliance, protested because the changes unsettled the “equilibrium of forces” within the cabinet, as there are now fewer UDI ministers. RN, the other major party in Chile Vamos, asked Sebastián Piñera not to give in to the UDI’s pressures and complaints since they were unjustified. Interestingly, the latest internal disputes attracted more attention than the cabinet reshuffle itself, which, as political scientist Patricio Navia states, was not substantial enough to weather the critiques towards the Piñera administration.

The silver lining is that the opposition, although it has lately shown signs of unity by blocking the president’s major bills in Congress (e.g., tax and pension reforms), has approval ratings as bad as the Piñera administration: 58% of Chileans have a negative view of opposition parties, and only 22% approve of their performance (source: MORI-CERC). Facing a weak opposition obviously has its advantages. The president may make some mistakes and get away with them. Whether those mistakes will cost him in the future is yet unknown. But more importantly, after 15 months in office, it is still not clear what grand legacy the Piñera administration wants to offer.

Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


 

When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9 brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.

The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.

At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.

Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting] genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters” in major cities.

However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.

This situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated “power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and unpredictable “will of the people”.

Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.

What happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.

Obviously stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the countryside, as well as the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of the Equestrian Federation.

The only surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.

Kossanov’s nomination was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections. In fact, domestic experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”

At first glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted his victory and offered congratulations.

However, there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
candidates
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
Turnout
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and the BBC reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet, signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up, Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election observers.

On election day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700 people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder. This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov, for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.

It is too early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position. The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime turbulences.

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

On May 19, 2019, several extraordinary elections were held in Georgia. In particular, the Mayor’s extraordinary elections were held in 5 cities: Zugdidi, Marneuli, Zestafoni, Chiatura and Khulo. By-elections of Local self-governance councils – Sakrebulos were held in 8 electoral districts: Sagarejo, Akhmeta, Adigeni, Zestafoni, Chiatura, Tkibuli, Tskaltubo and Ozurgeti. In addition, elections were held in the capital city of Tbilisi, Mtatsminda majoritarian district, where the MP was elected. This parliamentary mandate became free after the majoritarian MP Salome Zurabishvili became the President of Georgia. As for the Mayor’s extraordinary elections, some of them were detained by the self-regulatory bodies, and the second one was addressing the council for early termination of authority. The city mayors were elected directly in 2017, and the termination of the power in such a short period had a lot of questions in the opposition and non-governmental sector. The corruption scandal was also preceded by the suspension of some of them. Also, the termination of the authority of Sakrebulo deputies were based on their own application, due to absence of sessions or on the basis of the decision of the court.

At first we can think that these elections are one of the usual election processes, but they had a great deal of importance both for the government and the opposition before the parliamentary election of 2020, when the second term of the Georgian Dream ruling party expires. This midterm election was to examine some forces before the next parliamentary elections for the government and the opposition. The main battle was not held between the United National Movement and the United Opposition and the ruling party. Candidates were also nominated by other opposition parties for the elections but the opposition could notmake coalition before the election. It is possible to say that the ruling party has more advantages in terms of utilization of financial and non-governmental resources in this election. Observer organizations noted that the elections were largely peaceful, but it was also pointed out that observers have observed voters’ bribing, illegal agitation, violation of voting secrets and unauthorized persons at the polling stations.[1]

In the mid-term elections, Zugdidi mayoral elections were the most important where Sandra Roelofs, the former First Lady of Georgia, the wife of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili was nominated as a candidate. Opposition parties and various experts also noted that the opposition had a chance to win in this election district. The victory of the election in this district for the government was strategically important because he did not want to let the opposition, in this case the victory of the former ruling party Candidate, because it was negatively affected on the political rating of ruling party. That is why a particularly tense fight was held in this election and finally the ruling party was declared the winner in the first round. According to the vote count, the ruling party’s candidate won 54.18 percent (30 470), while Sandra Roelofs candidate of “National Movement” received 42.84 percent of votes (24 095).[2]

Candidate of the opposition Sandra Roelofs said on the same day that she do not recognize the ruling party’s election results, according to which his opponent, Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Shengelia won. He said that it was not the elections, it was very simple, joint operation of the CSU and criminals was held in Zugdidi. It’s unprecedented, unprecedented sadism, intimidation, intimidation, and criminal all that can be imagined. [3] He also said that if the second round would be announced, I would continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi. [4]  However, the ruling candidate was declared the winner in the first round.

In fact, in the first round of May 19, 2019, all candidates of “Georgian Dream” won the Mayor’s extraordinary and Sakrebulo midterm elections. [5] The only district where the second round of elections was appointed was Tbilisi Mtatsminda district where in the second round of parliamentary elections the candidate of European Georgia and Free Democrats Shalva Shavgulidze and Candidate of “Georgian Dream” Lado Kakhadze participated because no candidate in the first round could not get more than 50% of the votes.

The second round was held on June 9, 2019 in this election district. Both candidates were convinced of victory, but the activation of citizens was important for the opposition and in case of high voter turnout of opposition, the chance of opposition was increased. Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the election and said that “the preliminary data shows that the big advantage is to congratulate Mr. Lado Kakhadze.[6] ” 75% of the votes are numbered and 62, 5% are “dreams Lado Kakhadze has a candidate, and 37, 5% has Shalva Shavgulidze. [7] In turn, the opposition has testified that it is completely unclear to Kakha Kaladze’s preliminary congratulation and the announcement of Mayor’s announcement is not clear for the final results of the elections.[8] Later, the opposition candidate admitted defeat and said that it was a badly organized government, not for democracy and the government had made a dirty campaign against him.[9]

It is important who will win in Mtatsminda election district, which is a kind of rehearsal for the 2020 elections. Support of the opposition parties by candidates who took support in the first round of elections for the second round was very important. It should be noted that the UNM said that party will support the opposition’s candidacy in the second round. As for the some other political parties, party “Girchi”, as well as the “Civil Movement” [10], said they would not support any candidate. Independent candidates Koba Davitashvili and Grigol Gegelia also did not call for voters to support any candidate. [11] Thus, in the second round of the elections, the unity of the opposition was important for the defeat of the government, but such an extensive agreement could not be achieved.

Finally we can say that the ruling party, despite its low trust[12], managed to win the mid-term elections and saved some extent the political preservation, but it is hard to say what the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections will be completed in Georgia.


[1]ISFED: The voting day passed without significant violations, 20.05.2019. 00:32,  https://droa.ge/?p=47556

[2] After counting all the precincts in Zugdidi, “Georgian Dream” candidate Giorgi Shengelia wins by 54.18 percent, 03:12, 20.05.2019, https://1tv.ge/news/zugdidshi-yvela-saarchevno-ubnis-datvlis-shemdeg-qartuli-ocnebis-kandidati-giorgi-shengelia-54-18-procentit-imarjvebs/

[3] Sandra Roelofs: We do not recognize their victory, especially their elections Monday, May 20,2019 – http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/149040-sandra-rulovsichven-ar-vaghiarebt-mat-gamarjvebas-mit-umetes-mat-archevnebs

[4] If the second round will be announced, I am ready to continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi – Sandra Roelofs, May 20, 2019, http://liberali.ge/news/view/45192/tu-meore-turi-gamotskhaddeba-mzad-var-gavagrdzelo-brdzola-zugdidis-sakhelit—sandra-rulovsi

[5] Mayor’s extraordinary and municipal elections were won by “Georgian Dream” candidates, 20.05.2019, https://droa.ge/?p=47577

[6] Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the elections, https://on.ge/story/38851-კალაძემ-კახაძეს-გამარჯვება-არჩევნების-დამთავრებიდან-20-წუთში-მიულოცა

[7] Lado Kakhadze 62.5%, Shalva Shavgulidze 37,5% – Kakha Kaladze publishes data obtained by “Dream”, 10 June 2019, http://www.rustavi2.ge/ka/news/135543

[8] Elene Khoshtaria is absolutely incomprehensible to Kakha Kaladze’s pre-congratulations, June 09, 2019https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29989839.html

[9] Shalva Shavgulidze admitted defeat: “We look at the fact that the parliamentary candidate will be the candidate of the government”, http://guardian.ge/44634-shalva-shavgulidzem-damarckheba-aghiara-chven-thvals-vustsorebth-im-faqts-rom-parlamentis-tsevri-khelisuflebis-kandidati-iqneba.html

[10] Levan Ioseliani, former candidate of Mtatsminda Majoritarian MP, does not support any candidate in the second round, 29-05-2019, https://palitranews.ge/video/mtatsmindis-mazhoritarobis-qofili-kandidati-levan-ioseliani-meore-turshi-mkhars-arts-ert-kandidats-ar-uchers

[11] https://civil.ge/ka/archives/307019

[12] If the elections are held tomorrow, 17% of the respondents will vote for the Georgian Dream – NDI, 21 May, 2019, https://on.ge/story/37947-ხვალ-რომ-არჩევნები-ტარდებოდეს-ქართულ-ოცნებას-გამოკითხულთა-17-დაუჭერდა-მხარს-ndi

Honduras – President Juan Orlando Hernández confronts migrant caravans to the United States, surveillance of the DEA, and mass protests

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the University of Costa Rica.

Juan Orlando Hernández is the first re-elected president in the history of Honduras, in highly contested elections held on November 26, 2017, which left many doubts about whether minimum standards of free and fair elections were met. The process by which the presidential re-election was made possible was already highly questioned.

It has been a year and six months since the inauguration of the second presidency of Hernandez, time during which has had to navigate through many difficulties. The political, social and economic situation in Honduras is more complicated than what Juan Orlando Hernández had to face during his first term (2014-2017). The once very popular president elected under the banner of the National Party of Honduras, is now getting one of the worst approval ratings since transition to democracy.

The country has been international news in recent months due to several massive caravans of migrants marching to the United States. The US President, Donald Trump, far from offering help to tackle the roots of the problem causing emigration to the United States from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), has hardened its foreign policy towards Central America, withdrawing millions of dollars in aid under the premise that their governments are not making enough to prevent emigration.

For several weeks now the government of Juan Orlando has been challenged by strikes and mass demonstrations. What began as a protest against a plan that seemingly would privatize education and health services, became a demand for the resignation of Hernández. As if that were not enough, a few days ago it was known that President Hernández was being investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to possible drug trafficking. It is not clear if the case has been closed or he still remains under investigation.

The migrant caravans

A year ago, a caravan of migrants headed to the United States started in Honduras, and caught the attention of the US government. Immigration overall has been one of the prioritized themes in US foreign policy towards Central America. At the time, President Trump gave a loath coverage of the issue, by just threatening in social media of sending troops at the Southern border to prevent the caravan to get into American soil. Nonetheless, it is no novelty that even during his campaign for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump held a hardline position towards Central American immigration into the United States.

But that first caravan was not the only one that formed; in fact, on October 12, 2018 a bigger one got on its way to the US. This caravan has been the largest and more mediatic in the past few years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that the caravan consisted of around 7,000 people, although some media outlets have given different numbers. The conjuncture caught the immigration offices and governments of the countries involved (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico) with little time and resources to handle the situation.

The circumstances in which these caravans formed are not new. Emigration from most Central American countries into the United States has traditionally been very high. Comparing the census rounds of 2000 and 2010, it is estimated that the population of Honduran migrants who left to the US increased during that period 191.1%, followed by Guatemala (180.3%), and El Salvador (151.7%) (Carlos Sandoval García, No Más Muros: Exclusión y Migración Forzada En Centroamérica. San José: Editorial UCR, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales).

In Central America, and in the case of the Northern coast of Honduras the problems are generally poverty and unemployment. There are historic conflicts that push people to leave, including land issues, and forced displacement that many farmers and peasants have suffered from agro-export businesses. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, is where the first migrant caravan formed to leave to the United States.

There are no clear reasons why migrant caravans formed. A possible explanation is that opposition movements against Juan Orlando Hernández have been helping them to organize them, in order to embarrass his government and promote instability. They gained momentum with more migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala joining them.

Albeit some in the caravan have agreed on staying in Mexico as refugees, some have desisted on their attempt by their own will, returning to Honduras; others less fortunate have been deported along the way. Some others do not lose hope in reaching their desired destination. This first mediatic big caravan, did not succeed in its attempt to enter into the US as asylum seekers; nonetheless, it got very close, as its final destination got to be Tijuana, a Mexican location near the American southern border. The uncertainty, high inequality and poverty conditions do not seem to be solved any time soon, as it is becoming more of a rule than an exceptional crisis. At the time of writing, more caravans have been organized in El Salvador and Guatemala too, noticeable, at least three have departed. By April, another caravan got going, having its starting point in San Pedro Sula, as the first one did. Thus, is expected that some other caravans might be encouraged to leave from the Northern Triangle.

What is to be seen, too, is the course in the immigration policies of these countries involved as they got pressures from very different actors, specially Mexico which connects between the US and the Northern Triangle, and the Trump Administration, as it is coming towards the end of its four-year term. But, importantly too, is the fate of these people who escape from the conditions of their countries, since in most cases, people who choose to migrate this urgently do not so for their own sake; many of them have no control over the causes of their situation.

Strikes and demonstrations

The strikes and social protests began at the end of April this year, when the government was preparing to put into effect two highly controversial executive decrees, PCM-026 and PCM-027. With these norms, the Executive was declaring a national emergency in the health and education systems. The decrees proposed to create special commissions in each sector. These would be responsible for preparing national plans for transforming the systems that provide the healthcare and education public services. In addition, it created a budget for salary settlements in case of dismissal.

The confusing wording in these documents about the potential dismissal of employees, was interpreted by the unions of educators and workers of the health sector as a plan to privatize these services. Although Hernandez repealed the decrees, the protests have been transformed into a movement to demand the resignation of Hernández. Nonetheless, the roots of the problem are also to be found in the underfunding of these services, which have received significant cuts over the past decade, impoverishing the already low quality services.

The DEA investigates Hernández over possible drug trafficking

In the last week of May, it was reported that Juan Orlando Hernández and several of his collaborators were being investigated for drug trafficking by the US Drug Enforcement Administration under the suspicion that he was taking part of “large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States.” The report was released by the Southern District of New York, which has not clarified if the investigations continue.

The President’s brother and former Honduran deputy to the National Congress, Antonio Hernández Alvarado, is waiting for trial in the US after being arrested in November 2018, and accused of cocaine trafficking, and weapon offences. It is suspected that Juan Orlando Hernández would have participated in the criminal activities with which he relates to his brother at least in 2013.

Juan Orlando Hernández is undoubtedly a skilled politician. As stated by The Economist, he is a politician with Machiavellian talents. A lawyer who was previously trained in the Honduran Army, a conservative and supporter of the National Party of Honduras, a right-wing party, Hernández comes from Lempira, one of the poorest departments in Honduras; although he himself has not experienced poverty. This politician has achieved what many thought unthinkable in Honduras: the presidential re-election. Only a few years ago, the issue of re-election was a taboo whose insinuation cost former President Manuel Zelaya Rosales the presidency through a military coup.

Hernández was a poster child of the International Monetary Fund because of the fiscal discipline with which he governed during his first term—a strong program of fiscal austerity was imposed throughout his government—with ambitious plans for development. He is trying to implement special economic zones that would attract—they argue—foreign direct investment in different parts of the country. He also manoeuvred to obtain in his first term some of the best popularity ratings for a president in Honduras, a country with high poverty, inequality and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But now, as mentioned, his popularity ratings have plunged in his second term. Possibly, Hernández expected to start his second term with favorable conditions to accomplish his political, and economic goals. Perhaps he foresaw that it was not going to be an easy term due to the dubious method that lifted term-limits, letting him seek re-election but prompting in response mass protests, and a campaign to discredit him. He dodged skilfully many of those attacks. Nonetheless, this time the President is facing probably one of the most difficult periods of his career as a politician.