Category Archives: Latin America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A millennial’s road to presidential office

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

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

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

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

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

A cloudy future

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabinet Management

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

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

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

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

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

Inter-branch (dis)coordination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peru – House of Cards Continues to Fall

One year ago a New York Times op-ed piece likened the political chaos in Peru to an ‘Inca-style Game of Thrones’. But the dramatic events of the past months indicate that ‘House of Cards’ may provide a better cultural reference, as former presidents and presidential candidates continue to tumble. In a referendum on December 9th the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of reducing corruption, at a time when every Peruvian president elected since 1985 was either in prison or under investigation.

As reported previously in this blog, fallout from the Odebrecht bribery scandal contributed to the resignation in March 2018 of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, saw the preventative detention of former president Ollanta Humala (2011-16), and led another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06), to flee to the US.

Following this upheaval, the expectation in many circles was that the appointment of Kuczynski’s Vice-President, Martin Vizcarra, would herald a return to the political status quo. In other words, to dominance by the two most powerful political forces in the country: the Fuerza Popular party led by Keiko Fujimori (fujimorismo); and the APRA party of two-time president Alan Garcia (aprismo).

According to political scientist Martin Tanaka, Vizcarra’s ‘accidental’ presidency appeared unlikely to alter this situation given his “weak and precarious” position. An engineer and former Governor of the low-profile Department of Moquegua, Vizcarra took power under the worst possible circumstances, with his party leader discredited, and facing a Congress controlled by those responsible for ousting him. Vizcarra’s first three months in office saw his approval ratings fall from 57 to 35 per cent, appearing to confirm a trend of declining legitimacy for Peruvian presidents[i].

Instead events have taken a hand, transforming Vizcarra from lame-duck president to the last president left standing. With exit polls indicating that three of the four questions posed by Sunday’s referendum will pass by a huge majority (Vizcarra had distanced himself from the fourth proposal), an unlikely turnaround has been consolidated.

First, back to those events. Following Kuczynski’s resignation, Peru appeared set for several years of de facto co-governance by ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’, with Fuerza Popular commanding a majority in Congress, while APRA exercised unofficial control over many of Peru’s democratic institutions.

Then came the explosive revelations contained in what have become known as the “CNM audio tapes”[ii]. These recordings featured a group of corrupt judges and prosecutors known as the ‘white collars’ discussing the outcomes of trials, and appeared to implicate Keiko Fujimori[iii]. The scandal saw an eruption of public indignation, leading to large protests across the country during July.

The scandal seemed to energise Vizcarra, who presented proposals for a referendum to reform both politics and the judiciary on July 28th. When Fuerza Popular attempted to obstruct the referendum in Congress, Vizcarra threatened to dissolve the legislature if the measure was not passed. Congress blinked first and voted the measure through, albeit with some changes.

Emboldened, Vizcarra has taken the fight to Fuerza Popular. The referendum proposed four reforms. The first related to the judiciary, abolishing the CNM and replacing it with a new, restructured National Judicial Board that will halve judicial terms and involve civil society oversight.

The other three questions involved political reforms and, according to social scientist Sinesio Lopez, are aimed at ridding Peruvian politics of its most “backward” elements, i.e. ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’.

The first measure seeks to regulate the financing of political parties; the second prohibits immediate re-election of all congressional deputies (a measure Tanaka views as a “mistake”); and finally, a proposal to reinstitute a bicameral legislature. Due to changes made by Fuerza Popular, Vizcarra disowned this proposal as he claimed it would allow parties a means to bypass the ban on immediate re-election. Exit polls indicate that the first three measures received around 85% support, with the final question rejected by a similar margin.

Vizcarra could not have timed his second-coming as the new broom in Peruvian politics any better. No sooner had his referendum law been passed than the bane of presidents in Latin America – the Odebrecht corruption scandal – returned to claim more victims.

As the Financial Times recently noted, Peru has been particularly impacted by the scandal. This is not surprising given the well-documented influence of corporations on Peruvian politics[iv]. Sociologist Francisco Durand’s recently published book[v] on Odebrecht’s operations in Peru traces the evolution of Peru as an “operational hub” for the Brazilian construction company to the ‘competitive authoritarian’ rule of Alberto Fujimori[vi].

But while the scandal has involved three presidents to date (Toledo, Humala and Kuczynski), until recently ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ had remained unscathed. No longer.

First to fall was Keiko Fujimori, who is being investigated by prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez for allegedly receiving US$1.2 million in campaign contributions from Odebrecht. Former executives of the company are co-operating with Perez’s investigation. Already damaged by the CNM tapes, leaked online messages from within Fuerza Popular point to coordinated efforts to obstruct the investigation and intimidate Perez.

The revelations have led to Keiko Fujimori and others within Fuerza Popular being charged with running a criminal organisation, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Furthermore, Fujimori has been placed in preventative detention for up to three 3 years, on the basis that she might interfere with the case.

Viewed alongside the decision by a Peruvian court in October to revoke the highly questionable pardon granted to Keiko’s father Alberto – the former president immediately checked into a clinic, claiming poor health – some have asked whether these events represent the end of ‘fujimorismo’.[vii]

Following on the heels of those dramatic events came the investigation of Alan Garcia on charges of receiving illegal donations from Odebrecht. After returning from Madrid to address the charges, Garcia was ordered by a court to remain in Peru indefinitely.

Having agreed to abide by the court order, on November 17th Garcia presented himself at the Uruguayan Embassy in Lima seeking to claim asylum. Protesters took up a vigil outside the Embassy, and after weeks of consideration, President of Uruguay Tabare Vasquez announced on December 3rd that Garcia’s petition had been refused.

Where does all this turmoil leave Peruvian politics? It may be too soon to say that the influence of ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ has been eliminated – their clientelistic networks, and links to influential business and media sectors remain. But these groupings have rarely been weaker since Peru’s return to democracy.

The question remains as to who or what will fill this power vacuum? Lopez has publicly urged Vizcarra to deepen his reforms by way of a Constituent Assembly to re-write Peru’s Constitution. While the caretaker president enjoys extremely high public legitimacy – his approval ratings have risen to 65% – it is far from clear where he would find the political or social support for more fundamental reform. Nevertheless, the referendum results provide a powerful endorsement of his new direction, and may induce him to seek further reforms.

As this overview of former presidents and prominent presidential candidates reveals, what can be said with certainty is that Peruvian politics is entering entirely uncharted territory.

Peru’s Presidents: Where are they now?

Alan Garcia: President from 1985-90, and 2006-11. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht; under court order to remain in Peru.

Alberto Fujimori: President from 1990 to 2000. Imprisoned in 2009 on human rights and corruption charges. Pardoned under dubious circumstances in December 2017, a court ordered his return to prison in October 2018. Currently in a health clinic while appealing against this order.

Keiko Fujimori: Daughter of Alberto, twice-defeated presidential candidate and leader of the largest party in Congress. Placed in preventative detention for 3 years while under investigation for corruption and running a criminal organisation.

Alejandro Toledo: President from 2001-06. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, currently in the US from where he is contesting extradition to Peru.

Ollanta Humala: President from 2011-2016. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht. Spent eight months in preventative detention in 2017-18.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski: President from 2016-18. Resigned in March 2018 following vote-buying and corruption scandal. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, under court order to remain in Peru.

[i]Melendez, Carlos, and Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, 2013. Peru 2012: Atrapados por la Historia? Revista de Ciencia Social Vol. 33(1).

[ii]“CNM” refers to the Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, or National Judicial Council.

[iii]The recordings contained references to a meeting with a “Sra. K.”

[iv]See for example Crabtree and Durand’s recent book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

[v]Durand, Francisco, 2018. “Odebrecht: La Empresa que Capturaba Gobiernos”. Fondo Editorial PUCP.

[vi]Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan Way, 2002. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2).

[vii]Fowks, Jacqueline, 2018. El fin del Fujimorismo? Nueva Sociedad Vol. 277.

Chile – The Piñera administration faces its most serious challenge yet

At the beginning of last week, one of President Sebastián Piñera’s major preoccupations was the underperforming economy. Even though Finance Minister Felipe Larraín assured that Chile’s economy would grow by twice as much in 2018 as it had in 2017, the truth is that unemployment figures are far from ideal (7.1% for the period July-September 2018). Furthermore, a surprising and intense hailstorm that took place ten days ago prompted the Minister of Agriculture Antonio Walter to suggest that a significant share of further jobs were in jeopardy as a result. Despite this causing some concern on the basis that Piñera ran on an electoral platform of economic prosperity, it was not a serious threat to La Moneda’s overall popular support.

On the other hand, the fragmented left-of-centre opposition was still struggling to find a shared goal around which to organize and deal with its own drawbacks. Deputies Gabriel Boric and Maite Orsini, both members of the leftist Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front) conglomerate, were widely criticised for secretly meeting in Paris with Ricardo Palma Salamanca, a former revolutionary who was convicted for the assassination of UDI party founder and Senator Jaime Guzmán in 1992 (Palma Salamanca escaped from jail in 1996 and days ago was granted asylum in France). Meanwhile, the Partido Socialista (PS), Partido Por la Democracia (PPD) and Partido Radical (PR), all of which were former members of the left-of-centre government coalition Concertación (1990-2010) and then Nueva Mayoría (2013-2018), toyed with the idea of forming one “mega-party” built on social-democratic ideas in a motion that is still on the table.

How things changed

Those were the issues that dominated the political agenda until last week. Nevertheless, the political landscape made an unexpected turn on November 15th when Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche community member, was killed in the Araucanía region by members of the Carabineros’ Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPE, Police Special Operation Group), popularly known as “Comando Jungla” (Jungle Command). This special force unit was formed upon Piñera’s decision to deal with violent acts in Araucanía. Its members received specialist training in Colombia and the United States to deal with organised terrorist groups. This initiative was received with disapproval, especially from the Left and human rights organisations, as it appeared to increase the militarisation of the so-called conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people.  More importantly, the account of the death of Camilo Catrillanca was surrounded in controversy over inconsistencies about how the GOPE reacted to the theft of a vehicle during the afternoon of November 15th. Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick and Luis Mayol, Intendant of the Araucanía region[i], quickly backed the police special force’s version of events, which indicated that Catrillanca was killed during a crossfire. Chadwick even suggested that Catrillanca had police records, although he had not been convicted of any crimes, which was seen as an attempt to support the initial police version of the incident.

While President Piñera was abroad to attend the APEC summit and visit New Zealand, the incident took a serious toll on his administration when it became public that the special police forces had not carried their personal cameras during the procedure. Even worse, the ongoing investigation shows that one of the “Comando Jungla” members had in fact carried his camera but deleted its memory card afterwards, which cast further doubt on the versions initially supported by Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol. Different actors have asked for Chadwick and Mayol’s resignations. The Left, which have craved for unity in recent months, rapidly agreed to interpellate Minister Chadwick, a procedure by which a minister is asked to come forward at the Chamber of Deputies to answer questions. Moreover, Luis Mayol offered his resignation on Tuesday night upon the Christian Democrats’ announcement that they will seek to initiate a constitutional accusation against Mayol for the death of Camilo Carrillanca.

La Moneda’s mistakes

The Piñera administration’s political errors can be summarised as follows. First, the formation of an elite militarised special unit seemed largely inappropriate to deal with a public problem that has more to do with socio-political issues rather than with terrorism, as some in the Right have argued. Second, the way in which the police special forces were introduced five months ago, in a ceremony led by Piñera himself and in which all the weaponry at the Comando’s disposal was presented, was clearly an exaggerated show of force. Finally, there was no need for Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol to almost immediately back the police special forces’ version of the incident. Carabineros de Chile, the national police force, is currently going through its deepest crisis yet in the post Pinochet period. Dozens of top-ranking Carabineros officials, including a former general, are under investigation for a US$ 40 million fraud. Yet, more importantly, the Carabineros of the Araucanía region face another more worrying probe about “Operation Hurricane,” a scandal that saw several police officers accused of falsifying and tampering with evidence, which led to some Mapuche community members being sent to jail. Therefore, Chadwick’s and Mayol’s hurried remarks about the incident itself, and the backing of the Carabineros’ version of it, were unnecessary and unwarranted.

Notwithstanding Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick explaining himself during a special session summoned by the Human Rights and Public Security legislative commissions on Monday 19th and Intendant Mayol’s resignation on Tuesday 20th, the damage to the Piñera administration’s image and credibility was already done. It remains to be seen whether (and how) President Piñera might turn things around and if the opposition may finally become a united front. A different and more fundamental question asks whether the public trust and effective political control of police in the Araucanía region can be regained any time soon.

[i]The intendant is the equivalent of a regional governor, who is directly appointed by the president.

New publications

Special Issue, Leaders, Crisis Behavior, and International Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62 Issue 10, November 2018.

Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: A Special Issue, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018.

Kaitlen J. Cassell, John A. Booth, and Mitchell A. Seligson, ‘Support for Coups in the Americas: Mass Norms and Democratization’, Latin American, Politics and Society, Volume 60, Number 4, pp. 1-25.

Hamid Akin Unver, ‘The fog of leadership: How Turkish and Russian presidents manage information constraints and uncertainty in crisis decision-making’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:3, 325-344, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2018.1510207

Trump – Causes and Consequences, series of articles in Perspectives on Politics, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/information/trump-causes-and-consequences#

Andrea Schneiker, ‘ Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’, Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807712

Ebenezer Obadare and Adebanwi Wale (eds.). Governance and the crisis of rule in Africa: Leadership in transformation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin’s Counterrevolution, The Brookings Institution Press, located in Washington, D.C, 2018.

Karel Kouba and Tomáš Došek – Fragmentation of presidential elections and governability crises in Latin America: a curvilinear relationship?

This is a guest post by Karel Kouba and Tomáš Došek. It is based on their article in Democratization and is available here.

While full reversals of democratic order have been rare in Latin American countries since their transitions to democracy, other, less pernicious, forms of political instability have become common. Challenges to sitting presidents through the threat of impeachment or coups are the primary manifestations of governability crises (Valenzuela 2004), although others consider it as a flexibilization of the presidential regimes and thus a way of ousting unpopular presidents without a democratic regime breakdown (Marsteintredet and Berntzen 2008). We understand governability crises in a broader sense which also includes other forms of conflictive relationships between the president and the congress (Pérez-Liñán 2006).

Existing literature holds that the probability of a governability crisis or an interrupted presidency is higher in more fragmented party systems. In our recent article in Democratization, we depart from this argument in two ways. We argue that we need to focus on the level of fragmentation of presidential elections (and not only the party system itself) and that the relationship between presidential election fragmentation and governability crises is not linear but actually curvilinear (with both the least and the most fragmented elections being most conducive to political crises).

This conclusion permits the reconciliation of two apparently conflicting arguments present in the literature. The academic debate has revolved particularly around the choice of presidential electoral systems (runoff or plurality) and about how these shape the patterns of electoral competition. On the one hand, the use of runoff electoral rules, and especially the fact that the second round had taken place, is associated with higher legislative fragmentation and ideological polarization, which in turn correlates with the occurrence of presidential breakdowns making the absolute majority rule “extremely damaging to democracy” (Chasquetti 2001). On the other hand, however, the opponents of the plurality rule suggest that runoff elections promote democratic consolidation and their introduction in Latin American countries has been a positive institutional innovation (McClintock 2018). Opening up the political competition to political actors that challenge the traditional (and often undemocratic or post-authoritarian) parties as well as greater ideological moderation and wider popular acceptance of the winning candidate are among the principal mechanisms linking runoff rules to better democratic governance.

We tested the implications of our theoretical argument on a sample of 102 Latin American presidencies that have originated in competitive and direct elections between 1978 and 2013. To operationalize governability crises, we used an ordinal index developed by Pérez-Liñán (2006) creating a four-point scale between normal politics on one side and military interventions to oust the president or disband the congress at the other extreme. Running five ordered logistic regression models we show how the curvilinear relationship between presidential election fragmentation and the incidence of governability crises holds under different model specifications. In short, the quadratic term both increases the explanatory power of the model and points in the expected direction as both low and high levels of fragmentation are associated with an increased probability of crisis. The intermediate values of presidential election fragmentation, or around 3 to 4 effective presidential parties contesting the election, are most conducive to political stability. We display this relationship graphically across the range of values of the effective number of presidential candidates. This coding scheme used for the dependent variable indicating the extent of a political crisis assigns a value between 1 (i.e. stable “normal politics”) and 4 (the most extreme instability in the form military intervention).

In the article, we also posit that the causal mechanisms at both extremes are different, as suggested by the notion of equifinality (different causal paths leading to the same result, that is in this case, a governability crisis). In fact, causal mechanisms are context-specific, that is their explanations for how the same phenomenon can vary in time and space. The causal mechanism that translates high levels of party/presidential fragmentation to governability crises has been thoroughly studied and demonstrated in various cases of interrupted presidencies. Extreme fragmentation prevented presidents from having a sufficient “legislative shield” and functional government coalitions (Pérez-Liñán 2007). In combination with social mobilization (Hochstetler 2006), this weakened presidents’ positions and eventually contributed to presidential instability. This was, for example, the case of interrupted presidencies in Ecuador and Bolivia (Mejía Acosta and Polga-Hecimovich 2010; Buitrago 2010, among others).

However, the overconcentration of the presidential contest is almost as likely to destabilize politics. We identify three analytically different mechanisms that describe such processes and use short case studies to illustrate them. First, we focus on refoundationalist politics as a consequence of previous crises of representation that could trigger a governability crisis. Second, we argue that overinstitutionalized parties and party systems often maintained by plurality electoral rules prevent alternative leaders from entering the competition, and that this petrification of politics is unhealthy for democratic stability. Third, we focus on the internal conflicts within the traditional parties whose leaders are encouraged to abandon their party and form a personalist vehicle of their own to contest elections. We illustrate these scenarios with the cases of Venezuela (which combines to a certain degree the first two paths) and Honduras (which exemplifies the last two paths).

We conclude in line with McClintock’s recent work that there are risks associated with an extreme overconcentration of the party system. Thus, to the extent that concentrating the presidential contest has been advocated to avoid further legislative fragmentation and governability crises, this advice cannot be generalized across the board without caveats. Both runoff and plurality rule have their advantages supported by some formidable theoretical arguments. Consequently, the institutional advice that is consistent with our theoretical argument is the preference for a runoff rule with a reduced threshold in the first round. This middle-of-the-road rule might avoid the overconcentration of the contest between two competing blocs by facilitating access of challenger parties to the presidency, while at the same time safeguarding against the proliferation of weak candidates.

Karel Kouba is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Philosophical Faculty, University of Hradec Králové, Czech Republic. He specializes in voting behaviour and electoral institutions in Latin American and post-communist countries. He can be reached at karel.kouba@uhk.cz. Website: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Karel_Kouba

Tomáš Došek is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Instituto de Ciencia Política, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile. His research focuses on political parties, electoral reforms and subnational politics in Latin America. He can be reached at tdosek@uc.cl. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/tomasdoseklatam/

Magna Inácio – The 2018 Presidential Elections in Brazil: A Turning Point?

A far-right president, Bolsonaro, was elected in Brazil, propelling the most radical political shift in Brazilian politics since the redemocratization. In the runoff election, Bolsonaro secured 55.8 million votes (or 55%), a 10% margin of victory ahead the leftist candidate, Haddad.

The former army captain, Bolsonaro, successfully turned himself into the mouthpiece of the politically dissatisfied. Under the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”, his strident rhetoric echoed nationalistic, conservative and identity-based issues against corruption, crime, and moral crisis. To broaden his electoral appeal, he won over markets by pledging a deep policy shift toward market-friendly reforms under the charge of his ultra-liberal economic advisor, the would-be minister of finance. Even without clear proposals, and by means of contradictory signs, he successfully packaged all the issues into a promise of an alternative government, expressing not only a rejection of leftist administrations headed by PT, the presidential party for 13 years, but of the whole political system. Branding himself an outsider, Bolsonaro spiced up his anti-establishment appeals with controversial remarks about basic democratic tenets. His statements signalled little tolerance for political opponents and activists, and his proposal to change the Constitution raised concerns of authoritarian threads put forth by his government.

The exceptionality of this presidential election partially explains the electoral success of Bolsonaro, a backbench deputy, nominated as a presidential candidate by a small party and managing limited campaign resources. This election had a frontrunner candidate, former president Lula, deemed ineligible by the electoral courts due to his conviction for corruption crimes. At the same point of the campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally and campaigned from his hospital bed and from his home until Election Day. The commotion caused by this violent event restrained his rivals’ negative ads against his electoral platform and political discourses. He did not take part in TV debates with other candidates, a contest highly valued by Brazilian voters. Instead, he broadcast himself extensively using social media and, at the same time, he blocked his running mate and economic adviser from taking a public position on sensitive issues of his electoral platform. In addition, the electoral process was heavily poisoned by misinformation, rumors and fake news disseminated through social media by campaigners and extremist supporters.

But, is this only an exceptional election, or a turning point in Brazilian politics? We are probably witnessing a more radical change than occurred with the first victory of a leftist party at the presidential level in 2002. This is signaled not only by Bolsonaro’s profile and his path to the presidential seat. He is the most visible face in this process. Other electoral effects reveal a shift far beyond that.

First, the political polarization has assumed a centrifugal dynamic in this election. The political divide evolved into voter fury against the political establishment, mainly the most presidentialized parties. These anti-system feelings and strong rejection of established parties has spread to legislative and subnational races. Electorally, it boosted the Bolsonaro candidacy, but also changed the face of the legislative branch. The electoral volatility showed a considerable transfer of votes to right-wing parties. Although Bolsonaro´s party was the most rewarded, several small parties also gained seats. The seat-shares of the centrist parties reduced considerably, raising concerns about their pivotal roles in moderating legislative decisions in the next legislature. On the left side, parties maintained their legislative strengths, given the coattail effects of their presidential candidates, ending the presidential race in the second and third positions. However, it shadows the future of a stronger, united opposition to Bolsonaro’s government.

It led to a second consequence, a higher legislative fragmentation. The effective numbers of the parties (EFN) was raised to 16.5 and 13.5, in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It showed not only changes in the interparty competition within the congress. The anti-establishment feelings also triggered a tsunami of legislative turnover, skyrocketing to 52% and 48% of legislators in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It greatly benefited conservative outsiders and freshmen candidates, mostly affiliated with right-wing parties. The conservative-leaning seat-shares has increased considerably with the election of religious-minded and military deputies. However, it is still not clear how aligned they are with the liberal reforms in the economic policy area. Thus, the next congress will be not only more fragmented, but also populated by cross-pressured legislators.

It raises the cost of forming political majorities, even if the president decides to walk away from coalitional presidentialism and govern through ad hoc coalitions. Thus, the expectations that 2018 elections would foster the conditions to overcome five years of political and economic turmoil in Brazil seems to be unrealistic.

Exploring the Twilight Zone: An account of Mexican politics after the election

A couple of weeks ago at the University of Oxford, when asked for his opinion on the recently elected Mexican government, Luis Almagro, Secretary General to the Organization of American States, said that assessing an administration that has yet to take office would be irresponsible. Since I am not the head of a key international and regional organization, in my second entry to the Presidential Power blog —my first as a regular contributor— I will risk offering an irresponsible but yet informed account of the events that have shaped the Mexican political landscape over the past few months.

For those who have not followed the Mexican scene closely —and even for those who have— it might come as a surprise that even after more than three months of election day, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is still president-elect. With five more weeks until he is sworn in, many in Mexico can closely relate to Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. An overview of Mexican media outlets reveals that public sentiment is split: On the one hand, there are those who say that throughout this waiting period nothing of significance has happened and those who would argue that there have been substantial changes. On the other hand, there is also no consensus on how best to assess either of the two previously described scenarios.

To help you explore the Mexican twilight zone, in what follows I will first address the most salient issues across 5 different arenas: economy, security, domestic politics, international relations and social policy. In the second section, I succinctly explore the upcoming challenges for AMLO and list a few things to look out for in the next couple of months. Lastly, I briefly conclude by reflecting on Enrique Peña Nieto’s (EPN) epilogue.

A Quick Recap by Arena

  1. The Economy — AMLO and his team have placed three key topics on the economic agenda: a) Mexico City’s airport, b) the Tren Maya project and c) Revenue and Wages. Interestingly enough, the two big-scale infrastructure projects will be decided by two separate (semi-formal) referenda. Income-wise, on the one hand, the new government announced that taxes will not be raised, and on the other hand, AMLO agreed to increase to the minimum wage with COPARMEX and CCE—the two largest patronal organizations. That is, come December 1st , the government’s budget is unlikely to significantly increase and Mexican workers are now expecting a long overdue pay raise.
  2. Security — As with the previous arena, López Obrador along with the next Secretary of the Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, have outlined at least three items for the security agenda: a) Legalizing marihuana, b) the Foros de Pacificación and the c) continued militarization of police forces. While the MORENA plurality in Congress awaits the results of the Foros in order to take further steps in terms of public safety, most surprisingly, after meeting with military officials, AMLO announced that for now, the armed forces will continue to police key areas of the country and that ultimately, Mexico needs a Guardia Civil.
  3. Domestic Politics — This is perhaps the most complex arena given the sheer amount of relevant matters raised by MORENA’s victorious candidate. While he tours the country in order to thank voters, AMLO has a) continued to announce the appointment of (future) cabinet members, b) met with several governors who, appalled by the president’s popular support, have quickly found their (lost since 2000) political discipline. The president-elect has also announced c) austerity measures, d) the reallocation of ministries, and has said that he will e) cancel EPN’s education reform while f) leaving the one regulating the energy sector
  4. International Relations — Two issues stand out regarding the international sphere. The first one being the fact that after the elections, a) members of AMLO’s team were included in the negotiation rounds of the free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico. With support from the new administration, it is highly unlikely then that Mexico will ask for further/significant changes to the agreement. Divergence, however, characterized the second more recent and salient issue, in which, b) on the one hand, EPN used state forces in an attempt to block the Caravana Migrante and on the other hand, López Obrador declared that once he is sworn in, there will be employment for citizens and migrants alike.
  5. Social Policy — In the face of restricted public resources and the promise not to raise taxes, AMLO has announced a redesign and a restructured budget for social programs. While transfers for young and elderly people have been repeatedly advertised, it is still unclear what the incoming government will do, for example, in terms of health (IMSS, ISSSTE and Seguro Popular) and pensions. The expectation is that progressively redistributive policies along with the increase in wages allow Mexico to overcome its alarming levels of poverty and inequality.

What now? Challenges and Expectations

For Andres Manuel, the most excruciating challenge comes exactly from the expectations he has generated. In a recent poll, AMLO’s approval rating reached an outstanding 71%. The survey also revealed, as Figure 1 shows, that around 74% of Mexicans believe that once he is in office, complex topics such as corruption, security, health and poverty will improve. It seems that anything but exceptional is bound to disappoint. The Tabasqueño’s leadership and charisma will surely be put to the test.I have elsewhere talked about the challenge of transforming MORENA into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party. Recent quarrels between fellow Congressmen and the disagreements between MORENA’s leadership and some of the party’s governors, show that achieving internal cohesion is definitely one pending task of the organization.

A lot has been said at rallies and public plazas, but in the midst of le passage à l’acte, there are two vital pieces of legislation to look out for: 1) The (probably) new Ley Orgánica de la Administración Pública Federal (LOAPF) and 2) the Presupuesto de Egresos de la Federación (PEF). The former will define the architecture of the federal administration and shape the responsibilities of the bureaucracy, the latter will set the ‘production possibility frontier’ for the incoming administration. Together, these documents will reveal the true priorities of AMLO’s government and are highly likely to be heavily discussed in the first few months of 2019.

Concluding Remarks…

I hope that a) I have not been so irresponsible in presenting this brief account of the Mexican political scenario, b) that I have not left out key topics or issues and c) that you find that the points that were raised are actually well documented. As a close to my second entry, I would like to highlight that for the past several months —some would say even a year— current president Peña Nieto has been missing in action.

In spite of presenting his last annual Informe and talking at the United Nations, EPN has been unable to set the agenda. When he does manage to make headlines is because he either took a selfie with a phone covered with an AMLO-supporting case or even more damming, when he’s criticized for being Trump’s attack dog in the southern border. Now a lame duck, I can imagine that EPN, as many Mexicans, can’t wait for his show to be over.

El Salvador – Choosing China over Taiwan: Presidential powers and geopolitics in Central America

Last 20th August, the President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, announced that his government was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (herein forth Taiwan or the ROC) to establish them with the People’s Republic of China (China or PRC). This is the latest in a series of diplomatic defeats for the ROC, a country struggling to maintain sovereign state recognition among a few developing small states, against the will of the Chinese government who insists that Taiwan is a renegade province, and countries cannot maintain diplomatic relations with both at the same time. This is also known as the One-China policy. The Salvadoran switch takes place at the time that the PRC gradually seeks to establish itself as a hegemonic power on the international stage, while the current United States government holds a commercial war with the Chinese. Central America is quite in the middle of this game of great powers (and in the Caribbean, in 2017, the Dominican Republic also chose China over Taiwan).

In this post, I focus my analysis on the six presidential polities located in the Central American isthmus (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama), particularly, El Salvador. Besides this country two other states have established diplomatic relations with the PRC: Costa Rica, in 2007, and Panama, in 2017. It has also been speculated that the Honduran government might, in the short term, do the same. In this post I discuss how foreign policy decisions are a presidential power, which is affected by domestic politics and, particularly for small countries in strategic locations, the influence of great international powers.

A convenient way to characterize this situation is as a two-level game model, where domestic politics interact with international politics. I seek to answer, why Central American countries are cutting diplomatic ties with the ROC? Why they had them in the first place? Will more countries in this region do the same? And, does the current US-China trade war have anything to do with all this?

Foreign policy presidential powers in Central America, and the Beijing or Taipei dilemma

The countries of the Central American isthmus, except for Belize, have in common that all of them have a presidential form of government. This is, presidents and members of the legislature are elected for fixed terms, and cabinet members in the executive are not accountable to the legislature. Foreign policy is often characterized as a presidential power, not only in this region of the world but elsewhere, where polities have adopted presidentialism or some sort of semi-presidentialism. Very much like in the United States, in Central American countries foreign policy is a presidential prerogative, subject to checks-and-balances whose limits often fall into grey areas of constitutional interpretation. Yet, it is at the discretion of the president to recognize the sovereignty of other states.

The way presidents handle the international relations of their nations are not free from controversy. After the PRC became one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in the early 1970s, most Latin American states except for the Central American and the Caribbean ones broke diplomatic ties with the ROC to establish them with China. Colin R. Alexander (China and Taiwan in Central America: Engaging Foreign Publics in Diplomacy. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), provides an explanation of why this subgroup of nations in the Americas maintained diplomatic recognition of Taiwan over China. This is partly explained by the close ties between the government in Washington D.C. and the government in Taipei (the capital of the ROC) that was forged during the Cold War. On the one hand, it is well known that the Taiwanese government grants substantial donations for international development to governments of the few states that still recognize it as a state.

On the other hand, much is speculated about some other donations being granted informally, without going through public controls. Less evident is that, according to Alexander, among diplomatic circles in Taiwan there is talk that the United States government also makes informal donations to the governments of the Caribbean and, possibly, some Central American ones as well—i.e. countries within their geographical area of ​​influence—in order to persuade them to keep recognition of the Asian island: “it has long been suspected that the US government provides financial incentives, aid, and development assistance to its neighbors based on informal agreements that they will continue to recognize the ROC” (p. 30).

Therefore, for Central American governments there are strong historical, political and financial incentives to maintain diplomatic ties with the ROC. However, that scenario has been changing due to the PRC’s stronger role in international trade, but also because it is competing with Taiwan with a diplomacy of development aid to extend its own influence—a so-called dollar diplomacy—hence weakening the Taiwanese in Central America. In 1985, due to the ideological context of the time, the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua gave China diplomatic recognition. Ortega’s policy towards China was abolished by the new Nicaraguan government in the early 1990s, while diplomatic relations with ROC were restored. Years later, when Ortega competed again in the 2006 elections, with clear chances of winning, he hinted to the possibility of reestablishing relations with Beijing. Nonetheless, he did not do it. It was another former president of the 1980s, Óscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010), from Costa Rica, the first in Central America in breaking with Taipei over Beijing, in this new context of international relations.

Arias returned to office in 2006 and a year later, amid great secrecy, his government announced that it was diplomatically recognizing the PRC. While there was controversy at that time about this move, as one observer points out, Costa Rica—a more open economy to international markets, with a higher per capita income than its Central American neighbours—was exporting more to China than to Taiwan, and was less dependent on official development aid than its neighbours. Hence, strategically, it was probably more natural for this country to establish this diplomatic policy which came with additional benefits, such as official aid for infrastructure and investment agreements.

However, Chinese investment in other parts of Central America has increased considerably in recent years. On the one hand, this is the result of the growing investment of that country in different parts of Latin America. The investment of this Asian state is concentrated in the countries of the Southern Cone. Some analysts believe that this behaviour is partly explained by Beijing’s interest to consolidate itself as a global hegemon, although this is also due to its need for raw materials to sustain its economic growth, and the expectation to profit from some of its investments (Constantino Urcuyo, China y EE. UU. Geopolítica y estrategia en el siglo XXI, forthcoming). In Central America, the geostrategic interest of this region for the United States must be taken into account, and that this is one of the few strongholds Taiwan has left.

Political scientist Constantino Urcuyo (see last paragraph) argues that, although China has not invested in this region in the same proportion as it has in the Southern Cone, the Central American isthmus is of great economic importance for Beijing, as it connects through the Panama Canal the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and is a transit area for Chinese trade to North America. He also adds that politically, until 2016, China and Taiwan were experiencing a truce in their diplomatic efforts regarding the One-China policy. However, since Tsai Ing-wen’s rise to the presidency of Taiwan, China has taken a more aggressive diplomatic stance seeking to weaken the former internationally.

Panama has become the largest destination for Chinese investments in Central America. This country is in fact part of the Silk Road strategy that the Chinese government promotes mainly in Asia and Africa. In Honduras, Chinese money builds a dam of strategic importance for development plans in that country. The Honduran government of Juan Orlando Hernández has also sought to attract more investment from that Asian country for other projects such as the establishment of a so-called Zone for Employment and Economic Development. Finally, it has been argued that one reason that could explain El Salvador’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China was Taiwan’s refusal to build a seaport. The agreement with China includes investment in this regard.

¿Is Donald Trump’s presidency a revival of the Monroe Doctrine?

The Monroe Doctrine, named after the United States President James Monroe in 1823, saw the intervention of Europeans in the Americas as acts of aggression. Years later, it is accentuated under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt who would justify the direct intervention of the United States in the politics of the Latin American states. It is well known the influence that the United States had in countries such as Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico during the first decades of the 20th century.

The United States has been observing with great suspicion the growth of the Chinese presence in the Americas. However, possibly under the Trump administration the verbal confrontations of the United States towards China have grown. Recall that even though he had not assumed, the newly elected president made an official call to the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen’s, in November 2016, breaking protocol in a confrontational attitude against China. Trump has also launched a trade war this year with countries of the European Union, Canada and Mexico. But, possibly it is with China the country with whom this type of confrontation has been more aggressive, due to the tit-for-tat tariff escalation both parts have embraced with. However, this factor may not be related to the diplomatic rupture of El Salvador with Taiwan.

The Obama administration declared the end of the Monroe Doctrine’s era (Urcuyo, forthcoming); however, under Trump’s government the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on one occasion, in reference to the Chinese presence in the American continent, declared that the Monroe Doctrine was a success back in the day, asserting that “I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written”.

The intervention of the United States in Central America is subtler in comparison to what it was even in more recent times, during the Cold War. Faced with the growing Chinese investment in the region, Trump’s government has threatened that will condition its economic support upon their maintenance of diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It did after the breakup of Panama with Taiwan in 2017, and it reiterated this a few days ago after El Salvador did the same last August. Mainly, for the countries of the Northern Triangle, the United States’ aid may be more important, due to their higher levels of poverty compared to their Central American neighbours.

An additional factor that affects the countries of the Northern Triangle in their relationship with the US is that they are expellers of migrants and their economies are very dependent on the remittances they send to their families. This factor has been changing since the Obama administration at the beginning of this decade, among other factors, due to their growing crime rates and political instability, which is why the US has tightened its border control and deportation policies.

The two-level game of the Salvadoran diplomatic switch

For the Salvadoran President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the decision to maintain relations with Taiwan or to establish them with China represents what Robert Putnam characterizes as a two-level game, where the government has to manage a simultaneous strategy to manage the conflict in national politics and international politics.

Sánchez Cerén has been elected president of a leftist party, the former guerrilla in the 1980s, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). El Salvador is also in a serious fiscal crisis and since the arrival of Trump has sought to relax its position, albeit unsuccessfully, on the policy of mass deportations. Hence, international aid is a significant incentive. However, Trump has been quite derogatory with El Salvador. Recall that in January 2018 Trump called “shitholes” El Salvador, Haiti and other African nations. Obviously, this was very offensive for Salvadorans.

On the other hand, it is known that Taiwan manages its own lobby groups in the countries where it has a diplomatic presence. This explains the secrecy of the negotiation between El Salvador and China.  However, once the government’s decision to recognize China and break with Taiwan was announced, the biggest opposition party, the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) declared that if they return to power after the 2019 elections, they will restore relations with Taiwan. This party has been associated with the Taiwanese lobby. However, it is difficult to know if they will keep this campaign promise, given the irregularity with which the US government is managing its diplomatic relations with El Salvador.

Can we expect more Central American countries breaking off with Taiwan?

Currently, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are the Central American presidential countries that still maintain relations with Taipei. At least in the case of the Guatemalan and Honduran governments, there may be significant incentives for them to remain as allies of the ROC. In spite that it has been speculated that the Honduran government could be the next to recognize the PRC, as the Guatemalan government, Hondurans have proven to be closer to President Trump. For instance, last year Guatemala was the first country to follow the example of the United States and moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both Guatemala and Honduras, in December 2017, were two of the eight countries to vote against a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly condemning that decision of the US government.

China will possibly continue with its policy of not intervening in the domestic politics of other countries, but it will probably keep investmenting in Central America. The United States, like Taiwan, could increase its aid to the countries that still recognize the ROC. Hence, a plausible scenario is that relations between those countries and the ROC continue.

Conclusions

Sovereign state recognition and, foreign policy in general, is a presidential power. However, for small countries, especially those within the influence zone of great world powers, it is a very relative power.

In this regard, the balance of forces between China and the United States has important repercussions on the domestic policies of the Central American countries. This phenomenon is more relevant due to the personality of the current US president, who has assumed a more aggressive foreign policy than his predecessors.

Trump has revived the Monroe Doctrine and it is possible that in the years to come, if re-elected in 2020, he could seek to increase the US presence in Central America to prevent the remaining nations that still hold diplomatic ties with Taipei to change them over Beijing. Nonetheless, given the pressing needs of Central American governments, unless the US and the ROC increase their aid to their Central American counterparts, the temptation to break off with Taiwan will continue.

 

 

Nicaragua – How Daniel Ortega Became an Extremely Strong President

To end a five-and-a-half-month protest movement against him, on 29 September 2018 Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal. The protests had been met with vigorous repression by riot police and ‘paramilitaries’, off-duty police and party tough guys—called la turba/the mob—equipped with assault rifles. The government acknowledges that 192 people have died; La Prensa, the opposition daily, counts 450; while cautious commentators note at least 350 fatalities. In all cases the casualties were overwhelmingly protesters. Further, over 20,000 Nicaraguans are reported to have fled to Costa Rica. Efforts by the Catholic Church to mount a National Dialogue to bring the two sides together failed as the protesters demanded that Ortega resign and new elections be held within a year. The president refused.

It’s easy to explain why the protests began. President Ortega issued a decree on 18 April raising social security contributions while reducing the amount paid to pensioners. He did so for a good reason—a growing budget deficit. However, he acted without consulting the pensioners. This brought a loud and large demonstration led by pensioners, supported by university students not aligned with the president’s party, the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). That Daniel, as he is universally known in Nicaragua, rescinded the decree the day after the protest suggests he recognised his error. Yet he did not modify his response to the protesters. Indeed, as time passed greater force has been used, protesters were charged with terrorism and doctors treating protesters were fired from their hospitals. To understand why, we need to examine Ortega’s political CV.

In 1963, 18-year old Daniel Ortega joined the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) to fight the then 26-year old Somoza family dictatorship. Four years later Ortega was imprisoned for bank robbery—fund-raising for the revolution. He served six years, then returned to revolutionary activities. By1979 the Somozas were deposed and Daniel was one of nine Commanders of the Revolution, hence part of the FSLN’s National Directorate: revolutionary Nicaragua’s policy-making executive. He was also the co-ordinator of the Governing Council for National Reconstruction (JGRN), a five-person, appointed, formal executive representing the various groups who opposed the Somozas.

In 1984 Ortega won the presidency in free elections. The1987 constitution gave him extensive powers, which he enjoyed until 1990 when he lost to Violeta Chamorro of the UNO (National Union of the Opposition). He would lose twice more—in 1996 to Liberal Arnoldo Alemán, and in 2001 to the Liberal-backed Conservative Enrique Bolaños. Ortega, though, used those 16 years to consolidate his control over the FSLN and begin the process of installing Sandinista judges in the judiciary. Ortega also saw the constitution amended to impose a presidential term limit (no immediate re-election and a two-term lifetime limit) in 1995. However, he struck a deal with President Alemán in 2000 to enact amendments that began rolling back constraints on the president, a process that concluded with the constitutional amendments of 2014 that eliminated all limits on presidential re-election.

Critically, during those years, Ortega also changed his politics. The one-time revolutionary leftist now supports Nicaraguan capitalists, a class that now includes him and his family. He and his wife Rosario Murillo, currently his vice-president, also mended fences with the Catholic Church, a determined foe of the FSLN in the 1980s and 1990s, when Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo married them in a church ceremony in 2005. More telling, though, was the FSLN’s support for the criminalisation of abortion shortly before the 2006 elections.

Despite taking just 38 percent of the vote in 2006, Daniel regained the presidency, as two Liberals split 55 percent of the vote nearly equally between them. Since his inauguration in 2007, Ortega has solidified his support by enacting redistributive policies, something not seriously undertaken since 1990. Unfortunately, he has also turned to electoral manipulation to assure his success. There is evidence indicating that electoral manipulation quickly became commonplace– aided greatly by the FSLN’s control of Nicaragua’s Electoral Council. However, it was the 2008 mayoral vote in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, that provoked the strongest protest and brought a violent response from the government, though no deaths were reported.
Assuring electoral victory was only the first step Ortega took. The term limit provisions of the 1995 constitution meant that Daniel would have to leave the presidency in 2011. He could not amend the constitution, as that required the votes of 56 National Assembly deputies, and the FSLN had only 38. He could, however, use his control of the judiciary to produce a work-around. In 2009, the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega’s right to political participation was illegally circumscribed by the constitution’s no immediate re-election clause and declared that it did not apply to him or to similarly affected Sandinista mayors; but no one else. And when protests arose in 2013-2014 over a now abandoned canal project, the Sandinista government responded with harassment and intimidation, but not the violence we see in 2018.

The final step in Ortega’s amassing power in his own hands came in 2014 via amendments to the Military Code and National Police Law that shifted administrative control over both the military and police to the president. Of course, 2014 also saw all limits on presidential re-election removed. Thus in 2018, Daniel Ortega has acquired an effective monopoly over state power. He is a personal ruler and an uncommonly powerful president. Observers of Nicaraguan politics, both supporters and critics of Daniel, believe that Rosario Murillo will succeed him and that their son, Laureano, will succeed her. This was the Somozas’ model from 1936 to 1979 and it bodes ill for Nicaraguan democracy. Similarly, the violence his government currently employs against protesters also echoes the Somoza era. Ortega has been able to make state institutions work for him. In doing so, he has adopted the methods of the very Somoza dictatorship he and the FSLN overthrew in 1979.