Category Archives: Asia

Taiwan – Direct democracy, Minority Rights, and the Referenda in the 9-in-1 elections, 2018

The 9-in-1 local elections for Taiwan on November 24, 2018, also saw voters cast ballots on 10 referenda. The large number of referenda follows from the Revised Referendum Act, which took effect on January 3, 2018, following passage by the Taiwan legislature in December, 2017. The elections saw the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) routed: the party lost seven of the 13 cities and counties it held to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), including Kaoshiung, a DPP-foothold for 20 years. The final election tally for the 22 city, county, and special municipality mayoral and magistrate seats saw the DPP with six seats, the opposition KMT with 15, while independent incumbent mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, was re-elected by 0.23 percent margin, or slightly over 3000 votes. KMT candidate for Taipei, Ting Shou-chung, has challenged the results and lodged a suit for a recount, which officially started on December 3, 2018. Much has been said about the election results as well as the disappointing referenda outcomes, particularly for advocates of same-sex marriage. Here, I review scholarship regarding the promises and perils of direct democracy, to contextualize the referenda and their outcomes in Taiwan.

Direct democracy occurs when citizens participate directly in policy-making, most commonly through referenda and initiatives. Some perennial concerns regarding direct democracy are voters’ knowledge or access to information; the role of money; how the outcomes are translated into policy; and whether democracy aids majority or minority interests.[1] Supporters of direct democracy often fall along arguments that, by and large, direct democracy engenders greater political engagement and participation and, hence, is more representative and democratic.[2] Critics charge that direct democracy typifies majoritarian rule which often fails to accommodate and may even discriminate against minority interests.[3] On balance, studies find that the evidence generally falls on the side that minority rights needs protection against the processes of direct democracy.[4] Indeed, Donovan (2013) finds pronounced “stereotypes and negative affect” in information campaigns leading-up to direct democracy ballots (1731). [5]

In important ways, the Revised Referendum Act pave for democratic deepening, political engagement, and even change. In particular, it reduced the voting age to 18 to empower youths to participate in established institutions and processes. It also reduced the required number of signatures to initiate a proposal and to support the initiated piece to 0.01 percent, and 1.5 percent, respectively, of the electorate in the most recent presidential election, which are equivalent to 1879 and 281,745 respectively. It also eliminates the Referendum Review Commission and reduces the turnout quorum to 25 percent of registered voters, where a majority affirming the referendum means that it passes. Prior to the revisions, the 2003 Referendum Act stipulates that the initiation and support of a referendum are 0.1 percent and 5 percent respectively of the electorate in the most recent presidential election; further, amendments must be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters at a referendum held in six months from the public announcement of the revisions. These conditions set a high bar for passage of referendum: none of the six referenda proposed since the 2003 Act passed.

However, the ease of initiating a referendum also led the same-sex marriage issue to be put to a plebiscite. In this regard, by failing to put in safeguards on the referendum process, the government has complicated its policy-making process and responsibility.

Thus, on November 29, 2018, the Judicial Yuan Secretary-General asserted that the Constitutional Court’s 2017 ruling on same-sex marriage – the Court ruled that the Civil Code that prohibited same-sex marriages was unconstitutional – represents the highest law of the land and cannot be overridden by referenda. This is followed by the announcement by the Ministry of Justice of preparations for a same-sex marriage bill, to be presented to the legislature before March 1, 2019. Still, with more than 60 percent of the voters expressing opposition to same-sex marriage, the road ahead to reconcile the referenda with legislation will be rocky.

 

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[1] Lupia, Arthur, and John Matsuska. 2004. “Direct Democracy: New Approaches to Old Questions.” Annaul Reviews Political Science: 463-82

[2] Clark, Sherman. 1998. “A Populist Critique of Direct Democracy.” Harvard Law Review Issue 2 Dec: 434-482.

[3] Gunn, Patricia. 1981 “Initiatives and Referendums: Direct Democracy and Minority Interests.” Urban Law Annual No 135: 1-27

[4] Lewis, David. 2011. “Direct Democracy and Minority Rights: Same-Sex Marriage Bans in the United States.” Social Science Quarterly, vol 92 no 2: 364-83; Haider-Markel, Donald, Alana Querze and Kara Lindaman. 2007. “Lose, Win, or Draw? A Reexamination of Direct Democracy and Minority Rights.”Political Research Quarterly vol 60 no 2: 304-14.

[5] Donovan, Todd. 2013. “Direct Democracy and Campaigns Against Minorities.” Minnesota Law Review vol 97 no 5: 1730-1779.

 

 

The Philippines – The Road (Blocks) to Constitutional Changes

Among President Duterte’s campaign promises was his pledge to adopt constitutional reforms to change the country’s unitary system into a federalism, with some powers devolved to the local governments for a more responsive government. The path to the constitutional change has been highly favourable to the President: he enjoys a super-majority support in the House and remains highly popular among the voters. Indeed, until recently, the progress looked good for the President: the 25-member constitutional consultative commission that he created through Executive Order No 10 to review the Constitution and recommend amendments to Congress, comprising 19 appointed by the President himself, approved a draft for submission to the President on July 3, 2018. The draft has since been submitted to Congress, with the House and the Senate agreeing on separate votes over the draft. Here, I look at how the draft came to be and the obstacles that may stand in the way of the President’s delivery on this promise.

There are three ways to amend the Constitution: through a vote of three-fourths of the members of Congress; a constitutional convention, where the House and Senate will propose changes; and by direct petition of at least 12 percent of total registered voters, of which every legislative district has three percent signatories. All revisions must then be ratified by a majority of the votes cast between 60 and 90 days of the approval of the amendment.

The President was predisposed towards a constitutional assembly: in December 2016, he signed the Executive Order No 10 to create a constitutional commission, comprising 25 members, to review the Constitution and recommend amendments to Congress, where Congress would then act as a constitutional assembly to review and debate the amendments. The House and the Senate were split, with the 297-seat House – where the President enjoys a super-majority – favouring a constitutional assembly while the 24-seat Senate – where the President has faced his toughest critics, including two whom he has arrested – supports the constitutional convention. The House and the Senate agreed to set aside the mode of change on January 24, 2018; President Duterte announced the appointment of 19 members of the constitutional commission on January 25, 2018, headed by former chief justice Reynato Puno

The President has endorsed the draft for Congress. Significant changes contained in the draft include:

At the President’s insistence, the draft contains a provision that bars him and Vice President Leni Robredo from a second-term, to assure critics that he is not intent on extending his tenure in office. Critics charge that the draft, nevertheless, contains provisions that are considered highly controversial, particularly the creation of the Federal Transition Commission to oversee the political change to the federalist system.

Will the President be able to fill this promise? Polls show that a majority of the voters – 67 percent – are opposed to the constitutional revision; however, 74 percent also have little or no knowledge of the current constitution. This may explain the President’s optimism that the country will eventually pass the recommended changes. It may also explain why several hundred academics, including several university presidents, have signed a statement against the constitutional assembly, in favour of more participatory process such as through a constitutional convention.

Ironically, the greatest obstacle to constitutional change may be the House of Representatives. The previous house speaker, Representative Pantaleon Alvarez, had called for the postponement or even cancellation of elections in 2019 to make way for the constitutional change, in his zeal to advocate for the President’s constitutional plans. In a leadership challenge in the House, the speaker was ousted and replaced by former President and current Representative Gloria Arroyo, who was pardoned by President Duterte and seen as an strong advocate for shepherding the president’s agenda. Speaker Arroyo has led the House to develop a draft of constitutional changes that was submitted to the President on September 19, 2018. The draft, which contains provisions to extend terms limits for other elected offices, diluting the anti-dynasty provisions, and, perhaps most controversially, removes the Vice President from the line of presidential succession, is clearly different from the one submitted by the Constitutional Commission. Indeed, the Constitutional Commission has since formally written to the President to assail the House draft as “questionable” and be made public in the interest of transparency. It seems that the President’s strongest supporters, more so than other obstacles, may lead to the undoing of constitutional changes.

 

South Korea – The President and the Economy

Several presidents in South Korea have entered office with pledges to address the economy: former President Lee Myung-bak’s 747 economic plan; former President Park Geun-hye’s economic democratization; and current President Moon Jae-in’s “J-nomics.” The focus on the economy may seem surprising, given that the Korean economy is hardly considered a laggard by on most counts: in 2017, the per capita GDP was US $38,350, real GDP growth 3.1 percent, and unemployment at 3.7 percent. As a comparison, the OECD average per capita GDP in 2017 was US$ 42,252, GDP growth was 2.6, and unemployment was 5.77. This may sound like First World problems to many, but the economic weaknesses behind the stellar numbers is very real and may be a contributing factor to the country’s high suicide rates among youths and the aged. This piece discusses some of these weaknesses.

President Moon’s “J-nomics” relies on the principle of income-led growth based on job-creation and consumption as the drivers of economic growth in the country, with the public sector spearheading this new approach. The approach was embraced for its radical departure from the trickle-down blueprint of his predecessors that relied on corporate-growth to engender jobs and lead to higher incomes. The President’s bold reorientation of the economy took a major step forward with the implementation of a 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018 by the Minimum Wage Commission; this was followed by a reduction in the workweek to 52 hours in July 2018. To ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are able to meet the new wage increases, the government rolled out huge subsidies for small- and medium-sized businesses as well as the self-employed that were hardest hit by the new minimum wage policy.

What are some of the economic weaknesses that this new approach is designed to address? One of the biggest problems for the Korean economy is labor market dualism. Korea has one of the highest incidence of low-paid work among the OECD countries, exceeding 20 percent, stemming from the high number of non-permanent workers in the economy, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Total employment in Korea by status in employment, 2016 (number of persons and share of total, %) 

The large firms – particularly the chaebols that hire more than 300 workers – pay significantly better, as Figure 2 below shows. However, they have also significantly reduced their share of the labor market, generally contracting out work to the small- and medium-sized companies or outsourcing abroad, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 2: Average hourly base pay in Korea

Figure 3: Share of labor market by firm-size

This reduction is higher than has occurred in other OECD countries, as Figure 4 shows, which is partly instructive of how poorly previous policies relying on trickle-down job creation has worked.

Figure 4: Persons employed by firm size, 2013 or latest available year (%)

At the same time, however, the numbers above also explain why President Moon’s policies have run into problems: small- and medium enterprises are the dominant employers in the Korean economy, and they have been unable to absorb the minimum wage increases, even with the help of the government’s subsidies. Meanwhile, the 26 percent non-regular workers are not beneficiaries of the minimum wage.

As a result, despite the President’s efforts, 2018 has been a challenge: unemployment rate rose from 3.8 percent in July 2018 to 4.2 percent in August; this is the highest level for the year, and the highest in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The President’s popularity has fallen hard on the economic news, and there are signs that the increasing economic distress in the country is leading to open conflict in the President’s cabinet over the efficacy of the policy.

The President has, thus far, maintained commitment to the direction of the policy, but has also signaled a willingness to temper its magnitude. Meanwhile, there have been suggestions that a more successful approach would be to address the issue from a social protection standpoint. With social protection at 10.4 percent of the GDP, Korea is among the lowest of OECD countries where the average is 21 percent of the GDP. There is clearly room for steering the economy, particularly for those most vulnerable to economic shocks, in that arena.

Timor-Leste – Cohabitation: the tug-of-war continues

After the early elections of last May, a period of formal cohabitation was initiated between the first partisan president (Fretilin’s chairman, Lu Olo) and a government supported by the winning coalition (Xanana’s CNRT, Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP and KHUNTO), which has an absolute majority in the House, but not of a two-thirds super majority.

The president appointed Taur Matan Ruak as prime minister in June and, according to the constitution, the prime minister submitted his proposal of 42 government members. Lu Olo initially objected to 12 of those members. One case was solved by bureaucratic means, as the presidential objections related to the need to clear the proposed minister’s earlier position as deputy chief of the armed forces; two were also sidestepped when the candidates were replaced by names acceptable to the president; but as for nine others, neither the president nor the prime minister has shown signs of changing positions. Three other suggested ministers refused to be sworn in in solidarity with their vetoed colleagues, one of them (Xanana Gusmão) indicating that he preferred to stay out of government for good. At the time of writing, almost three months have elapsed and the government still has no minister for finance, health or natural resources, and is thus in a formally weak position to discharge its functions. Nonetheless, in this period, the government was still able to present some critical documents including the state budget for the current year (which had not been possible to pass due to the political crisis of 2017 that eventually led to the early elections). As things stand, no clear sign is discernible as to the solution for the impasse. It seems that formal institutions are suffering the challenge of a kind of a shadow theatre in which decisions are made outside the boundaries of the council of ministers.

Angry with what he regards as a break with the platform on which the president was elected with his support, Xanana Gusmão announced last month that he would “wait another ten days” for Lu Olo to accept the government members before he would “take action” and formally accuse him of “usurpation of functions”. No action has yet been taken. The tug of war continues without a solution in sight.

For the benefit of comparative purposes, the present situation calls for a discussion of the role of the president in the Timorese political system. Two aspects should be considered. First, what is the power of presidents regarding the appointment of governments? Second, what kind of protection does the constitution award to presidents against moves to challenge his authority and eventually bring him before the courts?

Section 107 of the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (CRDTL) states that “the Government shall be accountable to the President of the Republic and to the National Parliament for conducting and executing the domestic and foreign policy in accordance with the Constitution and the law.” This is a clear indication that presidents can play an active roles in their relation with the government. For each new government, two steps have to be taken. First, according to section 85d (including all competencies exclusively incumbent upon the president), presidents “appoint and swear in the Prime Minister designated by the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the National Parliament”. Although this section seems to restrict presidential powers, it fact it allows significant room for discretion, namely in cases when there is no pre-electoral majority in parliament (as it happened in 2007, 2012 and 2017). Also, constitutionalist Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos noted that this formulation “expresses the double responsibility of the government” before the president and the assembly.[i]

The second step is the appointment of government members. According to section 86h (including competencies in regard to other organs of sovereignty), it is a presidential competence “to appoint, swear in and remove Government Members from office, following a proposal by the Prime-Minister, in accordance with item 2, Section 106”, which in turn stipulates that “the remaining members of the Government shall be appointed by the President of the Republic following proposal by the Prime Minister”. It seems very clear that the president does not dispose of a power of initiative in the appointment of ministers, depending on a proposal by the prime minister; but conversely, it seems equally clear that the prime minister does not possess more than a competence to propose names without obliging the president to accept them. Previous presidents have used the power of rejection at least on two counts: José Ramos-Horta privately opposed some names proposed by the prime minister in 2007, and Taur Matan Ruak did the same with public knowledge in 2012. These are precedents that did not raise any objections at the time they took place, and what is more relevant, in one of those instances the current prime minister was then the president and is thus morally bound by his early attitude. In an interview given to me a few years ago, president Ramos-Horta expressed the following understanding of his powers regarding the nomination of ministers proposed by the prime minister:

“If I am the Head of State in charge of guaranteeing peace and security, if I must nominate ministers, I need to be confident not only of the prime minister’s capacities, but also of the ministers I am empowering. I bestow my authority behind each of them individually. So, I rejected two names proposed by the prime minster”[ii]

Concluding this section, the double dependency of the government on the president and the assembly offers the head of state the competence to have a decisive word on the appointment of the prime minister and above all, of his ministers. The present position of president Lu Olo seems thus to be solidly anchored in the country’s constitution and political conventions. But what if it was not? What could be done?

CRDTL devotes one full section (79) to “criminal liability and constitutional obligations” where it stipulates (in number 2) that “the President of the Republic shall be answerable before the Supreme Court of Justice for crimes committed in the exercise of his or her functions and for clear and serious violation of his or her constitutional obligations”. For a complaint to be brought before the justice, however, the process must begin in parliament, where a qualified majority of two-thirds of its members is required to allow the move to reach the Supreme Court (number 3). This means that there is a strong political rather than institutional factor at play in any process to formally accuse the president of foregoing his constitutional obligations or abuse his powers. At the moment, the president’s party, Fretilin, controls 23 of the parliament’s 65 seats and is thus in a position to block any move destined to challenge the president’s position.

To a substantial extent, the actual presidential powers depend on the political conditions of the moment as on the institutional definition of his competences. The constitutional text defines very broad limits to the presidential powers, which will be more or less used according to the political conjuncture. Timor-Leste had three consecutive “independent” presidents, not affiliated with any political party, which rendered the articulation between the president and the assembly more open to variable geometries, and prevented the systematic opposition between presidential and parliamentary majorities. Now, with the first partisan president, things are significantly different. Even if one cannot presume that Fretilin and the other parties not represented in the executive will always vote against the government (as the recent vote on the state budget showed, the government which controls 34 seats obtained 42 votes in favour, several abstentions and only 9 votes against – the opposition parties having failed to adopt a common position and showing internal splits in the final vote), the likelihood that they can use their capacity to bloc any vote requiring qualified majority is strong. This circumstance contributes to reinforce the presidential influence, as he disposes of veto powers over every law or decree-law (CRDTL section 88). In the case of decree-laws, the president’s word is final; in the case of parliamentary laws, a qualified majority is required to overturn those that address fundamental issues (as stipulated in section 95), including budgetary issues as well as the fundamental laws of social security, health, education, defence and security, electoral laws, and more. That’s to say: an absolute majority in parliament  does not entail a free hand in the definition of policies, as the president may force a qualified majority in order to allow for the implementation of the government’s program. In this light, the comparative strength of the president is a key element in the Timorese political landscape.

In this context, president Lu Olo is comfortable in his position, and his powers, articulated with his link to a party that controls more than one third of the seats in the House, are a serious challenge to the government’s simple majority. Certainly not by chance, several voices in Dili are predicting that Xanana Gusmão, leader of the largest party in the government coalition, would welcome the dissolution of parliament once again in order to try and take away from Fretilin two seats that would substantially change the nature of the presidential room for intervention. However, this would be a high risk strategy that may not be sympathetic to the prime minister, who has shown signs of “understanding” for the presidential opposition to cabinet members proposed by Xanana’s party. In any case, this would only be possible after six months have elapsed from the last election in early May.

Timor-Leste is thus living under uncertainty, and the economic performance has echoed the adverse conditions with a significant fall in its growth rate and a paralysis of most of the non-oil sector – and this economic slow down is not conducive to easy electoral victories. The state budget for 2018 was drawn to reverse the situation, although its effect will be limited in the short term (it has still not been approved by the president); and the 2019 budget will probably be in the same vein – in spite of being drawn by a government that has no finance minister. The one fact that has emerged with some accrued stability is the resilience of the presidency and its critical role in the politics of the country. How much longer will the president accept that the government continues to work in the absence of critical ministers before he can argue that the regular functioning of institutions is not being met, and that he may step up his intervention?

Notes

[i]Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos, Constituição Anotada da Republica Democrática de Timor-Leste, Braga: Direitos Humanos – Centro de Investigação Interdisciplinar, 2011: 288

[ii]Jose Ramos-Horta, “O modelo semi-presidencial que temos é adequado à realidade timorense” in R. G. Feijó (ed), O Semi-presidencialismo Timorense, Coimbra: CES/Almedina, 2014: 77-78

Indonesia – How Political Chips are Aligning for Presidential and General Elections, 2019

With local elections, 2018, mostly done and dusted, eyes are now turned to presidential and general elections, 2019. The 2019 elections in Indonesia will be the first to be see concurrent legislative and presidential elections since direct elections for the presidency was instituted in 2004. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2014 that sequential timing of these legislative and presidential elections was unconstitutional; notwithstanding, on July 20, 2017, the House passed the bill to maintain party thresholds for nomination of presidential candidates; the new law, which mostly follows the previous law, stipulates that only parties or coalitions with at least 20 percent of the seats in the legislature or 25 percent of the popular vote are able to nominate presidential candidate. To account for the concurrent elections, the new law bases the threshold on the outcome of the 2014 legislative elections, which effectively sets the stage for a rematch between the 2014 presidential contestants, Prabowo Subianto, former general and current chair of the Gerindra Party, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. In the following, I trace political alliances since the 2014 presidential elections to show how the political chips are aligning ahead of the 2019 elections.

The 2014 legislative elections saw 10 parties elected into the lower house of the bicameral legislature. The results for that election were surprising in at least one aspect: no parties achieved the level of popular support needed to run independently for the presidential election in July.[1] Given the nomination threshold, intense jockeying proceeded; these became more heated with contentious challenges against the initial quickcount results following the presidential elections in July 2014.[2] By the time of the presidential inauguration in October, the lines were drawn: as Table 1 below shows, three parties fell into the President’s coalition, the Awesome coalition, while six parties that formed a majority comprised the opposition coalition, the Red-and-White coalition. In the course of year after the presidential election, the Red-and-White coalition posed some real impediments to the president’s agenda; at the same time, however, political parties started to peel away from the opposition coalition. By January 2016, only two parties remained in the Red-and-White opposition coalition: the Gerindra Party and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS); meanwhile, the President’s coalition had grown from a minority of 207 seats to a majority of 386 seats.

Table 1: Indonesian Parties in the Legislature and allegiances between 2014 and 2018

Party 2014 election results (percent votes won) 2014 allegiance (in October 2014) 2016 allegiances
(in January 2016)
2018 allegiance (as of September)
PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, presidential nominee President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo) 19 Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
Nasdem Party (National Democrat Party)  

 

6.6 Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
Hanura (People’s Conscience party formed in 2006)

 

3.2 Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
Gerindra (Party Movement Indonesia Raya, presidential nominee is founder Prabowo Subianto)

 

12 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition
Golkar (leading party of the Suharto era)

 

14.9 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
PAN (National Mandate Party) *

 

7.7 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition
PKB (National Awakening Party) *

 

9 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
PPP (United Development Party) *

 

6.3 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Awesome coalition (President’s coalition) Awesome coalition (President’s coalition)
PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) *

 

7 Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition Red-and-white coalition (opposition coalition
Democratic Party (PD, President Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono)

 

10 Opposition Opposition In talks with Red-and-white coalition

* Islamic parties

Notwithstanding the President’s majority legislative support, and even though public approval for the President remains at a majority and well ahead of his rival, political turns in the country in 2017 and 2018 suggest weaknesses in the political system or President Jokowi that rivals will exploit.

Foremost among this is religion: religion was used successfully as a strategy to divide the popular vote in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2017, and led to the conviction of former and highly popular governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy in that highly religiously-charged race.[3] The social media campaign, #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangePresident) campaign, initiated by the PKS party in early 2018, echoes the anti-Ahok campaign where opposition was aimed at undermining the incumbent candidate rather than providing viable alternatives.

President Jokowi has responded by picking Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body that comprises all registered Muslim organizations. While Ma’ruf’s religious standing strengthens considerably the President’s position in the Muslim community, his convictions are also fiercely orthodox. Indeed, as the chairman of the MUI, Ma’ruf signed a document recommending that the statement Ahok made be considered “blasphemous” for insulting Islam, and he advocates for the criminalization of gay sex.

Meanwhile, Prabowo has officially entered the presidential race with Jakarta Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno, also of the Gerindra Party, as his running mate. Prabowo has been courting the Democratic Party to enhance popular, if not legislative support: polls show the candidate at a distinct disadvantage against President Jokowi this time around. While former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has yet to commit his support for the pair, he has gone so far as to make clear that his relations with PDI-P’s chair, former President Megawati, impedes any coalition with the President.

Clearly, elections in this third largest democracy in the world, then, remains one to keep watch.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2014. “Indonesia – Preliminary Results of the April 2014 Legislative Elections.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=1054 April 11, 2014 <accessed 3 September 2018>

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2014. “Indonesia – Transparency and Accountability in the Presidential Elections 2014.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=1612 July 14, 2014 <accessed 3 September 2018>

[3] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Indonesia – The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Politics, and the 2019 Presidential Elections.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=6369 April 27, 2017 <accessed 3 September 2018>

Timor-Leste – “Belligerent cohabitation” at work

One week after the parliamentary elections that returned an absolute majority for the AMP coalition (comprising former president Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, former president Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP and a youth-oriented KHUNTO) but awarded the current president’s Fretilin the largest bloc of seats in the House (the party being unable to capitalize on its five percentage points increase in the number of votes due to a different composition of running parties), president Lu Olo addressed the nation on the occasion of the 16thanniversary of the restoration of independence (and the first of his assuming the presidency). In his speech, Lu Olo made three very important points

  1. He claimed he would discharge his functions as “president of all Timorese” but would not give up his position as chairman of his own party. This was no more than the confirmation that for the first time Timor-Leste would have a president who is aligned with one specific party, all his predecessors having been “independent” without party ties (although two of them did form their own parties after stepping down, in order to run for the seemingly more powerful premiership);
  2. He stated he would be particularly attentive to “the national interest” of which he argued the president is the highest and more authoritative interpreter;
  3. He reaffirmed is willingness to use all the constitutional powers at his disposal, contradicting those who expected that after a significant political defeat (he called early elections that did not change the nature of the distribution of power among competing parties and his own party failed to secure the bases to form or integrate the new government) he would assume a lower profile

In brief: Lu Olo made it plainly clear his would be a very active presidency not shying away from confrontations when he would feel it necessary to intervene. He was comforted by the fact that a substantial number of cases to overturn a presidential veto require a two-thirds majority  – and his party had more than one third of the parliamentary seats. Cohabitation was emerging under the sign of “belligerent democracy”. A sign of this general attitude was Fretilin´s decision to threaten with expulsion any militant who might be tempted to accept a place in government in a “personal and technical capacity” as had been current in the country for over a decade. A new era is definitively making itself present, eventually making political decisions more transparent and in line with normal expectations on parties’ behaviour.

The first serious confrontation occurred with the formation of the VIII Constitutional Government. Contrary to early expectations (based on declarations in the aftermath of the elections), Xanana declined to assume the premiership, entrusting the job to Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), leader of a much smaller party (8 seats versus 21), and reserved for himself the role of “state minister councillor to the prime minister”. TMR was sworn in as prime minister and proposed to the president a cabinet with 41 full ministers and junior ministers. Lu Olo rejected 12 of those names. One of them was personally close to the new prime-minister, and the refusal was explained on strict bureaucratic terms: as he was serving in the high command of the armed forces, he would need his resignation from the previous post to go through the necessary legal steps. In due course, he was appointed to serve as minister for defence. As for the other 11 – all of whom belonged to Xanana’s CNRT, the only party in the coalition with government experience – the reason given was that two of them had not “the right moral profile” and the others were supposedly under investigation by the judicial authorities on corruption charges.

Although the president denied that he had vetoed names, but only “called the attention of the prime minister” to situations that might harm the public opinion on the government, he also claimed he “was intent on reinforcing the judicial system” by not granting immunity to some politicians that had, in the past, benefitted from their status to avoid immediate prosecution (an allegation directed at Xanana who, as prime minister, had asked parliament to keep some of his ministers under conditions of immunity till the end of their terms). Regarding the use of his powers, he said: “The choice of ministers belongs to the majority in the House. The president may not say that this one is more capable than the other. He has to wait and see, only later can he interfere”. But at some point, he can actually interfere by refusing to appoint ministers.

Lu Olo’s interference in the composition of government generated a first moment of tension within the coalition. The prime minister seems to have accepted the president’s opposition to empowering individuals tainted with corruption charges in a country where this is a critical issue as constitutionally and politically warranted, and showed signs of pressing his coalition partner to propose new names.  TMR was also prisoner of his own public rejection of a minister when the V Government was formed soon after his election for the presidency back in 2012, and thus very limited in his capacity to deny Lu Olo the power to reject some of his ministers. Xanana, on the other hand, received the news as a personal attack, and reacted angrily: he and few other ministers from his party failed to take the oath, leaving the government with sensitive portfolios without their ministers. Besides the strong portfolio entrusted to Xanana, the minister for finances is among those remaining vacant due to presidential opposition. In parallel, he mounted an attack on the president. On the one hand, he claimed he had received undue payments from the state related to his presidential campaign – an accusation that failed to gain traction; on the other, he claimed that not only was the president disregarding the principle of presumption of innocence, but that he had acted in a completely different manner when Mari Alkatiri presented the composition of the VII Government in which four members were also under judicial investigation. He also made public statements from judicial authorities allegedly denying the basis for the president’s attitude.

In the meantime, arguing the inconvenience of the absence of the president from the country at a time when there was only “half a government”, the National Parliament denied the president’s request to undertake a state visit to Portugal which had been scheduled for quite a while. This move was openly criticized by the commander in chief of the armed forces, a move that does not bode well for the neutrality they are supposed to keep, and add a new player to an already confusing situation

The VIII Constitutional government, which is ruling under the provisions of the 2017 state budget in 1/12 monthly instalments, approved a piece of emergency legislation destined to raise funds from the Petroleum Fund in order to meet its financial obligations. However, the sum in question is above the Estimated Sustainable Income of the fund, and expectations are high that the president might use his veto power to put additional pressure on the government, which might be unable to meet its monthly obligations (and therefore suffer in its level of popularity)

At the time of writing, time is ticking for the government to present its program before the House, which must occur within thirty days of the appointment of the prime minister (22 June). Devoid of key ministers, the prime minister has conducted cabinet meetings open to those who have been rejected by the president to help with drafting the program. It is not clear what will happen if the deadline is broken, but grounds might emerge for the president to consider that political institutions are not performing adequately – a case allowing for the dismissal of the prime minister

The tension between the president of the republic and the leader of the winning coalition is unprecedented. It rests to be seen whether Lu Olo and his party are not attempting a political move to break the coalition between Xanana and TMR, who appears to be more sensitive to the president’s arguments on corruption, and suggest a change of horses: Fretilin might be prepared to switch the leadership of the opposition with CNRT. In Dili, voices are heard calling for yet another dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, which in any case could not be decided before mid-November to be held in 2019.

The present situation in Timor-Leste has revealed that presidential powers, even though they may be dormant for a while, do not lapse by virtue of not being exercised. And presidential powers in the country are superior to what much of the literature has argued so far. Critically, the dual responsibility of the government before the parliament and the president of the republic (stated in section 107 of the Constitution), and the ways in which this prescription can legitimately be understood by a proactive president, require new consideration. Ultimately, the scope of effective powers of the president may be regarded as the reason for the current instability, much as the argument has been made for president-parliamentary systems.

The fact that Lu Olo seems to be adopting a proactive role should not be isolated from the fact that he is the first president who discharges his functions at the same time that he holds a high position in a political party – Fretilin – which is not represented in TMR’s government. The effective experience of cohabitation in its formal sense is a novelty, as the first three presidents were “independent”. Their terms were comparably more stable that the early part of Lu Olo’s term (disregarding the case of the 2006 crisis which had deeper roots), adding weight to the suggestion that the political wisdom of choosing non-partisan presidents reduced the prospects and the scope of confrontation that the constitutional model of dual responsibility of the executive might facilitate. With the decision to move away from the legacy of the previous experience, Timor-Leste is now confronted with a much more unstable situation.

Indonesia – If all politics is local, then 2018 elections suggest a tight race in 2019

Indonesia held local elections on June 27, 2018, for 17 governors, 39 mayors and 115 regents. Official results are expected to be released by July 9, 2018. Quick count results show that candidates with the support of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) have edged out the competition; however, these are not robust successes. In particular, while the results show that candidates supported by or who support President Jokowi taking three of the four most populous regions in the country, some of the victories are narrow and carry caveats. These results suggest a conservative turn that could spell a stiff 2019 electoral competition for President Jokowi as he tries to win a second term. The following details the contests in these four populous regions in the country: West, East and Central Java, and North Sumatra.

West Java elected former mayor Bandung governor Ridwan Kamil, over former army general Sudrajat, supported by Gerindra, and West Java Vice Governor and veteran actor Deddy Mizwar, supported by Golkar. The PDI-P supported candidate, TB Hasanuddin, was trounced in that contest. Ridwan Kamil is a reformist candidate supported by the Islamic parties of the United Development Party (PPP), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as well as NasDem and Hanura. PPP and Hanura have endorsed President Jokowi as presidential candidate, but not the PKS; meanwhile, Ridwan himself has  voiced support for President Jokowi. That support takes the sting out of the PDI-P loss; however, it also underscores the ring of religion in elections.

Incumbent Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, supported by PDI-P, is predicted to win over former Energy and Mineral Resources minister Sudirman Said, who is supported by Gerindra. While the win hands a victory to President Jokowi, quick count results also show a narrower-than-predicted win over Sudirman: Sudirman won around 40 percent of the votes in the province, quadrupling predictions of 6-8 percent going into the race.

In Eastern Java, former social affairs minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who has pledged support for President Jokowi, looks set to take the seat over her opponent, Saifullah Yusuf.

Voters in North Sumatra appear to have chosen retired army general Edy Rahmayadi, who is backed by Gerindra, over former Jakarta governor Djarot Syaiful Hidayat, who is backed by the PDI-P and its coalition. That race is reminiscent of the themes of religious and conservative intolerance in the Jakarta elections in 2017,[1] with doctored photos of Djarot served a pig’s head at a banquet. Edy’s win, then, underlines the continued threat and hold of religious or conservative intolerance in electoral races.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Indonesia – The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Politics, and the 2019 Presidential Elections.” Presidential Power, https://presidential-power.com/?p=6369 April 27, 2017 <last accessed July 2, 2018>

South Korea – Local and by-elections are a strong endorsement of President Moon

Local and by-elections were held on June 13, 2018. 12 parliamentary seats were up for grabs, in addition to 17 mayoral and provincial governor positions, and 4,016 local administrative, legislative and educational posts. Exit polls show that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) has swept the elections: it has taken 11 of the 12 by-elections and 14 of the 17 local seats. The largest opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has been handed a significant set-back: it is expected to take only one of the by-election seats, and two of the local election races.

This year’s electoral contest is closely-watched as a harbinger of President Moon’s ability to extend the momentum of change that brought him into office more than a year ago and convert his high presidential popularity into electoral success for his party, the  DP. It is also seen as a signal the opposition conservative LKP’s ability to weather the significant political setbacks from the impeachment and subsequent conviction of former President Park Geun-hye on corruption and abuse of power charges on April 6, 2018, and the indictment of former President Lee Myung-bak on April 10, 2018, for 16 counts of embezzlement, corruption, and abuse of power. These results are a strong endorsement of President Moon, who has had a tough time pushing his agenda against the large legislative opposition led by the LKP.

President Moon promised a “major shift” in policies when he took office, and he has delivered on, arguably, the most spotlighted and highly-profiled issue of international interest for the year: the President brought North Korea and the United States together at the negotiations table in Singapore on June 12, 2018. The effort towards and accomplishment of bringing the two mercurial heads of government to discuss peace has seen President Moon’s approval ratings remain at unprecedented levels – exceeding high 70s – in the second year in office. Some of this success has brushed off on the ruling DP: it is enjoying approvals exceeding 50 percent amid falling approvals for the other parties in the legislature. These numbers bode well for the DP going into the elections, and the results have supported expectations.

Relations in the Korean peninsula will likely remain in the news for some time to come, and may continue to generate approvals for the President and the DP. This will be useful, given that the President’s other initiatives have not been as stellar. In particular, President Moon’s effort to realize constitutional revisions died in the legislature, while his push for a income-led growth in the country has been resisted by corporations, and small- and medium enterprises.

Talks of constitutional revision have been ongoing since the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution in South Korea; despite the frequency, constitutional revisions did not progress beyond discussions. The clamour for constitutional revision likely hit a peak with former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and polls in September 2017 report that 78.4 percent agreed that the referendum on constitutional revisions should be held in conjunction with the June 2018 elections.

President Moon pushed the legislature on the issue but was stymied by the LDP in the legislature. Indeed, when the legislature failed to develop revisions, President Moon submitted a constitutional revision bill to the legislature on March 26, 2018. The revisions, developed by a constitutional committee, included decentralization of government and a two-term limited presidency. However, opposition parties boycotted the bill: only 114 legislators were present for the session, far short of the 192 needed to pass, thus effectively killing the bill. Given popular demand for constitutional revisions, the election results may be a signal for how voters view the resistance by the opposition parties.

Another important initiative that the President has pushed is the wage-led economic growth model. Following on this, in July 2017, the Minimum Wage Commission announced a 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018, with the possibility of increasing it to 10,000 won per hour by 2020. To ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are able to meet the new wage increases, as well as to fund the new wage increases and job creation policies, the President called for new taxes. Despite these efforts, youth unemployment remains high; meanwhile, under pressure by businesses and corporations, the National Assembly and the cabinet have adopted revisions to the minimum wage bill so that calculation of minimum wage includes bonuses and benefits, including health benefits. While employers have welcomed the revisions, labor groups argue that these inclusions will effectively offset the new minimum wage policies and have called on the President to veto the bill.

The by-election and local election results are a clear endorsement for President Moon. Much can happen in the two years leading to the next general elections, but the public support, new electoral wins, and the LDP’s losses may pave the way for legislative support of the President’s policies.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste after the parliamentary elections: Cohabitation in sight

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of the Institute for Contemporary History, New University of Lisboa

In March 2017, breaking with the established conventions following the first three elections in independent Timor-Leste (2002, 2007, 2012), voters returned a president, Francisco Guterres (known as Lú-Olo), who was affiliated with a political party – Fretilin. Guterres was chairman of the party, which is an honorary position rather than an executive one, reserved for the secretary-general. Although President Guterres claimed in his inauguration speech that he would serve as “the president of all the Timorese”, like his predecessors, he did not relinquish his position in his party.

In the July 2017 legislative elections, the president’s party, which had campaigned for the continuation of a broad coalition which included all parliamentary parties to date, topped the poll by a mere 1,000 votes over the country’s historic leader Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT party. Surprisingly, the parties that had created the outgoing “Government of National Inclusion” could not agree to continue it and Lú-Olo appointed the first minority government, composed of Fretilin and Partido Democrático / Democratic Party (PD), who had the support of only 30 of the House 65 seats. The VII Constitutional Government failed to secure its investiture in the National Parliament, and after several months of political confrontation (see my post of January 30), fresh elections were called for 12 May 2018. During this period, Lú-Olo sided openly with his party – first, trying to set up a minority government of which there was no previous experience in Timor-Leste; then, keeping it in power as a caretaker government (i.e., not fully invested) for a long period; and finally, denying the opposition that had formed a majority coalition a chance to form a government, and dissolving the parliament. These were high stakes, and the political status of the president became dependent on the voters’ decisions.

On May 12, voters turned out in very high numbers (officially over 80% voted). Fretilin gained votes, going from 29.7 to 34.2 per cent, but could not improve on its 23 seats. Its ally, PD, suffered a loss from 9.8 to 8 per cent, and reduced its representation from 7 to 5 MPs. The combined vote of the member parties of the Aliança de Mudança para o Progresso / Alliance for a Developmental Change (AMP) increased 46.5 to 49.6 percent, losing one seat but retaining an overall majority of 34. The remaining three seats were won by another coalition of smaller parties, which polled 5.5 per cent. The fact that the number of parties/coalitions on the ballot paper in 2018 fell from 22 to just 8 allowed a group of 4 smaller parties running together to reach the 4% threshold for election. The percentage of votes gained by parties that failed to secure a seat fell from 14.1 to just 6.7 per cent. This had an impact in the overall distribution of seats, and account for why an increase in the vote did not translate into a comparable gain of seats both for Fretilin and AMP.

The campaign was conducted with high passion. Few incidents were registered, though, and international observers returned the verdict of a “free and fair” election. However, a few days after results were officially proclaimed, Fretilin filed a protest with the Court of Appeals, claiming to have proof of “electoral crimes”. This protest may delay the inauguration of the new parliament, and is testimony to the high level of political confrontation that is currently marking the situation in Dili.

Xanana Gusmão, who was president from 2002 to 2007, prime minister from 2007 to 2015, and minister in the “Government of National Inclusion” (2015-2017) is scheduled to return as prime minister of the VIII Constitutional Government. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether this government will be based solely on the three parties that constitute the AMP (Xanana’s CNRT; the previous president Taur Matan Ruak’s Partido da Libertação do Povo / People’s Liberation Party (PLP), and KHUNTO), or whether it will be willing to enlarge its support base in parliament. Fretilin assumed it had lost and would become an opposition party. PD is “considering its position”, but is not certain of being offered a position in government. The same holds for the coalition that secured three seats. In any case, Fretlin with its 23 seats is capable of denying any government the two-thirds majority required to eventually overturn any presidential vetoes (namely on the budget and on basic legislation on education, health and social security, as well as all the items contemplated in section 95 of the constitution).

President Lú-Olo addressed this issue on the occasion of the first anniversary of his election (and the sixteenth of the proclamation on independence), recalling that he had sworn to be faithful to the constitution and exercise the full range of powers invested in him. Moreover, he declared that an overall majority may result in the formation of a new government, but that he would not grant the government a “a blank cheque”. Rather, the government would have to comply with “national interests” of which the president is supposed to be the guarantor and interpreter. In a way, Lú-Olo was responding to Xanana and Taur Matan Ruak who said that “the president must act as the leader of the nation and not as the chairman of Fretilin”. Lú-Olo may be willing to explore the full scope of presidential powers on a scale never witnessed before, while respecting the letter of the constitution.

Xanana is known to favour a generational turnover, and for a long time he was the main force behind the idea of a “Government of National Inclusion”. It is uncertain how he will face his new task as prime minister, whether as one that will engage him for the duration of the legislature, or as a sort of interim solution before the re-composition of political forces has the chance to settle down in a more permanent form. In fact, one of the major features of these elections was the return to the forefront of historical leaders (the Gerasaun Tuan, the old generation) such as Mari Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta (who campaigned for Fretilin) and Xanana or Taur Matan Ruak (although the letter is perhaps a bridge to the Gerasaun Foun, the younger generation of people who became adults under the Indonesian occupation). Personalities are still powerful political forces, and parties tend to play a secondary role. This makes the political situation less transparent, as the mood among those historical leaders tends to float significantly.

Unless a new, unexpected development takes place, the stage is set for the first formal cohabitation between a president who is member of a political party and is willing to use the full breadth of his constitutional powers, and a prime minister who heads a government in which the president’s party is not present – moreover, a government which considers the president’s party to be the leader of the opposition. The scars of the president’s attitude during the period following the previous elections, when he sided openly with his party and made no openings to the majority opposition are still visible. Lú-Olo played a high-risk game, and electors did not support his view that Fretilin should return to lead the government. Developments after the votes were counted suggest that cohabitation will entail some degree of friction between the president and the new government. The fact that Taur Matan Ruak while serving as president vetoed a budget in 2015, and has kept a critical view of the orientation followed by the “Government of National Inclusion” in which Fretilin discharged critical functions, raises questions as to the platform that will sustain the new government. It is likely to produce a budget that Fretilin will oppose. A major test of the cohabitation between president and government may not be too far away, as the political crisis of last year prevented the approval of the budget for 2018 and this is now a top priority in the country.

For all those who follow the debate on semi-presidentialism and its varieties, and who are interested in the study of presidential power, Timor-Leste is likely to be a crucial case in the coming years.

Political Trust in East and Southeast Asia

This post is based on a recent publication, “How political trust matters in emergent democracies: evidence from East and Southeast Asia,” available at the Journal of Public Policy

How does political trust matter in emergent democracies? Studies suggest that political trust may potentially buffer against public pressures for performance. For emergent democracies that are under pressure to perform on the competing fronts of policy and political performance, the promise of political trust providing policy or political leeway is useful to help with prioritization of the tasks of nation-building.[1] In particular, studies show governments in emergent democracies to be under considerable pressure to deliver on policy performance to broaden support for political survival; meanwhile, the nascent institutions in these democracies need further development to regularize facilities and capacities that will deliver political goods and inspire stalwart “democrats” to uphold democratic processes in the face of poor policy performance.

Unfortunately, limited empirical evidence exists for whether political trust provides such a leeway, and even fewer studies examine the possibility in emergent democracies. This neglect reflects that much of the literature has built around mature democracies, where the trade-off for policy performance versus political performance is unlikely to upend long-standing democratic practices and institutions.

This paper addresses that critical question: it considers if political trust provides political or policy leeway or both in emergent democracies, through assessments of how political trust displaces economic performance in explaining incumbent-approval or system-support. We use economic performance to take into account findings from economic voting studies that consistently show economic achievements to be integral to support for the government or the political system; consequently, if results show that political trust displaces economic performance in explaining public support for the government or the democratizing system, then they are strongly indicative of how political trust directed at incumbent-approval or system-support may provide leeway against public demands for economic performance. If political trust does not provide the political or policy leeway as suggested, then the government and the political system remain hostage to policy performance; if, however, political trust displaces policy-performance, it follows that voters may remain committed to the incumbent or political system or both despite poor policy performance.

The data are drawn from Asian Barometer Survey for the East and Southeast Asia countries of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, i.e., three presidential, one semi-presidential, and one (previously) parliamentary systems. The countries for East and Southeast Asia are interesting for examination: they vary in terms of democratic age and economic levels and, importantly, were countries with high economic achievements. More so than other countries, then, the public in the East and Southeast Asian countries may be inclined towards economic performance over political ones; consequently, if the results indicate that political trust displaces the economic performance in these countries to explain support, the results are likely to be highly generalizable.

Three results from successive waves of survey from the Asian Barometer are informative. First, they show that where political trust is statistically significant in explaining democratic support, economic performance is not relevant. That is, the results show where political trust is directed at system-support, it displaces economic performance to buffer political systems from the pressures of economic performance. Second, for incumbent-approval, both political trust and economic performance are relevant explanators; thus, political trust does not displace economic performance to explain incumbent-approval. Third, in conjunction, the results clarify that an economic focus in the respective countries may keep a government in office but political trust undergirds the political system. This emphasizes the priority of building political trust to deepen peace and stability in the region.

These results are particularly relevant for expanding study and understanding of the political trust literature to issues of democratic progression and consolidation that are unique to emergent democracies. By these results, recent events in the emergent democracies of East and Southeast Asia – where governments have prioritized growth over institution-building – are cause for concern. In particular, the results show that the pursuing growth in place of institution-building undermines long-term political peace and social stability. Thus, even for governments with primary interests in office-tenure, the results highlight an overlooked consideration: the long-term benefits of institution-building that helps build political trust in the emergent democracies.

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[1] These arguments of the effects of political trust align with Easton (1975)’s framing of specific and diffuse support. See Easton, D. 1975. “A Re-assessment of the Concept of Political Support.” British Journal of Political Science no. 5 (4):435-457. doi: 10.1017/S0007123400008309.