Category Archives: Asia

Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines

Talks of constitutional reforms appear to be sweeping across the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Constitutions capture the principles – some say, the most sacred principles – around which institutions, legislation, rules, and processes of a country are built.[1] Constitutional reforms, then, are generally significant and painstaking undertakings, often requiring supermajorities in the legislature or the electorate or both to ratify. And, this may be rightfully so: if they are to amend or revise principles that underpin the political, economic, and social structures of a country, the process should not be based on changeable and changing attitudes. Given the significance, the concomitant grip of constitutional reforms across several of the East Asian with a president as head or co-head of government is interesting, if not curious. What level of public support is there for these reforms? And, how likely are these reforms to pass?

President Duterte entered office in the Philippines with a 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. Constitutional revisions have been proposed under previous governments: for instance, under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, talks of constitutional revisions to repeal the term-limited, single, six-year non-re-electable presidential term-of-office surfaced towards the end of the popular executive, while former President Arroyo pushed hard for a change to a unicameral parliamentary system following an impeachment effort against the President for possible electoral irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections.[2] A marked difference between this constitutional reform effort and its predecessors is: President Duterte is hugely popular; as a contrast, President Arroyo was pre-empting protests and demonstrations as she pushed for her reforms.

Does this mean that there is wide public support for the federalist revision? That is less clear: on the one hand, the President was elected into office with federalism as one of his platform promises; on the other hand, Duterte was elected into office with a plurality of 36.7 percent of the total votes cast.[3] Polls report economic progress remains a key concern among survey respondents, so that a key consideration for public support is likely whether federalism will address economic development as promised.

How likely is the constitutional reform to pass? The Constitution provides for revisions in one of three ways: through a vote of three-fourths of the members of Congress; a constitutional convention; or direct petition by the people of at least 12 percent of the total registered voters, and 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. In these processes, President Duterte seems largely unfettered: in particular, he enjoys the support of a super-majority in the legislature, and has high trust ratings that have only recently fallen. Even the Supreme Court has refused to limit the President’s martial law powers in Mindanao. Indeed, President Duterte has already moved to a constitutional assembly so that lawmakers will draft and approve the changes, rather than use a constitutional convention. The constitutional assembly is expected to convene after the national budget for 2017 is passed; the Speaker of the House anticipates that the amendments may be finalized by the end of 2017. If the amendments remain limited to the federalist structure, this is one constitutional revision effort that may fly.

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[1] Strauss, David. 2010. The Living Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Hedman, Eva-Lotta. 2006. “The Philippines in 2005: Old Dynamics, New Conjuncture.” Asian Survey vol 46 no 1: 187-193

[3] Election Guide, International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Washington, D.C.

South Korea – The President Wages War to Increase Wages

President Moon Jae-in pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people” when he took office on May 10, 2017, and the first 130 days suggests that the President is making good on his word. In particular, in addition to appointing reformists, critics, and former civil-activists to executive offices, the President has taken by the horns two onerous issues: tax increase and wage increase. Specifically, to fund the President’s initiatives on job creation and wage increases, the President will seek to increase taxes on conglomerates as well as high-income earners. The tax hike will need to pass the National Assembly, where the ruling Democratic Party has only 120 of the 299 total seats. Still, at a time of growing income inequalities, job insecurity, stagnant wages, and loss in political and economic confidences, the President’s “paradigm shift” to push for economic growth through wage increases that will increase consumption, rather than rely on labor reforms such as the wage-peak system advocated by previous conservative-governments that aimed at increasing recruitment, has seen his approval ratings remain at peaks of 80 percent and more. Perhaps what is more notable about President Moon’s initiatives is the transparent, open-discussion of their complementarity and necessity. That may be the distinguishing, all-important step towards a successful policy.

Clearly, President Moon is not the first president to come into office promising equity and support for workers: his disgraced predecessor, the impeached President Park Geun-hye, championed economic democratization following her successful 2012 election that was subsequently diluted to a 474 vision (4 percent GDP growth, 70 percent employment and $40,000 per capita income); before President Park, President Lee Myung-bak’s administration pushed for the 747 goal (7 percent economic growth, $40,000 per capita income and becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy).

But, unlike these predecessors, President Moon has followed through on his plans. The Minimum Wage Commission has announced the 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018. 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 has called for new taxes. Indeed, the President has distinguished himself even from political contemporaries in calling for the tax hikes: by way of contrast, the Liberty Korea Party (formerly Saneuri Party) called the President’s policy a “dreadful tax bomb” while the People’s Party and the Bareun Party – both of which had agreed on the necessity of tax hikes – criticized the government’s plans for the hike.

This departure is significant: across the globe, austerity economics where incumbents or opposition seek to tighten wasteful spending while pledging to control big business has lost credibility with large swaths of the electorate. In South Korea, surveys conducted by Gallup Korea estimated the number of undecided voters at 27 percent in the last election, and that was an increase by six percent from December 2015. Clearly, there is a growing “party”-apathy among voters. This is not synonymous with political apathy: events such as the strong candlelight protest rallies that fueled the former President Park’s impeachment show public passion and involvement. What party-apathy signifies is the lack of outlets for that passion and involvement in the form of issues and platforms of the political parties. President Moon’s initiatives – or, more precisely, his departures from standard party stances – may be the antidote to party-apathy that will ignite political passion and, correspondingly, policy success.

Indonesia – The Old is New Again? Nomination Thresholds for Presidential Candidates

Like most emergent democracies, Indonesia saw a proliferation of political parties and interest groups following democratization even as the country was restructuring its representative institutions, the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR), and the People’s Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD), into fully elected ones. To control the surge of candidates and parties standing for elections and the subsequent legislative fragmentation, Presidential Election Law, Law No. 42/2008, was passed in 2008 to govern the nomination and election of presidential candidates, while Election Law No. 8, was passed in 2012, to regulate how political parties may stand for legislative elections. Thus, the constraints of Election Law No. 8 included limiting political parties that may contest elections to only those who obtained a threshold of 3.5 percent of the national votes from the previous election.[1]

Perhaps of greater interest is the Presidential Election Law, which limited presidential nominations to parties that received 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. To ensure that the thresholds are met, the Presidential Election Law also stipulated that elections for legislative and presidential elections be held at least three months apart. In the following, I track the recent ups and downs of the Presidential Election Law. Briefly, on January 24, 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that the sequencing of elections under the Presidential Election Law violated the constitution and ruled that legislative and presidential elections be held concurrently; however, the Court also left to the legislature to decide if the thresholds would remain. That was decided on July 20, 2017, when the House passed a bill maintaining the thresholds for the presidential elections in 2019.

The Presidential Election Law was challenged at the Constitutional Court in 2013, on the grounds that the Presidential Election law encouraged horse-trading among political parties rather than foster the discipline that underpins responsive or responsible policymaking. If the 2014 elections are any guide, that assessment is not far off-base. Specifically, no parties in the April legislative elections achieved the level of popular support needed to field independently a nominee for the presidential election in July, and that is with a highly popular candidate, then-governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Then-governor Jokowi was so popular that legislative candidates from other political parties used ads featuring the governor.

The resultant legislative results, then, took many by surprise: although the “Jokowi” factor kept the then-governor’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in the lead, it captured only 19 percent of the popular vote, well short of expectations. It meant that the PDI-P needed to form a coalition with partners in order to nominate a presidential candidate for the July elections, as would others. Unsurprisingly, the political jockeying for coalition-partners and the winnable president-vice president team began even before official results were announced. Two nominees emerged: Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi would go on to win the presidential elections, but that win did not stall the opposition coalition.

Indeed, events that followed were concerning for political developments in Indonesia. In particular, clear lines from the political jockeying carried through in the legislature; by the time of the President’s inauguration in October, 2014, the President’s coalition was in the minority. As a result, the President’s agenda was tested and several prominent positions – including House Speaker and Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly – went to the opposition majority coalition.[2] Fortunately for President Jokowi, several reversals occurred over time, so that by January 2016, the Gerindra party of Prabowo Subianto looked like it may be the only party remaining in the erstwhile majority Red-and-White coalition.

President Jokowi has kept a firm majority in the legislature since, so that it is probably not surprising that he championed the proposal to maintain the thresholds. Prabowo Subianto has also maintained a firm interest in politics, and he advocated for the elimination of nomination thresholds. Prabowo and his Gerindra Party have played a decisive – and ultimately victorious – role in the recent gubernatorial election in the capital city of Jakarta, and he is widely expected to use that win as springboard for a 2019 presidential run.

With the thresholds in place, minor party candidates definitely have their work cut out for them. Threshold or not, Jokowi and Prabowo look set to compete again for the presidency in 2019.

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[1] For additional conditions, see Yap, O. Fiona, 2014. “Indonesia – The 2014 Elections: Political parties and Presidential nominees.” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=643 <Accessed 26 July 2017>

[2] Yap, O. Fiona, 2015. “Indonesia – The President, Awesome Indonesia, and the Red-White Opposition.” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3084 <Accessed 26 July 2017>

 

Timor-Leste – President’s party wins parliamentary elections

Last Saturday parliamentary elections were held in Timor-Leste. Provisional results show that the President’s party FRETILIN, the former resistance party has won the largest share of the votes, albeit not an absolute majority. Most likely and for the first time since independence a FRETILIN president and prime minister will govern the country.

On Saturday morning polling stations opened for 750,000 people to cast their vote on 21 parties, vying for 65 parliamentary seats.[1] Yet, just five parties managed to obtain parliamentary seats. The turnout was 76.74%, slightly higher than in 2012 (74.78%).

Provisional results Timor-Leste 2017 parliamentary election

Party Votes % +/- Seats +/-
Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste FRETILIN 168,422 29.65 -0.41 23 -2
National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction CNRT 167,330 29.46 -7.2 22 -8
Popular Liberation Party PLP 60,092 10.58 New 8
Democratic Party PD 55,595 9.79 -0.57 7 -1
Party of National Unity for the Children of Timor Khunto 36,546 6.43 3.46 5 0

The results indicate that the ruling parties CNRT, FRETILIN and PD have lost ground to the opposition. Dissatisfaction amongst the electorate is related to slow economic growth and alleged government corruption.[2]

Important to note is that in 2015 the CNRT, FRETILIN, PD, and Frenti-Mudança formed a government of national unity, which together held 57 seats in Timor-Leste’s 65-member parliament. This situation virtually eliminated opposition. During this all-inclusive power-sharing arrangement former non-partisan President Taur Matan Ruak acted as a national opposition leader, attacking the government in parliament over accountability issues in early 2016, and vetoed the initial version of its budget.

Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential constitution states that the president appoints and swears in the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the parliament. So, President Lu-Olo Guterres is expected to appoint to a party member to become prime minister when the latter manages to form a majority government. FRETILIN Secretary-General and former Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri has already announced that he is open to form a coalition with the CNRT, led by the popular former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. “We will do everything to embrace everyone but we will continue to work with Xanana Gusmao, the inescapable figure of this country, in order to respond to the clear message from our people,” he told the Portuguese newsagency Lusa.

If FRETILIN will share power with the CNRT, the key question will be whether opposition parties are willing to join a new unity government. Timor-Leste needs an opposition to hold the government to account. This is especially crucial when the president and prime minister are members of the same party. To be sure, in such a situation the president might be less inclined to act and oppose government policy.

[1] Following the promulgation of a new electoral law on May 5, 2017, the minimum percentage of valid votes that a political party or coalition must obtain to be included in the distribution of parliamentary seats was raised from 3% to 4%.

[2] BEUMAN, L. M. 2016. Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation, London, Routledge.

Carole Spary – From parliament to president: Symbolic representation and the candidacy of Meira Kumar

This post first appeared on IAPS Dialogue: The Online Magazine of Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Thanks to the Director of IAPS, Professor Katharine Adeney, for allowing the repost here

In late June, a collective of 17 opposition parties led by the Indian National Congress Party (Congress) announced Meira Kumar, the former Speaker of the lower house of the Indian Parliament, as its nominee for the election of the President of India, due on 17 July. Prior to this, the governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had announced Ram Nath Kovind, the governor of the north Indian state of Bihar as its nominee. Both are positioned as Dalit leaders, where Dalits are the most marginalised group in India’s unequal caste system. If elected on 20 July, Kumar would not be the first woman or Dalit to become President of India – Pratibha Patil (2007-12) and KR Narayanan (1997-2002), respectively, precede her. But she would become the first Dalit woman President.

Symbolic representation in candidate selection is nothing new for Meira Kumar. As the first woman Speaker in India (2009-2014), she provided her party, the Congress, with an important precedent. However, throughout her presidential campaign, she has rejected the emphasis on her and her rival candidate’s Dalit identity, stressing ideological differences with the governing party. Gender has been absent from the debate, except for the media’s labelling of Kumar as ‘Bihar ki beti’ (Bihar’s daughter) due to her place of birth. The unshakeable focus on identity demonstrates tensions inherent in symbolic representation – while it provides candidates and parties with political capital, candidates find it hard to control the message of who and what they claim to represent, with identity taking precedence over ideas.

Symbolic representation in Indian politics: intersecting identities

Kumar’s election as Speaker in 2009 exemplified complex intersections of gender, class, and caste underpinning debates on women’s under-representation in electoral politics in India and elsewhere. The unanimous election of a woman Speaker compensated for the Congress party’s failure to deliver a manifesto promise on parliamentary gender quotas in their previous term (2004-2009). The additional symbolic capital generated by Kumar’s intersecting identities meant she was chosen above other potential women candidates. Congratulatory speeches by MPs in the Lok Sabha professed the importance of her election for women, especially Dalit women. Kumar acknowledged in a press interview that her election as Speaker sent a positive message to women and Dalits. Sometimes overlooked is the fact Kumar was not the first woman to occupy a senior presiding role in India’s national parliament, that too a woman from an underrepresented group in parliament: Muslim MP Najma Heptulla was Deputy Chair of the upper house (Rajya Sabha) for seventeen years. As a more senior constitutional position, however, the first woman Speaker was an important milestone.

MPs were also optimistic she would represent women’s interests better than her predecessors. anticipating the passage of the long-debated legislation on gender quotas in parliament and state assemblies, which was eventually passed in 2010 during Kumar’s term but only by the upper not the lower house, and had not been introduced in the lower house by the end of Kumar’s term in 2014. Some past Speakers, particularly those who were not from among the ‘somatic norm’ of parliament – predominantly Hindu, upper caste, north Indian, and male – were subjected to similar expectations, like the late Speaker P.A. Sangma (1996-1998) whose election was expected to enable visibility of concerns of the North East.  This ‘burden of representation’ for under-represented groups is rarely placed on dominant-group representatives, at least to the same degree. Some argued, and still do, that Kumar’s privileged upbringing as a daughter of senior political leader, Jagjivan Ram, meant her experiences are unrepresentative of the ‘average’ Dalit woman in India. While this is a valid critique in class terms, we need to consider further the possibilities of the ideal ‘authentic’ representative, and why more attention is paid to Kumar’s supposed ‘inauthenticity’ than representatives from other dominant social groups.

Presidential candidacy and representative claim-making

Meira Kumar’s presidential nomination in 2017 means she again finds herself in the midst of a debate about identity and representation. She has tried to shift focus away from her and her rival candidate’s caste identity, reportedly saying that ‘”When an election to the highest office is being held, the Dalit issue is being raised. Earlier, the capabilities, merits and achievements of the two candidates used to be discussed and no one talked about their caste”. Elsewhere she was quoted as saying: ‘”Do we – Ram Nath Kovind and I — have no other qualities?…”’. In so doing, Kumar attempted to control representative claims. Throughout her presidential campaign she stressed support for secular and democratic values such as freedom of speech, contrasting this with the governing party, criticising a climate of fear and rising casteism and communalism and increasing violence against Dalits and Muslims. She publicly appealed to the electoral college to vote with their conscience.

Consequently, this presidential election has been more confrontational than her Speaker election in 2009, or her earlier diplomatic career. As outgoing Speaker in 2014, Kumar published a volume of her speeches linking her diplomatic career with her experience of parliamentary diplomacy, hosting foreign dignitaries and bilateral delegations, and participating in Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association activities. As Speaker, she claimed she took care to remain above political preferences, and that her speeches were a ‘reflection of a broader outlook’. These experiences provide a good foundation for presidential office. But her principled campaign focus begs the question of how she will manage this confrontation if elected, given conventional relations between the President and Prime Minister.

Gender issues have been notably absent so far in the campaign; if Kumar has discussed gender explicitly, the media have not covered it prominently, except to label her as  ‘Bihar’s daughter’. Perhaps this is because the symbolic dividend of a second woman President is reduced. Perhaps it is because neither the governing or opposition parties can claim a strong track record on gender issues. Perhaps it is because some of the opposition parties supporting her candidacy had vigorously opposed issues such as the gender quota Bill during Kumar’s term as Speaker. Perhaps it is because the current Speaker is an experienced woman parliamentarian from the BJP. Most plausibly, it is because casteism and communalism are the common denominators on which those parties supporting her can agree, even if in the past these have manifested in gendered forms.

The campaign emphasis on democratic values was a public intervention at a much needed time. Whatever the outcome on 20 July, this election demonstrates once again that representative claims by candidates, their supporters and detractors, about who and what they represent, are vigorously contested, and that identity and symbolic representation are likely to play an important role in electoral politics in India in the future. Is symbolic representation enough? No – precedents are welcome but the substantive transformation for marginalised groups needs to follow. Allrepresentatives, not just those perceived to embody more marginalised identities, need to be held accountable for bringing about the change.

Carole Spary is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations and Deputy Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. She tweets at @carolespary . For more on Meira Kumar’s election as first female Speaker in 2009, see the author’s published book chapter on first female Speakers co-authored with Faith Armitage and Rachel Johnson (in Rai and Johnson’s edited collection Democracy in Practice, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan). Image credit: CC by Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.

Roger Lee Huang – A short guide to Myanmar’s Disciplined Democracy

This is a guest post by Roger Lee Huang, Academic Tutor, Macquarie University and Research Affiliate, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.

After nearly five decades of  largely uninterrupted authoritarian military rule in Myanmar, Thein Sein was elected President on March 30, 2011, and officially began the process of transforming the state into what the 2008 Constitution refers to as a “disciplined multi-party” democratic system. Under the Constitutional framework, passed in a dubious referendum in May 2008, the president “takes precedence over all other persons throughout the Republic” and serves as both head of state and head of government. In contrast with Thein Sein, who was a particularly visible and active figure during his tenure, the incumbent, President Htin Kyaw, despite his constitutional powers, commands no real authority, and has a limited profile. Instead, formal state authority is asymmetrically split between the country’s powerful military, while the Htin Kyaw administration is ipso facto commanded by the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership the National League for Democracy’s (NLD), had previously rejected any attempt to join the military’s transition plan, and as recent as 2010, boycotted the country’s elections. However, a few months after dissolution of the junta, an olive branch offered by President Thein Sein began the process of reconciliation with Suu Kyi, paving the way for the NLD’s participation in the 2012 by-elections. This process enabled the military to consolidate its envisioned “disciplined multi-party” democracy.

Contrary to conventional presidential systems, Myanmar’s disciplined multi-party democracy was specifically designed to divide state authority between the military and elected civilian parties. Constitutionally, it is not the elected civilian President but the Commander-In-Chief, an active military officer that has direct control of the country’s military forces, including the police and all paramilitary units. In the legislative branch, twenty-five percent of the seats in the bicameral National Parliament are composed of active military officers directly appointed by the Commander-In-Chief. Further, irrespective of the electoral outcome, the country would always be governed by a coalition government, where the army is constitutionally mandated to play a permanent role in national politics, with direct authority over three key ministries – Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. As a final safeguard to ensure this system is sustained, amendments to key provisions of the Constitution must meet a high threshold, which ensures that any changes to the political role of the military can only feasibly materialize with the approval of the military. In short, under Myanmar’s “democratic” system, the military remains insulated from civilian oversight, and continues to disproportionally play an expansive political role in the administration of the state.

Just days before the November 8, 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi had declared that in the event of an NLD electoral victory, she would be “above the president” despite Article 59 (f) of the Constitution specifically prohibiting her from the presidency based on her offspring’s foreign citizenships. The President is elected by an Electoral College composed of three groups of parliamentarians (the House of Nationalities, the House of Representatives, and military-appointed MPs). The landslide electoral victory meant that the NLD had enough votes to ensure that the next President of the Republic, and at least one of the country’s two Vice Presidents would be an NLD nominee. The relatively unknown Htin Kyaw was elected President based on the understanding that he would faithfully serve as proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi. Just days after Htin Kyaw’s inauguration, the NLD-dominated parliament was able to push through legislation establishing the new position of State Counsellor, specifically engineered to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as the de facto leader of the NLD-led government, giving her prime-minister like powers. Along with taking on various ministerial positions, Suu Kyi also effectively appointed herself as Foreign Minister, the only legal path that would allow her membership of the country’s National Defence and Security Council, the highest institution composed of eleven members that determine all defence and security affairs.

It has been over a year since the advent of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led coalition government, and many of the country’s woes have intensified under the current administration. While much of Myanmar’s problems are historically rooted and structurally entrenched, the NLD-led administration has made little or no effort to overcome the legacy of military authoritarianism. In fact, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government has increasingly replicated the actions of its military predecessors.

Press freedom has lapsed significantly, with a rise in defamation cases filed against social media users and journalists under the notorious section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law of 2013. The NLD’s parliamentary majority has the ability to amend this legislation, yet Aung San Suu Kyi and her officials have made little or no effort to do so, and have remained largely silent in the face of continued persecutions against journalists. In effect, the government defended the actions of the military after they arrested three journalists in June using the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act of 1908.

Unite Nations officials who planned a fact-finding mission in response to increased violence in the restive Rakhine State, had their visas denied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a ministry under the direct control of Aung San Suu Kyi. Further fighting continues in the Shan State with the emergence of a Northern Alliance composed of four armed ethnic groups, while the military has also expanded its offensive against the Kachin Independence Organization in the Kachin State. The NLD government’s ability to negotiate and build peace through its much-touted Panglong-21 Conference remains doubtful, and beyond occasional symbolic victories, has so far shown no evident, concrete results.

Lastly, despite the United States finally lifting all remaining economic sanctions in October 2016, the initial rush of foreign investors has dropped, and economic growth in Myanmar has slowed.

The NLD may have won an election, and was able to install Aung San Suu Kyi in a position of power; the reality is that the military’s constitutional system remains unscathed and unchallenged. Even with the NLD’s huge electoral mandate and despite the popularity of Suu Kyi, the NLD was unable to amend Article 59 (f) of the Constitution, and have instead, avoided a constitutional crisis by manoeuvring within the confines of the military’s constitutional framework. Although the 2008 Constitutional system has created a new political reality where the military voluntarily shares state authority with a popularly elected civilian government, this is and has always been the military’s version of democracy – one where its civilian politicians are restricted in their control of the country’s bureaucracy and do not command absolute state power. Now in its sixth year as a disciplined “flourishing” democracy, the political clout of the military remains undiminished. The military remains the ultimate guardian of “national unity” and there remains no indication that the “disciplined” features of Myanmar’s democracy would be negotiable in the foreseeable future.

Marisa Kellam and Boldsaikhan Sambuu – Battulga Victory in Mongolia’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post by Marisa Kellam (Associate Professor) and Boldsaikhan Sambuu (Graduate Student) at the School of Political Science & Economics of Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan

Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party (DP) won Mongolia’s presidential run-off on July 7th.[1] He obtained 50.6 percent of the vote, narrowly winning the election but at the same time soundly defeating Enkhbold Miyegombo of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP).

Battulga came in first-place on June 26th, but did not secure an absolute majority in the three-way race with Enkhbold, the government’s candidate, and Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a populist who was nominated by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, for the first-time in Mongolia, the presidential election was forced into a second-round.

Third-party candidates have competed in past presidential elections, but they have never garnered much support. Ganbaater attracted support from independents who voted against the MPP and DP duopoly that has dominated Mongolian politics since democratization. Comparison of geographically disaggregated results suggests that Ganbaatar’s voters favored Battulga in the second round. But independents also advocated for a “white vote,” or casting a blank ballot. Had neither candidate received the required absolute majority in the second round, the law would require parties to put forward different candidates in a new election. Blank votes accounted for over 8 percent of the total votes cast.

Economic populism wins

The presidential election took place in a context of precipitous economic decline in Mongolia following the global commodity bust and prior policy mistakes. The MPP government recently accepted a politically unpopular IMF bailout, agreeing to belt-tightening measures and thereby backtracking on many of the promises it had made in last year’s parliamentary election.

Battulga attacked the MPP for betraying its promises and framed this year’s election as a referendum on the bailout. During the campaign, Battulga suggested that he might reinstate a bill requiring revenues from foreign owned mines, including the giant Oyu-Tolgoi, to be funneled through Mongolian banks, which the IMF opposed. He proposed forgiving individual debt held by Mongolians and distributing dividend payments from the shares of a state owned coal mine Tavan Tolgoi to every citizen. Ganbaatar, the third-party candidate, also railed relentlessly against foreign ownership of local mines.

The opposition also played the ethnic card in their attacks on Enkhbold by calling him an “Erliiz”—a person of ethnic hybridityof Mongolian and Chinese mix. Many Mongolians subscribe to a primordialist belief of ethnicity, according to which the essence of someone’s identity is contained within that person’s blood. As a defiant critic of China and an unapologetic nationalist, Battulga adopted an implicitly Sinophobic slogan Mongol ylna, the meaning of which is open to interpretation:  Mongolia will triumph or a Mongol will triumph.

The revolution and the evolution of political parties

The Mongolian People’s Party—to use its current name—and the Democratic Party have dominated Mongolian politics since the first free and fair election of 1992. The MPP is the former communist party; between 1924 and 2010 it was called the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. When the party dropped “revolutionary” from its name a dissenting faction usurped the revolutionary banner, forming a new party but adopting the former party name. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, the MPP has had full control of nearly all government institutions, barring the presidency. The MPP represents the more disciplined and mature political force in Mongolian politics, compared to the fraction-ridden opposition.

The Democratic Party traces its origins to the Mongolian Democratic Revolution of 1990. Many of its leaders were involved in the various pro-democracy forces that sought regime change in Mongolia. These forces ran as a coalition and won the parliamentary elections of 1996, stemming seven decades of uninterrupted one-party rule by the MPP (then called MPRP). Once in office, however, the coalition broke down due to factional in-fighting amid economic crisis and controversies involving allegedly corrupt privatization of public assets. In the subsequent presidential election, the incumbent president from the DP coalition lost to the MPP candidate. The MPP president and the DP controlled parliament clashed over the selection of prime minister and the formation of the cabinet. This power struggle paralyzed the operation of government for several months. In 2000, the MPP won a landslide victory and the losing democratic factions responded to their defeat by coalescing into the current Democratic Party.

The DP returned to power in 2012 at a time when Mongolia had seen record high growth, owing in large part, to high commodities prices and major foreign investment in mining projects. In a remarkably similar fashion to its first time in power, DP’s rule between 2012 and 2016 was characterized by factional struggle, economic slump, and controversial privatization of the Russian-Mongolian jointly owned Erdenet mine. Voters blamed the DP for the country’s economic ills and thoroughly rejected them at the polls last year.

In an effort to curtail the notorious infighting and regroup after their loss, the DP national party congress decided to hold a first-ever primary election to nominate a candidate for the presidential election. About 60 percent of all DP members participated (the DP counts more than 180,000 members nationwide) in the primary on May 3, 2017. The primary election was supposed to strengthen party discipline by letting the party members openly select a presidential candidate capable of uniting the factions. Instead, six DP leaders sought the party nomination and Battulga, a controversial and polarizing figure even within his own party, was able to defeat his rivals with far more experience and moderate views, even though he received only a third of the total votes cast in the DP primary.

Power struggles under semi-presidentialism

Following the transition to democracy, the 1992 Constitution created a semi-presidential system of government as a compromise, establishing a popularly-elected president who serves for a fixed 4-year term and a government comprised of a prime minister and cabinet that is responsible to parliament. The presidency is an important, but controversial, position in Mongolia’s semi-presidential system.[1]

The Mongolian president plays a primary role in foreign policy, chairs the National Security Council and serves as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

Also, the Mongolian president has coveted appointment powers which allows him to fill many positions in the Mongolian bureaucracy and name ambassadors and judges, including chief justices. The president also nominates the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption, subject to parliamentary approval, and approves parliament’s nomination for the General Intelligence Agency. These presidential prerogatives may be particularly important to the current president-elect as these two institutions investigated Battulga for embezzlement during his stint as Minister of Industry and Agriculture between 2012 and 2014 and arrested his aids last year. This controversy led to the public falling out between Battulga and the outgoing DP president Elbegdorj, given his extensive influence over the country’s justice system and the IACA.

In addition, the president has the constitutional right to offer policy guidance to the cabinet and to sponsor and initiate legislation. The president has the power to veto bills passed by parliament, which requires two-thirds of MPs to override; given that the MPP controls 85 percent of parliament, Battulga’s veto power will not have much bite.

As readers of this blog are well aware, semi-presidentialism opens up the possibility of cohabitation where the president and prime minister are from different parties that have not formed a governing coalition. In Mongolia, the president is constitutionally designated as a non-partisan and apolitical “embodiment of national unity.” As such, Battulga will be required to forgo his party membership before taking the oath of office. However, only political parties represented in parliament are allowed to field candidates in presidential elections; this means Battulga will have a difficult task of remaining above partisan politics, while at the same time retaining enough influence and support within his party if he is to seek reelection. Despite the constitutional contradiction, de facto cohabitation has been common in Mongolia, and will continue given the outcome of this presidential election.

Under Mongolia’s semi-presidential constitution, the respective powers of the president and parliament in selecting the government have been subject to ongoing political disputes, legal reforms, constitutional amendment, and scholarly debate. Lkhamsuren Munkh-Erdene argues that Mongolia has been functioning like a typical parliamentary system since the 2000 constitutional amendments removed presidential discretion over the selection of the prime minister.  Yet, because the presidency is still directly elected, candidates seeking the office often have made ambitious and oversized promises to get elected (on this point, Battulga’s campaign was no different). This produces a mismatch between the voters’ expectation of an all-powerful president vis-a-vis what in reality the presidency is institutionally capable of and constitutionally empowered to do. As a result, confidence in the office of the president, which prior to the reform used to be higher than any other government branch, has declined dramatically. In opinion surveys, over 78 percent of respondents stated they have confidence in the presidency in 1997; that number dropped to 50 percent a decade later, before reaching an all-time low of 41 percent this year.

Although the MPP has the super-majority required to make changes to the constitution, it has so far hesitated to unilaterally push through any reforms. Major amendments in consideration include making the president appointed by parliament, rather than popularly elected, and stripping the president’s power to influence the cabinet, initiate legislation, and make judicial appointments. It remains to be seen whether defeat in this election will compel the MPP to pursue these or other constitutional amendments. The potential showdown with Battulga should raise Linzian-inspired concerns of democratic instability.

Strained democracy

All of the above points to looming economic and political crises in Mongolia. Although Mongolia lacks what scholars identify as prerequisites for the emergence and survival of liberal democracy, Mongolia’s “deviant” democracy inspires academics and policy-makers to praise the country as a democratic over-achiever and an oasis of democracy.

Nevertheless, the elections of this year and last year put more strain on Mongolia’s still relatively new democracy than it had ever experienced before.

While all previous DP presidential candidates were committed democrats and personally involved in the democratic transition, this cannot be said of Battulga, who entered politics relatively recently. Battulga ran a campaign that centered on his personality more than his party or program. Battulga’s supporters have likened him to the Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose popularity in Mongolia seems to have risen in recent years. Public opinion surveys indicate that close to 70 percent of respondents say it is either “good” or “rather good” to have a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with the parliament or elections.

Ganbaatar, in contrast, is a political opportunist, who has twice changed parties. He was one of the most popular politicians until a recent scandal revealed he had lied about his college degree and he lost his seat in parliament last year. In the middle of this year’s election, a video was released to the public that showed Ganbaatar accepting illicit campaign donations from a Korean national. The police authenticated the video; the case is pending investigation.

The opposition refrain against Enkhbold was that he is “turuus tursun bayan,” a popular Mongolian term referring to a corrupt insider who has gotten rich from embezzling the state. The refrain proved to be fatal in the context of growing wariness of voters following the Panama Papers’ revelations of off-shore accounts used by top Mongolian officials (not to mention several other political scandals).

A powerful anti-establishment narrative permeated this year’s presidential election, summarized by a Mongolian word for fog, manan, which is derived from combining the Mongolian abbreviations of the MPP and the DP, or “MAN” and “AN”, respectively. The MANAN narrative suggests that corrupt leaders from both major parties collude to exploit the country’s natural resources at the expense of Mongolian citizens.

The outcome of the presidential election gives no indication that the fog hanging over Mongolia’s semi-presidential democracy has lifted.

Notes

[1] For an excellent overview of Mongolia’s politics of semi-presidentialism, see Sophia Moestrup and Gombosurengiin Ganzorig’s chapter in Semi-Presidentialism Outside of Europe, edited by Robert Elgie and Sophia Moestrup, Routeledge 2007.

[1] It is custom to refer to individuals by their given name in Mongolia.

Piyadasa Edirisuriya – The rise and the grand fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa

This is a guest post by Piyadasa Edirisuriya from Monash Business School at Monash University. It is based on his recent article in Asian Survey

Mahinda Rajapaksha, former President of Sri Lanka became a member of parliament in 1970 as the youngest member of the parliament at that time. Rajapaksha climbed to the very top by becoming the President of Sri Lanka in 2005. However, during his presidency, many blamed the Rajapaksha regime for corruptions, nepotism and human rights violations. When Rajapaksha contested the presidency for the first time, he won 50.29% of the vote compared to his rival Ranil Wickramasinghe who received 48.43%. Following his election, he established his power all over the country by a number of ways. In the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksha obtained 57.88% of the vote compared to the common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka (an army commander who survived suicide an LTTE attack and fought the war to the end) who won only 40.15% of the vote. The significant number of votes obtained by Rajapaksha was mainly due to the war victory against the LTTE. Throughout his political life, Rajapaksha had an appeal for the majority of Sinhala people who live in rural parts of the country.

The 2010 election victory made Rajapaksha more powerful and popular than ever as he won by a significant margin. This win gave him more confidence to abuse power in a substantial way. He promoted himself as ‘the liberator of nation from terrorism’ and systematically began to supress anybody who challenged his position. He started this strategy by arresting his onetime army commander and presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka. In fact, General Fonseka was the military commander who defeated the LTTE militarily. General Fonseka’s arrest was brutal as well as very quick. When the general public and some leading Buddhist monks attempted to protest against this arrest, Rajapaksha took swift actions to stop such protests.

With these victories in hand, Rajapaksha’s authority also grew because of the economic progress the country achieved during his time. It is evident from the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank Reports that the Rajapaksha’s period is one of the noteworthy growth for the country. Since 2001 per capita income GDP of Sri Lanka has been increasing gradually. In 2001, it was just US$841 and by 2013 it had increased to US$3,280. A significant improvement came in 2010 where it increased from US$2,057 in 2009 to US$2,400 in just one year.

Irrespective of economic growth, over the years Rajapaksha’s presidency was subject to many domestic and international criticisms. He appointed the largest Cabinet of Ministers in the world. In his first government (2005) there were 51 ministers and 29 deputy minsters. In 2007, Rajapaksha reshuffled the Cabinet and appointed even more people as ministers and deputy ministers. There were now 85 ministers and 20 deputy minsters. There were new ministers appointed by Rajapaksha whenever someone from the opposition crossed the floor to support the government. Most of these defections from the opposition were encouraged by Rajapaksha offering generous cabinet portfolios. (It is interesting to see that the current government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena also has 90 people as cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers.)

Another notable feature of the Rajapaksha administration was the offer of lucrative parliamentary, government and overseas portfolios to his family members. One of the most powerful figures was Rajapaksha’s younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was the Secretary of Defence in addition to some other positions. A retired army colonel, he was one of the main figures who directed the military campaigned against the LTTE until it was defeated in 2009. After retiring from the army, Gotabhaya left Sri Lanka to live in the United States and became a US citizen. When Rajapaksha became the President, Gotabhaya returned to Sri Lanka and was given the powerful position of the Secretary to the Defence portfolio. There was a bomb attack on Gotabhaya when he was travelling with security escorts in December 2006 when a suicide bomber of the LTTE tried to ram an explosive-laden three-wheeler into the vehicle in which the Defence Secretary was in. The LTTE’s so called Black Tiger attack did not kill Gotabhaya. He survived miraculously.

During Rajapaksha’s time, a number of his Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers as well as member of parliaments were reported for corruption, irregularities, unnecessary political interferences, breaking rules, laws and regulations and unruly behaviour. However, Rajapaksha never took serious disciplinary action against his fellow politicians. When the media commenced reporting such abuses by politicians things went bad to worse.  While banning a number of electronic media organisations who were critical of his government, Rajapaksha used government media organisations in his propaganda campaign to attack his opponents.

During the Rajapaksha era, the independence of judiciary in Sri Lanka was a controversial issue. Among many issues, the removal of the Chief Justice by the Parliament (with Rajapaksha’s approval) was the most controversial.

The beginning of Rajapaksha’s fall could be linked to the change of the constitution by the Sri Lankan Parliament that allowed the President to contest the presidential election any number of times. The previous constitution of Sri Lanka limited the re-election of President to 2 times. Under the eighteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka passed by the parliament on the 8th September 2010, the sentence that mentioned ‘the limit of the re-election of the President’ in the original constitution passed in the 1978 was removed. This change was designed to allow Rajapaksha to keep on contesting for the Presidency for as long as he wished.

Another important reason for Rajapaksha’s demise was his superstitious nature. Calling a presidential election 2 years early on the 8th January, 2015 was purely based on astrologers’ predictions. This particular day was selected based on advice given by his personal astrologers. Rajapaksha could have easily be in the Presidency for 2 more years without any trouble. Irrespective of being a devoted Buddhist, one month before the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksha went to South India where he offered worship at the famous Hindu hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara. All these activities showed an overreliance on astrology and religion that contributed partly to his demise. It is alleged that Rajapaksha was indirectly supporting extreme Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). BBS was promoting anti-Muslim ideologies in the country and was behind the riots against Muslims in 2014. This caused many Muslims to vote against Rajapaksha in the 2015 presidential election. In fact, the majority of Muslims and Tamils voted against Rajapaksha during the 2015 Presidential election.

After the 2015 presidential election defeat, many believed that Rajapaksha had reached the end of his political career. However, he was not ready to accept the defeat. By using his close friends in the parliament he wanted to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with. Just before the parliamentary election in August 2015, he encouraged his allies to start an island-wide campaign asking new leaders of the SLFP to bring him back to politics. The new leader (President Maithripala Sirisena) initially announced that he was not going to allow Rajapaksha to contest the general election, but he could not resist the pressure from his own party members. As a result, Rajapaksha was elected from the Kurunagala District and is now a member of parliament. His son also won from the Hambantota District.

Rajapaksha was the first Sri Lankan President to lose power in an election. In addition, Rajapaksha is the first President in the country to be a mere member of parliament after ruling the country for two consecutive periods. This demonstrates that he has not given up hope. In the future, he may be able to run the show directly or indirectly once again. He has his own parliamentary group called “Joint Opposition” and has plans to establish a new political party. Once it is created, he may become the leader again and keep doing what he planned many years ago. The growing unpopularity of the current regime has become a blessing in disguise for Rajapaksha and sooner or later he will be the ‘king’ again.

South Korea – The Making … and Unmaking … of the People’s Party

The remarkable electoral success of the People’s Party at the April 2016 general elections –38 seats, beating some of the most optimistic predictions – boded well for a party that was formally launched less than three months earlier, on February 2, 2016. Here is a party that defied expectations of decimation, sometimes from fires set within the party itself. Instead, the party looked set to play a pivotal role in the legislature: with no majority party in the legislature, the People’s Party is well-placed to lend support to the liberal Minjoo legislative plurality or join hands with the rest of the legislative opposition to stonewall, if not defeat, the government’s policies. And, despite his defeat at the presidential polls, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, cofounder of the People’s Party, looked to be a viable candidate in presidential elections 2021 with his name recognition and experience. However, the latest scandal may bury the party: at a press conference on Jun 26, 2017, the emergency committee of the People’s Party revealed that an audio tape which surfaced on May 5, 2017 – allegedly proving that President Moon Jae-in’s son received special treatment to join the Korea Employment Information Service (KEIS) – was fabricated. People’s Party member and youth committee vice-chair, Lee Yoo-mi, has been arrested under the Public Official Election Act for making and releasing the fake audio tape. Lee has alleged that she was directed to make the tape by senior party members, and the fact that Lee was a former student of Representative Ahn at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology threatens to incriminate the highest ranks of the party. Here, I track the highs and lows of the People’s Party.

The People’s Party was formally launched in February 2016, then-led by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Chun Jung-bae, both of whom left the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chair of the NPAD, left on December 13, 2015, following open disagreements with NPAD’s then-chair, Moon Jae-in. Ahn’s departure ended a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that officially launched in April 2014, but it also bared open fractures within the alliance that the leadership had ineffectually tried to reconcile. Representative Chun Jung-bae left the NPAD in March, 2015 and successfully won the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April by-elections. 1

Ahn and Chun pooled 20 seats in the legislature to achieve a legislative negotiation bloc for the People’s Party; under Assembly rules, it was entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges, such as negotiating legislative calendars. However, not long following the official launch, senior party members fought openly over the possibility of merging with the Minjoo Party. Still, the People’s Party managed to smooth over the early difficulties to almost double its share of legislative seats in the general elections.

Soon after the general elections, however, the People’s Party was hit by a campaign kickback scandal: two of its proportionally-elected legislators and a deputy secretary general for the party were alleged to have demanded and received kickbacks from advertisers for the campaign. Both Ahn and Chun stepped down as co-founders to take responsibility; while the scandal may have singed Ahn’s position as leader of the party, it probably helped preserve Ahn’s politically “clean” image. As a result, when Ahn signalled his intention to run for the presidency, his candidacy had good momentum: some polls even showed him leading over Moon Jae-in at one point. Interestingly, the lead over Moon followed the resurfacing of the allegations that Moon’s son received special favours to assume the job with the KEIS.

Moon would go on to win the presidential race subsequently, with Ahn in third place after Liberal Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo. Ahn has kept low since the elections, but is facing calls to respond given his steady drum-beat of nepotism and special favors immediately following the fabricated audio tape. For now, party leaders have disavowed any knowledge of the fabricated tape, and also disclaimed any knowledge that Ahn may have had. Still, with the arrest of Lee and Lee’s insinuation of senior party members’ involvement, the investigation is likely to burrow deep into the party, at the party’s peril.

________

  1. Yap, O. Fiona (2015). “Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263, December 16, 2015. <last accessed June 28, 2017>

Presidential profile – Rajendra Prasad, former president of India

The Indian Constitution came into effect on 26 January 1950. Later that day, Rajendra Prasad, a distinguished veteran of the Indian National Congress became the first president of the newly created Republic of India. The Constitution’s fate would rest significantly on Prasad’s shoulders. Was he up to the task?

In designing its central institutions of government, India heavily borrowed from the Westminster model. But the highest constitutional office – an elected presidency – wasn’t one of them; it had no modern British lineage.

Designing this new office proved challenging. The Constituent Assembly, a large body of modestly elected persons, agonized over many models and multiple drafts. As the president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad was intimately involved in the deliberations.

The Assembly had three models to choose from: a monarch, a directly-elected president or an indirectly-elected president. Suddenly inventing a monarchy wasn’t feasible. So, the Assembly had to opt for more democratic varieties. In its first round of deliberations, Assembly opted for a directly-elected president. But doubts soon appeared. Would a president backed by a national mandate collide with a prime minister? Better sense prevailed, and the Assembly backed off. An indirectly-elected president it would be.

Type was only one issue. Equally important was the issue of powers: Precisely, what powers should this indirectly-elected president have? With the Westminster model looming large, members agreed that the president, like the British monarch, wouldn’t rule. Prime ministers and their cabinets would. A ceremonial president is what the Assembly, it seems, settled on. Remember: Prasad helped craft that agreement.

Curiously, the Constitution, its precise language, did not reflect that agreement. Instead, it reposed the president with two major roles. Article 53 made the president the repository of executive powers: “The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution.” Article 74, in the original Constitution, heightened his sense of power: “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advice the President in the exercise of his functions.” And Article 79 made the president a constitutive part of Parliament: “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the council of States and the House of the People.” This was in addition to scores of other provisions that seemed to confer specific powers on the president.

Soon after the Constitution came into effect, skirmishes broke out between President Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Prasad no longer felt bound by the “agreement” in the Constituent Assembly. The powers of the president, he said, were those the text of the Constitution dictated. Nehru, on the other hand, read the provisions and the powers they conferred through lens of the agreement in the Assembly. Reading the provisions without any sense of the Westminster system, he said, would undo the delicate balance the Constitution had created.

The battle lines were clearly drawn. Prasad emphasized the text above all else. To him, the text meant how it read. To Nehru, the constitutional text was merely a gloss. Making sense of it required an understanding of India’s gradual adoption of the Westminster system.

This interpretative battle was fought several times, and they were India’s original struggle over constitutional meaning. High on Prime Minister Nehru’s agenda early on was the modernization of Hindu personal law – the law of marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance of Hindus. Nehru wanted to reform and modernize Hindu customary law. But only Hindu law. Personal laws of Muslims and other religious minorities didn’t figure in his legislative agenda. Prasad objected, both on constitutional and personal grounds. Reforming only Hindu codes would be discriminatory, he said. He made it known that if enacted by the two Houses of Parliament, he would exercise his independent judgment when it came to assent. He also made it clear that he would likely withhold assent – something a British monarch hadn’t done for many centuries.

And then there were land reform Bills that both Houses of Parliament overwhelmingly voted for. But Prasad agonized over them, again on constitutional grounds. Not enough compensation had been provided for, he said, to those whose land had been taken over. Nehru wouldn’t have this. He insisted on a rubber-stamp president, not an independent, political one. With Prasad insisting on real powers, Nehru lined up a battery of legal eagles to make the case for a republican president in name only. And then there were threats, too. Unable to get his way, Nehru on more than one occasion threatened to resign if Prasad stalled his agenda.

Ultimately, the Indian electorate settled the matter. The first general elections in 1952 conferred on Jawaharlal Nehru a massive democratic mandate. Prasad saw the writing on the wall. He backed off. The text, its powers, didn’t matter; it didn’t mean what it said. India, after all, was going to be a Westminster system. (Between 1950 and 1952, president and parliament functioned on the basis of elections last conducted in 1937.)

Rajendra Prasad remained president until 1962. He was first formally (indirectly) elected in 1952, and then again, in 1957. So far, he remains the only person to have served two terms as president. With his reading of presidential powers written off by the Indian electorate, Prasad for most his long term stood relegated to ceremonial functions – in line with Nehru’s original conception of what the presidency was meant to be.

It should, then, come as no surprise that Nehru steadfastly opposed Prasad’s candidature as president. But the latter ultimately prevailed within the Congress party. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like Nehru, Prasad, too, had a long and distinguished record in the Congress party.

Born on 3 December 1884 in the Bengal Presidency of Siwan (present day Bihar), Prasad showed great promise as a student. He graduated with a Masters in Economics from the University of Calcutta in 1907, and later completed his Masters in Law in 1915. He earned a doctorate in law from Allahabad University in 1937.

His association with the Congress party began during his student years in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and he formally became a member of the party in 1911. He became the president of the Indian National Congress in 1934, and again in 1939. He also became a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Interim Government in 1946. In 1962, he was conferred the highest civilian honor in India, the Bharat Ratna. He died on 28 February 1963.

Rajendra Prasad lost out in making the president an independent center of power. But as Indian politics degenerated into the chaos of coalition politics in the 1990s, once again, there were calls for the president to assert his “independence”. With the comfort of a stable single-party rule over, political parties and commentators in India looked to the president to exercise authority and judgment. Perhaps Prasad was right all along – and far too ahead of the times.