Category Archives: Asia

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: is Díli on (Political) Fire Again?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Almost nine months after the election of the fourth President of the Republic, the first to be won by a President affiliated to a political party (FRETILIN) and to benefit from a pre-first round major party coalition, and four and a half months after FRETILIN narrowly won the legislative elections (by a mere thousand votes over Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, both winning just under 30% of the vote), Timor-Leste does not yet have a fully invested government and political tensions are running higher than at any point since the crisis of 2006.

The coalition between FRETILIN and CNRT to elect Lu Olo on the first round of the presidential election was unprecedented in a country that was more used to seeing first ballots contested by partisan and “independent” candidates alike and to seeing informal agreements being made for the run-off poll. However, the coalition was a natural consequence of political developments that marked the previous electoral cycle.

Having won a plurality in 2012, Xanana returned as PM supported by his allies who had won seats in parliament. Immediately he started working towards a new political solution that would encompass the historical party FRETILIN, around which a “cordon sanitaire” had been erected after the 2006 crisis. The state budgets for 2013 and 2014 were approved unanimously and FRETILIN’s leader was offered a significant position as head of a Special Region. Allegedly supported by President Taur Matan Ruak (aka TMR), the converging paths of the parliamentary parties were hailed by a senior minister as the “replacement of belligerent democracy by consensus democracy” (Agio Pereira). In early 2015 Xanana stepped aside for the formation of a “Government of National Inclusion”. This was headed by Rui Maria de Araújo, a former “independent” minister and member of the Council of State, who had since joined the ranks of FRETILIN, a party that was “offered” several other key ministers in the government “in their individual and technical capacities”, without formally signing an agreement (instead, it maintained the status of “opposition” party without giving this any substantial meaning).[i]

The policies of the “Government of National Inclusion”, however, came under severe criticism from President TMR, who declined to seek a second term in office, created his own political party (PLP – Partido da Libertação do Povo), and fought the legislative elections, obtaining about 12% of the vote and 8 seats in parliament. The four parties that had supported the government ran campaigns that failed to criticise ongoing strategic decisions and it was expected that the basic the government formula would be maintained after the polls. In the end, one of those parties failed to pass the 4% threshold and won no seats, while PLP and another young party – KHUNTO – secured their presence in parliament.

Immediately after the results were announced, FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri claimed the premiership for his party (and actually, for himself), thus substantially altering the conditions under which the previous government had been negotiated. Both TMR and Xanana said that they would serve in the opposition and that neither would take their seats in parliament. They also pledged, rather vaguely, to follow a “constructive opposition” and “not to obstruct” the functioning of government.

As he summoned the three leaders to a joint meeting, President Lu Olo must have felt rather insecure, given that the consultations that he was constitutionally obliged to make had been attended by second-line figures from the parties. He failed to convince TMR and Xanana to accept Alkatiri’s terms – or to convince Alkatiri to accept theirs. But a door was open for Alkatiri: to secure an agreement with a junior party in the previous government (PD, 7 seats) and the newcomer KHUNTO (5 seats).

President Lu Olo appointed Alkatiri as prime minister, that is, designated him as a formateur. Early conversations suggested Alkatiri would be successful – and in this context, the three parties joined forces to elect the Speaker of the House. But KHUNTO did not accept the deal it was being proposed and withdrew from the negotiations. Alkatiri could only present President Lu Olo with a minority government formed by FRETILIN and PD.

President Lu Olo took the bold initiative of accepting Alkatiri’s proposal, and formalized the appointment of the very first minority government in Timor-Leste’s history (16 September). Alkatiri tried to minimize the risks for his government by inviting respected “independent” figures (such as former PM and President, Ramos-Horta) and prominent members of the opposition parties (such as Xanana’s right hand man, Agio Pereira) to be “State Ministers”.

The Timorese Constitution facilitates the possibility of minority governments. It stipulates that within a month of being sworn in, the government must present its program to the House – which it did on 16 October. Then the House has three days for debate, at the end of which the government will be invested unless the opposition tables a rejection motion or it feels the political (not constitutional) need to present a confidence motion. If the confidence motion fails, the government falls immediately. If the rejection motion is passed (as it actually was on October 19 by 35 votes to 30), then the government must present a second program.

At this stage we enter a realm of indefiniteness. There is no explicit mention in the constitution, but it is assumed in other countries with similar mechanisms that a government only assumes full and not merely caretaker functions once it has been invested in the House. Also, the Timorese Constitution does not clearly provide a deadline for the second program to be presented – but it is implicit that it should not be longer than the first one.

By December 7, a month and a half have elapsed without the government submitting the second program to the House – and Alkatiri has repeated that he does not feel obliged to do so before the end of the year, or even in the new year. Instead, he has acted as if invested with full powers, submitting to the House a proposal to “rectify” the current budget – something that clearly goes beyond the powers of a caretaker government. All those attitudes have infuriated the opposition.

The opposition has moved closer together, and have signed a formal alliance in order to replace the current government. As Xanana has been involved in overseas activities (officially related to the negotiations with Australia, but actually going far beyond those) and has not set foot in Dili for three months, the agreement was signed in Singapore. Following the acceptance of the budget correction bill for debate by the Speaker, the opposition tabled a motion that the Speaker refuses to put to a plenary vote. The opposition has since been boycotting the parliamentary committee on budget and finances, meaning that it cannot function for lack of a quorum. The opposition parties also tabled another motion to reject the government, which – if approved – would bring it down at once. The Speaker has so far refused to put this item on the agenda. Eve before the Speaker took these decisions, the three parties filed for his destitution – and again the Speaker has not yet set a date to discuss and vote on this proposal.

Meanwhile, the political rhetoric has grown increasingly inflammatory. FRETILIN accuses the opposition of staging a coup (even though they are only using the constitutional and parliamentary powers at their disposal), and Alkatiri fumed that “if they dance in the House, we shall dance on the streets”. The current minister for defence and security (who controls both the army and the police) said that: “If disturbances break out on the streets of Dili, the MPs from the opposition benches must take care of the issue”. On the opposition side, the rhetoric has matched the government’s, with accusations of “unconstitutionality” (namely in the delays regarding the submission of the second draft of the government’s program) and unlawful usurpation of power (both against the government and the speaker).

Sooner or later, either the government’s program or the opposition’s motion of rejection will be brought before MPs. As the situation stands today, it is likely that Alkatiri’s executive will not survive, even with the support and complacency of President Lu Olo. If so, then the president has a few alternatives.

First, he will have to decide whether or not to dissolve parliament – a move which he can only make after January 22 due to constitutional restrictions that protect a parliament from being dissolved in the first six months following an election. FRETILIN and its junior party clearly prefer this solution, hoping they will increase their share of the vote. Elections would be held in late March, and a new government installed not before late April. No state budget would be approved in the meantime – a serious issue in a fragile country. However, a new and little credited development has emerged: a number of small parties that all fell below the 4% threshold have made an alliance which, on the evidence of the last elections, would give them 6 or more seats – mainly at the expense of the larger parties, making it even more difficult for a FRETILIN-led government to emerge. The opposition, for its part, would prefer President Lu Olo to respect the current parliament and find a solution. For many, the obvious one would be for him to nominate some figures from the ranks of those parties in order to form a majority government backed by CNRT, PLP and KHUNTO.

But President Lu Olo could choose otherwise – and he might have a chance of success. He has the option of asking Alkatiri to re-initiate negotiations with the opposition (a highly unlikely solution given that tensions are running very high at the moment and the prime minister has shown his weakness as a negotiator by claiming the premiership for himself even before conversations had started). Alternatively, he could appoint a formateur tasked with finding a mutually agreeable solution for the outgoing government and the opposition. Someone such as Rui Maria de Araujo, the prime minister for the last two and a half years, Ramos-Horta, who still commands some respect, or even TMR – a move that could perhaps be coupled with the replacement of the Speaker of the House so that all key positions were not in the hands of a single party – could try to reshape a “Government of National Inclusion”. What seems quite clear is that Timor-Leste is not ready for a minority government, even if it is backed by a partisan president.

Previously in the history of independent Timor-Leste, tensions have run high. That was the case in 2006 during the crisis that led to the resignation of the prime minister, in 2007 after the legislative elections, and again in 2008 after the attempted murder of President Ramos-Horta. The existence of non-partisan presidents has been one important element in fostering détente and promoting dialogue, not least because – as the present crisis amply reveals – most political parties are fragile extensions of people with strong personal ambitions. Figures with individual prestige – a feature that in Timor-Leste is still associated with the role performed during the Resistance to Indonesian occupation, as shown by an opinion poll taken before the presidential election – rather than partisan leaders (as party competition still evokes the civil war of 1975), have ample room for intervention in the political arena.

Timor-Leste decided that the time was ripe for a new kind of presidency. However President Lu Olo seems to have been overtaken by the mounting tension, unable to distance himself and the presidency from siding with one faction. He is a player in the most severe political crisis in the country since 2006 – not the moderator or referee who might be able to foster dialogue. His reading of the situation indicates that he supports FRETILIN’s stance, and he rejects the claims of any “irregular functioning of the political institutions”. However, he risks ending up as a “lame duck”. The miracle that could save him in the short term would be the establishment of a new “Government of National Inclusion”. It is up to him to decide.

Alkatiri once told me in an interview that “political exclusion generates conflicts”[ii]. One wonders whether he recalls what he said in the light of FRETILIN’s decision to occupy the three most senior positions of the Timorese state under his leadership, a state that is built on principles of power sharing.

Notes

[i] On the formation of this government, see my “The Long and Winding Road: a brief history of the idea of ‘Government of National Inclusion’ and its current implications”, ANU SSGM Discussion Paper 2016/3

[ii] Mari Alkatiri, “A exclusão política gera conflitos” in R.G.Feijó (ed) O Semi-presidencialismo Timorense. Coimbra, CES/Almedina, 2014

The Philippines – The president-led peace process and institutional veto players in the Mindanao conflict

This is guest post by Aya Watanabe, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University. It is based on the paper in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics.

The Philippines is the longest-lived presidential country in Asia. At the same time, it has experienced a protracted civil war with Muslim rebels since the 1970s. The conflict dynamics were related to the political struggles that unfolded within the Philippine government. Nevertheless, much of the existing literature on civil war termination tends to regard civil war as a two-party phenomenon, fought between a government and a rebel group. Although a growing literature exists on how multiple rebel actors affect the outcome or duration of civil wars, only a few studies have examined the impact of dynamics or interactions within government actors on civil war termination.

I examine how relationships between various government actors influence peace processes, using the Mindanao conflict as a case study and drawing on the ‘veto player’ framework presented by Tsebelis (2002) and Cunningham (2011). The Mindanao peace process provides an excellent case study as it involves active political struggles with changes both in government and among the three governmental branches —the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Both the Gloria Macagapal-Arroyo (2001-10) and Benigno Aquino III (2010-16) administrations were engaged in a peace process with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) to achieve a political settlement of the Mindanao conflict. The Aquino administration reached a comprehensive peace agreement, but the peace negotiations fell through under Arroyo. What caused the differing outcomes under these two administrations? What effect did political struggles within the government have on the peace process? To answer these questions, I will provide an overview the political system and identify institutional and partisan veto players in the Philippine political setting.

The Philippine political system and veto players

The Philippines has a presidential system with the bicameral legislature composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judiciary is active toward the government against the backdrop of the authoritarianism of the Marcos regime. Therefore, there are four institutional veto players in the Philippines: the president, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the judiciary.

Partisan veto players have little influence over government decision-making since party discipline is so weak that many legislators shift their alliances to a strong candidate’s camp in every presidential election. (Kasuya 2008). Having identified the four institutional veto players, I will examine what defines the preferences of each veto player on the peace process.

The preference of the institutional veto players on the peace process

The president

Elected through a nationwide constituency, the president is responsible for pursuing the interests and welfare of the nation. This responsibility includes the resolution of civil war as well. If the president resolves a civil war that has hindered economic development and created national security threats, the accomplishment would be remarkable.

The House of Representatives

80% of house members are elected through single-member districts (SMD). Various scholars have pointed out that SMDs tend to cultivate personal votes (Cain et al., 1987;). To cultivate personal votes, candidates tend to rely on providing private or public local goods and services to constituencies. This tendency enables presidents to hold a grip on the House since the president controls the financial authority necessary for pork-barrel distributions. In fact, the Arroyo camp held more than two-thirds of the seats throughout her tenure, although her net satisfaction rates dropped to around -40% after 2005. Aquino also won stable support from the House, maintaining more than 80% of the seat shares during his tenure. Both presidents’ stable grip on the House indicates that the House is more likely to be supportive of the president’s policy agenda, and rarely functions as a veto player.

The Senate

The Senate is more independent than the House due to the plurality-at-large voting system and Senators’ career aspiration for the presidency or vice-presidency. Their personal attributes in gaining votes and their career aspiration provides senators with few incentives to cooperate with a president who does not have stable support from the people. Thus, senators are less likely to be responsive to the president than the House, and could be a veto player on the president’s policies including the peace process. Upon deciding their attitude towards the president’s policies, what matters is which presidents they are dealing with and whether they are popularly supported or not.

The judiciary

There exist two conditions for the judiciary to be counted as a veto player: judicial independence from political maneuvering, and the power to influence government and legislative activities (Cox and McCubbins, 2001: 32–33). The Philippine judiciary fulfills these two conditions through the expansion of its authority in the 1987 Constitution.

As for its response toward the peace process, the judiciary sees the public’s response as a central factor in ruling a decision even if it goes against government policy (Helmke 2010; Tate 1994).

Having defined the preferences of each veto player, I will provide an overview of how the peace negotiations proceeded under the Arroyo and Aquino administrations.

The peace process under Arroyo (2001-10)

The government and the MILF forged an agreement on security and development issues at a relatively early stage of the Arroyo administration, but it took time to reach an agreement on the political issue. The negotiation resumed in 2005, and the negotiating parties managed to reach the peace agreement on this issue in July 2008. At the negotiating table, the MILF demanded that local elections be postponed in the Muslim-dominated areas.

Arroyo responded quickly to this demand by making a statement calling for prompt action on the issue by Congress. Although the House passed the postponement bill, this met stiff opposition and did not go through the Senate.

The domestic situations became bitter as the content of peace negotiations became public. Opposition movements were initially led by local officials, but allies and opponents of the President expressed skeptical views on the issue in the Senate as opposition movements gained momentum. Against this backdrop, local officials and several senators filed petitions to halt the signing of the peace agreement.

The Supreme Court (SC) responded quickly by issuing the Terms of Reference a day before the signing was scheduled. After that, the SC began oral arguments to examine the constitutionality of the peace agreement. The SC reached its decision in October 2008, emphasizing the enormous consequences of the peace agreement on the public interest. This decision indicates that the SC sees public opinion as a critical factor affecting its decision.

The peace process under Arroyo fell through due to the difficulties President Arroyo faced in gaining support from the Senate and the judiciary.

The peace process under Aquino (2010-16)

Though Benigno Aquino III adopted a positive stance towards resolving the Mindanao conflict through peaceful means, the negotiations only started moving forward a year after Aquino assumed the presidency. Once the peace negotiations had resumed, the Aquino administration forged several critical political agreements with the MILF in three years. The negotiating parties reached the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro in March 2014.

The Senate responded favorably to the peace process. After the negotiating parties agreed on the Framework Agreement in October 2012, President Aquino issued Executive Order 120 to establish the Bangsamoro Transitional Agency. The Senate adopted a resolution two days later, enabling the negotiating parties to proceed with the negotiations in a timely manner. Also, the Aquino administration sought the postponement of local elections in Muslim dominated-areas as Arroyo did. The Senate President at that time expressed full support for the postponement, although he had strongly criticized the Arroyo administration on the same issue.

The Aquino administration was careful not to make the judiciary a veto player since there was no direct judicial response on the peace process as there was under Arroyo. This can be seen in the removal of Chief Justice Corona, who was appointed by Arroyo on the eve of her stepping down from the presidency. Aquino criticised Corona on several occasions for being biased towards Arroyo. Against this backdrop, the House took action to impeach the Chief Justice over alleged graft and removed Corona. Although the presidential office emphasized that the House acted independently, one of the Liberal Party’s leaders revealed that ‘he [the President] felt Corona was the last stumbling block to his core reform agenda and that he did not want to spend the next five years clashing with the Supreme Court’ (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2011). This statement indicates that Aquino clearly viewed the Chief Justice as a veto player over his policy agenda, and that his removal got rid of one of the hurdles that he was likely to face in pursuit of his policy goals.

Second, new Chief Justice Sereno issued a call for a peaceful solution to the conflict after the Mamasapano clash which resulted in 44 deaths on the government side. Against the backdrop of mounting opposition to the peace process, the Chief Justice made a rare public statement, urging the public to stay calm and avoid leaning toward war in resolving the conflict. This indicates that the Chief Justice not only supported a peaceful resolution to the Mindanao conflict, but also that she did not see any legal problems with the peace process.

The Senate and the judiciary supported the peace negotiations under Aquino, enabling the negotiating parties to conclude several political peace agreements in a timely manner.

Conclusion

The Mindanao peace process has provided rich insights into how government dynamics can influence the peace process between government and a rebel group. On the one hand, President Arroyo faced a tough Senate which had little incentive to support the president’s peace policy due to her deteriorating popularity after 2005. Also, the judiciary saw the public’s perception of the issue as one of the important factors when it handled the case, the social situation not being conducive for the eight-year peace-making efforts to bear fruit.

On the other hand, the stable satisfaction rate and congressional situation of the Aquino government made the Senate supportive of the peace process, which was represented by the different Senate responses to the local elections postponement under Arroyo and Aquino. As for the SC, the removal of Corona and the support from Sereno helped the Aquino administration to proceed the peace negotiations.

The differing responses from the Senate and the judiciary show that government dynamics have an impact on negotiated civil war settlements in addition to the rebel group variations as pointed out by Cunningham (2011).

References

Cain B, Ferejohn J and Fiorina M (1987) The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cox GW and McCubbins MD (2001) The institutional determinants of economic policy outcomes: Presidents, parliaments, and policy. In: Haggard S and McCubbins MD (eds) Presidents, Parliaments, and Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–63.

Cunningham DE (2011) Barriers to Peace in Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Helmke G (2010) Public support and judicial crises in Latin America. Paper prepared for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 2010 Symposium: The Judiciary and the Popular Will, 29–30 January.

Kasuya Y (2008) Presidential Bandwagon: Parties and Party Systems in the Philippines. Tokyo: Keio University Press Inc.

Tate NC (1994) The judicialization of politics in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. International Political Science Review 15(2): 187–197.

Philippine Daily Inquirer (2011) House majority gets over 140 signatures to impeach Chief Justice Corona. 12 December. Available at: https://www.dowjones.com/products/factiva/ (accessed 26 May 2017).

Tsebelis G (2002) Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part II: Progress and Possibility in Taiwan

Talks of constitutional reforms are 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?

In a previous instalment, I discussed the level of public support in the Philippines for constitutional reform.[2] In this article, I examine the level of public support for reforms in Taiwan. Article 12 of the Additional Articles of the Constitution, i.e., the amendments to the Constitution, stipulates that amendments may be initiated by one-fourth of the total members of the legislature, currently set at 113 seats by Article 4 of the constitutional amendments. A quorum of three-fourths of the legislature is required, and revisions are passed if at least three-fourths of all present approve the revisions. The amendments must be ratified by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters at a referendum held in six months from the public announcement of the revisions.

There is significant domestic and international interest in the constitutional reforms proposed and considered in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen swept into office on January 16, 2017, with an absolute majority of 56.1% of the 66.3 percent turnout; her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also achieved a first with an absolute majority in the legislature. As the first woman elected to the presidency of Taiwan with majority legislative support of a party that has variously been in favour of independence from China, there is considerable interest in how the president and her government would navigate the political path between independence and the “one China” consensus. Constitutional revisions provide important signals.

Domestically, calls for constitutional reforms follow from efforts to improve governance or representation. Thus, at the most recent 2017 DPP national congress, President Tsai noted in her address as chair of the party on the need to contemplate constitutional revisions to heed public demands for a “more efficient government.” Internationally, focus on the constitutional reforms in Taiwan takes into account that such revisions may pave a path for the nation to declaring independence from China. In particular, the current Constitution defines the Republic of China according to “existing national boundaries” with a “free area” and a “mainland area.” A constitutional revision that changes the existing definitions of territory, then, would be considered an assertion of independence.

What amendments have been proposed? In Taiwan, talks of constitutional reform turned concrete when 41 legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sent a proposal on September 27, 2017, for amendments that include the following:

The proposal follows President Tsai’s address to the DPP’s national congress in September 2017. However, the President herself is considered to be steadfast on maintaining the status quo. And, although the 41 DPP legislators exceed the minimum of 29 needed to initiate a constitutional revision, it does not capture uniform support for the revisions within the party: although a core bloc favours independence, moderates in the DPP support the status quo.
Meanwhile, the legislature made short shrift of the proposal, with the speaker rejecting the motion on October 5, 2017, following objections from the People First Party caucus. The Kuomintang separately reiterated its opposition to any revisions that would change the nation’s territory. Indeed, President Tsai asserted that constitutional revisions must come from the people, a “bottom-up” effort and not one initiated by the DPP without public participation. For the moment, then, constitutional reforms have returned to the backburner.

Notes

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

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=7050 <accessed November 8, 2017>

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: The return of “belligerent democracy” in the aftermath of the 2017 electoral cycle?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó, CES/UCoimbra & IHC/UNLisboa

A few weeks before the inauguration of the “Government of National Inclusion” headed by Rui Maria de Araújo and supported by all four parties with parliamentary seats – the VI Constitutional Government of Timor-Leste (2015-2017) – and anticipating its success on the basis of the inter-partisan cooperation set in motion after the 2012 elections, Agio Pereira, a senior minister and Xanana Gusmão’s right hand man, claimed in a newspaper column that Timor was moving “from belligerent democracy to consensus democracy”.

This was the mood that most observers felt in the country prior to the 2017 cycle of elections (presidential polls in March, parliamentary ones in July). An opinion poll conducted for the Asian Foundation revealed that 58% of the Timorese were satisfied with the way the country was being run, and a similar figure expressed the view that the role of a candidate in the Resistance movement against Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) was the single most important determinant of their vote. If a question mark subsisted, it referred to the impact of the outgoing President, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), who had moved from supporting the formation of the VI Government to a position of open criticism of the strategic option of that broad coalition. TMR declined to seek a second term and formed a political party (PLP – People’s Liberation Party) to fight the premiership

Unlike the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (which were in line with what usually happens in two-ballot elections), when political parties presented their own candidates alongside some “independent” candidates, entering informal alliances for the second round, in 2017 FRETILIN managed to guarantee the support of Xanana and later of his party (CNRT) to its partisan candidate, Lu Olo. In a sense, this was regarded as an extension of the government agreement and as a suggestion that the two parties intended to maintain their collaboration beyond the electoral cycle. Lu Olo was elected on the first ballot as the first partisan president of the Republic, succeeding three “independent” ones.

The July elections returned FRETILIN as the largest party (23 seats) by a margin of barely 1,000 votes over CNRT (22 seats) – both hovering under 30% of the vote. PLP scored 11% (8 seats). Two other parties secured seats: PD, a junior partner in the outgoing government, has 7 seats (10%) and KHUNTO, another newcomer, 5 seats (6%). On the evening of election day, no one could say there had been any great surprise. But the next days would bring some.

As a party formed to oppose the strategic options of the former government, PLP announced rather naturally that it would sit in the opposition. Its leader declared he would not take his own seat in the House, but would support his party stance. The major surprise came when Xanana announced he would follow the steps of TMR, moving his party to the opposition and leaving his seat in parliament.

President Lu Olo understood the delicate nature of the situation and went beyond his institutional mandate to consult with all parliamentary parties (normally sending second-ranking figures to those meetings) and insisted on having FRETILIN secretary-general Mari Alkatiri sit with Xanana Gusmão and himself in the presidential palace. Lu Olo was not able to convince Xanana to accept the offers made by Alkatiri – although he pledged “not to obstruct” the functioning of institutions and exercise a “constructive opposition”.

FRETILIN tried to make a deal with the other parties. It succeeded in signing an agreement with PD – a party it had long been on cold terms with. KHUNTO also joined the negotiation table only to withdraw at the last minute, apparently because no agreement could be achieved on the share of seats in cabinet. PLP also entertained conversations, but as it was denied its ambition to have the Speaker of the House, it reaffirmed its intention to be in the opposition with a “constructive attitude”.

The rhetoric of “constructive opposition” and the hope the opposition parties would refrain from “obstructing” the functioning of institutions convinced Lu Olo that he could appoint Alkatiri to lead a government. It was a political judgement not grounded on any formal document. All that Alkatiri could do was to present the President and Parliament with the first minority government in Timorese history. To mitigate the lack of support from other parties, Alkatiri invited some “independent” figures (like José Ramos-Horta) and people closely associated with opposition parties to be members of his cabinet “on an individual capacity” –  casting a shadow on the actual meaning of “political parties” in contemporary Timor-Leste, still characterized by strong personality disputes of which parties are extensions.

Also for the first time, the President offered this government not only his institutional backing but also his political support. It was a bold move, perhaps a little too hasty, that bound together the fate of government with that of the president. It remains to be seen whether the fragility of the government does not interfere with the presidential political capacities.

The three opposition parties presented and won (October 19) a rejection motion against the government’s program (35 vs. 30 votes). This was another première: never before had a government been defeated in the House. Alkatiri responded by saying “while some dance in parliament, we shall dance on the streets” – adding another negative note to the prestige of democratic institutions.  Although not formally affected, the prestige of the President was politically tainted for being unable to anticipate and prevent this crisis.

This is how the situation stands as I write. What will come next?

The constitution is a little ambiguous. It states that the government must present its program within 30 days of being inaugurated (implicitly suggesting it will remain as caretaker until the program is decided upon). If the program is rejected (as this one was), the government has a second chance – but there is no explicit deadline, although some constitutionalists argue it should not exceed 30 days. The government has announced – after a great deal of threatening rhetoric – that it will submit a new program by the end of the year – and maybe the opposition will present a rejection motion prior to that if they understand the deadline has been run over (as they are now claiming). If a second rejection wins, then the government falls, and PR Lu Olo will have to take a decision. In my view, he has four options

  • to invite Alkatiri to try another coalition;
  • to invite an “independent” figure to try and form a coalition (in line with what happened with the VI Government);
  • to invite someone from the three opposition parties to try and form a government (and risk being cornered in a “cohabitation” with his rivals);
  • to keep Alkatiri as caretaker until new elections can be held and a new government envisaged

The constitution prevents the dissolution of parliament in the six months following an election, which means that Lu Olo cannot dissolve it before January 22. Then at least 60 days must elapse before the polls are held. And then another month before the parliament is inaugurated and the search for a new government begins. It could be late April before Timor-Leste has a normal government.

The opposition may also allow the passage of the second reading of the government program – having stated clearly that they command the majority in the House and that at any moment they can present a motion of rejection and bring down the government. “Normal” life would ensue – but the fragility of the government would certainly be visible.

How did we come to this precarious and fragile situation? Did the fact that Lu OLo is a party member interfere with the deterioration of the situation?

Immediately after the results of the parliamentary election were announced, FRETILIN claimed the premiership, which it was to accumulate with the presidency. In the previous legislature, CNRT had given up the premiership in order to create a Government of National Inclusion actually headed by a FRETILIN cadre acting as “independent”. Expectations that a similar situation would emerge again were dashed by FRETILIN’s claim. FRETILIN then used its position to claim the Speaker of the House (having the support of KHUNTO, at the time still negotiating its position in a coalition government). So, within a few weeks, a party that controls less than 30% of the vote had accumulated the three most important state roles in the hands of its militants. This concentration of powers generated resentment in a country that has some experience of power-sharing – and the fact that Lu Olo was seen as part of the whole process, rather than as someone who would remain above the party fray as his predecessors had done, did not help to create a more stable situation.

More than in the recent past, the impression one gets from the current situation in Timor-Leste is that institutions (namely the parliament) are a nice stage where little happens – the more important dealings are taking place behind the scenes, and they are dependent on inter-personal rivalries that have re-emerged. Together with those rivalries, “belligerent” democracy – which is not in itself an evil if it means the peaceful coexistence of government and opposition rather than a pot-pourri where everyone has a seat and no one is there to exercise control over the executive – seems to have made a return to Dili. The fact that the new president of the Republic is a member of one of the parties involved in this struggle and has not been able to carve for himself a position in line with his predecessors is, in my view, one of the main reasons why Timor-Leste faces instability once again.

Eugene K B Tan – Singapore’s First Reserved Presidential Election: More Haste, Less Speed, and A Missed Opportunity?

This is guest post by Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He served as an unelected lawmaker between 2012 and 2014 in Singapore’s 12th Parliament.

After much hype and anticipation that preceded it, Singapore’s sixth presidential election in September 2017 quickly reached an anti-climatic end when the Presidential Elections Committee in pre-qualifying three presidential hopefuls determined that only one person, Madam Halimah Yacob, was eligible to contest.

Madam Halimah Yacob, who was Speaker of Singapore’s Parliament between 2013 and August 2017, made history by becoming Singapore’s first-ever woman President. She is also Singapore’s first ethnic Malay President in 47 years since Yusof Ishak (1965-1970), and will hold office for a six-year term until 13 September 2023.

The 2017 election was the third time (after 1999 and 2005) that the presidential election was uncontested since 1993. Earlier, in 1991, the presidency was converted from a ceremonial appointment to a popularly elected one.

This year’s presidential election was unique. Prior to the election, the government had embarked on the most significant re-engineering to Singapore’s constitutional architecture since the introduction of the Elected Presidency (EP) in 1991. In the 1991 constitutional changes, the head of state became a popularly elected office.

The EP institution was born out of the fears of a popularly elected ‘rogue government’ that could send Singapore down the road to ruin and perdition through populist measures that are financially unsustainable and the corrupt appointments of cronies to key leadership positions. However, the EP does not, in any way, detract from the fact that executive power and responsibility resides with the Cabinet. Singapore remains fundamentally a parliamentary system of government.

Under the Singapore Constitution, the EP is not a separate, countervailing power to the elected government. The EP’s role has been likened to a ‘second key,’ a watchdog, and a custodian. Through his custodial powers, the EP provides an additional layer of checks and balances, an “intra-branch” check on the Cabinet, which did not exist prior to 1991, in specifically defined critical areas including the drawdown of past national reserves, key appointments in the Public Service, corruption investigations, preventive detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act, and restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

To enable the president to stand up to the popularly elected government, the constitutional designers in 1991 decided that the head of state should possess the requisite authority and legitimacy through a popular mandate obtained in a presidential election.

Where the EP institution did not fare as well as its predecessor was for the office to be rotated among the different races. Prior to 1991, Singapore had consciously sought to rotate the presidency among the different races. For example, the successors to Yusof Ishak (Malay) were Benjamin Sheares (Eurasian), Devan Nair (Indian), and Wee Kim Wee (Chinese). With the introduction of elections for the presidency, no Malay had been elected in the four elections between 1993 and 2017.

The constitutional review process on the EP began in February 2016 with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointing a high-powered, nine-member Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to work on three tightly scripted terms of reference. They sought to update the eligibility requirements for presidential hopefuls, as well as the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, including whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisors can be given more weight – and if so, how. The Commission was also asked to consider including a mechanism to ensure minorities have a chance to be elected as President.

The Commission, only the second in independent Singapore’s 52-year history, invited submissions from the public on specific aspects of the EP. It received more than 100 written submissions. Of these, 20 contributors were invited to expand on their submissions at four public hearings in April and May 2016. The Commission completed its work in August 2016 and its report was publicly released in early September 2016.

The Government followed up with a White Paper on 15 September 2016 outlining its agreement with many of the Commission’s recommendations but also noting some of the differences in implementation and ideas.

A critical proposal it made was to have “reserved elections”, to pre-emptively manage the potential issue of race marginalisation and the need to have a person from every major race for the head of state office. The Commission recommended a “hiatus-triggered” mechanism in which a reserved election is activated only after there has not been a president from a major racial community for five continual terms, or 30 years. Clearly, the Commission viewed the reserved election as an inter-generational safeguard for minority representation.

Besides providing for reserved elections, the amendments to the Constitution made in November 2016 also raised eligibility thresholds for candidates from the private sector to qualify to run for the presidency. Such candidates must be the most senior executive with executive control and being accountable for the entity they run. Such an entity must be at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, and the candidates must have a track record of running these entities well.

Second, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) was strengthened. The unelected CPA advises the President on matters pertaining to the exercise of the custodial powers, such as whether the government’s budget would draw on Singapore’s fiscal reserves not accumulated by the government of the day, and key appointments in the Public Service. This constitutional duty to consult the CPA applies to these decisions.

The President can exercise his discretion to veto the budget but if he does so against the advice of the CPA, then Parliament can vote to overrule the President. The November 2016 constitutional amendment increased the number of CPA members from six to eight.

In making consequential legislative amendments in February 2017, the government also announced that the 2017 presidential election would be a reserved election for the Malay community as the hiatus-triggered model came into play. (Whether the 2017 election ought to be a reserved election was the subject of an unsuccessful constitutional challenge.)

Historical Significance Overshadowed

Unfortunately, the historic significance of Madam Halimah’s election was overshadowed by the unhappiness among large segments of Singaporeans.  The public unhappiness cohered around two factors: (1) That the presidential election was uncontested, and (2) the apparent affirmative action provided for in a reserved election runs contrary to meritocracy, a key tenet of the Singaporean society which is almost sacrosanct for public office.

On the unhappiness over the uncontested election, the perception was that the enhanced eligibility criteria were unfair and sought to restrict the pool of eligible candidates to establishment figures and so strengthening the ability of the powers that be in ensuring that their preferred candidate would have a significant electoral advantage.

As for the apparent unhappiness over reserved election, this was not because Singaporeans did not appreciate that the presidency symbolised and embodied the nation itself and was a symbol of national unity. There is no doubt that having a minority President, elected by popular mandate, is a powerful statement of a thriving multiracialism in a polyglot society, where the ethnic Chinese comprise 75 per cent of the citizen population and the ethnic Malay is constitutionally recognised as the indigenous people and accorded a special position within the constitutionally setup.

Rather, Singaporeans were not persuaded that they could not see past a candidate’s race in deciding who to cast their ballot for. Again, the reserved election was seen as excluding candidates who might otherwise be eligible if it were an open election.

To be sure, the reserved election proposal was never popular right from the outset. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the reserved election “would be unpopular and cost us votes”.[1] For the government, their premise was that Singapore has “not arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race” even where progress have been made “but it is a work in progress”. He added that Singaporeans “should not be shy to acknowledge that in Singapore, the majority is making a special effort to ensure that minorities enjoy full and equal treatment”. The reserved election, in ensuring that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President, would also strengthen multiracialism: “[I]t is one important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspires to be. It is a reminder to every citizen, especially the Chinese majority race, that there is a role for every community in Singapore”.

However, there was the concern that the reserved election was an unfair indictment of nation-building efforts and the strength of the Singaporean-Singapore identity. Furthermore, there was also concern that the reserved election could transmogrify into a vehicle for affirmative action. A race-based election can give rise to the belief that a racial community has a legal right for one of its own to be elected president. Will there be subsequent expectations that other public offices be rotated among the races? If all races must have a chance to be elected head of state, would it also be setting a precedent for the other important public office such as the Prime Minister?

The concern with the erosion of the centrality of meritocracy was palpable. The Commission emphasised that candidates in a reserved election will have to meet the stringent eligibility criteria, similar to an open election. However, as a reserved election is not open to hopefuls from other races, a legitimate argument can be made that the meritocratic principle is not exercised in its full measure.

Furthermore, the reserved election approach also presupposes that only a minority race President can be a symbol of Singapore’s much-vaunted multiracialism. Indeed, it is not race or the colour of their skin that automatically endowed previous presidents as symbols of Singapore’s multiracialism. Rather, it was their practice and promotion of multiracialism that infused into the institution of the presidency the spirit and soul of multiracialism.

A reserved election might just reinforce the alleged tendency of Singaporeans to vote along racial lines. Voters might see that there is no necessity or urgency to vote for an electable minority candidate since the system will provide for a minority president in regular intervals if one is not elected.

Put simply, Singaporeans remained sceptical that they will compromise their own best interests and elect someone who is not deserving simply because they are of the same race. On the other hand, the government was of the view that multiracialism in Singapore needed the nudge of reserved election.

In essence, both sides of the debate saw the value and the power of electoral integration and how it could aid in the nation-building endeavour. The apparent chasm pivoted on whether integration should be allowed to develop organically or whether there should be deliberate effort at constitutional engineering. It probably boiled down to how the presidency can be safeguarded as a true symbol of Singapore’s national unity and to keep her multiracialism sustainable.

The above discussion does not at all deny that race, religion, and language remain fault-lines in Singaporean society. Neither do the above arguments under-estimate that these markers of ethnicity can induce and arouse primordial loyalties. Nevertheless, no amount of constitutional engineering can remove a racial or even a racist mindset and disposition in electoral behaviour.

Instead, the key questions that should arise from yet another uncontested presidential election is whether the reserved election mechanism would nudge and provide “incentives” for candidates and the electorate to think of how their electoral behaviour and their votes can entrench multiracialism and for their self-interest.

Singapore’s constant efforts at constitutional engineering suggest that in institutional design or re-design, process and procedures are not mere contingent tools or instruments by which the invaluable end of a more robust system of governance is realised. The process and procedures must be regarded and treated as necessary components of any system of governance.

How Singapore went about effecting the latest set of changes to selected aspects of the elected Presidency matters as much as the end result itself. Lessons will have to be learned as to why the ostensibly good intentions that formed the basis of the constitutional changes were not seen in similar light. It remains early days yet to determine whether values such as multiracialism, meritocracy, integrity, and the democratic mandate will be nurtured in the new constitutional framework.

The less than enthusiastic response to the no-contest outcome in September’s reserved presidential election suggest that ostensibly good intentions alone are inadequate as Singapore strives to create a system of governance that is robust, relevant, and resilient for the good and betterment of Singaporeans’ common destiny. Perhaps the process of engagement was inadequate.

In a one-party dominant system where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed uninterrupted since 1959, such significant constitutional changes are often perceived to be disguised attempts to maintain the political status quo and buttress the political hegemony of the regime. This is more so when the dominant impression was that of the government proceeding with undue haste especially when the system is not regarded to be broken. The process is as important as the final outcome, which in Singapore’s case is often seen as a foregone conclusion. This is a pity and could breed cynicism since the elected presidency, as the apex office in the city-state of 3.44 million citizens, can be a valuable safeguard in a system of government that has long taken pride in and become known for good governance, multiracialism, and meritocracy.

Notes

[1]  Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks at the People’s Association Kopi Talk at Ci Yuan Community Club, 23 September 2017. The title of his remarks was, “Race, Multiracialism and Singapore’s Place in the World”.

Jörg Michael Dostal – South Korea: New President Moon Jae-in Promotes Constitutional Reform

This is  guest post by Jörg Michael Dostal, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea.

Introduction: The ‘Imperial Presidency’

There is consensus in writings about South Korean politics (subsequently referred to as Korea) suggesting that the country’s ‘imperial presidency’ constitutes the major power centre. In the Korean context, the term ‘imperial’ is used to signify that the institution of the presidency, namely the president and his/her presidential office, enjoy dominance over the other political institutions, such as the prime minister (appointed by the president and approved by parliament), ministries and other state agencies. In the relationship between the presidency and Korea’s parliament (the National Assembly), the president also exercises strong direct and indirect control over legislation, via his right to appoint the state council (the government) which can put forward legislation and his ability to directly issue presidential decrees. Although parliament performs the role of principal legislator and must agree on the annual national budget as submitted by the executive branch headed by the president, its supervisory role is much diminished if the president’s party holds a parliamentary majority. In addition, the Korean president controls foreign policy-making, the state security institutions and the national military. Thus, in the Korean context the term ‘imperial presidency’ suggests the president’s concurrent control of domestic and foreign policy-making for which the current Korean Constitution of 1987 provides the enabling framework [1].

The Korean use of the term therefore differs from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous description of the US ‘imperial presidency’ that hinted at ‘executive excess’, namely offences against the balance of power as outlined in the US Constitution, such as presidential foreign policy-making based on inner circle decision-making without the involvement of Congress – e.g. the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In the Korean case, the 1987 Constitution in fact facilitates presidential dominance and would require amendments in order to create a more balanced political system.

Korea’s Constitutional History

Overall, Korea’s political and constitutional history since 1948 can be divided into the periods of authoritarian rule – strongmen backed up by the military – between 1948 and 1987, briefly punctuated between 1960 and 1961 by a parliamentary republic, and the period since the transition to democracy in 1987. The earlier authoritarian periods are referred to as the First and the Third to Fifth Republics. The Second Republic, lasting for less than a year between 1960 and 1961, was Korea’s first effort at democratic governance while the current democratic Korea is referred to as the Sixth Republic. The first Korean Constitution was issued in 1948 and is partially influenced by the US example, although sections about the rights of the individual and the people as the source of all political authority have been ignored under the authoritarian regimes.

The 1948 Constitution has been amended nine times and revised four times, most recently in 1987. The earlier revisions mostly concerned procedural issues such as how the president should be elected and the duration of his time in office. The major past event in this respect was the 1972 ‘Yushin Constitution’ that facilitated the continuation of the rule of President Park Chung-hee for an unlimited number of six-year terms that came to an end due to his assassination in 1979. All constitutional provisions between 1948 and 1960 and from 1961 to 1987 were fictitious in providing a thin veneer of façade democracy while unchecked presidential power was always the dominant element in the authoritarian system.

Because of this, the most crucial constitutional amendment was the latest one dating from 1987 that provided for the competitive direct election of the president by the people in a single round plurality vote for a non-renewable five-year term in office. Since then, six presidents have entered and left office in five-year spells with the exception of the last one, Park Geun-hye (the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee). Her term in office started in 2013 and came to an end due to a citizens’ protest movement that took off in the autumn of 2016 in reaction to revelations about her abuse of office, namely allowing her confidante Choi Soon-sil to collect ‘donations’ from chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) for ‘foundations’, i.e. monies were extracted in exchange for influence paddling. This revelation, currently still under investigation alongside other charges, resulted in her impeachment by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016, a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court on 10 March 2017, ending her presidency. She was subsequently, on 30 March 2017, arrested to facilitate ongoing investigations by the prosecutor, and her arrest was extended for another six-month period on 13 October 2017.

Constitutional Reform

The new liberal President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, elected on 9 May 2017, has announced that he intends to push for constitutional changes to reform the political system to uproot ‘deep-rooted irregularities accumulated over the last nine years’ [2]. He has further specified that he expects such changes to be subject to a popular referendum to be run concurrently with the next local government election that is scheduled for the July of 2018.

Significantly, talk about constitutional reform has been something of an evergreen in recent Korean politics. There was debate about reform under the last four presidencies, namely the ones led by the liberals Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) and the conservatives Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). These debates focused on reforming the presidency in a way that would strengthen other political institutions, perhaps in exchange for removing the single-term limit on the presidency to make the system conform with the US example allowing for two consecutive four-year terms in office. In this context, the most commonly voiced reform scenarios concerned semi-presidentialism (dividing authority between domestic and foreign policy-making and handing the former to the prime minister), or strengthening of the role of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the president. However, these debates were somehow academic and/or journalistic in the sense that other countries and their systems were presented to a Korean audience that took note, but was still not strongly committed to any particular reform course. No action was taken.

However, the new President Moon is more strongly committed to constitutional reform in comparison to his predecessors, and his high popular approval rates backed up by a narrow majority of liberal forces in the National Assembly (his own party holds 121 out of 299 seats in parliament while another liberal parties hold 40 seats) makes for a more enabling reform environment. Yet the liberal camp is short of the required two-third majority in parliament that is necessary to pass a constitutional reform bill, which would in turn enable the president to submit such proposal to a popular referendum next year. In other words, President Moon needs cooperation from at least some conservatives to find enough votes in parliament to ensure passage [3]. If this is in fact possible is currently an entirely open question. After all, the normal behavioural pattern of liberals and conservatives in Korea has been all-out confrontation rather than cooperation.

Nevertheless, thirty years after the last constitutional reform that issued in democracy in 1987, another round of reform appears at least plausible. But what are we to expect? In terms of potential reform scenarios, the options include the already mentioned semi-presidentialism, although this idea has so far not triggered much support. Other conceivable changes would concern the relationship between the presidency and the ensemble of the other political institutions mentioned in the 1987 Constitution, making the former less ‘imperial’ and strengthening the latter. For example, the presidential office that is currently made up of presidential appointees and controls the other institutions could hand over some powers to other actors. Another option would be to make the political system less centralised, by expanding the decision-making power of local governments. One could also think of efforts to change the way the legislature is elected, by changing the voting system from the currently dominant plurality system to a system that expands proportional representation. Such change would have the potential to transform the party system and could perhaps overcome the current patterns of political behaviour that is mostly based on personal loyalties to individual leaders and regionalism rather than political programmes and ideology.

The Future of Korean Democracy

Any constitutional reform scenario ultimately poses hard questions about the actual state of the country’s democratic capabilities. While the current mainstream view is the optimistic assertion that the unseating of Park Geun-hye, due to the popular protests in 2016 and 2017 with millions of participants in peaceful street rallies, has proven the resilience of democratic values and popular engagement in Korea, this view has not been universally shared. One observer has suggested that Koreans in all socio-economic groups mostly prefer paternalistic leadership over liberal democracy. The author further holds that ‘socioeconomic modernization has failed to emancipate the people from illiberal norms’, arguing that the ‘internalization of norms promoting hierarchism, collectivism, conformism, and [cultural] monism in social life … [promote] affinity for paternalistic autocracy’. These assertions, based on data from the 2015 Asian Barometer Korean survey, point back to the problem of the relationship between Confucian values and pluralist democracy [4].

In a similar vein, the current writer has suggested that Korean democracy suffers from clashes between constitutional, Confucian and hyper-capitalistic norms and values. Such competition produces a permanent state of flux; each of the three normative orientations have moments of dominance. As a result, interpersonal trust is low, which facilitates a highly competitive individualism taking advantage of weak institutional checks and balances. Any reform path would require overcoming the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in order to consolidate institutions of political participation based on deliberation and coalition-building [5].

The reality of Korean democracy is that there has been limited progress in terms of strengthening of formal institutions. Namely, the chaebols and their economic interests have always dominated the political agenda, while civil society actors have been weakly institutionalised and usually powerless. In turn, political parties also display little by way of an internal life beyond the leader-follower relationship. This spills over into the way the parties conduct parliamentary business. If institutions other than the presidency are expected to acquire a larger role in the future, their capabilities would have to be strengthened from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

Clearly, one of the paradoxes of President Moon’s plan of making the presidency surrender some of its power in favour of other institutions is that the current system would still demand him to assume leadership on devolving such power. This is necessary because the other potential actor of devolution, namely parliament, might be gridlocked if liberals and conservatives fail to agree on joined-up reform. In case of failure, President Moon could have a second shot at constitutional reform in 2020 when the next national parliamentary elections are due and the liberals could theoretically gain a two-thirds majority enabling them to act without the backing of conservatives. Yet such a surge in a president’s popularity at a later stage of his/her tenure has not happened so far in the post-1987 democratic system. Instead, presidents usually lose some of their previous support in parliament during later stages of their tenure, and their agenda-setting power is subsequently much diminished. Thus, whether the current round of constitutional reform debate is going to produce results is still an open question.

Notes

[1] Yong-duck Jung, The Korean State, Public Administration, and Development: Past, Present and Future Challenges, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2014, pp. 67-119.

[2] No stated author, ‘What Moon Jae-in pledged to do as president’, Korea Herald, 10 May 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170509000521.

[3] Hyo-jin Kim, ‘Constitutional talks may lose steam’, Korea Times, 16 October 2017, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/10/356_237679.html.

[4] Doh-chull Shin, ‘President Park Geun-hye and the Deconsolidation of Liberal Democracy in South Korea: Exploring its Cultural Roots’, Center for the Study of Democracy, UC Irvine, 14 July 2017, pp. 9, 13, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t68c47v.

[5] Jörg Michael Dostal, ‘South Korean Presidential Politics Turns Liberal: Transformative Change or Business as Usual?’, The Political Quarterly, 88, 3, 2017: 480-491, http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/sites/gspa.snu.ac.kr/files/Dostal-2017-The_Political_Quarterly%2088%283%29.pdf.

About the author

Jörg Michael Dostal (jmdostal@snu.ac.kr) is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea. He teaches comparative politics and has recently published on the politics of Germany, Switzerland, Syria and South Korea. His publications are available here: http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/node/76.

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.

_______________

[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.