Category Archives: Asia

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.

South Korea – Presidential Elections, May 2017

The election of Representative Moon Jae-in as president on May 9, 2017, hands the political pulpit to the liberals in the opposition, following almost a decade of conservative policies under the previous ruling party, the Liberal Korea Party (LKP). The crowded presidential contest – up to 15 candidates declared or hinted their intentions at one point, likely spurred in part by the momentum of change leading to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye – whittled down to five, from each of the parties in the legislature. Moon was elected to the presidency with 41.1 percent of the votes, ahead of runner-up Hong and the others in the race. Turnout, at 77.2 percent, is the highest in 20 years. 

Candidates Estimated popular votes
Representative Moon Jae-in, Minjoo Party 41.1 percent
Representative Hong Joon-pyo, Liberal Korea Party 24.03 percent
Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party 21.41 percent
Representative Yoo Seung-min, Bareun Party 6.76 percent
Representative Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party 6.17 percent

Representative Moon Jae-in led the pack at the outset, but his lead was challenged regularly, first by former UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and then by his old rival-turned political partner-turned political opponent, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo. Former UN Secretary-general Ban was highly sought by the conservative parties, who saw his appeal to conservatives, moderates, and independents; early polls in December 2016 that gave Ban a lead over Moon seemed to vindicate that belief. However, that lead evaporated quickly, and Ban subsequently dropped out of the race on February 1, 2017. Both Ahn and Moon contested the 2012 presidential race, but Ahn left the race in favour of Moon to avoid splitting the liberal vote to the benefit of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye. That effort did not pay off: Park won the presidential election in 2012. In 2014, Ahn and Moon formed the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but the alliance was fraught with problems and failed to cohere.[1] Ahn and his allies split from the NPAD in December 2015 to form the People’s Party, and went on to defy expectations by gaining 38 seats in the legislative elections held shortly after in April, 2016. Polls in early April showed Ahn gaining momentum in the race, even as Moon kept the lead; however, by late April, Moon had widened the lead over Ahn.

A large unknown in the elections is whom the conservatives in the electorate would support. The former ruling Saenuri Party splintered into the LKP and the Bareun Party in 2017: the LKP’s candidate is South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo while the Bareun Party’s candidate is Representative Yoo Seong-min. The LKP is renamed from the Saenuri Party after the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; it may be interesting to note that Saenuri was renamed from the Grand National Party in an effort to distance the party from a series of scandals and voter dissatisfaction with then-President Lee Myung-bak. The Bareun party comprises members of the non-Park faction, many of whom lost party nominations for the general elections in 2016 to pro-Park supporters. Both Governor Hong and Representative Yoo did not have broad appeal to the conservatives; this partly explains the effort by the conservative parties to draw Ban into the race. However, with Ban out of the race and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn’s declining to run, conservative voters began to rally around Governor Hong late in the race particularly in the traditional strongholds of former President Park Geun-hye. The endorsement of the former President’s sister, Park Geun-ryoung, for Governor Hong, may have helped increase support for Hong: in late April, polls show the candidate in second place. 13 legislators from Bareun Party left the party to return to the LKP, in order to boost the support for the conservative candidate. Importantly, that precipitated a flood of members and donations to Bareun Party, as voters express their disapproval of such politicking.

Expectations are high for the new president, particularly following the decade of conservative politics in the country that may have engendered the “imperial” presidency of former President Park Geun-hye.[2] President Moon has pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people”; in addition, the president has signalled an important shift in the stance to North Korea (dialogue), while also negotiating with the US and China over the deployment of THAAD. However, the President also maintained a stance on “strong defense” for national security, perhaps to diffuse perceptions that the new administration will be soft on North-South relations, and likely also an olive branch to the conservatives in the country. On the domestic front, the president has already nominated his Prime Minister, the liberal governor of South Jeolla Province, Lee Nak-yon, an experienced public figure, and announced a presidential committee on job creation.

The President is clearly demonstrating an aptitude and preparedness to tackle the job. In the current international climate, it is certainly heartening.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea – Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263&cpage=1, December 16, 2015 <accessed May 10, 2017

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President? Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=6177, March 20, 2017 <accessed May 10, 2017>

Indonesia – The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Politics, and the 2019 Presidential Elections

Elections in the capital cities of Asia are often seen as bellwethers for national elections, and elections in Jakarta, Indonesia, are no exception. Still, there is reason to consider the 2017 gubernatorial elections in Jakarta as deserving of particular attention. For one, the incumbent candidate, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was a highly popular governor who took over the mantle from a highly popular predecessor, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, when the latter won the presidential elections in 2014. Both men are considered to break political traditions, so that their respective popularities underpinned hope for wide support of political change. The electoral defeat of Ahok, then, by former education minister, Anies Baswedan, may have dimmed those hopes. In the following, I discuss how this gubernatorial election may foreshadow politics and the 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia.

It is notable that Ahok and Anies are each backed by political opponents at the national level. Ahok is supported by the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), of which President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a member and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is chair. Anies was previously a supporter of President Jokowi, and served as his education minister between 2014-2016; however, in the 2017 contest, he drew support from the legislative opposition, namely the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), whose chair, Prabowo Subianto, was defeated in the 2014 presidential elections, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamic party. Many will remember the 2014 presidential elections as a hard-fought contest, with Prabowo initially refusing to concede on the quickcount results, and subsequently coalescing the Red-White majority opposition coalition to stymie the agenda of the elected President. Several of the parties in that opposition coalition has since jumped ship join the President’s Awesome Indonesia Coalition; as of May 2016, only Gerindra and PKS remains in the coalition. Political parties are already readying up for the 2019 elections – Golkar has announced its support for the President Jokowi – and there is no mistaking Prabowo’s interest in that election. Anies’ successful election as governor may help Prabowo’s plans, and it is not a stretch for Prabowo to run with a similar strategy, i.e., divide the popular vote over religion. Anies himself sought the support of Islamist groups, including militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), known for hard-line stances and attacks against minorities.

The religious cleavage was thrown open in this election: the aggressive effort to charge Ahok with blasphemy against Islam, together with regular reminders of the potential for unrest in a series of protests and rallies against the Chinese Christian governor, led to the significant erosion of Ahok’s huge polling lead. The long and slow trial ended only following the election, with prosecutors dropping the blasphemy charges against Ahok for a lesser charge that carries a possible two-year probation. The damage to Ahok is eclipsed only by the damage to Indonesian politics: home to the world’s largest Muslim population, the election may have witnessed Indonesia’s democratic trajectory sidelined by aggressive hardline tactics used to unseat a popular, successful, non-Islam governor. That does not bode well for the 2019 elections.

Presidential Profile – Timor-Leste: President-elect ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres (2017 – )

Francisco Lu-Olo Guterres is one of the most powerful people within the ruling party FRETILIN. He joined the party in 1974, became commander of the party’s military wing during Timor-Leste’s war for independence and played a key role in the country’s transition towards an independent and democratic state. And unlike many other key political figures, he never gave up his FRETILIN party membership.

Guterres, in Timor-Leste better known by his code name from the liberation struggle, ‘Lu-Olo’, was born on 7 September 1954. He describes himself as ‘the son of a poor family, of humble poor people’. Lu-Olo became member of the left-wing FRETILIN[1] in 1974, the main party of the resistance throughout Indonesian occupation. After the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste in December 1975, Guterres joined FALINTIL, the military arm of FRETILIN. As a FALINTIL commander he was responsible for organising the resistance in the Eastern part of Timor-Leste where until today the party is hugely popular. In the resistance movement he worked closely with Xanana Gusmão and Taur Matan Ruak and with those living in exile during the occupation, like Marí Alkatiri and José Ramos-Horta. All were former FRETILIN members, but only Alkatiri and Guterres have remained loyal to the party.

In 2001 Guterres was elected president of FRETILIN at the party’s first congress and has stayed in that role since. From 2001 to 2002 he headed the constituent assembly, the body that was responsible for writing Timor-Leste’s new constitution. Under his leadership, Timor-Leste adopted premier-parliamentarism, a semi-presidential subtype. In the constitution the president is the symbol and guarantor of national independence and the supreme commander of the defence force. The president is endowed with certain unilateral powers, such as the power to veto legislation and appoint officials, and has special powers in the area of defence and foreign affairs. FRETILIN had won the 2001 parliamentary elections and on Independence Day on 20 May 2002 the CA turned into Timor-Leste’s National Parliament with Guterres as president. He remained in this function until 2007, when following the parliamentary elections FRETILIN was forced to the opposition bench.

Since 2007 Guterres ran three times for president but only his last bid was successful. Indeed, in 2007 and 2012 he lost the presidential run-off elections against Ramos-Horta and Ruak, respectively. With the crucial support of Gusmão and his own FRETILIN party, Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round of the presidential elections on 20 March 2017. In his victory speech, the president-elect promised to keep peace and unity as his primary goals of his presidency. “I’ll be president for all people in Timor-Leste, even those who didn’t vote for me,” he told a crowd of supporters. “I’ll keep fighting for peace and unity of our nation.” Yet, given that virtually all political parties are represented in a government of national unity, it is not entirely clear who, precisely, Guterres wants to unite.

Perhaps the unity government anticipates that in the near future its policy of ‘buying peace’ will no longer be an option. Ever since the massive inflow of petrol dollars in the mid-2000s, the government has spent millions of dollars in social benefits to appease the so-called veterans who (claim to) have played an active role in the independence struggle. These well-organised trained guerrilla fighters have shown to be capable to create chaos whenever they disagree with government policy. The problem now is that the government is rapidly running out of cash due to dropping oil and gas revenues[2], so it may no longer have the financial means to buy off the potential troublemakers.

The president-elect has announced to back the current government’s foreign policy direction when it comes to relations with Australia and Indonesia. This means that the current standoff between Timor-Leste and Australia over the exploitation of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field will continue to deprive the state of the much-needed oil revenues to fill up the rapidly growing budget hole. Furthermore, those who are dissatisfied with the current unity government may find it difficult to cast their vote in the upcoming parliamentary election as opposition is virtually non-existent.

Guterres will be sworn in as the fourth president of post-independent Timor-Leste on 20 May 2017.

Notes

[1] In 1974 FRETILIN was called ASDT (Timorese Social Democratic Association).

[2] Oil revenues make up 90 per cent of the budget and roughly 80 per cent of the country’s national income is derived from oil. It is estimated that the oil fields with production agreements will be depleted by 2025.

Former resistance leader becomes Timor-Leste’s first partisan president

The presidential election seems to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres. With some two-thirds of votes counted, the former independence fighter has received just under 60 per cent of the vote. For the first time since 2002 Timor-Leste will have a president formally affiliated to a political party.

It is the third time presidential elections have taken place in Timor-Leste, but the first time that a presidential candidate has managed to win a majority of the votes cast in the first round. Guterres owes much of his electoral success to the support of former President and PM Xanana Gusmão (CNRT) and FRETILIN. Together, the two parties control 55 out of 65 seats in parliament. In February 2015 cooperation between the CNRT and FRETILIN resulted in the formation of a government of national unity in which all political parties were represented, including opposition parties. The fact that Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round shows the broad popular support these parties have in Timor-Leste.

President Taur Matan Ruak did not seek re-election but supported Guterres’ closest rival António da Conceição of the Democratic Party (PD) who received 30 per cent of the vote. Last year, President Ruak created his own People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which will participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Recently, President Ruak has announced his desire to become the next PM.

To some extent, the presidential election was ‘business as usual’ in Timor-Leste: the candidate who has Gusmão’s support won the elections. What is new is that the president-elect is formally affiliated to a political party. So far, presidents have run on an independent ticket. Whereas under Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential system the head of state has limited executive power, in practice Timorese presidents have tended to take on the role of the opposition. During their presidency, Ramos-Horta and Ruak have frequently publicly expressed their concern with the rapid growth of the state budget, the increasing number of cases of corruption in which government officials were involved, and ‘unsustainable’ capital-intensive government investments. Both presidents lost Gusmão’s support and have only served one term.

It is unlikely Guterres will play a similarly active supervisory role during his five-year term in office. The president-elect is the official leader of the ruling party FRETILIN, which together with the CNRT will easily win the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Guterres will assume the presidency on 20 May. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early July.

Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President?

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea unanimously upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Park, the first female president elected in the country, has become the first president to be ousted out of office by impeachment since democratization in 1987. The former President is now a named suspect in a criminal investigation of bribery and abuse of power. The fall from grace for Park is particularly poignant: until the Choi scandal, Park seemed to buck the trend of failing performance approvals that had afflicted her predecessors. In particular, presidents in Korea since democratization have generally entered office with high approvals but would suffer low approvals by mid-term onwards, so that they are typically characterized as “limping” out of office by the end of their respective terms. In contrast, notwithstanding recurring influence-peddling scandals among her key aides and criticisms of her unconsultative style, until the general elections in April 2016, Park was consistently able to revive falling approvals to parlay support for her into election wins for her party. Consequently, more than other presidents since 1987, Park, as “Queen of Elections,” encapsulated the “imperial president” in South Korea, i.e., the executive who successfully overrides the checks and balances by the other branches of government.[i] How that imperialism worked in practice, particularly for a single, five-year term-limited executive office, makes for interesting study.

Early life in Politics

Most are aware that Park is the eldest daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee, whom many Koreans credit as instrumental for putting the Korean economy on the global map. The consecutive assassinations of both parents in the 1970s left Park and her siblings socially and politically isolated for almost two decades. That changed in 1998, when Park successfully contested a legislative by-election for the Daegu seat. In 2004, Park became chair of the Grand National Party (GNP, the forerunner of the current Liberty Korea Party and its predecessor, the Saenuri Party); in that role, she eked out a 121-seat win for the scandal-hit, publicly-assailed GNP. That success cemented Park’s position as a key player in the GNP; still, she would not win the party’s nomination until 2012. That year, running on a platform of economic democracy that also championed candidate-nomination reforms to combat political corruption and transparency for accountability, Park beat out the liberal Minjoo Party’s candidate, Moon Jae-in, for the presidential office.

Presidential Years

The imperial presidency was in evidence in Park’s first year in office: her government filed a motion to dissolve the minority party, the Unified Progressive Party, with the Constitutional Court (granted in 2014) for ties with North Korea. Meanwhile, the government resisted, and then reportedly pressured, independent investigators on the role of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the 2012 elections. When the main opposition Minjoo Party’s boycott of parliamentary proceedings for 101 consecutive days over the NIS role led to a legislative impasse, the Park government moved to temper the National Assembly Advancement law that required a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition. On February 9, 2015, an appeals court convicted the former NIS chief for meddling in the 2012 elections

Park’s second year in office witnessed the Sewol tragedy that saw more than 300 dead or missing, mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju. As President, Park’s failure to take responsibility and apologize for her government’s inadequate responses – she delivered the first official apology 13 days after the incident – was topped by her resistance to a full, independent investigation of the incident.[ii] The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House over the Sewol disaster are the groundswell of the anti-Park rallies in 2016.

Park’s third and fourth years were marked by battles to shield her aides from the political fallout of the “door-knob” scandals over access to the president, and clashes within her party and with the opposition over candidate nominations and reform of that process. In these, Park wielded her presidential powers comfortably: she vetoed a parliamentary bill on the National Assembly Act that would allow legislators to demand changes to executive legislation in 2015, and contemplated another veto in 2016 to the revised Act that would allow parliamentary committees to call for public hearings on bills. Her government also pushed through with the state text-books policy, which many critics argued whitewashed pro-Japanese activities during the colonial era as well as the country’s experience with military dictatorship. And, her negotiated agreement with Japan over the comfort women issue drew ire for its lack of consultation and rash conclusion. Through these endeavours, Park consistently stared down efforts by the legislature or within her party to wrestle the agenda away from her office, threatening to leave the party when key party members, such as former party chair Kim Moo-sung or former floor leader Yoo Seung-min, sought to take the party in a different direction.[iii]

The Fall of the Imperial President

But Park overshot herself on the candidate nomination for the 2016 general elections: her resistance on open party primaries, and then subsequent interference in the nomination process, led to the lost of the party as majority in the legislature. The outcome is particularly damning because, at the beginning of 2016, the ruling party looked set to coast to a 180-seat majority win for the ruling party that would allow it to push its agenda and eliminate need for compromise. But, the open party bickering over candidate-nominations, with senior party members rebuffed in favour of pro-Park candidates, led several to leave the party and run as independents. In the April general elections, the ruling party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: it not only lost its majority in the legislature but also became the second largest party, after the opposition Minjoo Party. The scope of the imperial president is probably most telling in the aftermath of the election drubbing: while Park pledged to “humbly accept” the people’s will, she rejected a coalition with other parties, or even a reshuffle of the government.

In the end, the imperial president was brought down by the consistent, weekly rallies that began in October 2016 and surged to a high of 2 million. These are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, this may well be the most newsworthy aspect of the imperial president.

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Notes

[i] Arthur Schlesinger, 1973. The Imperial President. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin

[ii] O. Fiona Yap. 2015. “South Korea in 2014: A Tragedy Reveals the Country’s Weaknesses.” Asian Survey

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey

South Korea – Collective-Action and President Park’s Impeachment: Did Corruption Galvanize Protestors?

President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on December 9, 2016, when the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the president – following consecutive weekends of large-scale protests against her – seemed nothing short of stunning. Here is an executive who has consistently weathered criticisms of her unconsultative style and recurring influence-peddling scandals to remain the Queen of Elections and assert her priorities over the opposition and even at the expense of her ruling Saenuri Party.[i] In fact, President Park was instrumental in the candidate-nomination debacle that led to departures of high-profile senior party-members and accounted in part for the Saenuri Party’s resounding defeat in the 2016 general elections. That the President managed to keep the now-minority party in government following the drubbing is instructive. Indeed, even following the President’s impeachment, Park loyalists retained leadership control of the ruling Saenuri Party (renamed since as the Liberty Korea Party); as a result, non-Park legislators and members left the party – some would say, again – to form the conservative Bareun Party. Given President Park’s apparent staying power, how did impeachment happen?

Public activism is the mainstay that underpins the resolve to bring about the President’s impeachment. The weekly protests that began in October and, at various times, exceeded two million, likely played a key role in bringing together the fractured opposition in the legislature to pull off the impeachment. It should be noted that the Park government had faced public protests previously, the most consistent being the Sewol protests to demand an independent investigative counsel for clear resolution of the tragedy in April 2014. What is different this time around is the size of the public protests: these are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987.

That large public protests are part of the knockout punch on a regime is not surprising: Tucker (2007) noted that electoral fraud led citizens to overcome collective action problems and form the Colored Revolutions protests that revolutionized politics in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.[ii] What other issues galvanize public protests? My own work on anti-corruption efforts show that government corruption may have such a galvanizing effect: in particular, experiment results show that Korean citizens are willing to join others to demand government accountability for corruption, even when they suffer no losses through the corrupt actions, if  expect others to pursue that course of action.[iii]

President Park’s fall from grace, then, may lie less in her susceptibility to the influences of her confidante, Choi Soo-sil, and more with her alleged role in aiding bribery and corruption from Korean conglomerates to said confidante. The President and her lawyers have been stalling and stonewalling the special investigation counsel as well as the Constitutional Court, in an effort to delay the Court’s decision. Still, the Constitutional Court has made clear that it will decide by March 10, lending to speculations that the collective protests have had an impact even on the mostly-conservative court. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, it may well be useful to uncover other issues that galvanize citizens and lead to demands for government accountability.

 

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[ii] Joshua Tucker. 2007. “Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions.” Perspectives on Politics vol 5 no 3: 535-551

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “How do South Koreans Respond to Government Corruption? Evidence from Experiments.” Korea Observer vol 47 no 2: 363-386

 

 

 

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste upcoming presidential elections: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Rui Graça Feijó is Lecturer at CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste will hold its fourth presidential elections on March 20. In spite of the lack of opinion polls, it is possible to suggest that they will reveal a new political landscape, the extent of whose novelty is still to be decided. To start with, these elections will confirm the Timorese “rule” that no incumbent succeeds in obtaining a second term in office

The field of candidates is composed of 8 individuals who submitted at least 5,000 endorsements with a regional distribution of at least 100 in each of the country’s 213 districts. This is the same number as in 2007, and 5 less than in 2012. Underneath the “normality” of this picture, a major change is occurring: there is a very strong candidate alongside seven others with little or no chance of actually fighting for anything more than a modest result, at best an honourable second. The presidential elections will thus fulfil two purposes: one is the official task of choosing a president; the other is to help contenders ascertain their hold on popular vote and their chances in the legislative elections scheduled for June, allowing for tactical decisions. On top of that, internal party struggles, a show of personal vanity, and access to the generous public support to candidates (at least US$ 10,000 per candidate regardless of their electoral score) will play a minor part in the circus.

FRETILIN proposed Lu Olo, its chairman (not its leader, the secretary-general Mari Alkatiri), as it had done in 2007 and 2012. Both times Lu Olo came first on the initial round only to see all other candidates rally against him in the decisive one. He has now received the formal backing of the largest parliamentary party, CNRT, and most of all, of the charismatic leader of the young nation, Xanana Gusmão. He is “Snow White” surrounded by seven dwarfs.

The main rival seems to be António Conceição. He is a member of Partido Democrático, a party that suffered a heavy blow with the death of its historical leader Fernando Lasama de Araújo (2015), followed by internal strife. The party as such ceased to be part of the governmental coalition, although his ministers were allowed to remain in functions as “independent”. António Conceição is one of those, and his bid at the presidency is partly a test for a presumed bid for the party leadership. He may have the backing of a new party, Partido da Libertação do Povo, inspired by the outgoing president Taur Matan Ruak, who declined to seek re-election and is widely believed to be preparing a bid for the premiership (if the presidential elections allow for such presumption).

Former minister José Luis Guterres, whose party Frenti-Mudança is the smaller one in the governmental coalition, has also declared his intention to run.

Two non-parliamentary parties have also fielded candidates. Partido Trabalhista supports its leader, Angela Freitas, and Partido Socialista Timorense backs António Maher Lopes. Although PST has no MP, its leader, Avelino Coelho, holds an important position in government.

A former deputy commissioner in the Anti-Corruption Commission, José Neves, is among those who seek the popular vote without party support – a circumstance that in the past has been critical in winning the second ballot, as candidates in these circumstances were able to build coalitions of all the defeated runners against the “danger” of a partisan candidate. Two others fall in this category: Amorim Vieira, of whom very little is known apart from the fact that he lived in Scotland where he joined SNP; and Luis Tilman, a virtually unknown individual who also presents himself as “independent”.

A few things emerge from this picture. Against what is expectable in two-round elections in fragmented party systems (Timor has 4 parliamentary parties, about 30 legal ones, and the 2012 elections had 21 parties or coalitions running), which induce the presentation of candidates on an identity affirmation basis in view of a negotiation for the second ballot (as was the case in Timor in 2007 and 2012), this time the two largest parties negotiated a common candidate before the first round, significantly increasing the likelihood that he will be elected on March 20.

It thus highly probable that Timor-Leste will have for the first time a president who is a member of a political party. The experience of three non-partisan presidents comes to an end not because the rules of the game have been changed, but rather because the political scenario has moved considerably. Back in 2015, a government of “national inclusion” replaced the one led by Xanana with the backing of all parties in the House, even if FRETILIN, who offered one of its members for the premiership, still claims to be “in the opposition”.  The move has been called by a senior minister “a transformation of belligerent democracy into consensus democracy”. Although the outgoing president is supposed to have facilitated this development, he soon turned sides and became a bitter and very outspoken critic of Rui Maria de Araújo’s executive and the political entente that sustains it.

Now the two major partners of the entente agreed to go together to the presidential elections, signalling that they wish to continue the current government formula after this year’s cycle of elections (even if the place of smaller parties in the coalition is not secure, and a question mark hangs above the score that the new opposition PLP may obtain). More than this, they assume that the role of the president has somehow changed from being the guarantor of impartiality discharging a “neutral” function as “president of all Timorese” to be a player in the partisan game, throwing his political and institutional support behind the government coalition.

A question emerges when one considers that CNRT is the largest party in the House, and that it has relinquished the right to appoint the prime minister (who is a member of FRETILIN acting in an “individual capacity”) and now forfeits the chance of securing the presidency, offering it to its rival/partner. Will it maintain this low-key attitude after the parliamentary elections if it remains the largest party?

The CNRT/FRETILIN entente suggests that Timorese politics lives in a double stage: the official one with state officers discharging their functions, and the one behind the curtains where de facto Xanana (who is simply a minister) and Mari Alkatiri (who holds a leading position in a regional development entity) tend retain the reins of actual power. In this light, public efforts to promote the “gerasaun foun” (younger generation) in lieu of the “gerasaun tuan” (the old guard that was already present back in 1975) by offering the premiership and other jobs to those who are relatively younger needs to be carefully hold in check.

In Dili, I was told that Timorese presidents tend to suffer the “syndrome of the wrong palace”. This expression is meant to convey the idea that they become frustrated with the (allegedly limited) powers bestowed upon them by the constitution, and consider that the legitimacy conferred on them by a two round election that guarantees an absolute majority is sort of “kidnapped”. They are prisoners in their palace. They believe they have the right to determine strategic orientations and cannot find the actual means to implement them. So they look at the premiership in the palace next door. Xanana stepped down from the presidency and launched a party and a successful bid to head government; Taur Matan Ruak is trying to follow suit – but his chances are not deemed so high. If Lu Olo manages to get elected, the sort of relations he is likely to establish with the prime-minister are totally different, as he is compromised with “one majority, one government, one president” – only the president is not likely to be the one who leads. Will this resolve the syndrome issue? Interesting times lay ahead.

Presidential profile – APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, commonly known as APJ Abdul Kalam, was sworn in as India’s 11th president on July 25, 2002. A space expert and science administrator by profession, he became the third Muslim (in a predominantly Hindu country) and the first scientist to assume the presidency. He was also the first, and so far, the only person to have stepped into the office without a background in politics.

Presidents in India are indirectly elected by a complex arithmetic of proportional voting. Members of both houses of parliament and all state legislatures are eligible to vote in such elections. Any person aged 35 or more, and eligible to be a member of the lower house of parliament may stand as a candidate. Elections, though, are mostly contested along party lines, and the composition of the electorate and the method of voting mean that the outcomes are often known well in advance.

The center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian Peoples Party) (BJP) and its National Democratic Alliance, then in power in New Delhi, along with some regional parties nominated Kalam’s candidature on June 10, 2002. A week later, on June 18, 2002, the Congress Party, the principal opposition at the center, also announced its decision to back him. His nomination came months after a state in Western India was rocked by riots along religious lines. Commentators speculated if a Muslim had been nominated to reset India’s (tolerant) image, nationally and beyond.

Kalam, expectedly, won his election by a massive margin, and was sworn in on July 25, 2002. He would remain in office for 5 years.

The Indian presidency, it is often said, is modeled after the British monarchy. At an obvious level, the comparison is misleading. Britain is a monarchy, India is a republic. The president, the head of state, is elected. Indeed, the Indian president is the only nationally, albeit indirectly, elected office under the Constitution. He or she has claim to a degree of constitutional and electoral legitimacy monarchies don’t.

Nonetheless, the Indo-British comparison remains the standard template both in academic and judicial thinking.

Perhaps the most important power of the president is to appoint a prime minister. Ordinarily, this is an easy task. Imported British conventions dictate that the leader of the party with a majority in the lower house of parliament must be invited to form the government. But there are exceptions, and Kalam faced a peculiar challenge two years into his term.

In May 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance won an upset election victory against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The Congress party elected its leader, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, to be the leader of the parliamentary party.

Immediately, protests broke out. Demonstrations and counter demonstrations happened. To many it was a matter of national pride. Adapting from the US Constitution, only naturally born Indian citizens should be prime ministers, they argued. The Indian Constitution, of course, imposes no such limitation.

Kalam had a decision to make. As he weighed his options, some speculated about his reservations in appointing Sonia Gandhi as the prime minister. Ultimately, he didn’t need to decide. Gandhi, enlightened by her “inner voice”, refused the party’s nomination, and instead suggested economist Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. (Singh would hold the prime ministerial reigns for two full terms.) In his account of the presidency, Kalam, for his part, denied claims about his reservations about Sonia Gandhi. He would have appointed the leader of the majority party, whoever that be, he wrote.

President is the head of state, and all decisions are taken in his name. Judicial opinions and academic commentary, once again, interpret the powers of the presidency through a British lens. A president exercises formal powers, it is said; the real powers vest with the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. The latter decides, the president delivers. His discretion is limited, so goes the conventional view.

Presidents may have limited discretion, but they also have endless time in which to decide those matters. And President Kalam demonstrated the enormity of the passive powers of his office. He did so while dealing with mercy petitions of convicts on death row. Ordinarily, mercy petitions are decided by the council of ministers, and passed on to the president for approval.

Kalam, strongly opposed to the death penalty, simply sat on the petitions. He did nothing about them. Of the 21 petitions forwarded to him during his term in office, he sat on all but one.

Occasionally, his inaction attracted controversy, but Kalam remained steadfast. An unequal application of the death penalty (almost all death row convicts were impoverished citizens), he said, was a violation of the Constitution.

Occasionally, his action attracted controversy, too. In India, the central government may dismiss state governments under certain circumstances, impose president’s rule, or dissolve the legislature and initiate new elections. The decision to dismiss a state government is taken by the council of minister but must be approved by the president. In 2005, Kalam signed off on a controversial dismissal by the UPA government, something, he later regretted. He should have studied the matter further, he said, instead of hurrying it. (The dismissal was challenged in the supreme court, and eventually overturned.)

Kalam’s most challenging moment arrived in 2006 after both houses of parliament enacted a self-serving piece of legislation. It retroactively removed disqualifications many members of parliament suffered by holding “offices of profit” – something the Constitution bars. Kalam agonized over the Bill at his desk. He found it unprincipled and hasty. He formally returned the Bill to the two houses asking them to reconsider – the first and only time a president in India has done so. The houses didn’t reconsider; they simply reenacted it. Once again, it landed before Kalam. Unwilling to precipitate a constitutional crisis, he eventually gave his assent. In his autobiography, he called this the “toughest” decision of his presidency.

As he neared the end of his term, questions arose about re-nominating him to the presidency. An organic groundswell of support appeared both in print and electronic media. Newspapers carried large numbers of op-eds and letters to editors expressing support for Kalam. Online petitions swelled with support. For a man who never stood for direct elections, Kalam was a home run; he would have swept away any opposition in a direct contest.

The NDA, his original proposer, extended its support. The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Party, though, refused. We may never know why.

Fali Nariman, India’s preeminent jurist voiced what millions of Indians felt when he wrote of Kalam’s departure: “We will miss him — that unconventional figure who became India’s First Citizen in July 2002. Never pompous, not even ‘presidential’, he walked into the Palace at Raisina Hill with few worldly goods — he now leaves with even fewer … We could have asked him to stay: but we didn’t … Of him it can be said, as Winston Churchill once said about his departed king: ‘He nothing common did, or mean, upon that memorable scene.’ Memorable scenes are rarely re-enacted, but they are always remembered.” (Fail Nariman, “We’ll miss you, Dr Kalam”, Indian Express, July 23, 2007)

From his first days in office, Kalam was massively popular. Old and young, across political lines, identified with him, and endearingly referred to him as the “people’s president”. His simplicity, his infectious, if inchoate, optimism was his strength. India’s only bachelor president, and in his 70s, he was widely popular with students, and often interacted with them.

A lifelong teacher, poet, and the author of many books, Kalam maintained associations with several universities in India and elsewhere after his presidency. Perhaps fittingly, he died (of a heart attack) while lecturing to a group of students at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. He lived in the classroom and died there, too.

At least the for the foreseeable future, APJ Abdul Kalam will remain India’s most endearing apolitical politician.

South Korea – The 2017 Presidential Candidates … so far…

 

Presidential elections in South Korea are scheduled for December 2017, but the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Dec 9, 2016, with 234 to 56 votes (with two abstentions and seven invalid), potentially brings the election forward if the Constitutional Court supports the impeachment. The Court has 180 days to decide, and six justices must support the impeachment or it fails. If the Court supports impeachment, then presidential elections must be held within 60 days. Not surprisingly, presidential aspirants are lining up to declare their candidacies in preparation for a shortened primary and election campaign. Perhaps curiously, the prevailing favorites have largely refrained from formal announcements and have only hinted at running.

The contenders who have announced so far are:

  • Gyeonggi Gov Nam Kyung-pil, Barun Party, which is the splinter from the Saenuri party comprising the non-Park faction. Nam was a five-term who has criticized the Park government for its authoritarian-leanings. The governor is also one of the first party heavyweights to quit the Saenuri party in November, 2016, and join the opposition to demand President Park’s impeachment.
  • Yoo Seong-min, Barun Party, is the former Saenuri floor-leader of the non-Park faction who lost that position following a clash with President Park and subsequently also lost the party’s nomination at general elections.[i] Yoo was folded back into the party after he won his seat as an independent. He is one of the 12 members of the crisis management council that included former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, to bring party members into supporting President Park’s impeachment.
  • Rhee In-je, a senior Saenuri party leader who was a member of the Supreme Council, and who has declared his candidacy three other times since 1997.
  • South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, Minjoo Party, who at 52 represents one of the new generation of leaders from the liberal camp seeking higher political office to run the country.
  • Seongnam city Mayor Lee Jae-myung, Minjoo Party, a progressive who has revived the city’s economy and put in place an extensive welfare program in the city. Lee was among the few politicians who took part in the large protest rallies in Seoul against President Park beginning in October.
  • Sim Sang-jeung, leader of the Justice Party, a minority party with six seats in the legislature.
  • Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, 2012 presidential contender, co-founder of the People’s party and former chair. In 2014, Ahn co-founded the NPAD with the Minjoo Party, but then split from the alliance in spectacular fashion in December 2015 to form the People’s Party. Ahn dropped out of the presidential race in favour of Moon Jae-in in 2012 so as not to split the vote for the liberal camp; given the many charged conflicts between the two in the last few years, it will be interesting to see if Ahn – who is polling at fourth place in public opinion surveys – will wrestle for the liberal mantle till the end.

The current two front-runners have not been as forward in their candidacies, to avoid a potential backlash if they are seen as excessive politically ambitious. Still, both have signalled interests in the presidential race:

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2015. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey, Vol. 56 No. 1, January/February 2016; (pp. 78-86) DOI: 10.1525/as.2016.56.1.78