Category Archives: Asia

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.

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

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

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

South Korea – The President Wages War to Increase Wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Timor-Leste – President’s party wins parliamentary elections

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

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

Provisional results Timor-Leste 2017 parliamentary election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolic representation in Indian politics: intersecting identities

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

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

Presidential candidacy and representative claim-making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic populism wins

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

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

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

The revolution and the evolution of political parties

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

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

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

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

Power struggles under semi-presidentialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strained democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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