Category Archives: Asia

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

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

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

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

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

Economic populism wins

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

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

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

The revolution and the evolution of political parties

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

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

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

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

Power struggles under semi-presidentialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strained democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

Presidential profile – Rajendra Prasad, former president of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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