Monthly Archives: January 2014

Egypt – PreSisi-dential elections approaching

Some three years after sustained popular unrest led to the demise of the severely authoritarian Mubarak regime, Egypt appears to be no closer to a democratic transition. Rather, the country seems on the brink of reverting to the ways of Mubarak’s iron-fisted rule, with interim President Adly Mansour suggesting that the military regime is on the verge of resorting to even tougher measures than those employed so far against opposition figures and protesters, regardless of whether Islamist or liberals.[1]

Since the army’s ousting of Morsi from the presidency on 3 July 2013 – a move orchestrated by the then Minister of Defence General Sisi – the new regime has cracked down hard on opposition activists. Members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, i.e. the party of ex-President Morsi and the military’s main political rival, have been particularly hard hit, with scores of people killed, injured, and imprisoned.[2]

The suspension of the 2012 constitution, the appointment of an interim technocratic government, and the removal of Morsi from office by the military confirmed a fear long held by many that the military had been seeking to maintain its grip on power after the departure of Mubarak, and despite handing over power to democratically elected civilians following the presidential and legislative elections of 2011/12. The concerns over the suspected political aspirations of the military establishment were further strengthened in recent months as a new constitution was rushed to a popular vote on 14-15 January 2014, a move strongly criticized by domestic and foreign monitors. With the overwhelming majority in favour of the military-backed constitution – no less than 98.1 per cent of the valid votes cast – speculations were rife that the military would cease the opportunity and bring forward the date of the presidential elections (originally scheduled to follow after parliamentary elections), while also putting General Sisi forward as an official candidate.[3]

Although Sisi is yet to officially announce his candidature, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) gave the general its blessing to put his name forward in the presidential race, which is due to take within the next few months – and no later than mid-April – in line with the stipulations of the new constitution.[4] Given the currently popularity of Sisi, coupled with the military’s strong grip on power, particularly since the ousting of Morsi, most people are convinced that the next popularly elected Egyptian president will stem from the military.[5] Anything except from a landslide victory to Sisi, regardless of voter turnout, seems unimaginable.[6] Hence, in the space of three years, Egypt has gone from being a case of military-backed competitive authoritarianism to military-led competitive authoritarianism. In short, in Egypt the Arab Spring protests, which cost so many people their lives, seem to have succeeded only in replacing one brand of authoritarianism with another. That is, for now at least, as Egyptians have clearly acquired a taste for people power, although the military is doing its utmost to stifle the opposition, whether democratic or anti-systemic.


[1] http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USBREA0P0GR20140126.

[2] See http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/01/egypt-nation-voted-yes-military-rule-and-yes-moving-forwards. See also http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/01/26/uk-egypt-protests-idUKBREA0O08T20140126

[3] See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/10575772/Egypt-votes-overwhelmingly-for-military-backed-constitution.html

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25917452 and http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/16/us-egypt-referendum-idUSBREA0F0IZ20140116.

[5] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/89456/Egypt/Politics-/Who-will-be-Egypts-next-president.aspx

[6] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/92963/Egypt/Politics-/Political-groups-react-to-SCAFs-ElSisi-statement.aspx. See also http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/world/meast/egypt-military-rule/

Malawi – Corruption and the Cabinet

President Joyce Banda is struggling to contain the largest corruption scandal in the history of Malawi.

Upon coming to power in April 2012, Malawians and international donors had high hopes for Joyce Banda’s administration. When Banda succeeded President Mutharika after his untimely death in office, she promised that her government would pursue good governance and a more consensual approach, in contrast to the increasingly authoritarian tone of the Mutharika regime.

However, Banda’s government has been hit by two controversies. The first relates to the president’s attempts to consolidate her position within the legislature. Although Banda succeeded Mutharika from the vice presidency, she had already left his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), forming her own political organization, the People’s Party (PP), in 2011.

Following Mutharika’s death a number of senior DPP leaders sought to prevent Banda from ascending to the presidency on the grounds that she had effectively left the government. A combination of donor and international pressure ensured a constitutional transfer of power, but this left Banda in a weak position within the legislature because her own party, having been formed since the last election, had no legislative representation. As a result, President Banda has been forced to construct a legislative alliance by persuading MPs from other parties to cross the floor and join the PP. This is a tried and tested political strategy in Malawi, and was central to President Mutharika’s attempts to consolidate his authority.

Under Section 65 of the Malawian constitution, MPs who cross the floor should resign their seats to contest a by-election. During the Mutharika era the failure of the Speaker to enforce this rule was a source of great controversy because it empowered the president to dominant the legislature. As a result, the failure of the Speaker to force MPs leaving their party to join the PP has raised eyebrows. In August 2012, the International Development Committee of the House of Commons in the UK noted this failure to enforce legislative rules with concern, and also commented “we have received written evidence which claims that President Banda may have strayed beyond her limit by firing certain senior officials.”

The second controversy has been described as the biggest financial scandal in Malawi’s history. It appears that government officials have been exploiting a loophole in a computer-based financial information system to misappropriate millions of pounds worth of government revenue. It is now estimated that somewhere around £150 million has gone missing, although it is not clear how much of this has occurred since Banda became president.

The scandal, known as “cashgate” came to light after the shooting of the Budget Director of the Finance Ministry and anti-corruption crusader Paul Mphwiyo, in September 2013. Days before, $330,000 had been found in the boot of a car belonging to a junior civil servant. The revelations have angered donors, who immediately withheld $150million. This represented a major challenge to the Banda government because around 40% of the annual budget is donor funded.

The scandal led to widespread criticism of the government. According to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Lilongwe, the president was “part and parcel” of the fraud. In bid to restore the image of her government, President Banda sacked her entire cabinet on 10 October 2013. She has also taken other popular decisions, such as getting rid of the presidential jet and luxury fleet of cars. However, the president’s decision to rehire many of the same ministers just weeks later, and evidence that the plane was sold to an arms firm with government contracts that subsequently allowed the president to use the plane for free, has once again called into question her judgment. Matters were not helped by an apparent attempt by the president’s spokesperson, Steve Nhlane, to keep the public in the dark over the arrangement. When asked who was responsible for supping the jet free of charge, Nhlane responded “You do not have to know them. Besides, they have told us not to disclose their identities. That is what friends are meant for, for helping each other.”

Madagascar – Legislative election

In Madagascar, the legislative election was held concurrently with the presidential election late last year. However, the results took even longer to appear than for the presidential election itself. Now, though, some figures are available.

As reported by one source, the situation looks something like this.

The so-called MAPAR (Miaraka @ Prezida Rajoelina) party has won 49 of the 151 seats in the legislature. This is the party that supports Andry Rajoelina, who ousted President Ravalomanana in 2009 and who then held the post of President of the Transition.

The Mouvance Ravalomanana has won 17 seats. This groups supports the ousted president, Marc Ravalomanana, and the losing presidential candidate, Jean Louis Robinson.

The VPM-MMM (Vondrona politika miara-dia Malagasy Miara-Miainga) movement has won 17 seats. They supported the candidacy of Hajo Herivelona Andrianainarivelo at the presidential election. He came third and said that he would not support either of the top two candidates.

The Parti Hiaraka isika, which supported the presidential candidacy of former general and Rajoelina PM, Albert Camille Vital, won 7 seats.

The LEADER-Fanilo (or Libéralisme Économique et Action Démocratique pour la Reconstruction Nationale won 5 seats.

A couple of other national parties won a handful of seats, local parties won a number of seats and the rest went to independents.

One recent article suggests that around 30 independents would support the new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who was backed by MAPAR. This would have given him a parliamentary majority.

However, things seem to have changed. The new president, who was inaugurated on Saturday, has sidelined Andry Rajoelina. There were rumours that Rajoelina wanted the position of PM so that, in effect, he could still govern. However, President Rajaonarimampianina has indicated that he will appoint someone else. As a result, MAPAR appear to have withdrawn their support from the new president. This makes it very difficult for him to appoint a PM who will have the confidence of the legislature.

There is even a scenario where President Rajaonarimampianina could face a period of cohabitation. According to the constitution, as the largest group in the legislature, MAPAR looks to have the right to nominate the PM. However, the wording is ambiguous.

In short, Madagascar’s troubles are not yet over, even if some form of electoral democracy and constitutional government has been reintroduced.

Indonesia – The 2014 Elections: Political parties and Presidential nominees

Indonesia is counting down to the elections, with House and Council races scheduled for April and the Presidency in July (with run-offs in September). 560 seats of the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) are contestable, alongside 128 seats for the People’s Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD). Together with provincial elections – 2112 seats – and district elections – 16,895 seats – the election year promises to be no small affair. A review of the election rules and the impact on political parties and the presidential elections will help frame how the election year unfolds.

Legislative elections are guided by Law No. 8, passed in 2012. Representatives to the DPR are elected under an open-list proportional system through affiliation with political parties. Members of the DPD are elected via single non-transferable vote, and perform as individuals in the Upper House, notwithstanding their political affiliations.

Article 8 of Law 8 stipulates that political parties may contest the elections if they meet the following conditions:

    1. Political Parties that contested the last Election and met the threshold of vote acquisition of the total national valid votes (3.5 percent) shall be determined as Contesting Political Parties in the next Election.
    2. Political Parties that did not meet the threshold of vote acquisition in the previous Election or newly established political parties may become Election Contestants after meeting the following requirements:

a)      have regional chapters in all provinces;

b)     have chapters in 75% (seventy five percent) of the total number of regencies/ municipalities in the province;

c)      have chapters in 50% (fifty percent) of the total number of districts/kecamatan in the regency/municipality;

d)      have at least 30% (thirty percent) women’s representation in the management of the central chapter of the political part;

e)      have a minimum of 1000 members of the total population for each chapter of political party;

In addition, Article 55 stipulates that the list of party nominees for candidates must contain at least 30% women candidates.
For 2014, the General Elections Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Unum, KPU) sanctioned 12 parties to contest the national elections, with an additional three eligible to contest provincial elections in Aceh. They are:

  • Nasdem Party
  • National Awakening Party (PKB, chair HA Muhaimin Iskandar)
  • Prosperous Justice Party (PKS, chair Muhammad Anis Matta)
  • Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, chair former President Megawai Sukarnoputri)
  • Golkar (leading party of the Suharto era, chair Aburizal Bakrie)
  • Party Movement Indonesia Raya (Gerindra, chair Prof. Dr. Ir. Suhardi, founder Prabowo Subianto)
  • Democratic Party (PD, chair President Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono)
  • National Mandate Party (PAN, chair M. Hatta Rajasa)
  • United Development Party (PPP, chair Dr. H. Suryadharma Ali)
  • People’s Conscience party (HANURA, chair former presidential candidate H. Wiranto)
  • Crescent Star Party (PBB, chair Dr. H. MS. Kaban)
  • Indonesian Justice and Unity party (PKPI, Partai Keadilan dan Persatuan Indonesia, splinter party from Golkar)

However, only parties or coalitions with at least 25 percent of the vote or 20 percent of the House are able to field a presidential candidate. The Constitutional Court has scrapped these requirements for the 2019 elections with the landmark decision to hold concurrent legislative and presidential elections. At the moment, that still rules out some of the parties, like the Gerindra party, that hold less than 20%  of the House seats.

Meanwhile, jockeying for nomination as presidential candidate of the various parties continues. Two parties have already nominated their candidates — Gerindra’s nominee is its founder, Prabowo Subianto, while Golkar’s presidential candidate is Aburizal Barkrie, its chair and chief benefactor — although they may not be able contest the presidential elections without coalition partners under the current electoral laws. Meanwhile, President Yudhoyo’s Democratic Party has set its 11 candidates on a national-tour-debate that will end in April. The PDI-P has yet to name a candidate: Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a favourite and consistently outpolls the other candidates, but there is the possibility that the party may nominate Megawati as presidential candidate.

One thing seems clear: there will be no shortage of election news from Indonesia in 2014.

Latvia – New government under leadership of country’s first female prime minister inaugurated

On 22 January 2014, two months after the resignation of prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, parliament approved a new government under the leadership of Laimdota Straujuma, the country’s first female prime minister. While the latter fact has made international headlines and Straujuma’s inauguration brings an end to the difficult process of finding a new government leader, the new government is not necessarily an achievement for the coalition parties, but rather a (small) victory for the president.

New Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma in parliament on 22 January 2014 | photo via wikimedia commons

After the resignation of prime minister Dombrovskis over the tragedy caused by the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, president Andris Bērziņš took a suprisingly active approach when it came to forming a new government (see also my previous post on this blog from 11 December 2013), Until early January, president Bērziņš declined to nominate any of the candidates proposed by the four centre-right parties poised to form a new coalition, while all candidates proposed by him declined to take on the job.

In the end, president and parties agreed on the nomination of Laimdota Straujuma, a 61 year-old career civil servant who – after having served in various ministries at secretary of state/deputy minister level had headed the ministry of agriculture in the last Dombrovskis government since 2011. Having not been affiliated with a political party before (her ministerial nomination had been made on the ticket of prime minister Dombrovski’s ‘Unity’ party), she only joined Unity on 5 January, two days before her nomination.

Straujuma is Latvia’s first female head of government but not the country’s first female political leader – from 07/1999 to 07/2007 Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga served as president and was the first elected female head of state in the region. Freiberga – a former professor of psychology and semiotics at the University of Montreal – was instrumental in Latvia’s EU and NATO accession and remained a non-partisan during both of her terms in office. While the latter was an advantage for her as president, Straujuma will likely be disadvantaged by her lack of a long-standing party affiliation, as she will be without clear authority in the coalition’s largest party. While her previous positions will have provided her with an in-depth understanding of Latvia-EU relations (very important given the country’s recent adoption of the Euro) and she was one of the better-rated members of the previous government, her influence in the coalition will still be very limited. Yet as parties have agreed not to amend the budget for 2014 (which would only have been possible in the summer), there is only very little room for manoeuvre for Straujuma and her government anyway.

Overall, the formation of the government appears to be a victory for the president (as well as his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers) and evidence that his unusually active approach paid off. Even though president Bērziņš initially rejected the idea of a purely technocratic government, a government under the leadership of quasi-technocrat Straujuma has several advantages for him. First and foremost, in a situation where the prime minister has less authority over the coalition parties, the president’s influence automatically increases. Furthermore, by not pushing for a purely technocratic government, the previous coalition parties remain in power and are not cut off from the spoils of office. Keeping a good relationship with all centre-right parties is instrumental for Bērziņš in securing his re-election. Last, the new government now includes Bērziņš’ own party whose votes are necessary to secure a majority in the assembly which increases the president’s leverage over the coalition.

Of course, the new coalition also has benefits for the other parties: Straujuma is a largely uncontroversial figure who will potentially mitigate some of the public dissatisfaction with the previous government’s policies which will be carried out until the general election in October 2014. At the same time, prominent party politicians can take a step back from the first line of politics while remaining in office (furthermore, in contrast to Dombrovskis III, they are now also more slightly adequately rewarded in terms of portfolios).

___________________________________________________________________________________

Overall, Straujuma’s new government consists of 14 cabinet members (prime minister + 13 cabinet ministers), seven of which served in the Dombrovskis III cabinet (except for Straujuma all in the same positions). There are two non-partisan cabinet members, yet these are clearly linked to Unity and the National Alliance, respectively, and thus not the result of presidential intervention. The Reform Party of former president Valdis Zatlers is slightly underrepresented despite having the second largest seat share, yet take the high-profile ministries of foreign affairs, economics, and interior. In addition to prime minister Straujuma, there are four other female cabinet members (which is an increase by two compared to Dombrovskis III); the average age is 47.9 years.

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_straujuma 1

The new government holds 62 out of 100 seats in parliament.

Composition of Straujuma I
Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity, female, 63)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 48)
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Reform Party, male, 40)*
Minister for Economics: Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Reform Party, male, 36)
Minister for Finance: Andris Vilks (Unity, male, 50)*
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Reform Party, male, 44)*
Minister for Education and Science: Ina Druviete (Unity, female, 55)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (independent [National Alliance], female,  42)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 41)
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development:  Einārs Cilinskis (National Alliance, male, 50)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (independent [Unity], male, 40)*
Minister for Justice: Baiba Broka (National Alliance, female, 38)
Minister for Health: Ingrīda Circene (Unity, female, 57)*
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 61)

(*= member of previous government; except for Laimdota Straujuma all with same portfolio)

Burkina Faso – Mounting Opposition to Another Term for President Blaise Compaoré

President Blaise Compaoré’s pillars of support are quickly eroding, as the 2015 presidential election approaches. In early January, 75 members of the ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), abandoned the party, including three political heavyweights – former chair of the National Assembly Roch March Kaboré, former mayor of Ouagadougou Simon Compaoré, and former presidential advisor Salif Diallo. The three had been sidelined as Blaise’s brother François gradually took over control of the CDP, over the past two years. Their example was followed by 14 more desertions last week, including the high profile stepping down of CDP-member of parliament Victor Tiendrebeogo – a leading traditional chief and representative of the Moro Naaba, the king of the Mossi (Blaise himself is a Mossi).

The reasons put forward by those who have resigned include complaints about lack of internal democracy within the party, and the apparent intention of the sitting president to run again – after nearly 27 years in power. The current constitution, last amended in January 2002, includes a two-term presidential term-limit (Article 37). Blaise Compaoré was elected for the second time under that constitution in December 2010 and should therefore not be eligible to stand again. However, the CDP has been pushing for a revision of this article of the constitution, and the president himself has not excluded the possibility of asking the ‘sovereign people’ of Burkina Faso for their opinion on the matter, through a referendum.

A related matter is the seating of the recently created Senate. Political opposition parties have long argued that this institution is another convenient tool for pushing through a constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term-limits. Opposition parties have cleverly crafted their criticism of the Senate in terms of budgetary concerns, striking a chord with many Burkinabe citizens who suffer under “la vie chère” (the high cost of living).

Joining forces with other opposition leaders, the ex-CDP barons organized the country’s biggest demonstration in decades, on Saturday, January 18, taking place simultaneously in the capital, Ouagadougou, and the country’s second largest city, Bobo Dioulasso. Opposition party activists were joined in the streets by civil society members belonging to organizations such as “Balai citoyen” (“the citizen broom,” a reference to sweeping away corruption) – a citizen movement led by two singers and inspired by the Senegalese youth movement “Y’en a marre.” The protests remained peaceful, as marchers chanted slogans against the Senate and against revising Article 37 of the constitution.

The next presidential poll in Burkina Faso is still 22 months away. Tentatively scheduled for November 2015, the election is already starting to feel like a race, however, with opposition to President Blaise Compaoré steadily gathering steam. The loss of support by the traditional chiefs and by respected CDP leaders is a heavy blow to Compaoré. Against what appears as mounting popular opposition to his staying on for another term, he may choose to nurture his statesman’s image earned through his role as mediator in regional crises. Compaoré may also remember how quickly things got out of hand only three years ago, when popular protests against rising prices combined with a military mutiny spreading to barracks all across the country to severely threaten his rule. He may have more to win by stepping down, than by insisting on another term. After all, the legislature already passed an amnesty law in 2012, granting Compaoré and all other presidents of Burkina Faso since independence from France in 1960 immunity from prosecution.

Romania – President Băsescu’s veto activity (2004-2014)

Since December 2012, when the last general election took place in Romania, President Băsescu has vetoed 26 bills. By comparison, during the first legislature of his first term (2004-2008), President Băsescu vetoed over 80 bills, while during the second legislature (2008-2012) he vetoed about 40 bills. Thus, the incumbent president appears to be particularly active at the beginning of the third legislature, which coincides with the end of his second presidential term.

It is tempting to put down such a high level of presidential activism to the cohabitation between the president and the ruling coalition composed of the Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberals (PNL). We can test this hypothesis by comparing the number of vetoes President Băsescu has cast since May 2012 with his overall veto activity since he took office in December 2004.

According to the Romanian Constitution, the president can ask the parliament to re-examine any bill once before promulgation (art. 77). The graph below presents the number of vetoes President Băsescu has cast since December 2004. The data was collected from the press releases published on the website of the presidency and from the online records of the Chamber of Deputies.

graph vetoes

(click to enlarge image)

The graph shows the monthly distribution of presidential vetoes and indicates the political relationship between the president and the government. Periods of unified executive take place when the president and the prime minister belong to the same party, a divided executive occurs when the president and the prime minister belong to different parties but the president’s party is represented in government, and cohabitation occurs when the president’s party is not represented in government.

Thus, President Băsescu took office under a scenario of divided executive, as the coalition government formed by Băsescu’s Democratic Party (PD/PDL) and the National Liberals (PNL) in 2004 was led by PM Popescu-Tăriceanu, the PNL leader. The first period of cohabitation started in April 2007, when PD/PDL left the coalition, and lasted until December 2008, when PDL won the general election. The second period of cohabitation started in May 2012, after the ruling coalition led by PDL was defeated in a confidence motion and the PSD-PNL opposition formed a new government that excluded the president’s party. The period of cohabitation continued after the 2012 election, when the PSD-PNL incumbent government won a huge majority in the general election.

The data does seem to confirm that President Băsescu has used his veto powers more frequently during periods of cohabitation than under unified or divided executive. However, the differences in veto activity are not so great in quantitative terms across the three executive scenarios. For example, President Băsescu vetoed over 40 bills between 2009 and 2012, when the government was led by his designated successor as PDL leader.

The increase in the number of vetoes cast by the president might also be explained by a change that has taken place in his relationship with the PSD-PNL government.

In October 2013, President Băsescu accused PM Ponta, the PSD leader, of violating the so-called cohabitation pact signed in December 2012. The pact concerned both parts’ commitment to respect their constitutional roles, following several months of ongoing institutional conflict that included a referendum to impeach the president in July 2012. Thus, the increase in the president’s veto activity could be put down to the worsening relationship between the president and the government. For example, in December 2013 the president threatened to veto the 2014 budget unless the government agreed to give up a new excise tax on fuel. In the end the president promulgated the budget law, but only after the prime minister agreed to postpone enforcing the new tax. Thus, as the next presidential election scheduled for November 2014 is coming closer, we may expect the president’s veto activity to remain at a high level.

Slovakia – The 2014 presidential elections and prime minister Fico’s candidacy

The first round of the next Slovak presidential elections has been set for 15 March 2014 and with the deadline for registering candidates passing two weeks ago, the presidential race has begun. Recent opinion polls suggests that the race could be a done deal for prime minister Robert Fico, who announced his candidacy shortly before Christmas last year. Yet, Fico also remain the largest unknown in the contest and its aftermath.

Among the 15 candidates for the 2014 presidential race are Ján Čarnogurský and Milan Kňažko, two politicians well-known for their involvement in the Velvet Revolution and membership in the Dzurinda government (1998-2002) which brought an end to the tenure of borderline-autocratic prime minister Vladimir Mečiar. They are joined by former speaker of the Slovak National Council Pavol Hrušovský (one of the few candidates who has managed to gain official backing from a number of political parties), and entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. While the latter is runner-up in the latest opinion poll (admittedly from November 2013) and seems to continue the trend of wealthy businessmen in the region to run for political office (see e.g. Frank Stronach in Austria and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic), none of the candidates is expected to receive as many votes in the first round as prime minister Robert Fico. Kiska is currently the only candidate predicted to win if he entered a second round against Fico, yet this does not take into account the eventual support for the runner-up from other, failed candidates for either of the two. In 1999 and 2004, when above-mentioned Vladimir Mečiar entered the second round, voters grudgingly united in voting for his respective opponent as the ‘lesser evil’. While Fico is far from being the ‘greater evil’ in any combination with one of the potential runner-ups, he might still become a less preferred candidate should his plans for the future of the presidency not find public approval.

Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) on a poster for incumbent Ivan Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 | photo via wikimedia commons

It is exactly these unknown plans – potential changes to the presidential office or the general mechanisms of power in Slovakia and thereby Fico’s motivation to run for office – that have been subject to debate among experts (and it is unknown how the public would react to any of them). The Slovak presidency – despite its upgrade to popular elections in 1999 and extensive use of the easily overturned suspensive veto by its incumbents – remains a rather weak one and there are only few loopholes through which the president can block governmental or parliamentary decisions. Thus, it is surprising that Fico as a powerful prime minsiter (whose SMER party currently holds 55% of seats in the Slovak National Council) would choose to run.

On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause suggests several reasons: Except for the small likelihood of Fico actually wanting to withdraw from playing an active role in politics (either due to a) blackmail or b) health issues), there are also scenarios in which he could gain in power. He could accomplish this for instance by changing the constitutions (classified as less likely as SMER does not dispose of the necessary majority). In a post on his blog in March 2013, Robert Fico still declared the mismatch of the president’s lack of actual powers and the strong (compared to the president’s election in parliament between 1993 and 1998) electoral mandate, yet also acknowledged that it is unlikely that a super-majority to change the constitution could be reached in the next 20 years. For as much as this can be taken his actual views, one could at least assume that constitutional amendments are on Fico’s radar. 

Fico could also retain power within the framework of the existing institutions (seen as more likely by Deegan Krause) – either through accepting the splintering of his (then leader-less) party with him as guarantor of stability above the chaos (relatively unlikely) or through using the stipulations of Art 102 r) of the Slovak constitution that would allow him to chair cabinet meetings and demand reports from cabinet ministers (classified as relatively more likely).

Nevertheless, even if it is relatively most likely that Fico would retain control over his party in some way, the stipulations of Art 102 r) will probably not be part of his strategy. On the one hand, chairing cabinet meetings is a rather formal affair and while important policy decisions are officially taken at these meetings, they have been prepared elsewhere – in the ministries or in negotiations between a subset of government members. On the other hand, the example of Slovakia’s first president Michál Kováč – who despite backing from the constitutional court (which also ruled that the president had no influence over the content of the reports and could not even set a deadline for their completion) was unsuccessfully in obtaining any reports from the government – shows that Fico would need to exert control differently.

Rather, Fico might imitate some of the strategies of former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) in dealing with his party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). While Kwaśniewski was not prime minister but ‘only’ party leader and chairman of the parliamentary party, his control over the SLD was still wide-reaching. After becoming president and resigning as party leader, he remained the major point of orientation for his party for the next years (which would be even more the case for Fico, who faces hardly any intra-party competition) and then supported the SLD-led governments while also building a wider than merely partisan appeal. Even though the SLD lost the 1997 parliamentary elections, Kwaśniewski’s popularity eventually rubbed off on the party and so guaranteed its support for his re-election in 2000. After the SLD’s return to government in 2001, Kwaśniewski faced opposition from the new party leader and prime minister Miller yet was able to retain a sizeable influence due to the personal loyalty of a large number of SLD deputies.

Thus, should Fico want to hold on to power or expand it within the existing framework of institutions, it would need to be – at least publicly – more ‘hands-off’ and depend on informal connections and loyalties as well as a change of his public image rather than the use of formal powers and constitutional loopholes.

France – The popularity of President Hollande

On Sunday, an opinion poll suggested that the popularity of the beleaguered French president, François Hollande, may finally have stabilized. A total of 22% of those polled said that they were satisfied with him as president. This was the same figure as for December 2013, which was itself a 2 point gain over the November figure. However, President Hollande’s satisfaction rating has fallen steadily since he was elected in May 2012. Then, 61% were satisfied. The November satisfaction rating of 20% was the lowest of his presidency so far.

What does this mean for Hollande’s presidency? Well, on the bright side, the president poll rating is scarcely any worse than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Measured by the same polling agency, Sarkozy’s satisfaction rating fell from a high of 69% in August 2007, soon after his election, to a low of 28% just a year before the 2012 presidential election. However, immediately prior to the 2012 election, Sarkozy’s poll rating had improved to 36%. So, polls can go up as well as down. It is also worth remembering that at the second round of the 2012 election, Sarkozy was not defeated by a large margin, winning 48.4% of the vote. So, being unpopular is different from being unelectable.

But that’s about all the bright side there is at the moment. For example, one difference between President Hollande and President Sarkozy can be found in the satisfaction ratings of their respective Prime Ministers. Sarkozy was always much less popular than his PM, François Fillon. In August 2007 Fillon was slightly less popular than the president. However, in April 2011 when Sarkozy was at his lowest in the polls PM Fillon’s satisfaction rating was 48%. So, even if the president was unpopular, the right-wing government consistently maintained quite good support. By contrast, President Hollande’s PM, Jean-Marc Ayrault, had a satisfaction rating of 23% in November 2012, which was almost as low as the president’s. With European and, especially, municipal elections due in a few months time, President Hollande’s Socialist party risks a serious electoral defeat.

Yet wait. The next presidential election is due in 2017. The Eurozone economy is likely to pick up between now and then. Given President Hollande will be judged almost entirely on the economy, then he still has a couple of years to hope that he will get the credit for bringing down unemployment. This isn’t impossible, though Sarkozy himself ran out of time in 2012. In between time, there will almost certainly be a change of PM possibly as early as the summer. This may allow him to consolidate the new start that he tried to make at his New Year press conference last week. The initiatives he announced there were relatively popular in the sense that a majority believed that they were oriented towards the future. Moreover, the revelations about his private life do not seem to have had any effect on his popularity. Three-quarters of the public said that it was a private matter.

So, while the President Hollande will never be as popular as he was at the beginning of his term, the presidency is not forever tainted. The Socialist party is likely to face a difficult set of elections in the coming years, but the extreme right is unlikely to become the majority party in the system. France is still looking towards a general European recovery to improve its situation, but the Republic is not about to collapse. Small crumbs of comfort all the same.

Venezuela – Nicolás Maduro Begins the New Year with a Cabinet Reshuffle

For many, the New Year represents an opportunity for change. For Nicolás Maduro, the somewhat embattled President of Venezuela, the beginning of 2014 has ushered in a cabinet reshuffle and a reorganization of the nation’s economic management.

On Wednesday January 15th, Maduro, in his first state of the union speech, addressed the national assembly and presented his annual government report. As part of this speech, Maduro laid out his major initiatives for the year. All in all, these initiatives signaled quite a degree of organizational change in both his government and strategy of economic governance.

To begin, he announced the reorganization of his cabinet. José Khan will become the Minister of Commerce, while the Public Banking Ministry and the Ministry of Finance will be merged. Rodolfo Marco Torres, the current Minister of Public Banking, will assume this new expanded portfolio and replace Nelson Merentes as Finance minister. Although Merentes will now be the head of the Central Bank, many see the appointment of Torres, an army general who was part of Hugo Chávez’s attempted coup of 1992, as a clear indication that Maduro is set upon deepening the socialist revolution begun by his predecessor, given Torres is deemed something of an ideologue in comparison to the more pragmatic Merentes.

As part of the realignment of his economic team, Maduro also announced a series of economic reforms aimed at addressing some of the more serious underlying flaws in the Venezuelan economy. These reforms include a strengthening of government control over the national currency, the bolívar. The Foreign Exchange Administration Commission (Cadivi) is to be disbanded and its responsibilities assumed by the National Foreign Trade Corporation (which will now be run by Alejandro Fleming), while the official exchange rate has been set at 6.3 bolívars to 1 US dollar, for the entirety of 2014. Although this was not the currency devaluation expected by economists, given the widening fiscal deficit, the Financial Times has suggested it represents “devaluation by stealth,” as the foreign exchange auction system (Sicad), where the Central Bank sells US dollars, is to be significantly expanded.

Finally, both to further bolster the government’s reforms, and to combat an inflation rate hovering around 54 per cent, Maduro announced the establishment of a 30 per cent ceiling on profits for all businesses, which will be part of the new Law on Costs and Fair Prices.

However, it isn’t all change in Maduro’s Venezuela. Rafael Ramírez will remain as vice-president of the government’s economic cabinet, energy minister and president of the state-run oil company, PDVSA.