Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nigeria – President Goodluck Jonathan Suspends Central Bank Governor

On Thursday 20 February President Goodluck Jonathan moved to suspend the Governor of the Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi. The suspension did not come as a surprise as relations between the President and the Governor had deteriorated rapidly over the previous six months. However, it has undermined the credibility of Goodluck Jonathan’s administration – at least in the eyes of the international community and his domestic critics, who fear that Sanusi has been removed to facilitate corruption and inappropriate government expenditure in the run-up to the 2015 general elections.

Lamido Sanusi was first appointed by President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009. Although he had relevant experience as a CEO of the First Bank of Nigeria, he was initially seen as a political appointment, intended to extend the President’s control of the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy. But Sanusi’s willingness to implement far-reaching reform of the country’s banks earned him respect both at home and abroad. As part of his attempts to clean up Nigeria’s financial sector – which had developed a reputation for poor governance and instability – he mandated banks to achieve a higher level of capitalisation and forced a number of his former colleagues to resign.

The Governor’s efforts were widely applauded by the international community and foreign investors. When President Goodluck Jonathan succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua and appointed the respected Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – a former Managing Director at the World Bank – as Finance Minister, international donors hailed the emergence of a new “technocratic” governance structure.

But Sanusi’s populist grandstanding and willingness to take on some of Nigeria’s most powerful political and economic brokers also made him unpopular with influential figures within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Days before he was suspended, Sanusi had publicly embarrassed the President and the Petroleum Minister by alleging that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to account for $20 billion in oil revenues generated between January 2012 and July 2013.

In response, PDP leaders accused the Governor of deliberately airing the government’s dirty laundry in public in order to provide ammunition for the opposition in the run up to general elections that are due to be held in February 2015. Their evidence for making this claim was that some of Sanusi’s closest friends have joined the recently formed All Progressives Congress (APC), which represents the biggest threat to the PDP’s authority in a decade.

For his part, President Goodluck Jonathan has attempted to play down over Sanusi’s departure in two ways. First, he has claimed that Sanusi was not removed for political reasons but because of a number of allegations of improper conduct that have been made against the Governor. These include violating the Public Procurement Act, failing to report his financial arrangements, and spending state resources inappropriately. Second, the President has pointed out that Sanusi is only suspended and can be reinstated if he proves to be innocent on all charges.

This approach may have satisfied some of the President’s supporters, but it did little to reassure world markets. Following the announcement of Sanusi’s suspension, there was a sharp fall in the interbank Naira rate, forcing the government to temporarily close foreign exchange and fixed income markets. It is believed that Sanusi’s temporary replacement as Central Bank Governor, Sarah Alade, spent $2 billion over just 4 days in a bid to protect the Naira.

The row rumbles on. Although Sanusi has stated that he has no desire to go back to his former job, he has also applied to the High Court in Abuja to ‘make an order of interlocutory injunction restraining the defendants from obstructing, disturbing, stopping or preventing him, in any manner whatsoever, from performing the functions of his office as the CBN governor and enjoying in full the statutory powers and privileges attached to the office.’

The case is unlikely to be resolved in Sanusi’s favour, but the pressure on the President is also unlikely to let up.  On 25 February, the Finance Minister asked for ‘urgent action with regard to an independent forensic audit of conflicting claims of unaccounted funds made by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and suspended Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mallam Sanusi Lamdio Sanusi’. Although it was couched in careful language, the President will not have been pleased with these remarks, which appear to tacitly support the former Central Bank Governor. But having suspended Sanusi he finds himself constrained, because to fire the Finance Minister at this point would seriously undermine confidence in the Nigerian government, and by extension the economy.


Romania – Government coalition breaks down ahead of EP and presidential elections

Romania’s governing coalition broke down on February 25th, when the National Liberal Party (PNL) decided to withdraw its ministers from government and leave the Social Liberal Union (USL) with the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Formally, the liberals’ decision came as a result of the social democrats’ refusal to grant them several key positions in a reshuffled cabinet. However, the gradual deterioration of the relationship between the two parties has been put down to their competing interests in the 2014 presidential election.

The USL was formed in February 2011, when both parties were in opposition. The coalition’s aim was to join forces against President Băsescu’s Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in the 2012 local and general elections. The two parties signed a political protocol that committed them to stand by a common candidate in the next presidential election. While no particular name was included in the protocol, the understanding was that Victor Ponta, the social democratic leader, would take the prime minister position, while Crin Antonescu, the liberal leader, would become the coalition’s presidential candidate.

The USL came to power in May 2012 without an election, after two successive PDL-led governments collapsed as a result of street protests and after losing a no-confidence vote in the parliament. The USL opposition formed a government with Victor Ponta as prime minister, beginning a period of cohabitation with President Băsescu. Afterwards, the USL majority voted to remove President Băsescu from office but the referendum organised in July 2012 to consult the population on this decision was invalidated due to low electoral turnout. Meanwhile, the USL came first in the 2012 local election and went on to win a supermajority of nearly 70% of the parliamentary seats in the general election later that year.

The 2012 parliamentary election prolonged the period of cohabitation between the USL majority and President Băsescu. However, after a new government was formed by Victor Ponta, the relationship between the liberals and social democrats started to deteriorate.

The two parties clashed over several issues, including the cohabitation pact signed by PM Ponta and Train Băsescu in December 2012. Crin Antonescu was particularly vocal in opposing this document, as he aimed to be perceived as the incumbent president’s most devoted adversary. The liberals also disagreed with the social democrats as far as the Hungarian minority party’s (UDMR) participation in government was concerned as well as on several key appointments to the national anti-corruption agency and the general prosecutor office. During 2013 the main tensions concerned several cabinet appointments, the co-operation between the two parties at local level, and the different stands they took on outstanding pieces of legislation, such as the controversial bill on the Roşia Montana gold mine plan and the amnesty and ‘super-immunity’ bills.

The rift between the two coalition parties deepened in early 2014 and for two reasons. First, the liberals and the social democrats decided to run separate lists at the European Parliament elections, while PSD and the other two parties in the broader USL coalition signed an agreement to run together in these elections as the Social Democratic Union (USD).

Second, the liberals insisted on changing the coalition’s political protocol so that it specifically designates Crin Antonescu as the member parties’ common candidate at the presidential election scheduled for November 2014.  The social democrats opposed this move not only because Antonescu was losing ground in approval ratings but also because the PSD has not held the presidency of the country since 2004 and has only spent relatively short periods of time in power since then. In short, the party expects its own leader to run in the presidential race.  

The situation is still in flux after PNL left the government. PM Ponta announced that the new cabinet will include the UDMR, which together with the smaller parties in the former USL coalition and the representatives of the national minorities guarantee the formation of a new parliamentary majority. The social democrats also expect to stand their own candidate in the presidential election. However, while Victor Ponta emerges with the best chances of winning this contest, he would rather stay in office as head of government.

The USL’s breakdown could contribute to a further fragmentation of the centre right. Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, the former leader of the PNL and prime minister between 2004 and 2008, has already left the party as a result of Crin Antonescu’s decision to break the governing coalition. He aims to set up a new liberal party and to contest the presidential race. Antonescu’s falling popularity could also lead to the emergence of alternative candidacies within the PNL.  After the 2012 general election, when it obtained only 14% of the parliamentary seats, the PDL lost President Băsescu’s support and many of its high-profile members have now formed a new Popular Movement Party. Both parties are preparing to field their own presidential candidates. In this context, the European Parliament elections could be used as a test for the relative strength of the centre-right groupings and might be followed by new electoral alliances and joint candidacies that would stand a better chance against the social democratic contender.

Uzbekistan – The president, the daughters and the succession struggle

Last week, ten associates and allies to Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s daughter, were arrested in Tashkent amid accusations of forgery, illegal business activities, money laundering, tax evasion, and the illegal export of large amounts of hard currency. This is the last chapter of a struggle within the Uzbek elite involving Gulnara Karimova and her business network, the head of the security services and members of her family ahead of presidential elections scheduled for early 2015.

The issue of the succession to Islam Karimov has been high in the political agenda of the country since March 2013, when the 76-years old president was rumoured to have suffered a heart attack. Karimov has been ruling Uzbekistan since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and several contenders for succession exist among the regime’s apparatchiks. One is Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the National Security Service, considered to be the country’s second most powerful man. Other candidates are Rustam Azimov, the first deputy prime minister, as well as Minister of Finance, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been prime minister since 2003, and Gulnara herself.

Gulnara Karimova is a 42-year old businesswoman, pop diva, fashion designer and diplomat. She is under judicial investigation, having been accused of corruption and money laundering connected to her financial and business activities in Sweden and Switzerland, where Avakiyan and other three alleged Karimova’s associates, today detained in Uzbekistan, are also being investigated. Furthermore, several media outlets connected to the Terra Group, a media holding controlled by Karimova, have been taken off the air, as the group is investigated for bribe-taking. In November 2013, Karimova accused the chief of the country’s National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, of conspiring against her.

The elite feuding started last September, when Gulnara’s younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, dismissed Gulnara’s chances of succeeding her father as the next Uzbek president. Gulnara reacted by suggesting that Lola Karimova’s business activities were not fully legal, and by accusing her sister of mounting a campaign against her at the instigation of the National Security Service. Other accusations have involved Gulnara’s mother Tatiana Karimova, Inoyatov and other National Security Service staff. Traditionally above the law, the Security Service found itself under pressure for being accused of eroding President Karimov’s confidence in his daughter. Gulnara also carried updates on staff members at her various ventures whom she said had been arbitrarily detained by the Security Services.

Many analysts believe such a campaign against Karimova’s person and business empire could not have happened unless her father sanctioned it, but Gulnara declared that her father is not behind her ‘fall from grace’.

São Tomé and Príncipe – President Manuel Pinto da Costa

President Manuel Pinto da Costa is São Tomé and Príncipe’s third democratically elected president since the collapse of the socialist one-party regime in 1991. Since 1991 the archipelago has experienced 8 presidents, 17 governments, and has been headed by 14 different prime ministers from four different parties. None of the governments completed their 4-year term. Pinto da Costa’s presidency, like the one of his predecessors, is marked by political instability.

President Pinto da Costa was the first president of São Tomé and Príncipe after independence (1975-1991) and co-founder of the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe/Social Democratic Party (MLSTP/PSD). Yet during the 2011 presidential elections he ran as an independent candidate. In the presidential runoff he defeated Evaristo Carvalho of the ruling Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party by 52.9% to 47.1%.

When the president assumed office in September 2011, he was faced with a prime minister, Patrice Trovoada, from the ADI. The ADI government, which already lacked a clear parliamentary majority, was weakened by the loss of its candidate at the presidential election.

The situation where the government is supported by a legislative minority and opposes the president is designated as a divided minority government and is associated with institutional conflict and political instability.[1] Under Pinto da Costa’s presidency Trovoada’s minority government lasted only 15 months.

The president dismissed the government on 4 December 2012 following a parliamentary vote of no confidence on 29 November. Despite attempts by his ADI party to contest the decision (notably via the staging of a mass demonstration on 5 December), a new prime minister in Gabriel da Costa of the Union of Democrats for Citizenship and Development (UDD) was appointed by the president. Prime minister da Costa formed a coalition majority government composed of three former opposition parties, MLSTP/PSD, Democratic Convergence Party (PCD) and Force for Change Democratic Movement – Liberal Party (MDFM-PL) and some independents.[2]

With the appointment of Gabriel da Costa the relationship between the president and prime minister has improved. However, corruption scandals have plagued the coalition government. President Pinto da Costa has taken several steps to combat corruption, which, according to him, “destroys democracy”. The most rigorous step was, probably, the government reshuffle in January 2014. In line with the prime minister’s proposal, the president replaced the minister for public works, infrastructure, and natural resources, Osvaldo Abreu, by Fernando Maquengo. Equally, Leonel Pontes, the minister of health and social affairs was dismissed and substituted by Maria Tomé de Araújo. In addition, the president appointed two new government members, namely Demostenes Pires dos Santos as the new minister of tourism, commerce and industry and José Fonseca as state secretary for public works, infrastructure and natural resources.

The military have posed another threat to the political stability of the country. In early February the army refused to dispatch a guard of honour to salute the departure of the president to a conference in Brazzaville, complaining about payment arrears, bad working conditions, and a general lack of recognition of their services. The military strike forced the armed forces chief of staff, Brigadier Felisberto Maria Segundo, to resign. He was replaced by Colonel Justino Lima, who was sworn in by the president on 18 February. São Tomé experienced military coups in 1995 and 2003. Both were non-violent and resulted in negotiated settlements on the restructuring of the armed forces and salary increases.

Political instability could continue as the 2014 legislative election (exact date still unconfirmed) is likely to produce another weak coalition or minority government. Politics in São Tomé – an archipelago of only 180,000 inhabitants – is dominated by four main political parties that do not differ in terms of political ideologies but represent competing interest groups and personalities. Moreover, the country’s electoral system, party-list proportional representation, makes it very difficult for one party to achieve an absolute majority.

[1] Skach, C. (2005) Borrowing Constitutional Designs: Constitutional Law in Weimar Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] (2013) ‘SÃO TOMÉ E PRÍNCIPE: No-Confidence Vote’, Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social and Cultural Series, 49, 19519A–19519B.

Kazakhstan – President’s order to devalue national currency causes protests

The Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev took the decision to devalue the national currency, the tenge, against the US dollar by nearly 20 percent of its original value in order to boost economic growth and exports. This move, announced on the 11th February, was aimed to prevent large-scale foreign exchange speculation after the value of the Russian ruble fell by 10 percent earlier in January. The goal is to increase the competitiveness of the Kazakh economy, the president declared, with no negative impact on ordinary citizens. However, protests against this decision have been widespread in a country which is well-known for its political stability.

Nazarbayev has been ruling Kazakhstan since its independence in December 1991 and enjoys popular support because of his track record of improving  national economic performance by attracting foreign investments, notably in the energy sector. However, according to the Prime Minister, Serik Akhmetov, and the National Bank’s Chairman, Kairat Kelimbetov, recently imports have been growing faster than exports. The country had already devalued its national currency in 2009, a move which resulted in a significant increase in the flow of capitals towards Astana and in limited inflation. To contrast possible negative effects of devaluation, Nazarbayev urged national companies in the metal and oil industry to increase salaries by 10 percent. He also ordered a 10 percent increase for the salaries of state employees in various sectors (education, health care, social protection), as well as increases to pensions and other social payments. In addition, he ordered a raid on the country’s strategic oil reserve fund to finance manufacturing and industrialization in 2014 and 2015, in an effort to prevent growth rates from slipping.

Despite these measures, protesters raced to three banks in an effort to withdraw their savings. In Almaty, protesters gathered on Sunday 16th February, staging the seventh protest since the announcement of the devaluation, in a country well-known for its lack of political mobilisation. Furthermore, last week an anonymous message circulated on WhatsApp warning that three of the country’s private banks (Kaspi Bank, Alians Bank, and Centrcredit Bank) were on the verge of bankruptcy, causing mass panic. In reaction, on Friday the president declared that the initiators of the information campaign against the banks will be punished and Kaspi Bank announced a reward of 100 million tenge for identifying them. The perpetrators have been already arrested by the General Prosecutor’s Office. In several cities, protesters have also demanded the revision of their mortgage loans, which were taken in US dollars when the tenge’s exchange rate against the dollar was much lower than today. The protesters complained that since their salaries are in tenges, their mortgage debts have increased dramatically. A National Bank spokesman told the protesters that the bank had established a commission to revise the request.

Haiti – In search of Senate elections

The political system in Haiti is in a constant state of flux. Since the onset of some form of democracy in 1987, there have been repeated collapses, transitions, and occasionally some governance. In part, this is due to the constitution. The president has relatively few powers and requires a majority in parliament to govern. Parliament is split between two chambers. They have basically equal powers. Both have to approve the government and both can bring it down. The Senate also sits in permanent session, meaning that the government is permanently looking over its shoulder. While the constitution is poorly designed, the earthquake in January 2010 was so devastating that existing political and economic problems were exacerbated making all aspects of governance more difficult.

President Michel Martelly took office in May 2011. He has struggled to win majority support in either house, and has faced particular difficulty in the Senate. Elections to the Chamber of Deputies were held with the presidential election in November 2010/March 2011. They are due to be held at the same time as the next presidential election. However, elections to the Senate are overdue. If they were to be held and if the president could win a majority there, then he would be much better placed to pass legislation. However, holding elections to the Senate is causing problems.

The Senate comprises 30 Senators. Full elections were held in 2006. Since then, there have been a number of constitutional amendments that have changed the duration of their mandate. However, the current situation is that Senators serve for six years with a partial renewal of the seats every two years, with 10 seats being elected each time on a rolling US-style basis. There were partial elections in 2009. There were also partial elections in 2010/2011. There were due to be partial elections at the end of 2011. However, they were delayed because of problems with establishing an acceptable, independent and permanent electoral commission. This means that since 2012, there have been only 20 Senators in office. The next round of partial elections was scheduled for later this year when they were due to be held with the local elections, but there is no guarantee that they will go ahead. This opens up the possibility of there being only 10 Senators left if elections do not take place.

The delay in holding elections has partly been caused by a delay in setting up a new and permanent electoral commission. In April 2013 a so-called Collège Transitoire du Conseil Électoral Permanent (CTCEP) was established. This was an interim electoral commission. It was the result of a lot of bargaining between the executive and the legislature. However, it meant that in theory there was now an institutional mechanism for organising elections. In December an electoral law was passed by both chambers of parliament and was promulgated by the president. In January of this year the president of the interim commission announced that elections to the Senate could be held within six months, begging the question of whether this would be just for the 10 vacant seats or for those seats and for the 10 seats that are due to expire at the end of this year as well. However, faced with these difficulties and also a cause of them, various Senators have been pressing for the length of their mandate to be extended. More than that, some Senators, notably those associated with the former President Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas group, have threatened violence if their terms are not extended. So, the absence of elections is more than just the inability of political groups to agree on the composition of an electoral commission. It is also the result of some groups not wanting an election to be held at all.

To help resolve the situation, at the end of January at the suggestion of the churches there was a two-week-long period of ‘national dialogue’. This brought together representatives of the executive, legislature, political parties and civil society, though not all representatives always attended, notably the Fanmi Lavalas.

In the end, an agreement was reached. There are signs that it would have led to a new electoral commission with the promise of new elections as well as a change of government but not necessarily the PM, who is an ally of the President Martelly. However, the agreement was still-born. President Martelly refused to name 10 members of the Cour Supérieure des Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif (CSCCA) as required by the deal. Therefore, the president of the Senate, Simon Dieuseul Desras, who is an opponent of President Martelly, refused to sign the agreement. The agreement has now been delayed ‘sine die’.

However, maybe there is hope. President Martelly and the president of the Senate, Simon Dieuseul Desras, are both travelling to Rome to attend the investiture of Haiti’s first ever cardinal on Sunday. They are not travelling together, but there is the hope that they may meet on the margins of the visit and reach a deal that will end of the country’s many periods of transition.

Turkey – Erdogan tightens his grip via draconian Internet Law

Parliamentary elections are approaching in Turkey following a year of intense political turmoil. Arab Spring protests, corruption scandals, and a fall-out within the political elite – all events that appeared to threaten Erdogan’s grip on power. However, while arguably tremendously unpopular, recent developments seem to suggest that all is not over for the incumbent prime minister, and the ruling party – the AKP – is still going strong.

Popular demonstrations, anti-Islamist sentiments and accusations of corruption of the political elite have long been the order of the day in Turkey. So, how come domestic and international commentators were beginning to wonder whether Turkey was coming to the end of the Erdogan era? After all, not long ago, Erdogan had been awarded the Time’s people’s choice award,[1] and he had recently been described as the most powerful Turkish leader since Atatürk following the AKP’s successful campaign to edge out the once to powerful military from the political scene. The most straightforward answer appears to be that while Erodgan and the AKP had succeeded internationally in maintaining their hard-earned and carefully crafted reputation as Turkey’s new guarantors of democracy, this view was no longer shared by large segments of the population at home. As the popularity of Erdogan and the trust in the government began to decline – and at speed – both actors naturally became more vulnerable. In light of the Arab Spring, which successfully triggered regime change (in the sense of rotation of power elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa), the critics of the regime also became more outspoken.

This was brilliantly illustrated by the corruption scandal that erupted shortly before Christmas 2013, when Istanbul’s public prosecutor Zekeriya Öz had the police arrest some 50 members of the country’s political elite in a large-scale corruption case, involving bribes, the circumvention of sanctions against Iran, and money laundering.[2] Among those arrested were key personalities within the AKP, influential businesspeople, and the sons of three cabinet ministers, plus several senior lawmakers and the head of the state-owned Halkbank. A summons for Bilal Erdogan – the prime minister’s son – was also issued, but the police refused to obey the arrest order, a story that was repeated for several AKP members too. The handling of the corruption scandal raised serious eyebrows at home and abroad, not so much because of the people involved, but for the reason that the arrest orders were made in the first place, and due to the fact that the investigation was headed by Öz, who had previously aided Erdogan in the infamous ‘Ergenekon’ case[3], where a network of high-profile secular nationalists with supposed ties to the military were prosecuted for allegedly plotting a coup.[4]

The corruption scandal raised the issue of whether Erdogan was beginning to lose support within the establishment. In other words, if Öz was turning on the prime minister (regardless of whether that was, indeed, the case), who would turn next? This debate, in turn, opened up for the discussion of scenarios for the future. Amongst the general population, and within political circles too, people were beginning to consider alternatives to Erdogan, while Erdogan and his supporters grew increasingly paranoid, fearing disloyalty from within the establishment in an election year, and perhaps even a coup attempt. The chief suspect was Fethullah Gülen, a spiritual leader and head of the Hizmet movement, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US. Gülen was a close ally of Erdogan and the AKP in their challenging of the military, and he was generously rewarded for his efforts as Hizmet members were appointed to key positions within the establishment. Should Gülen turn, where would the loyalties of these people lie, the regime is beginning to ask.[5] Not surprisingly, there has been a purge within the state in recent months as Erdogan has ordered the sacking of some 2,000 police officers from their posts, and the sacking or ‘reassignment’ of no less than 96 judges.[6]

With the recent furore surrounding the new Internet Law, at least one name has been removed from the list of potential enemies: president Abdullah Gül. There had long been speculations of a rift between the president and the prime minister, but Gül’s endorsement of the highly controversial Internet Law, which he signed on 18 February, is widely seen as a sign that the two leaders are cooperating.[7] This reality is causing further concern, however. If Erdogan and the AKP are still going strong in a year where elections are coming up, and if both still enjoy the support of the president (who used to be affiliated with the AKP himself), where are the viable alternatives going to come from, and where is Turkey heading given that state control is on the increase, and the new Internet Law effectively provides the government (rather than the judiciary) with wide-ranging measures when it comes to curbing dissent and opposing opinions.[8]

Venezuela – Do the Current Protests Represent a Threat to Maduro’s Presidency?

Since early last week, protests across Venezuela have seen the death of four people; near nightly clashes between students and riot police; and the expulsion of three senior US consular officials, who the government accused of attempting to infiltrate the disaffected student groups. Yesterday, police arrested the main protest leader, Leopoldo López. These protests have caught the attention of media outlets across the world, which have wasted no time in engaging in hyperbole about the instability of the Maduro government. But what does all this mean for Nicolás Maduro, the embattled President of Venezuela? Do these protests really represent a threat to his presidency?

The short answer is (a qualified) no. Of course, this is not to say that the more radical elements of the opposition hope these protests will provide the catalyst for Maduro’s removal. However, in general, the protests can largely be understood within the context of student and middle class discontent with steadily rising prices (a standard theme at this blog) and increasing goods shortages. These protests may represent unhappiness with the Maduro government, flames, which are being energetically fanned by the organized opposition, but Maduro still retains a loyal base of support, and perhaps more importantly, is relatively institutionally secure.

This is not a moot point. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Collor in Brazil. Even more apposite for the case in point, consider the impeachment of Carlos Andrés Pérez and his removal from office in the wake of  protests across Venezuela in 1992-93, known as the Caracazo. The number of presidents in Latin America who have finished their terms ahead of schedule in the last twenty years, is now well into double digits.

However, although these protests played a role in the downfall of many of these presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office. For example, the challenge to Ernesto Samper’s presidency in 1995-96 faltered due to his cohesive majority in congress.[2]

Given Maduro can still count on a majority in the assembly and still has recourse to significant presidential powers, unless these protests (which appear to be waning) grow in size and intensity, and induce government legislators to ally with the opposition to mount a legislative challenge, Maduro’s presidency appears safe. This is not to say that the protests have not been without cost. In fact, what these recent events have served to do, particularly given the heavy-handed response of the government, is to erode the legitimacy of the Maduro administration in the eyes of the international media, and to hand the Venezuelan opposition something of a PR coup.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

[2] Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.


Indonesia – (Dead) Presidents and Political Parties

The electoral race is heating up with the countdown to the legislative elections in April 2014 and the presidential elections in July. Almost on cue, we see political swipes taken against the standing president – President Yudhoyono and his once-popular Democratic Party – as well as the intensifying efforts of political parties to build momentum. The exercise has witnessed an increasing number of political parties seizing on legacies of past, dead presidents, namely, President Suharto, President Sukarno, and President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. In the case of President Gus Dur Wahid – a moderate Muslim strongly opposed to religious intolerance – several Islamic parties are vying to lay claims to preserving and continuing the president’s ideals. Are political parties harking back to the past of personalistic politics rather than constructing competitive, cogent political agenda based on voters’ interests? Does this speak to a trend of diminution of political parties? Evidence suggests that the answers are: no, and no.

In the first instance, there are indications that Indonesian political parties have worked to develop platforms for competitive election – albeit with varying success – with several incorporating an anti-corruption stance on their agenda. For instance, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) – the largest Islamic Party in Indonesia – has tried to expand beyond religion to become the “clean” party, i.e., one untainted by corruption, reflecting the effort to move beyond a religious platform and probably the awareness that religion was no longer sufficient to attract Indonesia’s popular vote. Unfortunately for the party, the efforts were cut short by corruption charges and sex and bribery scandals that hit the highest levels of the party. Similarly, President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party was elected on a platform of anticorruption, social justice, and economic performance and the party’s recent escalated decline is due not only to the battery of corruption charges and intraparty feuds but also a lack of policy performance. The rise of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in the polls beyond the popularity of its chair, Megawati Sokarnoputi, may also be considered as moving beyond personalities. Of course, one may argue that the new-found popularity of the PDI-P may not be due to a more robust party agenda but, rather, the popularity of Jakarta Governonr Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. There’s certainly something to that: for instance, news reports point out that Jokowi’s popularity has led parties other than the PDI-P to feature him in their political ads. But, it is also true that Jokowi’s popularity rests largely on: (a) his record of successful implementation of policy platforms; and (b) Jokowi’s “man-of-the-people” that has engaged young and old voters. More importantly, they represent significant departures from personalistic-cult politics.

These circumstances point to a hopeful assessment on the question in the second instance: the diminution of political parties in Indonesia may be greatly exaggerated. What we are witnessing is the stops and starts in the process of institutionalizing political parties in emergent democracies. With elections imminent and in the face of several unpopular revelations, it is not surprising that some parties hope to stem the tide of losing popular support by harking back to past. It remains to be seen if this will work in the immediate term; there is no question, however, that in the medium- and long-term, programmatic appeal or policy record are the bases for electoral success.

Hungary – Presidency lost?!

About one and a half years ago I explained in a post on my old blog why there could still be hope for the Hungarian presidency to develop as an independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Yet with the next parliamentary elections approaching, it appears that under the rule of Fidesz and Prime Minister Orbán the Hungarian presidency has lost this role, and (potentially) its raison d’être, too.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and president János Áder (right) | © Tibor Végh via wikimedia commons

Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and president Janos Ader (right) |         © Tibor Végh via wikimedia commons

Towards the end Ferenc Mádl’s term in office (the country’s second democratically elected president – 2000-2005), a number of publications declared the emergence of a German/ Austrian-style ‘Chancellor democracy’ in Hungary. [1] After the role of the presidency had been defined as the outcome of several clashes between president and government, Hungarian Prime Ministers had become the dominant political players, yet the presidents’ role was still significant. This became clear when former Constitutional Court president László Sólyom was elected in 2005. Faced with increasingly unpopular governments  (which eventually lost their parliamentary majority) led by the Hungarian Socialist Party, Sólyom was not shy to use his powers and sent badly crafted bills back to parliament or the Constitutional Court.

After the election of Pál Schmitt as Solyom’s successor, the activity (or rather inactivity) of the president was largely determined by the government (with Schmitt’s consent as he promised ‘not to obstruct the work of the government’ in any way). After Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism-induced resignation, János Áder promised to be a more active president than his party colleague and that he would check government bills more thoroughly. Áder’s potential for activism is of course naturally restricted by virtue of his indirect election (and the fact that Fidesz is likely to once again dominate parliament after the elections in April). Nevertheless, together with Prime Minister Orbán and parliament speaker László Kövér Áder belongs to the three men that have led Fidesz for the past twenty years and thus has more authority than his predecessor. Since his election in May 2012, Áder also referred 17 bills to parliament (in all but one case his amendatory observations were accepted). 

Yet, recent developments have shown that the president is less independent (or committed to independence) than political observers and practitioners initially thought. Áder failed to criticise, veto or send to the constitutional court any of the controversial constitutional amendments introduced over the last two years. He also signed off the new electoral law which – despite including several amendments that made the system more effective – gave way to the exclusion of ethnic minorities. His signature under a highly controversial nuclear power deal with Russia that was negotiated without a proper tendering process is the latest case in which the opposition has accused Áder of not fulfilling his constitutional duties.

Áder also created great controversy when he announced the date for the 2014 parliamentary elections. Not only did he wait until very late to announce them, but then also set the date for the earliest possible day. This not only reduces the time for an electoral campaign but also the time for parties to gather the required number of signatures. Contrary to political practice Áder did not consult the date of elections with the opposition parties and agreed on it with the government parties months before its declaration. The latter was only revealed when a government MP mentioned the date by mistake during a parliamentary debate.

The new Hungarian constitution of 2011 did not change any stipulations on the presidential office, and this despite the fact that many of them were ambiguous and led to fierce political conflict or contained powers (such as the right to legislative initiative) on which both politicians and legal scholars agree that the president must not use them. Yet as shown above the role of the president in practice differs very much from stipulations and previous practice. While one could attribute Áder’s failure to criticise controversial government policies to his party affiliation and wish for re-election, there are hardly any other examples in the region where an indirectly elected president remained so inactive. Even if in friendly relations with the government, presidents in Central and Eastern Europe have never subordinated themselves to the government to the same extent as Áder. Even German presidents have – while being significantly less powerful and legally subordinate to the federal government in political matters – not shown such inactivity.

Further amendments to the Hungarian constitution are likely, but will probably not include a removal of the presidency. Nevertheless, for the current functioning of the Hungarian political system, its existence appears to be largely irrelevant.

[1] For instance:
Dieringer, Jürgen. 2005. ‘Staatspräsident Árpád Göncz: Wegbereiter der ungarischen ‘Kanzlerdemokratie’ wider Willen.’ [President Árpád Göncz: Inadvertent enabler of the Hungarian ‘Chancellor Democracy’] Südosteuropa. Zeitschrift für Politik und Gesellschaft 2/2005, 272-288.
Schiemann, John W. 2004. Hungary: the emergence of chancellor democracy. Journal of Legislative Studies 10 (2) 128-141.