Monthly Archives: November 2014

Malkhaz Nakashidze – The Changing Face of Semi-presidentialism in Georgia

This is a guest post by Malkhaz Nakashidze of the Shota Rustaveli State University, Georgia


From October 2012 to November 2013 there was a period of cohabitation in Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili from the United National Movement (UNM) was opposed to PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream Coalition. In November 2013 this period of cohabitation ended when Giorgi Margvelashvili, the candidate of the Georgian Dream Coalition and a close ally of Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the presidential election. It was expected that the president and the new PM, Irakli Garibashvili, also from the Georgian Dream Coalition, would cooperate smoothly. However, this has not been the case.

In May 2013 former PM Ivanishvili strongly criticized President Margvelashvili for using the presidential palace that was built during the presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, arguing that it was a symbol of violence, evil and indecency. He stated that before being elected as president, Margvelashvili himself was strongly opposed to using the palace. After the election, though, Margvelashvili held several meetings there, including the appointment of various ambassadors. President Margvelashvili was also criticized for appointing Vano Matchavariani, who was the brother of the new leader of UNM, Mikheil Matchavariani, as a foreign policy adviser, though he later resigned from the post. Margvelashvili was also criticized when he considered vetoing a criminal procedure bill in late December 2013. The bill had been opposed by the UNM and civil society organisations. In fact, President Margvelashvili’s first veto was issued in October 2014 on a bill relating to the power of the security services. This generated considerable criticism from the government. What is more, unlike the situation during cohabitation, by this time the government did not have the required super majority of votes in parliament to overturn the president’s veto. In short, the president is no longer perceived to be supportive of the ruling coalition.

The conduct of foreign policy has been a particular source of tension over the last year. The Constitution states that the President of Georgia represents Georgia in terms of foreign relations, but it also states that the Prime Minister and ministers shall represent Georgia “within the terms of their competence”. Given the difficulties with President Margvelashvili, the government has challenged the powers of the president in foreign affairs. For example, President Margvelashvili said that it would be appropriate if he, as head of the state, were to put his name to the Association Agreement with the EU on 27 June 2014 instead of the Prime Minister. The presidential administration claimed that signing the agreement fell under the authority of the president, who has the constitutional right to sign international treaties upon agreement with the government. However, the government claimed that the prime minister was entitled to sign the agreement and refused to allow the president to do so. In this context, the president announced that he delegated his right to sign the treaty to the prime minister. However, he did so by way of a presidential order that required the prime minister’s countersignature. The prime minister’s office claimed that the government and not the president had the right to decide who should sign the agreement. In the end, the prime minister signed the treaty.

Another difficult issue has concerned the National Security Council. According to the constitution, the National Security Council is responsible for organizing the military development and defence of the country and is headed by the president. The composition, powers, and rules of operation of the National Security Council are determined by an organic law. The government has tried to restrict the power of the National Security Council and move some of its responsibilities to the new, non-constitutional State Security and Crisis Management Council headed by the prime minister. On 1 August 2014 President Margvelashvili scheduled a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the NATO summit to be held in Wales in September 2014. The meeting was held, but PM Garibashvili did not attend. That said, the prime minister did attend the second meeting of the National Security Council, which was chaired by President Margvelashvili, on 28 October 2014 because it was convened to discuss the highly sensitive issue of Abkhazia and the PM could not be seen to be absent.

There has also been conflict between the president, the prime minister and the parliamentary majority regarding the appointment of Supreme Court judges. According to the Constitution the president is entitled to nominate candidates to parliament. However, on 1 August 2014 parliament voted down two of the president’s nominations. They were only approved at a second attempt in October 2014.

Against this background, major changes have also taken place within the Coalition. In the first week of November 2014 the Free Democrats, one of the parties of Georgian Dream Coalition, left the government. The departure was triggered by the arrest on October 28 of one former and four serving officials from the procurement and general staff’s communications units in the Ministry of Defense. Irakli Alasania, the then Minister of Defense and leader of Free Democrats, announced he was confident that the officials were innocent and that he would wait for the results of the investigation. However, on November 4 a separate investigation against three army medical officials and three employees of a state-owned food provider company was also instigated. At the time, Minister Alasania was visiting France and Germany and the chief of general staff of the armed forces, General Vakhtang Kapanadze, was also visiting Washington. In response, Minister Alasania spoke out against the ruling coalition, stating that the investigations were an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. He resigned a few hours later. The next day the Free Democrats announced that they were leaving the coalition. They had two other posts in the coalition government: the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Minister of Justice. However, while the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration did step down, the Minister of Justice decided to remain in the government. By contrast, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maia Panjikidze, did resign even though she was not a member of the Free Democrats. This was not a surprise, though, because she is Alasania’s sister-in-law.

The Free Democrats were the second largest group in the Georgian Dream parliamentary party with 10 members. With their departure, the Georgian Dream Coalition had 73 members in the 150-seat parliament. Another member of the Georgian Dream Coalition, the Republican Party, with nine members in parliament, officially supported the Free Democrats, but announced that they were not going to leave the coalition. Faced with the threat of not having a majority, the Coalition leaders met with the non-partisan members of parliament. On November 10, six non-partisan deputies, and former members of UNM, joined the Georgian Dream Coalition. At the same time, the “Non-partisan” parliamentary fraction announced that they would also join the Coalition majority. Given three members of Free Democrats did not leave parliamentary majority, Georgian Dream Coalition ended up with the support of 87 deputies.

In this context, the role of President has become very significant. It was during this time that the president used his veto. President Margvelashvili also made a statement in Vienna, where he was attending the second UN Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries, where he said that the crisis was a threat to the efficient functioning of the institutions in the country, a threat to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, and a threat to the Georgian army. Immediately after returning in Georgia, President Margvelashvili asked the cabinet to convene a session where the Euro-Atlantic issue could be discussed. He also asked parliament to convene a special session where he would make an address. This was agreed.

One of President Margvelashvili’s most significant statements was when he said that “We have stressed a number of times that the country should be ruled by strong institutions and not from the backstage”. This was a clear reference to former PM Ivanishvili. There has been a lot of discussion as to whether Ivanishvili was wielding any influence behind the scenes. PM Garibashvili initially denied this idea, but later he confirmed on television that he had consulted Ivanishvili, saying that it was normal he should seek the advice of a former PM. Ivanishvili’s influence was further confirmed when the former PM gave a long interview with the Georgian Public Broadcaster on November 8 during which he discussed the country’s political issues. He said that the prosecutor’s office could not turn a blind eye if there was a suspicion of wrong doing in the Ministry of Defense and mentioned that he had many questions about the case. He also criticized President Margvelashvili for vetoing the security services bill. He also criticized the President for his visit to Vienna and concluded that his actions and interests were consistent with those of the National Movement. If further proof were needed of Ivanishvili’s role in the coalition he attended the meeting of the political board of the Georgian Dream Coalition that was held one day after resignation of Minister Alasania.

In general, the relationship between the president and the government and indeed between the government and the majority remains difficult and perhaps increasingly so. The president, who was elected under the banner of the Georgian Dream coalition, is no longer seen to be supportive of the coalition. Moreover, the coalition itself is no longer as cohesive. In the background, former prime minister Ivanishvili still has considerable influence over the government and the prime minister. Overall, the practice of semi-presidentialism in Georgia has changed considerably over the last year.

Malkhaz Nakashidze is the Founder & Managing Director of The International Institute for Academic Development and Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Shota Rustaveli State University, Georgia

Chiara Loschi – The 2014 presidential election in Tunisia

This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis

photo loschi


Tunisia held its first presidential elections after the 2011 uprising on the 23 November 2014. They followed the adoption of the new Constitution in January 2014 and the first legislative elections on 26 October 2014. As set out by the Constitution, presidential elections are held on the basis of a two-round majority runoff system.

ISIE (The Independent High Authority for Elections, Instance supérieure indépendante pour les élections) released the following official results: former Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi (Nidaa Tounes, Call for Tunisia) 39.46% (1,289,384 votes); interim President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki (Congrès pour la République) 33.43% (1,092,418 votes); Hamma Hammami (Front Populaire) 7.82% (255,529 votes); Hechmi Hamdi (Current of Love) 5.75% (187,923 votes); Slim Riahi (Union Patriotique Libre) 5.55% (181,407 votes). The ISIE approved 27 candidates, however 5 of them decided to retire from the contest in the weeks before the election.

Turnout was 64.6%, which is higher than the 2011 elections. The second round of the presidential election will take place on the 14 December 2014, unless the candidates decide to appeal the results, in which case the election will take place on 21 or 28 December.

International observers such as the European Observation Mission and the Carter Center state that Tunisian legal framework was aligned with international standards, and they agree that voters were able to make an informed choice. After three years of transition, the parliamentary and presidential elections indicate that political and civil society actors have successfully internalized democratic procedures and mechanisms.

Many problems have arisen during the transition, such as the emergence of radical jihadi Salafism and a new wave of political murders. In 2013 the assassination of the opposition activist and communist, Chokri Belaid (in February) and Mohamed Brahmi (in July), marked the beginning of the end of the Troika government and demonstrated the weakness of Ennahdha in the face of secularist opposition. Within the party, figures such as Ali Laarayedh and Hamadi Jebali on the one hand, and Rachid Ghannouchi on the other, held very differing positions. Ideological divergences about the Islamist political project and different political strategies led to a lack of clarity following the 2013 crisis and ambiguity in relation to national domestic security policy, until Laarayedh resigned as PM in January 2014[1].

After Brahmi’s death in July 2013, opposition members withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly and forced preeminent political forces to organize a “National Dialogue” under the leadership of Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)[2]. The 2014 Jomaa technocratic government signalled stability and reassured international actors and moneylenders, especially the IMF. At the same time, there was a reconstitution of secular political forces in the context of worsening socio-economic issues, for which Ennahdha was widely held responsible.

Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012. It brings together leftist and secularist political actors such as Taïeb Baccouche, former secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, and now the party’s secretary-general. It includes Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA) members, who mainly come from the northern and coastal areas of the country. Economic stabilization and PPP are unsurprisingly the main themes of its political and presidential programs. It is worth noting that many ex-RCD members joined the party as well, a fact that is widely known among its militants. As a consequence, the party has important links to the national and local bureaucracy and public employees as well as a strong electoral constituency.

In his campaign Essebsi linked himself with Habib Bourguiba. This is unsurprising as Essebsi had worked with the first Tunisian president for 35 years (as Interior Minister and Foreign Minister) and he began his campaign in Monastir were Bourguiba was born. His public speeches were built around the need for “prestige de l’Etat” (State standing) and were filled with nostalgic declarations about the past and, of course, the need for domestic security and economic consolidation.

The 2014 elections also showed that Ennahdha was still able to win considerable support. Moreover, voting is no longer a matter of religious versus secular supporters. For many new Ennahdha voters, the party «represents the south», and also «represents something new, not only in terms of religious affiliation but also as a modern and challenging political force in the national landscape»[3].

Officially Ennahdha chose not to support any particular presidential candidate, arguing that the country might be faced with an important social and political split if it were to do so. All the same, the party left militants and party members in no doubt that interim president Moncef Marzouki (ex-CPR) was the only viable choice among the set of presidential candidates. He was able to campaign on the idea that voting for Nidaa Tounes was vote to put the “RCD back at power”.

More generally, the political situation is still ongoing. After the October legislative elections, Nidaa Tounes chose to wait for the result of the presidential elections before building a government. Coalition building will not be easy. At the election Nidaa Tounes won 86 seats, in the 217-seat Assemblée des représentants du Peuple (the Chamber of Deputies), while Ennahda won 69 seats. Nidaa has to choose between Ennahdha and the remaining secular forces. They are: the modernist Free Patriotic Union (UPL) with 16 seats, the leftist Popular Front with 15, the liberal Afek Tounes with 8, The Congress for the Republic with 4 seats. However, Nidaa Tounes is unlikely to be able to count on the support of the Popular Front (an alliance of Communist and environmental parties) due to deep ideological cleavages and different political histories.

The second round of the presidential election will see Essebsi and Marzouki confront each other. They are separated by just 6% of the vote and the unsuccessful candidates will start announcing who they support in the next few days. In the meantime, Marzouki has written to Essebsi in his capacity as interim president to push him into forming a new government in seven days, invoking Art. 89 of the constitution. This led to criticism of Marzouki, ensuring that the period before the runoff will be politically charged.

[1] F. Merone, F. Cavatorta, 2013, Ennahda: A Party in Transition, Jadaliyya,


[2] National Dialogue is led by four actors: the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) and the National lawyers Forum (INA).

[3]Interviews with the author in Djerba, October 2014.

Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).

Portugal – President Cavaco Silva’s “deafening silence”

“What use is a President who neither speaks nor acts?” This question was raised by Mário Soares, founder of the Socialist Party (SP) and former Prime Minister (1976-1978, 1983-1985) and President (1986-1996) of Portugal. Now, though, members of opposition parties are accusing President Cavaco Silva, former member of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), of acting like the president of the PSD party and not as a president of all the Portuguese.

In Portugal it is common practice that a president-elect gives up his/her party membership before assuming office.[1] So, Portuguese presidents are formally non-partisan. Yet, President Cavaco Silva’s “non-partisanship” has been subject of much discussion. Critics have accused the President of being silent about a number of key issues and interpret his inactivity as a form of political support for the government headed by Prime Minister Passos Coelho, leader of the PSD party to which he belonged.

In September 2014 the Ministry of Education made an error which led to the incorrect allocation of 880 teachers to secondary schools. The direct consequence was that thousands of pupils throughout Portugal were without teachers for over a month. Only after criticism in the media about the President’s silence on the issue did Cavaco Silva call for “serious reflection” about the teacher allocation model.

In the same month the “Citius” computer system used by the Ministry of Justice failed to become operational, leading to a partial paralysis of the country’s Court system for one and a half months. The SP demanded the resignation of the Minister of Justice, Paula Teixeira da Cruz (PSD). The leader of the new Democratic Republican Party (PRD) and Member of the European Parliament, António Marinho e Pinto, condemned the President’s “deafening silence”, accusing him of behaving more like the president of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) than as a president of all Portuguese citizens.

On 17 November Interior Minister Miguel Macedo stepped down over an investigation into alleged corruption linked to the issuing of so-called “golden visas” to wealthy foreigners. Macedo became the fourth minister to resign in the centre-right PSD-CDS-PP coalition government since it took office in June 2011. In 2013, the “Annus Horribilis” for Prime Minister Passos Coelho, no fewer than three ministers resigned: the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Miguel Relvas (PSD), the Minister of Finance, Vítor Gaspar (independent), and the Minister of Economy, Álvaro Santos Pereira (PSD). The latter did not ask for his resignation but was replaced by António Pires de Lima (CDS-PP) in a cabinet reshuffle in 24 July 2013.

The resignation of the Interior Minister Macedo led the opposition to ask for a cabinet reshuffle. Yet, Macedo was replaced by Anabela Rodrigues (again, an independent), the first female Interior Minister of Portugal. So far, the President has refrained from commenting on the corruption scandal that allegedly involves the head of Portugal’s border agency and the president of the registration and notary institute.

The Constitution states that a president cannot dissolve parliament during the first six months after a parliamentary election. In other words, snap elections would deprive the president of this power at an earlier stage. President Cavaco Silva has not called for early elections. On 8 November he announced that parliamentary elections are to be held between 14 September and 14 October 2015.

[1] Novais, J. R. (2007) Semipresidencialismo. Coimbra: Edições Almedina

New Caledonia – French President Says Territory Must Set Referendum Date by 2018

The recent G20 meeting saw a number of the world’s most powerful presidents descend on Brisbane, Australia. Proximity meant that some also took the opportunity to conduct rare state visits to the Pacific Islands. President of China, Xi Jinping, visited Fiji, for example, while the French president, Francois Hollande, visited New Caledonia (also called Kanaky by pro-independence nationalists). Indeed, while the presence of some of the world’s most high profile political leaders in the Pacific is an occasional occurrence, the visit of French presidents is relatively more common. The reason is that France retains three overseas territories in the Pacific (French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia) and the 1998 Noumea Accord stipulates that New Caledonia must hold a referendum on its future political status before 2018.

New Caledonia’s political status is a deeply felt and historically charged issue. The French first arrived in New Caledonia in the late 18th century. They took formal possession in 1853 and as a result New Caledonia essentially became a penal colony. A cycle of rebellion and domination ensued. In the mid 20th century New Caledonia’s political status began to evolve and it became an overseas territory of France. New Caledonian residents vote in the French presidential elections and elect two members to the French Senate and National Assembly respectively.[1] Despite being 20,000 miles away, France’s integration into the EU means they can also vote in elections for the European Parliament (although turnout has been historically low). [2]

In the 1970s an independence movement emerged among New Caledonia’s indigenous ‘Kanak’ population. The Front de Liberation Natiaonle Kanak et Socialiste or Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front was formed during this period. In response, the French government encouraged migration to the territory, ensuring the Kanak population is a minority. Previously devolved powers were rolled back. The 1960s and 1970s also saw the height of a Nickel boom in New Caledonia.

The 1980s saw a period of secessionist unrest that resulted in violent clashes between pro-independence supporters and French loyalists. Blood was shed on both sides. The conflict led to a series of negotiations and agreements, culminating in the 1998 Noumea Accord that initiated ‘shared sovereignty’, a 20-year maximum timeline for a referendum on future political status, and the transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea. The Noumea Accord is enshrined in the French National constitution and more than one hundred organic laws were passed in Paris to implement it.[3] Key institutional features included three provincial assemblies, a Congress, a multi-party executive government and a customary Kanak Senate. [4] It has since brought relative peace and prosperity.

On 11 May 2014 New Caledonia elected its fourth and final Congress under the Noumea Accord (the Congress operates along parliamentary lines and elects a president of government). It subsequently decided by a 3/5 majority to proceed with the referendum process.[5] This was despite the fact that pro-France groups retain a majority in Congress (pro-independence groups won more votes than ever before). However, tensions have been high with several violent incidents this year that are said to have contributed to the resignation of the most senior French government official in July.[6] Several local politicians have reportedly attempted to draw up a new accord and defer a vote. And, thousands of people joined a march in central Noumea during Hollande’s visit to show their wish to stay French.

Despite this, Hollande’s message was reportedly clear: should the Congress fail to set a date by 2017, France will organise the plebiscite in order to comply with the changes made to the French constitution. At this stage he will leave the decision about a date to the New Caledonian people but he left little doubt that, notwithstanding the events of two decades ago and the possibility that they might reoccur, he saw no alternative but to follow the timetable contained in the 1998 Noumea Accord.

[1] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 394-418

[2] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 413

[3] David Chappell (2013) “Recent Challenges to Nation-Building in Kanaky New Caledonia” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 1. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

[4] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 395

[5] Denise Fisher (2014) “Tjibaou’s Kanak: Ethnic Identity as New Caledonia Prepares its Future” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 4. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

[6] Denise Fisher (2014) “Tjibaou’s Kanak: Ethnic Identity as New Caledonia Prepares its Future” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 4. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

Congo Brazzaville – To change or not to change the constitution? That’s the question

President Denis Sassou Nguesso cannot stand for reelection in 2016. At least according to the current constitution which caps presidential terms at two seven-year terms in office.  Also, the 2002 constitution has an upper age limit of 70 years for presidential candidates, a limit reached last year by Sassou Nguesso.  Amending the constitution would not seem to be an option, as article 185 mandates that presidential term limits cannot be changed.

So for more than one reason the constitution is clearly ‘outdated’ (depasseé), according to Juste-Desiré Mondelé, secretary general of the Party for Unity and the Republic (PUR), established by Guy Wilfrid Nguesso, Sassou Nguesso’s nephew. The solution proposed by supporters of the incumbent head of state is, therefore, to simply replace the current with a brand new constitution, which would usher in the 8th republic. The 8th republic would, according to the president’s supporters, benefit from a return to semi-presidentialism (as in 1992) from the current presidential constitution. According to Sassou Nguesso himself, the question is whether the constitution should be changed in order to ‘strengthen institutions and democracy,’ or not.

Sassou Nguesso has been around for a while. He first came to power in a 1979 coup. He gave up the presidency in 1992 after losing in the country’s first multiparty presidential poll. After five years, in 1997, he came back through a civil war that split the Congolese military in two: the majority of southern officers stood behind then President Pascal Lissouba, while most northern officers (and Angolan troops) backed Sassou Nguesso. In 2002, Sassou Nguesso was elected for the first of his two presidential terms under the current constitution, in a poll where his chief opponents were hindered from standing. In all, the sitting president has spent more than three decades in the presidential chair. Sassou Nguesso has, like Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, played an important role in the resolution or regional conflicts, most recently in the Central African Republic.

Speaking of Burkina Faso, recent events there have given an energy boost to opponents of constitutional change in Congo Brazzaville which the government has quickly tried to dissipate. On November 4th, four days after Compaoré’s fall in a popular uprising against his attempt at changing constitutional term limits, police broke into the home of Clément Mierassa, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Congo (PSDC). Mierassa was hosting a meeting of the Citizen Movement for the Protection of the Constitution that the authorities claimed had not been authorized; 32 people were arrested, of whom 20 have since been freed. This clampdown did not discourage the Congolese opposition, however, who see the November 4th incident as proof of Sassou Nguesso’s ‘panic’ in the wake of Compaoré’s fall, according to Mathias Dzon, chairman of the Alliance for the Republic and Democracy (ARD).

The Burkina events may, conversely, have cooled the ardors of the ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT). The PCT had on October 29 announced the holding of an extraordinary leadership meeting on November 7 to discuss and announce its position on a constitutional change ahead of 2016. The expectation at the time was probably that by then Compaoré’s constitutional amendment would have been adopted by the Burkinabe National Assembly, setting a nice example for the Congolese. Instead, on November 9th, the PCT announced it would set up a committee to ‘engage in further reflection’ on the issue of the 2002 constitution. According to the secretary general of the PCT, Pierre Ngolo, the Burkinabe example should not stifle debate in Congo Brazzaville. Compaoré mistakenly tried to force through a constitutional change, circumventing the will of the people. The PCT would never do that, assures Ngolo – if the constitution were to be modified, it would be through a referendum.

In the already politically charged environment of Brazzaville, a former ally of Sassou Nguesso, Deputy Head of Security Services Col. Marcel Ntsourou, was sentenced to forced labor for life on September 11, 2014. Ntsourou was found guilty of the death of at least 22 people in an incident at his residence last year where his guards resisted his arrest by the police. Ntsourou and more than a 100 others, mostly soldiers, are suspected of plotting a rebellion. So there is more than one reason for Sassou Nguesso and the PCT to tread carefully and avoid a frontal attack on the constitution, however outdated they consider the fundamental text to be.

President Zuma escapes censure for legislative no show in South Africa

The South African National Assembly has voted to reject a motion to censure President Jacob Zuma for allegedly failing to conform to the rules of the House. The president had angered legislators by failing to answer oral questions since 21 August 2014. However, the stranglehold enjoyed by Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party in the government ensured that the president avoided a formal sanction. Despite this, his reputation has suffered another blow.

The incident that sparked the president’s reluctance to appear before the House was a chant by opposition MPs from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that he should pay back some of the money spent on lavish upgrades of his private home in Nkandla, which had embarrassed Zuma the last time he entered the legislature. Despite some criticism of this strategy, the EFF – which is led by notorious former ANC youth winger Julius Malema — pledged to keep up the heat on the president through the use of similar tactics. Matters came to a head on 14 November when an attempt by riot police to forcibly remove EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela from parliament descended into a fistfight.

Mashabela had earlier repeatedly called the president a thief, a statement that she continues to stand by. In response, House Chairperson Cedric Frolick, an ANC MP, ordered her to withdraw her comments and, when she refused, to leave the House. It was after Mashabela refused that the presence of riot police was requested, although it is not yet clear who made the call. The determination of ANC leaders to shut down criticism of the president by ordering an elected MP to leave the chamber, and the intrusion of riot police onto the Floor of the House, shocked many commentators. According to the respected Mail & Guardian newspaper, “The presence of police in the chamber, while the House is in session, is a violation of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, which prohibits the police from being in Parliament unless they have been instructed to be there by the speaker, her deputy or any other of the presiding officers. Section 58 of the Constitution prohibits criminal or civil procedures from being brought against MPs for what they say in Parliament, and forbids their arrest in such matters.”

The motion of censure was subsequently introduced not by the EFF, but by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The vote split the legislature down the middle. The EFF and other opposition parties largely agreed that the president had undermined the constitution, which requires him to account to the legislature for his actions, and to answer questions in the Assembly at least four times a year, once in each quarter. However, ruling party MPs defended the president and claimed that opposition MPs did not accurately understand the law. Ultimately, the ANC’s numerical dominance carried the day, and the motion was defeated by 217 votes to 78.

Efforts to negotiate an end to the impasse are ongoing, having begun two days before the vote when Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a dialogue between the ANC and opposition leaders with a view to generating a more harmonious and productive working environment within parliament. However, it is not clear how successful this endeavour will be. The Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, in whose name the motion of censure was tabled, has said that meetings with Ramaphosa were positive. He was particularly pleased that the ANC leader affirmed the principle of executive accountability and that the executive should appear before parliament. However, he also noted that Ramaphosa had failed to agree a date by which the president would appear. Unless this happens soon, Maimane intimated, there would be no let up in the position of the DA.

But while there may not be any major changes to the tension that has pervaded the legislature in recent months, the debate has resulted in a significant change to the mood music of South African politics. Most notably, by refusing to present himself to parliament, Jacob Zuma has further undermined the ANC’s reputation as a party of law and order. In doing so on the legislative stage, he has handed the EFF – often characterised by the ANC as a populist rabble – the moral high ground. Always able to spot a political opportunity, Malema and the EFF seized their opportunity well. As the Mail and Guardian wrote in the wake of the vote, ‘The biggest surprise of the evening came from the EFF MP Sipho Mbatha, who delivered a calm and heartfelt speech directed at the ANC.’ Transforming the EFF into the voice of reason would be a catastrophic mistake for Zuma’s ill-fated presidency.

For now, the ruling party’s grip on power appears unassailable. But with missteps following mistakes, the question is for how long.

South Korea – The President, Opposition, and Political Trust

200 days following the Sewol ferry tragedy, the legislature finally formulated a bill for the investigation of the disaster to which the Sewol families have given their consent. The prolonged passage of the bill – due largely to the victim families’ resistance to previous iterations of the Sewol investigation bill – underlines political distrust of President Park and her Saenuri Party government as well as the opposition alliance, the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), to represent the interests of the Sewol victims’ families. This raises the questions: what is political trust? What are the effects of political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea?

What is political trust? Political trust refers to public confidence in the facility and capacity of the political system to deliver regularly political goods that include contestable political succession, regularized competition, civil and political liberties, and freedom of association and expression.[1] Political trust, then, rests on the design and workings of the “institutions, structures and processes” to produce quality political goods “even if left untended,” based on principles of fairness and accountability. [2]

What are the effects of political distrust? Studies show that political trust – derived from institutional performance – underpins the distinction of political performance from government performance so that it buffers the political system from the pressures of immediate outputs. Conversely, political distrust means that the political system is under pressure to produce immediate outputs, while the concomitant lack of vested interests in the political system means that the public is more willing to engage in non-compliant behaviors, including civil disobedience and protests, to demand for these outputs.[3] Political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea, then, potentially jeopardizes democracy in the country.

The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House – including hunger strikers – demanding a full, independent investigation of the Sewol tragedy signal the political distrust with a political system that has given rise to regulatory lapses that endanger wellbeing.

Importantly, the political distrust extends to the opposition alliance: indeed, the opposition NPAD alliance’s effort to push through previous iterations of the Sewol bill faced bitter opposition from the Sewol victims’ families and felled the recently-elected NPAD floor leader, Park Young-sun. Clearly, the political distrust means that the opposition – like the government – is faced with pressures of immediate outputs and performance.

The road to build political trust is clear: focus on institution-building that delivers political goods rather than public or private goods such as economic performance. But there are clear trade-offs from such a focus: the political system may be buffered but the parties and the government remain vulnerable to voters’ expectations of performance and subsequent rejection for failing to deliver. The government and opposition may do well to note that, as they struggle with these trade-offs, the democratic health of the country remains at stake.


[1] Mishler and Rose (2001) ; Yap (2013)

[2] Ruscio (1999:651-2); Grimes (2006); Shi (2001: 401). Shi, Tianjian (2001). “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.” Comparative Politics vo 33 no 4: 401-19

[3] Lianjiang Li (2008) ; Marien and Hogen (2011)

Germany – A muzzle for the president? President Gauck and the limits of freedom of speech(es)

The election of Joachim Gauck’s election as Germany’s 11th Federal President was a novelty in many respects. Gauck was not only the first president from the former German Democratic Republic, but also the first non-partisan to ascend to the Germany’s highest office. Gauck himself promised to be ‘an uncomfortable president’ who would voice his opinion more often even if it contradicted the policies of the government or went counter to prevailing public opinion. His remarks towards the far-right were welcomed by public and politicians alike. Yet Gauck’s calls for the need for greater German military involvement abroad and criticism of the possibility of a leftist politician being elected minister-president of Thuringia have been met with opposition. Now coalition politicians are reportedly seeking ways to ‘muzzle’ the ‘uncomfortable president’.

Joachim Gauck during his speech after being elected president | photo via | © Jesco Denzel / Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

The powers of the German presidency are generally very limited and the role of its incumbents is thus largely ceremonial with very little potential for independent political action. One of the few opportunities for German presidents to influence politics are their speeches and interviews and most office-holders to date have through these been able to install themselves as a ‘moral compass’ in the public debate. Due to his work as a Lutheran pastor, opposition activist and Federal Commissioner for dealing with the records of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) during the 90s as well as his oratory skills incumbent president Joachim Gauck had been established as a notable public figure even before his election and received overwhelming public support for his candidacies (his first one was unsuccessful) for the country’s highest office. Since his inauguration in March 2012, several of Gauck’s speeches have been met with acclaim (also internationally, e.g. his speech on European integration), just like his clear stance against the extremist far-right. In the latter case, the German Constitutional Court even confirmed that Gauck was allowed to label members and followers of the extremist far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) ‘nutcases’ and had the right to free expression as long as he does not ‘take sides in an arbitrary manner’.

Despite Gauck’s general popularity, German politicians have recently criticised Gauck for overstepping his constitutionally prescribed role. In the first instance, this was due to his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January this year in which he called for greater German military engagement abroad. The German president does not even possess ceremonial powers with regard to the military or foreign policy and elites were thus unhappy with his remarks. The government was also not pleased with Gauck’s interpellations in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis (among others, Gauck accussed Russian president Vladimir Putin of breaking international law) and had to employ great diplomatic effort to keep open a channel of communication with the Russian leadership. It should be mentioned Gauck’s remarks were also unusual for other reasons. The German public is not only traditionally wary having their troops deployed abroad, but Gauck’s pre-predecessor Horst Köhler resigned after he felt unduly criticised for declaring that German military deployments abroad (which are usually labelled as ‘humanitarian’ in the German discourse) also served to secure the country’s economic interests.

President Gauck was faced with second wave of criticism when he told journalists that he would be ‘uncomfortable’ with seeing leftist politician Bodo Ramelow’s being elected as minister-president of the German state of Thuringia. While his remarks were generally less surprising, they too meant means that Gauck entered (politically) uncharted waters. Ramelow is local leader of ‘Die LINKE’ (“The Left”) a successor party to the United Socialist Party (SED) – the GDR’s party of power. While ‘Die LINKE’ has participated in a number of coalition governments in the East German states (and even tolerated a Social Democrat-Green minority government in the West), it has never nominated the minister-president. Given Gauck’s role in the GDR opposition movement – among others he was co-founder of the ‘New Forum’ opposition movement – and his work as Federal Commissioner for dealing with records of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) 1990-2000, his criticism of LINKE-led government is understandable. Nevertheless, it is the first time in German post-unification (potentially even post-war) history that a president has taken a public stance on the political situation in one of the 16 German states.

It is thus not a coincidence that it was revealed last week that Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU; currently in government), commissioned the parliamentary research service to draft a legal opinion on ‘the competence of the president to make foreign policy statements’ (as Gauweiler’s CSU is fiercely opposed to ‘Die LINKE’, the focus on foreign policy alone is not surprising). The paper, which was leaked to a number of newspapers, clearly states that the president was not allowed to conduct an ‘alternative foreign policy’ and can be required to closely coordinate the content of public statements. While this describes the existing political practice (the general content of speeches is coordinated with the respective government ministries and the Chancellor’s office), the paper seems to open the possibility for a word-by-word coordination which would significantly reduce the presidents ability to influence political and public debates. Nevertheless, the opinion also tends towards rejecting a requirement for countersignature for speeches. While the vast majority of presidential decisions and actions is already subject to countersignature, the currently dominant opinion in legal scholarship argues against it.

It is unlikely that the government of parliamentary majority will initiate any steps towards formally restricting Gauck’s ability to make public statements. Nevertheless, the debate and the fact that the criticism has shifted from the fringes of the political spectrum (radical right and radical left) to mainstream parties should be food for thought for Gauck. While it is unclear whether he wants to seek re-election once his term ends in 2017 (he will be 77 years old by then), he might need be a more ‘comfortable’ president in any case to make sure that his words do not fall on deaf ears among those who can turn them into actions.

Romania – Astonishing turnaround in presidential runoff, cohabitation continues

The second round of the Romanian presidential election was held on Sunday. The incumbent prime minister, Victor Ponta, ran against Klaus Iohannis, the ethnic German mayor of Sibiu.

After the first round held on November 2, when the Social Democratic prime minister came first with a ten-point lead over the centre-right candidate, everybody expected Victor Ponta to win the runoff comfortably. After all, he topped opinion polls for months before the electoral campaign had even started. He won the first round categorically and second ballot polls have been showing him beating Klaus Iohannis by up to 55-45. Apart from Monica Macovei, who won less than 5% in the first round, no other candidate called on their supporters to vote for Iohannis. The leaders of the Hungarian minority party decided to stay neutral after the far-right came out in support for Ponta.

Overall, the electoral campaign generated little voting enthusiasm for a presidential race. Anti-corruption efforts and the conditions under which the national anti-corruption agency (DNA) will be able to pursue its targets in state institutions and political parties under a new head of state was one of the most hotly debated topics. However, the runoff campaign lacked a grand presidential debate aired on national television, like in 2004 and 2009. Instead, two semi-improvised debates were hosted by commercial broadcasters.

In spite of a good reputation as a successful municipal leader in Transylvania, the mayor of Sibiu could hardly claim nationwide popularity. His unusually reserved style of running a presidential campaign meant that that the masses were rarely mobilised. As a representative of both ethnic and religious minorities, few expected Klaus Iohannis to win.

Moreover, Iohannis could hardly count on local administrative support for voter mobilization. An emergency ordinance issued by the government in August 2014 gave mayors and councillors 45 days to join a different political party from the one from which they had been elected without running the risk of losing their seat as the current law stipulated. As a result, a massive migration of local administrators from the national-liberals (PNL) and the democrat-liberals (PDL), the two parties supporting Iohannis, to the social-democrats (PSD) was registered.

The result took everybody by surprise:

  • Klaus Iohannis (PNL-PDL Christian-Liberal Alliance) – 54,5%
  • Victor Ponta, (PSD-UNPR-PC Alliance) – 45,5%

Voter turnout reached 64%, one of the highest participation rates in Romania’s post-communist electoral history. Commentators have been raving about the impact of turnout on the election outcome. A quick look at previous presidential contests in Romania reveals why a high voter turnout was so unexpected.

table ro 181114_3

Presidential Elections in Romania, 1992-2014

Apart from 1990, when Ion Iliescu topped the polls with over 85% of the votes in the first round, a runoff was organized for each presidential election since 1992.

As shown in the table above, high voter turnout is not unprecedented in Romania’s presidential races. However, a similarly high level has not been reached since 1996. Moreover, the difference between the two rounds is truly exceptional: voter participation increased by 11% in the runoff. This is highly unusual in Romania, where turnout has generally been lower in the second than in the first presidential round.

As far as the results are concerned, the 2014 presidential election stands out for two reasons.

First, the gap between the front-runner and the runner-up in the first presidential round was the largest since 1992. Second, the increase in voter participation in the runoff, both within and beyond Romanian borders, hit an absolute record.

Indeed, Iohannis’ only chance in the runoff depended on the mobilization of undecided voters. But the spark that lit up the mobilization fire and gave two more million people the motivation to cast their ballots was the government’s own making and had little to do with party mobilization.

Romanians living abroad faced unprecedented difficulties in casting their ballots on 2 November. Protests broke out in front of many Romanian embassies when thousands were not allowed to vote after queueing for many hours. Romanians at home also took to the streets numerous times ahead of the runoff vote, calling on the government to increase the number of voting sections abroad.

Apart from firing the foreign minister one week after the first-round vote, PM Ponta did little to improve voting conditions abroad. He chose to find excuses elsewhere for the alleged impossibility of opening new voting sections. During the first presidential debate, Ponta even rebuffed Iohannis’ criticism about the government’s attempt to restrict voting abroad by saying that the right to vote is a mere ‘catchphrase’.

In this context, more and more anti-government rallies broke up in Bucharest and in many other cities as the runoff vote approached, calling on the government to respect the right of the Romanians abroad to cast their votes. The new foreign minister’s defiant statements on the voting day and the government’s refusal to extend the voting time after 9 p.m. fuelled even more protests. Voting participation just kept rising throughout the day.

In the end, the votes cast by about 400,000 Romanians expatriates may not have tipped the scales this time around as in 2009. But they did much more than that by generating an incredible level of solidarity of Romanians abroad and at home, as a reaction to the government’s apparent attempt to limit the full exercise of a basic democratic right. For example, the Hungarian minority participated in greater numbers in the runoff than in the first round, when they could choose between two Hungarian candidates, and overwhelmingly voted for Iohannis despite their leaders’ self-proclaimed neutrality. Ironically, many have noticed how Victor Ponta’s nationalistic campaign message – “The President Who Unites” – had the perverse effect of bringing together Romanians across borders against the concentration of power in the hands of a single political party.

What next?

On the right, Klaus Iohannis’ imminent resignation as leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL) will soon raise a succession question. He is unlikely to tip a successor, given the short period of time he has spent as a party leader. The new National Liberal Party is the result of the merger between the PNL and the PDL, which was decided in July 2014. The two parties run the presidential campaign under the Christian-Liberal Alliance formula as there had not been enough time to register the new party. The internal elections scheduled for 1 January 2017 will now have to be called earlier, stirring up old leadership rivalries within the two parties.

On the left, many social-democrats are asking for an extraordinary congress to be called and some would even like to see PM Ponta and his cabinet step down. Thus, the reorganization of the strongest Romanian party after letting the presidency slip through their fingers for the third time in a row looks imminent.

Finally, given the impact of civic activism on the election outcome, this year’s presidential race may trigger the formation of new grassroots political organisations. Monica Macovei, who ran in the first round as an independent candidate and capitalised on the success of the anti-corruption institutions she helped establish, announced the setting-up of a new political party. Her ability to obtain about 5% of the votes as an independent was put down to the active campaign run by volunteers on social media.

Klaus Iohannis will formally take over the presidency from Traian Băsescu on 22 December. The cohabitation between a centre-right president and the centre-left prime minister that started in May 2012 is bound to continue, unless a new majority is formed in the parliament or early elections are called before 2016.

In this context, many will be interested to see how the new head of state will approach the presidential role, especially since President Băsescu has often been criticized for a high level of activism. Apart from playing an important role in foreign affairs and defence, the Romanian head of state appoints the prime minister; may refuse once the appointment of an individual minister; can return bills to the parliament and/or ask the Constitutional Court to verify their legality once before signing them into law; appoints three of the nine Constitutional Court judges; and can call a referendum on matters of national importance.

Uzbekistan – The struggle for succession


On Saturday November 15, the Uzbek president’s grandson Islam Karimov, named after his grandfather, released an interview to the BBC to bring attention to the case of his mother Gulnara, who has been held unofficially under house arrest since last March. This is only the latest episode of a family saga (Presidential Power Blog reported on this case here and here) whereby the members of the presidential family are fighting for power ahead of the presidential election scheduled for early 2015 – however in a situation where the incumbent president does not seem willing to leave power.

The young Islam Karimov had already lobbied for his mother’s release at the end of June 2014, when he gave an interview to the Russian channel Ren TV. During the interview he made clear that his mother was the victim of ‘powerful individuals’ who want to get rid of her fearing that she will standing for president. In his latest BBC interview, the young Karimov also made an appeal to his grandfather to ‘understand the extent of the manipulation’ around him and to understand that ‘we would never go against you and do what they say we would do, and I hope you fix the situation, as I know you have the power to do so’. The young Karimov indeed proposes a reading of the current situation consistent with his mother’s, who has claimed for over a year now that she is the victim of a conspiracy plotted by her mother, her younger sister and Rustam Inoyatov (the head of the powerful National Security Agency) behind the president’s back. According to Islam Karimov, the president is prevented from having any information about the current events. In late 2013, Gulnara accused her mother and sister of keeping the president in a state of ignorance and claimed to be the victim of judicial and physical persecution orchestrated by Inoyatov.

Aside from the gossipy interest that a Gulnara-like character raises among observers (a glamourous pop singer, businesswoman, politician, diplomat, philanthropist and fashion designer), experts are carefully watching for Karimov’s moves in search of information about his succession. According to an analyst, and contrary to what the young Karimov claims, the hypothesis that the president is unaware of what is going on is rather unlikely and, according to the Russian political scientist Alexey Malashenko, Gulnara’s arrest is relevant to the issue of succession because it clearly underlines that President Karimov is neither ready nor willing to leave power. Not only is it the case that Gulnara Karimova now has no chance of succeeding her father, but, according to Malashenko, her fall from grace indicates that Islam Karimov is tired of all the speculation about his successor. In addition, the president also seems to be demonstrating to the public that all are equal in the eyes of the law, even his own daughter, who was accused of corruption and fraud in Switzerland and Sweden. Moreover, Gulnara went as far as to criticise some of the human-rights abuses committed in Uzbekistan under the reign of her father, a move that Karimov deeply disliked and that brought about a strong reaction on the part of the president. Furthermore, analysts contend that even Karimov’s decision to back constitutional amendments that would transfer some power from the presidency to the legislative and executive branches is a tactical move and is not a sign that he is stepping back from politics.

With the president still in power, the choice about succession seems to remain uncertain. Indeed, Uzbekistan may be moving towards a presidency-for-life model. In that case, Malashenko argues, ‘neither Prime Minister Mirzieev nor Minister of Finance Rustam Azimov stand a chance of succeeding while Islam Karimov is still alive’.