Monthly Archives: September 2015

Romania – Censure motion fails to remove PM indicted on corruption charges

On 29 September, Romania’s Social-Democratic government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament. This was the fourth censure motion submitted by the National Liberals (PNL), the main opposition party, in the last 18 months. Unlike previous motions, though, the most recent one did not target the government’s collective performance, but was filed in response to the prime minister’s formal indictment on corruption charges on 17 September. The initiators hardly mentioned any government activities and exclusively focused on the need to remove the compromised head of government.

The criminal investigation against the prime minister was launched by the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) on 5 June on grounds of forgery, tax evasion, money-laundering, and conflicts of interest. Perhaps not coincidentally, the National Liberals filed a censure motion against the government on the same day. However, on that occasion the text of the motion criticised the government’s failure to introduce postal voting for Romanians living abroad. The comfortable majority social democrats and their allies enjoy in both parliamentary chambers allowed PM Ponta to survive not only the no-confidence motion, but also a separate parliamentary vote to have his immunity lifted.

Anti-corruption prosecutors formally charged the prime minister and seized his personal assets on 13 July. Shortly thereafter, Victor Ponta stepped down as leader of the ruling Social Democrats but remained in office as head of government. He was temporarily replaced as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, a former deputy prime minister, minister of development, and executive president of the social-democrats, who himself had been forced to leave PM Ponta’s government in May 2015 upon receiving a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud in the 2012 presidential impeachment referendum.

President Iohannis has repeatedly called on the prime minister to step down since 5 June, when the criminal investigation was launched by anti-corruption prosecutors. He urged the prime minister to resign again after his case was formally brought to the High Court for Cassation and Justice on 17 September and expressed support for the censure motion put forward by his National Liberal Party. However, Romania’s Constitution specifically denies the head of state the power to dismiss the prime minister (article 107). The president does have the power to suspend cabinet members from office when a criminal investigation is launched against them – but only when the accusations concern acts committed while in office (article 109). As the prime minister stands accused of criminal activities dating back to past activities as a lawyer, his continuation in government office can only be decided by the parliamentary majority and/or his party.

Romania’s Constitution features several requirements for a non-confidence vote: a censure motion must be initiated by at least one quarter of all deputies and senators, who are not allowed to endorse another motion of this type during each of the two ordinary parliamentary sessions each year, unless the government invokes a confidence vote (articles 113-114). Under these circumstances, the government is unlikely to face more than one censure motion per legislative session.  As the opposition has just availed of this opportunity at the beginning of the autumn session, the government can rest assured that it will not be confronted with another no-confidence vote until at least February 2016.

Thus, the only threat to PM Ponta’s office can come from his own party. Social Democrats have scheduled elections for the new party leader on 11 October, followed by an extraordinary congress on 18 October. Liviu Dragnea, PSD’s current interim president, has announced his candidacy for the party leadership, while Victor Ponta said he would not run anymore. With both local and general elections scheduled for 2016, it remains to be seen whether or how long the new party leadership will continue to grant unconditional support to a prime minister facing a corruption trial while in office.

Nauru – Ongoing MP suspensions highlight concerns about democratic freedoms

It has been more than a year since I first wrote on this blog about the suspension of Nauruan MPs from parliament on the grounds that they were being overly critical of the current government’s development strategy. Despite repeated attempts to overturn the ban, the suspension remains. And, in the interim, the situation has escalated.

As long-time readers may recall, the initial controversy surrounded the suspension of three MPs. Since then, the number has risen to five with two further MPs, Sprent Dabwido and Squire Jeremiah, now held in custody for their participation in protests outside parliament. The other three are Dr Kieran Keke, Roland Kun and Matthew Batsiua. Initially Batsiua was also arrested for his role in the protests but has since been released under strict bail conditions. The protests that led to these arrests were related to the ongoing suspensions. The Australian-based lawyer of the accused was recently refused entry into the country to mount a case in their defence.

The suspensions have heightened international interest in the tiny island nation. In June, the Australian Broadcasting Commission reported that a Queensland phosphate importer had allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nauru’s justice minister, David Adeang, the President, Baron Waqa, and other government MPs. Adeang, often cited as the defacto head of government, denied the claims, first raised in the Nauruan parliament in 2009, and accused the Australian media of campaigning to destabilise Nauru. Likewise, President Waqa has stated that its larger neighbours will not bully Nauru and accused the foreign media of bias. In June, he argued that the arrests had nothing to do with the MPs speaking out against the government but reflected the fact that they were ringleaders of a violent protest aimed at toppling a democratically elected government in order to further their thirst for political power. The government has labelled the protest a riot in which several police was injured.

The New Zealand government has been at the forefront of international condemnation of the current state of affairs. In July the parliament unanimously passed a motion expressing concern about the political situation in Nauru. More recently, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, has suspended aid amounting to around $750,000 annually to Nauru.

Australia, on the other hand, the largest aid donor to Nauru and financier of an asylum seeker processing facility on the island, has refused to go this far. Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has expressed dismay at the way the situation has unfolded and has sought assurances from the Nauruan government that the rule of law will be upheld. New head of the Pacific Island Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, has likewise expressed concern but dismissed the notion that the regional body will take action.

These claims and counter claims have emerged against the backdrop of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the management and operation of the asylum seeker detention facility on Nauru, including the safety of children and their families from alleged sexual abuse and criminal conduct.

Madagascar – Local elections, national politics

On 31 July Madagascar headed to the polls to elect local councils. The elections were one of last pieces of the transition roadmap that was designed to return the country to democracy after the coup in January 2009. Since it was finalised, the transition process has been implemented relatively successfully, but the situation remains fragile.

In the coup President Marc Ravalomanana was ousted from power. He sought exile in South Africa and was threatened with immediate arrest if he returned to Madagascar. In the end, he returned in October 2014 and was indeed arrested on his arrival. He was released only in May 2015 following an intervention by President Hery Rajaonarimampianina.

These events encapsulate the difficult return to democracy in Madagascar. In 2010 a new Constitution was approved in a referendum. In January 2014 Rajaonarimampianina was elected in a presidential election that was considered to be generally fair by international observers, even though some forces within the country contested the result. In part, this was due to what happened in the lead up to the vote. As part of the transition deal both former President Marc Ravalomanana and the coup leader and new president, Andry Rajoelina, declared that they would not stand for election. However, Ravalomanana’s wife, Lalao Ravalomanana, announced her candidacy, to which Rajoelina responded by presenting himself for election too, seeing her as a proxy for her husband. In the end, the Election Commission ruled against the candidacy of both Lalao Ravalomanana and Rajoelina as well as another former president, Didier Ratsiraka. Rajaonarimampianina, who was seen as the anti-Ravalomanana candidate, won the election, despite coming only second at the first ballot. Legislative elections were held at the same time, returning a divided parliament.

President Rajaonarimampianina’s presidency has not been uneventful. He soon distanced himself from Rajoelina and tried to shape the formation of the new government. In May 2015 he was subject to an impeachment attempt by deputies opposed to his governing style, even though the presidency has only limited powers under the 2010 semi-presidential constitution.

The most recent part of the transition process was the local elections in late July where the most important contest was the election of the mayor of the capital, Antananarivo. Here, turnout was low at about 30%. However, Lalao Ravalomanana was easily elected, winning 56% of the vote. Her TIM party, which was the former vehicle of President Ravalomanana himself, also emerged with a majority of seats on the city council. In general, though, TIM did not do so well across the island as a whole. Indeed, even though it lost this contest, President Rajaonarimampianina’s HVM party did relatively well at the elections, including in areas that had formerly been a stronghold of the TIM party. Senate elections are due to be held by the end of the year.

The question is whether Lalao Ravalomanana is merely the stalking horse for her husband. He is now free to come and go in the country, having returned freely from a foreign visit only recently. He is also back in charge of his media outlets, giving him direct access to the airwaves. However, he remains a very divisive figure on the island. Moreover, the parliament is still very divided. The transition has been managed relatively well so far, but stern tests are still ahead.

Zambia – When Presidents Issue Death Threats

Earlier this month, President Edgar Lungu, in a very unpresidential move, issued what amounted to a death threat targeting the editor of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe. Lungu’s comments bring into focus the increasingly bitter factionalism within Zambia’s ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), as well as that party’s dimming electoral prospects ahead of next year’s polls.

Lungu became president last January in a by-election after the death of his predecessor and the PF party founder Michael Sata. His victory followed a divisive nomination battle within the PF itself, which produced two opposing camps, one led by Lungu and a second aligned with then acting President Guy Scott’s preferred nominee. The PF split was only exacerbated after the former President from the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), Rupiah Banda, threw his weight behind Lungu. Banda’s influence—bolstered by his considerable financial support of Lungu’s campaign—is credited with compelling Lungu to adopt a more ‘pro-business’ policy stance. This shift in focus—including promises to reverse a prior PF government decision increasing royalty taxes in the mining sector—further alienated many within the PF who were originally opposed to Lungu’s candidacy.

M’membe of The Post was among the notable erstwhile PF supporters now disillusioned with Lungu’s leadership. The prominent editor had previously used his paper to champion the government of Michael Sata. Now the same paper has become a vehicle to mudsling the current President while propping up the political campaigns of former PF Secretary General and founder of the new opposition Rainbow Party, Wynter Kabimba. Kabimba fell out with Sata before his death and subsequently challenged Lungu’s leadership from the left. While Kabimba formally exited the PF, many of those who belonged to the same left-leaning faction—once known as the Cartel—remain.

The ferocity of Lungu’s recent outburst against M’membe is indicative of tensions stemming both from his fragile position within the PF and from his party’s overall declining popularity. After finding himself indebted to a number of his own Cabinet ministers post election, Lungu is now trying to consolidate his hold over the party. This effort involves simultaneously accommodating newcomers from the MMD brought over as a result of Banda’s support. In this vein, The PF Chairperson for Elections indicated last month that the party would ‘rebrand’ ahead of the 2016 polls and that, crucially, 70% of sitting PF MPs would not be re-selected to run as parliamentary candidates.

These intra-party woes are not the only challenge, however. Zambia’s foundering economy, hit hard by the fall in copper prices, is eroding the PF’s popular support. These losses are all the more worrying given Lungu’s nail-bitingly thin, 30,000-vote January victory over the lead opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichelema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Lungu’s alliance with Banda also is not as secure as it might be. Banda reportedly threatened to back Hichilema after Lungu refused to see him following an impromptu visit to State House. Banda has supported Hichilema’s UPND before. As was the case with Banda’s most recent turn to the PF, which came after he failed to secure his position as MMD presidential flagbearer, his erstwhile support for the UPND was a means of snubbing rival factions within his own party.

Extrapolating from Lungu’s attack on M’membe, the overall picture we get is of a President on tenterhooks who is struggling to unite his own party against the backdrop of an ever more factious party system. Elite level splits within parties are producing a variable geometry of party alignment and re-alignment, driven forward by personal antagonism and reinforced through ideological differences. Whatever the outcome in next year’s elections, the stakes are high. Given that previous ruling parties have receded into oblivion after losing in the polls, the very survival of the PF as a viable party is in question.

Georgia – A year ahead of parliamentary elections, the electoral system is still uncertain

Georgia will hold its next parliamentary elections in fall 2016. A year ahead of the polling day the electoral system is still unclear.

Currently, Georgia has a mixed electoral system: 73 MPs in 150-seat Parliament are elected in single-mandate constituencies, and the remaining 77 seats are allocated proportionally under the party-list contest among political parties that surpass the 5% threshold. In the single-member, majoritarian constituencies the number of voters ranges from over 150,000 voters in the largest one to less than 6,000 voters in the smallest one.

In early 2015, in his annual report to the parliament, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called for a reform of the electoral system and in particular emphasized that amendments to the existing majoritarian component of electoral system were fundamentally important.

Before the President spoke about it, several non-parliamentary opposition parties had already been campaigning jointly for several months, demanding a reform of the majoritarian component of the election system. The joint memorandum by the political parties stressed that the reform was necessary before the 2016 parliamentary elections, since the existing system violates the principle of equality of suffrage and fails to proportionally allocate seats in the legislative body.

Opponents of the existing system argue that it has the potential to produce a distribution of seats in Parliament that is different from those reflected in proportional, party-list election results. The difference between distribution of seats and votes garnered in party-list contest was obvious in the previous Parliament, when the then ruling UNM party held over 79% of seats in parliament although it received only slightly over 59% of votes in 2008 parliamentary elections. The explanation lies with the electoral system; UNM won all but four majoritarian constituencies across the country.

This was not the case in the 2012 elections, when the seats won by Georgian Dream coalition and UNM, both in majoritarian and proportional contests, mainly matched the share of votes they won in the party-list contest.

The mismatch, however, was evident in the 2014 local elections for Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo), when although it received 46% of votes in the party-list contest, GD gained 74% of seats in Tbilisi Sakrebulo because it won all but one of the majoritarian constituencies in the capital city.

The Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs, the Venice Commission, has long been recommending to Georgia that it needs to address the existing disparity, claiming that it undermines the principle of equality of suffrage. Georgian election observer groups have also been calling for the replacement of the current system with a “regional-proportional system”, based on open lists, wherein multi-member constituencies would be introduced instead of existing single-member ones.

Ruling of the Constitutional Court

In 2012, two citizens of Georgia (one of them the current public defender of Georgia) filed a case to the Constitutional Court arguing that discrepancies in the sizes of the single-member majoritarian constituencies violated the principle of equality of suffrage.

On May 28, 2015 the Georgian Constitutional Court announced its decision and ruled that the present electoral system and specifically its majoritarian section, did indeed violate the equality of vote and should be changed. “It is the discretion of the Georgian Parliament to decide on the proportional and majoritarian models of the electoral system provided that constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens will be protected in this process,” the Court stated.

Notably, the Constitutional Court did not rule out the majoritarian component of the electoral system or suggest that it should necessarily be scrapped.

Just a couple of days later, on May 30, 2015 at the conference hosted by the President Giorgi Margvelashvili, 14 opposition parties, including non-parliamentary and parliamentary ones, as well as 8 civil society organizations made a joint appeal to the Parliament to carry out this reform. They argued that the existing majoritarian system, where MPs are elected through plurality vote, results in a large amount of wasted votes and can potentially produce a distribution of seats in the parliament that is different from the distribution reflected in proportional, party-list election results.

Constitutional Amendments

Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition initiated constitutional changes to scrap the majoritarian component but only after 2016. The GD coalition revealed the full reform proposal recently: it envisages maintaining the mixed electoral model for the 2016 parliamentary elections, wherein 73 lawmakers are elected in 73 majoritarian, single-member constituencies and the remaining 77 seats are allocated by a party-list, proportional vote. The proposal offers to replace plurality vote to elect majoritarian MPs with a majority vote, which entails increasing the vote threshold required for an outright victory in the first round from the current 30% to 50%.

The plan also foresees redrawing the single-member districts to ensure equality of suffrage and the introduction of a constitutional amendment to scrap the majoritarian component of the system by 2020, in the event that there are no early elections.

At the same time, parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties continue to demand a cancelation of the majoritarian system for the upcoming 2016 elections. They have launched a campaign to collect 200,000 signatures to initiate a legislative draft to challenge the proposal of Georgian Dream.

But none of the two initiatives is likely to be passed as constitutional amendments require the support of both parliamentary majority and minority groups. Currently, the GD ruling coalition has 86 seats in 150-member parliament, which is not enough for the super-majority required to pass a constitutional amendment.

A year ahead of the polling day the fate of the electoral reform is still undecided. One thing is clear, however, the closer the country gets to parliamentary elections with uncertain electoral rules of the game, the more difficult it will be for political parties to mobilise and for voters to make informed electoral choices.

Russia – Inviting Voice without Accepting Accountability: Putin’s Search for Alternative Sources of Legitimation

Electoral success in competitive authoritarian regimes poses a conundrum for political leaders. The less competitive the election, the more likely it is to prompt a backlash, witness the color revolutions in the post-communist world in the 2000s. In the case of Russia, the fear of a popular rebellion led to restrictions on NGOs, especially those with foreign ties, and to a greater reliance on institutions that project an aura of popular accountability without actually restraining political power. In other words, as the legitimating potential of traditional liberal institutions, such as elections, parties, and parliaments, fades, the regime seeks substitutes in alternative organizations and rituals that can buttress leadership claims of responsiveness to the public.[i]

Insisting that existing NGOs were unrepresentative of Russian society, Putin established the system of Public Chambers [Obshchestvennye palaty] in April 2005, shortly after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as a state-sanctioned alternative to traditional liberal institutions. Filled for the most part with pro-regime experts and dignitaries, the organization has acquired more responsibilities in recent years and is now a quasi-parliament, a quarter of whose members are elected through an internet poll.[ii] The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation sits atop a network of regional chambers and affiliated public councils that monitor the activities of executive agencies.[iii] Although it is tempting to write off this Russian experiment in horizontal accountability as yet another example of “virtual politics,”[iv] it does provide opportunities for feedback, especially from those whose concerns about specific policies and organizations do not spring from a general critique of the regime.

Besides organizations like the Public Chambers, Putin has introduced or enhanced other institutions that seek to illustrate the President’s attentiveness and accessibility to citizens. Perhaps the most ambitious and risky of these efforts is the prime-time call-in show entitled Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Instead of regularly receiving supplicants at Court, like traditional rulers, Russia’s republican monarch of the digital age makes himself available periodically to the nation in a marathon television broadcast in which he answers questions posed by text, email, letters, Skype, and by anchors and selected members of the studio audience. Over the years Putin has developed a mastery of this form of communication, alternating between stern statements directed at the country’s enemies to wonkish discussions of obscure areas of public policy and humorous banter with questioners.

Although the event is carefully scripted, the live format gives the program an edge, which is heightened by the willingness of the organizers to allow the occasional critique of Putin’s leadership. For example, at the last Direct Line, in April 2015, a member of the studio audience, Aleksei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister, asked Putin why GDP growth in his first term [2000-2004] had been almost 7 percent annually, when the price of oil averaged $30 a barrel, whereas it was only 1.5 percent in his current term [2012-present], with oil between $65 and $70 a barrel.[v] The rare uncomfortable moments like these only heighten the program’s authenticity and popularity, and one suspects that most of the massive audience that tunes in would agree with Putin’s assessment, made at the end of the 2015 version of the show, that the almost four-hour event, with no breaks, was “the most powerful public opinion poll…which allows us to understand what people are really concerned about….”[vi]

Between these episodic high-profile encounters with the nation, Putin receives a constant stream of letters and email messages from citizens, who also have the option of visiting in person presidential reception centers [priemnye] in Moscow and the regions to communicate their concerns. Receiving, analyzing, and following through on these requests and complaints of Russian citizens is the job of the presidency’s Department for Work with Communications from Citizens and Organizations [Upravlenie po rabote s obrashcheniiami grazhdan i organizatsii]. Continuing a tradition of the “complaint bureaucracy” that had formed part of the tsarist and communist regimes,[vii] the presidential Department for Work with Communications has in recent years devoted more resources to tracking complaints through officialdom and analyzing and presenting graphically this store of governmental data. This year the Department is on track to process more than a million requests and complaints from citizens and social groups.[viii]

Accessible on the presidential website, the monthly and annual reports provide a treasure trove of information about the concerns of Russian citizens, which are broken down by policy area and by the region of the sender.[ix] The changing focus of citizen concerns is evident in these materials, witness the 32 percent month-on-month increase from August 2014 to August 2015 in the number of communications relating to the economy, which has produced considerable anxiety of late because of the effects of Western sanctions and the declining oil price. There was an even greater percentage decrease in the number of requests and complaints relating to the State/Society/Politics rubric, reflecting perhaps greater popular resignation about the shape of the political order amid the further consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his team.

Whether directed to the President’s complaints office or parallel institutions in agencies like the Procuracy, these messages–a quintessential form of individual political action–serve as a barometer of the public mood and represent a low-cost, low-risk way of exhibiting openness to public voice while avoiding the dangers to the regime of collective political action. It is unclear, however, how responsive political leaders are in competitive authoritarian regimes to the signals received through these alternatives to liberal institutions. It is also difficult to assess how effective such alternatives are with the public as substitutes for the traditional means of legitimation found in democratic countries. Inviting voice without accepting accountability may be difficult to sustain as a long-term strategy in the absence of levels of repression and information control that are higher than those in place at the moment in Russia and other competitive authoritarian regimes.

[i] Among Russian political institutions, parties and parliament inspire little confidence among the public. A poll conducted in late 2013 found that whereas the President, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the army were trusted by 55, 48, and 43 percent of the population, respectively, the figures for the parliament and political parties were 25 and 12 percent. Doverie institutam vlasti, Levada-Tsentr, 7 October 2013. http://www.levada.ru/07-10-2013/doverie-institutam-vlasti

[ii] The Russian president selects another quarter of the members and regional Public Chambers select half of the body.

[iii] A similar, though more robust, network of public monitoring boards has functioned in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. See Eugene Huskey, “Public Advisory Boards in Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian Experiment with Horizontal Accountability,” IREX Scholar Research Brief, August 2013. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/EPS%20Scholar%20Research%20Brief%20Huskey.pdf

[iv] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Communist World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[v] Priamaia liniia s Vladimirom Putinym (15 aprelia 2015), at 32:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhHtS4oVst8

[vi] Ibid., at 3:57:00. For an assessment of this program as political and discursive performance, see Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The discourse of a spectacle at the end of the presidential term,” in Helena Goscilo (ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 104-110.

[vii] There is a rich literature on citizen complaints in Russia; see, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s,” Slavic Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 78-105. Studies of the contemporary complaint bureaucracy include Laura A. Henry, “Complaint-Making as Political Participation in Contemporary Russia,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 45, nos. 3-4 (September-December 2012), pp. 243-254; Danielle N. Lussier, “Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 3 (July-September 2011), pp. 289-325; and Joshua Solomon, Citizen-State Relations in Hybrid Regimes: The Case of the Correspondence Directorate of the Russian Presidency, Senior Thesis, Stetson University, May 2013.

[viii] Informatsionno-statisticheskii obzor rasmotrennykh v avguste 2015 goda obrashchenii grazhdan, organizatsii i obshchestvennykh ob’edinenii, adresovannykh Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, p. 20. http://letters.kremlin.ru/media/letters/digests/41d57b5db0d596e13201.pdf

[ix] Complaints and questions from citizens are categorized into five major policy areas–State, Society, Politics; Social Sphere; Economics; Defense, Security, Legality; Housing Sphere–and each of these is disaggregated further into five sub-categories. Maps, graphs, and pie charts abound in these lengthy reports; the August 2015 monthly report, for example, was over 100 pages. Ibid.Put

US – Campaign 2016: The Long Road Ahead

Last week, the Republican Party held its second presidential candidate debate. For those of us who follow presidential politics closely, it seems we are already well into the 2016 campaign cycle. Yet, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (the first contests) will not go to the polls until February 2016, and the general election is still more than a year away. This shows an important reality about American politics—we now live in a perpetual presidential campaign. Not only is running for president a complex and at times chaotic process, but the campaign seasons now seem to overlap from one to the next as speculation begins about who the contenders will be for the next election weeks before the polls close in the current election. In reality, the 2016 campaign began in October 2012 as political pundits began to look past the Obama v. Romney matchup in November 2012 to begin handicapping the next race four years later.

The American news media, which loves to speculate on and predict future political outcomes, has contributed greatly to this trend. The horse race coverage (as in, who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s winning, who’s losing, etc.) that has dominated campaign coverage in recent decades has found a more permanent home as an everyday staple of political reporting. Constant stories about candidates, their fundraising efforts, and where they place in the latest opinion polls focus on the game of politics and the personalities of the candidates as opposed to news coverage that offers a substantive discussion of policy alternatives. The lack of substance also leaves tremendous room for coverage that is not only at times vapid, but negative in tone. Other consequences include the fact that longer campaigns cost more money, and in each successive presidential campaign in recent decades new fundraising and spending records have been toppled. It’s not surprising that many American voters feel apathetic and alienated from the political system, and that voter turnout is low.

At present, we find ourselves nearing the end of what is known as the pre-nomination or invisible primary period. Journalist Arthur Hadley was the first to coin the term “invisible primary” in 1976, but as it has evolved in recent campaigns, the activities during this period are now far from invisible. During this phase, presidential candidates are vetted by party officials and major financial backers, as well as the news media, as candidates attempt to showcase their viability as candidates for the general election. Two things matter more than anything else during this time—raising money and media coverage. These two things also contribute to higher standing in early polls, which can be construed as candidate viability. A two-tiered campaign often emerges during this phase of the campaign. A handful of candidates are considered viable early on, while others never break through to the top-tier of serious contenders (and as a result, do not receive much attention from the media or donors).

Who are the top-tier contenders for 2016? The Republican field started out with 17 candidates, but has winnowed to 16 with the early exit of former Texas Governor Rick Perry. In all likelihood, several other candidacies will end in the next few months as well. At present, the top tier includes three anti-establishment candidates who have never held political office: real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Also in the top tier are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of President George W. Bush), Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Three other candidates are near the top tier: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. All three need to increase donations to their campaigns and support in public opinion polls quickly to avoid an early exit from the race.

On the Democratic side, what once seemed an inevitable victory for Hillary Clinton in the race for her party’s nomination is inevitable no more. Her support has plummeted in numerous polls as a majority of voters find her dishonest and untrustworthy due, in part, to the continuing story of the private e-mail server she had installed in her home during her years as Secretary of State (2009-2013), as well as the pay-to-play allegations about donations to the Clinton Foundation. As a result, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, leads or is tied with Clinton in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign has generated large crowds and intense excitement from the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Clinton, on the other hand, at times struggles to fill public venues when she campaigns, and has not provided a consistent campaign message (contributing to what many say is her lack of authenticity as a candidate). As a result, speculation persists about a possible late entry into the race by Vice President Joe Biden.

While it is still much too early to speculate about who will win each party’s nomination, there are a few things to watch in the coming months. First, campaign contributions are an important indicator of whether a candidate is viable beyond the pre-nomination phase. Campaign organization and the ground game (which includes volunteers who focus on voter registration and turnout) also shows viability and strength of a campaign. These can provide early momentum heading into the first state contests. Yet, while both Clinton and Bush have greatly outpaced their competitors in fundraising to date, neither is currently a lock for their party’s respective nominations.

Second, the plethora of polls notwithstanding, most are not accurate predictors this early of how voters will actually behave. National polls at this point are meaningless, as the party nomination is won by competing for delegates to the national convention in each state contest. A high standing in a September 2015 poll will not guarantee support from voters come February 2016. This is particularly true for Trump, who may be dominating Republican polls and media coverage (because of name recognition and the fact that his no-holds-barred campaign style makes for good headlines), but it remains to be seen if his support in polls is actually coming from people who are registered or likely voters in the primary contests.

Third, related to a candidate’s standing in the polls, a good debate performance does not guarantee any victories in primary contests. While Fiorina was the consensus winner from last week’s Republican debate, her strong performance may not translate into a win in any of the state contests. She may, however, be positioning herself to be a serious contender as the eventual nominee’s running mate, or, a high-level cabinet position in a Republican administration.

The bottom line is that while political junkies love all the early coverage and gamesmanship of the pre-primary period, it remains a long road ahead before the final votes are cast to determine who will be the next President of the United States. And, if the history of presidential campaigns has taught us nothing else, anything can happen between now and November 2016.

Guinea-Bissau – The perils of president-parliamentarism

Large-n comparative studies found that democracies with a president-parliamentary constitution perform worse than those with a premier-presidential constitution.[1] Recent political developments in Guinea-Bissau, a presidential-parliamentary (electoral) democracy, neatly demonstrate the system’s inherent weakness in resolving conflict between the president and the national assembly. On 17 September President José Mário Vaz swore in Carlos Correia as the new prime minister. Correia is Guinea-Bissau’s third prime minister in a period of five weeks.

Under president-parliamentary democracies, the prime minister and cabinet are dually accountable to the president and assembly. So, both agents of the electorate (i.e. president and assembly) are constitutionally empowered to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet. Political instability is looming when the president does not share the prime minister’s policy agenda and intra-executive conflict delays or even halts decision making.

Obviously, intra-executive conflict is most likely under cohabitation where the president and prime minister are from different parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet. Yet, political developments in Guinea-Bissau illustrate that even under unified majority government where the president, prime minister and parliamentary majority belong to the same political party – semi-presidentialism’s best political situation for minimizing institutional conflict[2] – may cause a damaging power struggle between the president and the national assembly over the appointment of a prime minister.

In April 2014, PAIGC candidate Vaz was elected president. The PAIGC also won the legislative elections and the party’s president Domingos Simões Pereira was appointed prime minister in July 2014. As early as in November 2014, the ICG reported that ‘ongoing changes in distribution of power and resources generated tensions within ruling PAIGC’, in particular about the nomination of the Interior and Defence Minister.

Intra-executive tensions surged when in June this year the former Defence Minister (2011-2012) and Minister of Presidential Affairs Baciro Djá resigned. Following Djá’s resignation, Prime Minister Pereira, probably anticipating his dismissal, asked for a vote of confidence in his government. Even though lawmakers unanimously passed the confidence motion, the President sacked Prime Minister Pereira on 12 August 2015. Vaz said his dispute with Pereira arose from a number of issues, including the appointment of a new armed forces chief.

The dismissal of Pereira has led to a prime ministerial merry-go-round. Vaz appointed Baciro Djá as the new Prime Minister. The National Assembly, accusing the President of a ‘constitutional coup’ adopted a resolution to remove Djá, which the President simply ignored. Meanwhile, a new Government was sworn in on 8 September. In a last ditch attempt to remove the new Prime Minister, PAIGC deputies brought the case to Guinea-Bissau’s Supreme Court of Justice, arguing that the appointment of Djá was unconstitutional. According to them, Vaz had failed to comply with the Constitution, which states that the president needs to consult with the political parties represented in parliament before appointing a prime minister.

The Court backed the Parliament’s view and ruled that Prime Minister Djá’s appointment was indeed unconstitutional. Following the Court’s ruling, Djá tendered his resignation. His government had lasted only 2 days. On 17 September President Vaz accepted the ruling party’s candidate and swore in Correia as the new Prime Minister. Correia has already served as prime minister in the past (1991-1994, 1997-1998, 2008-2009). The question remains whether the Court’s ruling will encourage the President to cooperate with the new Prime Minister and parliamentary majority.

[1] ELGIE, R. 2011. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performance, Oxford, Oxford University Press, MOESTRUP, S. 2007. Semi-Presidentialism in Young Democracies: Help or Hindrance? In: ELGIE, R. & MOESTRUP, S. (eds.) Semi-Presidentialism Outside Europe: A Comparative Study. London: Routledge.

[2] SKACH, C. 2005. Borrowing Constitutional Designs: Constitutional Law in Weimar Germany, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Jeremy Gelman, Gilad Wilkenfeld and E. Scott Adler – Predicting the Next U.S. President’s Legislative Agenda

This is a guest post by Jeremy Gelman, Gilad Wilkenfeld and E. Scott Adler. It summaries their recent article “The Opportunistic President: How U.S. Presidents Determine Their Legislative Programs”  that appeared in Legislative Studies Quarterly, August 2015.

In recent weeks, U.S. presidential candidates have begun staking out policy positions to distinguish themselves from their partisan rivals. The Republican candidates have focused a great deal on immigration and foreign policy while the Democrats have emphasized fixing the criminal justice system and relieving student debt. After the new president is inaugurated in 16 months, will his or her legislative agenda include any of these proposals? More generally, what issues should we expect the next president to bring before Congress?

In our recently published article, “The Opportunistic President: How U.S. Presidents Determine Their Legislative Programs” (Legislative Studies Quarterly, August 2015), we seek to answer what systematic factors shape the content of presidents’ legislative programs. We argue that presidents focus their agendas around reliable lawmaking opportunities, such as expiring government programs and publicly salient issues. In these cases, exogenous factors ensure that Congress will work on such policy areas anyway. Presidents use these opportunities as a way to enhance their influence in the lawmaking process, particularly by proposing their own solutions before Congress is able to act.

Our theory contrasts with conventional accounts of how chief executives’ determine their agendas. Others argue presidents select issues based on their campaign promises or expand their agendas’ scopes when they are popular or their party controls Congress.

We argue presidents rely on legislative opportunities for two reasons. First, by focusing on expiring programs and salient issues, presidents can gain more policy successes from their legislative programs. Working with Congress on topical challenges allows administrations to move policies closer to the presidents’ preferred positions. Second, there is a political dimension to this strategy. Since presidential effectiveness is often measured by how much action Congress takes on legislation he proposes, presidents can increases these potential credit-claiming opportunities by staking out positions on issues that Congress is obligated to consider.

To test our theory, as well as other claims regarding campaign promises, presidential approval, and Congress’s composition, we gathered data on every presidential legislative proposal sent to Congress from 1981 to 2008.[1] Using information on expiring programs, public salience, campaign promises, and presidential approval, we examined the variation in the number of legislative requests presidents send to Congress in the 12 most active policy areas in U.S. politics.

As expected, presidents send Congress more legislative requests on policies in which a major program is expiring or are publicly salient. Considering presidential program size, our findings suggest that presidents consistently focus on expirations and salience when deciding their agenda. For instance, as a policy area moves from having few to many expiring programs, presidents increase the number of policy requests on that issue by a third. Similarly, as an issue becomes publicly salient, presidents nearly triple their legislative requests on that policy area.

We show these effects graphically by plotting the expected count of presidential legislative requests and changes in an issue’s salience or number of expiring programs.

Figure 1: Expiring Provisions and the Presidential Program

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Figure 2: Issue Salience and the Presidential Program

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While the substantive changes may seem small as expiring provisions or issue salience increase (a few more requests in a given policy area), across a dozen policy areas, the aggregate effect is large. A typical presidential agenda includes about 200 legislative requests. Our results suggest many of these proposals will be on topics that require reauthorization or are prominent in the public agenda, regardless of the president’s personal issue priorities.

Additionally, we do not find any consistent support for the campaign promises and presidential capital hypotheses. Presidents do not expand the scopes of their agendas when they are more popular or have a favorable Congress to work with. We find inconsistent evidence that presidents send more legislative requests on topics related to their campaign promises.

From a practical standpoint, our results help answer our initial questions. What issues will the new U.S. president focus on in 2017? While the candidates may be talking about immigration or student debt reform today, this does not necessarily mean these issues will be a priority in the new administration. The new president may follow-thru with a few campaign promises, but these policies do not compose the majority of the president’s legislative agenda.

No matter who wins office, it is very likely the new president will also request Congress renew the national flood insurance program and new funding for health centers. While not hot-button issues, these programs expire in 2017 and are likely to attract presidential attention. Assuming the issues related to race remain a salient issue for many Americans, the new president, regardless of party, will probably propose new legislation on that topic as well.

Our results suggest that even though the current presidential candidates vary in which issues they say they will prioritize in office, presidents’ base their attention to issues on a systematic, predictable pattern.

About the Authors

Jeremy_GelmanJeremy Gelman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research interests focus on presidential and congressional behavior, inter-branch bargaining dynamics, and legislative agenda setting. Gelman’s dissertation examines how parties in Congress use their legislative agendas to electioneer by proposing bills that are intended to fail.

 

Gilad Wilkenfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research covers the US legislative process, the US Presidency, and inter-branch bargaining dynamics. Wilkenfeld’s dissertation examines the president’s role in shaping the policy content of legislation when using Statements of Administration Policy to influence congressional action. He has co-authored a chapter with John Wilkerson and Scott Adler in Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (Cambridge University Press 2012) entitled “Problem Solving and the Dynamics of Policy Change.”

Scott_AdlerE. Scott Adler is Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. His expertise is the US Congress, elections, political institutions, and policymaking. Among his books are Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System(University of Chicago Press 2002) and The Macropolitics of Congress, co-edited with John Lapinski (Princeton University Press 2006). Adler’s most recent book, co-authored with John Wilkerson, is Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (Cambridge University Press 2012).

[1] We used and extended Rudalevige’s (2002) data set on presidential proposals.

The Philippines – Presidential Election 2016: Is the Vice-Presidency a Venue?

Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for the Philippines on May 9, 2016. The President and Vice-President are elected separately, so that the elected candidates may come from different parties. Such is the case with current President Benigno Aquino III, from the Liberal Party (LP), and Vice-President Jejomar Binay, formerly of the Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban). President Aquino III is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a second term, but there are no limitations on the Vice President for seeking the presidency. While it may seem that a vice-presidential term is strong endorsement for a candidate to seek the presidency, recent developments in the Philippines provide an interesting take on the whether the vice-presidency is a tenable venue to the presidency.

Although the President and the Vice-President may be from different parties, relations are not necessarily strained. After all, VP Binay was a 30-year member of the PDP-Laban, i.e., when it was headed by the late-Senator Benigno Aquino. VP Binay was also considered a strong supporter of the President’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino. Indeed, as recently as 2013, President Aquino III’s LP and Vice-President Binay’s PDP-Laban engaged in a period of team- and coalition-building to launch Team PNoy – comprising a coalition of the LP, the PDP-Laban, the Nacionalista Party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, the National Unity Party, and the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party – that partnered with the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) to field 12 candidates for senatorial elections that year.

Notwithstanding that history as well as ongoing work-relations between the President and Vice-President, ties failed to concretize to the point where the President endorsed the VP for the presidency. Instead, the President endorsed LP Manuel Roxas II, the original candidate-elect for the LP in 2010 who stepped aside for Aquino III to run as presidential nominee for the party. This is notwithstanding polls showing Mar Roxas as the least favoured presidential candidate; the President’s endorsement of Mar Roxas also came after the Vice President made clear that he was after the endorsement.

In part, the competition-versus-cooperation relations may be stoked by the horse-race mentality from approval polls that appear to regularly pit President against the Vice-President. In part, it may be VP Binay’s ongoing struggle against corruption raps. In part, it may also be due to the VP’s clear and unequivocal pursuit of the presidency: in early 2014, VP Binay resigned from his party of 30 years to launch the UNA party in preparation for his 2016 presidential bid. The president of the PDP-Laban, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, has signaled clearly that the party will not be endorsing VP Binay for the presidency; of course, he and VP Binay had a major falling out just prior to the VP’s resignation from the PDP-Laban.

With President Aquino III’s endorsement of Mar Roxas, Vice-President Binay’s retort was to resign from the cabinet, charging mistreatment as well as incompetence in the current administration. That, in turn, elicited the Presidential Palace’s rejoinder: too late to be complaining about the administration after five years in it? The back-and-forth, if not the events prior to that, certainly underline that the vice presidency is not a shoo-in for the presidency;