Monthly Archives: July 2016

Zambia – Democracy under threat

Opposition leaders claim that democracy in Zambia is under threat as President Edgar Lungu and his Patriotic Front government scramble to hold on to power ahead of the elections scheduled for 11 August. As we reported previously, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) has grown in strength and confidence since its leader, Hakainde Hichilema, narrowly lost the presidential by-election that brought Lungu to power in 2015.

Low copper prices have constrained the government’s ability to respond to public concern regarding high unemployment, while the country’s most influential newspaper, The Post, has moved firmly into opposition to the government. The pressure appears to have told on the government, which now stands accused of a number of different irregularities. According to the respected Zambian commentator, Sishuwa Sishuwa, the level of accusations relating to preparations for the next election mean that a disputed outcome may soon be inevitable.

For example, The Post newspaper has carried accusations that the Electoral Commission of Zambia awarded the contract to bring the ballot papers to a little-known Dubai based firm – despite the fact that it quoted a price that was more than double the amount paid to the company that normally does the job, in order to facilitate economic and political malpractice. In response to such headlines, the Patriotic Front government appears to have leant on the Zambian Revenue Authority to call in debts owed by The Post, leading to a raid on the newspaper on 21 June.

Worse still, rumours are now circulating that the government has developed a plan – Project 777 – on how to rig the elections that includes members of the military, Electoral Commission, the intelligence services and civil society. At the same time, the government stands accused of recruiting voters from neighbouring countries to vote in Zambia, with the UPND claiming that as many as 500,000 illegal voters have been added to the electoral roll. That President Lungu has felt the need to come out and publicly deny these accusations has done little to make them go away, or to boost the confidence of the opposition.

Azerbaijan – F1 and the limits of public diplomacy

From 17-19 June, the Formula One Grand Prix took place in Baku. In contrast to the “European Games” in 2015, the race received limited attention from governmental actors and the Azerbaijani media. Two explanations are possible. The first lies in the changed domestic circumstances. Given the global low energy price and its dramatic setback on citizens’ life standards, politicians deemed it inappropriate to focus too much attention on such frivolous spending. The second lies in the disappointing international reception to last year’s “European Games”.

President Ilham Aliyev, who is known for his interest in sports events, kept an unexpectedly low profile before, during and after the F1 race. Even though he and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, attended the opening ceremony and presented the trophies at the end, in the preceding months, Mr Aliyev almost never mentioned this event[1]. For example, on 16 June, the day before the race, the most high-profile remark to Parliament came from Ali Hasanov, the president’s aide for public and political affairs. This is in contrast with the attention paid the “European Games”. On that occasion, the President personally inaugurated most of the sports facilities and did not miss a chance to voice his enthusiasm. At the award ceremony, he used phrases like: “These Games united our people even more, instilled a sense of pride in us – just look at what we are capable of accomplishing!”. One year on, the quest for attention seems to have been dimmed. We can see this in the media coverage of the event too where studies reveal that the Formula One race received considerably less attention[2]).

The first explanation for this change lies in domestic conditions and the dramatic drop in energy prices. As already analysed in this blog,  Azerbaijan faced a devaluation of its currency at the beginning of the year, which has led to the dissatisfaction of its citizens. In the following months, the local Manat has remained extremely weak and unemployment has risen. This situation does not seem temporary and a mix of recession and high inflation is likely for the next two years[3]. With the exception of those who managed to rent out their balconies to view proceedings, the race, which placed an additional burden on the shrinking state budget, does not seem to have brought any particular benefits to the population. That said, the decline in living standards does not seem to have affected the Aliyev family. In April, the four-day-war in Nagorno-Karabakh caught most the public attention, but at the same time the leaked “Panama Papers” revealed that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, daughters of the President, held a 56 per cent stake in the development of a profitable gold mine. Given this situation, any undue emphasis on the F1 race, when most citizens are struggling to make ends meet, could have easily sounded like “let them eat cake”.

The second explanation, which complements the first one, is that, after the European Games, Azerbaijan had an abrupt awakening about the limits of public diplomacy. Even though President Aliyev recently declared that: “The first European Games (…) were very successful”, very few heads of European states (namely Bulgaria, Luxemburg, San Marino and Monaco) flew to Baku to attend them. Most politicians simply declined the invitation. However, a day before the inauguration ceremony, the German Bundestag, on the grounds of human right violations, prohibited high-ranking state officials from attending the event.  Additionally, in spite of some official claims about the influx of tourists (without providing any numbers), international arrivals were probably below expectations. In addition to this disappointing international attendance, few international reporters focused on the competition. Instead, most of the international press wrote about the country’s human rights record, rather than about the brand-new infrastructures. Notably, The Washington Post criticised the pop-singer Lady Gaga for performing at the opening ceremony, while some human rights defenders were held in jail[4]. Even though presidential speeches never mentioned these facts, domestic actors observed the limited PR effect of this initiative. For example, Emil Huseynli, chairperson of the `Support for youth development’, declared that the cold reception to the games was part of a global smear campaign against Azerbaijan. Additionally, some Azerbaijani news sources reported that some Youth Groups protested against the fact that, according to them, the European Parliament politicised the Games “as a way of putting pressure on Azerbaijan”. In short, it soon became apparent that instead of boosting the international reputation of the country, the Games put the spotlight on undesired topics.

In conclusion, a year ago Azerbaijan seemed a confident actor, determined to win over the international community by means of a well-funded public diplomacy campaign. However, the changed economic circumstances, together with the lessons learned about the limited efficacy of this strategy, seem to have brought about a partial reconsideration of this strategy.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] Looking at the English version of the official Website of the President of Azerbaijan, this event has been only mentioned, along with numerous other points, in occasion of the opening of Azerbaijani-German Economic Forum in Berlin.

[2] Translated into English by BBC Monitoring.

[3] BMI Research. 2016. “Stagflation To Persist”, Business Monitor Online, March 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] “Blinders in Azerbaijan”. 2015. The Washington Post, August 9 (retrieved through Lexis Nexis).ze

2×5 or 1×7? – Benin’s Constitutional Reform Commission undecided on presidential terms

This is a guest post by Ulrike Rodgers, Senior Program Manager at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Washington, DC.

Since early 2015, eleven countries in West Africa have held national elections to choose a new president, often coupled with parliamentary elections.  The electoral simultaneity is no coincidence. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s ushered in political change also in West Africa and many countries began organizing multi-party elections. Their newly minted democratic constitutions often opted for five-year presidential and/or parliamentary mandates and gave preference to a strong presidential role. However, many also limit presidential terms to two mandates, a provision that continues to be a source of national discussion and even popular uprisings, such as in Burkina Faso in 2014, when then-president Blaise Compaoré attempted to change it to be able to remain in office.

Twenty-five years after engaging in their democratic transitions, several countries are now taking another look at their constitutional frameworks. As Sophia Moestrup writes, some, like Bénin, Burkina, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Sénégal are seeking to strengthen their democratic institutions, limit presidential powers and reaffirm term limits. Others, like Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

Bénin recently reaffirmed its position as a regional beacon of democracy when outgoing president Boni Yayi respected the constitutional two-term limit and did not attempt to win a third mandate. Since then, President Patrice Talon – who won the March 2016 election with a promise of “change” against Boni Yayi’s prime minister and heir apparent Lionel Zinsou –  followed through on a campaign promise and appointed a 35-member commission to propose political and institutional reforms, including the option of limiting presidential terms to a single seven-year mandate. The commission, chaired by justice minister Joseph Djognénou, submitted its report at the end of June and promptly triggered criticism. Notably, it was accused of wasting public funds after rumors surfaced that each member had received between 10 and 15 million Francs CFA (about $18,000 to $27,000) for one month of work while the government has curtailed spending in other sectors.

The report unanimously recommends that the president should no longer appoint Bénin’s chief justice, the chair of the superior council of judges (Conseil supérieur de la magistrature), and the chair of the national audio-visual authority (Haute autorité de l’audiovisuel). It also proposes to augment the number of justices serving on Bénin’s constitutional court from seven to nine, extend their mandate from five to nine years, and to limit the number of justices appointed by the president to one, as opposed to currently three. However, the commission was unable to reach consensus on proposed changes to the presidential term limit, even after it postponed the publication of the report by several days. Members had been asked to examine two options: maintain the current two five-year term limit, or replace it with a single six or seven-year term, the latter openly favored by President Talon. Divided over the issue, the commission returned the ball into the president’s court to decide. President Talon has announced he intends to put the question in front of the Béninese people via referendum before the end of the year.

But his proposition may have encountered a sizeable obstacle: Bénin’s constitutional court ruled in October 2011 that presidential term limits could not be changed by way of referendum. The court considered it a violation of the decision of Bénin’s National Conference of February 1990 to declare certain constitutional articles unchangeable, including Article 42, which stipulates a limit of two five-year terms. Nonetheless, while the question surrounding presidential terms may be moot, other proposed reforms, such as setting limits to the president’s influence over the country’s constitutional court, may contribute to strengthening the separation of powers in Bénin and help anchor democratic practices durably in the country’s political DNA.

Czech Republic – President Zeman and the ‘Czexit’ referendum question

The result of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom on 23 June has created waves across and beyond the British Isles and the European continent. As many still tried to come to terms with the UK’s (almost) inevitable withdrawal from the European Union, several representatives of populist and fringe parties across Europe already called for similar ‘exit’ referenda for their own countries. The Czech Republic is particularly interesting in this regard as it was Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka who was first credited with floating the possibility of a ‘Czexit’ in February this year but then publicly distanced himself from the possibility. Now, president Miloš Zeman has reignited the debate by calling for a public vote on EU (and NATO) membership of the country.

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © hrad.cz

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © 2013 by hrad.cz

The UK referendum on EU membership has given rise to many calls for a similar votes in other countries. Far-right and populist leaders and presidential hopefuls, such as Marine Le Pen, have already called for a ‘Frexit‘ referendum in France and other variations of ‘-xit’ referenda in their countries. Although the anti-EU sentiment is most strongly represented in parties of the (far) right, demand for referenda has also come from the left and ideologically less defined populist actors, most prominently from Czech president Milos Zeman.

Shortly after the results of the UK vote broke, Zeman declared that – although in favour of EU membership – he would do everything for citizens feeling otherwise ‘to express themselves’, also with regard to NATO membership (a demand already made in February 2016 but quickly forgotten). Support for EU membership and trust in the EU institutions in the Czech Republic tends to be below average in comparison to other member states, yet is far from ranking lowest in the table. In the last year, criticism of and dissatisfaction with the EU has primarily been associated with the refugee crisis and the EU’s decision to impose quotas on its member states. The populist movement ‘Dawn’ recently submitted a motion to debate the possibility of a Czexit referendum in parliament and the election of an MEP of the eurosceptic fringe Party of Free Citizens (SSO) in 2014 indicates that there is a part of the electorate that responds to anti-EU rhetoric.

Nevertheless, the Czech president does not possess any power to call referenda at will (a power reserved for only few presidents around the world) – the Czech constitution also only mentions referenda in a clause inserted to allow for the EU accession referendum in 2003 (in which case a special organic law was passed to allow for the referendum – the only one held in the Czech Republic to date). Furthermore, the government has made it clear that it opposes any public vote on EU membership. A Czexit or even a referendum on the Czech Republic leaving the European Union thus seems unlikely. Nevertheless,  EU membership (and to a lesser degree NATO) membership presents a political cleavage which could be successfully mobilised in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (2017 and 2018, respectively), particularly in conjunction with the refugee crisis. After Zeman’s approval had dropped sharply a year ago due to his position in the Ukraine crisis and a series of gaffes, his ratings have since improved and stabilised once again around 57-58% over the last months. By calling for a EU referendum yet supporting membership at the same time, Zeman could thus try to dance at two weddings at once – attract Eurosceptic voters (who will probably vote for a fringe candidate in the first round but could prove decisive in a potential runoff) while not losing too many mainstream voters.

The do-over the Austrian presidential election might provide a first test of how such a tactic might work out. Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer initially suggested that the Austrian people should be given a say over further EU integration and in his campaign greatly benefited from anti-EU sentiment related to the refugee crisis. Following statements by his decidely pro-EU challenger, Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens), last week he was however forced to acknowledge that it would disastrous for Austria if the country left the EU. In order to maintain the momentum of his campaign and keep the anti-establishment vote, Hofer must nevertheless try to balance pro- and anti-EU voters which could – if successful – provide a template for Zeman and the Czexit referendum question.

Michel Rocard: The man who never became President

Michel Rocard: the Man who never became President

Few and far between are the politicians whose passing away (2nd  July 2016) have evoked such unanimity. Politicians from premier Valls to former President Sarkozy are falling over themselves to praise the wisdom, foresight and modernity of the former Socialist premier.  A national day of remembrance, held on 7th July, is a rare honour usually reserved for former Presidents. Michel Rocard can boast a powerful legacy, indeed,  in terms of providing an intellectual underpinning and political standard for French-style social liberalism, boasting a solid reformist record as premier (1988-1991) and leaving an enduring political legacy. Rocard also did much to contribute towards cultivating an economic culture within the left. As former premier Lionel Jospin observed in his tribute: François Mitterrand might have dominated Michel Rocard in political terms, but in view of the policies implemented under Socialist governments since 1982, Rocard won the economic battle’. [1].  

History may or may not retain the failure of his overarching ambition to be elected President.  He was, indeed, a presidential candidate, polling 3.61% as the PSU’s representative in the 1969 presidential election (narrowly short of the 5.1% for the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre). Ultimately, however, Rocard might be remembered as the man who never became President.  Rocard’s contest with Mitterrand for ascendancy within the Socialist Party was a defining moment of modern French politics- and he lost.  Control of the PS presidential candidacy in 1981 was one of the key prizes at stake in the bitter struggle between Mitterrand and Rocard for control of the Socialist party between 1978 and 1981.  The latter’s experience in 1978-1980 suggested the limits of external popularity as a lever to break the hold of the existing organisation on the party apparatus[2]. The strategy adopted in 1978-1980 (in short one of using external popularity to influence the choice of the party’s presidential candidate) failed then, but acted as a precursor to the primary movement which swept French political parties after 2006.

Michel Rocard was as an important personality in the history of the French left. He came to prominence as General Secretary of the small yet highly influential party, the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié – PSU), a party he led from 1967-1974. Though he eventually joined the PS in 1974, and led an influential group of supporters, he remained a marginal force within the Socialist Party, arguably even during his short period as First Secretary (1993-95). But the numerical inferiority of Rocard’s supporters within the PS must not disguise the influence of the movement. Rocard was the symbol for many of a specific tendency within the French left – the deuxième gauche  – which came to signify an alternative narrative of the French left to that focussed on capturing the commanding heights of the state and the economy.  The movement was strongly influenced by the legacy of Pierre Mendès France, the radical premier of the fourth Republic (1954-55) who set in motion France’s decolonisation (Morocco, Tunisia) and who first insisted on the need for economic rigorous economic management as a necessary condition for social progress.  As a student at Sciences Po, the young Rocard was active in the UNEF student union, and evenly briefly joined the SFIO, the Socialist Party he soon quit (in 1958) over the stance adopted to the Algerian war. Unlike many intellectuals, he never became a member of the PCF. Anti-colonialism was the cornerstone to this alternative left emerging to contest the SFIO. The Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA) was created in 1958 as a breakaway group from the SFIO; joined by various minor political clubs, it became the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960. After rising to national-level prominence after the Rencontres de Grenoble (1966), Rocard became General Secretary of the PSU in 1967, and led the movement through the tumultuous events and aftermath of May ’68. With the aim of renovating the left from outside of the main existing party, the SFIO, Rocard’s PSU was directly in competition with Francois Mitterrand’s Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left (FGDS (1965-68) and later with the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS, captured in 1971 by Mitterrand). Mitterrand won that initial battle and many subsequent ones.

The fact remains that Rocard was not a player at the 1971 PS Epinay congress that redefined the landscape of the French left. He was never at ease with the central strategy of Union of the Left (the alliance between Socialists and Communists), but a version of this strategy was successful.  Rocard lost politically in the first instance, his route barred by a determined François Mitterrand, tactically Rocard’s superior. Much has been written about the relationship between Francois Mitterrand and Michel Rocard. Was this mainly a question of personal rivalries and style? In part undoubtedly. But it also concerned core issues of strategy (the Union of the Left and the necessity or not of allying with the PCF); of political and economic culture (the respective role of the State and the Market), of macroeconomic choices (for example the wisdom of using nationalisation as an industrial tool) and of the role of the party.   In many of these areas of controversy the Rocardian approach was evidence-based, evaluative and experimental.  In a prophetical landmark speech to the PS congress in Nantes (1977) Rocard warned the left not to deny the existence of economic constraints that would necessarily influence future government choices: “If the left is unprepared for power, if it refuses to recognise the importance of powerful constraints, if it refuses to admit the technical nature of many policy problems, then it will face failure” [3]

The deuxième gauche was classically formulated in Rocard’s speech to the same Socialist Party Congress of Nantes (1977). In this speech Rocard contrasted the two cultures that structure the French left, a statist, centralising culture and a more decentralising experimental one. The second left was initially associated with a Christian left (Left Catholics, but also protestants such as Rocard himself), as well as being a provincial left favourable to decentralisation and distrustful of a republican narrative of uniformity.  The second left was also a movement influenced by the ideas of May ’68, favourable to workplace democracy, social experimentation, the right to difference, local economic development and autogestion. [4] Above all, the second left demonstrated a certain suspicion towards the State and advocated a more systematic role for civil society and local authorities in policy-making.  Certain of the demands of this second left were clearly influenced by the spirit of the times (for example, ‘autogestion’, or workers’ self-management, a theme directly inspired by May ’68). But the basic message (a combination of rigorous economic management, social justice and a demand for transparency and honesty [‘parler vrai’] ) have withstood the passage of time and are more pertinent today than ever.  The heart of the Rocardian method lay in the duty to identify the challenges ahead, to explain and confront reality and to introduce a stronger economic culture within the French left. Hence, the caution he expressed over certain aspects of the 1981-83 reform programme (especially the Mauroy government’s nationalisations of 100% of leading industrial groups, the banking and insurance sectors, rather than taking a 51% controlling stake as argued by Rocard).  Other dimensions of the Mauroy government – decentralisation, workplace democracy –could claim a stronger filiation with the ideas of the second left.

Rocard will also be remembered as a consequential reformer, especially as a reformist Prime Minister from 1988-1991. In 1988. Mitterrand nominated Rocard as the man of the situation, when the PS failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in the ensuing parliamentary election.  Rocard was the first premier practising l’ouverture, a mainly unsuccessful attempt to broaden the bases of parliamentary support to incorporate elements of the centre and centre-right. Lacking a clear majority, premier Rocard was forced to rely on the most restrictive clauses of the 1958 constitution, notably article 49/3, which allowed the minority Socialist to survive for a full five year term. [5] All in all, Rocard was a reformist prime minister, with a robust policy record: the introduction of  a minimal income (revenu minimum insertion –RMI), a universal benefit extended for the first time to young people of 18-25; an ambitious programme of reform of the State (the programme of the modernisation of the civil service owes its origins to Rocard, as does the changed statute of the Post Office); and an  important fiscal reform (the creation of the general social contribution [contribution sociale générale –  CSG] to finance  new universal welfare benefits). Such policy activism aggravated an already conflictual relationship between Prime Minister and President (a staple of the fifth Republic) and a stoked a bitter personal animosity between the two men. In 1991, Mitterrand dispensed with the services of Rocard, though the prime minister remained popular.

Rocard’s career continued for two more decades after his resignation from Matignon. He was First Secretary of the Socialist Party, 1993-94; a Socialist MEP from 1994-2009, and served in various Commissions under President Sarkozy. But he never did succeed in imposing his presidential candidacy on the PS (the standard bearers being Jospin in 1995 and 2002; Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012).  By this most basic benchmark, he failed. But the legacy is a much more powerful one, in the form of a diffuse network of political and economic personalities, think tanks, ideas,  experts and putative inheritors (including premier Valls and  Industry minister Macron), who are jostling to be recognised as legitimate heir and inheritor. Michel Rocard was an important and influential advocate in the ongoing process of reconciling the left to the economy. He ought to be missed.

[1] Cited in Le Monde, 4th July 2016.

[2] Alistair  Cole (1989)  ‘Factionalism, the French socialist party and the fifth Republic: An explanation of intra‐party divisions’  European Journal of Political Research Volume 17, No. 1, p. 77-94

[3] Rocard’s speech is reprinted in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste, 27, (1977), pp.69-76; p.70.

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, L’age de l’autogestion,  Paris : Seuil, 1976 ; Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret Pour une nouvelle culture politique  Paris : Seuil, 1977.

[5] Article 49/3 allows a government to stake its confidence on the passage of a parliamentary bill, effectively forcing deputies either to overturn the government, or accept the bill.

New publications

Köker, Philipp. 2016. Studying Presidential Activism Using Mixed Methods [Video Case Study]. SAGE Research Methods. Available at: http://methods.sagepub.com/video/researching-presidential-activism-using-mixed-methods

Şule Özsoy Boyunsuz, ‘The AKP’S proposal for a “Turkish type of presidentialism” in comparative context’, Turkish Studies, Volume 17, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 68-90.

Salih Bayram, ‘Intra-Democracy Regime Change: Transitions between Presidential, Parliamentary and Semi-Presidential Systems’, Politologický časopis – Czech Journal of Political Science, 2016, no. 1, pp. 3-22.

Jorge M. Fernandes and Carlos Jalali, ‘A Resurgent Presidency? Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism and the 2016 Elections’, South European Society and Politics, DOI:10.1080/13608746.2016.1198094, Published online: 21 Jun 2016.

Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, and Kharis Templeman (eds.), Taiwan’s Democracy Challenged: The Chen Shui-bian Years, 2016, Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Ludger Helms, ‘Regierungssysteme in der Vergleichenden Politikwissenschaft: Konzepte und Modelle’, in Hans-Joachim Lauth, Marianne Kneuer, and Gert Pickel (eds.), Handbuch Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft, Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften, 2016, pp. 141-154.

Rogelio Hernández Rodríguez, Presidencialismo y hombres fuertes en México: la sucesión presidencial de 1958, El Colegio de México, 2015.

Krill Kalinin, ‘The social desirability bias in autocrat’s electoral ratings: evidence from the 2012 Russian presidential elections’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Volume 26, Issue 2, 2016, pp. 191-211.

Joshua Zinger, ‘The relationship between bias and swing ratio in the Electoral College and the outcome of presidential elections’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Volume 26, Issue 2, 2016, pp. 232-252.

Thomas Sedelius, review of Sébastien G. Lazardeux, ‘Cohabitation and Conflicting Politics in French Policymaking’, in West European Politics, Volume 39, Issue 4, 2016, pp. 905-906.

Jorge M. Fernandes, ‘The seeds for party system change? The 2015 Portuguese general election’, West European Politics, Volume 39, Issue 4, 2016, pp. 890-900.

Ukraine and the EU: The Road Ahead

Last week, President Petro Poroshenko traveled to Brussels. The trip took place just 4 days after the United Kingdom voted to exit the Union in a referendum held on 23 June. The agenda of the trip included high-level discussions of the potential impact of this vote on the EU-Ukraine relations as well as the introduction of visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens and provision of micro-financial aid for Ukraine.

Ukraine had a long and bumpy road toward this point in its relations with the EU. The issue of the EU-Ukraine relations in one way or the other surrounded the rise and fall from power of many Ukrainian presidents. The Orange Revolution following the 2004 presdiential election probably for the first time saw Ukraine really battle between the desire to join the European Union on the one hand and align itself with Russia on the other. Although 2004 was a victory for pro-European side, it was short lived. Failing to deliver the economic reforms as well as a European future, Viktor Yushchenko was defeated in the 2010 election. Although trying to tiptoe a delicate line between the EU and Russia, Viktor Yanukovych himself was taken out of power in 2013 when he refused to sign an association agreement with the EU, despite taking all the necessary steps to prepare it.

In July 2014, the newly elected President Petro Poroshenko finally signed the Association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Although the agreement has been referred to as a “game changer” for Ukraine, it has not been a smooth sailing for the country since then. In April 2016, in a referendum the Dutch voters rejected ratification of an integration agreement between the EU and Ukraine. The vote came on the heels of the worst political crisis in Ukraine since 2013. The crisis resulted in suspension of foreign aid as well as raised skepticism about Ukraine’s ability to solve its economic and political problems.

The appointment of the new Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and the resolution of the parliamentary crisis were welcomed by foreign as well as by domestic political actors who expected Groysman “to ease some of the rifts in the pro-European camp.” Last week, the Prime Minister was quoted saying that Ukraine will join the EU within the next 10 years. However, many worry that Brexit “has pushed Ukraine to the bottom of the EU’s priority list” at the time when the country needs Europe the most. In the midst of a continued confrontation with Russia, EU has been one of the most important and consistent supporters of Ukraine. And even though, last week the European Council announced that the EU would extend its economic sanctions on Russia until January 2017, many are concerned that a weakened alliance may jeopardies security and will no longer be able to confront Russia.

One of the key issues in the EU-Ukraine relations in the past two years has been the question of the visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens. After coming to office in 2014, the President promised to have the regime in place by January 2015. Since then the timeline kept extending and the question is still on the agenda today. Even though the President announced last week that Brexit will not prevent the visa liberalization deal, many believe that it will postpone its implementation.

The EU had an important impact on Ukraine. However, its on-going support and willingness to further integrate Ukraine will be crucial to continue to push the country along the path of reforms.

Constitutional reforms underway in West Africa

A number of countries in West Africa are undergoing a constitutional reform process, in pursuit of stronger, democratic institutions: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. Senegal held a constitutional referendum earlier this year. In stark contrast to recent constitutional changes and ongoing debates in the Central Africa region – Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – where focus has been on extending presidential terms, the declared intent of some of these reforms is to build bulwarks against presidential overreach and overstay.

The constitutional changes in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali follow the violent overturn of democratic processes in all three countries, albeit under very different circumstances. In Benin and Senegal, constitutional reform was a promise of the presidential campaigns of Patrick Talon and Macky Sall, respectively.

Constitutional review commissions in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are preparing completely new constitutions. A principal concern in Burkina Faso is to find ways to “lock in” presidential term limits and to better balance strong presidential powers. It was former President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt at removing presidential term limits that led to his overthrow in October 2014 in a popular uprising. A 92-member commission representing the ruling party, opposition parties (including the CDP of Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) was seated in early June. Its members have two months to present a new draft constitution. The draft will undergo popular consultations, go to the president for comment and be finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. Opposition parties have demanded, however, that the decisions of the constitutional commission be reached by consensus, threatening to walk out on the process otherwise.

In Cote d’Ivoire,  President Ouattara appointed a commission of 10 experts at the end of May, giving them a month to make proposals for a new constitution. During the month of June, Ouattara himself undertook consultations with opposition parties, civil society, traditional leaders and others to receive their suggestions before scheduling a referendum to take place before the end of the year. Key expected changes include the introduction of a vice-presidency and the rewording of article 35 which requires a presidential candidate to be born of both parents of Ivorian origin. The constitutional review process is controversial, however. Opposition parties criticize it for being insufficiently participatory, rushed and ill-timed, as the country has yet to fully heal and reconcile after the 2010 election-related violence.

In Mali, a 13-member expert commission is charged with proposing revisions to the 1992 constitution to incorporate provisions of the 2015 Algiers peace accord signed between the government of Mali and former rebel groups. The constitutional commission will have six months to complete its job. The 1992 constitution is the consensual product of the 1992 National Conference and is vested with significant popular legitimacy. It is unlikely to be completely scrapped and replaced.

The constitutional revision that passed by referendum in Senegal in March of this year shortened presidential terms from seven to five years, and added wording to clarify that “no one can serve more than two consecutive terms” (Art. 27). Other articles were amended to provide for greater oversight by the National Assembly and Constitutional Court, although changes affecting presidential powers are overall fairly minor.

In an even more radical move, newly elected President Patrice Talon of Benin has suggested that presidential terms be limited to one single term. A 35-member commission with representation from political parties and civil society was charged with proposing a series of political and institutional reforms. The commission submitted its report on June 28. The report includes two constitutional scenarios – one where the current two five-year terms are maintained, the other where they are replaced by one single six- or seven year term. The commission was divided on the issue, as some members were concerned a single term would not provide sufficient incentives for accountability.

The process and focus of these various constitutional reforms vary and reflect different priorities and political realities in each country. Overall, however, the combined picture is one of democratic dynamism that contrasts sharply with the institutional atrophy witnessed in other regions of the continent.

Poland – Judicial independence in jeopardy? President Duda refuses appointment of ten further judges

The controversy over Poland’s constitutional court triggered by president Duda’s refusal to appoint judges nominated by the outgoing Sejm and passage of legislation to legitimise his and the new government’s behaviour has so far dominated the presidency of Andrzej Duda (for a summary see Aleks Szczerbiak’s post here). Now, Duda is once again in the line of fire following his refusal to appoint ten out of thirteen judges from lower-level courts to higher positions. Thus, although the individuals put forward by the National Judiciary Council (a committee formed of 17 judges, the minister of judges and 5 political nominees) are far from uncontroversial, the relatively unchecked power of the president in the area of judicial appointments and the government’s plan to reform the judiciary continue to be the most prominent battlefields of Polish politics today.

President Duda appoints 'his' nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

President Duda appoints ‘his’ nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

The Polish constitution, like so many others (irrespective of this being intentional or not), remains vague on a number of presidential duties and prerogatives. Article 179 of the 1997 Constitution thus states with regard to appointments of judges that “judges are appointed by the president on the suggestion of the National Judiciary Council” but gives no further instructions on the procedures or an eventual right of the president to refuse such nominations. Constitutional scholars widely agree that presidents may refuse the nomination of any candidate for public office (irrespective of judge, professor or prime minister) on the grounds of a person’s lack of formal and legally required qualification or reasonable doubts about their loyalty to the constitution. While this generally follows from presidents’ inaugural oath to uphold and protect the constitution, the rejection of nominees for political or personal reasons arguably has no legal basis.

Duda’s refusal to appoint the judges met with particular opposition due to the lack of justification for his decision. Before being proposed candidates for judicial promotions are vetted by the National Judicial Council; if their application is denied they can appeal the decision in court. An additional vetting by the president beyond formalities thus appears not only unreasonable but also adds the complication that there is no prescribed legal way to appeal his refusal to appoint a nominee. Many conflicts over constitutional clauses along the lines of “the president appoints/signs/etc” fall into the category of conflict between two constitutional organs and can be adjudicated by the constitutional court by the ways of a standard procedure. Yet as both the National Judicial Council and the rejected nominees lack ‘organ quality’, neither of them can easily challenge the president’s decision. The latter became clear in the only other case judicial promotions at lower courts were refused by the president. In 2007 Duda’s pre-predecessor Lech Kaczynski (the deceased twin-brother of current Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), created a precedent for Duda’s actions by declining to appoint nine judges. The nominees’ constitutional complaints were eventually rejected after four years of deliberations as the justification was that the implementation of administrative law by the president does not fall within the remit of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Administrative Court likewise rejected the complaints and subsequent further constitutional complaints were also rejected so that the case now (still) lies with the European Court of Human Rights (for a longer summary, see the report of the Helsinki foundation here).

Newspapers have speculated on the reasons which led the president to reject the nominations. In fact, some of the nominees are far from uncontroversial. One judge was prominently accused of bribery, another judge controversially dismissed a collective law suit against the financial services provider Amber Gold (which was liquidated following the discovery that is was based on a pyramid scheme), and a third was involved in the widely discussed case of restricting the “parents’ rights” of a couple accused of violence against their children. In addition, one judge was widely criticised for continuously extending the arrest of a football fan for alleged drug-dealing, yet without any verdict being issued over the course of three and a half years. Last, one of the judges whose promotion was denied judged on a case in which Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski leader sued fellow legislator Janusz Palikot (then Civic Platform, later founder of ‘Palikot’s Movement’) for insulting him.

None of the above-mentioned controversies would generally justify denial of appointment or other presidential intervention. Thus, it is more likely that they are part of the Law and Justice government’s plan to reform and mould the judiciary in their image. Given that Duda is generally seen as little more than a vicarious agent of Law and Justice leader and Polish politics’ grey eminence (he does not hold any government office) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is now helping to fulfil that plan (while at the same time extending the powers of his office). In a recent proposal made by the government (which was already widely criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs), the National Judiciary Council would have to propose two candidates per vacancy thus considerably increasing the president’s power over judicial nominations. This, together with the conflict over the constitutional court and the government’s decision to once again merge the position of general prosecutor with the minister of justice (the positions were separated by the predecessor government in 2008 and unsuccessfully vetoed by president Lech Kaczynski) highlights the great importance that Law and Justice attaches to judicial reform. Nevertheless, it also shows that judicial independence in Poland might increasingly come under threat – not only, but partially due to president Duda’s activism.

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See also my blog posts on similar conflicts over judicial appointment in Slovakia:
Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments
Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

Portugal – President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa: hyperactive and omnipresent in uncertain times

On 16 June President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa marked his first 100 days in office. Rebelo de Sousa is a new kind of president: hyperactive and omnipresent. His relationship with Prime Minister Costa, leader of the Socialist Party (PS) is peaceful and co-operative. Who is President Rebelo de Sousa and why does the conservative president support a socialist government?

The 67-year old law professor Rebelo de Sousa is a centre-right politician. He was one of the founders of the Democratic People’s party (PPD), later renamed as the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Under Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemão (PSD, 1981-1983), Rebelo de Sousa served as Secretary of State for the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (1981-1982) and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs (1982-1983). He was leader of the PSD party (1996-1999), and member of the Council of State (2000-2001, 2006-2016). In the presidential election, he was not an official candidate of PSD but stood as an independent. Unlike his predecessor Aníbal Cavaco Silva (PSD)[1], President Rebelo de Sousa known as ‘Professor Marcelo’ never held a top state position but gained widespread popularity thanks to his long years of work as a political commentator on television.

The new president, who claims to read two books a day and sleep no more than four-and-a-half hours a night, is considered to be ‘hyperactive’. Since his inauguration on 9 March, he has participated, reportedly, in no fewer than 250 initiatives, including seven state visits abroad. His speeches, statements and other kind of public appearances have received much media attention, which, allegedly, has contributed to his rising popularity. Critics believe that the President’s ‘omnipresence’ could put him on a collision course with Prime Minister Costa.

Compared with Cavaco Silva, the new president is closer to the people, cares less about protocol and acts more like a non-partisan president. “He [Cavaco Silva] just wasn’t present in the lives of the our citizens”, said Maria de Belém, the former acting leader of the PS. Marisa Matias of the Left Bloc said: “Cavaco [Silva] was a president who occupied himself with inaugurations in the intervals of his subservience to the ruling party, his own.”

Prime Minister Costa’s government consists solely of members of the PS but enjoys parliamentary support from the Left Bloc (BE), the Communist Party (PCP), and the Green Party (PEV). Underpinning this leftist alliance – together they control 122 seats in Portugal’s 230-seat National Parliament – is a 138-page compromise agreement between the four parties aimed at gradually winding back the austerity measures adopted by the Passos Coelho government. Yet, government decisions are ultimately subject to the approval of the BE, PCP and PEV. Policy is thus the outcome of ad-hoc agreements between the government and their parliamentary coalition partners.

Despite the fact that the President and Prime Minister are from opposing political forces, institutional conflict has been largely absent in Portugal because, firstly, President Rebelo de Sousa supports the current government in order to encourage political stability. In his presidential victory speech, he called for consensus between political parties to “heal the wounds” of the political crisis.[2] “I won’t create any problem, any instability, any criticism of government action. I will try to keep the basis of support for the government intact.” True to his word, the President approved the 2016 anti-austerity budget and promulgated the 35-hour working week law for civil servants[3], despite the fact that the Popular Party (CDS-PP) and PSD had voted against both laws. The President vetoed the surrogacy law. Another reason why ‘intra-executive conflict’ has been largely absent is because the President and Prime Minister are close personal friends, which, most probably, has facilitated peaceful institutional cooperation.

President Rebelo de Sousa knows he plays a critical role in fostering political stability. His hyperactivity is one symptom of this. The president has the power to dissolve parliament when, for instance, decision-making is paralysed due to interparty conflicts. This scenario is not unlikely to unfold in reality. The socialists and communists have a long history of intense hostility, which prevented them from forming a left-wing coalition government. In particular, EU related issues could generate friction between the pro-EU government and its “anti-European” allies. The leftist alliance is the first since the birth of democratic Portugal four decades ago.

[1] Former President Aníbal Cavaco Silva was Prime Minister from 1985-1995.

[2] In October 2015, Portugal was plunged into crisis following inconclusive parliamentary elections. The centre-right coalition of PM Pedro Passos Coelho (PSD) won the most votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections but lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed since 2011. Passos Coelho formed a centre-right minority government, but was forced to resign after parliament passed a censure motion.

[3] The law reduces the length of a working week for civil servants from 40 to 35 hours.