Monthly Archives: November 2017

Kenya – A look into pivotal role observers play in elections

This post by Prof. Nic Cheeseman first appeared in The Nation on 28 November

The Supreme Court approved President Uhuru Kenyatta’s October 26 victory, but it is still too early to fully evaluate the court’s impact on the elections, and the impact of the elections on the Court.

What we can do now is to look back on the role played by international election observers, who have received a great deal of criticism in Kenya.

A week or so ago, I published a piece on this topic in the Washington Post with Todd Moss and Jeffrey Smith.

The article was designed to continue the debate about what role international monitors should play, and how they can be strengthened.

However, in the rush to edit the piece down to the required word length many important points were cut.

As a result, some people have asked for more information on our argument, others have requested further elaboration on the kinds of reforms that could be introduced, and others still have complained that the analysis did not do justice to the complex challenges that observers face.

In response, I shall use this column to try and set the record straight.


What are observers to do?

One of the main challenges for observation teams is that people tend to exaggerate their power.

Ahead of the elections, many Kenyans invested considerable confidence in the ability of missions from the Carter Center and the European Union.

But the rules that observers must play by, if they are not to get into trouble with both their employers and the governments whose elections they oversee, means that there is only so much they can do.

Most obviously, international observers operate in foreign states at the pleasure of the host government, and so have to be particularly careful when alleging rigging.


There are plenty of countries that do not allow foreign teams in – such as Zimbabwe, from where I am writing – and so observers must protect their reputation in order to maintain access.

As a result, monitors often find it difficult to make strong statements when they suspect foul play but cannot prove it.

This situation held in Kenya following the election of August 8, when the opposition quickly pointed to missing forms and electronic irregularities as evidence of rigging, but hard evidence of exactly how many votes had been added or lost was not available.

The Supreme Court interpreted the failure of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to provide information and access to its servers to imply malpractice, even though it lacked concrete evidence of the extent of rigging.

This was an assumption that the Carter Center and the European Union were simply not in a position to make.

Similarly, it is not well-known that observers have no right to directly intervene in elections, even to stop abuses that they directly witness.

Instead, they are supposed to record and report malpractice – leaving intervention to domestic institutions such as the electoral commission and the police.

This is a particularly weak position when we factor in that observers have no power of enforcement – they can make recommendations in their reports, but they have no financial or judicial leverage with which to ensure they are acted upon.

That role falls to domestic civil society and international donors.

As a result, there is a significant discrepancy between the hope and faith that opposition parties place in international observers and their capacity to deliver.

What did observers do well?

Many people have been left with the impression that the teams from the European Union and the Carter Center let the Kenyan people down in 2017, not because they were worse than any other groups, but because people expected more from them.

Most of the times that I have heard this argument rolled out, it has rested on three foundations.

The first is that observers did not condemn the August 8 elections, whereas the Supreme Court did.

The second is that observers did not do their job properly because they stayed in Nairobi, did some shopping, and then went back to their comfortable jobs in Europe and North America.

The third is that observers always do the same thing, letting the bad guys off the hook.

I have already explained why the first criticism misunderstands the power and role of international election observation.

The second criticism is also misguided.

The better and more thorough international missions, such as the Carter Center and the European Union, have a long-term component, placing observers in the country months ahead of the polls.

They also hire political experts who understand the country’s political history and can explain the context of the elections and the ways in which they tend to be rigged.

It is also incorrect to suggest that observers do not travel outside of the capital city.


Almost all monitoring teams locate their staff in polling stations across the country in a reasonably representative way, and so can report on both the rural and urban experience.

The notion that international observers always do the same thing is also clearly false.

Kenyans only have to think back to 2007, when it was the European Union that called into question President Mwai Kibaki’s victory, citing figures from the Molo and Kieni constituencies.

It is also clear that international teams also adapted their approach in 2017, with both the Carter Center and the European Union making strong statements ahead of the “fresh” election on October 26.

These raised concerns about the lack of reforms within the electoral commission and the treatment of the Judiciary, and made it clear that the election was unlikely to be credible.

Thus, while the 2017 elections highlight a number of problems with the system of selection observation, I see most of these as relating to the way election observation works, rather than the people who do it and the decisions that they make.


What can be improved?

We now face the question of how election observation can be improved.

We need to do this for two reasons. On the one hand, a survey conducted by Ipsos Kenya in mid October 2017 found that a majority (59 per cent) of Kenyans want international observers to monitor future elections.

On the other hand, half of all respondents in the same survey agreed that “they make no difference when it comes to stealing votes”.

Thus, while observers are clearly needed, their reputation needs to be strengthened. How can this be done?

One obvious point is that observers can do a better job of communicating the limits to their powers.

But they cannot do this alone – the media, and the way in which observers statements are reported, is also a problem.

During the 2017 elections in Kenya, a number of observer reports that highlighted positive and negative aspects of the polls were reported as having given the process a “clean bill of health”.

However, while good Public Relations is important it will not be enough. The role of observers also needs to be bolstered.

There are two ways in which this can be done.

The first is to change the burden of proof, so that monitors can ask governments to demonstrate that processes are robust and transparent when they have concerns – even if these have not been proven.

A second related change would be to have much stronger pre-electoral statements that flag up issues of concern and highlight key challenges in a much stronger way than tends to occur at present.

Of course, one implication of this more tough approach is that in some cases observers may be asked to leave, or not be invited back – but this might not be such a bad thing.

If being present at an election means legitimising a deeply problematic process, staying away may be better.

International monitors could also take longer to issue their first post-election statements.

We know that in many cases election day looks great and the problems emerge halfway through the counting process.


It therefore makes sense to leave any statement until the counting is near complete – and to go to greater lengths to stress that any comments made at this stage are preliminary and must not be taken or reported as a final evaluation of the quality of the polls.

All of these reforms would represent small but significant improvements, but they will count for little if observers do not have the funding, skills and experience needed to actually detect electoral fraud.

At present, they are managed by good people with considerable experience. But they are also operating in a rather old-fashioned way.


As is traditional, the European Union team placed people in polling stations across the country.

Academic research suggests that this has the effect of reducing election rigging in the polling stations in which observers are present, but that this has little impact on the quality of the overall rigging because the malpractice is simply moved elsewhere.

A better use of these staff positions would therefore be to establish a high quality team that can interrogate the electoral register and voting and counting process.


In 2017, the European Union had a data analyst as part of the team, but not a set of experts on biometric technology and digital electoral processes.

Yet most of the problems with the election related to the transmission of forms, and the need to evaluate claims of hacking and the fabrication of results.

The implication is clear: Detecting rigging in the future will require monitors to adapt.

As elections change, so must election observers.

New publications

Matthew S. Shugart and Rein Taagepera, Votes from Seats: Logical Models of Electoral Systems, Cambridge University Press, chapters 11-12 on presidential elections.

Adrián Albala, ‘Bicameralism and Coalition Cabinets in Presidential Polities: A configurational analysis of the coalition formation and duration processes’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 735-754.

Raul Magni-Berton and Max-Valentin Robert, ‘ Maximizing presidential coattails: the impact of the electoral calendar on the composition of the National Assembly’, French Politics, December 2017, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 488–504.

Alexander Baturo and Johan A. Elkink, ‘On the importance of personal sources of power in politics: comparative perspectives and research agenda’, French Politics, December 2017, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 505-525.

Enes Kulenović and Krešimir Petković, ‘The Croatian Princes: Power, Politics and Vision (1990-2011)’, Croatian Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, 2016, pp. 105-131, available at:

Vincenc Kopeček, ‘Political Institutions in the Post-Soviet De Facto States in Comparison: Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh’, in Martin Riegl and Bohumil Doboš (eds.), Unrecognized States and Secession in the 21st Century, Springer, 2018, pp. 111-136.

Revista Negócios Estrangeiros, 11.4 Especial, Special issue on semi-presidentialism with a focus on Lusophone Africa (in Portuguese), available here.

Aidan Smith, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency, Routledge, 2018.

Aya Watanabe, ‘The president-led peace process and institutional veto players: The Mindanao conflict in the Philippines’, Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, 2017, Online First, 1–19.

Vasiliki Triga, ‘Parties and Change in the Post-Bailout Cyprus: The May 2016 Parliamentary Elections’, South European Society and Politics, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2017, pp. 261-279.

Berk Esen & Şebnem Gümüşçü, ‘A Small Yes for Presidentialism: The Turkish Constitutional Referendum of April 2017’, South European Society and Politics, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2017, pp. 303-326.

Ödül Celep, ‘Perspectives on Turkey’s 2017 Presidential Referendum’, Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 1-8.

US – Trump and Republicans In An Era of Nationalized Elections: Hanging Together, or Hanging Separately?

Late last month, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to confirm that he would not be seeking reelection in 2018. But most of his remarks, which earned a standing ovation from his Senate colleagues, were directed at President Donald Trump. Flake castigated Trump for “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” that was “dangerous to democracy,” and he called on his colleagues to “stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch is normal.” Only hours before Flake’s broadside against the President, his Republican Senate colleague Bob Corker, in an appearance on NBC’s Today show, expressed similar sentiments when he branded Trump “an utterly untruthful president.” It was but the latest in a series of criticisms of Trump by the Tennessee Republican dating back several months, including Corker’s characterization of Trump’s White House as “an adult daycare center.”

In the immediate aftermath journalists were quick to label Corker and Flake’s remarks a “watershed moment”, that signaled a Republican Party on the brink of “civil war”, and they speculated that the growing party fissure would jeopardize Trump’s legislative agenda. However, while Corker’s and Flake’s attacks on their own party’s president are perhaps unprecedented, and thus newsworthy, the bigger story is just how few of their fellow partisans in Congress have followed their lead. It is easy to understand their reluctance to do so. Although many in Congress likely share Flake and Corker’s outrage regarding Trump’s norm-breaking behavior, they also recognize that in an era of ideologically polarized congressional parties and nationalized elections, their political fates depend heavily on working with Trump to achieve legislative success.

By nationalized, I mean that the electoral fortunes of Representatives and Senators are increasingly linked to constituents’ willingness to credit or blame the political parties as a whole for the state of the nation, rather than simply voting on the basis of their individual legislator’s record. Put another way, the legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism that “all politics is local” no longer holds true, at least not when it comes winning a seat in Congress. In fact, most electoral politics is now “national”. Just how nationalized have congressional elections become? One way to estimate the relative influence of national versus local forces is to regress the outcome of the House vote in any given election on the previous House vote and on the most recent presidential vote in that House district, while controlling for incumbency and district partisanship. The coefficients on the House variable serve as a proxy for local influences, and the one on the presidential variable captures national tides. Drawing on data gathered by a number of my research assistants over the years, I have been documenting the relative growth in the nationalization of House election dating back to 1954. As the chart below indicates, elections have become increasingly nationalized since the mid-1980’s, and in 2016 the House experienced the most nationalized elections yet measured for a presidential election year.

As the next chart shows, there is a similar trend in House midterm elections: an increase in nationalization dating back to the 1980’s, with 2014 showing the highest rate of nationalization to date.

Although detecting similar trends in Senate races is more difficult because there are fewer of them and because Senate cohorts are elected at different intervals, there is some evidence, such as the decline in states that split their Senate contingent between two parties, to suggest that Senate elections have become more nationalized as well. Consistent with this claim, in 2016, for the first time since the Senate was elected through a popular vote, every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate also voted for the Republican presidential candidate, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for the Democratic presidential standard bearer. In short, there is no reason to believe that Senate races are any less susceptible to the forces driving nationalization.

What are those forces – why are U.S. elections increasingly nationalized? A full explanation requires a separate post, but there are likely a number of factors at play. To begin, changes in campaign finance regulations have accentuated the monetary influence of small donors who possess more ideologically-extreme views and, aided by the ease of contributing via the internet, they are increasingly willing to spend that money wherever it will have the greatest electoral impact. That often means challenging incumbents in primaries with more partisan candidates. It also appears that the marginal impact of casework and other constituency-related activities, which helped fuel the rise of the incumbency advantage during the 1960’s, may have diminished as it has become an expected part of congressional service.

However, perhaps the most important factor has been party sorting, in which party labels have become a more reliable indicator of a person’s ideological views. Among other effects, party sorting has led to a decline in split-ticket voting in national elections from its high point in the 1970’s, as indicated in the following table.

It is important to note that the decline in split-ticket voting is not proof that voters are increasingly polarized. Instead, as Morris Fiorina argues, these trends are more likely a function of the changing nature of the candidates and positions from which voters must choose. Candidates, and the issues they run on, may be better sorted ideologically by party label. If so, even if voters retain centrist views, they may increasingly sort themselves into a particular party and vote for a straight party ticket because of the more partisan-based choices in candidates and party platforms. As parties become better sorted ideologically, party labels become an increasingly useful cue for voters trying to decide how to vote in congressional elections, and members of Congress have a greater incentive to bolster their party brand.

Whatever the explanation for the trend toward nationalized elections, I see no evidence it will significantly reverse itself in the 2018 midterms. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Corker and Flake appeared to both suddenly take a principled stand against their own president: neither is running for reelection in 2018. (Corker made his decision not seek another term public in September.) Flake, as Trump was only to happy to point out, faced declining approval ratings and a difficult reelection fight. Before breaking publicly with President and announcing he would not seek reelection, Corker had been one of the first establishment Republicans to back Trump’s presidential candidacy, and reportedly had considered serving as Trump’s running mate. Similar political calculations likely influenced those other congressional Republicans, such as John McCain during the debate over repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, better known as Obamacare), who have recently broken publicly with Trump. McCain, of course, is suffering from brain cancer and is unlikely to seek reelection.

Most Republicans in Congress, however, have little incentive to challenge the head of their own party, no matter how outrageous they may view his behavior. This is particularly the case for those running for reelection in 2018. Midterm elections are always politically precarious for members of the president’s party. Since 1934 the president’s party has lost, on average, 27 House and almost four Senate seats during these elections. If those averages hold in 2018, it will be enough to cost Republicans their majorities in both chambers of Congress. Crucially, in an era of nationalized elections and ideologically well-sorted parties in which party labels serve as an increasingly important voting cue, it is not clear that individual members of Congress can easily insulate themselves from these growing national political tides. Instead, Republicans’ best option looking ahead may be to stick together and boost their party’s reputation by achieving some legislative successes. So far they have come up woefully short by this yardstick, most notably in their failure to repeal ACA. Their best remaining legislative hope before hitting the campaign trail may be tax reform – a version of which has already passed the House. As Republicans learned with the unsuccessful health care repeal effort, however, maintaining party unity in the Senate, where they possess a narrow 52-48 margin, is a more difficult task. Nonetheless, in an era of nationalized congressional elections, they have a strong electoral incentive to hang together. The alternative, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, another legendary American politician, is to find themselves hanging separately during the upcoming midterm elections.

Togo – Trouble for long-tenured President Faure Gnassingbé

President Faure Gnassingbé is facing relentless calls for his departure. The sale of T-shirts with the slogan #Faure Must Go is booming.  Since August, massive waves of protesters in the streets have demanded a return to the 1992 constitution with its two-term limits. Faure is currently serving his third five-year term. He took over as president in 2005 at the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who came to power in April 1967 through a coup. This year thus marks the 50th anniversary of one family’s rule over Togo.

Togo has become an anomaly in West Africa – the only country where a president is serving more than two terms. Along with The Gambia, Togo voted against a proposal to limit the number of terms presidents can serve across the ECOWAS region, a proposal put forward at a regional summit in 2015. Since then, long-serving autocrat Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia lost reelection in 2016. The coalition that brought his successor Adama Barrow to power has presidential term limits as one of its declared constitutional reform priorities. This would leave Togo as the only country in West Africa without presidential term limits.

Protests against presidential overstay in office have been ongoing for months. At the forefront of the demonstrations taking place in major cities across the country has been the National Panafrican Party (PNP) of Tikpi Atchadam, an opposition party created in 2014. The PNP conducted an active grassroots mobilizing campaign that demonstrated its effectiveness when on August 19  the party organized demonstrations simultaneously in four out of five regions of the country, from north to south, calling for a return to the 1992 constitution and an end to the ruling family dynasty. Thousands of Togolese took to the streets in five cities, including Lomé, Sokodé (the country’s second largest city and Tikpi’s home) and Kara, a traditional bastion of support for the Gnassingbé family (Eyadéma was born nearby). The demonstrations were violently repressed and at least two people were killed in Sokodé. Togolese of the diaspora also demonstrated in New York, Berlin, Libreville and Accra.

This show of force and capacity of mobilization has reinvigorated the Togolese opposition. In contrast to most of the country’s longtime opposition leaders who hail from the southern part of the country, Tikpi is a northerner like Faure and his family. His rise as an influential opposition leader has shattered the traditional north-south divide that has characterized Togolese politics since the 1960s. Worried by his mobilizing power, the government has sought to cast Tikpi as a “radical Muslim.” The August demonstrations led to the creation of a 14-party opposition coalition and further marches in September that drew more than 100,000 Togolese into the streets across the country. Alleging threats on his life, Tikpi has been less visible in recent weeks, leaving the limelight to historical opposition leaders such as Jean-Pierre Fabre (ANC) and Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson (CPDA).

The government has responded to the protests with the adoption of a constitutional reform bill that would reintroduce two-term limits – the measure would, however, not be retroactive, meaning that Faure could run again in 2020 and 2025. The opposition boycotted the legislative vote on the bill in September and it failed to muster the required 4/5 majority vote to pass. The ruling party declared it would instead submit the constitutional changes to a referendum, which is yet to take place. As clashes continued in October and led to several hundred Togolese seeking refuge in Ghana, Togo’s neighbors have gotten involved in seeking a solution to the political crisis. At least 16 people have been killed since August, including two soldiers. President Nana Akufo-Addo has been designated by ECOWAS to act as mediator and his representative traveled to Lomé in November in an effort to calm the situation and create conditions for dialogue.  In the same vein, Tikpi, Fabre and Adjamago-Johnson met with African Union President Alpha Condé in Paris on November 21 to discuss modalities for political dialogue with the government.

Regional mediation efforts may be bearing fruit. Faure Gnassingbé has declared that talks could start in “a few weeks.” It remains to be seen whether common ground can be found. The opposition would have reasons to be wary. Faure’s father Eyadéma weathered the 1991 national conference and gradually voided the constraints on presidential power and tenure introduced in the 1992 constitution through a process of “putsch by installments” (Handy 2005, p.48). Similarly, the incumbent president has ably avoided discussion of institutional reforms – notably the return to presidential two-term limits – a discussion mandated by the Accord Politique Global (APG) of 2006. The APG was signed by the ruling and opposition parties following the 2005 post-election violence in which several hundred Togolese died.  The 2010 presidential election was again contested, though demonstrations did not turn as violent. In response, Faure included historical opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio in a power-sharing government, thereby weakening the opposition.

Given the less than stellar family track record in terms of respecting past agreements, the opposition may worry that any measure short of ending the family rule will again be rolled back. The military could come to play a crucial role, as it did in 2005 when it ensured the transition of power from father to son at the death of Eyadéma.  The majority of army officers are from northern Togo, notably from Faure’s home region of Kara. Faure has publicly renewed his confidence in the military and blamed the opposition for the October violence that caused two soldiers’ deaths. On its part, the opposition sent an explicit message to the Togolese security forces on November 18 during its latest round of marches with the reading of a statement declaring “you are our brothers.”

While discussions continue on conditions for initiating political dialogue, the opposition coalition is maintaining pressure and has called for demonstrations again on November 29-30 and December 2.

Chile – Presidential Election Goes to Run-Off

On Sunday, Chile went to the polls for the first round of their presidential election. Voters also had to elect all 155 lower house deputies and half of Chile’s senators. The former billionaire, center-right president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera (2010-214), despite a clear lead in public opinion polls, was forced into a second round run-off due to a late surge by candidates on the left.

Piñera, with his right-leaning Chile Vamos coalition, won 36.4 per cent of the vote, while the left-leaning representative of the incumbent coalition, Alejandro Guillier, came second with 22.7 per cent and Beatriz Sánchez Muñoz, also on the left, came third with 20.3 per cent of the vote. The right wing candidate of the Unión Demócrata Independiente, José Antonio Kast, came fourth with 7.9 per cent.

Guillier a former news anchor, is the candidate of the centre-left Nueva Mayoría governing coalition led by current incumbent Michelle Bachelet and during the election campaign, he pledged to continue the reform agenda of the Bachelet administration. Sánchez, also a former journalist, represented the left wing Frente Amplio coalition, a party that emerged from the Chilean student movement of 2011. Sánchez ran on a platform that emphasized redistribution and higher taxes for the wealthy. This was the first time that the Frente Amplio has competed in a presidential election.

Piñera’s victory reflects divisions among the left in Chile. The Partido Demócrata Cristiano decided to leave the governing leftist coalition and contest the election on their own for the first time. Their candidate, Carolina Goic, received 5.8 per cent of the vote. It is also a product of  the falling popularity of the current incumbent, Michelle Bachelet. Her popularity has plummeted a long way from the eighty plus rating that she enjoyed towards the end of her first term in office. Her administration has been beset by a number of corruption scandals, one of which involved one of Chile’s largest corporate entities, Penta Group, and the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). More significantly however, one of the scandals involved the President’s own son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos was accused of using his political influence to arrange a US$10 million bank loan for his wife’s firm, Caval, which then used the funds to purchase land in central Chile that was promptly resold for a profit. The national banking regulator cleared Dávalos of any wrongdoing, but Congress launched an investigative committee to explore the allegations.

The emergence of the Frente Amplio, an anti-establishment coalition, was partly a response to this corruption crisis.

The low turnout at 46.7 per cent probably also helped Piñera. A run-off is now scheduled for December 17. The big question of course will be whether the supporters of Sánchez will weigh in behind the incumbent candidate, Guillier. Sánchez has been highly critical of Piñera in the past. A right-leaning victory in Chile would continue the recent swing to the right in other South American countries, including, Brazil, Peru and Argentina.

Slovakia – Relations between the President and Prime Minister reach a low point

The surprising victory of Andrej Kiska in the March 2014 presidential elections in Slovakia has, until recently, not had any major negative impact on the stability of intra-executive relations in the country. The main executive authority rests with the government headed by the Prime Minister, who is backed by a parliamentary majority. The directly elected president has important but limited powers, especially in the realm of appointing public officials, including the Prime Minister and government ministers. Nevertheless, his room for maneuver is restricted by the party composition of the parliament. As a result, President Kiska has kept a low profile, respected the agreements of political parties, and appointed (as well as dismissed) all the ministers as proposed by the Prime Minister Robert Fico, whom he defeated in the presidential elections. Following the March 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska promptly appointed the new four-party coalition government led by Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), and publicly supported its goals of fighting extremism and deepening European integration.

The president has more leeway when it comes to the judiciary. During the first weeks of his presidency, he rejected five out of six candidates proposed by parliament for Judges of the Constitutional Court, thus filling just one out of three vacancies at the Court. Moreover, another spot at the Court became vacant in February 2016. Although the parliament proposed, in line with the Constitution, two new candidates for the post, Kiska again refused to choose either of them, citing their lack of adequate qualifications. The Constitutional Court accepted the constitutional complaints of five unsuccessful candidates for further deliberation but so far has not ruled on the matter.

The conflict over the Constitutional Court has been the most visible exercise of formal presidential powers vis-a-vis the government and the parliament. The president has, on several occasions, invited individual ministers to voice them his concerns over the development of their portfolios. However, he normally uses more traditional tools available to ceremonial heads of states: media statements and speeches at various public events. Since his election, President Kiska has become a vocal proponent of increased transparency and anti-corruption; he regularly criticizes what he perceives to be the systematic failure of the state to take care of its socially deprived citizens. Kiska recently ruled out setting up a new party or joining an existing one in order to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Despite some suggestions that he may not seek reelection, he stated he would announce his decision in September next year. By and large, the relations between government and president seemed cooperative and respectful. In recent weeks, however, tensions between the Prime Minister and President have emerged.

In September, several media outlets anonymously received reports of a 2015 tax inspection in the KTAG firm, which is owned by the President and his brother. As it turned out, the tax authorities concluded in 2016 that the KTAG had violated the law, since it paid some €27,000 less than it should done on taxes. The company did not object to the findings and paid the sum as well as the penalty. In a series of brief statements, President rejected any personal wrongdoing but did not offer any detailed account, thus ignoring allegations that the company may have used the money to finance his 2014 presidential campaign. The head of the tax authority later apologized for the information leak and claimed an “individual failure” was behind it. However, Kiska implicitly accused the government, stating: “If a head of state can be attacked in such a way, no single person in Slovakia can be sure that such gangland-style blackmailing practices will not be used against him or her.”

The Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák called the president “a tax fraudster” and the Prime Minister even accused Kiska of trying to influence the investigation by approaching the Prosecutor General. In response, the Prosecutor General stated he had talked to the President back in 2015 on a whole range of issues but strongly denied the Prime Minister’s allegation that President had intended to influence the investigation or discussed his firm’s problems with him.

the Interior Minister’s remarks, however, should be viewed in a broader context of Kiska’s anti-corruption agenda. Minister Kaliňák has faced a series of allegations for his business with Ladislav Bašternák, an entrepreneur who was recently accused by the police of tax fraud. Kaliňák himself has benefited from business with Bašternák but the police did not start an investigation due to the lack of evidence. In addition, Prime Minister Fico rents a flat from Bašternák himself, for which he has been heavily criticized by the opposition. The opposition parties organized a series of demonstrations throughout 2016 and President Kiska also suggested Kaliňák should step down to give the police free rein to properly investigate the case. In 2017, several anti-corruption marches organized by students took place. One of their key demands was the resignation of the Interior Minister and the Police Corps President.

In November, the Prime Minister attacked the President again, claiming the government was “ready to send the President an invoice” for €1.000.000 to pay for using the government’s plane to fly to his hometown Poprad (where the president’s family lives). The statement came as a surprise, since the President, following an unbinding parliamentary resolution issued in April, stopped using the plane and uses his car instead. When faced with the “airplane problem”, Kiska has always explained that he was using the plane at the Interior Minister’s suggestion. Kaliňák, according to President, asked him to use the plane because the pilots had logged too few flying hours. In April, Kiska effectively accused Interior Minister of plotting against him and suggested the Minister should deal with his suspicious business links instead. In November, when PM Fico re-opened the case against him, Kiska retaliated by saying that he understood the Prime Minister’s frustration over growing tensions within his party and falling public support for his policies.

Why have the relations between President and Prime Minister become so tense? There are several possible interpretations. Firstly, they may be pre-emptive steps to damage Kiska’s chances in the 2019 presidential elections, should he decide to run again. The President’s approval ratings are unmatched by other active politicians, and Prime Minister Fico may feel that a negative campaign against President Kiska will improve the chances of his party’s future candidate. Secondly, following a poor performance of Fico’s party in the November 2017 regional elections, when four out of six Smer-SD-backed regional governors lost to opposition candidates, media attention has focused on how the largest Slovak party will react. Several prominent party members suggested personnel changes at the top should follow, including a possible departure of the increasingly unpopular but powerful Interior Minister Kaliňák. Fico, after a week of silence, claimed that his party, in fact, won the election, gaining a plurality of regional deputies. Reopening Kiska’s “airplane problem” may be an attempt to change the main subject of the public debate. Moreover, Kiska’s past problem with the tax authorities has been a welcome development for Smer-SD, since both Kaliňák and Fico can use it to divert public attention from themselves to the President. Thirdly, it may be a simple tit-for-tat tactic, a reaction to Kiska’s recent criticism of how the Smer-SD-led government has handled several high-profile social policy issues. These include the occurrence of serious flaws in the management of resocialization facilities, leading, among other things, to the unnecessary detention of children, and under-age sex between staff and children. Kiska stated that Slovakia was not a functioning welfare state, by which he effectively questioned the policy record of left-leaning Smer-SD, the party that has been in power for over a decade.

Whatever the true reasons, government and president are entering uncharted waters of open political confrontation. However, any escalation to the levels reached in the mid-1990s between the then President Kováč and Prime Minister Mečiar seems unlikely.

Ukraine – EuroMaidan: 4 years on

On the night of November 21st, 2013, the citizens of Ukraine came to the streets to protest the policies of then government of Viktor Yanukovych. The wave of demonstrations and civil unrest now commonly referred to as EuroMaidan ultimately forced the president and many high political officials to flee the country. Although the demonstrations were sparked by the decision to suspend the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, the protests were also against corruption at the highest levels of the Ukrainian society. Yesterday marked 4 years since the beginning of EuroMaidan, what progress has been made since then?

Last week, the President of the World Bank, Jim Young Kim, visited Ukraine to discuss the reforms in the country. The President of the World Bank affirmed “we applaud the remarkable reforms Ukraine has implemented, which have helped the economy return to growth.” However, Jim Young Kim called for establishment of an independent corruption court as “a critical step to tackle corruption.”

Chatham House also issued a report on the state of the Ukrainian reforms in October 2017, praising “the remarkable progress in laying the foundations for reducing corruption in public life.” Nonetheless, the report also noted that, despite numerous achievements, from the standpoint of the Ukrainian population there has been little to show for the reforms [1]. Thus, it is not surprising that last month Ukraine was engulfed in yet another wave of anti-graft protests. Over 4,000 people gathered outside of the parliament demanding to lift parliamentary immunity, change electoral system to an open-party list, and create a National Anticorruption Court.

President Petro Poroshenko took immediate steps to speed up the legislative process to address the three demands raised by the protestors. As a result, the legislators agreed to fast-rack a bill stripping members of parliament of immunity from persecution possibly as early as next year. Parliament also started discussing the possibility of changing the electoral system. Finally, President Poroshenko promised to sign a law launching the anti-corruption court by the end of the year.

However, it is important to note that scholars still know very little about corruption, why some countries succumb to it, and most importantly how to eradicate it. Certainly, more research is needed on the topic, especially since Ukraine is definitely not the only country struggling with corruption. This year alone, on these pages we have reported on the corruption scandals at the highest levels of government in Brazil, Romania, South Korea and Guatemala, among others.

Although protestors in many countries in the world, including Ukraine, rightly demand the enactment of anti-corruption reforms and the elimination of corruption, these do take time. Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have that much time. In their 2015 article, Rosas and Manzatti found that victims of corruption are more likely to punish presidents and governments that condone or engage in corruption. Furthermore, “those that suffer corruption and find themselves in a situation of poor economic performance are even more likely to offer pessimistic assessments of the siting president” [2]. Only 18 months are left before the next presidential elections in Ukraine. Given the levels of inflation and struggling unemployment figures, Ukrainian citizens are likely to hold the president accountable for failing to curb corruption in the next elections. Therefore, to improve his chances of winning the re-election, President Poroshenko will need to show progress in reducing corruption in the country or at least to take significant steps toward it.


[1] Lough, John. 2017. “Anti-corruption Reforms” in Ash, Timothy et al. Chatham House Report: The Struggle for Ukraine.

[2] Rosas, Guillermo and Luigi Manzatti. 2015. “Reassessing the trade-off hypothesis: How misery drives the corruption effect on presidential approval,” Electoral Studies 39: 26-38.

Christopher A. Martínez – Democratic tradition and Lucio Gutiérrez’s ‘survival’ in office

This is a guest post by Christopher A. Martínez from Temuco Catholic University

In a previous post, I briefly described the main findings of a quantitative analysis that showed a significant (and consistent) effect of a country’s democratic tradition on presidential survival (Martínez 2017a). However, that study does not delve into how both variables are theoretically or empirically connected. I tackle this issue by analysing how Ecuador’s democratic tradition, along with other determinants of presidential survival, affected the chances of former President Lucio Gutiérrez staying in office (Martínez 2017b).

Ecuador has been historically known for its feeble democratic institutionalisation, undisciplined parties and a highly volatile party system. Zamosc (2007: 8) states that during the 1990s, even after 10 years of civilian government, Ecuadorean political actors remained weakly committed to abiding by democratic rules and that the electorate still lacked a well-developed ‘political culture.’ Bearing this in mind, I use the case of Gutiérrez to closely study how democratic tradition might have contributed to his political demise.

Democratic tradition: radicalism, normative preferences for democratic institutions and institutional equilibria

I argue that a country’s democratic tradition may have important effects on how political actors behave. Countries with stronger, longer democratic experiences are less likely to witness chief executives ousted from power. I posit that a country’s democratic tradition is a distant force, one that unfolds through three more proximate causes: level of radicalism, normative preferences for democratic institutions, and institutional equilibria (see Table I).

First, radicalism is observable when actors pursue political goals that dramatically deviate from the status quo. When these radical objectives cannot be attained through institutional mechanisms, actors may use non-institutional or even violent methods to accomplish them. These actions naturally spawn political friction and polarisation among those who oppose, which may increase political instability (Pérez-Liñán and Polga-Hecimovich 2017). Second, actors’ behaviour may also be driven by the values and attitudes they hold toward democracy. Weak normative preferences for democratic institutions would make actors more inclined to break the rules of the game if they interfere with their goals (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán 2013). Thus, it may come as no surprise if actors resort to non-institutional or even illegal means to unseat a standing president. Finally, it might also be the case that actors do not intend to pursue radical goals and even value democratic institutions but still decide to break the rules and seek dramatic political changes. This may occur when negative institutional equilibria are in place in which ‘cheating’ is the equilibrium strategy (Greif and Kingston 2011; Calvert 1995), an arrangement that does not favour presidential survival.

Table I. Democratic tradition and its three proximate causes

I hypothesise that countries with shorter democratic traditions are more likely to witness political actors attempting to achieve rapid and dramatic changes to the status quo, displaying scant regard for democratic rules, and being prone to ‘cheat’ when other actors do so. These conditions tend to produce highly polarised and unstable scenarios which may pose insurmountable obstacles for presidents attempting to hold on to power.

The Gutiérrez case:

Following the steps of Abdalá Bucaram (August 1996 – February 1997) and Jamil Mahuad (Agustu 1998 – January 2000), Lucio Gutiérrez became the third consecutive elected Ecuadorian president to be unseated before completing his constitutional term. Still, the failed presidency of Gutiérrez is a curious case since he was ousted amid a period of mild economic bonanza. Shortly after taking office, President Gutiérrez betrayed his campaign promises and turned to the right. Following the left-leaning indigenous Pachakutik party’s walkout from the ruling coalition, Gutiérrez—with few parties willing to support him and after facing an ill-fated impeachment attempt—packed the Supreme Court with friendly judges so as to allow former President Abdalá Bucaram to return from exile as part of a deal struck with Bucaram’s party. In the following months, social discontent, which had been building up since Gutiérrez packed the Supreme Court in December 2004, led to widespread protests after Bucaram finally arrived in Ecuador in April 2005. Demonstrators took over the streets of Quito and broke into Congress, beleaguering the president who found himself politically isolated and struggling to hold on to power. After a couple of weeks of strong social mobilisations and lacking support from the military, the legislative opposition seized the opportunity and dismissed Gutiérrez after declaring his abandonment of office and appointed his vice-president in his place.

Ecuador’s democratic tradition and Gutiérrez’s ‘failure’:

Before and during the presidential crisis, Ecuador’s main political players exhibited low normative preferences for democratic rules. For instance, the temporary withdrawal of charges against Bucaram in exchange for political support and how Gutiérrez was irregularly voted out are clear examples of actors considering their goals to be far more important than the mechanisms to achieve them. Similarly, Gutiérrez blatantly intervening the Supreme Court in December 2004 represented a serious threat to the system of checks and balances, another sign of weak attitudes toward democracy and its institutions.

Still, a question worth asking is what would have happened if Gutiérrez had not packed the Supreme Court. He would have probably been out of office months earlier than he actually was. This means that ‘intervening’ in the Supreme Court was a very rational decision for the president and his political ‘survival.’ Analogously, had protestors not taken to the streets and broken into Congress, Gutiérrez would have stayed in office longer. Both moves cannot be considered fully democratic in the sense that they bypassed institutional mechanisms, at the very least, but they can still be regarded as rational.

Unreliable parties, erosion of legislative coalition and legislative shield

In addition to the effects of democratic tradition, Gutiérrez’s failure was also influenced by Ecuador’s undisciplined political parties. A remarkable sign of this was that apart from Gutiérrez’s own party, Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP), all of the largest parties were members of both the president’s coalition and the opposition at different moments during his administration.

Given that democratic tradition gradually changes over time, and undisciplined political parties are not new in Ecuador, why did presidential failures only occur after 1996? Mejía-Acosta and Polga-Hecimovich (2011) argue that before that time, presidents resorted to gastos reservados (discretionary budget allocations) which helped oil executive-opposition relations that reduced the likelihood of presidential failures. Nevertheless, a constitutional reform in 1996 took away the gastos reservados from the president; thus, negotiations between the ruling coalition and the opposition became increasingly difficult.

Final comments

The ouster of Lucio Gutiérrez was chiefly driven by institutional and political factors. Ecuador’s notoriously undisciplined parties, lack of incentives for executive-legislative collaboration and weak democratic tradition posed a challenging scenario for the president. Specifically, the behaviour of parties, protestors and Gutiérrez himself was influenced by the existence of a negative institutional equilibrium which rewarded cheating rather than complying with rules and a frail intrinsic commitment with democratic institutions, all of which heightened the risk of presidential failure.

Christopher A. Martínez holds a PhD in Political Science from Loyola University Chicago. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science, Temuco Catholic University, Chile. His current research interests include the executive branch, government survival, institutional performance and democratic consolidation in Latin America. He can be reached at and @martineznourdin.

Rui Graça Feijó – On forest fires and Portuguese semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Since late 2015, Portugal has had a minority government led by the Socialist Party – the second largest in the House – and supported by some sort of confidence and supply agreement with the two parties to its left that provide it with a majority in critical moments. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, from the centre-right, was elected a few months after the new government, was reluctantly inaugurated by the outgoing President Cavaco Silva, and distanced himself from the right-wing coalition in parliament and the legacy of his presidential predecessor who wanted the new president to dissolve the House and call fresh elections. Instead, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stated publicly that the government would have until the local elections scheduled for October 2017 the chance to prove  its value and capacity. In between time – and in spite of some gestures to appease his electorate – the president did not stop supporting the prime minister and never questioned his legitimacy. In an earlier post, I discussed the possibility that a form of co-government was emerging nicknamed “Costelo” (an amalgam of  PM Costa and President Marcelo). This support was highlighted last June when the country was hit by a severe forest fire (with over 60 casualties) and the President stepped in to claim that “all that was humanly possible had been done”, backing up the government in the face of mounting popular shock for the failure of the civilian protection system.

On October 1, local elections returned a very comfortable victory for the Socialist party – as if the government had been excused for its June failure and in the recognition that new economic and financial policies had largely turned the page of austerity, offering the prospect not only of economic growth, unemployment reduction, deficit control, but more importantly, the recovery of some purchasing power and improved conditions of access to social utilities by millions of Portuguese. The right-wing parties were defeated – and this is particularly true of the largest one, the PPD/PSD, whose leader and former PM announced that he would step down when fresh party elections are called in January. In the face of these results, there would be no reason for the president to challenge the legitimacy of the government or to change his previous stance.

However, on Sunday October 15, a new wave of forest fires broke out, claiming another 45 victims. This second fire exposed the fragility not only of decades-old forest policies, but the inability of the current government to draw adequate conclusions from the June events – it had merely asked for an “independent inquiry” lasting over three months, with little having been done in the meantime to reform the civilian protection authority, which is ravaged by scandals. The shock in the country was even bigger than in June: twice the government had badly failed those who live far away from Lisbon.

After a very uninspired speech by the PM, the President took a bold initiative. He addressed the country from the heart of the ravaged areas. In a short sentence, he asked for a “new cycle of policies” that will force the government to consider “what, by whom, how and when” these new policies are to be devised and implemented. He mentioned that budgetary priorities should be considered again – this was only three days after the budget had been formally presented in the House. And he made it clear that the government needed to refresh its parliamentary legitimacy – either by presenting a confidence motion or winning a no-confidence motion presented by the right wing CDS party, which had fared quite well in the local elections. Unless his plea was heard, he would make use of “all his constitutional powers” to see that the Portuguese would not be let down yet another time, implying he might choose to dismiss the PM or dissolve the parliament. His popularity soared to the point that a left-of-centre commentator wrote: this is the example we can tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us why do we elect a President by universal, direct vote. Only a small number of voices claimed that the President had overstepped his competences. The last barometer (Expresso online, 17 November) shows that the president is the only politician who has risen in popularity to a very high net figure of 62.5% (70% positive, 7.5% negative opinions).

The government responded by immediately accepting the resignation of the minister in charge of Home Affairs. It held a special meeting of the cabinet to approve a string of measures to fight forest fires and reform forest policies which met the approval of the President. It announced that new items would be incorporated in the budget before the final vote. It defeated the no-confidence motion in parliament – although the left-wing partners kept a critical stance during the debate and did not approve all the government’s decisions on this issue. In brief, even if some of this activity was anticipated before the presidential speech, the government was seen as responding to the President’s ultimatum.

This episode lasted less than a week but has shown very clearly that the President, who is a professor of constitutional law, interprets his relations with government not only on a merely institutional basis – as some still argue ought to be his role – but that he believes the government must enjoy political confidence. In his view, the President has the power to oversee government policies and take action if he considers them to be failing to secure minimum standards – as was the case of the forest fires. Here we touch upon a critical point in the definition of the subtype of semi-presidentialism that exists in Portugal, as the dynamics of the relations of power are clearly at stake. The constitutional definition of a dual responsibility of the PM both before the President and the parliament cannot simply be divided in two: a political confidence vis-à-vis the House, a merely institutional confidence regarding the President, as much of the literature on Portugal has sustained. Marcelo has made it clear that, as long as he is President, he enjoys the right to set political boundaries to the action of the government. Going further than merely stating “strategic goals” aimed at capturing a “broad consensus (and being timid in the actual formulation of specific policies), Marcelo is moving one step forward. Take the example of the issue of the homeless. He has publicly asked the government to prepare measures aimed at eradicating homelessness by the end of his term (2021), but rather than waiting for the prime minister to present him with the government’s proposals and discussing the matter with him, Marcelo promoted meetings (which he chaired) to which he “invited” the junior minister in charge of the dossier, plus a number of national NGO’s and, critically, representatives of the Church – intervening directly in the design of public policies in tune with his “social-christian” (and rather assistencialist) personal views on the issue. This is an example of a presidential intervention in the formulation of public policies with few precedents.

It has been assumed that, in semi-presidential systems, there is an inbuilt pendulum which sometimes favours a “presidentialisation” of the situation, and which at other times oscilates in the opposite direction. One well-known commentator proposed thinking of the current situation as “semi-presidentialism of assembly”, given the fact that parliament played such an important role in the formation of Antonio Costa’a government. In other words, when parliaments have solid majorities, the role of the president tends to be less prominent than when different solutions emerge in the House. The example of President Marcelo somewhat defies this “rule”. Confronted with a minority government supported by a majority that has shown no signs of fracturing on critical issues, Marcelo has nevertheless created a high political profile for himself, intervening on a daily basis in the media on everything – as if he were still the political commentator that he was for fifteen years on prime time TV. His influence is directly linked with his popularity (a problem that the previous president, Cavaco Silva, felt acutely during his second term). And President Marcelo’s popularity – which he considers to be his best political asset – comes from a combination of support for the popular measures of the government and incisive criticism of its failures

Much as he is inclined to respect the formal political legitimacy derived from the existence of a majority in the House and to be willing to cooperate with the PM, President Marcelo’s speech on October 17, 2017 marked a decisive moment in the debate on the nature of the relations between the president and the PM in the Portuguese semi-presidential system in a way that emphasized the political competences of the head of state, and thus the double nature of the dependency of the prime minister before both the House and the President. There may be a time when those competences are more dormant, others when they surface more vigorously – but they remain in the DNA of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

Tanzania – Where President Magufuli’s political and economic strategy meet

This month, Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli marks two years in office. And what a two years it has been.

On the political front, observers have noted a pronounced authoritarian turn. Opposition party rallies have been all but banned.[1] Politicians, musicians and activists have been repeatedly detained and charged with various offenses. A growing number of newspapers have been shut down. One prominent opposition politician survived an assassination attempt. The list goes on.

Politics aside, Magufuli’s presidency has also left its mark on Tanzania’s economy. What defines the new strategy is only gradually emerging. It nevertheless involves a mix of high-profile anti-corruption measures, increased public spending on big infrastructure, an effort to reign in multinationals perceived to be exploiting Tanzania’s natural resources, and the apparent marginalization of Tanzania’s domestic private sector, to name but a few elements.

While analysts have reviewed Magufuli’s political and the economic interventions elsewhere, the aim of this post is to consider how they intersect. To what extent does Magufuli’s economic approach serve his political ends? What could we then infer about how his political aims may inform his economic management?

In what follows, I will point to ways in which Magufuli’s economic strategy supports the consolidation of the President’s own, quite fragile political base, and this by reducing the threat posed by the opposition camp and—perhaps even more dangerous—the threat coming from within CCM.

A note on ideology

First things first, by focusing on the political implications of Magufuli’s economic strategy, I in no way want to suggest that we can reduce his economic thinking to a purely political calculus.

Unpicking what broader ideology drives Magufuli is a tricky business.

Some liken his economic approach to “father of the nation” Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa brand of socialism with its emphasis on state-led development and its principled commitment to greater socio-economic equality.

Other observers, less charitable in their assessment, refer to Magufuli’s tenure thus far as a “period of grand confusion, deep uncertainty, and incomprehensible eclecticism.”

Building on that last point, we probably won’t get very far by attempting to define Magufuli’s Ideology, capital ‘I’, as a coherent vision or doctrine. There is nevertheless a bundle of ideas, doubtless with its own internal contradictions, that underpins his economic interventions. A well-rounded study would consider these from at least three different angles, namely as a legitimating framework, a development strategy and, finally, a political strategy.

This post focuses more narrowly on the last element, how Magufuli’s ideas about running the economy interact with his political aims.  And here I will argue that, far from an “incomprehensible eclecticism”, there is a fairly consistent logic at work.

The pre-Magufuli political economy of Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi

To understand Magufuli and his “fifth phase” government, we must briefly situate it in relation to what came before.

The same ruling party—TANU, later rechristened CCM—has governed mainland Tanzania since Independence. Since 1985 when Nyerere stood down, there has also been a regular succession of presidents every ten years.

Despite this regularity, though, much has changed in Tanzania’s politics in recent decades.

As noted, President Nyerere first set Tanzania on a socialist path, favouring a state-led development strategy. Of particular significance was the relative marginalisation of the private sector, and especially leaders’ efforts to maintain a strict separation between business and politics. This economic approach had knock-on effects for the consolidation of Tanzania’s ruling party, which grew into one of the most highly institutionalized in the region. By limiting private sources of political finance, it helped Tanzania’s leadership ensure a more centralized distribution of patronage and thereby reinforced party cohesion and discipline.[2]

This political balance began to break down with the economic crises of the late 1970s, the liberalizing economic reforms of the 1980s, and ultimately, Nyerere’s retirement as President (1985) and Chairman of CCM (1990). As the private sector expanded, and as CCM lost access to state resources following the 1992 multiparty transition, the Party of erstwhile socialist renown acquired an altogether different reputation. Leaders at all levels grew increasingly entangled with a variety of business interests, resulting in the emergence of competing patronage networks within CCM.

These developments had profound effects both on the government’s economic management and on the internal politics of the ruling party. As factions grew stronger within CCM, they undermined party cohesion and discipline just as they weakened the government’s ability to develop a consistent economic policy and to check corruption. As Cooksey (2011) neatly summarises, ‘Within the ruling party, the use of rent-seeking of all types to advance the interests of groups of rentiers intent on taking control of the party has heightened pressures to loot the public purse and natural resource.’ Gray (2015) clarifies, ‘Neither the President nor any one particular faction could enforce its particular agenda within the ruling party.’

This was the status quo, at least up until CCM’s selection of a presidential candidate to contest in the 2015 general elections. And then something surprising happened.

Two rival factions, one headed by outgoing President Kikwete and another by his political ally turned rival, Edward Lowassa, knocked each other out of the nomination race. This left the path clear for a relatively low profile presidential aspirant to snatch the prize. That was Magufuli the Unexpected, to use the moniker assigned by one sharp-tongued blogger.

President Kikwete at first appeared satisfied with the result, having at least succeeded in marginalising Lowassa, who promptly defected to the opposition. Magufuli soon made it clear, though, that he would not be playing to anyone else’s tune. Rather, in a series of highly mediatised early moves as President, he launched an anti-corruption campaign and announced a series of new investments in infrastructure, health and education.

As he embarked on this new agenda, though, his political base was far from secure. One, he faced a threat from a newly emboldened opposition. More problematic still, he did not have the backing of a strong network within the ruling party itself. Rather, he had to contend with multiple rival factions, none of which were necessarily pleased with his new development zeal, of which there were both good and bad reasons to be critical.[3]

In what follows, I emphasise how Magufuli appears to have incorporated into his overarching economic approach a strategy to shore up his own political strength, and this by shifting the emphasis away from the private sector and back to a state-centred development focus. This shift helps limit the political finance available to the official opposition as well as oppositional factions within CCM whilst reinforcing Magufuli’s centralized control over resources.

Turning back the clock?

The President’s economic interventions have at times appeared to move in many different directions at once, not always with a clear plan behind them nor with consistent follow through.

But the renewed emphasis on privileging the state as a central actor in the economy is one point on which there does seem to be some consistency.

A recent World Bank report observed that Tanzania’s growth is currently supported by substantial government investment, notably in big infrastructure projects including a standard gauge railway, new roads, expanding the Dar port and an oil pipeline from Uganda.

Yet even as public-sector spending has increased, the private sector is getting squeezed.

According to the Bank report, this is due to a mix of government interventions, including cost-cutting measures that have hit the hospitality industry hard and a crackdown on tax evasion combined with various tax hikes.

Business associations and some prominent investors have called on the government to improve the business climate. They cite policy unpredictability, the ‘brutality’ of the Tanzania Revenue Authority, and low government spending as all negatively impacting business.

Another consequence of the overall downward trend has been a spike in the number of non-performing loans, which has in turn prompted banks to increase interest rates, adding a credit crunch to the already difficult conditions confronting business.

A recent report from the Bank of Tanzania helps clarify the extent of the slowdown. Annual growth in credit to the private sector, often used to assess private sector expansion, has plummeted from 25 percent in November 2015, the month Magufuli took office, to 1 percent in July 2017.

The political significance  

It is tempting to think that some of the private sector downturn, and certainly the credit squeeze, could be an unintended consequence. Yet it also serves a political purpose, one that has been pursued through more targeted efforts as well.

First, the limited private sector expansion means that private sources of political finance are growing scarce. As noted earlier, it is this private finance that—up till now—has contributed to the fragmentation of patronage networks within CCM and hence fuelled intra-party tensions. By extension, it is also this private finance that could pose a threat to Magufuli, who—it should be remembered—did not have a strong factional base when he took over the presidency.

Beyond this general observation, though, individuals linked to the opposition or rival factions in CCM have gone through an especially rough period recently. Particular entrepreneurs—notably aligned with Lowassa, among others—now face a range of charges from tax evasion to embezzlement. Although perhaps well-founded, the timing of these charges leaves room to wonder about a possible ulterior motive. The fate of these businessmen can certainly provide a useful signal to other potential political financiers, who one CCM politician described as “scared”, having “taken a position of wait and see.”[4]

Beyond closing the taps on private finance, Magufuli has also tried to build up a more centralized source of revenue within CCM, an attempt that supports his broader aim of ensuring greater party discipline.

Insisting he wants to ensure the Party’s independence from its erstwhile business backers, he has launched an audit of party funds, including a review of party-owned properties, many of which it is alleged had been ‘privatized’ by various CCM officials and politicians.[5]

The President, as party Chairman, has also sought to directly regulate excessive campaign spending and factional politicking within CCM. In the 2017 internal party elections, for instance, this effort included a strict ban on bribery and on the widespread practice known as ‘kupanga safu’, meaning to ‘line up’ in Swahili or, in this case, to assemble an informal slate of candidates within the Party. While it is unclear how successfully these bans were enforced, numerous internal election results were scrapped due to alleged malpractice.

In addition to this focus on CCM, the opposition’s sources of private finance—beyond Lowassa’s factional ties—have come under attack. Freeman Mbowe, Chairman of the leading opposition party CHADEMA, has been a persistent target. Property belonging to his company, Kilimanjaro Veggie Ltd (KVL), which is based in his Hai constituency, was allegedly damaged by the District Commissioner, whom Mbowe has dragged to court. More recently, Mbowe’s newspaper, Tanzania Daima, was banned, thereby cutting off another source of finance. Responding to these government actions, Mbowe has decried how, since the 2015 elections, “The wealth, land and even businesses of opposition leaders have been seized or nationalised.”

Where to from here?

I have argued that, whatever other ends Magufuli’s economic strategy may serve, it appears to be aimed at cutting off the sources of political finance on which his political opponents, both in CCM and the opposition, depend.

In this sense, the President’s economic interventions do not only evoke the Ujamaa era because of their state-centred development focus and more equitable resource distribution; they also harken back to that earlier period in so far as they prevent the consolidation of rival factions and thereby help to reinforce discipline within the ruling party.

These assertions aside, a few concluding caveats are in order.

I reiterate, by focusing on Magufuli’s use of economic tools to achieve his political ends, I am not suggesting these are the only ones at his disposal. He is also, for instance, pursuing a version of a “autocratic legalism”, i.e. “the use, abuse and non-use of the law in the service of the executive branch”.[6]

What’s more, the outcome of Magufuli’s economic gambit remains highly uncertain.

One, there are signs that Tanzania’s economy is struggling, yet the government is unwilling to consider this, instead making use of the Statistics Act (2015) to arrest and charge an opposition politician for questioning official GDP figures. Presumably Magufuli understands the political threat posed by an economic downturn and would prefer this topic stay off the table.

Two, politicians both within and outside of CCM are questioning the government’s current policy orientation. While for the most part these criticisms have remained subdued, last week’s debate in parliament over the proposed National Development Plan 2018/19 was unusually lively. “This Government doesn’t believe in the private sector,” accused one CCM MP, adding, “If we have returned to Ujamaa, tell us.” Other ruling party MPs went further, challenging inconsistencies in the government’s plans, questioning their viability, and accusing the Ministry of Finance of copy-pasting reports from one year to the next. The prospect of a rebellion from within CCM, while seemingly remote, is not altogether unfathomable. Certainly, there is dissatisfaction simmering under the surface.

Three, even as Magufuli pursues his anti-corruption drive, there are some potentially sensitive issues he seems unwilling to address. More generally, this raises questions about the extent to which he is temporarily weakening the “groups of rentiers” within CCM, leaving them to lie low only to re-emerge at a later date. There is also some suggestion that close allies of Magufuli are benefiting from his protection, implying he is simply building up a new network to bolster his own position.

Ultimately, to achieve his stated aims, whether economic or political, Magufuli needs nothing short of an economic transformation in Tanzania. Plenty of surprising things have happened in the first two years of his tenure. We’ll have to wait and see what he can manage in the time remaining.


[1] MPs can hold rallies in their own constituencies, but other public meetings are not allowed.

[2] See, for instance: Gray, 2015; Gray, forthcoming. This relationship is also explored in my PhD thesis.

[3] The reasons for criticising Magufuli were well-founded in so far as his economic approach appeared to be poorly coordinated, unilaterally imposed and potentially ineffectual in the long-run. These reasons could be seen as bad, by contrast, when they came from vested interests worried about their own poorly justified economic advantages.

[4] Interview with CCM politician, January 2016.

[5] See the speech he delivered when accepting the position of CCM Chairman: “Hotuba ya Mhe. Dkt. John Pombe Magufuli, Rais wa Jamhuri ya Muungano wa Tanzania na Mwenyekiti wa Chama cha Mapinduzi Kwenye Mkutano Mkuu wa Taifa wa CCM,” Dodoma, 23 July 2016.

[6] This “instrumental use of the law” was noted by an analyst of Kenyatta’s politics in neighbouring Kenya.