Monthly Archives: February 2018

Guinea’s long-awaited local elections – A step backwards in its troubled electoral history?

Guest post by Ulrike Rodgers, Senior Program Manager, National Democratic Institute (NDI)

On February 4, the nearly six million Guinean registered voters were called to elect 7012 local councilors in 342 districts (communes). Nearly 30,000 candidates, including independents, ran for local office. After 13 years in the making, the elections were to be an important milestone on Guinea’s bumpy road to democracy that began only in 2010 with its first multiparty presidential election since independence from France 52 years earlier. However, an exhausted electorate, frustrated by years of political wrangling marked by spikes of deadly violence, and a lack of economic and social progress, responded less enthusiastically to the call to elect their local leaders than in previous elections. Just under 54 pour cent of voters turned out, according to the National Independent Electoral Commission’s (CENI) estimates, a decline from over 64 percent in the September 2013 legislative elections, and over 68 percent for the 2015 presidential elections. The ruling party failed to win an overall majority of councilor seats and lost the capital Conakry to opposition parties and independent candidates. Moreover, doubts remain over the integrity of the election, mainly linked to allegations of irregularities after polling stations closed.

Guinea’s troubled electoral history is rooted in the decades of autocratic single-party rule, marked by political violence and military coups, which stunted the development of a political culture striving for consensus over confrontation. Guinea began engaging in democratic reforms nearly 20 years after many other African countries. The first round of the 2010 elections resulted in a runoff between former opposition leaders Alpha Condé, briefly jailed by then-president Lansana Conté in 2001, and Cellou Diallo Dalein, Conté’s prime minister from 2004 to 2006.  The second round was postponed for months because of deadly violence between supporters of the two finalists. Condé won the second round with 52.52 percent in October 2010, which surprised many as Dalein had led after the first round with nearly 44 percent, trailed by Condé with 18.25 percent. To this day, many of Dalein’s supporters feel that the election was stolen from them. These resentments flared up violently in the lead up to parliamentary elections in September 2013 and led to over 100 dead. The elections were postponed several times until the United Nations brokered an agreement between government and opposition. The international community supported a large international and domestic contingent of election observers to enhance trust in the electoral process and prevent violence. Domestic and international non-partisan observers as well as Guinea’s courts deemed the elections legitimate, but the opposition alleged that the government had manipulated voter lists and misused government resources to fuel its campaign.

President Condé was re-elected for his second term in October 2015 in the first round with 58 percent of the vote. Observers deployed again in large numbers.  Despite serious deficiencies noted during the electoral campaign and shortcomings on election day, domestic observation groups and the European Union, in its post-election report, concluded that the process was overall valid.

Local elections were to be held shortly afterwards, but were postponed several times due to controversies over the CENI’s impartiality, the integrity of the voter registry, lack of resources, and because of the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the country from 2014 to 2016. Guineans had elected their local leaders for the last time in 2005. That year, to quell any political opposition, and risks of instability seeping in from Guinea’s war-torn neighbors, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Lansana Conté organized local elections to consolidate his party’s control of local government, which it won handily with over 80 percent of the votes. In the years prior, his regime had violently cracked down on Guinea’s historically powerful traditional and ethnic local leaders, often stoking ethnic tensions to its advantage.  To this day, many Guinean families harbor deep-rooted suspicions against the central government in Conakry; ethnic divisions remain prevalent across the country.

In the absence of local elections, Guinea’s local governments were run by central government appointees (Délégations spéciales) from 2010 to 2016 after their mandate had expired in 2010. Rejected by the opposition as illegitimate, they were a source of recurring political tensions. In October 2016, government and opposition reached an agreement to replace them with interim delegates appointed proportionally according to the votes obtained by each party in the legislative elections, while preparing for local elections.

The local election campaign opened in early January, 2018. Many described the atmosphere in the capital Conakry as muted, whereas the regions reported an unusually high influx of political personalities, mainly belonging to the ruling coalition. Violent incidents remained rare in the lead up to February 4. Election day was also largely calm. Domestic observer groups commended the Guinean people on a peaceful election, whilst deploring organizational shortcomings such as a lack of voting materials and late openings of polling stations. However, as the votes were still being counted, opposition parties alleged widespread fraud, including the stuffing of ballot boxes. Violence in the days following the elections cost ten lives. Unclear procedural instructions have since resulted in a number of contradictory decisions by local courts on election-related complaints.

The CENI’s provisional results indicate that President Conde’s RPG took 1.35 million votes, electing some 3,284 councilors (47 percent).  Cellou Dalein Diallo’s Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) won 893,000 votes to gain 2,156 councilors (31 percent). Former Prime Minister Sidya Touré’s Union of Republican Forces (UFR) won 190,000 votes, resulting in 447 council seats (6 percent). The remaining 1,125 seats – or 16 percent of the total, a significant minority – were won by candidates from small parties or independents. Over the coming weeks, Guinea’s communes will choose their mayors and deputy mayors. The mayors will then proceed to elect eight regional councils and, at the local level, designate ‘neighborhood leaders’ (chefs de quartiers).

Although the ruling party obtained a relative majority at the polls, it lost the capital Conakry, where over a quarter of Guinea’s population live, to the opposition and independent candidates. Pending the availability of additional data on voter turnout, the results could be an indication that voters are tired of campaign promises that remain empty and the political elite’s disconnect from their daily struggles.  Especially in the larger communes, campaign themes focused on high unemployment, poor public health care, education, widespread corruption, and Conakry’s ever-growing mountains of garbage. They resonated well with voters, prompting them to elect independent or small party candidates, for example in Beyla (N’Zérékore), Coyah (Kindia), Kaloum (Conakry), Faranah and Siguiri (Kankan).

Guinea’s governing and main opposition parties may be well advised to start listening up to citizens’ concerns as they start preparing for legislative elections later this year, and presidential polls in 2020. Moreover, the lack of trust in the local elections’ results, mainly linked to allegations of fraud after the closing of polling stations and a lack of transparent communication by the CENI, has cast renewed doubts on Guinea’s capacities to organize transparent elections in the future without substantial international oversight. The anticipated coalition negotiations could provide a sneak preview on potential future political alliances ahead of the next legislative and presidential polls.

Haiti – A politically successful first year for President Jovenel Moise

February 7th marked the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Jovenel Moise. During his first year in office, President Moise has accomplished three important things: he has been able to keep in check the legislators of his party, eclipsed his Prime Minister and his Ministers, and vanquished the opposition. Due in large part to these accomplishments, Moise has obtained some political space to maneuver in a social and economic context that is still dire.

The cooptation of legislators and political parties

Legislators in Haiti are well known for their lack of party discipline. In a context of extremely weak political parties, Haitian legislators typically act as lone wolves, whose main preoccupations are naturally to be re-elected and, in many cases, to get rich through generous funding for their pet projects obtained from Ministers (and for which they don’t need to show any proof of expenses). In this sense, many political crises in Haiti generally begin in the legislative branch, with unhappy politicians who were unable to secure substantial economic “help” from the government.

Jovel Moise got around this source of instability from rebel legislators by co opting them with a massive increase in the allocation for both chambers in the last budget (see our previous post on Haiti). Despite public demonstrations promoted by parties and politicians with no (or almost no) representation in parliament, the majority of legislators backed the executive. After several weeks of protests against the budget, it became clear to the demonstrators and their instigators that they could not rally the public against the government.

A few months later, beginning in December last year, Jovenel Moise completed his plan to buy peace of mind by deciding to allocate a subvention for 58 political parties that have representatives in the legislature and local levels of power. Over 12 months, 572 million gourdes (65 gourdes for 1US$) will be distributed among these political parties.

The disbursement of the funds has created a political rift. Fanmi Lavas and Pitit Dessalines, the most fervent critics of the President and the principal promoters of demonstrations against him, have denounced the corrupt intent of the subvention. The vast majority of parties have accepted the funds. Other parties have been torn apart over discussions about who should control the funds and how to use them.

The disappearance of the government

The virtual disappearance of the government has been another aspect that has marked the presidency of Jovenel Moise. Despite the constitutional text that indicates that the Prime Minister is the head of the government and that he governs with his respective Ministers, during this first year in office the President has been in the forefront of the day-to-day activity of governing. The most visible programs of the government have been carried out by the President. Plans to bring electricity, roads, schools and health services to remote communities have not been presented as an action of the government, but as the exclusive effort of the President.

By effectively taking on the role of the Prime Minister and the cabinet, the president has been able to maintain his presence in the press, visiting communities and making promises to change their economic and social situation. The multiple visits to many places in the country have given the public the sense that the president is constantly working to improve their situation.

In contrast to the omnipresence of the President, there is the complete absence of the government. Very few people are aware of the action of the Primer Minister and his cabinet, besides the fact of them accompanying the president. In this sense, contrary to what one would expect from a government in a semi presidential context and the fact that many members of the cabinet do not come from the President’s PHTK party, Jovenel Moise has been able to eclipse the government.

The division of the opposition

During his first year, opposition to Jovenel Moise has been weak and divided. At first, stunned by their unexpected lost in the first round of the presidential election, the president enjoyed relative peace during his first six months in power.

Then, the opposition intended to rally demonstrators against the government. As we have seen, the results were, at best, mixed. Even though they were able to sustain the mobilization for a few weeks around the budget and the minimum wage, the movement has been relatively short lived. Far away from the multitudinous demonstrations in 2015 and 2016, where Fanmi Lavas and Pitit Dessalines and other opposition parties joined forces to oust Michel Martelly from power, they have not been able to unite around the aim of delegitimising Moise.

Jovenel Moise has skilfully managed to weaken the opposition. As we have seen, his decision both to finance the activity of political parties and to give more resources to legislators have contributed to the relative peace he has enjoyed in his first year in office. In this sense, the discussion is no longer about the legitimacy of his presidency. The next debate will be about the extent he has succeeded in actually improving the lives of the Haitian people.

Cameroon – Coercive Legacies and Innovations

 Cameroon’s record of political and civil rights remains one of the most challenging in sub-Saharan Africa. President Paul Biya, now 85 years old and in his 36th year in power, is likely to run again this year. The ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) and its predecessor the Cameroon National Union (CNU) has held power since 1972. Freedom House consistently ranks Cameroon as “Not Free,” and there have been numerous reports on the harsh state of human rights from organizations like Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch. Cameroon consistently ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. The regime is also currently facing an outright insurgency in English-speaking regions, and an ongoing violent conflict with Boko Haram in the north.

Many observers emphasize the multiethnic nature of Cameroon’s ruling coalition, and Biya’s informal role as the kingmaker that holds this tenuous situation together. Indeed, the Cameroonian regime has been able to eschew many of the economic reforms demanded by lenders in the 1990s. Buttressed by minor oil reserves, the regime maintains a monopoly over political advancement, and can use hundreds of positions within the ruling party, government, and military to position supporters. Cameroon has the largest cabinet on the continent, with over 60 ministers, secretaries, and delegates. Certain positions like Speaker of the National Assembly are informally given to representatives from the north, while an Anglophone has been Prime Minister since 1992. Southern politicians, Biya’s home region, hold many senior positions.

However, while this massive patronage apparatus undoubtedly buttresses the regime, a powerful security apparatus also gives the regime significant leeway. Many of the privileges that Biya enjoys as president are constitutional, and are tied to legacies of French colonialism and its fight against an uprising of the Union of Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) in the 1950s. These coercive capacities have persisted, and indeed have also expanded in response to new security threats. In the late 1990s banditry and criminal activity in rural areas was the catalyst for the creation of new military units. In the 2000s the threat of Boko Haram has likewise led to new laws and coercive institutions. At each stage, these tools have been used outside of their original intent to deter and intimidate political opposition.

The Historical Origins of Coercive Capacity in Cameroon

The foundation of the modern security state in Cameroon can be traced to France’s suppression of the UPC Rebellion between 1956 and 1960. UPC nationalist agitation was primarily located in the Littoral and Western regions, where the French High Commissioner enforced official pacification zones (ZOPACs) that gave the military the ability to create ad hoc detainment camps and launch raids. These powers were then essentially transferred to Prime Minister (and later president) Ahidjo during the interim period prior to independence between 1958 and 1960. French input into the interim government was substantial, and the High Commissioner retained the ability to intervene on behalf of public safety. Law 59/33 issued from the interim National Assembly also gave the Prime Minister the ability to declare ambiguously phrased states of alert or warning in UPC-held territories. Thirteen such decrees were issued between 1958 and 1960.

These emergency powers have since been enshrined in every constitution, and used quite extensively. Section 20 of the 1960 constitution gave the president and assembly the ability to declare states of exception and emergency. The government could restrict freedom of movement, prohibit meetings, and ban certain publications. From 1960-1961 a state of emergency covered all of French-speaking Cameroon. Following unification, a new “Supreme Law” gave Ahidjo the enhanced ability to single-handedly declare states of emergency. In both Eastern and Western Cameroon states of emergency were repeatedly extended up to the abolishment of federalism in 1972. Subsequently, the new unitary constitution maintained these privileges and was used to issue no less than 20 decrees between 1972 and 1982. When Biya succeeded Ahidjo, 9 states of emergency were issued between 1982 and 1986. In December 1990, a new law (90/047) reduced the length of states of each emergency and siege, but they could still be extended in perpetuity.

In addition to the creation of these emergency powers, the French also bequeathed a unique array of coercive institutions to the independent Cameroonian state. In response to the UPC rebellion, the French facilitated the creation of a number of new military units, which were largely recruited from the Cameroonian population, but with significant French influence. These include Cameroon’s ubiquitous military-police force (the gendarmerie), and a feared intelligence gathering force called the Service des Etudes et la Documentation (SEDOC). Following independence the SEDOC was converted into the Direction Général d’Etudes et de la Documentation (DIRDOC), and later into the Centre National de Etudes et des Recherché (CENER). French financial assistance also helped fund a presidential guard, as well as a new special force called the Brigades Mixtes Mobiles (BMM).

 Continuity and Innovation During the Multiparty Era

The multiparty era did not bring with it significant constitutional reform that would limit presidential authority, and actually led to the creation of some new coercive institutions. For instance, in October 1992 Biya used a state of emergency to place Northwest Province under curfew for two months, and to place his primary political opponent John Fru Ndi under house arrest. The 1996-revised constitution failed to delink these powers, and still maintained ambiguously defined wording regarding states of emergency and siege (Section 9). In fact, the constitution simply proclaims that “when circumstances so warrant,” the president can decide to issue a three-month state of emergency.

Another constitutional provision that became very crucial in the multiparty era was the ability to direct delimitation during elections. The Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINAT) was able to redistrict based on the peculiar interests of any constituency. Following the 1997 election districting began to take into consideration not just population, but also geographical size. Cameroon uses a mixture of single and multi-member districts to populate its 180 member national assembly, and their size and ratio have since changed with major consequences for party competition. Urban areas like Mfoundi or Wouri are underrepresented by at least 10 seats, while rural areas in Central and South regions are overrepresented by between 5 and 8 seats.

A significant innovation during the multiparty era was in response to the deteriorating security environment in rural parts of Cameroon. The economic downturn of the 1990s and civil wars in Chad and Central African Republic led to an influx of combatants, particularly in Extreme North region. In the late-1990s highway banditry, livestock poaching, and hostage taking, were rampant. In response, the government created the 7,000 strong Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR). While the security threat was real, the BIR has since been used for other tasks. In 2008 the BIR was deployed in Yaoundé and Douala to suppress youth riots. The BIR has also been recently deployed to the North West and South West regions. According to Amnesty International the BIR is responsible for over 700 deaths and has been implicated in pervasive prison torture.

The War on Terror and New Coercive Capacities

 The difficult security situation in Northern Cameroon was worsened by the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram. The group has likely been active along the Cameroonian-Nigerian border since 2004, but began to engage in terrorist attacks in Cameroon starting in 2013. Today, approximately 15% of Cameroon’s military, including a newly created BIR division called BIR-Alpha, is now deployed in the north. The conflict has taken a heavy human toll. The governor of Extreme North and local prefects now have emergency powers that allows them to set curfews, conduct ad hoc road inspections, monitor and inspect mosques, and even ban the burqa in public settings. Many of Cameroon’s military units have now been further bolstered by military aid from France and the United States.

 One of the most significant developments to emerge from this situation was the anti-terror law of December 2014. The bill defines the term act of terrorism broadly to include “any activity which can lead to a general revolt of the population or disturb the normal functioning of the country” and allows some crimes to be tried via military tribunal. Critics note that the anti-terror bill has consequently been used repeatedly to silence journalists and researchers, especially those covering the situation in the north and the crisis in English-speaking areas. Importantly, the anti-terror bill was used to imprison Anglophone activists Felix Agbor-Balla and Fontem Neba. Both were charged with fostering hostility against the government and encouraging succession. Both were held without bail for seven months until their release in August 2017.

The use of crisis to generate new coercive state capacities is of course not unique to Cameroon, and is increasingly a challenge for democracy advocates in the era of global terrorism. But the combination of patronage and coercion stands Cameroon apart from other African countries. Moreover, this also suggests that authoritarian regimes do concern themselves with some sense of formal legalism. Laws like the 2014 anti-terror bill have been widely condemned, but might help protect regimes from international criticism, assuage certain internal critics, or convince parts of the public of the legitimacy of their actions.

Ecuador – Term Limits Re-introduced, but Questions Remain over Moreno Presidency

In Ecuador President Lenin Moreno has won a resounding victory against his predecessor, Rafael Correa, in a wide-ranging plebiscite. Nevertheless, questions remain over the nature and direction of the new government. More specifically, while the approval of a proposal to re-introduce presidential term limits has been hailed in some circles as bucking the region’s “authoritarian trend,” the jury remains out on Ecuador’s future democratic path.

What can be said with certainty at this stage is that for the first time in over a decade, former president Rafael Correa has come out on the losing side in a public vote. As noted previously in this blog, opposition to the plebiscite consisted almost exclusively of Correa and his supporters, all of whom until very recently were members of the governing party, Alianza PAIS. Ranged against them were all of the major political and social actors in the country united – it appears – by a common desire to achieve the ‘de-Correa-ification’ of Ecuadorian politics.

Making predictions about Ecuadorian politics is extremely risky, given the partisan nature of opinion polling. However, as one commentator noted, “for once” the opinion polls correctly predicted the outcome of the plebiscite. The ‘Yes’ vote achieved an overall majority of almost 2:1 across the seven questions[i] put to the electorate, by margins ranging between 26 and 47 per cent, figures that also line up with Moreno’s overall approval ratings.

In spite of the size of the winning margin for the government – only on three previous occasions in the past forty years has a plebiscite been carried by a wider margin[ii] – it could not be said to have succeeded entirely in vanquishing Correa. The former president was quick to hail what he described as a “great triumph” for his newly formed Movement of the Citizens’ Revolution, claiming that “no other single movement obtained 36% of the vote”.

While this claim smacks somewhat of desperation – Ospina estimates the true size of Correa’s core constituency at closer to 22%[iii] – it contains enough truth to trouble Moreno. Taking into account that the president won around 39% of the votes in the first round of voting in last year’s presidential election – and that all opposition parties campaigned for a ‘Yes’ – one analyst estimates that Moreno succeeded in winning over a mere 8-11% of government supporters.

These figures raise the question of how Moreno will govern from this point onward, and in particular how he will consolidate his hold on power. In this context, the results of the plebiscite are extremely interesting.

Most international attention has focussed on the approval of Question 2, which effectively restores presidential term limits. This move is significant in terms of halting a drift toward indefinite re-election, particularly in light of recent events in Bolivia. It must be remembered, however, that the result returns Ecuador to the position set out in its 2008 Constitution, which allows for one instance of re-election to the same post. In effect the plebiscite has therefore repealed the amendment pushed through by Correa in 2015 via the National Assembly (not a referendum), a process which met with vigorous opposition in the streets.

As a result, the plebiscite has undone one of the most unpopular measures of the Correa government, such that many believe it was significant in persuading Correa not to run for election in 2017. The reform does not prevent Moreno from running for re-election as president, and even presents the possibility – however theoretical – of Correa being elected to a different post.

In fact, for many commentators the outcome of Question 3 of the plebiscite may prove to be more significant in terms of Ecuadorian democracy. That question relates to the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control (CPCCS). This institution was designed to act as a form or popular or citizen check on government power, but in effect was used by Correa as one of the primary means to concentrate power.

As Ecuadorian sociologist Mario Unda notes, a list of the state functions over which the CPCCS had nominating power is illustrative, including the Attorney General, Ombudsman, Controller General, National Electoral Council and Judiciary Council. In the words of one commentator, under Correa the CPCCS became the “nucleus of state control”.

Little wonder then that many observers are waiting anxiously to see what Moreno does with this much-coveted institution. The proposal approved in the plebiscite is to re-structure the Committee, starting by replacing all of its Correa-appointed members. Moreno has pledged that in the future members will be elected by the public.

Nevertheless in the short term there will be a transition period in which Moreno will propose a shortlist of candidates to be approved by the legislature. In the view of Ospina, this gives Moreno “almost unlimited power” over the CPCCS[iv].

For a president with such a diminished core of support and relatively precarious hold on power, this process appears to present a “golden opportunity” to consolidate power. On the other hand, Moreno is coming under increasing pressure from other political players seeking to co-opt the CPCCS. What happens next will tell us a lot about Moreno and the true extent of change in Ecuador.

Notes

[i] The other questions related to: the removal of political rights for those guilty of corruption; the election of new members of the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control; the repeal of the Capital Gains Tax Law; the extension of the ‘intangible zone’ in Yasuni National Park; restrictions on mining in protected areas; enhanced protections for children.

[ii] Pablo Ospina, 2018. Informe de Coyuntura: De la Consulta Popular as la edad de las presiones. CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Febrero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_ecuador_febrero_2018.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

Slovakia – With President Kiska and possibly also Prime Minister Fico gone, politics may be on the verge of a major change

They faced each other in the runoff in the 2014 presidential elections. They occasionally exchanged critical remarks and engaged in a bitter dispute in late 2017 over the perks of the presidential office and the policy record of the country’s coalition government. Now, Slovak media are extensively reporting that President Andrej Kiska and Prime Minister Robert Fico may be getting closer to a deal that would effectively mean their departure from Slovak politics.

When Andrej Kiska, a political novice with no previous experience of elected office, ran for the presidency in 2014, even his supporters acknowledged that his inexperience was his main weakness. His opponents, including Prime Minister Fico himself, tried to exploit the issue in the campaign. Nevertheless, Slovak voters elected him to the office with overwhelming support. Four years later, they do not seem to regret their choice: Kiska has been the country’s most trusted politician, largely abstaining from the heat of everyday politics. There were rumours that Kiska would set up his own political party and contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for Spring 2020. Last year, Kiska ruled out such a possibility. He also stated that he had not decided whether to run for a second five-year term as President. Throughout February 2018, various media outlets claim Kiska has made up his mind and will not seek re-election.

People close to the president, quoted by the media under the condition of anonymity, cite Kiska’s desire to spend more time with his family as the main reason. While the President spends most of his time in Bratislava, his family lives in Poprad in northern Slovakia. Some people suggest that he dislikes day-to-day political struggles, including his exchanges with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, an unpopular but powerful player and an undisputed No. 2 in Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy Party (Smer-SD). For over a year, Kaliňák has criticized President for using a government plane for weekend flights to his family. The President insisted he had used the plane at the Interior Minister’s request since the pilots had logged too few flying hours. Last April, the President stopped flying and has used a car ever since. Kaliňák even claimed his ministry sent an invoice to the president to pay for the service but it turned out no invoice was ever sent. In any case, it would have no legal basis since the president was entitled to use the plane throughout his term.

Since the beginning of the year, the President has met separately with the leaders of all relevant political parties (with the exception of the neo-Nazi People’s Party-Our Slovakia). While most of them declined to comment on the content of what was said, at least three opposition politicians did indirectly confirm that the president told them he would not run again and instead advised them to start searching for their own candidates. Leaders of two main opposition parties recently announced they already had suitable candidates should President Kiska not seek re-election.

Representatives of the governing parties were considerably less open to sharing details of their meetings with President. Several media outlets reported that Prime Minister Fico approached the President with the idea that he would step down as the Prime Minister, should Kiska appoint him to lead the Constitutional Court. In February 2019, a twelve-year term will expire for nine of the thirteen judges of the constitutional court, including the present Chairwomen. As specified in the Constitution, the Parliament will have to elect 18 candidates for the top court, and the president will have to choose nine. The resignation of the Prime Minister would automatically mean the entire cabinet must step down. Fico is said to have suggested to the President that Interior Minister Kaliňák would not need to be in the new cabinet. That would meet President’s earlier demands that Kaliňák should not hold any ministerial post, given his damaged reputation.

Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has commented on these reports. The scenario, however, was confirmed to the media by several well-informed sources in the Smer-SD party. The President’s spokespersons reiterated that Kiska would make his decision public by the end of September at the latest, but admitted it may be announced as early as March. The Prime Minister’s Office stated that Fico planned to lead his party into the 2020 parliamentary elections.

There is a general perception that should he run, Kiska would easily win a second term. If he really decides not to run again, the election outcome would be wholly unpredictable. For their part, the governing parties face grave difficulties in finding viable presidential candidates. While potential candidates of the two junior parties have little chance of winning, Smer-SD, as the most successful party of the last decade, is expected to field a strong contender. However, with Robert Fico vigorously ruling out another presidential bid, there are no obvious candidates to represent the party in the presidential contest. Miroslav Lajčák, a respected Foreign Minister who currently chairs the UN Parliamentary Assembly, stated in an interview that he would not run for the presidency. Maroš Ševčovič, another career diplomat, who is one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Commission, also hesitantly denied any presidential ambitions, even though many in his party believe he may eventually run.

Fico’s possible departure from national politics would be a litmus test for his Smer-SD’s ability to adapt to new conditions. He has been his party’s main asset and few observers believe there is a politician of comparable talent ready to replace him at the party’s helm. Kiska’s retirement may not have a direct impact on the party political scene, but it would open the possibility of a new (non-party) president with a potential to bring new dynamics into intra-executive relations.

Dan Slater – Victory vs. Reciprocity: Presidential Power-sharing and Party Cartelization in Indonesia

This is a guest post by Dan Slater, University of Michigan. It is based on his article in Journal of East Asian Studies

Democracy and opposition are supposed to go hand in hand. Opposition did not emerge as automatically as expected after Indonesia democratized in 1998, however, because presidents shared power much more widely than expected. The result has been what I call party cartelization, Indonesian-style. As I argue in my new article in the Journal of East Asian Studies, this differs significantly from canonical cases of party cartelization in Europe. Yet it exhibits the same troubling outcome for democratic accountability: the stunted development of a clearly identifiable party opposition.

Since the advent of direct presidential elections in 2004, Indonesian democratic competition has unsurprisingly assumed somewhat more of a government-vs.-opposition cast. But this shift has arisen more from contingent failures of elite bargaining than from any decisive change in the power-sharing game. So long as Indonesia’s presidents consider it strategically advantageous to share power with any party that declares its support, opposition will remain difficult to identify and vulnerable to being extinguished entirely in the world’s largest emerging democracy.

I reached these conclusions by asking three interrelated theoretical questions. First, how does opposition emerge as a political process in newly democratic settings? Second, how do democratically elected presidents share power and build ruling coalitions? And third, how might new political rules reshape those power-sharing practices?

Presidential power-sharing is a strategic political game. It is shaped, accordingly, by political institutions. Of particular importance are the rules governing selection of the chief executive; in Indonesia’s case, always a president. If a president is elected by parliament, as in Indonesia from 1999-2004, he or she is an agent of parliament. He can be expected to share power, roughly proportionally, with the parties resident there that selected him. If the people elect the president, he is an agent of the people, and should face less imperative to share power with parties in parliament that not only played no role in putting him there, but in many cases directly opposed his candidacy.

Yet in both instances, the same implicit assumption underpins our expectations. We assume that a president will share power with whichever parties helped put him in power, and not with those who played no role or even tried to prevent his election. This is what I call Victory: a power-sharing game predicated upon the unwritten rule that presidents will share power only with parties that supported him during his election campaign. To the extent that Victory is the power-sharing game, identifiable party opposition arises automatically. Someone must lose, so someone must go into opposition.

But what if Victory is not the game presidents play? Either in the presence or absence of direct presidential elections, a president might offer to share power with any and all parties that promise to support the presidency, even if they earlier opposed the presidential candidate. Instead of Victory, I call this power-sharing game Reciprocity. If a president prefers or is pressured to play Reciprocity, the emergence of identifiable party opposition becomes contingent rather than automatic. So long as post-electoral Reciprocity bargains can be struck with all parties, all parties can join the executive. Identifiable party opposition may thus vanish, as it did in Indonesia from 1999-2004, even in a perfectly functional and democratic electoral system. Someone must lose the election, but no one has to lose power.

This allows us to recast Indonesia’s struggle to generate an identifiable opposition in straightforward theoretical language. Party cartelization, Indonesian-style rests upon the power-sharing game of Reciprocity. Direct presidential elections will only disrupt or dismantle the cartelized party system if presidents build coalitions comprised of parties that supported him as well as nonparty allies of his own choosing, through the game of Victory.

Yet there are two critical wrinkles to consider. The first is that presidents not only make strategic choices about whom to share power with, but about how much power each partner will receive. Power-sharing games involve distributional conflict among coalition partners, not just between government insiders and outsiders. This means that presidents can strategically provide bonuses to existing supporters through a super-proportional share of cabinet seats, while relegating previous opponents to a sub-proportional share.

Hence when examining cabinet data, we must be attentive not only to whether presidents are sharing power with parties that opposed them during the election (i.e. playing a Reciprocity game), but also to deviations from the principle that cabinet seats should be distributed proportionally to coalition partners. This should indicate whether presidents have always strategically offered bonuses to electoral backers and imposed punishments on electoral opponents, and whether they are doing so more often since direct presidential elections were introduced. The more willing Indonesian presidents are to sideline erstwhile opponents, the more they shift from a Reciprocity game toward a Victory game, and the better the prospects become for identifiable opposition to emerge and strengthen in Indonesia.

The second caveat is perhaps even more important. It is that presidential coalitions are not necessarily faithful reflections of a president’s strategic preferences. Although presidents can choose to play a Victory game by fiat, Reciprocity is a resolutely two-sided game. In other words, Victory games only require a directly elected president to exclude electoral opponents from power as a unilateral strategy. Reciprocity demands that they engage those former opponents in a more complicated, multilateral bargaining process.

Whether a president seeking to play Reciprocity can actually find willing coalition partners at a price the president is ready to pay depends not on executive decree, but on hard political bargaining. Hence even when we see a coalitional outcome that seems to reflect a Victory game, we must examine whether the absence of Reciprocity arose from a president’s strategic decision to play Victory, or from his contingent failure to “seal the deal” with active negotiating partners in an ongoing Reciprocity game.

The implications of this seemingly minor distinction are quite major. If direct presidential elections have emboldened Indonesia’s presidents since 2004 to start pursuing Victory rather than playing Reciprocity, then the strategic underpinning of party cartelization is seriously weakening. This would mean that recent moves toward more identifiable opposition, as detailed in my JEAS article, are unlikely to be reversed. But if directly elected presidents are still playing Reciprocity, and simply failing to strike bargains, then the game of power-sharing remains unchanged, even as the final outcome has shifted. This implies that a return to the full party cartelization of the 1999-2004 period remains a meaningful specter, even more than a decade after direct presidential elections were introduced and the party cartel was first disrupted.

As my article’s data and narrative show, presidential power-sharing in Indonesia has gradually drifted, but not definitively shifted, from a Reciprocity game toward a Victory game. In raw quantitative terms, the figure below unmistakably shows that parties have increasingly positioned themselves outside of government since 2004. Yet the numbers obscure much of what my qualitative assessment reveals. The lingering importance of Reciprocity can still be seen in vigorous efforts by both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14) and President Joko Widodo (or Jokowi, 2014-present) to forge alliances across the full range of Indonesian parties.

In my earlier collaborative research, I call this promiscuous power-sharing: “an especially flexible coalition-building practice in which parties express or reveal a willingness to share executive power with any and all other significant parties after an election takes place, even across a country’s most important political cleavages” (Slater and Simmons, 2013). From this perspective, promiscuous bargaining has continued almost unabated since 2004, but it has not always been consummated in power-sharing bargains. In sum, promiscuous power-sharing primarily arose from 1999-2004 because parliamentary parties had the power to demand it; it has persisted since 2004, even while evolving and abating, because even directly elected presidents have had a strategic interest in maintaining it.

Continued attempts at promiscuous power-sharing strongly suggest that Reciprocity remains the dominant game. Party cartelization has abated in Indonesia, but not vanished. And it could still easily come back in its most extreme form. Even if it does not, the public willingness of all parties to consider power-sharing alliances with all other parties means that Indonesia’s voters can never be confident that a vote for one party means a vote against any other. Under conditions of promiscuous power-sharing, objectionable and unpopular parties and individuals can only be removed from office by elites, not by the voters. Indonesia shows that direct presidential elections make party cartelization harder, but far from impossible.

In conclusion, the most intriguing implication of Indonesia’s experience with democratic power-sharing may be this: Presidents may sometimes see broad coalitions as a source instead of a drain on their power and resources. Oversized coalitions are typically seen as being more expensive to maintain. But this may not be how presidents see things at all, at least under certain conditions. Oversized coalitions may be better conceived as ways for presidents to spread the same amount of resources across more claimants, thus ensuring that no single partner can become too strong as a rival. If nothing else, the persistence and evolution of party cartelization, Indonesian-style suggests that power-sharing should not be seen as occasions for presidents simply to give. Political scientists should look more carefully to see what presidents may sometimes be taking away.

Gregory J. Love and Ryan E. Carlin – The Power of Popularity? Comparing Executive Approval over Time and Space with the Executive Approval Database

This is a guest post by Gregory J. Love and Ryan E. Carlin

What makes political executives powerful? Students of comparative political institutions have painstakingly pored through parchment and practice to elaborate detailed indicators of executive powers. Such measures have advanced our understanding of executive power tremendously. Yet, arguably, one of executive’s most powerful tool can’t be found in the text of constitutions, legal statues, or norms.  And unlike the powers deriving from these sources, this crucial tool is often ephemeral and downright fickle. It is the power of popularity.

A quick glance at news coverage of democratic national leaders will show just how fascinated the media and political elites alike are with popularity ratings. This is true whether the head of government is a president or a prime minister, whether scheduled elections are next week or years away, or whether the leader is enjoying a “honeymoon” or is a “lame duck.” But why are approval ratings of such widespread interest when, in theory, citizens’ decisions vis-à-vis representation and accountability are taken at the ballot box?

For prime ministers, popular support is central to job security. When leaders are viewed as “weak” – often a synonym for being disliked by the electorate – they risk votes of no confidence and internal party removal. Of course, popularity matters not only at its nadir but at its apex, as well. High ratings strengthen the prime minister’s hand when it comes to keeping coalition partners and dissident party factions in check. The threat of a no-confidence vote rings hollow when the incumbent prime minister’s party stands to gain at new elections. Popular prime ministers, thus, can more easily see their agenda implemented.

For presidents, public approval is no less powerful. As Stimson put it, “If the real power of the presidency is not directly proportional to the most recent Gallup popularity rating, it is not far from it” (1976, 2). Yet institutional features of presidentialism – fixed terms, separation-of-powers, and in some cases non-concurrent legislative or sub-national elections – add nuance to presidents’ ability to harness public approval. Popularity is probably more valuable early in their terms, when they seek to make hay during a “honeymoon” period. Popularity’s political value is lowest when term limits turn presidents into lame ducks. Dynamics that do not match a cyclical pattern of honeymoon, decay, and a slight uptick as elections near may be precursors of instability. For example, extremely unpopular presidents can face the same prospects as a prime minister: removal from office (such as Dilma Roussef in Brazil).

While the attention that political elites and the public at large shower on executive approval ratings is warranted, we know relatively little about executive approval in comparative perspective. Aside from the (inconsistent) evidence that the economy matters and some vague sense that rally ‘round the flag events do, too, it is entirely unclear how context shapes the dynamics, drivers, and policy implications of executive approval.

The Executive Approval Database 1.0

Our ability to carry out comparative research on executive approval has been seriously limited by lack of high quality comparative longitudinal macro-public opinion data. To address this shortcoming, in 2016 the Executive Approval Project (EAP) launched the Executive Approval Dataset (EAD 1.0).

Producing comparable data on presidential and prime minister approval across countries, time, and regions presents myriad challenges. First is data collection. The EAP’s goal is to gather the universe of time series (survey marginals) tapping respondents’ assessments of executive performance. Its web-based visualization tool shows the breadth of data collection. Most of 30+ countries in the EAD have between 12 and 36 approval series from public and private polling sources.

The second challenge is aggregation. Differences in question wording, response categories, and periodicity as well as missingness complicate valid analyses with comparable data. Premised on the idea that these series tap the same underlying construct, the EAD uses Stimson’s (1991; 2015) dyads algorithm to create a single, continuous, and smoothed measure (to account for sampling variance and differing frames). A detailed description of the algorithm and software (WCalc) can be found here. While Stimson’s approach is widely used, and easily implemented via the EAP’s visualization tool, it is not the only option. Researchers are welcome to download the EAD’s input series from the website and use their own aggregation approaches.

The EAD 1.0 contains over 11,000 survey marginals and 330 time series pertaining to over 140 presidents in 18 Latin American countries. Using these data, we produce the following figure, which represents the most broadly comparable measurement of presidential approval to date.

Research Applications of the EAD

Over the past six years a growing number of researchers have used the EAD. We can group the existing work into two broad categories: (1) papers explaining the dynamics of executive popularity and (2) papers focusing on the effects of executive approval on politics and policy.

In the first group of projects, researchers look at factors such as economic performance, corruption and scandals, terrorism, populist rhetoric and policies, and institutional constructs to understand when leaders fail (or succeed) in the eyes of the public. As for the consequences of executive popularity, the works are fewer but growing rapidly. New papers explore the role of approval on policy agendas, executive decrees, and other aspects of the executive-legislative process. A bibliography of papers using the EAD can be found here.

Going Forward

The EAP aims to update and expand the dataset’s coverage in Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, and Africa for the EAD 2.0 release in summer 2018. To that end, the EAP is establishing Country Teams with partner institutions around the world. And we are always looking for new partners!

If you wish to contribute, or to collect, executive approval data for a particular country, or set of countries, we’d love to enlist your help. Please contact the authors for more information.

The Executive Approval Project Core Team is:
Ryan Carlin, Georgia State University
Jonathan Hartlyn, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Timothy Hellwig, Indiana University
Gregory Love, University of Mississippi
Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Singer, University of Connecticut

Romania – An Underused Presidency?

Can the president of a semi-presidential republic build a politically independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament? The question continues to instil both scholarly and general interest debates. Recent political developments in Romania have once again brought to the public eye the matter of whether a president can actively and constructively contribute to government formation, the policy making process and agenda setting. And should s/he do so? In the present text I discuss what tools the current president has chosen to use from his ‘toolbox’, and what he stays away from.

  1. The Newest Government Formation

On 29 January 2018, Iohannis nominated his third prime-minister from the Social Democrat Party (PSD) in the course of approximately one year. The exclusive prerogative of nominating the prime-minister shines a spotlight on the president. The government was once again formed without his own National Liberal Party (PNL), prolonging a period of cohabitation. His supportive part of the public expected the president to lead the opposition in extensive negotiations for an alternative government formation. However, he quickly accepted the proposal of the parliamentary majority. Bargaining duration was of one day only. Consequently, he not only contradicted public expectations, but also some of the most recent empirical studies claiming that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success (Savage, 2017; Anghel, 2017). For the time being, the president has chosen not to instrumentalize his constitutionally prescribed role in cabinet formation to influence its outcome.

Iohannis shows a loose connection to his party (PNL), from whose ranks expectations of support and leadership have always existed. The PNL itself has a weak performance in the role of the main opposition party, which could incentivize the president’s doubts regarding its coalition potential or ability to assume governance.  Coupled with what his supporters perceive as a disengagement from public life, this might bring into question the interest of the president in pursuing a second mandate.

  1. Veto Power

The president of Romania has the right to veto legislation on constitutional grounds by reference to the Constitutional Court or for any other grounds by returning the bill to parliament. MPs may repass a bill through ordinary majority, and the president cannot veto it a second time. The table below shows the number of times president Iohannis made use of this prerogative (see Koker, 2017 for a comparison with the veto use in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). The third column shows how many laws passed with his consent. When comparing figures, we could infer a working relationship between parliament and president, and a consensus oriented elite. Most of the laws sent back to parliament have actually undergone a process of re-examination and have not been repassed in their exact initial form.

The major source of tension between the president and the parliament is the set of laws on justice reform supported by the government and the majority of MPs. In the proposed bills, the president’s own institutional role in the anti-corruption fight has been watered down. Iohannis has constantly shown a different approach to the government’s plans and even joined street-protests against a government ordinance that would have decriminalised some forms of public office abuse. He is expected to use this ‘tool’ and veto the justice laws once they reach him for promulgation. This prospect, coupled with some anticipation of a severe societal backlash, has so far influenced the government’s actions and is delaying a resolution.

President Klaus Iohannis and PM Sorin Grindeanu (18/01/2017) Iohannis appeared unexpectedly during a cabinet meeting where an emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code was to be discussed. PhotoSource: A3 Press

The same issue related to anti-corruption prompted the president to use two more of his executive attributions: calling for national referenda and taking part in the cabinet sessions when matters related to national security or foreign policy are discussed. Iohannis successfully prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code by unexpectedly attending a would be decisive cabinet meeting in January 2017. He also announced his (unfulfilled) intention to call for a national referendum concerning this amnesty bill, should it not be withdrawn. Iohannis’s use of formal presidential ‘tools’, in the context of recurring mass street protests, has so far delayed the government’s plans to reform the justice laws.

  1. Informal Powers

Most investigations on the powers of the president in multi-party systems agree that the president has a formally more or less limited role, in accordance to the Constitution.  Scholars have so far provided few inquiries into the informal aspects of presidential authority. The few studies that exist are focused on the USA and showed how presidents rely on their electoral legitimacy and visibility to influence the policy process via their public positions and symbolic actions (Strauss and Sunstein, 1986; Ashley and Jarmer, 2016). We should expect it to be the case for any directly elected president, and expand our research agenda.

In the case of Romania, the president’s public appearances are an underused tool. He is reactive in his (e.g) public statements, does not engage in unscripted dialogue with media representatives and mostly limits his activities to technical or ceremonial appearances. His priorities appear locked in preserving the status quo in the justice system, and does not appear willing to set other directions to the public agenda and use his own electoral legitimacy to get people to think about new issues or believe in particular actions. Three years in his (five year) mandate, we could conclude that informal powers are not among his preferred tools of action.

Conclusion

When compared to years of presidential activism by former president Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014) and the symbiotic relationship he had with his Liberal-Democrat Party (PDL), we can conclude that the mandate of president Klaus Iohannis turned Romania away from a path of increased presidentialization (Samuels, Shugart 2010) and party presidentialization (Passarelli, 2015).

The present text acknowledges that formally, a major effect of the president on the political life is conditional on the inclusion of his or her own parliamentary party in the cabinet. Institutionally, he or she has a limited number of tools to use as effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the willingness of presidents to use informal powers (symbolic actions, visibility, leadership abilities, electoral legitimacy, and a working relation with their own party) may not also condition the final output. The use of informal powers by popularly elected presidents in presidential and semi-presidential systems[i] to affect government formation, policy making and agenda setting would benefit from further empirical research.


[i] This blog also suggested that even presidents who are not directly elected can make a constructive contribution in government formation. See the case of Germany.

Continuity and Change: Presidential Succession in Southern Africa

At the risk of using a tired cliché, it would appear that the winds of change are blowing across Southern Africa. On Wednesday 14 February 2018, South Africans awoke to the news that there had been a dawn raid on the Saxonwold compound – derisorily referred to as the ‘Saxonwold Shebeen’ – owned by the Gupta family, close friends of President Jacob Zuma. It was the clearest sign yet that the president’s powers had faltered and his time was drawing to a rapid close. Having lost the succession battle at the ANC’s elective congress in December 2017, speculation had been brewing that he would soon be removed by the ruling party. With most of his friends and allies having shifted positions to the new sheriff in town – newly-elected ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa – Zuma’s days in the presidential residence seemed to be numbered. On 13 February, after more than a week of negotiations between Zuma and Ramaphosa, the ANC National Executive Committee formally requested that Zuma resign the presidency, in an apparent repeat of Zuma’s 2008 removal of former President Thabo Mbeki. They gave him until midnight on 14 February to do so. In a late-night address, Zuma resigned on Valentine’s day; Ramaphosa was sworn in less than 20 hours later.

On South Africa’s northern border, events in Zimbabwe have also heralded spectacular changes. Following the November ‘soft coup’ that removed Robert Mugabe from power after 37 years at the helm, new President Emerson Mnangagwa has spent three months on a major marketing drive, trying to convince the region and the world at large that he is setting Zimbabwe on a new course. The UK has been eager to re-engage, with several high-profile visits to Harare, and moves suggesting that the country will soon re-join the Commonwealth. But having been burnt before by promises and intransigence on the part of the ruling party, all eyes are on the general elections to be held later this year. The full normalisation of relations with Harare is largely contingent on the holding of a ‘fair’ and peaceful election. But the same day that Jacob Zuma was facing down a recall by his party, 65-year old Zimbabwean opposition veteran Morgan Tsvangirai passed away in a Johannesburg hospital. Despite his two-year battle with colon cancer, Tsvangirai had been tipped as the presidential candidate for the opposition’s 7-party coalition, due to fight the upcoming elections in less than six months’ time. The week prior to his death was marred by a very public succession battle between the MDC-T’s three vice presidents – something that will no doubt hurt the party and the coalition’s electoral prospects. The Zimbabwean opposition’s prospects look dire – Tsvangirai’s unmatched public profile and failure to pick a successor has left the coalition rudderless, while changes instituted by Mnangagwa have taken the bite out of the opposition’s ‘change’ mantra. It’s unclear whether the fractious opposition can regroup, rebrand, paper over their squabbles and develop a positive messaging platform in the months before the looming polls.

Meanwhile, change is also afoot in the rest of the region. Botswanan President Ian Khama announced that he will be handing over power in April 2018. Khama, the son of Botswana’s independence President Seretse Khama, is stepping down after ten years at the helm. When he steps down, the Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, will automatically succeed him until the 2019 general elections. But Masisi won’t necessarily be the ruling party’s candidate for those elections as the party will go to a special elective congress in 2019 where several high profile government leaders have thrown their hat in the ring to succeed him. In Angola – Southern Africa’s largest oil producing nation – President José Eduardo dos Santos handed over power in 2017 after 38 years at the head of the country’s ruling MPLA, after anointing his successor, João Lourenço. When Lourenço won the August elections, few predicted that he would follow through on his promises to clean up the MPLA and the state. However, in a shock move, he removed the former president’s daughter – Isabel dos Santos – from her position at the head of the state-owned oil producer Sonangol. Lourenço also removed the heads of police and intelligence, governor of the Central Bank, head of the country’s diamond company and the boards of all three state-owned media companies, as well as dos Santos’ son who was head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

However, despite all the apparently positive changes across the region and some significant reasons for optimism, there is a need to maintain a cautious stance. In Angola, many remain sceptical of Lourenço’s moves, arguing that it resembles a “dança das cadeiras” – a ‘dance of chairs’ or little more than a reshuffling of the political deck. Whispers in Gabarone suggest that Ian Khama is hoping to position his brother, Tshekedi Khama, to take up the presidency. Having tried to anoint his brother in 2014 (after making him a Cabinet minister in 2012), but facing outright revolt from the ruling party, Khama backtracked. But he has one more chance to secure the dynasty in the ruling party’s special congress next year. If he is successful, three of five of independent Botswana’s presidents would be from the Khama family. In Zimbabwe, following the possible collapse of meaningful opposition in the wake of Tsvangirai’s death, Mnangagwa may feel little pressure to make substantial changes to the state, and will instead continue along the well-worn path that ZANU-PF has tread for nearly four decades.

As for Ramaphosa, he is riding high on a wave of public optimism and international goodwill, but he will need to prove that he is serious about rooting out corruption in the state by removing Zuma’s key backers through whom public finances were so wantonly squandered and misappropriated. But over the longer term, serious questions remain over whether Ramaphosa’s business- and market-friendly approach will be sufficiently flexible to make the necessary policy changes to tackle the country’s burgeoning inequality and mass joblessness. With the possibility of a Congolese election (or mass uprising in the absence of an election) at the end of 2018, what is certain is that the Southern African region will look very different at the end of 2018 to how it looked just more than a year before. But it remains to be seen whether these changes will be thoroughgoing, or if it will be little more than a dança das cadeiras.

Poland – Is the presidency going down the Hungarian path?

Over the last years, I have chronicled (and lamented) the descent of the Hungarian presidency  during the Orbán government from promising check-and-balance into political irrelevance. After an initial phase of constructive presidential activism in which incumbent Janos Áder used his powers in an attempt to improve legislation, he subsequently failed to criticise any of the government’s controversial reforms and used his veto power and right to request judicial review on fewer and fewer occasions. Three years after the election of a Law and Justice (PiS) president and government in Poland, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path. Despite the added legitimacy and independence through a direct electoral mandate, president Andrzej Duda has done little to balance the increasingly illiberal policies of the government. Although he has not remained entirely inactive, his activism is geared towards re-election and democratic window-dressing, rather than becoming a real check-and-balance.

Photo via prezydent.pl

When the 42 year-old MEP Andrzej Duda was elected president in May 2015, it was easy to portray him as little more than a puppet of PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. After the parliamentary election in the autumn of the same year produced an absolute majority for PiS (for which Kaczynski has as of yet not taken an official seat on the front bench), Duda was complicit in the unconstitutional appointment of several judges to the Constitutional Tribunal (having previously refused to swear in judges that had been originally – and legally – appointed) and failed to step in when the government subsequently refused to publish the Tribunal’s judgement on the unconstitutionality of these actions. Up until last summer, president Duda failed to condemn any of the reforms of the Polish government, which resulted in the European Union’s decision to trigger Article 7 (a formal warning an possibility of disciplinary procedures) in December 2017.

In July 2017 president Duda vetoed two controversial judicial reforms that would have given the government near complete control over the judiciary. Nevertheless, as I argued at the time, the vetoes were little more than democratic window-dressing and inevitable due to national and international pressure after it emerged that the Senate had passed bills in different versions than the lower chamber. Duda’s vetoes caused friction with the PiS government and then Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as a number of other co-partisans accused him of hampering ‚improvements’ to the country’s legal system. Nevertheless, it is without question that these reforms will reappear in other forms and Duda will sign them off. The vetoes can merely be seem as an attempt to ‚save face‘ and means to appease critical voters in a bid to secure re-election in 2020.

President Duda’s signature under the so-called Holocaust bill, a law that seeks to punish those who accuse Poland or Poles of complicity in the mass extermination of jews during WWII with up to three years in prison, shows the same pattern of self-interested activism. Duda signed the bill into law but also submitted the bill to the Constitutional Tribunal at the same time. Signing the bill will appease not only the core electorate of PiS but also a the majority of Poles who rightly object to the phrase ‘Polish death camps‘ that is still frequently used to label Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland (the country’s embassies still regularly intervene when the phrase is used in the media). Simultaneously sending the law to the Constitutional Tribunal should be seen as a signal to those voters who fear a limitation of free speech. Nevertheless, a decision from the Tribunal could take 1-2 years and with the law in force, the government can already use it to silence its critics – after the cleansing of public media from critical journalists, it becomes another tool to suppress free speech. Interestingly, the same tactic was used by president Lech Kaczynski (the twin brother of party leader and then Prime Minister Jaroslaw) during the PiS governments in 2005-2007 with the exception that the Constitutional Tribunal was not yet staffed with loyal judges (who are unlikely to pronounce the law unconstitutional).

Thus, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path, albeit with some variation. As Andrzej Duda needs public support to secure his re-election in 2020 he is more active (or at least more visibly) than his Hungarian colleague. Given the greater international attention paid to the situation in Poland compared to the one in Hungary (where the EU clearly failed to step in in time) and stronger domestic opposition, Duda also needs to be active to appease international and national critics. However, overall the Polish presidency is currently failing at its job as a check-and-balance on parliament and government. An altered parliamentary composition following the 2019 legislative elections or even a second term for Duda in 2020 may change the situation, yet for now we may need to declare a ‘presidency lost‘.