Monthly Archives: June 2018

Paraguay – President Horacio Cartes Offers Resignation and then Withdraws it

At the end of May, President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay formally submitted his resignation to Congress. This was to enable him to take a seat in the country’s senate. His term was due to officially end in August, but given that incoming senators are to be sworn in on June 30 and the Constitution prohibits officials holding two offices simultaneously, his resignation from the presidency would allow him to assume his senate seat.

On Tuesday however, President Cartes announced that he was withdrawing his resignation. Successive attempts to try and get Congress to accept his resignation were stymied by opposition parties, including the left-leaning alliance led by the former President, Fernando Lugo, together with members of his own Colorado Party. The opposition of these legislators prevented the senate achieving a quorum and so Cartes’ resignation remained formally unapproved.

Paraguayan presidents are limited to one five-year term, but the Constitution allows for former presidents to become senators for life. These are relatively toothless positions however, whereby former presidents are allowed to express their opinion in the senate, but they have no vote or no real capacity for political leadership. Cartes therefore, and with the backing of the Constitutional Court, ran for a full senate seat in the recent elections on April 22nd, which he duly won. An attempt last year by Cartes to reform the Constitution to allow for the extension of the current provision on term limits ultimately ended in failure amidst popular opposition and public demonstrations.

Accession to a full, elected senate seat, as opposed to the largely ceremonial seat he is constitutionally entitled to, would also afford Cartes the complete set of rights and prerogatives available to senators. This includes immunity from prosecution, which some have suggested is the major impetus behind Cartes’ eagerness to leave the presidency and assume a senate seat.

Before he became president, Cartes built up a family empire spanning businesses involved in banking, tobacco, the drinks industry and even soccer. But during his presidency, WikiLeaks published a 2010 US State Department cable alleging that Cartes was the head of a criminal operation involving drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1986, Cartes spent sixty days in jail as a result of an investigation into currency fraud.

The general assumption is that once the term-limited Cartes leaves the presidential office, he will face criminal charges relating to his business activities. Hence the resistance of the opposition and some members of his party to his proposed resignation.

Cartes is not alone in seeking immunity from prosecution in the sanctuary of a senate seat. Most famously, Augusto Pinochet became a senator for life with immunity from prosecution in Chile following his defeat in the 1988 referendum. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is also facing prosecution over the alleged cover-up of Iranian involvement in the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, a Jewish community centre, in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, but is currently protected by her position as a senator. And given the current legal woes of former Peruvian presidents, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala, and Alejandro Toledo, in the wake of the Odebrecht affair, I have no doubt they would welcome the protection a senate seat (with immunity) might bring.

Germany – President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the unofficial foreign minister

After more than seven years as Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier stepped down from his cabinet post to become the country’s 12th Federal President in early 2017. Despite his new role and the limited prerogatives of the office, Steinmeier remains the most prominent voice in German foreign policy – almost as if he had never left the foreign ministry.

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier | © German Presidential Office / Henning Schacht 2018

The constitutionally prescribed role of the German president is generally limited to representative functions, although it affords office-holders with some leeway in times of crisis. The representative function extends to foreign affairs and as head of state the president signs international treaties on behalf of the German Federal Republic. Nevertheless, contrary to other countries the president does not take part in substantive foreign policy decision or represent the country at intergovernmental meetings.

Steinmeier was elected by the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in early 2017 and it can arguably be credited to his exceptionally strong leadership that parties renewed their coalition following the autumn 2017 legislative elections (in particular, persuading the Social Democratic leadership to make themselves available as junior coalition partner once again). Already shortly after his inauguration, Steinmeier harshly criticised developments surrounding the Central European University in Hungary during his speech to the European Parliament and his criticism of the far-right Alternative for Germany has likely been noted internationally. He furthermore made no efforts to retract or soften any statements he had made during his ministerial tenure (most prominently his assessment of U.S.-president Donald Trump as a hate preacher and danger to democracy).

Having just conceded his post as party leader and designated Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, his immediate successor in the foreign ministry – vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel – had a more difficult start and only slowly came into his own. However, Gabriel already lost his post less than a year later in the cabinet reconfiguration following the renewal of the grand coalition. His successor, former minister of justice Heiko Maas, has only formally been in office since March this year and is still trying to make his mark. His open criticism of Vladimir Putin’s re-election and arguments in favour of ongoing sanctions as well as his opposition to tariffs introduced by the U.S. against car imports were widely noted. Nevertheless, he still lacks the reputation and gravitas that enabled Steinmeier to assert German interests on the European and international level.

In contrast, president Steinmeier has been able to maintain a much more influential voice in Germany’s foreign policy. During his recent state visit to the United States (notably yet unsurprisingly lacking an invitation to visit the White House), although once again largely representative in character and not an event that would usually make the front pages of any newspaper, he articulated more clearly than ever his vision of Germany as a leader in promoting democracy and becoming an antipole to the politics of the current U.S. administration.

However, the reason Steinmeier has been able to maintain such a vocal role in Germany foreign policy is not merely the result of his own strength and political opportunity. Appearances by the president are closely coordinated with the Chancellor’s office and the the foreign ministry (a few years ago, government MPs even sought to find legal means to ‘muzzle’ the president with regard to foreign policy). Thus, at least partly Steinmeier is taking an active role because he is allowed to do so. Yet at the same time, the Federal government is currently caught up in discussions about refugee policy (any European solutions are regarded as remit of the Chancellor, so that the foreign ministry does not play a role here) and the respective conflict between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Coalition parties (including Steinmeier’s own Social Democrats) may thus also benefit from Steinmeier’s activism in foreign policy given that they currently lack the resources to set the tone in this area and the president has not majorly deviated from their preferences. Yet, the more the president is afforded freedom, the more difficult it will be to rein him in once government priorities change. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already set a precedent through his active involvement in government formation; he may set one in the formulation of German foreign policy as well.

Turkey’s new presidential system enters into force with Erdoğan’s election win

Turkey held a snap election on 24th June. This was the first time that concurrent presidential and assembly elections were held. The constitutional amendments installing a presidential system enter into force with this election. President Erdoğan was re-elected as president at the first round with 52 percent of the votes. He becomes the first president of the new political system. His party, the AKP (Adalet Ve Kalkınma Partisi/ Justice and Development Party),  won 42 percent of the vote and its partner, the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party),11%. It’s highly likely that there will be a conservative/nationalist coalition formed by the AKP and the MHP.

Elections were held under the continuing state of emergency since the coup attempt in 2016. One of the major political actors, Selehattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish HDP (Halkın Demokrasi Partisi/ Peoples’ Democracy Party) has been in prison for political speeches he made. There were regular assaults and violent attacks on opposition parties even on the election day and threats of internal war by supporters of the ruling AKP. The ruling party also used state facilities, had financial support, and controlled state and private media to ensure greater coverage for themselves and block opposition candidates’ appearances, creating immense electoral inequalities.

The AKP and the MHP formed an alliance called “Cumhur/Public” and supported Erdoğan. At the beginning of the campaign period, it appeared as if President Erdoğan had two particular targets. One was to prevent the IYIP (İyi Parti/the Good Party), from taking centre-right votes from the AKP. The other one was to push pro-Kurdish HDP under the ten percent threshold by portraying the party supported by nearly six million people as the supporter of terrorism. If he could  do so, the AKP would win the HDP’s seats, as it was the second party in the regions where the HDP is strong.

However opposition parties, especially the left wing CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/the Republican Peoples Party) and its candidate Muharrem İnce, challenged this strategy by visiting Demirtaş in prison, promising recognition of the right of Kurds to be educated in their mother tongue, and abolishing the state of emergency. The HDP asked for strategic help from left wing voters to reach the threshold and in return promised to support the runner-up opposition candidate in the second round of presidential race. Even though the opposition parties failed to capture the assembly majority, the HDP did passed the infamous 10 percent national threshold and won 67 MPs in the 600-person Assembly.

Despite the great unfairness they faced, the opposition put up a credible struggle to change Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The opposition alliance, “Millet/the Nation”, which was formed by the CHP, the IYIP, the SP (Saadet Partisi/the Happiness Party), and the DP (Demokrat Parti/ the Democratic Party) agreed on a transition period during which a new constitution for a parliamentary democracy would be drafted. They all ran their own candidates in the first round of the presidential election, but agreed to support whoever won through to the second round. They also affirmed their intention to form a coalition government to democratise the country and tackle the serious economic problems. The HDP declared its support for a new democratic = constitution recognising certain minority rights, too. Their received 47 percent in the presidential race and 46 per cent in the assembly election.

The country will now embark upon a new Turkish type of presidential system with almost no outside checks and balances. President Erdoğan created a highly politicized judiciary after the coup attempt, removing nearly 5,000 judges and appointing politically loyal supporters. The army was also restructured. Now, all state institutions will be redesigned around the presidential office. President Erdoğan controls almost all media (state and private) and the private sector. It appears that the MHP’s supporters are willing to receive some of the benefits of state patronage (1) by forming a coalition.

In short, Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime is getting consolidated under a patronal hyper-presidential system despite nearly half of the nation’s will for true democracy.

Notes:

1. H. Hale, Patronal Politics Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, Cambridge Uni Press, 2015, p. 9-10

Tunisia – Sliding back towards presidential authoritarianism?

From its independence to the January 2011 uprising, presidentialism in Tunisia was synonymous with dictatorship. Indeed, former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali had both concentrated power in their own hands, with the legislative and judiciary branches acting as extensions of this power. In the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution, the interim government and later the elected constitutional assembly opted for a semi-presidential system. Indeed, nearly all political parties agreed that such a system was essential to decentralize executive power in order to prevent the return of an authoritarian presidentialism. However, in the last few years, the current President, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, has been arguing that a lack of centralized executive power is preventing Tunisia from progressing both in its political reforms and its economic development. Could this be an early sign that Tunisia is slipping back into a form of authoritarianism?

Presidential authoritarianism: Bourguiba and Ben Ali

After years of civil unrest and guerilla warfare, Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, a member of the nationalist New Constitutional Liberal Party (commonly known as Neo Destour), became prime minister following elections held in the last days of the French protectorate. Bourguiba quickly enacted measures to solidify his position. After setting up special courts to prosecute former collaborationists and his enemies in the nationalist movement, Bourguiba maneuvered to oust the Bey and head of state, Muhammad VIII al-Amin by pressuring the national assembly into declaring a republic and then assumed the title of president. During Bourguiba’s rule, dissent was stifled. Bourguiba stressed that Tunisian democracy was to be an expression of national unity. Opposition parties were barely tolerated and Tunisia’s bicameral legislative body, comprised only of Neo Destour members, was but a rubber stamp parliament. Indeed, after serving three five-year terms as president, Bourguiba was named “president for life” by this parliament in 1975. Bourguiba’s presidency ceased only when, in 1987, prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali summoned a group of medical professionals who officially declared the ailing president mentally and physically incapable of exercising his duties

As the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the prime minister would succeed the president in the case of the latter’s death or severe illness, Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba as president of Tunisia following what was to be called the 1987 “medical coup”. Initially, Ben Ali cultivated the image of a political reformer keen on introducing a more representative democracy in the nation. Indeed, his political rhetoric relied on terms such as democracy, further economic integration with Europe, as well as individual freedoms and rights. Seemingly in order to prove his good will in these matters, in 1988 Ben Ali introduced a constitutional amendment abolishing the lifelong presidency and capping term limits to two five year mandates. However, as the years went by, it became clear that Ben Ali was only interested in democracy as a façade. Indeed, while a few seats were set aside for opposition parties in parliament, Neo Destour members constituted its vast majority. Further constitutional amendments only confirmed the authoritarian nature of Ben Ali’s regime: in 1997, a third term was added to the previous two-term presidential limit; and in 2002, term limits were abolished altogether, ushering in a de facto return of the lifelong presidency.

The January 2011 revolution and the Essebsi presidency

In January 2011, Tunisians went to the streets demanding freedom, dignity and equality. Moreover, one of the protesters’ staunchest demands was the departure of Ben Ali from the presidency. After a few weeks of public unrest, Ben Ali fled the country with his family, being granted political asylum in Saudi Arabia. A new interim government was established, with former Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannushi becoming pro tempore president. The neo Destour party was formally dissolved. One day after being appointed president, Ghannushi resigned and was succeeded by Fouad Mebazaa. The interim government quickly announced elections for a constituent assembly, which were held in October. The constituent assembly later announced, in December, that during the transition period, which was to end when Tunisia had a new constitution, Moncef Marzouki was to succeed Mebazaa as president.

The new constitution of Tunisia of 2014 limits the mandate of a president to two five-year terms and imposes checks from the legislative, judiciary and part of the executive branches on the office of the presidency. Indeed, under the new system, the direction of the government is explicitly assigned to the Prime Minister, who is responsible before the legislative branch. The first president to be elected under the new constitution is the incumbent, Beji Caid Essebsi (sworn in in December 2014), with Mehdi Jomaa as Prime Minister. It soon became apparent, however, that Essebsi had a view of the presidency that was closer to that of Bourguiba. Nowadays, despite the strong presence of the islamist Ennahdha party in parliament and their apparent commitment to upholding the gains of the 2014 constitution, Essebsi is busy building a personality cult and has repeatedly complained to the press of the inadequacies of the 2014 constitution. Indeed, in a 2016 interview with the national daily La Presse, Essebsi laid out his plan to eventually amend the constitution to disentangle the “interwoven powers” of the executive branch in order to concentrate them in the office of the presidency. A major factor in government inefficiency, he added, was the “independent constitutional bodies”, that is, the independent agencies mandated by the constitution to monitor elections and combat corruption. Moreover, Essebsi, following the example of Bourguiba, has extended the powers of the presidency. On one hand, he has begun acting as an arbitrator in legislative affairs, making the Prime minister a simple instrument through which presidential prescriptions are applied; on the other hand, he has yet to set up the Constitutional Court, which was supposed to have been operational by January 2015.

Conclusion

Tunisia’s new constitution was designed to prevent the return of authoritarian presidentialism. However, “the strength of a constitution depends on the political determination to breathe life into the letter and the spirit of it”1. With the Tunisian economy still weak seven years after the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians understandably feel that further political and economic reforms are urgently needed. If these are not undertaken soon, there is a definite chance that the electorate, in desperation, will agree with president Essebsi that the current constitutionalist regime needs to be overhauled to bolster the powers of the presidency.

Notes

  1. Thierry Brésillon (2017). Tunisia: towards the restoration of personal power [online at orientxxi.info]

The author would like to thank Alessandra Bonci for her advice on writing this blog post.

A Fragmented Center-Left: Challenges for Chile’s Political Opposition

A time of changes

For some observers, Chile’s political landscape might not have changed that much in recent years. Since 2006, Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera have taken turns to rule the country. However, the 2017 general election brought a series of changes that have important political implications beyond who sits in La Moneda, i.e., Congress’s partisan composition.

The 2017 elections were the first under the new proportional representation voting system (although the former binomial system, a PR in theory, actually prevented small parties from having legislative representation). This long-awaited reform made the elections more competitive and, above all, transformed the composition of Congress. In fact, many emblematic politicians that had occupied legislative seats since 1990 lost re-election last year. Furthermore, the share of legislative seats now held by members of non-traditional parties, those outside of the two traditional electoral coalitions, grew almost five times, from 3% to 17%.

That is, the Nueva Mayoría, the center-left coalition that in 2013 replaced the Concertación(1990-2013), and Chile Vamos, the right-wing alliance led by Piñera, are not alone in Congress for the first time since democracy was restored.This is because Frente Amplio (FA) won a considerable share of the electoral vote and legislative seats. Frente Amplio is a diverse political alliance that is comprised of several — mostly left-wing — small parties, some media personalities, far-left groups and former student leaders. The major differences between Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría are not purely ideological, but rather they hinge on their pro or anti-establishment orientation and political style. All these changes, along with worn-down relations within Nueva Mayoría and the defeat of its presidential candidate in the run off, have created a challenging scenario for the center-left opposition.

Opposition at the crossroads

Forming the opposition is not new for the Left, although the part they played during Piñera’s first term (2010-2014) was not a successful one. On the one hand, Concertación had then found itself struggling to maintain its unity and to redefine itself as a key political actor. On the other, this meant that at times they found it difficult to constrainPiñera and his cabinet. One way for the opposition to keep the executive at bay is to resort to interpelaciones(interpellations), a procedure by which ministers are forced to appear before Congress to answer questions, which might entail an important political cost for the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, the number of interpelacioneswas rather small when the left-wing parties were in the opposition (2010-2014). In fact, Piñera’s ministers were interpelados only three times by the Concertación during that period, which is considerably lower than the 14 times Bachelet’s ministers were questioned in Congress — seven secretaries in each of her two administrations — when the center-right parties were in the opposition.

Currently, there is a serious shortage of political leaders behind whom opposition parties and legislators might rally. It is telling that a few weeks ago Michelle Bachelet decided to step up and confront Piñera, who seeks to undo several of her policies. Bachelet met with her previous ministers and they individually criticized Piñera. Interestingly, Bachelet did not team up with the opposition parties or their leaders. As a sign of division in the left in itself, this is not really new. During both Bachelet administrations, relations with parties in her coalition were not entirely constructive. Moreover, she did not groom any important party member as her potential successor which among other factors contributed to handing the presidency over to Piñera twice in less than ten years.

As if this was not enough, the Democracia Cristiana(DC), a pivotal actor along with the Socialist party when the Concertación was in office, finds itself beleaguered by internal splits and power struggles. The DC is facing perhaps its most serious electoral and internal crisis yet, as many of its members debate whether to stay, collaborate with Piñera or move further to the left. Several well-known DC politicians have resigned and some have even decided to work for the Piñera administration.

Piñera and the future of his right-wing coalition

Piñera has attempted to take advantage of the fragmented opposition by resorting to the proverbial “divide and conquer” strategy. Atthe end of March, he asked the opposition to work together on a childhood policy proposal. As expected, divisions quickly arose among the opposition between those that accepted the offer and those that adamantly criticized it, exposing their different political styles and interests even further.

Piñera’s coalition has also witnessed divisions over policy proposals such as homoparental adoption, abortion, and lately between the president and his own party, Renovación Nacional (RN), about partisan appointments. Yet, these differences do not represent a serious threat to the ruling alliance’s stability. While Piñera continues moving his agenda forward — although not without problems— the opposition is still trying to find a footing in this new political scenario. In the short term, the center-left seems doomed to fail considering the fragmentation across and within its parties. The left-of-center opposition need to overcome their differences soon, otherwise not only do they risk losing the local elections in 2020, but also the presidency again in 2021. If the latter materializes, it would be the first time in almost 100 hundred years that the Right would remain in La Moneda for two consecutive constitutional terms.

Nigeria — Ruling Party Holds National Convention amidst Internal Crisis

Nigeria’s ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party will hold its national convention this Saturday, July 23, at perhaps its most fragmented state since it was formed in 2013.

At its inception, it was already clear that the APC was an alliance of strange bedfellows united primarily by the common purpose of unseating incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2015 election. Yet the speed at which deep rifts became evident once the party took power surprised even its doubters.

An early row, barely months after President Buhari’s inauguration, over the leadership of Nigeria’s National Assembly revealed festering strife between the President and an influential group of former governors (known as the ‘new PDP’) who left Jonathan’s then ruling party for the APC shortly after the opposition coalition was formed. The result of this early disagreement was the election as Senate President of Bukola Saraki, one of the most influential figures within the nPDP faction, marking Buhari’s loss of control over a National Assembly in which his party has held the majority.

This arrangement, resulting in repeated battles between the legislature and the executive, has had a clear impact on Buhari’s agenda since early on in his tenure; from the two full years it took to complete most of his ministerial appointments to recurrent controversy over the passing of the government’s yearly budget and disputes over the schedule of the upcoming election. In turn, the government has lamented the National Assembly’s attempts to sabotage its budgetary agenda. The executive is, till date, also still pursing various legal cases against Saraki and his allies in the legislature.

Beyond the National Assembly, perhaps a more significant consequence of the discord between Buhari and the nPDP was the decision of factional heavyweight and former vice-president Atiku Abubaker to abandon the APC for his former party, declaring his intentions to contest for the PDP presidential ticket in the 2019 election. Atiku might be the opponent best placed to unseat Buhari in the upcoming polls.

Another crucial axis of division within the party appeared to run all the way through
Buhari’s own home. In 2016, First Lady Aisha Buhari took to the media to criticize the president for failing to accommodate the interests of important but unnamed members of the coalition. The interests in question soon turned out to be those of former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu, a crucial figure in the coalition that brought Buhari to power, who soon thereafter publicly lamented his marginalization within the party, and criticized its national leaders. As the 2019 elections loom, President Buhari has made strides to rebuild strained ties with Tinubu, somewhat ironically appointing him to head a committee to reconcile aggrieved party stalwarts. Yet it is clear that the relationship between these two important camps remains frosty.

These wider schisms culminated in an all-out battle over the weekend of the 18 – 20 of May, 2018 during which nation-wide ward and state-level congresses were challenged by rival ‘parallel’ congresses in at least nine states. Various skirmishes were reported in several of these states; for instance, a national assembly member and commissioner of a neighboring state were beat up in Ondo while an APC member was stabbed to death in Delta state.

It is no surprise then, given this sharply divisive context, that the upcoming national convention is being greeted with high levels of apprehension. Though close to 7,000 delegates from across the country will vote over 65 key positions in an election to be held in Nigeria’s capital, the party leadership has been forced to rebuff fears that the winners have already been hand-picked in a pre-prepared ‘unity list’ of candidates.

The most important position up for grabs is that of the national chairman, for which former Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomole has already received an endorsement from President Buhari. Yet, optimistically for the party’s prospects at cohesion, Oshiomole was also warmly welcomed in a recent meeting with party members in the national assembly, though its leaders stopped short of an outright endorsement.

If Saturday’s national convention is managed in a manner that is viewed to be largely transparent and accountable, then it is possible that we may see a more united party in the lead up to the 2019 polls, a prospect that would be a boon for Buhari’s second term ambitions. More generally, both party factionalism and the importance of the upcoming convention reveal the growing influence of party leadership positions and the legislature, as they become independent sources of power capable of checking the influence of an incumbent president.

Romania – Intra-executive conflict and confusion about patterns of hierarchical control

President Klaus Iohannis clashes with Justice Minister Tudorel Toader Source: b1.ro

In recent months, the semi-presidential republic of Romania saw the unravelling of a new episode of intra-executive conflict in the context of cohabitation.  A dispute over the procedure to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the Anti-Corruption National Directorate (DNA) confirmed the inherent confusion in semi-presidential constitutions about the chains of accountability and responsibility of political decision makers and the patterns of hierarchical control. The conflict between the president and the government was mediated by the Constitutional Court in favour of the government. The president accused the ruling majority of being determined to reduce his powers.

 No breathing space for the president

The current minimum-winning ruling coalition is composed of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). They have a stable legislative majority on their own, but also count on a formalised legislative support agreement with the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and first-time parliamentary party, Save Romania Union (USR), only have half of the voting size of the majority supporting the coalition. The other newcomer parliamentary party, the Popular Movement Party (PMP), is slowly being dismantled due to party switching to the side of the government. Consequently, it is safe to say that the government and the parliament are united and stable. The lack of incentives for a united parliament and government to collaborate with the president – as a whole or individually – leads to the increased isolation and irrelevance of the head of state.

The Constitutional Court has recently increased the political resources available to the government with a decision that considerably limits the president’s role in the dismissal of the chief prosecutor of the DNA. This blog has previously reported on the role of the president in the justice system, emphasizing his limited formal powers, while also mentioning his non-negligible informal powers stemming from his legitimacy as an elected official.  However, the use of informal and veto powers can only come willingly, as shown in the case of Poland. In addition to a highly hostile political environment, the only marginally combative attitude of the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, coupled with his decision not to politically coordinate with his own party, the PNL, has led to further accentuation of the peripheral nature of his activity.

An all men’s game: the justice system

For years, the fight against political corruption has dominated the Romanian system. Revising the powers of the judicial branch – to strengthen or constrain them – has also remained high on political agenda across the political spectrum. Revisions were voted by the current ruling coalition only two years after other revisions had been made by a technocrat government in 2016. In addition, the incumbent majority also sought to clarify the chains of command in the absence of any government/president consensus on key appointments and dismissals in the judiciary. The president’s ability to refuse only once the proposal of the justice minister for the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) and that of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT) was introduced in the legislation to clarify the procedure and was deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court also ruled that the president has no powers to oppose the decision of the justice minister to dismiss the head of the DNA, emphasizing an article of the Constitution which states that ‘prosecutors carry out their activity (…) under the authority of the minister of justice’. Consequently, the highly popular DNA chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, will now have to be dismissed by the president to conclude a procedure of removal that was initiated by the ministry of justice.

The politics of the Constitutional Court

The role of the Constitutional Court in mediating inter-institutional conflict is pivotal. Less easy to disentangle are its politics. The nine judges are changed in cohorts of three, every three years. A balance of representation between the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the Presidency has to be maintained, each having the right to nominate one judge in the changing group. The shifting majority in parliament and a period of cohabitation under two presidents that goes back to 2012 also leads to fluctuating majorities in the Court. Some correlation can be found between the agenda of the current president and the decision of the judges nominated by the presidency, but the overlap is not complete. Equally, the agenda of the opposition (PNL) is not fully endorsed by the judges they once nominated. The PSD-nominated judges are the ones that mostly correlate with a PSD agenda. Under the current composition of the court, the ruling coalition has a majority of at least 5 to 4. This adds strength to the coalition’s agenda to increase the power of the government.

Conclusion

Recent rulings of the Constitutional Court have led to a clarification of some procedures and the hierarchical control within the executive. They have also increased the power of executive control over the judiciary branch to the impairment of judicial self-regulation through their own institutions, such as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. Collaterally, they have also diminished the formal impact of the president on these matters in periods of cohabitation.

Nicaragua – National Strike Called to Force President Ortega From Office

The nearly three months of near continuous protests, prompted by calls for the resignation of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murrillo, show no sign of abating. If anything, tension in the Central American state has appeared to intensify. And now on Thursday of this week, the embattled Ortega administration will face a 24-hour general strike organized by opposition groups and with the support of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. The purpose of the strike is to try and place economic pressure on Ortega; estimates suggest that the strike could cost the Nicaraguan economy US$25-US$30 million.

The protests began in late April in response to the proposed reform of Nicaragua’s social security system and the beleaguered Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). The reforms proposed a five per cent tax on old age and disability pensions, which the government defended as needed to address the fiscal mismanagement of INSS. Protests, led by student groups, soon erupted in Managua and by the first weekend, ten protestors lay dead at the hands of police. The protests soon evolved into a general clarion call for an end to Ortega’s eleven-year rule.

So far, the protests have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 148 people and Ortega now appears to be locked in a degenerating cycle of repression, which has prompted comparisons with the under-siege Maduro administration in Venezuela. If he were to step down, Ortega  likely fears probable prosecution for the deaths of the protestors. The incentive then? Cling to power and crack down on dissent at all costs. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, following a recent visit to Managua, urged the government to halt violent repression and to prevent the use of force by paramilitary groups, which have been attacking protestors. The President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, has also raised the political crisis in Nicaragua at a recent speech at the Organization of American States.

The intensity of the protests previously forced Ortega to pull back on his proposed social security reform and to approach the Catholic Church to intercede. A few weeks ago, talks, broadcast live on television and mediated by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, were held between government and opposition groups following the death of protestors. The televised talks did not begin well for Ortega however. Hundreds chanted “Killer” as Ortega arrived at the seminary and once the talks actually began, a student leader interrupted Ortega and began reading out the names of all of those who had been killed by police.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. Ortega has been frequently accused of an increasing authoritarian turn and in 2013, he sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished the presidential term limit.

The Catholic Church, once again this week, has offered to intercede and mediate the dispute between the government and the opposition. It is difficult to see how Nicaragua can completely escape the trap that Venezuelan has fallen into, but the latest reports suggest that Ortega, although he is not willing to step down, has agreed to an early election. One thing is for sure. The crisis in Nicaragua is far from over.

South Korea – Local and by-elections are a strong endorsement of President Moon

Local and by-elections were held on June 13, 2018. 12 parliamentary seats were up for grabs, in addition to 17 mayoral and provincial governor positions, and 4,016 local administrative, legislative and educational posts. Exit polls show that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) has swept the elections: it has taken 11 of the 12 by-elections and 14 of the 17 local seats. The largest opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has been handed a significant set-back: it is expected to take only one of the by-election seats, and two of the local election races.

This year’s electoral contest is closely-watched as a harbinger of President Moon’s ability to extend the momentum of change that brought him into office more than a year ago and convert his high presidential popularity into electoral success for his party, the  DP. It is also seen as a signal the opposition conservative LKP’s ability to weather the significant political setbacks from the impeachment and subsequent conviction of former President Park Geun-hye on corruption and abuse of power charges on April 6, 2018, and the indictment of former President Lee Myung-bak on April 10, 2018, for 16 counts of embezzlement, corruption, and abuse of power. These results are a strong endorsement of President Moon, who has had a tough time pushing his agenda against the large legislative opposition led by the LKP.

President Moon promised a “major shift” in policies when he took office, and he has delivered on, arguably, the most spotlighted and highly-profiled issue of international interest for the year: the President brought North Korea and the United States together at the negotiations table in Singapore on June 12, 2018. The effort towards and accomplishment of bringing the two mercurial heads of government to discuss peace has seen President Moon’s approval ratings remain at unprecedented levels – exceeding high 70s – in the second year in office. Some of this success has brushed off on the ruling DP: it is enjoying approvals exceeding 50 percent amid falling approvals for the other parties in the legislature. These numbers bode well for the DP going into the elections, and the results have supported expectations.

Relations in the Korean peninsula will likely remain in the news for some time to come, and may continue to generate approvals for the President and the DP. This will be useful, given that the President’s other initiatives have not been as stellar. In particular, President Moon’s effort to realize constitutional revisions died in the legislature, while his push for a income-led growth in the country has been resisted by corporations, and small- and medium enterprises.

Talks of constitutional revision have been ongoing since the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution in South Korea; despite the frequency, constitutional revisions did not progress beyond discussions. The clamour for constitutional revision likely hit a peak with former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and polls in September 2017 report that 78.4 percent agreed that the referendum on constitutional revisions should be held in conjunction with the June 2018 elections.

President Moon pushed the legislature on the issue but was stymied by the LDP in the legislature. Indeed, when the legislature failed to develop revisions, President Moon submitted a constitutional revision bill to the legislature on March 26, 2018. The revisions, developed by a constitutional committee, included decentralization of government and a two-term limited presidency. However, opposition parties boycotted the bill: only 114 legislators were present for the session, far short of the 192 needed to pass, thus effectively killing the bill. Given popular demand for constitutional revisions, the election results may be a signal for how voters view the resistance by the opposition parties.

Another important initiative that the President has pushed is the wage-led economic growth model. Following on this, in July 2017, the Minimum Wage Commission announced a 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018, with the possibility of increasing it to 10,000 won per hour by 2020. To ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are able to meet the new wage increases, as well as to fund the new wage increases and job creation policies, the President called for new taxes. Despite these efforts, youth unemployment remains high; meanwhile, under pressure by businesses and corporations, the National Assembly and the cabinet have adopted revisions to the minimum wage bill so that calculation of minimum wage includes bonuses and benefits, including health benefits. While employers have welcomed the revisions, labor groups argue that these inclusions will effectively offset the new minimum wage policies and have called on the President to veto the bill.

The by-election and local election results are a clear endorsement for President Moon. Much can happen in the two years leading to the next general elections, but the public support, new electoral wins, and the LDP’s losses may pave the way for legislative support of the President’s policies.

Burundi – New constitution, new president?

Burundi adopted a new constitution on May 17, 2018 by referendum, with 73 percent voting in favor. The adoption of a new fundamental text was seen by opponents as a move by President Pierre Nkurunziza to extend himself in power by resetting the term limit clock to zero, while by the same token doing away with power sharing provisions from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The campaign period was tense and, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 15 people were killed. The opposition called for the outcome to be annulled due to vote-rigging and intimidation, but was overruled by the constitutional court that validated the results.

Against all expectations, at the ceremony for the promulgation of the new constitution, on June 7, President Nkurunziza declared on national TV that he will not stand for reelection in 2020, when his current mandate ends, stating that “This constitution was not modified for Pierre Nkurunziza as the country’s enemies have been saying. It was amended for the good and better future of Burundi and the Burundian people.”

Nkurunziza, in power since 2005 at the end of the civil war that killed 300,000 people, stood for and won a highly controversial third term in 2015 [see previous blog post here]. A failed coup and crack-down against opponents followed, and it is estimated than 400,000 Burundians have since fled the country, out of a population of 10 million. Under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Burundi became the first country to leave the ICC in 2017.

So what are some of the main changes included in the new constitution? As it appears, a number of provisions for ethnic power sharing have been maintained, while some requirements for power sharing between parties have been eliminated:

  • Burundi returns to semi-presidentialism (the country was previously semi-presidential from 1992 to 1994) with a prime minister as head of government, accountable to both the president and the legislature. The candidature of the prime minister must be approved by both chambers of parliament voting separately (Art. 130), and he or she can be dismissed by a two third majority vote of members of the National Assembly (lower house) – though the president in turn can dismiss the National Assembly (Art. 208). There are no constraints with regards to the ethnicity or the party affiliation of the prime minister.
  • The length of presidential terms is extended to 7 years from five (Art. 97); also, the provision regarding term limits now states that no one can serve more than two consecutive terms – which would seemingly leave open the door for a Putin-like come-back as president after a stint as prime minister.
  • There is now only one vice-president instead of two, who assists the president in the exercise of his or her functions. The vice-president must be approved by both houses of the legislature and must belong to a different ethnic group and party/coalition than the president. Previously, the two vice-presidents had to be from different ethnic groups and parties [from each other, not necessarily from the president]. The First Vice-President was responsible for the coordination of the political and administrative domain, and the second Vice-President for the coordination of economic and social affairs. In the new constitution, the role of the vice-president is left at the discretion of the president.
  • The provision for proportional representation of parties in the cabinet having earned more than 20% of the vote has been removed. The ethnic and gender representation requirements that, overall, at most 60% of cabinet ministers can be Hutu and at most 40% can be Tutsi, and at least 30% must be women (Art. 128) remain in place. Also maintained is the requirement that the Minister in charge of National Defense is not from the same ethnic group as the Minister responsible for the National Police (Art. 135).
  • The parliamentary majority required to pass legislation is reduced from a super majority of two thirds to a simple majority (Art. 180).

While streamlining governing processes – by introducing a prime minister as head of government, removing one vice-president and eliminating the requirement for a super majority to pass legislation – the constitutional changes also eliminate some of the power-sharing provisions enshrined in the 2005 constitution, in accordance with the Arusha Accords. As noted in a previous blog, these power-sharing arrangements had been successful to the extent that: “Today, political competition in Burundi no longer coincides with ethnic cleavages. Furthermore, the dominant party CNDD-FDD, while rooted in a Hutu rebel movement, is no longer perceived as an exclusive Hutu party. In fact, most Tutsi members of parliament are members of the CNDD-FDD and many presidential advisors are Tutsi” (Vandeginste, 2009 p. 75).

However, in the new constitution the representation in government of either of the two majority ethnic groups is still capped at 60% and 40% for Hutus and Tutsis respectively; this does maintain pressure on political parties to be ethnically inclusive (Hutus account for around 85% of the population, Tutsis around 19%, and Twa people around 1%). So not all power-sharing provisions are lost.

The constitutional changes do remove some constraints on the president’s powers and clearly provide greater opportunities for extended stays in the presidential palace. So it is intriguing that Nkurunziza has stated he will not run again in 2020. According to critics, 2020 is still far away, however, leaving Nkurunziza “room to maneuver” in response to “popular pressure” for him to extend his stay in power. That would certainly not be an unexpected development.