Monthly Archives: July 2018

Uganda – President Museveni and the politics of quick-fix taxation

At the end of May, Uganda’s Parliament passed the equivalent of a political bombshell. The Excise Duty Amendment Act (2018), to which the President quickly assented, introduced a range of new tax measures, including a one percent duty on mobile money transactions and a daily Ush200 ($0.05) “Over the Top” tax on the use of social media. The popular reaction to these new measures was swift. It started with an explosion of online criticism—on Uganda’s vibrant social media, no less—before taking physical form in the streets.

The vehemence of this response, and the government’s subsequent scramble to “clarify” its position, begs the question, why did President Museveni back such a predictably controversial tax reform? And how do we account for the influence—as well as the apparent limitations—of the subsequent pushback?

The political benefits of balancing the books… by taxing the poor

Uganda has an urgent need to generate more revenue. It lags its East African neighbours, collecting taxes equivalent to only 14 of GDP relative to Kenya’s 18 percent and Rwanda’s 16. At the same time, expenditure continues to outstrip revenue generation, driving the government to borrow more. Although sustainable for now, Uganda’s debts are rapidly accumulating while its interest rate payments to local and external creditors are expected to exceed 12 percent of the total budget this financial year.

The social media and mobile money taxes have the advantage of being relatively easy to administer, and government initially estimated that they would generate revenue worth Ush284bn ($75.9m) and Us115bn ($30.7m) respectively over the coming year, contributing to a budget pegged at Shs32.7tr ($8.7bn). President Museveni has also repeatedly derided social media, declaring that the new taxes could help reduce “gossip”.

Yet aside these benefits, real or imagined, the two new taxes come with clear downsides. First, government critics stress that these taxes are sharply regressive, hitting the poor hardest. The tax on social media use specifically has the further potential to limit access to information. Meanwhile, the tax on mobile money will likely reduce financial inclusion. It is recorded that 23.6m Ugandans use mobile money services—sending and receiving money via their phones—and that 61 percent of these transactions are below Ush45,000 ($12). There is also the very real risk that the mobile money tax will prove self-defeating, reducing the volume of transactions and harming growth—not to mention exacerbating existing inequalities.

There are notable alternatives to the two controversial taxes, which the Ugandan Government could consider. For instance, in its most recent “Uganda Economic Update”, the World Bank details a range of options for raising domestic revenues, recommending in particular a reduction in tax exemptions, estimated to equal between 4.5 and 5 percent of GDP in 2016/17. These exemptions are generally awarded to larger businesses and foreign investors, further accentuating the overall regressive nature of Uganda’s tax regime.

Another related concern is the nature of government expenditure. Excessive spending—notably on Defence, the Office of the President and other non-developmental areas—adds to the overall strain on the budget, and thus to the need for additional revenue. It has not helped that the controversy over the new tax measures coincided with Museveni’s promise that individual MPs will be guarded by military snipers and provided with escort cars to ensure their security. If implemented, this plan would quickly cancel out any contribution the social media and mobile money taxes could make towards balancing the budget.

So why is it that the government insists on widely unpopular, regressive taxes instead of ensuring a more efficient and equitable tax regime? The official justification for exemptions—one that until recently the IFIs themselves endorsed—is that they encourage investment, which then bolsters growth. But analysts of Uganda’s political economy have long stressed the additional, political imperative prompting Museveni’s government to adopt a more discretionary tax policy. Indeed, exemptions are a form of political favour granted to leading economic actors, who then reciprocate through their political loyalty and financial backing of the regime. Similarly, excessive spending on certain, seemingly non-priority sectors is another way for President Museveni to distribute patronage, including to ensure the support of ruling party MPs.

Even with these seemingly skewed political incentives, though, Museveni does have to worry about the broader legitimacy of his government. And following the widespread condemnation of the recent tax reforms, the President blinked. His response suggests the potential influence—but also the limitations—of popular pressure on government decision-making.

The popular backlash, and its significance

Opposition to the social media and mobile money taxes has united a broad coalition, if one most visible around Kampala. Activists, journalists, politicians, comedians, musicians and other social media users took to Twitter with a variety of hastags: #ThisTaxMustGo, #Mobilemoneytax, #SocialMediaTax. This helped kindle the debate surrounding the new measures, which played out across Uganda’s print and broadcast media. It also helped mobilise support for a march through Kampala, called by the fast-rising musician-turned-opposition leader, Bobi Wine. But while a widely known broadcast journalist linked arms with Bobi Wine to protest, the demonstration also drew in large crowds of market vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers, who faced off against armed riot police.

Following the protest, and with a court case pending and an online petition quickly gaining signatures, Museveni changed his tune. Seemingly making up policy on the hoof, he claimed that the one percent tax rate on mobile money “came up by mistake” and that he “signed the law with the error because we could not delay the other measures.” While Museveni refused to change the social media tax nor to scrap the tax on mobile money, he did indicate that the latter would be reduced from one to 0.5 percent.

The government went on to table an amended Excise Duty Bill on 19 July, less than two months after the first was enacted. Activists have vowed to push for further concessions as the legislation moves through parliament. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition, Winnie Kiiza, called for more popular protest against the disputed taxes, noting that without this outside pressure the parliamentary opposition alone was helpless.

Popular protest is not the only factor underlying the government’s partial climb-down. It appears the Cabinet was divided about the mobile money tax rate to begin with, and that government initially underestimated the revenue they could generate through the tax. Yet it is striking that Museveni only mentioned the 0.5 percent rate after the Kampala protests, and with the prospect of further protests looming. This timing, when considered alongside the government’s contradictory and rapidly evolving official position, leaves little doubt that popular protest has prompted the concessions to date, whatever the government may claim to the contrary.

It remains to be seen, though, whether activists can successfully pressure parliament to further amend the new Excise Duty Bill. For that, they will have to win over a large portion of ruling party MPs of whom only a handful have come out openly against the controversial taxes. That said, MPs have also been loath to voice their support for the measures, preferring instead quietly to vote in favour or else de facto to abstain through their absence from the House. Speaker Kadaga, meanwhile, entrusted her Deputy to oversee the vote when the Excise Duty Bill was first passed in May. She tends to delegate in this way when there is controversial and generally unsavoury business to handle.

Although the NRM parliamentary caucus continues to back the President, it may still be possible for popular pressure to open up divisions within the ruling party and, by leveraging those divisions, to win further concessions through parliament. This has happened in the past, notably regarding controversies over health and education spending as well as previous unpopular tax proposals. Such a positive outcome may seem unlikely in this instance, but the previous successes—however partial—show that there is still space to push for more progressive outcomes, even in the context of Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

Marcelo Jenny – Austria’s President Van der Bellen speaks up

This is a guest post by Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Marcelo Jenny from the Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Innsbruck

Austria belongs to the semi-presidential regime type and the head of state has some strong constitutional powers, but after his election the current president Alexander Van der Bellen has conformed to the familiar role model of Austrian presidents. Of beeing seen as an impartial political authority in reserve by staying away from the day-to-day tug of war between the government and the parliamentary opposition parties. As a consequence the president may be absent from the political news sections for extended periods of time. When Van der Bellen made news with statements on issues of international and domestic policy several times in a row, some started to take notice.

Van der Bellen has been in office since January 2017, after a thrilling election year 2016 that ended with a final win over rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in a repeated run-off ballot. The Constitutional Court had annulled the first run-off vote due to voting irregularities. Coming from the most left party in parliament, the Greens, Van der Bellen managed to project himself as a centrist candidate against Hofer who came from the most right party in parliament. Last year’s legislative elections in autumn brought in a right-wing coalition government between the People’s Party led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hofer’s Freedom Party. Van der Bellen swore in his previous rival Hofer as the new Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

In their presidential campaigns both had been very critical of the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), stating that as president they would not sign the treaty. CETA was and still is very unpopular in Austria. Van der Bellen announced last week that he would not sign the free trade agreement after its ratification by the national parliament in June. He clarified that he would not sign now, but rather wait until the European Court of Justice issues a verdict on CETA’s compatibility with European Union law. He is on constitutional safe ground, but it is also a reminder of the president’s political views. The previous government coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) signed the treaty, against the opposition of Freedom Party and Greens. The current government parties ÖVP and FPÖ, plus the liberals party NEOS, followed through with parliamentary ratification. The SPÖ now in opposition has strongly come out against the treaty, the Freedom Party now unwillingly backs it.

A step deeper into the thicket of domestic politics was Van der Bellen’s recent statement of support for upholding a tradition of social partnership in social and economic policy law-making. The government had just pushed through a controversial law increasing working time flexibility. The bill by-passed the usual process of pre-parliamentary review by interest groups and experts. While interest groups representing business, traditonally politically close to the two parties currently in government were happy with the new law, the labour union federation and the chambers of labour, close to the Social Democratic opposition, came out strongly against it and organized a demonstration of about 100,000 people (which is extraordinary by Austrian standards). The president was later joined by some ÖVP Land governors who also expressed unease about the government’s rushed, controversy-inducing style of policy-making.

The most recent and strongest statement of disapproval with the government came with Van der Bellen’s criticism of FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky, a Member of the European Parliament, two days ago. Vilimsky demanded the resignation of EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accusing him of being an alcoholic, which led Bellen to call Vilimsky respectless and foul-mouthed. The president also critized the government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for remaining completely silent on the issue. Austria currently holds the EU presidency. Representatives from the Freedom Party’s representatives then doubled down on their criticism of Juncker and called on Van der Bellen to return to a position of political impartiality.

The episodes of Van der Bellen speaking up might have come together by coincidence and the media attention the president gets is perhaps an unintended consequence of Federal Chancellor Kurz’s media strategy of making himself rare. It remains to be seen whether Van der Bellen will be frequently drawn into political disputes in the future. Yet they remind us of the new political constellation Austria is in with a leftist president facing a right-wing coalition government.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Social turbulence for the Cypriot president

N. Anastasiades was reelected in the February 2018 presidential elections enjoying a strong majority over his opposition: 56% to 44%. Following a very intense electoral campaign where all major policy issues were harshly contested, the result was thought to have given the current president space for implementing his policies both in internal affairs and the Cyprus problem. However, this assessment proved short-sighted and failed to grasp the complexities of Cypriot politics.

Immediately upon his reelection and in a period of just five months the new government has been confronted with a number of problems that created an atmosphere of social turbulence. All these contested issues touch upon fundamental aspects of the government’s policy. Currently, these issues include the economy and the education system. Before these, it was the medical doctors of the public sector that collided with the government over the character of the health system on the island, whereas a couple months ago hundreds of environmental activists protested in various parts of the island against government decisions favouring big developments (skyscrapers) on the coasts of Cyprus, as well as in environmentally protected areas incorporated in the EU’s Natura 2000 network.

In the economy, Cyprus experienced once again the fear of a bail-in, similar to that of March 2013; this time the focal point was the Cyprus Cooperative Bank (CCB). CCB has a 110-year history in Cyprus and is currently a large, systemic bank (the third largest bank in Cyprus). The CCB focuses on retail banking, serving some 400,000 Cypriots with more than 30% of the total deposits. Given the problems faced by this bank the government decided, back in September 2013, to inject money and put it under its total share capital control. Since then, it has become very obvious that the right-wing government of N. Anastasiades favoured the privatization of the CCB but was unable to do so in its first tenure because of the reactions of the opposition and other social actors.

Eventually, and despite the opposition’s resistance, the government began the process for privatizing the CCB, while also making it clear that they preferred another local bank (Hellenic Bank) to take over. Some misguided (some say targeted) statements by government officials and rumours for a forthcoming bail-in unless the parliament authorized the privatization of the bank resulted in a bank run from the CCB. Withdrawals totalled €1.9 billion in the first three months of 2018.

The deal, as it was negotiated, would have led to the Hellenic Bank acquiring the “good part” of the CCB (deposits and assets) and for the government to take over the “bad part” (i.e., the non-performing loans). This deal has generally been viewed as very favourable for Hellenic Bank, but bad for the Cyprus tax-payer. As pointed out by the press (and also the opposition), the deal could prove to be very expensive for the central government and ultimately for the tax-payer. The government issued Development Bonds totalling €3.35 billion to bolster the ‘good part’ of the CCB, raising the public debt to GDP ratio from 97.5% to approximately 120%. In addition, the government has agreed to protect the assets of the Hellenic Bank by providing guarantees which could eventually be very costly if exercised. Furthermore, the government has agreed to make redundancy payments to the 1000-plus employees of the CCB who are expected to be laid off as a result of the deal.

Notwithstanding the positive vote that the (scant) majority of the parliament gave to the government’s bill on this issue, criticism has been very strong by most political parties (even those that supported the legislation). Most of the criticism has targeted the Minister of Finance whose resignation was demanded; the president and his overall economic policy was also targeted as one that favours big capital. A protest was also organized by a civil society group, the Movement Against Foreclosures, in the capital city of Nicosia and was backed by some of the opposition parties.

And while the fire from this issue was still burning another one lit up. This time it was the teachers associations of primary and secondary education that protested against government decisions. Thousands of teachers, parents and students gathered outside the education ministry in the sizzling heat to demand the resignation of the Education Minister. The pretext for the row focused on a cabinet decision to abolish exemptions from teaching hours for trade union activities and extra-curricular activities, and fewer hours for teachers with many years of service. However, the teachers were quick to introduce wider issues relating to the overall government policy towards the pubic character of the education system in Cyprus. Protestors chanted ‘give up’ and ‘hands off education’ in front of the ministry. According to most sources it was the most massive demonstration held in Nicosia in recent years gathering thousands of protestors. The unions have threatened to strike in September if the problems are not solved.

Demonstrations and opposition to government policies by various parties, unions and social groups reveal important underlying social tensions and show that the president has a difficult path to cross in his second and final term. His policies favouring a smaller state will probably be at the heart of discussions and it must be taken for granted that they will provoke strong opposition. With the negotiations for the Cyprus problem expected to resume in the fall, the government cannot operate in such a tumultuous environment. A more consensual approach will be probably sought in the forthcoming days and weeks.

Georgia – Mass demonstrations and the resignation of the prime minister

In May a wave of demonstrations hit Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. They started when the government suddenly carried out a series of operations against the night clubs there and the so-called “Night Economy” that was led by by Mayor of Tbilisi, the former AC Milan defender, Kakha Kaladze[1]. The Tbilisi nightclub scene is among the best in the world[2] and the government’s actions led to the anger of young people in particular, with thousands coming out onto the street to protest[3]. Such demonstrations have been rare in Georgia under the current regime. However, the government was forced to respond by reopening a number of the night clubs[4].

Shortly thereafter, a second wave of public protest occurred. The murder of two young people in a public school in Tbilisi was not being investigated thoroughly. Following a verdict of the Tbilisi Court, the father of the deceased and his supporters launched mass protests in the capital. They believed that the family members of high-ranking officials were guilty of the murder and the government was protecting them. Some political parties supported the protest and the government said that they were political. Finally, though, the chief prosecutor resigned[5] and the government agreed to create an investigative commission[6] in parliament. With the government enjoying a majority there, the main goal was to stop the protests and calm the situation down for a period.

Soon, though, there were calls for the resignation of the government and a short time later Prime Minister Kvirikashvili announced his resignation[7]. When he explained the reasons for his decision[8], he did not mention the protest rallies. The Prime Minister simply said that there were differences between him and the governing team[9]. We still do not really know why the prime minister resigned. It is noteworthy that the President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, questioned the change, wondering why Kvirikashvili had disappeared from the political arena[10].

After Kvirikashvili’s resignation, the ruling Georgian Dream party named a new prime ministerial candidate, Mamuka Bakhtadze[11]. He had been the Finance Minister in Kvirikashvili’s cabinet and is known as a close and trusted friend of the founder of the party, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Bakhtadze is 36 years old and has little political experience, working in managerial positions in the public and private sectors. He is considered to be a “technocrat” and experts say that political decisions will be made by Ivanishvili himself.

The new Prime Minister formed a temporary government with the same composition[12]  stating that he would submit a new government to Parliament when changes were made. The Parliament of Georgia quickly expressed confidence in Bakhtadze’s caretaker government[13].

Despite its status, the government proposed a series of reforms. Prime Minister Bakhtadze put forward the concept of so-called “small government”, which implies the unification of certain ministries and state agencies, leading to cost reductions. The government envisages up to 11 reductions to 14 ministries. However, a long-term strategy of deregulation, decentralization, or deployment is absent. . This has been a feature of Georgian politics recently. There have been a lot of new structures, commissions and the like, creating a certain instability, but very few strategic reforms.

In the end, Prime Minister Bakhtadze presented a new government[14], in which the Ministers of Education, Science and Sport, Finance, Economy and Sustainable Development, and Foreign Affairs changed. In addition, a minister from the old government, Kakhishvili, who had successfully conducted reforms of the prison system was appointed as the head of the government administration. Following two days of hearings, parliament expressed confidence in the government. This is the fourth Georgian Dream government since 2012.

Overall, we can say that with Georgia trying to develop a classical parliamentary or mixed system of governance, governmental changes are not related to electoral accountability.

Notes

[1] Special operation in clubs: Who killed Kaladze’s “night economy”? https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/სპეცოპერაცია-კლუბებში-ვინ-გაწირა-კალაძის-ღამის-ეკონომიკა/29222990.html

[2] Tbilisi Night Club is among the 20 best night clubs in the world; https://pia.ge/post/138360-tbilisis-ramis-klubi-msoflios-20-sauketeso-ramis-klubs-soris-liderobs

[3] We dance together – in “Basian” action; http://netgazeti.ge/news/280606/

[4] Club “Basiani” was opened; https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/კლუბი-ბასიანი-გაიხსნა/29245833.html

[5] Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze resigned; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/223907-mtavari-prokurori-irakli-shotaze-gadadga/

[6] Temporary Investigation Commission has been approved in Khorava Street case – get acquainted with the composition; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/224191-xoravas-kuchis-sakmeze-droebiti-sagamoziebo-komisia-damtkicda-gaecanit-shemadgenlobas/

[7] Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/224495-premier-ministri-giorgi-kvirikashvili-gadadga/

[8] Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned as prime minister; https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29288896.html

[9] Kvirikashvili: There was a difference of opinions between me and the ruling team; https://on.ge/story/24070-კვირიკაშვილი-ჩემსა-და-მმართველ-გუნდს-შორის-აზრთა-სხვადასხვაობა-გამოიკვეთა

[10] Giorgi Margvelashvili: Why did Kvirikashvili leave the political field? In fact, why is it cut out of the textbook? https://commersant.ge/ge/post/giorgi-margvelashvili-ratom-gaqra-politikuri-velidan-kvirikashvili-faqtobrivad-saxelmdzgvaneloebidan-misi-fotos-amochra-ratom-xdeba

[11] The Prime Minister of Georgia will be Mamuka Bakhtadze; http://www.newposts.ge/?l=ge&id=176100-ბახტაძე,%20პრემიერი

[12] Mamuka Bakhtadze holds the first session of the government as prime minister; https://www.ipress.ge/new/116660-mamuka-bakhtadze-premieris-rangshi-mtavrobis-pirvel-skhdomas-martavs

[13] Bakhtadze’s temporary government is approved – list of ministers; http://www.resonancedaily.com/index.php?id_rub=4&id_artc=50459

[14] Mamuka Bakhtadze presented the new composition of the government; https://imedinews.ge/ge/saqartvelo/69732/mamuka-bakhtadzem-mtavrobis-akhali-shemadgenloba-tsaradgina

Navigating the Electoral Tsunami: The aftermath of Mexico’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.

Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.

I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.

Election Day

There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:

  1. Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
  2. (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
  3. Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.

The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena

Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.

Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results

Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here).  Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:

  1. Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
  2. Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
  3. Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.

Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography

To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.

Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges

In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:

  1. The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
  2. Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
  3. Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.

The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.


Javier Pérez Sandoval (javier.perezsandoval@politics.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.

New publications

Jenny Åberg and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Review Article: A Structured Review of Semi-Presidential Studies: Debates, Results and Missing Pieces’, British Journal of Political Science, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123418000017Published online: 02 July 2018.

Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, Basic Books, 2018.

Julian Zelizer, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment, Princeton University Press. 2018.

Michael McFaul, ‘Choosing Autocracy: Actors, Institutions, and Revolution in the Erosion of Russian Democracy’, Comparative Politics, Volume 50, Number 3, April 2018, pp. 305-325.

Martin Plaut and Sue Onslow, Robert Mugabe, Ohio University, 2018.

Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor, ‘Brazil: The Costs of Multiparty Presidentialism ‘, Journal of Democracy, Volume 29, Number 2, April 2018, pp. 113-127.

Daniel Jatoba and Bruno Theodoro Luciano, ‘The Deposition of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and its repercussions in South American regional organizations’, Brazilian Political Science Review, vol.12, no.1, 2018, available at: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1981-38212018000100204&script=sci_arttext

Kari Palonen, ‘Politics of Parliamentary Government’, in Kari Palonen, Parliamentary Thinking. Procedure, Rhetoric and Time, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Serhiy Kudelia, ‘Presidential activism and government termination in dual-executive Ukraine’, Post-Soviet Affairs, Volume 34, Issue 4, 2018, pp. 246-261, https://doi.org/10.1080/1060586X.2018.1465251

Flaviu Zoltán Muica, ‘The head of state in Romanian constitutionalism – between a monarch and a president’, Curentul Juridic – Juridical Current 2018, Vol. 72, No. 1, pp. 67-77, available at: http://www.upm.ro/facultati_departamente/ea/RePEc/curentul_juridic/rcj18/recjurid181_5F.pdf

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in an intra-institutional tug of war

Nobody would have anticipated that a short, two-day long, scuffle between President Grybauskaite and prime minister Skvernelis that unfolded in early January would result in an intense intra-institutional tug of war a few months later, and that this intra-instutional infighting would widen to include the country’s parliament, Seimas, and Mr. Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Framers and Green Union Party, which holds a majority of seats in the Seimas. 

Conflicts between prime minister and the president came into the open in April. Skvernelis and Grybauskaite not only continued their escalation regarding potential reevaluation of Lithuania’s relations with Russia that began in early January (more on that below), but their first major confrontation involved a disagreement regarding Minister of Agriculture Markauskas’s political fate. According to the Agency Investigating Financial Crimes (FNTT), Markauskas had made illegal financial gains, which also included payments from the EU funds, while utilizing his neighbor’s arable land, allegedly without the latter’s consent. Based on FNTT’s information, presidential advisors called Markauskas into the presidential office and “ordered [the minister] to resign.” Since the agriculture minister refused, Grybauskaite decided to increase pressure on prime minister by using the media and by making their disagreement public. In her press communiqué she alluded to the prime minister’s continued reluctance to fire the compromised minister indicating that Skvernelis was “dependent [on receiving guidance from his political party higher-ups] and unable to make autonomous decisions.” Following the same communication pattern as the president, the prime minister gave a terse response to Grybauskaite also using local media outlets. “I’m the head of the government. I understand my responsibilities and duties regarding my cabinet members and would not evade them, but at the same time I will not succumb to the pressure by the president or anybody else. It will be my decision, and I will also bare the brunt of it,” declared the prime minister. Skvernelis reminded the president that it was his constitutional prerogative to accept resignation of his cabinet ministers and that he would not be pressured by anybody, not even the president, as to the decisions he would make or when they would happen. Not only did the prime minister show resentment toward Grybauskaite’s public pressure to fire the agriculture minister, but also he was equally irritated that the president sought to usurp the prime minister’s decision-making duties.  

The next political battle between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis ensued in late April when the president rejected the prime minister’s candidate, Mr. Danelius, to the post of the justice minister. Several senior parliament members and attorneys did not find president’s explanation of Mr. Danelius “clashes of interests” sufficiently credible and justifiable to reject his nomination. The conflict between the president and prime minister intensified as political analysts speculated that the presidential rejection signaled Grybauskaite’s “payback” to Skvernelis for his refusal to force the compromised minister of agriculture into an immediate resignation (even if the minister eventually resigned). 

Almost in a tit-for-tat manner, the prime minister further accelerated his conflict with the president when he decided to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several Lithuanian ambassadors for discussions about Lithuanian-Russian relations as well as Lithuania’s bilateral relations with the other EU Eastern Partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova). Although the prime minister’s office claimed that it had no intention to introduce any foreign policy revisions, the president perceived Skvernelis’ moves as another intrusion into her “sphere of influence” and promptly expressed criticism and disapproval. After the meeting with the foreign minister and ambassadors, the prime minister announced through the local media that his and Grybauskaite’s positions fully align, and that the purpose of the meeting was for him to hear directly from the ambassadors on how they evaluate situation in the countries where they reside. Allegedly, at least with regards to Lithuanian-Russian relations the prime minister decided to de-escalate existing tensions with the president. 

It appeared that Grybauskaite was winning the ongoing intra-institutional battles with prime minister as her favored outcomes were realized: the Minister of Agriculture ended up resigning (although not as quickly as the president preferred); she also made the prime minister suggest another candidate for the post of the justice minister; and “new” foreign policy initiatives regarding Lithuanian-Russian relations after Skvernelis’ consultations with ambassadors resulted in no changes. But then a political bombshell exploded. 

On April 28th and throughout early May, Lietuvos rytas, one of Lithuania’s major newspapers, published a series of articles about Grybauskaite’s electronic correspondence from an obscure email account tulpes@lrpk.lt with Mr. Masiulis, the former leader of the Liberal Movement (LS) political party, who since 2016 had been implicated in a major political corruption investigation. Published correspondence dated from 2014-2016 period and discussed a variety of politically sensitive issues such as potential candidates to the Prosecutor General’s office; the 2016 parliamentary elections and who the president would like to be chosen as prime minister; the role of LNK TV channel and particularly journalist Tomas Dapkus who voiced strong criticism about Grybauskaite’s preferred candidates for the Prosecutor General’s office; warnings about Skvernelis’ political ambitions and the president’s description of him as a “dangerous populist.” Interestingly, the timing of leaked correspondence between Grybauskaite and Masiulis coincided with the conclusion of the investigation of his political corruption case and the filing of a lawsuit by the Prosecutor General’s office against Masiulis and the Liberal Movement party he headed until 2016. 

As soon as the email correspondence became public, conflict between Grybauskaite and the ruling Framers and Green Union Party (LVZS) in parliament, particularly its leader, Mr. Karbauskis and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister, spiraled. Immediately LVZS MPs called for investigations into Grybauskaite’s activities, electronic correspondence, and the legality of her actions. Several parliamentary members and political commentators began hinting at the possibility of president’s impeachment, claiming that Grybauskaite’s emails not only directly tied her to Masiulis’ shady political dealings, but also exposed her to potential influences from MG Baltic, one of Lithuania’s largest industrial and medial conglomerates that sought political favors in return for provided financial support. Additionally, the president’s email messages, according to Skvernelis’ suppositions, reflected her alleged “pressure on the media.” This was derived from one of president’s emails written to Masiulis in which she asked him to “send her message” to the head of MG Baltic Darius Mockus, asking Mockus to “restrain his hound” [here, reference is made to journalist Dapkus who, in president’s view, “was speaking nonsense” about her proposed candidate to the post of the Prosecutor General and, as it became known, had direct contacts with MG Baltic top management that owns LNK station where Dapkus works). Additionally, Karbauskis claimed that president’s emails, if proven to be authentic, were not only scandalous, but also reflected unacceptable and potentially illegal political actions by the president.

Within a couple of days Grybauskaite gave a public interview in which she presented her interpretation of events, specifically answering questions pertaining to her correspondence with Masiulis. Although she did not deny using the tulpes@lrpk.lt email address and acknowledged that she had sent emails and text messages to Masiulis from this address, she claimed that she could not confirm the authenticity of these emails. Grybauskaite claimed that her correspondence with Masiulis was neither saved nor found on any of her office’s servers.  She also expressed a belief that the primary reason behind the publication of her electronic correspondence with the former LS leader was to politicize the current lawsuit against Masiulis, and she expressed concern that their correspondence may be used as evidence by the defense.  However, the president expressed her satisfaction that the fight against corruption had made a major breakthrough as three significant political corruption lawsuits were recently filed with the courts by law enforcement agencies, and that the public would get a better understanding as to how much influence large companies and powerful interest groups had amassed in the past decade over the country’s political system. 

Her political opponents, especially Karbauskis, dismissed the president’s “calculated” explanations about the emails’ “disappearance, “ suggesting he was inclined to ask parliament’s IT to check parliament servers in order to “discover” Grybauskaite’s emails that were sent to Masiulis, who was a MP until 2016. Karbauskis also stated that Grybauskaite’s sudden and active presence in the public eye and the media indicated the use of diversionary tactics as the president was allegedly trying to divert public attention from her scandal and towards Karbauskis’ Agroverslas company and potentially unconstitutional links between his business interests and his current lawmaking activities. Indeed, Grybauskaite during her interview alluded that investigations launched in parliament and led by Karbauskis’ party members could be perceived as “selective,” suggesting that she saw no political will shown by LVZS to achieve greater transparency in investigating how businesses interests (including Karbauskis’ own agricultural conglomerate) influence politics. After several terse public exchanges between the presidential office and the parliament that continued in May and June—for instance, Karbauskis announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until the new president gets elected next year—the parliament adjourned for summer recess with neither Karbauskis nor Skvernelis showing any apparent intensions to pursue president’s impeachment.  

Although Grybauskaite vehemently denied any involvement in any corruption cases, she felt it was necessary to launch a media campaign to present her side of the story. Despite her efforts to defend herself, political damage that the latest political scandal will have on her, her reputation, and, ultimately, her legacy is inevitable albeit the extent of it is too early to tell. Some prominent politicians voiced the opinion that Grybauskaite should resign as she had clearly compromised herself and could no longer serve as the moral leader of the country. Others expressed the opinion that because of her involvement in the latest political scandal Grybauskaite had killed off her chances to successfully run and be selected for a high-ranking post in the top EU governing structures. Moreover, headlines about impeachment produced a negative effect:  as expected, her public approval ratings experienced a significant fall within days of political scandal’s eruption and appear to be falling nearly two months later. More disconcerting for Grybauskaite, however, is what will happen after the parliament’s summer recess. Karbauskis has already hinted that he is not only determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, including Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair,” but he is expecting the president to respond to his ultimatum regarding the authenticity of her emails. The presidential office stated that Karbauskis’ intention to investigate Grybauskaite’s emails amounts to an open political vendetta and violates the Constitution. 

As regular and numerous media headlines about ongoing political tug of war between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis and, more recently, between Grybauskaite and Karbauskis suggest, her last year in office may be an ongoing fight for her reputation, fending off one political scandal after another as the “reigning in” of the president will likely continue. The winner of these intra-institutional wars is unclear at the moment. However, it is safe to assume that this is probably not how Grybauskaite anticipated she would spend her last year in office.

DRC – Finally preparing for a presidential election, but who will run?

With a two-year delay, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is finally preparing for a presidential election on December 23, 2018. The deadline for candidate declarations is August 8. Many observers still wonder whether term-limited President Joseph Kabila will find a way to run, though moves to adopt a new constitution or change key constitutional provisions have seemingly been abandoned [see earlier blog post about such moves here]. The smiling face of the president adorning huge billboards in Lubumbashi or printed on t-shirts in Kinshasa is not reassuring to his critics, who take it as an indication that “he wants to stay.” Kabila supporters from the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) pooh-pooh such concerns, arguing it is a way of celebrating the president’s achievements.

It is peculiar that with less than a month to go before the window for candidate submissions closes, the PPRD candidate is not yet known. Though the process for selecting that candidate remains opaque, it is clear there will not be an open primary election. According to André-Alain Atundu, spokesperson for the presidential majority, primaries contributed to destroying the Republican Party in the US and the Socialist Party in France. Kabila tightly controls the candidate selection process in an effort to manage political egos and “avoid a war in his political family,” in Atundu’s words.

On July 1, Kabila launched a formal coalition – the Common Front for Congo (FCC) – that will throw its support behind a single candidate for the ruling majority. Wise move, as the constitution was changed in 2011 to eliminate the requirement for a runoff in the event no candidate wins an absolute majority (Kabila was reelected with 49 percent of the votes later that year). Members of the FCC include parties and civil society structures currently represented in the government of national unity created following the political agreement of 31 December 2016, but is open to others. On July 7, the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU) also signed on to the charter of the FCC, despite a move earlier in the year by PALU to join forces in the coming elections with two of the major opposition parties, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) of Jean-Pierre Bemba and the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) of Vital Kamerhe.

Under Kabila’s leadership, the FCC aims to run joint candidates with a common program at all levels of elections: presidential, legislative and regional elections that will all be held simultaneously. Remains to be seen who Kabila will favor as presidential candidate and whether the FCC will resist as the egos of those not selected are bruised. Potential choices include National Assembly President Aubin Minaku; former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo; Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, former vice prime minister for the interior, recently promoted to party secretary for the PPRD; and a number of possible outsiders.

On the opposition’s side, the front runners are easier to identify. Despite significant talk about the need for a single candidate to avoid splitting the vote, there is as yet no formal agreement on who that should be. The three top potential candidates are: Moise Katumbi, former governor of Katanga and former ally of Kabila, who has had his passport revoked and currently cannot return from Europe; Félix Thisekedi, son of historical opposition leader Etienne Thisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) who passed away last year; and Jean-Pierre Bemba, president of the MLC and former rebel leader, who came in second to Kabila in the 2006 presidential run-off. Bemba, who has served 10 years of prison in The Hague, was acquitted on appeal by the International Criminal Court on June 8 from charges for crimes against humanity. He has been promised a passport to return to the DRC by the Congolese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the debate is on between lawyers in Kinshasa as to whether Bemba can register as candidate, given on the one hand his conviction for witness tampering at the ICC, and on the other the fact that he does not yet have a voter card – which is required to register. Finally, former President of the National Assembly Vital Kamerhe appears ready to back whoever emerges as the strongest opposition candidate.

If indeed an agreement is reached among opposition leaders on fielding a single candidate, how would such a consensus candidate be selected? Via a “mini primary” election, as Kamerhe has suggested, an idea also supported by Katumbi in the past? If so, who would vote and how would such a primary election be organized in time? The MLC party congress to take place on July 12-13 could provide a first good indication of the opposition’s ability to move ahead in unified rank, depending on whether the party opts to put forward its own candidate, and if so how other opposition parties react.

July 25 marks the start of the process for submitting candidates for the presidential and legislative elections. We can foresee two weeks of intense political maneuverings in both political camps between now and then.

France – Global Macron

The phrase ‘global Macron’ describes a politician who has fully integrated the global dimension of politics into the construction of his domestic political leadership. A global presence is one of the classic roles of French Presidents, the role model being defined almost seven decades ago by General de Gaulle. The image of the French President as a supra-partisan Republican monarch depends in part on fulfilling the noble functions of the State: representing the unity of the nation abroad and symbolizing national unity during times of war and peace. French Presidents have traditionally claimed a ‘reserved domain’ in foreign policy and defense – and very clearly Macron in no exception. Key foreign and defence policy decisions and initiatives taken are taken at the Elysée, either by Macron or in regular meetings with the chiefs of Staff. Macron assumes the normal function of a French President (the prominent role in European affairs and in defense and security policy, as well as the personalization of relations with foreign leaders such as Donald Trump). The phrase Global Macron also refers to a very personalized foreign policy leadership, involving a downscaling of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Le Drian, who had occupied a much more prominent role as Defense minister under Hollande’s presidency.

From the outset, Macron measured himself up to the great and the good in world politics. Within two months of his election, he had welcomed Russian leader Vladimir Putin with great pomp and ceremony to the Versailles Palace and US President Trump to the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. During his first year, Macron led formal state visits to China, Algeria, India and the US, inter alia, with the state visits combining diplomacy with trade and cultural promotion. Substantively, also, under Macron, the French President was seen once again to be performing an active role in terms of foreign policy. Amongst the many examples, let us mention the attempts to reaffirm the centrality of an eventual French role as mediator in the Middle East and to mediate the Lebanon/Saudi Arabia crisis in late 2017.

But there are vital differences in relation to his predecessors. First, the generational effect has spilled over from domestic to foreign policy. From the very beginning of his mandate, Macron has been more than a traditional French foreign policy President; he is representative of a Macron brand, admired elsewhere, a model of youthful, reformist and intentional political leadership. Macron symbolizes generational renewal on the international scene as well, the French president being the most prominent of a group of leaders, including Justin Trudeau (amongst others). If political leadership is in part a form of communication, Macron is a past master, an adept of personal stage management, including a much more prominent use of Brigitte Macron and ‘private’ visits such as to the Taj Mahal in India in 2018 (de Royer, 2018). He displays a mastery of tools of modern political communication that surpasses his predecessors: the carefully controlled Twitter account and the You Tube channel, for example. There is an element of celebrity politics; the close collaboration with popular magazines such as Paris March or Vanity Fair is in stark contrast with the distant relationships maintained with more critical media outlets (the quality press, the 24 hour news programmes in particular).

Macron has also challenged elements of the traditional repertoire. French Presidents usually deliberately assume a position of national unity abroad; such was the case for President Hollande, for example, in Mali or Syria. The logic of national consensus usually encourages political leaders to rise above domestic conflict. Not so Macron, who has used distance from home to publicly reiterate the theme of the difficulty of reforming French society, to announce (to the rest of the world) his determination to continue to reform. Herein lies another aspect of the Janus-faced nature of the Macron presidency. It involves a permanent two-way dialogue; playing up domestic reforms in order to strengthen national prestige abroad; using the foreign arena to reinforce the reform message at home, in a permanent movement and transition between levels. Foreign leaders and audiences are invited to be fellow-conspirators in the plot to reform and change French society. Global Macron represents a permanent interaction between personality, position and environment.

There are limits to this enterprise. In practical terms, the frequent absences from France (46 days abroad during the first six months of 2018) produced growing criticism at home. For a system that relies so heavily on personal direction, Macron’s physical absence creates a vacuum (witness the spat between the Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and his associate Gérard Darmintin in relation to welfare spending, or premier Edouard Philippe’s inability to formulate clear policy responses in the physical absence of the President). In terms of substance, too, the ‘en même temps’ doctrine is less easy to export to the global – or even European – stage. The French President seeks to articulate a somewhat contradictory international message, one that is less easy to justify in terms of the domestic register of en même temps. It is caught between the need to promote France as a mover of international free trade and liberalization – the ‘France is Back’ of the 2018 Davos summit – and the domestic agenda of a France that protects against globalization. What passes for creative compromise at home represents a blurring of the message internationally. The positive framing of such a position is that France ‘speaks with everyone’, and is respected as an interlocutor. Under Macron, France has indeed attempted to be more present in the Middle East, in Africa and in Asia. But the balanced stance probably overplays French capacity: visits to Iran and Russia by Foreign Affairs Minister Le Drian, for example, made no difference to the activities of Iran and Russia in Syria. And Macron had little influence over the Turkish leader Recip Erdogen, or the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou. The en même temps doctrine also appeared to be inconsistently applied faced with authoritarian political leaders, depending on French interests. There was a clear inequality of treatment between Egypt’s General Sissi – a harsh authoritarian leader who had purchased French Rafale planes – and the Turkish leader Erdogen.

And then there is the specific case of US President Trump, where Macron arguably overplayed his hand and discovered the perils of investing too much faith in a ‘special’ personal relationship. All started so well. President Trump’s state visit to France in July 2017 was heavy in state symbolism, the US President declaring himself to be impressed by the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. French participation in the US-led air strikes in Syria, alongside the UK, confirmed France’s status as a key US ally. The pomp and glory of Macron’s visit to the US in in May 2018 contrasted with the frosty reception received by Chancellor Merkel later on in the same week. And yet this was all to little effect, as Trump successively withdrew the US from Paris climate agreement, and then from the Iran nuclear agreement, before finally imposing trade tariffs on Steel and Aluminium and sparking fears of a global trade war. Macron’s en meme temps was not designed to confront such realist power plays.