Monthly Archives: September 2018

Haiti – A new prime minister and the politics of retrenchment of President Jovenel Moïse

Article 156 of the constitution of Haiti stipulates that the prime minister runs the government and is responsible before the parliament, which can at any time decides his fate with a vote of confidence or no-confidence. This constitutional prerogative of the parliament was in full display two months ago when, on July 14th, following an interpellation by the chamber of deputies, the then prime minister, Jack Guy Lafontant, announced his resignation after it was clear that he would be voted out by a majority of legislators from his own party. This was the consequence of violent and deadly demonstrations that had rocked the capital a week before, when angry protesters took to the streets to denounce the decision of the government to increase fuel prices, following a recommendation by the International Monetary Fund.

After the events that took place on that fateful July 7th , a large group of businessmen and legislators from the ruling PHTK party decided that it was the moment to seal the fate of Lafontant. They joined the growing chorus of political opponents that had been asking for the departure of the government. The resignation of the prime minister marked the first moment since the beginning Jovenel Moïse’s young presidency that the opposition had been able to score an important political point. But, this win came when many people had defected from his own party, taking advantage of the weakness of the president in the wake of the violent demonstrations to force his hand to change the primer minister. In this sense, the events that brought down the government are the result of the calculus of different actors who are trying to advance different objectives in the present context.

The preference of the president, Jovenel Moïse, would have been to maintain Jack Guy Lafontant as his prime minister. He made clear on several occasions before the events that finally forced his hand that he wanted no changes. On April 24th when he reluctantly agreed to change 27% of the cabinet, he made it clear over a period of several weeks that he was against the idea. Only after the defection of many legislators from his party did he finally accepted to swear in five new ministers.

The fact that it took the president an entire week to finally come to terms with the idea of the resignation of Lafontant after the riots of July 7th , when political actors both from his party and the opposition had signed off on the Prime Minister, shows that the president was not at all convinced that such a change was necessary.

It took Jovenel Moïse a full month to find a new prime minister. He is Jean Henry Céant, a former presidential candidate. Céant then spent exactly another month forming a new cabinet of 18 ministers, in which 33% (6 out of 18) are left over from the old government. Two months after the last wave of protests, the president was finally able to convince a majority of the legislators of his own party to approve the declaration of politics of the new government. On September 14th and 16th, the Senators and the Chamber of the Deputies approved the Cabinet and, Céant became the 21th Prime Minister since 1988 in Haiti.

But, from what we know of the negotiations between the president and the legislators from his own party, it is clear that the road to the nomination of Céant and the formation of the government was not smooth. Many legislators vented their frustration and criticisms in public when it was clear that they would not have the ability to secure their preferred outcomes. With the next legislative elections scheduled to take place at the end of next year, the majority that voted in favor of the new government has been promised a substantial amount of money for their constituency. In the coming months, if for any reason the government does not maintain its end of the bargain, it is possible that the country will experience another episode of instability in the government.

The opposition parties whose demonstrations in the street finally led to the fall of the Lafontan’s government have not been able to capitalize from the instability they created. Even though the new primer minister, Céant, is from a branch of the opposition, they have not been able to secure any relevant position in the cabinet. All of the Ministers are from the ruling PHTK party or political groups around the President.

With the resignation of Lafontant, many in the opposition asked for a “cohabitation”, where the opposition parties would govern alongside the President. Such a scenario would be their best second outcome, since they have not enough political strength to force out President Jovenel Moïse, as they have been trying to do since his election. But the reality is that the opposition has very little sway in this conjuncture. Its presence in both chambers of parliament is merely testimonial. In fact, recent events are more a product of internal infighting in the PHTK and the miscalculations of Prime Minister Lafontant.

The goal of the opposition in the coming months will be to maintain street demonstrations against the government. During the discussions around the formation of the new government, many cases of corruption in which the name of individuals from the PHTK were cited. The opposition parties seem poised to keep mobilizing around this issue in an attempt to discredit the president. Their ability to maintain pressure around these cases will be vital for their relevance in the near future.

Timor-Leste – Cohabitation: the tug-of-war continues

After the early elections of last May, a period of formal cohabitation was initiated between the first partisan president (Fretilin’s chairman, Lu Olo) and a government supported by the winning coalition (Xanana’s CNRT, Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP and KHUNTO), which has an absolute majority in the House, but not of a two-thirds super majority.

The president appointed Taur Matan Ruak as prime minister in June and, according to the constitution, the prime minister submitted his proposal of 42 government members. Lu Olo initially objected to 12 of those members. One case was solved by bureaucratic means, as the presidential objections related to the need to clear the proposed minister’s earlier position as deputy chief of the armed forces; two were also sidestepped when the candidates were replaced by names acceptable to the president; but as for nine others, neither the president nor the prime minister has shown signs of changing positions. Three other suggested ministers refused to be sworn in in solidarity with their vetoed colleagues, one of them (Xanana Gusmão) indicating that he preferred to stay out of government for good. At the time of writing, almost three months have elapsed and the government still has no minister for finance, health or natural resources, and is thus in a formally weak position to discharge its functions. Nonetheless, in this period, the government was still able to present some critical documents including the state budget for the current year (which had not been possible to pass due to the political crisis of 2017 that eventually led to the early elections). As things stand, no clear sign is discernible as to the solution for the impasse. It seems that formal institutions are suffering the challenge of a kind of a shadow theatre in which decisions are made outside the boundaries of the council of ministers.

Angry with what he regards as a break with the platform on which the president was elected with his support, Xanana Gusmão announced last month that he would “wait another ten days” for Lu Olo to accept the government members before he would “take action” and formally accuse him of “usurpation of functions”. No action has yet been taken. The tug of war continues without a solution in sight.

For the benefit of comparative purposes, the present situation calls for a discussion of the role of the president in the Timorese political system. Two aspects should be considered. First, what is the power of presidents regarding the appointment of governments? Second, what kind of protection does the constitution award to presidents against moves to challenge his authority and eventually bring him before the courts?

Section 107 of the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (CRDTL) states that “the Government shall be accountable to the President of the Republic and to the National Parliament for conducting and executing the domestic and foreign policy in accordance with the Constitution and the law.” This is a clear indication that presidents can play an active roles in their relation with the government. For each new government, two steps have to be taken. First, according to section 85d (including all competencies exclusively incumbent upon the president), presidents “appoint and swear in the Prime Minister designated by the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the National Parliament”. Although this section seems to restrict presidential powers, it fact it allows significant room for discretion, namely in cases when there is no pre-electoral majority in parliament (as it happened in 2007, 2012 and 2017). Also, constitutionalist Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos noted that this formulation “expresses the double responsibility of the government” before the president and the assembly.[i]

The second step is the appointment of government members. According to section 86h (including competencies in regard to other organs of sovereignty), it is a presidential competence “to appoint, swear in and remove Government Members from office, following a proposal by the Prime-Minister, in accordance with item 2, Section 106”, which in turn stipulates that “the remaining members of the Government shall be appointed by the President of the Republic following proposal by the Prime Minister”. It seems very clear that the president does not dispose of a power of initiative in the appointment of ministers, depending on a proposal by the prime minister; but conversely, it seems equally clear that the prime minister does not possess more than a competence to propose names without obliging the president to accept them. Previous presidents have used the power of rejection at least on two counts: José Ramos-Horta privately opposed some names proposed by the prime minister in 2007, and Taur Matan Ruak did the same with public knowledge in 2012. These are precedents that did not raise any objections at the time they took place, and what is more relevant, in one of those instances the current prime minister was then the president and is thus morally bound by his early attitude. In an interview given to me a few years ago, president Ramos-Horta expressed the following understanding of his powers regarding the nomination of ministers proposed by the prime minister:

“If I am the Head of State in charge of guaranteeing peace and security, if I must nominate ministers, I need to be confident not only of the prime minister’s capacities, but also of the ministers I am empowering. I bestow my authority behind each of them individually. So, I rejected two names proposed by the prime minster”[ii]

Concluding this section, the double dependency of the government on the president and the assembly offers the head of state the competence to have a decisive word on the appointment of the prime minister and above all, of his ministers. The present position of president Lu Olo seems thus to be solidly anchored in the country’s constitution and political conventions. But what if it was not? What could be done?

CRDTL devotes one full section (79) to “criminal liability and constitutional obligations” where it stipulates (in number 2) that “the President of the Republic shall be answerable before the Supreme Court of Justice for crimes committed in the exercise of his or her functions and for clear and serious violation of his or her constitutional obligations”. For a complaint to be brought before the justice, however, the process must begin in parliament, where a qualified majority of two-thirds of its members is required to allow the move to reach the Supreme Court (number 3). This means that there is a strong political rather than institutional factor at play in any process to formally accuse the president of foregoing his constitutional obligations or abuse his powers. At the moment, the president’s party, Fretilin, controls 23 of the parliament’s 65 seats and is thus in a position to block any move destined to challenge the president’s position.

To a substantial extent, the actual presidential powers depend on the political conditions of the moment as on the institutional definition of his competences. The constitutional text defines very broad limits to the presidential powers, which will be more or less used according to the political conjuncture. Timor-Leste had three consecutive “independent” presidents, not affiliated with any political party, which rendered the articulation between the president and the assembly more open to variable geometries, and prevented the systematic opposition between presidential and parliamentary majorities. Now, with the first partisan president, things are significantly different. Even if one cannot presume that Fretilin and the other parties not represented in the executive will always vote against the government (as the recent vote on the state budget showed, the government which controls 34 seats obtained 42 votes in favour, several abstentions and only 9 votes against – the opposition parties having failed to adopt a common position and showing internal splits in the final vote), the likelihood that they can use their capacity to bloc any vote requiring qualified majority is strong. This circumstance contributes to reinforce the presidential influence, as he disposes of veto powers over every law or decree-law (CRDTL section 88). In the case of decree-laws, the president’s word is final; in the case of parliamentary laws, a qualified majority is required to overturn those that address fundamental issues (as stipulated in section 95), including budgetary issues as well as the fundamental laws of social security, health, education, defence and security, electoral laws, and more. That’s to say: an absolute majority in parliament  does not entail a free hand in the definition of policies, as the president may force a qualified majority in order to allow for the implementation of the government’s program. In this light, the comparative strength of the president is a key element in the Timorese political landscape.

In this context, president Lu Olo is comfortable in his position, and his powers, articulated with his link to a party that controls more than one third of the seats in the House, are a serious challenge to the government’s simple majority. Certainly not by chance, several voices in Dili are predicting that Xanana Gusmão, leader of the largest party in the government coalition, would welcome the dissolution of parliament once again in order to try and take away from Fretilin two seats that would substantially change the nature of the presidential room for intervention. However, this would be a high risk strategy that may not be sympathetic to the prime minister, who has shown signs of “understanding” for the presidential opposition to cabinet members proposed by Xanana’s party. In any case, this would only be possible after six months have elapsed from the last election in early May.

Timor-Leste is thus living under uncertainty, and the economic performance has echoed the adverse conditions with a significant fall in its growth rate and a paralysis of most of the non-oil sector – and this economic slow down is not conducive to easy electoral victories. The state budget for 2018 was drawn to reverse the situation, although its effect will be limited in the short term (it has still not been approved by the president); and the 2019 budget will probably be in the same vein – in spite of being drawn by a government that has no finance minister. The one fact that has emerged with some accrued stability is the resilience of the presidency and its critical role in the politics of the country. How much longer will the president accept that the government continues to work in the absence of critical ministers before he can argue that the regular functioning of institutions is not being met, and that he may step up his intervention?

Notes

[i]Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos, Constituição Anotada da Republica Democrática de Timor-Leste, Braga: Direitos Humanos – Centro de Investigação Interdisciplinar, 2011: 288

[ii]Jose Ramos-Horta, “O modelo semi-presidencial que temos é adequado à realidade timorense” in R. G. Feijó (ed), O Semi-presidencialismo Timorense, Coimbra: CES/Almedina, 2014: 77-78

Magna Inácio and Aline Burni – What comes after the storm? Hurricane season in the Brazilian presidential election

Expected as a turning point after five years of political turmoil, the 2018 Brazilian presidential election is heading into ever-increasing uncertainties as to who will win and how she or he will govern. Since the 1990s, strong presidential powers and electoral rules favoring political polarization between large interparty alliances has turned the presidential competition into a structuring vector of the whole political system. Therefore, two presidentialized parties, PSDB and PT, have become the major forces alternating in power, blocking outsiders and newcomers to send themselves to the presidential contest. This bipolarization has made government policy offers more moderate and the Brazilian politics, centripetal. At this time, however, it seems to be challenged in an unprecedented way, and the competition is so far, very uncertain.

The success of coalitional presidentialism has been eroding after two decades of relative stability. Political dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing since the massive street riots in 2013, driving down even more the low levels of institutional confidence in Congress and parties and, recently, citizens’ support for the democratic regime is endangered. Corruption scandals and economic depression tempered the polarized reelection of President Rousseff (PT), in 2014, culminating in her impeachment two years afterward. The initial success of the new government, headed by vice-president Temer, vanished quickly when corruption scandals also reached him and his inner circle. In general, political parties have been strongly hurt and episodic institutional conflicts emerged since party and legislative leaders started to be investigated and arrested, sometimes with the suspension of parliamentary prerogatives of office-holders under investigation.

Generalized feelings that these wrongdoings are systemic has been fueling anti-establishment appeals and a strong pressure for political renovation. Political polarization feeds tension between democratic and authoritarian values, with a significant part of the population appealing for military intervention as a means to solve the political and economic crisis. On recent times, episodes of political violence have happened, such as the killing of Rio de Janeiro councilwomen Marielle Franco (PSOL) and her driver, and the incident in which shots were fired at Lula’s caravan, both in March this year.

Under this political nightmare, will mainstream political parties be able to coordinate this electoral process towards a new equilibrium?

For the first time since 1994, the highly unpopular sitting president has been politically ignored of negotiations of electoral alliances, despite his party, the PMDB, being one of the key actors. The most important left-wing leader and potential candidate, former president Lula (PT), was pushed out due his conviction for money laundry and gang formation, resulting in his arrestment few months before the nomination season. The involvement of leaders of large parties in corruption trials resulted in reputational losses and considerably reduced electability of their potential candidates. This increased, in the eyes of other parties, the cost of joining hands with them. In addition, reforms barring campaign funding from private companies increased the opportunities for self-funded candidates. Overall, these conditions have turned this into an ever more open-seat presidential election, raising the incentives for not-yet presidentialized parties and outsiders.

Given this political landscape, 2018 presidential race has been compared to 1989, the only time when a non-mainstream party won the presidency. Indeed, one of the surprises of this race has been the emergence of a competitive, far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), whose discourse is centered on an anti-corruption, moralization of politics and law-and-order approach. Bolsonaro has been leading the polls since the beginning, in a scenario without former president Lula, oscillating around 20% of vote preferences. He can be considered an “inside-outsider” since has been serving as representative for seven mandates despite his anti-establishment appeals. Although usually compared to Trump, Bolsonaro does not count on a robust party organization sponsoring him. His motto is to “change everything that is in place”, and his brand gesture is the simulation of warm guns with his hands. One of his proposals is to turn the gun regulation more liberalized in Brazil, and he has previously openly defended the military dictatorship. He surfs on the waves of backlash against progressive socio-cultural values and strong anti-system sentiment.

Electoral rules have, however, moderated centrifugal trends in the first stage of this election, the nomination season, closed at the end of July. Under runoff and concurrent elections, in a scenario of reduced campaign funding, established parties sought more conventional alliances. On the center-right, a large alliance among center and right-wing parties, headed by PSDB candidate, Alckmin, was formed to broaden its public funding and free publicity on TV. It inhibited medium and small parties from allying with the “inside-outsider” candidate, Bolsonaro, despite his high-polling position. Furthermore, newcomers, two millionaire businesspeople, are also getting access to the ballot. On the left, the PT worked to block an alternative alliance of center-left parties, since it is working to judicially reverse Lula’s expected ineligibility and keep its pivotal position on its side of the ideological spectrum. This resulted in more fragmentation on the center-left, with the nomination of Marina Silva (Rede) and Ciro Gomes (PDT), two competitive candidates challenging PT dominance. At the end, the presidentialized parties, PT and PSDB, were constrained to build different alliances from when they had won the election and 13 candidates are running for presidency. However, the nomination process has shown more predictable alliance strategies than expected.

Campaigning officially started on August 16th, and the advertising on traditional media took off on the 31st. Television and radio remain the most important sources of information for voters during the campaign, in the shortest period for presidential campaigning in recent decades. Nevertheless, candidates seeking their “campaign momentum” and putting themselves as front-runners are facing more uncertainties that they expected.

First, although most candidates had already been nominated by the end of July, the dispute has been largely undefined since PT kept Lula as its candidate, holding on a strategy that insists on him being a victim of major injustice, until the very last minute. It was expected that Lula would be declared ineligible by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), due the Clean Record Act (“Ficha Limpa”), which forbids the candidacy of anyone who has been convicted by a decision of a collective body. However, PT called on the international community, having received support from famous left-wing leaders worldwide, and a request by the United Nations Human Rights’ Committee not to prevent the former president from standing for the election, until his appeals before the courts have been completed. As expected, the TSE declared Lula ineligible and established September 11th as the deadline for PT to present an alternative candidate. After having run out of appeals, the former mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad, was nominated as PT candidate only 26 days before the first round of voting. Whereas Lula’s incomparable popularity seems capable of transferring some support for his designated candidate, this campaign is shorter than previous ones and relative unknown Haddad was nominated late. The underperforming government of the impeached president Rousseff, who was also chose by him, will shadow PT’s attempts to sell Haddad as someone able to rescue the success of Lula’s administrations. Despite PT simply omits Rousseff’s administrations from its announcements, the left-wing challengers are already recalling her failures and promising do better in pushing progressive agendas for attracting non-conservative voters.

Second, an unprecedented event shacked the campaign considerably. The far-right candidate Bolsonaro was stabbed on September 6th, during a rally by a person who alleged political motivation against the candidate’s positions towards minorities, but the act seems to be organized only by himself. A shocking event also happened in 2014, when the third-place on polls Eduardo Campos (PSB), died in a plane crash. This incident had a considerable impact on voters’ preferences for his running mate, Marina Silva, who replaced him and reaching more than 30% of vote intentions on the same point of the presidential campaign in 2014. However, this thread coming from a third-party candidate did not last, after an intense negative campaign from PT candidate. At the end voters turned back to what they see as the most credible options, and the PT-PSDB clash happened for the sixth time. By its turn, the outrage against Bolsonaro raised an expectation of larger impact than in 2014, since he was seen as victim of political violence and intolerance. However, polls have showed that the commotion was limited, while the resistance to vote for the radical and anti-system candidate remains high among voters. The impact of this violence on his campaign is uncertain, but it can reduce the voter mobilization in this last stage of campaign. Bolsonaro is hospitalized and blocked from conducting his personalized campaigns on the streets. Absent from media debates and backed by a less professional campaign staff, his attempt to resort to a massive Internet strategy may be insufficient to expand his appeals towards more heterogeneous audience or, even, keep his current supporters.

These close events, the expected replacement of PT candidate and the unforeseen Bolsonaro’s stabbing, have forced all presidential candidates to change their strategies. While the second round is likely to show the confrontation between right-wing and left-wing candidates, it is unclear how far these candidates are from the center and whether escalation of polarization can occur. Bolsonaro remains stable as front-runner, radicalizing the anti-PT sentiment. As the candidate with the highest rejection rate and facing a remarkable gender gap in voters’ preferences (30% of male and 14% of women), his odds to win the election are unlikely by now. Polls show that is likely to lose for any other candidate of both ideological poles. Other four competitive candidates linger very close in the dispute for the second place, center-right (Alckmin) and three center-left candidates (Ciro, Marina, and Haddad).

Since 1994, this is the first time that a front-runner is an “inside-outsider”, coming from an inexpressive political party. As it happened in previous presidential disputes, there are some tensions challenging the prior bipolar dynamic. However, this time the menace of a third-party breaking the status quo is relatively stronger. Usually the challenger comes from within the system, such as in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014. A certain level of “insiderness” has been required to gather sufficient strengths in order to disturb the centrifugal dynamic induced by institutions and electoral rules. Even when a convincing challenger emerged with more confidence, voters have hesitated to stick with an alternative at the last minute. Polls on 2014 presidential election showed that voters’ first-round decision was only consolidated on the last 10 days before election day. In its turn, this uncertainty scenario, marked by high fragmentation of candidate supply, particularly on the left, the number of undecided voters remains high and swing vote tend to be a decisive factor. At this point of the campaign, who will benefit of this is still an incognita.

Magna Inácio is an associate professor in the Department of the Political Science at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Brazil. She is currently carrying out research on presidents and presidencies with focus on multiparty cabinets, executive–legislative relations and internal organization of the Executive branch. Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and parliamentary elites in Brazil and Latin America.

Aline Burni is a researcher for the Center for Legislative Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), where she is a PhD candidate in Political Science. She was a Fulbright grantee at New York University, and previously served as International Advisor for the Minas Gerais state government. Her research interests are comparative and European Politics, Electoral Studies, Political Parties and Radical Right-wing Populism.

Poland – 3 years into his presidency, Duda’s role still remains unclear

After three years in office, the position of president Andrzej Duda within the current political situation in Poland continues to be somewhat unclear – swinging between unflinching support for the governing party and legitimising force for its policies, and presenting himself as the defender of the rule of law. With a number of crucial elections coming up over the next year, the way in which he positions himself vis-a-vis the ruling party may be crucial to the success of his (former) party and, in turn, to ensuring his own re-election in 2020.

“3 Years in Office” – Promotional video on the website of the Official Website of the President – prezydent.pl

It has been varied summer for president Duda. In July, his initiative to hold a referendum on a new constitution (the date was to coincide with the centenary of the independence declaration in November) was eventually rejected by the Senate as almost all senators of his own party (Law and Justice – PiS) abstained and the oppositional Civic Platform (PO) voted against the plans. Although Duda’s motivation for the referendum was never particularly clear, the rejection can be seen as a defeat for the president – the cushioning of the rejection through mass abstentions may have been an olive branch extended to the president by the party leadership, but it could also merely have been an attempt to save face and not give the public the impression that parliament and president were actively working against each other.

A few weeks later, Duda experienced a success when he vetoed amendments to the European Parliament election law that would have effectively reduced the number of parties able to win seats to two – the governing PiS and the main opposition party PO. While the government (arguably rightfully) argued that the current system was too complicated, it is clear that it aimed to alter the rules of the game to the degree to its advantage in every possible way. Given that a 3/5 relative majority in the Polish Sejm (lower house) is needed to override the veto, the government will have to come up with a new solution or drop the bill. For Duda, the veto was in any case strategic – while he may not need to fear a strong contender from the left in his fight for re-election, his chances for re-election would be greatly increased if the smaller right-of-centre parties that swept up much of the protest vote in the most recent parliamentary elections (led among others by the surprisingly third-placed presidential candidate Andrzej Kukiz) supported him.

Nevertheless, these incidents stand in contrast to Duda’s other behaviour. After he vetoed parts of the government’s controversial judicial reform last year, he later signed bills after some cosmetic changes that gave him slightly more say in the appointment of judges. Recent events, too, highlight that he is only too happy to continue quietly notarising the changes made by the government. As part of the reforms, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges was lowered from 65 to 70, sending 40% of judges into retirement. While the legality of immediate retirement of current judges is questionable and still being considered by the European Court of Justice, Duda already announced vacancies for the positions in question. Importantly, this includes the 65 year-old president of the court who – according to the constitution – serves a six year-term that would only end in 2020. On Tuesday, the president then announced that he had approved the applications of five Supreme Court judges to remain in their positions for another three years (a new prerogative given to him) – incidentally, these are those that had previously been positively evaluated by the reconstituted National Judiciary Council and thus close to the regime (even though some of their applications apparently failed to follow conventional standards), while no action was taken on applications of others (they are assumed to be rejected, but this is not entirely clear).

In October and November 2018 Poland will hold local and regional elections, which will provide a first test for the ruling party with regard to the elections to the European Parliament in spring 2019 and the parliamentary election in 2019. It can be expected that Duda, if he is active in the campaigns at all, will support his (former) party – nevertheless, as Duda also needs to start on building momentum for his own re-election campaign, it is quite likely that we will some more occasional disagreements with the government. Such incidents should however be seen as largely strategic – until now, Duda has now shown that he substantially disagrees with the Hungary-style ‘illiberal democracy’ that the government is introducing.

Sub-national elections in Russia

Elections for posts at various levels took place in the Russian Federation on Sunday, 9 September. Although the electoral campaigns were largely seen as “quiet and uncompetitive”, there were some setbacks for Kremlin-backed candidates. The same day, nation-wide protests against planned pension reforms resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.

Sunday was a busy day. There were:

  • 22 direct elections for regional heads, including the mayor of Moscow;
  • three indirect elections for regional heads;
  • a set of 16 elections for deputies of regional legislatures;
  • a set of 12 elections for seats in representative bodies of regional administrative centres;
  • four elections for heads of regional administrative centres;
  • and seven by-election races for seats in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level parliament, the Federal Assembly.

This is a difficult time for President Vladimir Putin. In the middle of June 2018, the Government introduced a bill into the State Duma proposing to raise the retirement age for men and women – a move that was met with widespread criticism and anger from Russian citizens. This was reflected in Putin’s popularity. According to the Levada Centre – an independent polling body – Putin had an approval rating of 82% in April 2018. This, however, fell to 67% by July 2018. Support for United Russia – the Kremlin-controlled ‘party of power’ – fell even further. Although Putin made an address to the nation, proposing measures to soften the reform package, popular opposition to the amended initiative remains high.

These conditions made the Kremlin nervous in the run-up to 9 September election day. To be sure, the Kremlin has extensive experience in un-levelling the electoral playing field, through a combination of things like skewed media coverage, harassment of opposition figures, and outright electoral fraud. But there is still some degree of uncertainty. That is natural for a system of “sovereign democracy” or competitive authoritarianism.

Pension reform unease certainly affected the election results. The most interesting electoral results relate to run-off votes in four gubernatorial races. In Khabarovsk Krai, Khakassia, Vladimir Oblast, and Primorsk Krai, no candidate achieved the necessary 50% to secure victory in the first round of voting. This outcome was largely expected for the first three of these four cases. (For an overview of the electoral campaigns in the broader context of Russian politics, see my pre-elections interview for Bear Market Brief.) This will be an important moment to see whether nominally opposition parties – primarily, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) – can join forces to defeat the Kremlin-backed candidates in second-round voting. It will also be an important moment to see whether voters will carry on their pension reform-related protest votes into the second round.

Much is being made of these second-round votes, given their previous infrequency. 2012 saw the re-introduction of direct gubernatorial elections. Although touted by the Kremlin as a key democratic reform, Putin’s team made sure the federal centre retained broad control over who ended up as regional heads. One such mechanism for control is called the “municipal filter” – a means to help block the candidacies of Kremlin-hostile figures. As a result, a second-round gubernatorial vote took place only once following 2012 – in 2015 in Irkutsk Oblast, when the Communist Party (KPRF) candidate, Sergei Levchenko, beat the sitting United Russia governor, Sergei Eroshchenko.

Results for regional assembly elections on Sunday also proved interesting. In three assembly races – in Khakassia, Irkutsk Oblast, and Ulyanovsk Oblast – United Russia came second to the Communist Party (KPRF) in the party-list portion of the vote. Moreover, in 11 of the 16 regional assembly elections, United Russia failed to achieve 50% or above in the party-list vote.

At the same time, even though KPRF achieved a plurality of party-list votes in elections for three regional legislatures, it achieved a majority of seats in none. For example, in Irkutsk Oblast’s regional assembly, of the 45 seats up for grabs, the Communists secured 18, compared to United Russia’s 17 – figures that include seats won both through the party-list and single-mandate-district races.

United Russia’s leadership put on a brave face when the election results became clear. Many of the difficult moments were anticipated, as was the low turnout. But the very public nature of electoral setbacks – regardless of the understandably difficult conditions fostered by an unpopular social policy reform – presents a challenge for the Kremlin. The current political elite – like many other such ruling groups in non-democracies – emphasises the importance of projecting strength as a means of perpetuating its rule. In combination with the country-wide, Navalny-orchestrated protests on 9 September, election results that go against the Kremlin’s wishes weaken that image of invincibility. The Kremlin will, therefore, do everything it can going forward to prevent a fusion of Navalny’s mobilising efforts with those of nominally ‘opposition’ political parties, as well as growing segments of Russian society who are bearing the brunt of difficult economic conditions.

The Czech Republic – Babiš’ new cabinet and symptoms of illiberal democracy

On 12th July 2018 the lengthy government formation process that had been taking place since the 2017 parliamentary elections finally came to an end. The second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

The protracted government formation process was a consequence of several factors including:

  • the fragmented Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 elections,
  • the presence of an anti-establishment, left-wing party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and an anti-establishment right-wing party (the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement),
  • a police investigation and other controversies in relation to the dominant figure of the largest parliamentary party, ANO 2011, Andrej Babiš, who was at the same time the only real candidate for prime ministership,
  • the reluctance of most of the other parties to collaborate with ANO 2011,
  • the role of President Miloš Zeman, who consistently supported Babiš as the new prime minister and who allowed no room for an alternative cabinet excluding Andrej Babiš.

The right-wing and liberal parliamentary parties ruled out the possibility of joining ANO 2011 in a new coalition, although Babiš called on the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to establish a two-party majority coalition. At the same time, however, Babiš did not want to seek support from the KSČM and SPD, two strongly Eurosceptical parties, undermining the hitherto Czech consensus on its clear pro-Western orientation. Thus, at first, Babiš attempted to form a minority ANO 2011 cabinet that was appointed by Miloš Zeman in December 2017. Not surprisingly, this cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

In line with the constitution, Babiš’ cabinet remained in office as an acting cabinet until a new cabinet could be appointed. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the winner of the 2013 elections (and major loser of the 2017 elections), was now encouraged as well as tempted to join Babiš’ cabinet for fear of being marginalized in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the party lacked a charismatic leader in contrast to Babiš, as well as clear and credible policies on a number of issues. The party, which found itself in a major leadership and policy crisis, faced a major dilemma. On the one hand, joining the government would bring it at least short-term benefits. On the other hand, joining the cabinet appeared highly risky. This is because, first, Babiš is still under police investigation due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. In addition, the European Anti Fraud Office’s report (which was leaked to the press) confirmed that Babiš was directly involved in the fraud. Second, Babiš, the Minister of Finance in the 2014-2017 cabinet, skilfully communicated with the media to claim credit for government successes, while shifting blame on the social democrats for government failures

The ČSSD was badly divided on the issue of whether to join the cabinet with ANO 2011. The February party congress gave no definitive answer to this question, although party leaders were inclined to support the government option, and the party decided to hold an intra-party referendum. Even before the referendum result was announced, the ČSSD had embarked on negotiations with ANO 2011. President Zeman, who still has considerable influence over the ČSSD, encouraged the party to join Babiš’ cabinet. The referendum result gave the party a green light to carry on the negotiations with ANO 2011. However, the first round of talks ended in failure in April, as ANO 2011 proved unwilling to allow the ČSSD to take the seat of the Ministry of Interior, an important position controlling the police and indirectly affecting the investigation of Mr. Babiš and his alleged EU subsidy fraud. The ČSSD leaders, the party chairman Jan Hamáček and his deputy Jiří Zimola, visited President Zeman, who – according to some journalists – advised the ČSSD to insist on their requirements (including the position of the Minister of Interior).  Zeman was strongly interested in the success of the government formation with Mr. Babiš as Prime Minister, given the fact that he had consistently supported this option since the 2017 elections. The negotiations between the ANO 2011 and ČSSD resumed and both parties agreed on a minority coalition cabinet that was appointed by President Zeman in June 2018. In addition, Andrej Babiš negotiated an external support for the coalition provided by the KSČM.

The reputation of the newly appointed cabinet was tainted by the resignation of two ministers when the media found out that their university master’s theses were plagiarized. However, the most significant event was Zeman’s refusal to appoint a ČSSD nominee for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Poche. Zeman argued that Poche, currently an MEP, held a pro-immigration policy, which was unacceptable for Zeman, Babiš, and majority of the Czech population. Commentators speculated that this publicly announced reason was a mere pretext for the real cause of the refusal: President Zeman was resolved to demonstrate his power over the ČSSD and his influence over the cabinet as a whole. Babiš, having no interest in complicating the government formation whatsoever, did not insist on Poche and accepted Zeman’s position.

There has been a political as well as academic debate as to whether the Czech president has the right to refuse the Prime Minister’s nominee for a minister. There is a consensus that the president has no such right, but given the fact that Prime Minister did not push for Poche and did not wish to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court, there is no way to force Zeman to appoint Mr. Poche. Instead, both President Zeman and the Prime Minister Babiš expect another nominee from the ČSSD camp. Although this move was an act of political humiliation for the ČSSD, its leaders have so far been unable to suggest a solution and the ČSSD’s chairman Jan Hamáček temporarily took the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs alongside the position of the Minister of Interior. The ČSSD announced it would solve the problem only after the October municipal elections. As stated above, the second Babiš cabinet won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, so the Czech Republic finally has a fully-fledged cabinet after some 10 months.

In terms of President Zeman’s power over the government formation process, he undoubtedly played an important role. Whereas in the case of the first (unsuccessful) Babiš cabinet, Zeman’s role can be assessed as a notary, perhaps even regulator (given Zeman’s clear preferences and active support for Mr. Babiš), his role increased with the second Babiš cabinet and he can be classified as “co-designer”, because Zeman openly, consistently and strongly insisted that Babiš would be the new prime minister, blocking any alternative cabinets. In addition, he rejected the appointment of Mr. Poche. Also, the Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Toman (although formally a ČSSD member), was clearly Zeman’s man demonstrating the president’s influence over the cabinet.

Against the background of the government formation process, one should not overlook less noticeable, yet highly important, trends in the Czech politics. First, the Communists gained a direct influence over the government for the first time after 1989. (Mr. Babiš was also a Communist Party member as well as a registered co-worker of the Czechoslovak Secret Police before 1989). The KSČM remains outside the government, but provided its support for the cabinet in the July vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for a couple of policy requirements including passing a law on referendums, an increase in the minimal wage or the taxation of Church restitution. (The law on Church restitution was approved in 2012 in order to compensate for the nationalization of Church property after the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia). In sum, KSČM’s direct influence on the cabinet has a great symbolic importance putting to an end one of the major constants of the post-1989 politics.

Second, whereas in the post-1989 era a strong pro-Western consensus, including the EU as well as NATO membership, prevailed both in the Czech society and political elites as the only reasonable and legitimate foreign policy, this consensus is currently being undermined, especially by the KSČM, the SPD and also by Miloš Zeman, who is well-known for his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policy. Andrej Babiš, is, however, a pragmatic politician advocating a firm Czech membership in the EU, yet also pursuing a strict anti-immigration policy.

Third, clear illiberal tendencies (both in terms of rhetoric and actions) have appeared in the Czech Republic, thus resembling other countries in the region (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary). Notably, President Zeman can be blamed for this negative trend: Zeman is known for flattering the authoritarian regime in Russia and China, attacking the independent and quality media, attending the KSČM’s party congress, and sympathizing with xenophobic forces in the Czech Republic. To be sure, other actors responsible for the illiberal tendencies can be mentioned, two parliamentary parties, KSČM and SPD, and the Prime Minister Mr. Babi, who has tried to remove some checks and balances, e.g. by proposing the abolition of the upper parliamentary Chamber and who is the de facto owner of a huge business and media empire.

The Czech Republic is currently awaiting October municipal and Senate elections. The municipal elections in large cities, as well as the Senate elections, are considered to be a test of public support for the major parliamentary parties (which are almost non-existent in most of smaller municipalities) and in turn for (il) liberal democracy in the country.

The men who will never be King: Cameroon’s October 2018 presidential election

Presidential elections are scheduled in Cameroon for October 7, and barring an unexpected development Paul Biya is on his way to secure another seven-year term and to start his 37thyear in office. This is despite the fact that Cameroon is in a drastically more precarious position than it was last election. Tepid economic growth, an ongoing Boko Haram threat in the north, and a devastating crisis in English-speaking regions have led to sharp declines in human security. The continent also seems to have had its share of presidents for life, as seen most dramatically in the recent departure of Robert Mugabe from the national scene in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, most predict that Biya will emerge victoriously. The current opposition landscape simply cannot muster enough force, and Biya enjoys enormous advantages as head of state.

The Competition: A Fragmented Field Once Again

As in past elections, the opposition has failed to coalesce into a unified front. Historically, this has been to their detriment. In 1992, during Cameroon’s first multiparty election, Paul Biya won the election with a mere plurality of 40% while the opposition split the vote between five other candidates. In 2004, the National Reconciliation and Renomination Coalition (CRRN) fell apart before the election when John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) withdrew his support. During the last presidential election in 2011 no less than 22 candidates were on the ballot.

This cycle the election management body ELECAM has approved nine candidates, including Biya. Three are representative of Cameroon’s nearly 300 “mushroom parties” – former student activist Cabral Libii Ngue of the Universe party, Serge Espoir Matomba of the United People for Social Renewal (PURS), and Pentecostal pastor Ndifor Afanwi Franklin of the Cameroon National Citizen Movement (MCNC). These parties come and go every cycle, and are often framed around the ambitions of individual figures or niche issues. They generally garner less than 1% of the vote, and are mainly opportunities for individuals outside of the establishment to raise their profile and perhaps gain some international financial support. Others believe that they are there to “muddy the waters” and dilute the opposition. It is not cheap to run for president and it requires a financial deposit of 30 million CFA (~$50,000), indicating that these candidates have some means.

Alongside these figures are two household names that are more akin to a symbolic opposition. Adamou Ndam Njoya is a former member of government, and in 1992 founded the opposition Cameroon Democratic Union (UDC). Njoya has been on the national stage for decades and has run for president in every election. But, he now has very little appeal outside of his home area of Bamoun, and even more specifically the Noun Department. He is joined by former minister Garga Haman Adji of the Alliance for Democracy and Development (ADD). Garga left the ruling party in 1992 and is a frequent critic of government corruption. He ran for president in 2004 and 2011, winning just 3% of the vote.

The main opposition drama is between the remaining three candidates: Joshua Osih of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Akere Muna of the Popular Front for Development (FPD), and Maurice Kamto of the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon (MRC). Only Osih is a member of a longstanding opposition party. Osih’s nomination signals a generational shift in the SDF away from its chairman and perpetual presidential candidate, John Fru Ndi. Osih is young and Anglophone, but appeals to Cameroon’s French-speaking areas. He has campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, improved services, and a return to federalism. Moreover, he has relatively deep pockets from his aviation business. His major liability is his young age (49), which has caused some skepticism over whether he has the ability to steer the complex ship of the Cameroonian state.

By contrast, Kamto and Muna are both veteran attorneys with significant international exposure and pedigree. Kamto was Biya’s delegate to the Ministry of Justice between 2004 and 2011 and active in the United Nation’s International Law Commission. But, Kamto and most of the MRC are of the Bamileké ethnic group from West region, which has left him vulnerable to accusations of tribalismAkere Muna is an Anglophone and a former Vice President at the international corruption monitoring organization Transparency International. He is also a scion of one of Cameroon’s most famous families. Akere’s father, Solomon Tandeng Muna, was the Prime Minister of Cameroon and later President of the National Assembly. His brother Bernard is another well-known lawyer and former activist in the SDF. His sister Ama Tutu was Minister of Arts and Culture between 2007 and 2015. Kamto and Muna are also running on campaigns of anti-corruption and have staked out support for federalism.

This creates an opposition field that will undoubtedly split the vote more than it needs to be. No candidate has excluded the possibility of a coalition, and each has made statements that a single presidential candidate would be the most beneficial. But as in past attempts there is no consensus over who would lead such a coalition. In 2004, opposition contenders agreed that a commission should choose the most appropriate presidential candidate based on a point system. However, that system broke down after Ndam Njoya was chosen by that very system. Moreover, a united opposition still does not have sufficient numbers to topple Biya. This means that some candidates might not be thinking just about 2018, but also about the next election in 2025 when Biya will be 92 years old and will more likely step down from power.

The Incumbent: The Advantages of State

 Paul Biya enters this electoral contest with immense advantages built up over decades in power. First, it is important to recall that Biya’s candidacy is the result of a 2008 constitutional amendment that removed term limits. That maneuver was meant to defer on question regarding Biya’s succession, which risked creating irreparable rifts within the ruling party. As president, Biya has held together a tenuous multiethnic coalition based on patronage. Biya distributes cabinet portfolios, civil service positions, and development resources in implicit exchange for political support. This distribution has created winners and losers, and is seen as particularly beneficial to Biya’s Southern co-ethnics, the Beti. Change in leadership would signal a change in distribution that would undermine the existing order. Biya’s candidacy is basically a continuation of the status quo.

Biya has already maintained the support of various elites. A group of 20 opposition parties that call themselves the G20 have backed Biya. The G20 have stated that their support is for the sake of national security, but also that they see the chances of Biya losing as miniscule. Therefore, staying loyal to the president improves their standing and chances of obtaining benefits after the election. Importantly, the bulk of northern elites, who were at some point a significant opposition front, are also behind Biya. For instance, Cameroon’s Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma is not from the ruling party but has been a frequent spokesman for the regime during the crisis in Anglophone areas. Likewise, Bello Bouba Maigari was once a serious presidential contender, but is now content as Minister of Tourism.

Alongside this system of patronage, Biya has access to significant resources of the state and enjoys significant presidential powers. Earlier this year he had parliament pass a bill that deferred the legislative elections due to the logistical cost of operating multiple elections within the challenging security context. During past elections, it was common for teachers, local administrators, and state-recognized traditional chiefs to campaign for the ruling party. The ruling party uses state-owned resources like vehicles and stadiums during elections, and state-owned media is heavily tilted toward the president. Indeed, in 2004 and 2011 Biya barely campaigned, and spent much of his time abroad.

There are also concerns over whether the election itself will be free and fair. A limited number of international observers regularly arrive in Cameroon, and there is a very small domestic observation capacity. The creation of ELECAM in 2008 has improved the management of elections in Cameroon, and incidents of outright fraud have declined since 1992. But, the president appoints members of ELECAM and appointed governors are responsible for many election related activities. For example, governors issue permits for gatherings and rallies, and can declare states of emergency that limit freedom of movement. In the past, opposition actors have frequently been detained over so-called violations of various statutes regarding political organization.

Most importantly, the Boko Haram situation and crisis in English-speaking region has led to significant issues with election preparation. Hundreds of thousands of Cameroonians are displaced, and ongoing violence might keep many away from the polls. There are reportedly significant issues with voter registration, and it is not clear how many polling stations will actually be open and accessible in English-speaking areas. The SDF has already rejected a government proposal to move polling stations into military barracks. These issues impact opposition areas particularly hard. While opposition figures like Osih or Muna are likely to win large swaths of the English-speaking regions, the total number of votes might very well be much lower than in previous elections.

The fragmented opposition and Biya’s powerful hand combine to create a sense of apathy among many voters. While many are galvanized given the dire economic and political conditions, others only see more of the same.

Uganda – Museveni in a Muddle

This year, President Yoweri Museveni has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Three developments in particular have undermined his legitimacy both at home and abroad. First, he orchestrated the removal of president age-limits (having previously done away with term-limits) so that he can stand for election for a sixth time in 2021. Second, his government’s horrendous abuse of opposition (or more accurately independent) leader Bobi Wine, most notably his torture while in detention, led to widespread condemnation. Third, Museveni’s threat that he can “do away with parliament” may have intimidated some of his legislative opponents, but it has also called into question the legitimacy of his regime. Taken together, these developments suggest that the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government finds itself in a particularly difficult moment – and faces pressures that are likely to get worse before they get better.

Let us start with the government’s reaction to the challenge posed by the musician turned politician Bobi Wine. The heavy handed state response suggests that there is a growing recognition within the NRM that the president’s efforts to prolongue his stay in power are not without costs. By forcing through a removal of constitutional age limits – despite fist fights in parliament, violent protests outside, and a population that supports presidential term-limits – Museveni has made it clear that he both intends to rule until his dying breath and is becoming increasingly insensitive to popular sentiment.

This is a dangerous strategy in at least two ways. First, it signals to other leaders within the NRM that their own presidential ambitions will come to naught until Museveni leaves the political scene – which gives them little reason to wish him good health. At the same time, it has made the president look increasingly out of touch with popular opinion – a risky move in an era in which even old school nationalist leaders such as Robert Mugabe have fallen by the wayside.

The Bobi Wine controversy must be understood against this backdrop. In another year, in a different context, the government might have responded to Wine’s (successful) efforts to help another independent candidate to win a parliamentary by-election in the Arua municipality with a more subtle strategy. But in this particular political moment, Wine represented a more significant threat to the NRM’s authority than usual, and so triggered a more brutal response. As a “youth leader” of 36, Wine is less than half Museveni’s age. Consequently, his campaign has thrown the president’s gerontocracy into sharp relief. At the same time, Wine’s popularity in urban areas stands as a powerful reminder that Museveni’s rule is premised on his control of the rural vote. Over the last decade, the opposition has steadily gained control of towns and cities.  Shorn of the ability to use traditional leaders, patronage and coercion to mobilise support, the NRM typically loses out to Kizza Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change. Put simply, if Uganda was an urban country, Museveni would have lost power some time ago.

While the government’s unacceptable treatment of Wine led him to flee the country – he is now in the United States recovering from his injuries – it has not undermined his influence. Indeed, if anything it has turned a local politician with limited resources and resonance into an internationally known martyr for the opposition cause. As a result, someone that was previously thought of as an independent member of parliament is now being talked about as a potential future presidential candidate.

If the government’s response to Bobi Wine is likely to generate unintended and unwelcome consequences, what of Museveni’s threat to do away with parliament? The first thing to note in this regard is that, as with his response to Wine’s growing popularity, Museveni’s statement is an indication of his mounting frustration – in this case at the number of MPs within the legislature that have called into question government policy over recent months – rather than a symbol of his authority. The second is that the president is unlikely to follow through with his threat. There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, as Michaela Collord has pointed out, Museveni has made similar statements before and they are usually part of a strategy of brinkmanship – to date, the president has yet to follow through on such a threat. Thus, as Nicole Beardsworth has suggested, it is unlikely to happen.
  • Second, as Sam Wilkins has argued, the NRM regime relies on the hard work and political mobilization of Members of Parliament, who provide a crucial link to the grass roots. Shutting the legislature would be counterproductive, “alienating hundreds of people on whom he [Museveni] relies”.
  • Third, shutting the legislature would undermine the myth that Uganda is a democratic regime. In addition to highlighting the authoritarian foundations of the NRM government, it would make it almost impossible for the country’s international partners – who have done their best to overlook Museveni’s failings thus far – to continue providing financial support.

All told, these points suggest that Museveni’s situation is more constrained than it first appears. The threat of an authoritarian crackdown may well force the NRM’s critics on to the back foot, but the president cannot actually follow through with all of his threats without simultaneously undermining the platform on which the legitimacy of his regime depends.

Significantly, leaders who come to rely on making empty threats suffer from a fundamental weakness, namely that they become ever more vulnerable to someone calling their bluff. As Micheal Mutyaba has argued, the conditions now exist both for greater opposition to Museveni’s rule to emerge, and for the president to adopt increasingly authoritarian strategies to maintain political control. The likely consequence of these two tends is growing contestation and a new era of political confrontation. Such a development would be particularly dangerous for Museveni, because it would undermine his claim to be able to deliver peace and order – a claim that has undermined the NRM’s legitimacy ever since it took power in 1986.

Back then, the critical reference point for domestic and international audiences was the incompetent and unstable regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Thirty years on, Ugandans are starting to ask for more, and the NRM is struggling to deliver.

 

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org

Signing of peace agreement is just the start for South Sudan’s broken politics

The signing of a power-sharing agreement between sworn enemies in South Sudan should be a cause for celebration. President Salva Kiir’s tentative deal with his former Vice-President Riek Machar in Khartoum in August is one of the most hopeful things to have happened in the last two years, given the worsening political and humanitarian crises. But it is far from being a solution in itself. The continued mistrust, and the shallowness of the peace process, are in fact real causes for concern.

The situation is remarkable in many ways. Not least is the impact which these leaders’ hostility has had on their fragile country: a third of the population (more than four million people) have been displaced by fighting since 2013, and an estimated seven million people have been affected by food insecurity – some of them severely. The wounds are deep, since these leaders effectively represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer. Politics has become even more polarised along ethnic lines, as have its military forces. There are widespread and well-documented reports of ethnic cleansing, rape, and worse, on the basis of ethnicity. The state forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is increasingly regarded as pursuing the interests of the Dinka group, while Machar’s SPLM-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition) is largely a Nuer force.

The two forces fought each other openly in the capital, Juba, in July 2016 as Machar was forced to flee not just government but the country. He ended up in South Africa where he spent more than a year under effective house arrest, while regional powers sought to restore some kind of calm. So his return to government – as agreed on paper at least – seems like even more of an achievement.

The real concern is that the peace agreement has only been initialled under duress from regional powers – President Kiir was strongly opposed to Machar’s release and any role for him in a future government – rather than having some kind of basis in changing relationships. The negotiations have focussed on issues which look more like a carve up of state resources for the elites involved. The number of vice-presidents is being increased to five (with Machar due to return as First Vice-President). Parliament has been increased to 550 members, with the additional seats divided out under the agreement rather than through any kind of election. Even the government itself has ballooned to 45 ministers (again divided out by faction, with most going to the two largest groups). While the country suffers from one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, patronage and state capture have taken priority.

From new state to failed state

South Sudan is still celebrated as one of the newest states, having become independent in July 2011. (Independence day celebrations were cancelled this year for the third year running due to lack of state funds.) It achieved its sovereignty after decades of war with northern Sudan, which cost millions of lives. The peace process went remarkably smoothly, with a referendum overwhelmingly endorsing the creation of a new state. Analysts who expected Sudan to somehow overturn the process were proven wrong, even though it meant the breakaway nation leaving with nearly all the oil fields which had started to boost the Sudanese economy. There was considerable international support for the SPLA’s difficult transition from guerrilla movement to proto-state. But the ethnic tensions (exploited by Khartoum during the war) and weak, corrupt, or non-existent institutions were always going to be a huge challenge.

Just over two years after independence, the power-sharing government which ushered in the new state fell apart amid mistrust and rivalry between the two leaders in December 2013. Civilians quickly fled as the ethnic nature of the violence became clear almost immediately. Regional powers brokered an unstable deal – not a good precedent for the current agreement – which allowed Machar to return to the capital. But within months the violence broke out again, in the July 2016 clashes during which he was forced to flee.

Consequences of war

The consequences for South Sudan have been dire – and this was a country already deeply impoverished by neglect and war even before it achieved its independence. Food production has been affected by millions of people fleeing their homes, and insecurity preventing the movement of goods. Famine was declared in parts Unity State in February 2017, exactly as predicted, and only a massive international aid effort prevented deaths on an enormous scale. This year has been worse in ways: the World Food Program (WFP) warned of “alarming” levels of food insecurity  with some communities again just “a step away from famine”. Nearly two-thirds of the population (7.1 million people) were facing severe food insecurity by the end of July. The WFP assisted 2.6 million people in May this year alone.

The link between conflict and hunger in South Sudan has been well documented. It is worsened by continued fighting preventing access by humanitarian organisations. South Sudan has been listed as the most dangerous place for aid workers to operate: 28 were killed last year, bringing the total to more than 100 since 2013.

In terms of displacement, 2.47 million are now refugees in neighbouring countries, with more than a million in Uganda. A total of 1.76 million are internally displaced, with about 200,000 seeking shelter at Protection of Civilians sites in or beside UN bases across the country. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has faced a difficult task in trying implement its complex and multi-dimensional mandate to protect civilians (amongst other things), given the hostile attitude of the government. At the UN Security Council, an arms embargo was finally imposed in July through Resolution 2428, which had failed to get enough votes to pass at its last outing in the final days of the Obama administration. The government meanwhile extended President Kiir’s term of office to 2021 with little fuss in July.

Human rights abuses, sexual violence, and the killing of civilians has continued to deepen enmities and erode trust, even as elites talked “peace” in neighbouring capitals. A report by UNMISS and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented atrocities in detail in April, in which the SPLA was implicated among others.

First steps in a peace process?

So, an actual peace process was never more needed. The main sponsor has been the regional body of states (including South Sudan itself) known as IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development). It brokered a cessation of hostilities in December (which is frequently ignored) and effectively gave permission for the release of Riek Machar from house arrest in South Africa in late March (something strongly opposed by President Kiir). Talks principally involving the two groups, along with other less powerful factions, took place in the neighbouring capitals of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. The agreement was initialled in August by most parties in Khartoum, followed by further renegotiations there with a further deal being initialled at on 30th August. Talks on the implementation matrix continued in Khartoum.

But even if the agreement can be implemented – including the tricky questions of power-sharing and reintegration of Riek Machar’s forces into a national army – the problems are far from over. The deal represents a share-out of jobs and resources for those with leverage, rather than a peace process. There are of course many voices of courage in South Sudan, with the vision, humanity, and solidarity to build a future based on co-existence, despite the very hostile environment for civil society organisations. A deal which involves elites and armed elements seeking to advance their interests is not a peace process which can heal the alarming ethnic polarisation of national politics and everyday life in South Sudan. The importance of a process like this is well understood, but the country is a long way from seeing the leadership which would allow this kind of dialogue to emerge.

 

Suggested Reading:

Arensen, Michael J, 2016, If We Leave We Are Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016, International Organization for Migration, South Sudan.

Christian Aid, 2018, In It for the Long Haul? Lessons on Peacebuilding in South Sudan, London and Juba: Christian Aid

Concern Worldwide, 2018, Conflict and Hunger: The Lived Experience of Conflict and Food Insecurity in South Sudan

Jok Madut Jok, 2017, Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, Oneworld Publications.

Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2016, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, Washington DC: Center for Civilians in Conflict.

United Nations, 2018, Letter dated 12 April 2018 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/292

 

Executive oversight in Russia

 

The Russian State Duma does not have a reputation for grilling executive officials. Especially since United Russia – the Putin-supporting “party of power” – has controlled a majority of seats in the 450-seat lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Duma has done little to act as a check on executive behaviour. In that way, it acts as we expect other parliaments do in non-democracies – a source of strength, rather than irritation, for executive actors.

Nevertheless, the State Duma has the formal capacity for some form of executive oversight. During “government hour” sessions, executive officials are invited to respond to questions from deputies. Figure 1 shows the frequency of these sessions, 2005-2017.

Figure 1: Frequency of “government hour” sessions by year, 2005-2017. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The mere fact that these nominal oversight sessions take place does not, of course, tell us if this is more than mere performance. A key question is whether deputies ask needling, critical questions.

Another important question is who is invited to be questioned by deputies. One way to classify Russian executive actors is by whether their respective bodies are controlled directly (formally, at least) by the president or the government. According to article 32 of Federal Constitutional Law number 2 from 1997 (with amendments), the president directly controls the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Defence, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Emergency Situations, as well as a number of federal agencies and services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB). All other executive bodies are formally controlled by the government.

This divide in direct control is found in other states, including Vietnam, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Myanmar. In the latter, for example, the Constitution states that the military controls a number of core bodies, such as the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

We can think of this executive divide in terms of delegation and principal-agent relationships. In most (if not all) regimes, there will be a leader – whether that be, for example, a monarch, president, general secretary, or a collective body, such as a junta. For shorthand, we can refer to them as “autocrats”. At the same time, the executive can contain other actors, to whom responsibility for certain portfolios are delegated. Thus, whereas the “autocrat” likely retains control over sensitive portfolios relating to security and state sovereignty, non-“autocrat” elements of the executive can be delegated portfolios relating to, say, economic policy.

This division is attractive to elites, not least because it allows for blame deflection during periods of economic hardship. The “autocrat” can use other executive actors as a buffer from societal criticism – something that has been on display recently in Iran, where the president, Hassan Rouhani, was recently grilled by legislators over the deteriorating economic situation. The Guardian Council is, therefore, partially shielded from popular opprobrium.

Executive oversight in the legislature also allows “autocrats” to keep tabs on delegated executive portfolios. By subjecting non-“autocrat” elements of the executive to legislative scrutiny, the hope is to reduce possible agency loss – that is, that agents end up pursuing their own interests, rather than those of their principals.

Going back to Russia, we can ask a basic question: Does executive oversight performed by parliamentarians differ when aimed at officials from president-controlled bodies (PCBs) compared to government-controlled bodies (GCBs)?

In a recent article on executive oversight in the Vietnamese National Assembly, Paul Schuler – a political scientist from the University of Arizona – demonstrates that legislators are able to discuss “hot topics” relating to portfolios delegated from the Communist Party of Vietnam to the government. By contrast, “hot topics” relating to the policy areas of those executive portfolios directly controlled by the Party are off limits. The Party, therefore, allows the legislature to engage in executive oversight, but only in areas that will not make the Party vulnerable to direct critique.

Does the same happen in Russia? To get at this, we can ask a simpler question: Are PCB officials subjected to fewer “government hour” sessions in the State Duma than their GCB colleagues? To answer this, Maxim Ananyev – a Lecturer in UCLA’s Political Science Department – Paul Schuler, and I collected data on “government hour” sessions, 2005-2017. Basic information relates to the date of query sessions, as well as the identity of executive officials, and whether they have posts in president- or government-controlled bodies.

The Russian case is particularly interesting, given Vladimir Putin’s stint as prime minister, 2008-2012. Constitutionally barred from holding a third consecutive term in the presidency, Putin made use of the formally semi-presidential nature of the Russian Constitution, moving to the premiership until resuming the presidency in 2012, with Medvedev moving to the prime ministership.

This switch in formal roles is interesting insofar as it means that Putin’s direct control over executive bodies varied over time. Now, some readers will, no doubt, say that formal control means nothing – especially in Russia and especially with regard to Putin. That hunch may well be well-grounded. At the same time, it is an empirical question amenable to study whether Putin’s move to the premiership affected executive oversight behaviour in the State Duma. Indeed, we can generate some expectations. If Putin remained the “autocrat”, 2005-2017, but was not president, 2008-2012, then it is plausible that he would want to use mechanisms to keep tabs on the performance of those bodies he was used to controlling directly – that is, president-controlled bodies – but which were now controlled (formally, at least) by President Medvedev. Executive oversight in the Duma could be one such mechanism. If that were the case, then we would expect to see increased PCB oversight, 2008-2012.

Figure 2 presents data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by year. The horizontal dashed line marks the percentage of all executive bodies that are controlled directly by the president. If PCBs were overseen at the same “rate” as GCBs (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole), then “government hour” appearance figures should fall around this line.

Figure 2: Percentage of all “government hour” appearances involving officials from president-controlled bodies by year, 2005-2017. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. The dashed vertical lines mark the approximate break points between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies. The dotted horizontal line marks the average percentage of all executive bodies that are PCBs for the period as a whole. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The pattern is striking. During Medvedev’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in PCB oversight. On Putin’s return to the presidency, there was a dramatic decrease in PCB oversight. This pattern is consistent with the idea that Putin used “government hour” sessions to keep tabs on president-controlled bodies during his time as prime minister. It is plausible that he was able to do this, given the stronger ties he had (compared to Medvedev) with legislative agenda-setting actors, such as the State Duma speakers during his premiership, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Naryshkin. When Putin was president himself, however, PCB oversight was largely lower than would be expected if PCB officials were scrutinised at the same rate as GCB officials (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole).

Presidential inaugurations in Russia take place on 7 May. That means that 2008 and 2012 need to be split into Putin and Medvedev periods. Figures 3 and 4 present data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by presidential periods within these two years.

Figures 3 and 4: Left figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2008 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Right figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2012 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The patterns are consistent with the picture provided by figure 2: PCB oversight was higher during Medvedev’s presidency than during Putin’s presidencies.

One clear alternative reason for why president-controlled bodies might be overseen by legislators with less vigour than government-controlled bodies is that PCBs handle sensitive subjects. The regime leadership might make clear that such topics are off bounds for parliamentary scrutiny. However, if this were the case, we should not observe changes in PCB oversight across the Putin and Medvedev presidential periods, as the sensitivity of executive bodies should remain relatively stable over time. But we, clearly, do not observe this.

There are a few anomalies with respect to the “autocrat” delegation explanation, however. Firstly, 2008 – why did PCB oversight remain low during Medvedev’s first year in the presidency? Secondly, 2013 – why did PCB oversight not fall even more dramatically on Putin’s return to the presidency? And, finally, 2017 – what explains the upshot in PCB oversight?

Along with answering these questions, much more analysis remains to be done. Most importantly, we need to explore whether meaningful oversight of the executive does, in fact, take place during “government hour” sessions. And we need to entertain alternative explanations. For example, might increased PCB oversight during Medvedev’s presidency reflect his preference for more transparency or checks on executive power?

Regardless of the real answer, this preliminary analysis joins the growing body of work challenging the idea that legislatures in authoritarian regimes are merely ‘rubber stamps’. Evidence from Russia suggests this can involve oversight of the executive in parliament, but needling questions are directed at bodies not directly controlled by Putin.