Monthly Archives: June 2019

Outgoing Slovak President Andrej Kiska Starts a New Political Party

Today, two days after his five-year presidential term expired, former Slovak president Andrej Kiska officially announces the launch of his new political party. This is an unprecedented step in the country whose directly elected but largely ceremonial presidency normally represents a destination for ambitious politicians who wish for an honorable culmination of their political careers. Things seem to be changing, though: Kiska, a novice himself, was replaced by another political newcomer, an environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová, who also started her political career by winning the country’s presidency. Moreover, since 1918, when the Czechoslovak Republic was established, no Czechoslovak, Czech, and Slovak president ever returned to active party politics.

Earlier last year, Kiska decided to complete his term and quit active politics altogether. After the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in February last year that exposed links between elements of the criminal underworld and representatives of some state institutions, he announced he would forge a new political party. That was the only way, he claimed, that would allow him to fight against what he came to call “the mafia state.”

Although Kiska departed from the tradition of outgoing presidents retiring from political life, while in office, he nominally remained above party politics: He formally started collecting the required 10.000 signatures needed to establish his new party only after his presidential term ended.

Kiska acknowledged that he was in regular contacts with the former Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, a popular politician who quit politics in 2012. However, despite some speculations, Radičová said she would not return to politics and claimed she only provided political consultations to the outgoing president. Kiska’s new associates include a former Member of the European Parliament, a former spokesperson of the For Decent Slovakia civic initiative, a former Slovak Ambassador to NATO, and mayors of several towns elected in the 2018 local elections. It is widely expected that a few more senior politicians will join the party in the coming weeks and months.

Early opinion polls suggested potentially wide support for the project. In March 2019, some 9% voters said they would “definitely” vote for Kiska’s new party, and additional 31% said they would “probably” vote for it. Subsequent polls brought more mixed results: In May, the same agency reported a 10.8% support, while in June, another agency reported 6.2% support for the party. It would be a mistake to make far-reaching conclusions based on these assessments. Chances are the new party will become a relevant player in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March next year. As the massive anti-government protests in 2018 indicated, there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the parties of the current governing coalition. Furthermore, as first indicated in the November 2018 local elections, a new generation of political leaders can challenge the positions of the governing parties independently of the current parliamentary opposition. 

This “new wave” politicians represent a natural ally and also a potential competition for Kiska’s new party. The presidential aura and a level of “natural support” for the head of state are Kiska’s substantial assets, as is the fact that as a well-off former businessman, Andrej Kiska has money to finance the early period of his party. On the other hand, his competitors-cum-natural-allies have been in the campaign mode since late last year and were able to score two crucial victories at the national level: Zuzana Čaputová, who won the March presidential elections, was a nominee of the Progressive Slovakia (PS), a new liberal party, where she served as the deputy chairwoman until her election victory. And an electoral coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu (Together), another new center-right formation, won the May European Parliament elections, gaining 20.1% and four out of 13 Slovak seats in the European Parliament. The PS/Spolu alliance now regularly polls double-digit numbers. Leaders of the two parties have been in contact with Kiska since 2018 and reportedly offered him close cooperation, but their talks did not result in any tangible arrangement. On June 14, just before Kiska’s presidential mandate expired, the two leading representatives of the coalition held a joint press conference. There they announced they would form a formal electoral alliance for the 2020 parliamentary elections. They also repeatedly appealed to Kiska to join them. This time, however, the tone, timing, and wording of the appeal suggested the PS/Spolu gained more confidence and they no longer talked to Kiska from the positions of junior partners.

Kiska’s new party will also face formidable opponents in other parts of the political spectrum. The governing Smer-Social Democracy, still led by the former Prime Minister Fico, misses no opportunity to criticize Kiska for his performance in public office. Smer’s electoral performance has been worsening ever since its landslide victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, Fico himself unsuccessfully attempted to exit party politics by running for a post in the Constitutional Court. Despite defeat in the EP elections, Fico has withstood pressures to give up the party leadership and is set to lead the party to the next elections.

Furthermore, opposition to the current government comes both from liberal/moderate PS/Spolu positions and from the anti-system quarters. The extreme-right Peoples Party our Slovakia (ĽSNS) scored its best result, reaching 12% and gaining two seats in the EP. Besides, supporters of the controversial judge Štefan Harabin, who finished third in the presidential elections, also work on establishing a new party. Both ĽSNS and Harabin portray Kiska as the agent of anti-Slovak cosmopolitan interests, and their message is spread by the country’s expanding disinformation websites. 

Kiska’s new party is to be called “Za ľudí” (For People) and is projected as a centrist force, appealing to both conservative and liberal voters. It is too early to guess its electoral prospects and political future. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that high approval ratings enjoyed by President Kiska are unlikely to be translated into equally high support for party chairman Kiska.

Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


 

When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9 brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.

The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.

At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.

Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting] genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters” in major cities.

However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.

This situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated “power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and unpredictable “will of the people”.

Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.

What happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.

Obviously stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the countryside, as well as the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of the Equestrian Federation.

The only surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.

Kossanov’s nomination was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections. In fact, domestic experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”

At first glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted his victory and offered congratulations.

However, there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
candidates
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
Turnout
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and the BBC reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet, signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up, Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election observers.

On election day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700 people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder. This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov, for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.

It is too early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position. The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime turbulences.

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

On May 19, 2019, several extraordinary elections were held in Georgia. In particular, the Mayor’s extraordinary elections were held in 5 cities: Zugdidi, Marneuli, Zestafoni, Chiatura and Khulo. By-elections of Local self-governance councils – Sakrebulos were held in 8 electoral districts: Sagarejo, Akhmeta, Adigeni, Zestafoni, Chiatura, Tkibuli, Tskaltubo and Ozurgeti. In addition, elections were held in the capital city of Tbilisi, Mtatsminda majoritarian district, where the MP was elected. This parliamentary mandate became free after the majoritarian MP Salome Zurabishvili became the President of Georgia. As for the Mayor’s extraordinary elections, some of them were detained by the self-regulatory bodies, and the second one was addressing the council for early termination of authority. The city mayors were elected directly in 2017, and the termination of the power in such a short period had a lot of questions in the opposition and non-governmental sector. The corruption scandal was also preceded by the suspension of some of them. Also, the termination of the authority of Sakrebulo deputies were based on their own application, due to absence of sessions or on the basis of the decision of the court.

At first we can think that these elections are one of the usual election processes, but they had a great deal of importance both for the government and the opposition before the parliamentary election of 2020, when the second term of the Georgian Dream ruling party expires. This midterm election was to examine some forces before the next parliamentary elections for the government and the opposition. The main battle was not held between the United National Movement and the United Opposition and the ruling party. Candidates were also nominated by other opposition parties for the elections but the opposition could notmake coalition before the election. It is possible to say that the ruling party has more advantages in terms of utilization of financial and non-governmental resources in this election. Observer organizations noted that the elections were largely peaceful, but it was also pointed out that observers have observed voters’ bribing, illegal agitation, violation of voting secrets and unauthorized persons at the polling stations.[1]

In the mid-term elections, Zugdidi mayoral elections were the most important where Sandra Roelofs, the former First Lady of Georgia, the wife of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili was nominated as a candidate. Opposition parties and various experts also noted that the opposition had a chance to win in this election district. The victory of the election in this district for the government was strategically important because he did not want to let the opposition, in this case the victory of the former ruling party Candidate, because it was negatively affected on the political rating of ruling party. That is why a particularly tense fight was held in this election and finally the ruling party was declared the winner in the first round. According to the vote count, the ruling party’s candidate won 54.18 percent (30 470), while Sandra Roelofs candidate of “National Movement” received 42.84 percent of votes (24 095).[2]

Candidate of the opposition Sandra Roelofs said on the same day that she do not recognize the ruling party’s election results, according to which his opponent, Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Shengelia won. He said that it was not the elections, it was very simple, joint operation of the CSU and criminals was held in Zugdidi. It’s unprecedented, unprecedented sadism, intimidation, intimidation, and criminal all that can be imagined. [3] He also said that if the second round would be announced, I would continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi. [4]  However, the ruling candidate was declared the winner in the first round.

In fact, in the first round of May 19, 2019, all candidates of “Georgian Dream” won the Mayor’s extraordinary and Sakrebulo midterm elections. [5] The only district where the second round of elections was appointed was Tbilisi Mtatsminda district where in the second round of parliamentary elections the candidate of European Georgia and Free Democrats Shalva Shavgulidze and Candidate of “Georgian Dream” Lado Kakhadze participated because no candidate in the first round could not get more than 50% of the votes.

The second round was held on June 9, 2019 in this election district. Both candidates were convinced of victory, but the activation of citizens was important for the opposition and in case of high voter turnout of opposition, the chance of opposition was increased. Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the election and said that “the preliminary data shows that the big advantage is to congratulate Mr. Lado Kakhadze.[6] ” 75% of the votes are numbered and 62, 5% are “dreams Lado Kakhadze has a candidate, and 37, 5% has Shalva Shavgulidze. [7] In turn, the opposition has testified that it is completely unclear to Kakha Kaladze’s preliminary congratulation and the announcement of Mayor’s announcement is not clear for the final results of the elections.[8] Later, the opposition candidate admitted defeat and said that it was a badly organized government, not for democracy and the government had made a dirty campaign against him.[9]

It is important who will win in Mtatsminda election district, which is a kind of rehearsal for the 2020 elections. Support of the opposition parties by candidates who took support in the first round of elections for the second round was very important. It should be noted that the UNM said that party will support the opposition’s candidacy in the second round. As for the some other political parties, party “Girchi”, as well as the “Civil Movement” [10], said they would not support any candidate. Independent candidates Koba Davitashvili and Grigol Gegelia also did not call for voters to support any candidate. [11] Thus, in the second round of the elections, the unity of the opposition was important for the defeat of the government, but such an extensive agreement could not be achieved.

Finally we can say that the ruling party, despite its low trust[12], managed to win the mid-term elections and saved some extent the political preservation, but it is hard to say what the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections will be completed in Georgia.


[1]ISFED: The voting day passed without significant violations, 20.05.2019. 00:32,  https://droa.ge/?p=47556

[2] After counting all the precincts in Zugdidi, “Georgian Dream” candidate Giorgi Shengelia wins by 54.18 percent, 03:12, 20.05.2019, https://1tv.ge/news/zugdidshi-yvela-saarchevno-ubnis-datvlis-shemdeg-qartuli-ocnebis-kandidati-giorgi-shengelia-54-18-procentit-imarjvebs/

[3] Sandra Roelofs: We do not recognize their victory, especially their elections Monday, May 20,2019 – http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/149040-sandra-rulovsichven-ar-vaghiarebt-mat-gamarjvebas-mit-umetes-mat-archevnebs

[4] If the second round will be announced, I am ready to continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi – Sandra Roelofs, May 20, 2019, http://liberali.ge/news/view/45192/tu-meore-turi-gamotskhaddeba-mzad-var-gavagrdzelo-brdzola-zugdidis-sakhelit—sandra-rulovsi

[5] Mayor’s extraordinary and municipal elections were won by “Georgian Dream” candidates, 20.05.2019, https://droa.ge/?p=47577

[6] Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the elections, https://on.ge/story/38851-კალაძემ-კახაძეს-გამარჯვება-არჩევნების-დამთავრებიდან-20-წუთში-მიულოცა

[7] Lado Kakhadze 62.5%, Shalva Shavgulidze 37,5% – Kakha Kaladze publishes data obtained by “Dream”, 10 June 2019, http://www.rustavi2.ge/ka/news/135543

[8] Elene Khoshtaria is absolutely incomprehensible to Kakha Kaladze’s pre-congratulations, June 09, 2019https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29989839.html

[9] Shalva Shavgulidze admitted defeat: “We look at the fact that the parliamentary candidate will be the candidate of the government”, http://guardian.ge/44634-shalva-shavgulidzem-damarckheba-aghiara-chven-thvals-vustsorebth-im-faqts-rom-parlamentis-tsevri-khelisuflebis-kandidati-iqneba.html

[10] Levan Ioseliani, former candidate of Mtatsminda Majoritarian MP, does not support any candidate in the second round, 29-05-2019, https://palitranews.ge/video/mtatsmindis-mazhoritarobis-qofili-kandidati-levan-ioseliani-meore-turshi-mkhars-arts-ert-kandidats-ar-uchers

[11] https://civil.ge/ka/archives/307019

[12] If the elections are held tomorrow, 17% of the respondents will vote for the Georgian Dream – NDI, 21 May, 2019, https://on.ge/story/37947-ხვალ-რომ-არჩევნები-ტარდებოდეს-ქართულ-ოცნებას-გამოკითხულთა-17-დაუჭერდა-მხარს-ndi

Honduras – President Juan Orlando Hernández confronts migrant caravans to the United States, surveillance of the DEA, and mass protests

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the University of Costa Rica.

Juan Orlando Hernández is the first re-elected president in the history of Honduras, in highly contested elections held on November 26, 2017, which left many doubts about whether minimum standards of free and fair elections were met. The process by which the presidential re-election was made possible was already highly questioned.

It has been a year and six months since the inauguration of the second presidency of Hernandez, time during which has had to navigate through many difficulties. The political, social and economic situation in Honduras is more complicated than what Juan Orlando Hernández had to face during his first term (2014-2017). The once very popular president elected under the banner of the National Party of Honduras, is now getting one of the worst approval ratings since transition to democracy.

The country has been international news in recent months due to several massive caravans of migrants marching to the United States. The US President, Donald Trump, far from offering help to tackle the roots of the problem causing emigration to the United States from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), has hardened its foreign policy towards Central America, withdrawing millions of dollars in aid under the premise that their governments are not making enough to prevent emigration.

For several weeks now the government of Juan Orlando has been challenged by strikes and mass demonstrations. What began as a protest against a plan that seemingly would privatize education and health services, became a demand for the resignation of Hernández. As if that were not enough, a few days ago it was known that President Hernández was being investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to possible drug trafficking. It is not clear if the case has been closed or he still remains under investigation.

The migrant caravans

A year ago, a caravan of migrants headed to the United States started in Honduras, and caught the attention of the US government. Immigration overall has been one of the prioritized themes in US foreign policy towards Central America. At the time, President Trump gave a loath coverage of the issue, by just threatening in social media of sending troops at the Southern border to prevent the caravan to get into American soil. Nonetheless, it is no novelty that even during his campaign for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump held a hardline position towards Central American immigration into the United States.

But that first caravan was not the only one that formed; in fact, on October 12, 2018 a bigger one got on its way to the US. This caravan has been the largest and more mediatic in the past few years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that the caravan consisted of around 7,000 people, although some media outlets have given different numbers. The conjuncture caught the immigration offices and governments of the countries involved (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico) with little time and resources to handle the situation.

The circumstances in which these caravans formed are not new. Emigration from most Central American countries into the United States has traditionally been very high. Comparing the census rounds of 2000 and 2010, it is estimated that the population of Honduran migrants who left to the US increased during that period 191.1%, followed by Guatemala (180.3%), and El Salvador (151.7%) (Carlos Sandoval García, No Más Muros: Exclusión y Migración Forzada En Centroamérica. San José: Editorial UCR, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales).

In Central America, and in the case of the Northern coast of Honduras the problems are generally poverty and unemployment. There are historic conflicts that push people to leave, including land issues, and forced displacement that many farmers and peasants have suffered from agro-export businesses. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, is where the first migrant caravan formed to leave to the United States.

There are no clear reasons why migrant caravans formed. A possible explanation is that opposition movements against Juan Orlando Hernández have been helping them to organize them, in order to embarrass his government and promote instability. They gained momentum with more migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala joining them.

Albeit some in the caravan have agreed on staying in Mexico as refugees, some have desisted on their attempt by their own will, returning to Honduras; others less fortunate have been deported along the way. Some others do not lose hope in reaching their desired destination. This first mediatic big caravan, did not succeed in its attempt to enter into the US as asylum seekers; nonetheless, it got very close, as its final destination got to be Tijuana, a Mexican location near the American southern border. The uncertainty, high inequality and poverty conditions do not seem to be solved any time soon, as it is becoming more of a rule than an exceptional crisis. At the time of writing, more caravans have been organized in El Salvador and Guatemala too, noticeable, at least three have departed. By April, another caravan got going, having its starting point in San Pedro Sula, as the first one did. Thus, is expected that some other caravans might be encouraged to leave from the Northern Triangle.

What is to be seen, too, is the course in the immigration policies of these countries involved as they got pressures from very different actors, specially Mexico which connects between the US and the Northern Triangle, and the Trump Administration, as it is coming towards the end of its four-year term. But, importantly too, is the fate of these people who escape from the conditions of their countries, since in most cases, people who choose to migrate this urgently do not so for their own sake; many of them have no control over the causes of their situation.

Strikes and demonstrations

The strikes and social protests began at the end of April this year, when the government was preparing to put into effect two highly controversial executive decrees, PCM-026 and PCM-027. With these norms, the Executive was declaring a national emergency in the health and education systems. The decrees proposed to create special commissions in each sector. These would be responsible for preparing national plans for transforming the systems that provide the healthcare and education public services. In addition, it created a budget for salary settlements in case of dismissal.

The confusing wording in these documents about the potential dismissal of employees, was interpreted by the unions of educators and workers of the health sector as a plan to privatize these services. Although Hernandez repealed the decrees, the protests have been transformed into a movement to demand the resignation of Hernández. Nonetheless, the roots of the problem are also to be found in the underfunding of these services, which have received significant cuts over the past decade, impoverishing the already low quality services.

The DEA investigates Hernández over possible drug trafficking

In the last week of May, it was reported that Juan Orlando Hernández and several of his collaborators were being investigated for drug trafficking by the US Drug Enforcement Administration under the suspicion that he was taking part of “large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States.” The report was released by the Southern District of New York, which has not clarified if the investigations continue.

The President’s brother and former Honduran deputy to the National Congress, Antonio Hernández Alvarado, is waiting for trial in the US after being arrested in November 2018, and accused of cocaine trafficking, and weapon offences. It is suspected that Juan Orlando Hernández would have participated in the criminal activities with which he relates to his brother at least in 2013.

Juan Orlando Hernández is undoubtedly a skilled politician. As stated by The Economist, he is a politician with Machiavellian talents. A lawyer who was previously trained in the Honduran Army, a conservative and supporter of the National Party of Honduras, a right-wing party, Hernández comes from Lempira, one of the poorest departments in Honduras; although he himself has not experienced poverty. This politician has achieved what many thought unthinkable in Honduras: the presidential re-election. Only a few years ago, the issue of re-election was a taboo whose insinuation cost former President Manuel Zelaya Rosales the presidency through a military coup.

Hernández was a poster child of the International Monetary Fund because of the fiscal discipline with which he governed during his first term—a strong program of fiscal austerity was imposed throughout his government—with ambitious plans for development. He is trying to implement special economic zones that would attract—they argue—foreign direct investment in different parts of the country. He also manoeuvred to obtain in his first term some of the best popularity ratings for a president in Honduras, a country with high poverty, inequality and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But now, as mentioned, his popularity ratings have plunged in his second term. Possibly, Hernández expected to start his second term with favorable conditions to accomplish his political, and economic goals. Perhaps he foresaw that it was not going to be an easy term due to the dubious method that lifted term-limits, letting him seek re-election but prompting in response mass protests, and a campaign to discredit him. He dodged skilfully many of those attacks. Nonetheless, this time the President is facing probably one of the most difficult periods of his career as a politician.

Czech Prime Minister’s Troubles and Presidential “Kisses of Death”

In spring 2019, Czech politics was largely shaped by the European Parliament election campaign and election results as well as by ongoing street protests against controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to allegations of conflict of interests and other affairs.

Before turning to the results of the vote for the European Parliament in the Czech Republic, I will summarize problems Andrej Babiš is currently facing. Anti-Babiš demonstrations have been regularly organized by a civic initiative called „Millions of Moments for Democracy“, which seeks to attract the general public’s attention to multiple problems related to Babiš’s political and notably economic interests. First, is in a gigantic conflict of interest because of his business conglomerate “Agrofert” of some 250 companies. Agrofert receives tens of millions of euros each year in EU funding, mostly farm subsidies. Even though Agrofert was placed in trust funds in 2017 to comply with a new conflict of interest law, Babiš has command of trust funds that control the Agrofert group and Babiš’s cabinet formulates farming, environmental and other policies that affect Agrofert business. Since Babiš came to power, there has been a clear rise in the total amount of subsidies for the Agrofert conglomerate. The subsidies outweigh the amount of taxes paid by Agrofert to the state. The above civic as well as partisan opposition, was fueled by a European Commission’s report that confirms that Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest. The Czech branch of Transparency International which initiated the EU probe estimated the Czech Republic would have to return about 19 million euros in EU subsidies. Consequently, the Czech government will be obliged to claim the money back from Agrofert. The opposition Pirate Party claimed it would seek a vote of no confidence in the minority cabinet led by Babiš. However, the government may count on a solid base of support in the Chamber of Deputies. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, have proved reliable support parties.

However, this is not the only instance of conflict of interests for Babiš. Agrofert is the owner of two national newspapers with high circulation, several magazines and a radio station, a fact that allows Babiš to significantly affect the media atmosphere in the country, including his own media image. Babiš also faces the charge of the alleged misuse of 2 mil euros in EU subsidy. Moreover, Babiš has been criticized for having sacked the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek, who resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped up their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial over the above-mentioned affair of misappropriating an EU subsidy. Mrs. Marie Benešová, President’s Zeman advisor, was appointed to replace him at the head of the Ministry of Justice. Protesters complain that Benešová may hinder the independent work of judges and affect the final outcome of the trial.

Despite these serious problems which would likely derail the political careers of most politicians elsewhere, Babiš remains the dominant figure of Czech party politics. This is exemplified by the fact that his political party (officially called “movement”) – ANO 2011 – won a relative majority in the European Parliament elections. Sure, his victory was not as great as expected by many commentators and polls, still, ANO 2011 gained two more seats in comparison to the 2014 EP elections. Overall, opposition parties won a majority of 12 out of 21 MEPs, whereas the ruling parties, including the two support parties scored 9 MEPs.

To explain the dominance of ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic is not an easy task. The party has been a ruling party since 2014 (as a junior coalition party 2014-2017). One could expect the gradual decline of its popularity, as has been the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) that has been in power together with ANO 2011 since 2014 (in 2014-2017 as the leading coalition party). ČSSD and ANO exchanged roles after ANO won in the 2017 elections. It could be generally argued that in contrast to the ČSSD, Andrej Babiš and his business-firm party has been skillful in communicating its policies and political successes to the voters. Babiš is a charismatic figure and remained a popular chairman of the party, portraying himself as a successful businessman which made him also a successful politician. He was able to reap major credit for rising pensions and for a good economic performance of the country, including rising GDP per capita and notably almost non-existent unemployment. His party uses efficient political marketing and promotes Andrej Babiš as a leader who is able to deliver the policies that most people wish for.

In contrast, the ČSSD failed in the elections and gained no MEP. Its voters deserted to ANO and other political parties. The ČSSD lacks charismatic figures, clear policy messages and remains torn between a liberal pro-European wing on the one hand and a national-conservative Eurosceptical wing on the other hand. Some former ČSSD’s voters cannot forgive the party for being in the ruling coalition with Babiš’ ANO 2011. Other voters, who value liberal democratic principles, opt for other parties, including the Czech Pirate Party. Traditional left-wing voters may consider Babiš as more skillful than the ČSSD in securing social benefits. Shortly before the EP elections,  ČSSD’s reputation might have been negatively affected also by the fact that the ČSSD’s Minister of Culture, Antonín Staněk, demonstrated a lack of competence and resigned. It is uncommon that ministers of culture, a generally weak portfolio with a small budget, attract so much attention. In media terms, Staněk was originally almost an invisible minister. Media focused on him only two times, both times unfavorably. First, he participated in the presentation of a controversial book written by a communist MP, Miroslav Grebeníček, who strongly criticized financial compensetion to churches in the Czech Republic. The churches were deprived of their properties during the 1948-1989 Communist dictatorship and in 2013 the right-wing coalition pushed trhough a bill which introduced the compensation. Second, Staněk recalled the director of the National Gallery in Prague as well as the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. The arguments that were to support the recall of both directors appeared unconvincing and led to a number of protests and petitions against Staněk who eventually resigned from office. The ČSSD was pictured as a party, which lacks enough competent persons to fill ministerial posts.

There is a special feature of the Czech politics that is related to the ČSSD electoral disaster in 2019. There has been a tradition of (at least rhetorically) non-partisan presidents. At the same time, however, the Czech presidents have repeatedly attempted to form a loyal party in the Chamber of Deputies. However, once they openly supported any political party, the party failed in the elections. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “the kiss of death”, can be consistently and repeatedly illustrated by all the three Czech presidents. None of them was able to create solid partisan support in the Chamber of Deputies. From public opinion surveys, it can be inferred that voters insist on a non-partisan president who is not directly associated with any political party loyal to the head of state.[1] As for the most recent case of the kiss of death, Miloš Zeman strongly advocated for ČSSD’s involvement in Babiš’s cabinet in 2017. At the March 2019 ČSSD party congress, Zeman praised the party for having joined the coalition and made it clear he would vote for the party, which received less than 5 percent in the EP elections. Of course, Zeman’s kiss of death can be hardly identified as the primary source of the ČSSD’s debacle, still it has confirmed this peculiar pattern of Czech politics.



[1]
M. Brunclík and M.
Kubát, Parliamentarism,
Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe
 (London and
New York: Routledge, 2019), 110-113

Latvia – President Egils Levits

The next President of Latvia will be Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union – Egils Levits. The newly elected President will begin his term of office on 8 July 2019.

Egils Levits was elected in an open vote by the Parliament of Latvia in the first round of voting on 29 May 2019 with the backing of the ruling parliamentary majority. Following a constitutional amendment in January this year that changed parliamentary procedures for presidential elections from a closed to an open vote [see my previous post here], MPs cast their vote simultaneously for the candidates nominated for President using ballot papers.

There were three Presidential candidates – Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union Egils Levits, Ombudsman Juris Jansons and MP Didzis Šmits. 8 MPs voted for Juris Jansons, 24 MPs supported Didzis Šmits, and 61 voted for Levits. In accordance with the revised Constitution of Latvia, Levits was elected president with a majority of not fewer than 51 votes.

This was the second time Egils Levits had been officially nominated for the post of president. Four years ago, Levits conceded to current State President Raimonds Vējonis (2015-1019) in the penultimate round of the Presidential election.

Newly elected President Levits has promised to be the President of all nationalities. He will represent both Latvians living in Latvia and those who live abroad. Levits has stressed that he will support greater solidarity in Latvia so that everyone can feel valued and belonging to the country.

Egils Levits was born in Riga in June 1955. He emigrated with his parents to Germany from the Soviet Union in 1972. In Germany, Levits obtained a degree at the University of Hamburg in law and political science. In 1990 he returned to Latvia and was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence of Latvia. Levits was the Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to Germany and Switzerland (1992-1993), Austria, Switzerland and Hungary (1994-1995); he was Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Justice, and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs (1993-1994); he has served as Conciliator at the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration within the OSCE, and been a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration; and he was elected as Judge at the European Court of Human Rights in 1995, re-elected in 1998 and 2001. Egils Levits has numerous publications on constitutional and administrative law, law reform and European Community law. He was a Judge at the Court of Justice since 11 May 2004.

Levits has expressed his determination to promote necessary reforms in the country, even if they are unpopular. According to him, it is quite normal for political forces, groups or individuals to exercise their interests in a democracy. Levits has stated that supporting clarity of common interests is a very important task for the newly elected president.

In 2019, Levits published the book “Will of a state: Ideas and thoughts for Latvia 1985–2018”, a fundamental legal, political and moral reasoning regarding the existence, meaning and essence of the Latvian nation, on the relations of citizens with the state and successful governance. Levits states in his book: “For a nation to exist it must not only be aware of the past, but, above all, it needs the will to build the future. It is a common will.”

The 10th President of Latvia believes that “the work on Latvia’s statehood never ends. It is our duty to work and make sure our future generations inherit a strong, secure and green Latvia”. It is his declared intent to focus his presidency on these priorities.