Sad and untimely passing of Robert Elgie

We are profoundly sad to share news of the sudden passing of our dear friend, colleague, and founding editor of the Presidential Power blog, Professor Robert Elgie. Robert’s kind, gentle, and unstinting generosity as an academic, mentor, and friend will be greatly missed. Our deep condolences are with his family.

Robert’s funeral will take place Tuesday, July 23, in Dublin. More details on the arrangements can be found under this link.

South Africa – Ramaphosa faces populist pushback

This is a guest post by Dr. Jason Robinson, Oxford Analytica

While trying to inspire a nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa is hamstrung by those within the ruling ANC and outside who are seeking to derail reform efforts.

Two months on from the May general election, an ongoing populist pushback led by allies of former President Jacob Zuma (2009-18) is distracting Ramaphosa’s focus and posing serious governance risks.

Restoring the state

Voters and investors alike hoped after the May 8 polls that Ramaphosa would quickly move to unveil various measures to reform government, boost economic growth and curb unemployment. However, such hopes have largely been dashed.

Key turnaround plans for state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom and South African Airways (SAA) have yet to be unveiled, while Zuma’s allies in the ANC, in particular Secretary-General Ace Magashule, are regularly undermining Ramaphosa’s authority with statements contrary to party and government policy, spooking both markets and citizens alike.

Even some of his supposed allies are causing Ramaphosa problems, with the president recently forced to take national and provincial officials to task for contrasting public utterances on controversial e-tolls.

All the while, economic growth remains stagnant, rampant unemployment persists, and high crime and insecurity is a pressing (longstanding) concern; troops from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are shortly about to deployed to gang-plagued areas of the Western Cape province after a recent spike in killings.

Many of the predicaments facing Ramaphosa are undoubtedly not of his own doing, but rather the damage wrought by what he has previously dubbed ‘nine wasted years’ under Zuma.

Key among these are the corrosive undermining of key institutions through ‘state capture’, including the country’s law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.  

Since taking office 18 months ago, Ramaphosa has begun to repair their functions, with a newly installed head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) bolstered by a new anti-graft unit.

Similarly, an overhaul of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), once a shining light of South African governance but gradually decimated during Zuma’s tenure, should gradually help overturn declining tax returns and help to improve currently subdued growth prospects.

Shortly after the May election, Ramaphosa appointed a new streamlined cabinet, trimming the number of cabinet ministers from 36 to 28, with an avowed goal of more effective governance and service delivery, and giving long overdue policy certainty in key sectors.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly cognisant of his still precarious hold over his party and forced to placate the ANC’s alliance partners, Ramaphosa was forced to keep the same number of deputy ministers, in addition to retaining several poorly performing officials (including Zuma allies) in the interests of increasingly illusory party ‘unity’.

Similarly, tainted ANC figures pervade parliament, with several of those implicated in ongoing state capture revelations recently selected to head up various legislative committees, reaffirming public perceptions of a largely unreformed ANC.

Populist pushback and attacks from within

Yet while core state institutions can, over time, be repaired, perhaps one of the most problematic legacies of the Zuma tenure is the stifling of South Africa’s policy space replete with a populist resurgence.

For all the goodwill that Ramaphosa still has both at home and abroad, even as the hopes of quick post-election reforms have largely been dashed, this pushback represents a dangerous long-term challenge.

Not only does it threaten to derail Ramaphosa’s reform programme but, in the worst-case scenario, it could leave openings for his ouster and space for a populist figurehead to ascend to the ANC leadership once more.

Such infection of public discourse has been evident in the recent (largely redundant) debates over the the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), with Magashule and others resurrecting the trojan horse of altering its scope and mandate, including a potential policy of quantitative easing, which sent markets reeling and the South African rand tumbling.

Similarly, a renewed clash between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkwhebane and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, a key Ramaphosa ally, reflects the latest deflection tactics on the part of the Zuma-aligned elite.

In a July 5 report on alleged maladministration at SARS, Mkhwebane accused Gordhan of creating an illegal ‘rogue unit’ during his time as SARS commissioner (1999-2009), and separately that (as minister) he lied over meetings with the controversial Zuma-aligned Guptas, after previously stating that he had not met members of the business family, but later clarifying that he may have on one occasion.

Mkhwebane mandated the president to take disciplinary action against Gordhan within 30 days; the latter has lodged an urgent court application to interdict the report and its remedial findings.

While Mkhwebane’s charges against Gordhan may come to naught, amid apparent investigative failings and questionable understanding of both the law and her constitutional mandate, they are an unwelcome distraction for Ramaphosa given the host of pressing political issues currently facing him.

Although Mkhwebane is viewed as a Zuma surrogate after repeatedly erratic and politicised findings, she has received the backing of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have long tried to sideline Gordhan.

Last week, EFF legislators called Gordhan a “constitutional delinquent” and attempted to disrupt his budget speech, before they were removed from parliament.

In bitter contrast, Mkwhebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, showed just how South Africa’s Chapter 9 institutions (eg, independent electoral commission, human rights commission) could hold the executive to account, when led by a capable individual.

When the ANC stood firm behind Zuma as graft and state capture allegations proliferated during the end of his tenure, it was Madonsela who shone a light on the unconstitutional upgrades to Zuma’s personal homestead at Nkandla, and later the problematic state capture allegations involving Zuma, his associates and the Gupta family.

Mkhwebane’s approach thus puts Ramaphosa and his allies in a substantial institutional and public relations bind.

Should the president push for her ouster by the ANC in parliament, something backed by several opposition parties, Ramaphosa will be accused of the very kind of executive overreach perpetrated by his predecessor. Similarly, given Mkhwebane is shortly expected to release a report into donations to Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign, such a move could be portrayed as politically motivated.

Plus ca change?

In his State of the Nation Address last month, Ramaphosa outlined key strategic goals for a prospective two terms and ten years in office, including tackling hunger; getting 2 million more young people into employment; raising economic growth above that of population growth; halving violent crime; and improving child educational outcomes.

However, like so many of the government’s stated aims over the past decade, the problem is not for want of ambition, but rather governance and implementation. While Ramaphosa has taken steps to halt the rot across national government, corruption pervades at the provincial and municipal levels: only 18 of 257 municipalities received a clean audit in fiscal year 2017/18.

Ramaphosa’s allies speak to a calculated long game in the president’s cautious and methodical approach, arguing the consensus-seeker and pragmatist will ultimately (indirectly) sideline many of his enemies as the capacity of law enforcement agencies are gradually restored, and anti-corruption cases gain traction.

Nevertheless, while the deflection tactics of Magashule, Mkhwebane and the EFF may be transparent to most outside observers, they are successfully muddying the waters and distracting the president’s focus. 

EFF leader Julius Malema has suggested that Mkhwebane’s forthcoming report into Ramaphosa’s leadership campaign will damage the president and could even prompt his replacement by controversial Deputy President David Mabuza, a provincial powerbroker and former Zuma ally with a questionable past.

A continual whittling away of Ramaphosa’s pro-investment mantra and overall authority, coupled with still dormant economic growth, ongoing insecurity and high unemployment, risks ever increasing voter apathy and disillusionment with government over Ramaphosa’s first full term in office.

All the while, Ramaphosa’s enemies will be circling, hoping to undermine his good governance mantle and hasten his downfall.

Dr. Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions expressed are his own.

Twitter handle: @SpeedTrials

Peru – Odebrecht ‘Disaster’ Claims More Than Reputations

The fallout from the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been felt across the entire region of Latin America. The investigation into the political dealings of the giant Brazilian construction company – known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) – has led directly and indirectly to the downfall of high-profile politicians, notably in Brazil.

Nevertheless, the impact of the scandal has been most dramatic in Peru. Variously likened to a “tornado”, a “tsunami” and an “earthquake”, Odebrecht is the unnatural disaster that has upended the existing political order.

As noted previously in this blog, the investigation has implicated all four of Peru’s most recent presidents, along with other important political figures. Alejandro Toledo remains a fugitive; Ollanta Humala is likely to be charged along with his wife, Nadine Heredia; and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is under house arrest.

Yet all of that pales in comparison with the dramatic, near-public suicide of Alan Garcia on April 17th. When police came to his home in Lima to arrest the twice-president of Peru, Garcia was seen to produce a gun before retiring to an office to shoot himself. It was a tragic end to a controversial life and career, and has given rise to a new phase of public questioning of Peru’s approach to the Odebrecht scandal.

For many in Peru the sight of so many former presidents implicated in bribery is a source of considerable shame. But others point to the investigations of powerful figures as evidence that Peru is the only country in the region in which the “wheels of justice are truly turning”, and have exhorted other countries to follow Peru’s example.

It is certainly true that the tough approach adopted by Peru’s prosecutors and judiciary has come as a surprise to many given the country’s reputation for weak insitutions. However, it is also the case that these investigations have not run their course, and may yet be derailed. Furthermore, analysis of Peru’s political institutions reveals a more complex scenario.

Early investigations of so-called ‘leftists’ like Toledo, Humala and, most recently, former Lima Mayor Susana Villaran, were headline-grabbing but did not touch the real power players in Peruvian politics: Garcia’s APRA and the party led by Keiko Fujimori, Fuerza Popular. A more substantive test of the strength of Peru’s judicial system came with the scandal of the “CNM audios”i. Those recordings of judges peddling influence placed ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ in the firing line.

The prosecutors running the Lava Jato invevstigation, José Pérez and Rafael Vela, have not backed down in the face of fierce attacks by apristas, including former Attorney General Pedro Chávarry, who attempted to oust them and was later forced to resign himself. For some, these events demonstrate the democratising force of public prosecutors, and represent the “triumph” of the judicial over the political class in Peru.

Such statements may be premature, hoewver, and it is clear that politics still matters a great deal. For starters, the backing of “accidental president” Martin Vizcarra, who has taken up the mantle of fighting corruption, has also proved crucial to date. Vizcarra’s programme of political reform outlined previously included dissolving the CNM, which effectively removed the ‘shield’ against prosecution that Garcia had erected through his control of a large number of judges.

But neither the smooth procession of the investigation nor the passage of Vizcarra’s reforms are by any means certain. The fujimorista bloc in the legislature has used its majority to weaken or obstruct the reforms, forcing Vizcarra to repeatedly threaten to dissolve Congress. Recently those in Fuerza Popular have taken to describing Keiko – who remains in preventative detention – as a “political prisoner”. The claim has been dismissed by Human Rights Watch, but found support from another public prosecutor, proving that not all prosecutors are alike.

Furthermore, following Garcia’s suicide many supporters of APRA openly blamed the prosecutors and civil society for his death. Initially Vizcarra’s resolve appeared to weaken when he questioned the use of preventative detention against politicians. But the subsequent testimony by Jorge Barata, erstwhile head of Odebrecht in Peru, wherein he produced documentation to evidence huge payments to a high-ranking Garcia aide, appears to have ended that line of attack.

All of which brings us back to the fallout from the Odebrecht investigations in Peru. Beyond whether or not the investigation and its impacts reflect positively or negatively on Peru’s democracy lies another, more fundamental question: does any of this matter?

In his recent book on Odebrechtii, Francisco Durand argues that the use of Peru as an “operational hub” and main channel for its investments in Latin America was not happenstance. Dating back to the government of Alberto Fujimori, Durand reveals that Odebrecht found in Peru an ideal mix of ideological compatibility and low state capacity that allowed its systematic bribery operations to thrive. Furthermore, Odebrecht family members established key personal and professional relationships with members of Peru’s business and media elites, granting the company unparalleled influence and access.

For Durand, the Odebrecht case is but the most prominent example of the “political capture” of the Peruvian state by corporate interestsiii. Per this concept, bribery is just one form that this influence can take in attempts by large corporations to avoid state regulation and lower standards, such as those relating to the environment. This influence, frequently but not exclusively channelled through associations known as ‘gremios‘, appears unaffected by recent events.

This analysis fits conceptually with that of other scholars who have noted Peru’s puzzling stability in the context of a collapsed party system and weak state capacity, wherein the prevailing neoliberal economic model functions largely on “auto-pilot”iv, untroubled by the government of the day. In other words, politicians are simply not that important to the running of the state in Peru.

The coming two years will put this theory to the test. In the view of many commentators the Odebrecht scandal signals the end of the existing political order in Peru, leaving an extremely open field ahead of the 2021 elections. Furthermore, these events have somewhat strengthened public faith in the judiciary and civil societyv, and have opened up new spaces to at least debate structural reform, albeit confined to the political sphere.

But others have interpreted the huge public concern with corruption as a demand for social and indeed economic inclusion. Whether political voice can be given to such demands will perhaps prove the true legacy of the Odebrecht disaster in Peru.

i “CNM” refers to the Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, or National Judicial Council.

ii Durand, Francisco, 2018. “Odebrecht: La Empresa que Capturaba Gobiernos”. Fondo Editorial PUCP.

iii See also Crabtree and Durand’s book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

iv Melendez, Carlos, and Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, 2013. Peru 2012: Atrapados por la Historia? Revista de Ciencia Social Vol. 33(1).

v The role played by Gustavo Gorritti and his teams of investigative reporters at IDL-Reporteros in exposing the scandal is particularly noteworthy.

Indonesia: Opposition disbanded (finally), but lingering effects?

On Thusday, 27 June, 2019, the Constitutional Court finally ruled to throw out the challenges to the presidential election results put up by presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, and his vice-president running mate, Sandiaga Uno. The Court’s ruling ends Prabowo’s efforts to dispute the election outcomes since election day, April 17, 2019, when quickcount results show that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, had won the elections by as much as 10 percent over rival candidates Prabowo and Sandiaga. When the General Elections Commission (KPU) officially announced the results on May 21, 2019, declaring Jokowi-Amin had secured 55.5 percent of the votes cast, against Prabowo-Sandi’s 44.5 percent, Prabowo submitted a legal challenge to the Court, claiming “structured, systematic and massive” fraud and vote inflation by the KPU for the Jokowi-Amin ticket. Prabowo has announced that he accepts the Constitutional Court’s decision, but the former general has yet to concede defeat; instead, he has made clear that he will look for possible legal venues to appeal the Court’s ruling. In this post, I discuss some of the costs that has resulted from this tenacious opposition.

The opposition, named the Red-and-White Opposition, was formed after April 2014 general elections, i.e., during the period of horse-trading among the various legislative parties to join party-camps in the lead-up to presidential elections in July. This was under the previous Presidential Election Law, Law No. 42/2008, which ruled presidential elections were held three months following the general elections so that only parties or party-coalitions with 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of the parliamentary seats were able to nominate presidential-vice presidential candidates. Although President Jokowi won that election, his party and coalition fared worse: they formed the legislative minority with 207 seats, against the Red-and-White opposition’s 353 seats. Indeed, by the time President Jokowi was sworn in until October 20, the opposition-majority had made some palpable changes, including changing the rules of leadership appointments so that leadership positions in House committees and even the House speaker went to the opposition. The most damaging change by this conservative coalition was the abolishment of direct elections for regional leaders, but that was eventually reversed by the President’s Perppu or Presidential, followed by a unanimous support in the legislature in January 2015 for the reinstatement of said elections.[i]

The Red-and-White opposition stalled or misdirected President Jokowi’s agenda for a year before coalition parties in that opposition fell away to join the President. By January 2016, Gerindra and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) looked to be the only parties left in the Red-and-White opposition. And, with the most recent electoral and Constitutional Court defeats, Prabowo has disbanded the coalition and his campaign team.

Still, the damage from this conservative coalition extends beyond the time that it held together. For instance, the Red-and-White opposition orchestrated the use of religion in elections: religion has used successfully as a strategy to divide the popular vote in the 2017 Jakarta 2017, when Governor Anies had sought the support of Islamist groups, including militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), known for hard-line stances and attacks against minorities, during the campaign.[2] The social media campaign, #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangePresident) campaign, was initiated by the PKS party and it echoed the Jakarta campaign where opposition was aimed at undermining the incumbent candidate rather than providing viable alternatives.

President Jokowi’s response — picking Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body that comprises all registered Muslim organizations – as his running mate clearly helped strengthen considerably the President’s position in the Muslim community. However, Ma’ruf’s convictions are also fiercely orthodox; indeed, as the chairman of the MUI, Ma’ruf signed a document recommending that the statement former Jakarta governor Ahok made be considered “blasphemous” for insulting Islam, essentially adding the nail to the coffin on Ahok. Ma’ruf also advocates for the criminalization of gay sex, so that the effect that this incoming Vice President has on legislation will be important to watch.

Meanwhile, the House – which has prioritized revisions of the criminal code – has put in articles that critics charged are problematic, including criminal codes that would take corruption investigation out of the KPK, criminalization of same-sex relations, extramarital sex and adultery, and codes that affect the civil liberties and rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups, and the poor. At the same time, religiously motivated attacks have been on the rise in Indonesia, prompting the legislature to pass the President’s Perppu to ban organizations that did not support Indonesia’s ideology of Pancasila. That law has been used to disband extremist hard-line Islamist groups, such as the Hizbut Tahrir; however, critics are concerned that the law gives the government the right to disband organizations without due process of law.

The opposition may have disbanded, but the conservative turn that it has shepherded continues to linger. Politics in Indonesia remains important to keep watch.


Endnotes

[i] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “Indonesia – The President, Awesome Indonesia, and the Red-White Opposition.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=3084 <accessed July 1, 2019>

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. April 27, 2017. “Indonesia – The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Politics, and the 2019 Presidential Elections.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=6369 <last accessed July 1, 2019>

Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

Lithuania’s new president to be sworn in on July 12, 2019

This is a guest post by Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University and Researcher at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania

On July 12th, Gitanas Nausėda will be sworn into office as president of the Republic of Lithuania.  Nausėda, who is 55, is a former chief economist at SEB bank. He defeated former Finance Minister Ingrida Šimonytė with 67% of votes in the second round of the presidential election. In his first address to the nation, on the evening election results were announced, Mr Nausėda promised that “from this day forward things will be different.”

Who is Gitanas Nausėda?

Lithuania‘s incoming president is a long-time chief economist of SEB bank, and an associate professor at the International Business School at Vilnius University. He has a degree in economics and holds a PhD in social sciences. He previously worked at the Competition Council of the Republic of Lithuania and at the Bank of Lithuania. During the presidential election campaign, Nausėda declared his intention to unite Lithuania‘s political parties and increase political cohesion, promote the openness of the presidential institution, and seek to establish a welfare state. Nevertheless, the presidential election campaign and Nausėda‘s public pronouncements tell us little of his political character and personality.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Nausėda demonstrated openness, participated in debates, visited Lithuania‘s regions and probably intended to distance himself from President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s style of communication. On the other hand, it has been difficult to pinpoint the ideology and main political principles that Mr Nausėda represents. Some analysts (such as Šarūnas Liekis) have referred to Gitanas Nausėda as a candidate who lacks character and is supported by business interest groups.

The composition of the president‘s team does not shed much further light on the new president‘s political program. The formation of the president‘s team is still underway and its membership remains unclear.  Although the new president has not been communicative about his new advisors, he has made it clear that he prefers professionals from academia and the diplomatic corps to political party members. So far, only a couple of names are known: Aistis Zabarauskas, who was responsible for communication during Nausėdas‘ election campaign, and Povilas Mačiulis, a former vice mayor of the Kaunas city municipality. Among potential foreign policy advisors, the name of Linas Kojala, director of Eastern Europe Studies Center, a PhD student at Vilnius University, was mentioned, but Mr Kojala declined the offer. Under circumstances such as these, when a president does not have extensive political experience, his choice of domestic and foreign policy advisors might give a strong indication of his future politics, but in this case Lithuanians will have to wait a bit longer.

Why did Gitanas Nausėda win the presidential election?

When Gitanas Nausėda announced his decision to run for president in the autumn of 2018, some analysts (Kęstutis Girnius, for instance) were sceptical about his chances to win the election as an independent, nonpartisan candidate without experience in politics. However, during the presidential campaign, public opinion polls (SPINTER, Baltijos tyrimai, Vilmorus) constantly mentioned Mr Nausėda as one of the top presidential candidates.

Several factors could have contributed to Nausėda‘s victory in the presidential election. First may actually have been the fact that he ran as an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Some analysts claim that in Lithuania‘s presidential election many people voted not for Gitanas Nausėda, but against Ingrida Šimonytė who was supported by the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. During the presidential election campaign, Gitanas Nausėda consistently highlighted his independence from any political party. This proved to be a wise strategy since Lithuanians do not trust political parties. Public polls demonstrate that political parties are the least trusted political institution in Lithuania: according to the latest polls (Vilmorus: June 2019), only 6.2% of Lithuanians trust political parties (in comparison, 58.2% of Lithuanians trust the presidential institution). Second, Nausėda‘s opponent‘s election campaign was not aggressive enough: under criticism for poor management of the 2008 financial crisis (she was Finance minister back then), Ingrida Šimonytė chose to talk about future plans instead of effectively countering criticism of her past performance. Third, for some of the voters Gitanas Nausėda embodied an example of the classical ideal family, in contrast to his opponent and current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Finally, Lithuania‘s 2019 presidential election once again shows that the electorate tends to vote for „hope“ and new faces in politics.

How might Nausėda‘s foreign policy look like?

So far, it seems that the new president will follow up on his earlier expressed foreign policy ideas. It is already known that for the first official state visit the new president of Lithuania will continue a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus (interrupted by D. Grybauskaitė) by going to Poland (the visit is scheduled for 16 July). Soon after the election, Mr Nausėda also reaffirmed his intention to maintain the current foreign policy line towards Russia, while also claiming that he will aim to be more diplomatic. The current minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius, states that there will not be any strategic changes in Lithuania‘s foreign policy.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Nausėda expressed support for Lithuania‘s status quo policy and pro-Western orientation based on membership in NATO and the European Union: he claimed to perceive the United States as a security guarantor and one of the most important allies of Lithuania; emphasized the importance of a value-based foreign policy and a strict position towards Russia; underscored the need for stronger cooperation with Poland; and stressed the need for closer cooperation with Latvia and Estonia, and for regular meetings with Baltic leaders.

Some analysts claim that in the 2019 presidential election the Lithuanian electorate demonstrated its political maturity. Indeed, Lithuanians gave their support for the candidates with a declared pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation. On the other hand, the electorate voted in the second round for the candidate who does not have any political experience. Thus, Lithuania‘s presidential election results still confirm a general trend to vote for new faces in politics.


Romania: the strategic use of referendums. Power to the people (later)!

by Veronica Anghel, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS Europe and Institute for Central Europe, Vienna

Spontaneous anti-government protest followed the result of EU elections and referendum on justice  under the eye of the gendarmerie. Bucharest has witnessed several large scale  protests that resulted in clashes with police forces  ©Marius Tudor

In broad strokes, we may identify the purpose of referendums as a useful tool to enhance democracy and citizen participation in policy outcome ( e.g. Bowler et al. 2007) or a populist weapon to mobilize supporters for electoral gains (e.g.Nemčok and Spáč 2019). Considering the increase of the use of referendums during the past decades (Qvortrup 2018), we are further motivated to better understand elite incentives to resort to this tool. In this text, I introduce the case of Romania as a study into the strategic use of this electoral institution by the executive branch– whether government or presidency. The Romanian case comes in support of the latter strand of scholarship and emphasizes how a referendum reveals its main use for the initiating actors to spread their message and gain popularity while the actual act of popular vote is irrelevant and has rather limited ability to shape policy outcome.  

During the past legislative year (2018 – 2019), the tool of referendum was used twice. In October 2018, Romanians voted to narrow the constitutional definition of family from a ‘marriage based on the union of spouses’ to ‘marriage between man and woman’. The governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and coalition partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) organised the referendum faced with a petition in favour of the constitutional change signed by 3 million citizens and supported by the Orthodox Church. Turn-out did not reach the 30% quorum needed. From the 21,1% of voters who turned –out for the referendum, over 90% supported the change.  This figure represents about 3,5 million Romanians. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition in a display of anti-government protest. This strategy was less as a show of solidarity with the human rights demands of the LGBTQ community than an oppositional stance.  President Klaus Iohannis, the most vocal contender of the government, nevertheless turned out to vote in the referendum. In a largely conservative country, it is of little worth to antagonise potential voters.   (see European Values Study and The Romanian Group for the Study of Social Values for useful data-bases). In this case, the motivation to organise the referendum lacked on all political sides, but mitigating potential loses not to have it became paramount.

The lack of interest in this issue was evident from the start. The PSD led cabinet set up a helpful legal context for the referendum to pass (lower threshold, two day voting process) and counted on the conservative values of the electorate and the involvement of the Orthodox Church to take effect. However, in a country where voter turn-out has constantly decreased in the last 30 years – averaging 40% – main parties’ ability to mobilise their active electorate is key for any election outcome. This requires willingness to invest significant financial and human resources and see potential gains out of such a feat. The dominant PSD calculated a lower investment return for this referendum and had no incentives for party activism compared to their usual display of organisational force during local and legislative elections. However, not organising it was a risk the government was not willing to take. The Orthodox Church has always served as an ally for the PSD. As in many Eastern European countries, politics and religion have an interdependent relationship. Incumbent politicians who associated their image with the church benefit from public acclaim and a positive standing with the well organised ecclesiastical network. The referendum had no actual effects over policy outcome and it did not lead to greater debate regarding same-sex marriage.

The second referendum was triggered by President Klaus Iohannis and organised on May 26th together with elections for the European Parliament. According to the Romanian semi-presidential constitutional system, the president has little formal powers to constrain the government or the parliament (see a previous blog post). Mr. Iohannis decided to use one of his prerogatives in response to what he considered ‘an assault through emergency ordinances on the justice system’ led by the PSD – ALDE governing coalition. In a country which witnessed massive anti-corruption and anti-justice reform protests, all association with this issue is electorally beneficial.  

Citizens were asked two yes/no questions: whether they agree to prohibit granting amnesty and pardons for sentences of corruption and whether they agree to outlaw issuing emergency ordinances regulating crimes, punishments and the reorganization of the judiciary. The results showed great support in favour of limitations to government led justice reform. Despite the complexity of the questions, their actual meaning was less debated. The underlying message was rather understood as a separation between those in favour of ‘tough justice’ vs. ‘lenience for corruption’. The referendum results are thus mostly symbolic. It is highly unlikely to see written into law the outcome of the vote.  They reconfirm the anti-corruption sentiment of Romanians who in recent years have often mobilized in protest to stop the governing elite from delivering self-serving justice reforms. 

The electoral gains of anti-government parties were far greater. With six month to go before the presidential elections in December 2019, front-runner and incumbent Klaus Iohannis benefited from an early electoral platform. Calling for this referendum gave him the opportunity to participate in rallies for the EU elections organised by his party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), despite the constitutional ban for the president to engage in partisan politics. The ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric primarily benefited newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) – PLUS 2020 Alliance and their leader and presidential hopeful Dacian Ciolos. USR – PLUS received 22% of the vote, a significant feat for a new comer. Mr. Ciolos is now also in the run for the same anti-government votes of enraged citizens. Similar to Mr. Iohannis, he will also employ an anti-corruption, anti-establishment strategy in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

In the first case, the exercise of the referendum was a way to fend off unwanted criticism and mostly employed a ‘nothing to lose strategy’. It failed as a result of lack of party mobilization in its favour, despite a favourable social values milieu. The second referendum benefited from heavy mobilisation on a salient issue. Regardless of the technicality of the questions, the mobilising message was perceived. Electoral gains were at the core of both of these decisions, while neither referendum will shape policy outcomes.

Finland: a left-leaning five-party government shares power with a conservative president

After the latest Eduskunta election in Finland, held on 14 April, it seemed almost self-evident that the new government would be formed around the Social Democrats and the National Coalition (conservatives). The Social Democrats had won the election by a narrow margin and would thus be leading the government formation talks. Yet Antti Rinne, the chair of the Social Democrats, managed to essentially surprise everyone by announcing that he would try to form a five-party government that includes the Social Democrats, the agrarian / liberal Centre Party (that had suffered a massive defeat in the elections), the Green League, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party.

Rinne’s background is in the trade union movement, and it is probable that his experience of tough bargaining in that environment contributed to the relative ease of the government formation process, with President Sauli Niinistö appointing the new government on 6 June. The Rinne cabinet controls 117 out of the 200 Eduskunta seats, thus continuing the Finnish tradition of ideologically heterogeneous surplus majority coalitions. The two main opposition parties are the populist / nationalist the Finns Party and the National Coalition.

The programme of the Rinne cabinet is very long indeed, 214 pages, a record for Finnish governments. Critics have argued that the programme is despite its length frustratingly vague, with a something-for-everyone approach that leaves many points open. Another line of criticism concerns the economic optimism of Rinne: unlike the previous Centre-led right-wing coalition that had introduced budget cuts, the programme of the Rinne government is full of promises about public sector investments. Indeed, during its first weeks the government has already announced more money for things like rail infrastructure and education. Rinne has defended this line by commenting that many of the public sector investments will depend on the health of the economy: if economic growth slows down, the government will re-think its strategy.

The April elections resulted in an important victory for the political left: the combined seat share of the Social Democrats, the Greens (which achieved their best-ever result in Eduskunta elections with 11,5 % of the vote), and the Left Alliance rose from 61 seats in 2015 to 76 in 2019. Notably all three leftist parties are included in the Rinne government. This is surely appreciated in the trade unions, as their societal legitimacy and influence is strongly dependent on the inclusion of Social Democrats in the cabinet. The government programme also contains many elements that were found in the election manifestos of the three leftist parties: investments in job creation, education, social and health care, and in preventing societal exclusion, and at least ambitious plans for tackling climate change.

Whether those ambitious plans will translate into concrete action remains to be seen. The same applies to the future of social and health services and social security. It was in the end the failure of the social and health reform package that brought down the Sipilä cabinet a month before the Eduskunta elections, and now the Rinne cabinet has taken a more cautious approach by not starting the whole project completely from scratch. Instead, it will utilize the preparatory work of previous governments and according to the government programme Finland will also get directly-elected regional councils, an important question for the Centre Party, but the timing of the first elections remains undecided. Overall, the Rinne government intends to re-introduce broad-based parliamentary committees to look into various issues.

In terms of EU and foreign policy, the government is definitely pro-EU but will most likely follow the line of previous cabinets in being lukewarm towards the deepening of economic integration, for example through creating an additional budget for the Eurozone or through changing the rules of the European Stability Mechanism. Finland will hold the EU presidency during the latter half of 2019, so Rinne will surely get a busy and demanding start to his premiership. The new foreign minister is Pekka Haavisto of the Green League who has long-standing experience from international organisations. It is unlikely that either Haavisto or Rinne will publicly challenge the highly popular President Niinistö who in recent years has strengthened his role in foreign and security policy (according to the Finnish constitution foreign policy is co-directed between the president and the government while EU policy is in the competence of the government). Yet this is the first time since 2012 that Finland will have divided government, with President Niinistö – elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition and in 2018 as an independent candidate but with strong backing from the conservatives – sharing power with the social democratic prime minister.

For outside observers the Rinne government may look like a strange beast, bringing together parties from the left and the right. Yet this is what Finns are used to: cabinets are typically oversized cross-bloc coalitions. While the media will no doubt keep a close eye on the government, an equally interesting question concerns the parliamentary opposition. Disappointment is quite widespread inside the National Coalition, as around two years ago it seemed likely that the party would win the 2019 elections. The party will hold a leadership election in the summer of 2020 and it is by no means certain that the current chair Petteri Orpo will emerge as the winner. The seating order in the Eduskunta was changed after the elections so that the Finns Party will sit next to the National Coalition at the right end of the chamber. Most National Coalition supporters want the party to keep a healthy distance to the Finns Party, but at least in economic issues the two parties have very similar positions. Given that the Rinne government will probably adopt liberal positions towards both climate change and immigration, the National Coalition will have to strike a delicate balance between pursuing liberal policies and joining forces with the Finns Party in attacking the cabinet.

President Vladimir Putin’s “Direct Line”

On 20 June 2019, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, took part in the annual “Direct Line” television show. The concept is simple: Russians submit questions on a wide range of topics for Putin to answer during a live broadcast.

This was the seventeenth such TV event since Putin was elected to the presidency in 2000. During his time as prime minister, 2008-2012, the show was called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin” – and, not to be left out, President Medvedev had his own “Results of the Year with the President of Russia”.

Reporting on “Direct Line” is dominated by numbers – not only viewership figures (which were down this year), but also the number of questions submitted (more than 1.5 million by the morning of the broadcast), the number of questions answered (81), the percentage of Russians planning to keep an eye on the show (75%), as well as the length of the broadcast (four hours and eight minutes).

The Kremlin reported that Putin was preparing right up until he went on air. The dutiful, conscientious, hard-working president pored over documents to learn about the state of the federation – meticulous training for the marathon phone-in itself. That was the image to be conveyed: dedication and endurance. And Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much: “The hallmark of this entire chain [sic] is the president’s ability to answer direct questions for many hours”.

Beyond demonstrating knowledge of, and interest in, the state of the country, the show also provides an opportunity for Putin to address citizens’ grievances. “Direct Line” allows the “good Tsar” to correct the errors of lower-level officials and to improve the lot of everyday Russians. Putin promised, for instance, to raise salaries for firemen and to provide additional support for young families. One of the show’s hosts, Yelena Vinnik, even said that “[p]roblems end as soon as Direct Line starts”. The intended takeaway is clear: if only Putin himself were able to deal with all Russian citizens’ problems personally, all would be well.

Following Putin’s pronouncements on various topics, it’s the job of officials to put them into action. For example, the steering body of the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly – planned to meet on 24 June to discuss how to turn Putin’s statements into legislation. Similarly, Putin said that regional heads should take careful notice of the problems mentioned by citizens during the show and take steps to remedy them. Already, the governor of Murmansk has fired one of his deputies in response to a complaint made during “Direct Line”.

The problem, of course, with “hands-on management” is its basic inefficiency. One clear, unintended signal from the “Direct Line” shows, therefore, is that the current system of state management isn’t working. If everyday problems require intervention from the head of state to be resolved, then delegation chains and lines of responsibility are not functioning as they should. For those citizens who “win the lottery” of having their problem taken on by Putin, life might get a bit better for a short time, but the flipside is that the vast majority of people’s problems are not addressed directly. And, even if a flurry of laws are produced following the show, this is far from a guarantee that things will actually change for the better for ordinary Russians.

Why, then, does Putin continue with the show? “Direct Line” is an opportunity for the president to perform his “direct” connection with the Russian people. Who needs formal political institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures when people can talk directly with the head of state? In one widely reported moment, Putin was on the verge of tears recalling the time a woman fell to her knees, handing him a piece of paper with a problem noted on it. Putin promised to look into the issue she raised, but the note was lost by one of his assistants. According to this narrative, a lowly functionary messed up, but Putin felt personal responsibility.

Although modern-day Russia has an authoritarian political system, Putin’s genuine popularity is crucial to the durability of the regime. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of revolution from the streets – it also reduces the likelihood of a palace coup, as second-tier elites are less sure of a viable coalition against the leader. Putin’s popularity is, of course, partly engineered through denying the emergence of potential rivals, as well as other mechanisms, such as media control. But it’s the end state of popularity that matters for the Kremlin, less so the means of getting there.

And Putin is more conscious than ever of the importance of popularity – and trust. Since the introduction of a deeply unpopular pension reform in 2018, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped markedly. So too have his trust ratings – to the extent that the Kremlin put pressure on a polling agency to revise its methodology to produce a rosier picture of Putin. Even still, the latest figures show a declining trend. Events like “Direct Line” will be seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to stop this decline.

For all of the problems of this “tired format”, “routinized” show, “Direct Line” is here to stay – as long as Putin is around. Even though the president’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to deny accusations that questions purportedly from citizens were actually written by Russian special services personnel, to cancel the show would be too risky – interpreted as a sign that Putin can’t handle the preparation workload or that he is no longer interested in the concerns of Russian citizens.

Even in light of all of this, Peskov is, apparently, puzzled as to why European leaders haven’t copied the “Direct Line” format. The answer should be clear: in consolidated democracies, institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures provide the machinery for accountability and responsiveness between the people and officials, reducing the need for the type of executive magnanimity on display in “Direct Line”. The president’s public intervention on certain problems might seem like good PR, but this format only perpetuates a system of personalist rule that’s increasingly vexed by the question of life after Putin. What happens when Putin no longer picks up the phone?

Guinea headed towards controversial constitutional change

It appears to be official. For months rumors have been swirling that President Alpha Condé was planning a constitutional referendum to adopt a new constitution and by the same token remove presidential term limits. Condé, who is 81 years old, is currently serving his second five-year term which will end next year. According to Guinea’s 2010 constitution, “no one may exercise more than two presidential mandates, consecutive or not.” The constitution also provides that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic may not be made the object of a revision.” So, logically, the only means of amending the presidential term limits is through the adoption of a brand new constitution.

On June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guinea reportedly issued a note to the country’s diplomatic representations across the world, confirming the government’s intention of submitting a new constitution to a referendum, and laying out the reasons for this initiative. The official reasons for the adoption of a new constitution include among others:

  • That the 2010 constitution was elaborated and adopted by a transitional council and not submitted to a popular vote;
  • That the roles and responsibilities between the president and prime minister are not clearly defined in the existing fundamental text;
  • The cumulatively short duration of legislative sessions during the year;
  • The need to reformulate the articles governing the constitutional court; and
  • The absence of a more elaborate bill of rights, including environmental, defense and women’s and children’s rights.

Interestingly, the note does not make reference to changing presidential term limits. However, revising term limits for the incumbent president is among the changes supported by Conde’s ruling RPG which include the following:

  • Replacing the prime minister with a vice-president;
  • Replacing the existing economic and social council with a senate;
  • Increasing the number of legislators and allowing for independent candidates;
  • Facilitating greater gender equity in elected positions;
  • Reducing the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 years of age; and
  • Allowing the incumbent president to run again.

Guinea’s opposition parties are, not surprisingly, less than thrilled with plans to change the constitution and allow President Condé to run for a third term. A coalition of opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions have come together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), in an effort designed to counter initiatives to change the constitution.

In the context of West Africa where countries have been gradually consolidating mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of executive power, notably through presidential term limits, Guinea would be rowing against the tide. Currently, President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the only president serving more that two terms in the subregion. Moreover, Togo just recently reintroduced presidential term limits – though they will not apply retroactively to the sitting president. In The Gambia, ongoing debates on constitutional reform are centered on entrenching, not eliminating presidential term limits. Even in Mauritania, not otherwise known for a stellar democratic record, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down at the end of his second presidential term, following presidential elections held on June 22.

Guinea is headed towards turbulent times, with presidential elections on the horizon for October 2020. Given the country’s history of violent demonstrations, significant loss of life is to be feared should the referendum to change the constitution proceed. Even if term limits are not revised, the adoption of a new constitution can reset the term limit counter, as we saw President Abdoulaye Wade argue in Senegal when he ran for a third term in 2012. Tensions in Guinea over the constitutional change debate have already boiled over with deadly consequences. At least one person was killed in clashes between police and demonstrators against a third term in the south-eastern city of N’Zerekoré earlier this month. As the announcement of the constitutional referendum becomes official, more violence is likely to follow.