Guy Burton and Ted Goertzel – Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence

This is a guest post from Guy Burton and Ted Goertzel about their new book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence, available to buy here.

What makes a president ‘great’ and which have been the ‘great’ ones in the Americas? These were the main questions we sought to answer in our book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence (Lexington Books, 2016). We sought to extend the work of the US presidential scholar, Stephen Skowronek, who developed the concept of ‘political time’. For Skowronek (1993, 2011), the US political system appears stable on the surface, supported as it is by an unchanging constitution, clear separation of powers and a two-party system. But that doesn’t mean that turbulence has been absent. Since the republic’s foundation in 1789, the US political system has faced periodic periods of upheaval with those presidents best placed to tackle them regarded as the most outstanding.

Skowronek’s institutionalist account of presidential leadership combines both structure (including its opportunities and constraints) and human agency and distinguishes between four types of presidential actor: transformative individuals were those who adeptly exploited a crisis by setting down a new political order that might last generations. Those that succeeded them would be one of two types: either those who supported and consolidated that order (i.e. articulative) or challenged it – but find it too strong to break down (pre-emptive). Over time though, the parameters of the political order and its support base might erode, making it more susceptible to change. In such cases, those who tried to maintain and reconstitute it, but failed to do so were disjunctive; those who succeeded in replacing it with a new order were transformative.

As Latin Americanists, we were curious how ‘political time’ might be applied to our more visibly tumultuous region – and through it to identify those presidents who were transformational, or ‘great’. To identify ‘greatness’ we made use of two approaches. One was to conduct a survey of outstanding leaders in the US and Latin America. We calculated the average number of mentions for political leaders across North and South America based on an analysis of their mentions in a number of commonly used textbooks for the history and politics of the two regions (Skidmore, Smith and Green 2014, Williamson 2009, Eakin 2007, Keen and Hayes 2004, Jenkins 2012, Remini 2009, Sinclair 1999, Schweikart and Allen 2004, Zinn 2005). We were encouraged that our findings for the US case tallied closely with previous efforts to rank US presidents; we were therefore confident that our Latin American findings were similarly accurate although no other surveys have been done.

The other was to extract from the historical literature a description of the cycles of political regime change in each country. Many scholars have observed cyclical changes in the political climate in United States and European history. We extended this analysis to Latin America. We noted that transformational/great leaders tended to emerge at a time of crisis in the political climate. This uncertainty enabled them to innovate by creating a new economic and social order underpinned by a broad political consensus. But importantly, the new order needed to be lasting, surviving beyond the political (and perhaps biological) lifetime of a given president.

Like Skowronek we wanted to be broad in our historical approach. But we also recognized that it was important to compare leaders with others who confronted comparable historical challenges. : The scale and scope of George Washington’s eighteenth century presidency is not exactly comparable with that of George Bush’s twenty-first century version, for example. We found that there were four historical eras in the political development of the Americas which presented leaders with similar social and economic frameworks that constrained their actions.

The first historical era, independence and its aftermath, required establishing a new political order. The second was the era of national consolidation, in which the new political order was dominated by the influence of landed and agrarian elites. Their position came under challenge towards the end of the nineteenth century when industrialists became more prominent – and eventually aligned themselves with key agents in national bureaucracies and military forces to institute an era of state-led development. From the 1930s to the 1970s this alliance held sway until economic dislocation and inefficiency coupled with social disconnection prompted a re-evaluation by intellectuals and politicians: the contemporary era of neoliberal globalization. The political systems that operated were constrained by these historical conditions, but success in confronting them was not guaranteed. Few are the presidents or political leaders who did not seek to leave their mark, but not all were successful. To consider a transformational president successful, we insisted that innovations he brought about be long lasting.  Several instituted important changes, but the changes did not last after them. This includes the Diaz and Rosas dictatorships in Mexico and Argentina respectively.

Having established the framework, we then examined the successes and failures of specific presidents as they struggled to introduce lasting political innovations in the eight American republics: : the US, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Using histories at a regional and country level, we identified 20 presidents, over four historical eras, who succeeded in being ‘transformational’:

  • In the independence era we concluded there was only one: George Washington (US).
  • In the era of national consolidation we identified Ramón Castilla (Peru), Benito Juárez (Mexico), Pedro II (Brazil), Diego Portales (Chile), Rafael Reyes (Colombia) and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln (both US).
  • In the era of state development we concluded that Lázaro Cárdenas (Mexico), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Juan Gómez (Venezuela), Raúl Haya de la Torre (Peru), Juan Perón (Argentina), Getúlio Vargas (Brazil) and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (both US) were transformational.
  • In the neoliberal era and after we suggested Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Augusto Pinochet (Chile) and Ronald Reagan (US).

Ours is the first effort to compile a list of transformational presidents of the America. We hope it will be the beginning of a dialogue that could make use of other methodological approaches in the study of presidentialism. One such would be to apply a quantitative approach to the experience of individual presidents, thereby echoing a trend we have observed in the study of US presidentialism in recent decades (Mayer 2009, Moe 2009, Wood 2009).

References

Eakin, Marshall. 2007. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Jenkins, Philip. 2012. A History of the United States. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Keen, Benjamin and Keith Hayes. 2004. A History of Latin America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ninth edition.
Mayer, Kenneth. 2009. Thoughts on the ‘Revolution’ in Presidential Studies. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 781-785.
Moe, Terry. 2009. The Revolution in Presidential Studies. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 701-724.
Remin, Robert. 2009. A Short History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins. Kindle edition.
Schweikart, Larry and Michael Allen. 2004. A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York: Sentinel.
Sinclair, Andrew. 1999. A Concise History of the United States. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd.
Skidmore, Thomas, Peter Smith and James Green. 2014. Modern Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Boston: Belknapp Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 2011. Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Second edition.
Williamson, Edwin. 2009. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin.
Wood, B. Dan. 2009. Pontificating about Moe’s Pontifications. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 805-818.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial.

Biographical notes

Guy Burton (@guyjsburton) is assistant professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai. He received his PhD in 2009 from the London School of Economics. His research interests in relation to Latin America are comparative politics and political sociology, as well as the politics of the left and right.

 

 

Ted Goertzel (tedgoertzel@gmail.com) is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He has published biographies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva and is also known for research on homicide rates, conspiracy theories, social movements and on the misuse of regression analysis in social science research.

Marisa Kellam and Boldsaikhan Sambuu – Battulga Victory in Mongolia’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post by Marisa Kellam (Associate Professor) and Boldsaikhan Sambuu (Graduate Student) at the School of Political Science & Economics of Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan

Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party (DP) won Mongolia’s presidential run-off on July 7th.[1] He obtained 50.6 percent of the vote, narrowly winning the election but at the same time soundly defeating Enkhbold Miyegombo of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP).

Battulga came in first-place on June 26th, but did not secure an absolute majority in the three-way race with Enkhbold, the government’s candidate, and Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a populist who was nominated by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, for the first-time in Mongolia, the presidential election was forced into a second-round.

Third-party candidates have competed in past presidential elections, but they have never garnered much support. Ganbaater attracted support from independents who voted against the MPP and DP duopoly that has dominated Mongolian politics since democratization. Comparison of geographically disaggregated results suggests that Ganbaatar’s voters favored Battulga in the second round. But independents also advocated for a “white vote,” or casting a blank ballot. Had neither candidate received the required absolute majority in the second round, the law would require parties to put forward different candidates in a new election. Blank votes accounted for over 8 percent of the total votes cast.

Economic populism wins

The presidential election took place in a context of precipitous economic decline in Mongolia following the global commodity bust and prior policy mistakes. The MPP government recently accepted a politically unpopular IMF bailout, agreeing to belt-tightening measures and thereby backtracking on many of the promises it had made in last year’s parliamentary election.

Battulga attacked the MPP for betraying its promises and framed this year’s election as a referendum on the bailout. During the campaign, Battulga suggested that he might reinstate a bill requiring revenues from foreign owned mines, including the giant Oyu-Tolgoi, to be funneled through Mongolian banks, which the IMF opposed. He proposed forgiving individual debt held by Mongolians and distributing dividend payments from the shares of a state owned coal mine Tavan Tolgoi to every citizen. Ganbaatar, the third-party candidate, also railed relentlessly against foreign ownership of local mines.

The opposition also played the ethnic card in their attacks on Enkhbold by calling him an “Erliiz”—a person of ethnic hybridityof Mongolian and Chinese mix. Many Mongolians subscribe to a primordialist belief of ethnicity, according to which the essence of someone’s identity is contained within that person’s blood. As a defiant critic of China and an unapologetic nationalist, Battulga adopted an implicitly Sinophobic slogan Mongol ylna, the meaning of which is open to interpretation:  Mongolia will triumph or a Mongol will triumph.

The revolution and the evolution of political parties

The Mongolian People’s Party—to use its current name—and the Democratic Party have dominated Mongolian politics since the first free and fair election of 1992. The MPP is the former communist party; between 1924 and 2010 it was called the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. When the party dropped “revolutionary” from its name a dissenting faction usurped the revolutionary banner, forming a new party but adopting the former party name. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, the MPP has had full control of nearly all government institutions, barring the presidency. The MPP represents the more disciplined and mature political force in Mongolian politics, compared to the fraction-ridden opposition.

The Democratic Party traces its origins to the Mongolian Democratic Revolution of 1990. Many of its leaders were involved in the various pro-democracy forces that sought regime change in Mongolia. These forces ran as a coalition and won the parliamentary elections of 1996, stemming seven decades of uninterrupted one-party rule by the MPP (then called MPRP). Once in office, however, the coalition broke down due to factional in-fighting amid economic crisis and controversies involving allegedly corrupt privatization of public assets. In the subsequent presidential election, the incumbent president from the DP coalition lost to the MPP candidate. The MPP president and the DP controlled parliament clashed over the selection of prime minister and the formation of the cabinet. This power struggle paralyzed the operation of government for several months. In 2000, the MPP won a landslide victory and the losing democratic factions responded to their defeat by coalescing into the current Democratic Party.

The DP returned to power in 2012 at a time when Mongolia had seen record high growth, owing in large part, to high commodities prices and major foreign investment in mining projects. In a remarkably similar fashion to its first time in power, DP’s rule between 2012 and 2016 was characterized by factional struggle, economic slump, and controversial privatization of the Russian-Mongolian jointly owned Erdenet mine. Voters blamed the DP for the country’s economic ills and thoroughly rejected them at the polls last year.

In an effort to curtail the notorious infighting and regroup after their loss, the DP national party congress decided to hold a first-ever primary election to nominate a candidate for the presidential election. About 60 percent of all DP members participated (the DP counts more than 180,000 members nationwide) in the primary on May 3, 2017. The primary election was supposed to strengthen party discipline by letting the party members openly select a presidential candidate capable of uniting the factions. Instead, six DP leaders sought the party nomination and Battulga, a controversial and polarizing figure even within his own party, was able to defeat his rivals with far more experience and moderate views, even though he received only a third of the total votes cast in the DP primary.

Power struggles under semi-presidentialism

Following the transition to democracy, the 1992 Constitution created a semi-presidential system of government as a compromise, establishing a popularly-elected president who serves for a fixed 4-year term and a government comprised of a prime minister and cabinet that is responsible to parliament. The presidency is an important, but controversial, position in Mongolia’s semi-presidential system.[1]

The Mongolian president plays a primary role in foreign policy, chairs the National Security Council and serves as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

Also, the Mongolian president has coveted appointment powers which allows him to fill many positions in the Mongolian bureaucracy and name ambassadors and judges, including chief justices. The president also nominates the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption, subject to parliamentary approval, and approves parliament’s nomination for the General Intelligence Agency. These presidential prerogatives may be particularly important to the current president-elect as these two institutions investigated Battulga for embezzlement during his stint as Minister of Industry and Agriculture between 2012 and 2014 and arrested his aids last year. This controversy led to the public falling out between Battulga and the outgoing DP president Elbegdorj, given his extensive influence over the country’s justice system and the IACA.

In addition, the president has the constitutional right to offer policy guidance to the cabinet and to sponsor and initiate legislation. The president has the power to veto bills passed by parliament, which requires two-thirds of MPs to override; given that the MPP controls 85 percent of parliament, Battulga’s veto power will not have much bite.

As readers of this blog are well aware, semi-presidentialism opens up the possibility of cohabitation where the president and prime minister are from different parties that have not formed a governing coalition. In Mongolia, the president is constitutionally designated as a non-partisan and apolitical “embodiment of national unity.” As such, Battulga will be required to forgo his party membership before taking the oath of office. However, only political parties represented in parliament are allowed to field candidates in presidential elections; this means Battulga will have a difficult task of remaining above partisan politics, while at the same time retaining enough influence and support within his party if he is to seek reelection. Despite the constitutional contradiction, de facto cohabitation has been common in Mongolia, and will continue given the outcome of this presidential election.

Under Mongolia’s semi-presidential constitution, the respective powers of the president and parliament in selecting the government have been subject to ongoing political disputes, legal reforms, constitutional amendment, and scholarly debate. Lkhamsuren Munkh-Erdene argues that Mongolia has been functioning like a typical parliamentary system since the 2000 constitutional amendments removed presidential discretion over the selection of the prime minister.  Yet, because the presidency is still directly elected, candidates seeking the office often have made ambitious and oversized promises to get elected (on this point, Battulga’s campaign was no different). This produces a mismatch between the voters’ expectation of an all-powerful president vis-a-vis what in reality the presidency is institutionally capable of and constitutionally empowered to do. As a result, confidence in the office of the president, which prior to the reform used to be higher than any other government branch, has declined dramatically. In opinion surveys, over 78 percent of respondents stated they have confidence in the presidency in 1997; that number dropped to 50 percent a decade later, before reaching an all-time low of 41 percent this year.

Although the MPP has the super-majority required to make changes to the constitution, it has so far hesitated to unilaterally push through any reforms. Major amendments in consideration include making the president appointed by parliament, rather than popularly elected, and stripping the president’s power to influence the cabinet, initiate legislation, and make judicial appointments. It remains to be seen whether defeat in this election will compel the MPP to pursue these or other constitutional amendments. The potential showdown with Battulga should raise Linzian-inspired concerns of democratic instability.

Strained democracy

All of the above points to looming economic and political crises in Mongolia. Although Mongolia lacks what scholars identify as prerequisites for the emergence and survival of liberal democracy, Mongolia’s “deviant” democracy inspires academics and policy-makers to praise the country as a democratic over-achiever and an oasis of democracy.

Nevertheless, the elections of this year and last year put more strain on Mongolia’s still relatively new democracy than it had ever experienced before.

While all previous DP presidential candidates were committed democrats and personally involved in the democratic transition, this cannot be said of Battulga, who entered politics relatively recently. Battulga ran a campaign that centered on his personality more than his party or program. Battulga’s supporters have likened him to the Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose popularity in Mongolia seems to have risen in recent years. Public opinion surveys indicate that close to 70 percent of respondents say it is either “good” or “rather good” to have a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with the parliament or elections.

Ganbaatar, in contrast, is a political opportunist, who has twice changed parties. He was one of the most popular politicians until a recent scandal revealed he had lied about his college degree and he lost his seat in parliament last year. In the middle of this year’s election, a video was released to the public that showed Ganbaatar accepting illicit campaign donations from a Korean national. The police authenticated the video; the case is pending investigation.

The opposition refrain against Enkhbold was that he is “turuus tursun bayan,” a popular Mongolian term referring to a corrupt insider who has gotten rich from embezzling the state. The refrain proved to be fatal in the context of growing wariness of voters following the Panama Papers’ revelations of off-shore accounts used by top Mongolian officials (not to mention several other political scandals).

A powerful anti-establishment narrative permeated this year’s presidential election, summarized by a Mongolian word for fog, manan, which is derived from combining the Mongolian abbreviations of the MPP and the DP, or “MAN” and “AN”, respectively. The MANAN narrative suggests that corrupt leaders from both major parties collude to exploit the country’s natural resources at the expense of Mongolian citizens.

The outcome of the presidential election gives no indication that the fog hanging over Mongolia’s semi-presidential democracy has lifted.

Notes

[1] For an excellent overview of Mongolia’s politics of semi-presidentialism, see Sophia Moestrup and Gombosurengiin Ganzorig’s chapter in Semi-Presidentialism Outside of Europe, edited by Robert Elgie and Sophia Moestrup, Routeledge 2007.

[1] It is custom to refer to individuals by their given name in Mongolia.

Piyadasa Edirisuriya – The rise and the grand fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa

This is a guest post by Piyadasa Edirisuriya from Monash Business School at Monash University. It is based on his recent article in Asian Survey

Mahinda Rajapaksha, former President of Sri Lanka became a member of parliament in 1970 as the youngest member of the parliament at that time. Rajapaksha climbed to the very top by becoming the President of Sri Lanka in 2005. However, during his presidency, many blamed the Rajapaksha regime for corruptions, nepotism and human rights violations. When Rajapaksha contested the presidency for the first time, he won 50.29% of the vote compared to his rival Ranil Wickramasinghe who received 48.43%. Following his election, he established his power all over the country by a number of ways. In the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksha obtained 57.88% of the vote compared to the common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka (an army commander who survived suicide an LTTE attack and fought the war to the end) who won only 40.15% of the vote. The significant number of votes obtained by Rajapaksha was mainly due to the war victory against the LTTE. Throughout his political life, Rajapaksha had an appeal for the majority of Sinhala people who live in rural parts of the country.

The 2010 election victory made Rajapaksha more powerful and popular than ever as he won by a significant margin. This win gave him more confidence to abuse power in a substantial way. He promoted himself as ‘the liberator of nation from terrorism’ and systematically began to supress anybody who challenged his position. He started this strategy by arresting his onetime army commander and presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka. In fact, General Fonseka was the military commander who defeated the LTTE militarily. General Fonseka’s arrest was brutal as well as very quick. When the general public and some leading Buddhist monks attempted to protest against this arrest, Rajapaksha took swift actions to stop such protests.

With these victories in hand, Rajapaksha’s authority also grew because of the economic progress the country achieved during his time. It is evident from the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank Reports that the Rajapaksha’s period is one of the noteworthy growth for the country. Since 2001 per capita income GDP of Sri Lanka has been increasing gradually. In 2001, it was just US$841 and by 2013 it had increased to US$3,280. A significant improvement came in 2010 where it increased from US$2,057 in 2009 to US$2,400 in just one year.

Irrespective of economic growth, over the years Rajapaksha’s presidency was subject to many domestic and international criticisms. He appointed the largest Cabinet of Ministers in the world. In his first government (2005) there were 51 ministers and 29 deputy minsters. In 2007, Rajapaksha reshuffled the Cabinet and appointed even more people as ministers and deputy ministers. There were now 85 ministers and 20 deputy minsters. There were new ministers appointed by Rajapaksha whenever someone from the opposition crossed the floor to support the government. Most of these defections from the opposition were encouraged by Rajapaksha offering generous cabinet portfolios. (It is interesting to see that the current government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena also has 90 people as cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers.)

Another notable feature of the Rajapaksha administration was the offer of lucrative parliamentary, government and overseas portfolios to his family members. One of the most powerful figures was Rajapaksha’s younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was the Secretary of Defence in addition to some other positions. A retired army colonel, he was one of the main figures who directed the military campaigned against the LTTE until it was defeated in 2009. After retiring from the army, Gotabhaya left Sri Lanka to live in the United States and became a US citizen. When Rajapaksha became the President, Gotabhaya returned to Sri Lanka and was given the powerful position of the Secretary to the Defence portfolio. There was a bomb attack on Gotabhaya when he was travelling with security escorts in December 2006 when a suicide bomber of the LTTE tried to ram an explosive-laden three-wheeler into the vehicle in which the Defence Secretary was in. The LTTE’s so called Black Tiger attack did not kill Gotabhaya. He survived miraculously.

During Rajapaksha’s time, a number of his Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers as well as member of parliaments were reported for corruption, irregularities, unnecessary political interferences, breaking rules, laws and regulations and unruly behaviour. However, Rajapaksha never took serious disciplinary action against his fellow politicians. When the media commenced reporting such abuses by politicians things went bad to worse.  While banning a number of electronic media organisations who were critical of his government, Rajapaksha used government media organisations in his propaganda campaign to attack his opponents.

During the Rajapaksha era, the independence of judiciary in Sri Lanka was a controversial issue. Among many issues, the removal of the Chief Justice by the Parliament (with Rajapaksha’s approval) was the most controversial.

The beginning of Rajapaksha’s fall could be linked to the change of the constitution by the Sri Lankan Parliament that allowed the President to contest the presidential election any number of times. The previous constitution of Sri Lanka limited the re-election of President to 2 times. Under the eighteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka passed by the parliament on the 8th September 2010, the sentence that mentioned ‘the limit of the re-election of the President’ in the original constitution passed in the 1978 was removed. This change was designed to allow Rajapaksha to keep on contesting for the Presidency for as long as he wished.

Another important reason for Rajapaksha’s demise was his superstitious nature. Calling a presidential election 2 years early on the 8th January, 2015 was purely based on astrologers’ predictions. This particular day was selected based on advice given by his personal astrologers. Rajapaksha could have easily be in the Presidency for 2 more years without any trouble. Irrespective of being a devoted Buddhist, one month before the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksha went to South India where he offered worship at the famous Hindu hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara. All these activities showed an overreliance on astrology and religion that contributed partly to his demise. It is alleged that Rajapaksha was indirectly supporting extreme Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). BBS was promoting anti-Muslim ideologies in the country and was behind the riots against Muslims in 2014. This caused many Muslims to vote against Rajapaksha in the 2015 presidential election. In fact, the majority of Muslims and Tamils voted against Rajapaksha during the 2015 Presidential election.

After the 2015 presidential election defeat, many believed that Rajapaksha had reached the end of his political career. However, he was not ready to accept the defeat. By using his close friends in the parliament he wanted to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with. Just before the parliamentary election in August 2015, he encouraged his allies to start an island-wide campaign asking new leaders of the SLFP to bring him back to politics. The new leader (President Maithripala Sirisena) initially announced that he was not going to allow Rajapaksha to contest the general election, but he could not resist the pressure from his own party members. As a result, Rajapaksha was elected from the Kurunagala District and is now a member of parliament. His son also won from the Hambantota District.

Rajapaksha was the first Sri Lankan President to lose power in an election. In addition, Rajapaksha is the first President in the country to be a mere member of parliament after ruling the country for two consecutive periods. This demonstrates that he has not given up hope. In the future, he may be able to run the show directly or indirectly once again. He has his own parliamentary group called “Joint Opposition” and has plans to establish a new political party. Once it is created, he may become the leader again and keep doing what he planned many years ago. The growing unpopularity of the current regime has become a blessing in disguise for Rajapaksha and sooner or later he will be the ‘king’ again.

Venezuela – Protestors Storm National Assembly

I have written a lot recently about the situation in Venezuela. There are recurrent shortages of goods in supermarkets across the country, and inflation continues to rise, unabated. The capacity of the state is slowly crumbling, epitomized by rising infant mortality and malaria cases. With oil prices far from the highs of the mid-2000s, investment in the state oil company PDVSA, mooted to come from Russia, is a political and economic necessity. Given this context, political capital has been hard to generate, and since taking office, in response to weakening support, the successor of the late Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro, has increasingly adopted authoritarian tactics to quell and suppress opposition movements and parties.

Part of Maduro’s authoritarian turn can be explained by Venezuela’s current experience of divided government. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, President Maduro and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January 2016, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

The executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. Although the opposition don’t have the magic two thirds majority, they have placed persistent pressure on President Maduro. In turn, Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court, which has struck down a number of the opposition initiatives. Two months ago, President Maduro issued a decree to establish a constitutional assembly, or constituyente in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Street protests have become a near daily occurrence, both in opposition to, and in support of, the Maduro regime and over the last months, we have seen a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors.

Now it seems as if the crisis is moving to the next level. Yesterday, approximately 100 government supporters stormed the opposition-controlled National Assembly, where they attacked and beat up a number of opposition legislators. A crowd had been gathering for a number of hours outside the Assembly, and following a session to mark the country’s independence day, and a speech from vice-President Tareck El Aissami, urging a new constitution to end the last vestiges of empire, the crowd attacked the building and kept roughly 350 people hostage for nearly four hours.

All of this came amid a video last week that purportedly showed a police helicopter attacking the interior ministry and the government-backed Supreme Court. The helicopter was apparently piloted by Oscar Pérez, a former member of Venezuela’s intelligence services. The Maduro regime are claiming that Pérez received support and backing from the CIA.

It has been asserted that the executive-legislative deadlock in Venezuela is living proof of Juan Linz’s direst predictions. Regardless of what the truth actually is, and the support that Pérez and his group have, one thing is for sure: things in Venezuela are only going to get worse.

Czech Republic – Parties and candidates gear up for the 2018 presidential race

The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.

‘Zeman Again 2018’ – Poster of President Zeman’s re-election campaign | Source: zemanznovu.cz

Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.

To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.

At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.

Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.

ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.

Jon Johansson – From Triumph to Tragedy: The Leadership Paradox of Lyndon Baines Johnson

This is a guest post Jon Johansson, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Victorial University of Wellington, New Zealand. In this blog post, he summarises his chapter ‘From Triumph to Tragedy: The Leadership Paradox of Lyndon Baines Johnson’ in the new volume ‘The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership‘ (edited by Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart, Oxford University Press 2017).

When asked to contribute a chapter in The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective, I leapt at the opportunity. Woodrow Wilson’s challenge to presidents, issued in his 1908 treatise on American Government, to be as big a man as they can be, made Lyndon Johnson’s presidency a natural choice to apply the Leadership Capital Index (LCI). The giant from the Texas Hill Country rose to stunning heights after assuming the presidency in the worst possible circumstances: the violent murder of President John F. Kennedy. As well as leading a masterful transition, Johnson exploited the tragedy to mastermind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the single most important piece of legislation passed since reconstruction. This act also reflected LBJ’s initial pledge to ‘continue’ the work begun by Kennedy.

The following year Johnson once again used the bully pulpit of the presidency to transform scenes of racial violence in Selma, Alabama into the Voting Rights Act 1965. Alongside his ‘Great Society’ programs, twin civil rights triumphs saw Johnson reaching his own personal mountaintop. Just over three years later, however, after Robert Kennedy announced his intention to run for president against him, Johnson chose to not seek re-election. He told his biographer Doris Kearns he felt ‘left alone in the middle of the plain, chased by stampedes on every side’.[1] Johnson was so consumed by the quagmire in Vietnam, unavoidable after the Tet Offensive in late January 1968 had laid bare his previously optimistic reports to Americans on the war’s progress. Amid increasingly violent protest at home he withdrew from the electoral arena to restore his self-image as a consensus seeking leader trying to end the war in Vietnam. What was also stunning about Johnson’s ‘Americanization’ of the Vietnam War was just how bad his judgments were, especially as they were made against his own previously sound instincts (and advice to JFK) to ‘keep American boys’ out of South-East Asia.

It was this basic duality that made Johnson such a fascinating subject and his paradoxical leadership begged the following question: how could a president with unique leadership capital, accompanied by the motivation and skills to exploit it, see his political resources collapse so quickly and with such intensity? I found the ‘Leadership Capital Index’ (LCI) a rich prism from which to analyse this question, although it did require some minor adaptation to accommodate the idiosyncratic particulars of the American political system. For instance, three of the LCI’s core constructs – a president’s longevity (diminishing vs. increasing capital); the likelihood of their facing a credible challenger (constitutionally mandated intervals vs. more frequent opportunity in Westminster systems), and parliamentary effectiveness (versus legislative effectiveness in the U.S. system of separated branches sharing power) – required clarification to acknowledge institutional differences between presidential and Westminster systems.

The richness of my study came from the LCI results (scored out of 50, with the higher the score meaning the greater the level of leadership capital). They confirmed the unique qualities behind Johnson’s stratospheric leadership capital scores during the early phase of his presidency, followed by the collapse of both his relational and reputational capital during his final phase as president. Four time intervals were selected to measure the direction of Johnson’s leadership capital. The first date selected was January 8, 1964, when Johnson declared a ‘War on Poverty’ in his State of the Union Address, only 47 days after Kennedy’s assassination. He also asked Congress to pass Kennedy’s tax bill as well the civil rights bill. Johnson’s approval rating sat at 77 percent, which revealed that Americans perceived him as having risen to his post-assassination challenge. His LCI score of 41 reflected his frenetic activity to both achieve a legacy for his predecessor, one which he hoped would forever link him with the dead Kennedy.

The second date selected to measure LBJ’s LCI coincided with his Inaugural Address in January 1965, when he’d reached his apex, with his LCI score a stratospheric 46. The ‘King of the Hill’ led the passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill into law, finally ending segregation. He’d out-maneuvered the Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, over Vietnam after Congress emphatically passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, going on to win the November election with a record 61.05 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats rode LBJ’s coattails to pad their already strong Senate and House majorities.

The third time interval charts Johnson’s sharp reversal to now exhibit sharply declining leadership capital (LCI = 31). It had all turned sour over Vietnam and economic insecurity. Delivering his State of the Union speech in January 1967 he asked Congress for a tax hike to pay for the war on poverty at home and the one against the Communists abroad. His promise to keep American boys out of Vietnam had given way to 500,000 combat troops on the ground. His ‘Great Society’ programs suffered myriad implementation problems. Even the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965 did not prevent a summer of rioting across American cities, exhausting support for civil rights. A credibility gap emerged between Johnson’s optimistic portrayal of progress in Vietnam and the reality of ever-increasing body counts and the economic costs of the military stalemate.

The final time interval is at the end of March 1968, when Johnson surprised his television audience by ending a lengthy speech tracing American involvement in Vietnam with the bombshell news that he was withdrawing from the presidential race to focus solely on ending the war. His presidency had fatally collapsed over Vietnam (his final LCI score plummeted to 19). Americans no longer believed their president and so they rejected him outright. Johnson’s final capitulation was an acknowledgement that the office had defeated him. He was alone, isolated.

All in all, the LCI was an excellent instrument for revealing the exceptional leadership capital Johnson created through a superior diagnosis of his initial context, and then by perfectly matching means to ends to incrementally expand the welfare state, be seen to contain communism, while managing America’s economic growth. It reflected equally well the disjunctive phase of his presidency when that basic consensus collapsed. Johnson’s character limitations continue to provide the best explanation for both his legislative and political triumphs as well as the ultimate tragedy his presidency proved.

Based on President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership capital, his ability to exploit his political resources for all they were worth, to turn Kennedy’s legacy into something meaningful, was more than good enough for an individual as flawed as Johnson proved to be. His tragic legacy, which became his country’s, was the fatal shattering of trust by Americans in their government and its institutions. Others contributed to that, too, notably Richard Nixon, but in 2016, it took a new grotesque form, providing another stark reminder of the link between presidential leadership and character.

[1] Kearns-Goodwin, D. (1976). Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: New American Library. 343.

Selena Grimaldi – The Leadership Capital of Italian Presidents: The Politics of Constraint and Moral Suasion

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi, University of Padova. In this post she summarises her chapter ‘The Leadership Capital of Italian Presidents: The Politics of Constraint and Moral Suasion’ in the new volume ‘The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership‘ (edited by Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart, Oxford University Press 2017).

Measuring leadership has primarily been a US-American concern, since its archetypical form of presidentialist government concentrates all executive functions in a single person, and also merges the duties of the Head of Government and of the Head of State in a single office. Indeed, the first attempt at ranking the leadership of presidents was made in 1948 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, surveying 55 scholars on several aspects of leadership of 29 US presidents.

Despite objections against the methodology of measurement, over recent decades it has been adopted in a number of Westminster democracies such as Canada[1], New Zeland[2], Australia[3]  and the UK[4]. Recently, measuring leaders’ capabilities has become a concern also in consensual democracies as the importance of prime ministers has grown even in these contexts – so much so that scholars talk of the ‘presidentialization’ of parliamentary democracies.[5] Irrespective of whether the presidentialization hypothesis can be considered confirmed[6], there is no doubt that since the 1990s Italian prime ministers have acquired a central role within the cabinet.[7] However, the political science literature has so far failed to address sufficiently the fact that the prime minister is not the only political actor who gained power as a result of the presidentialization process. In fact, there is another actor who benefitted from it: the president of the Republic, who is the only real monocratic figure of the Italian political system.[8]

So far, there has not been any attempt to rank presidents or prime ministers in Italy. This is most likely because both the head of state and the head of government are linked to the legacy of weak political actors preceding them.[9] Indeed, during the so-called First Republic (1948-1993), presidents were considered as notaries who exercised passive oversight[10]  and prime ministers were definitely first among equals.[11]

In the chapter summarized in this blog post I measured the leadership of Italian presidents rather than that of prime ministers because, to my knowledge, there is as of yet no ranking of any king for presidents of parliamentary republics. Moreover, I think it is useful to focus on these political figures which have too often been ignored by scholars, especially when their role has had a visible impact on the evolution of certain parliamentary democracies.

The Leadership Capital Index (LCI) was first conceptualised and applied to prime ministers (or directly elected presidents). However, it could be potentially also be adapted and applied to other kind of political leaders as it is based both on agency and personal appeal. For example, in the Italian case, presidential powers are not only institutional but take the least visible form of so-called moral suasion, i.e. where presidents influence, pressure, and persuade others based on their “neutrality” and personal appeal.

From a methodological point of view, the real challenge was to adapt the indicators used by Bennister et al.[12] to the Italian context and to ‘institutionally’ constrained leaders. In particular, building on the three main dimensions (skills, relations and reputation) of the leadership capital index, I employed 12 indicators that produced a synthetic score ranging from from 11 to 54 points. Since the LCI requires a lot of soft measurements, another meaningful step was to develop a questionnaire regarding Italian presidents which was then proposed to a panel of scholars with a good knowledge of contemporary Italian politics.

The analysis shows that the leadership capital of the three presidents of the Second Republic included in the study varies from medium (Scalfaro) to high capital scores (Ciampi and Napolitano). The LCI allows us to drill into these assessments and see the individual strengths and weaknesses of each office holder within the confines of the office. Scalfaro’s strength in maintaining his capital stemmed predominantly from his political skills, Ciampi’s from his relations, and Napolitano’s through a combination of reputation and political skills. For example, Scalfaro’s longevity in politics allowed him to successfully face down attacks by PM Berlusconi and right-wing parties, but his capital was weakened by his lack of neutrality. Ciampi, buttressed by the bipartisan agreement that secured his election, used these founding relations to influence foreign policy and domestically pursue a popular re-discovery of the Italian founding myth. However, as a political outsider, he was unfamiliar with the complexity of the Italian party system. Napolitano defended presidential prerogatives, at times challenging the government and inviting parliament to follow particular points of view. However, from 2011 onwards, public trust began to decrease as he became more interventionist and more deeply enmeshed in domestic crises.

All three presidents blended old and new powers to build leadership capital. The three office holders all brought high levels of capital to the position that they had built up during their previous, often very extensive, political careers. The traditional characteristics of neutrality, peer support (from the Electoral College), and long political experience all provide capital, building skills, relations, and reputation. On top of this, the three successive presidents discovered and built new sources of power by cultivating popular support, using communication strategies and offering a coherent and powerful political vision. Within this general formal institutional strengthening, each president then acquired capital from slightly different areas: whether through their skills, relations, or reputation. It was this synthesis of old and new elements, institution and agency, that has made presidents more effective in the political arena and active in policy-making, especially in foreign policy and government formation.

However, the LCI does not solve all of the problems involved in assessing leadership, as it is necessarily a context-based concept. The added value of the LCI approach is that it allows the traceability of power over time, revealing how each president has built on others’ strengths but all have encountered similar limits: while Italian presidents can spend their capital in focused areas, too overt attempts to act politically can erode their capital by damaging their perceived neutrality and moral probity. The steady, increasingly upward trend of the Italian presidents’ leadership capital points not only to the importance of these institutional leaders within the Italian context during the Second Republic, but to their gradual learning of what their authority can and cannot be used for. The ongoing political crisis, and the relative loss of legitimacy in almost all other political bodies, has empowered Italian presidents, demonstrating how the environment can be key to understanding trajectory as well as to building and losing capital.

[1] Granatstein, J. L., & Hillmer, N. (1999). Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. HarperCollins Publishers.

[2] Sheppard, S. (1998). Ranking New Zealand’s prime ministers. Political Science, 50(1), 72-89.

[3] Strangio, P. (2013). Evaluating prime-ministerial performance: The Australian experience. In: Strangio, P., Hart, P. T., & Walter, J. (Eds.). Understanding prime-ministerial performance: Comparative perspectives. OUP Oxford. 264-290.

[4] Theakston, K. and Gill, M. (2006). Rating 20th-century British Prime Ministers. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8(2): 193-213.

[5] Thomas, P., & Webb, P. (2005). The Presidentialization of Politics. A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Karvonen, L. (2010). The Personalization of Politics: A Study of Parliamentary Democracies. London: ECPR Press.

[7] Calise M. (2010). Il partito personale. I due corpi del leader Bari: Laterza.; Musella, F. (2012). Il premier diviso. Italia tra presidenzialismo e parlamentarismo. Milano: Egea.; Cotta, M. and Marangoni, F. (2015). Il Governo. Bologna: Il Mulino.

[8] Amoretti, F., & Giannone, D. (2011). La presidenzializzazione contesa. XXV Convegno SISP, Palermo, Settembre, 8-10.

[9] Elgie, R. (1995). Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies. London: Macmillan Press.

[10] Pasquino, G. (2003). The government, the opposition, and the president of Republic under Berlusconi. Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 8(4): 485-499.

[11] Sartori, G. (1994). Comparative Constitutional Engineering. An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives and Outcomes. New York: New York University Press.

[12] Bennister, M., t’ Hart, P. and Worthy, B. (2015). Assessing the authority of political office-holders: The Leadership Capital Index. West European Politics, 3(38): 417-440.

Jessica Fortin-Rittberger – Strong Presidents for Weak Post-communist States

This is a guest post by Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Salzburg. It is based on a chapter entitled  “Strong Presidents for Weak States. How Weak State Capacity fosters Vertically Concentrated Executives” in Philipp Harfst, Ina Kubbe, Thomas Poguntke (eds.) Parties, Governments and Elites: The Comparative Study of Democracy, Springer series in comparative politics.

The link between institutions and democratic survival is at the heart of a vibrant scholarly exchange, debating the virtues and perils of parliamentary and presidential systems. Presidentialism in Latin America, but also in former Soviet republics, correlates strongly with authoritarianism. But what if this correlation is an artefact? What if it is rooted in a constellation of conditions that predate the choice of institutions? In other words, are presidential institutions shallow causes of democratic consolidation? In a newly published paper, I argue that the conditions under which different types of executives are chosen following regime transitions are indeed a key to the puzzle. I propose an explanation that suggests that the intrinsic features of presidential systems are less relevant than the conditions that facilitate the installation of vertically-concentrated executive power.

I focus on a specific form of context: infrastructural state capacity understood as “the institutional capacity of a central state, despotic or not, to penetrate its territories and logistically implement decisions” (Mann 1993: 59). Many of the new states that were born after the 18th century, and especially after World War II, were not consolidated and suffered from limited infrastructural capacity. Interestingly, many of these new states also emerged with vertically-concentrated presidential arrangements: I do not think this is a coincidence. In situations where infrastructural state capacity is most deficient, the vertical concentration of executive power in the hands of a few players becomes more likely.

To look into this relationship, I examined 26 post-communist countries over the period between 1989 and 2009. This set of countries is an ideal testing ground to probe this relationship, since the environment of state capacity is temporally prior to the selection of institutions. Most new constitutions were established in a time period ranging from a few months (Hungary) to up to five years (Ukraine) after the collapse of communism. To capture the level of power concentration in the hands of the executive, I employed two indicators. Table 1 presents the scores of both indicators in the year of the first post-communist constitution. The first encapsulates the formal level of power concentration from Frye, Hellman and Tucker’s Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World (2000). In this measurement, powers of popularly elected presidents are scored from (1) to (21), where (1) represents the weakest presidents in terms of constitutional provisions, and (21) the presidents endowed with the most prerogatives. The second indicator taps into informal practices. I used the item called “constraints on chief executive” from the Polity IV dataset (Marshall and Jaggers, 2012). This measures the operational (de facto) independence of the chief executive in relations to other players. The categories range from (1) where the chief executive has unlimited authority, through (7) where the chief executive is at parity or subordination to other institutional players (legislative assembly, prime minister, constitutional court). Harnessing both formal and informal aspects of executive power allows me to grasp the phenomenon of power concentration in an encompassing fashion.

The analyses provide unambiguous support for my core argument that state capacity is crucial to establish executive dominance over other institutional players. State capacity at the onset of independence (or transition) helps to explain the level of executive power concentration in the newly designed constitutions. This means that in environments with weak infrastructural state capacity it is easier for politicians aiming to secure state power or to access to the state’s power resources to push for the adoption of strong, vertical forms of executive power. Once in place, these power structures have proven quite durable, although some countries have recently enacted reforms to curb executive power, at least on paper. This also helps explain why the record of presidentialism has been so dire in the region; it is not the institution of a president per se that is harmful to democracy, rather the extent to which power is concentrated.

Even though I find these strong relationships in my research, there are some important caveats. Many of these institutional setups are static over time, hence my models face difficulties to explain recent occurrences of executive power concentration that were accompanied with democratic backsliding. Turkey is a case in point, where we can observe the demise of a democracy in a brazen power grab at the hands of a leader seeking to establish a presidential vertical. Yet, the state was not weak at that point. Hungary is another example, with the authoritarian tendencies of its government, and Prime Minister, to curtail political rights and freedoms, as well as dilute institutional checks and balances. Hungary is particularly problematic for my argument, since it should have been a least likely candidate for such a reversal.

A strong state is therefore no guarantee against executives engaging in power grabs; a weak state simply makes it easier.

Works cited:

Frye, T., Hellmann, J. S. & Tucker, J. 2000. Data Base on Political Institutions in the Post-Communist World, unpublished, Columbia University.

Mann, M. 1993. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, M. G. & Jaggers, K. 2012. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2012. The Polity IV dataset

Kenya – The campaign for the presidency 2017 and what it tells us about the state of politics

The general election campaign is now in full swing. In some ways, it is heavily reminiscent of the 2013 polls: the presidential race will boil down to a contest between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, and the cast of characters supporting each leader looks familiar.

But a closer look at the campaigns reveals a number of important differences to recent elections. Both Odinga and Kenyatta have had to radically change the messages that they use to connect to voters as a result of changing circumstances over the past decade. As a result, both are casting around for a new way to frame their appeals – not always successfully.

So what makes for an effective narrative? And what lessons can the 2017 campaign teach us about the state of Kenyan politics?

Framing the message

One of the most common opinions I have heard when talking about the presidential race with friends and colleagues is that neither side has so far come up with a compelling narrative that resonates with voters. As Karuti Kanyinga has put it, the campaign seems to lack an organizing principle.

Of course, elections are complicated things and can’t be reduced to just one issue. Not only does each party make a large number of promises, but different themes also tend to come to the fore in different places. However, these caveats notwithstanding, political communication tends to be far more effective when a range of appeals are effectively integrated under a common argument that voters can easily understand and identify with.

In 2007, the dividing lines were clear. The Party of National Unity (PNU) represented the establishment and sought to preserve the status quo. By contrast, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) promised far-reaching constitutional reform, including devolution. As a result, debates over majimbo (regional government), and what majimbo would mean, came to dominate the campaign.

This framing was ideal for Odinga, because it enabled him to appeal to a broad variety of voters through a single slogan. His supporters from different communities in various parts of the country did not have to agree on the most important issue for the opposition to address, because the promise of devolution was that each community would be able to elect its own leaders and set its own priorities. Partly as a result, Odinga came as close as he ever has to occupying State House.

Shifting rhetoric

Things had changed radically by 2013. By the time of that election, the 2010 constitution had been introduced and devolution was becoming a reality. This took the wind out of Odinga’s sails: it is almost impossible to effectively campaign on something that has already been delivered. This did not stop the opposition from trying, arguing that the government could not be trusted to effectively implement devolution, but arguments about implementation usually have too many shades of grey to truly excite the electorate.

Partly as a result, it was the recently formed Jubilee Alliance that gained momentum by pushing a message that established a new dividing line within the electorate. Rather than pro- and anti- majimbo camps, the election hinged on how voters felt about the candidature of Kenyatta and William Ruto – the “alliance of the accused” – and their prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

In this context, UhuRuto cleverly made sovereignty the key organizing principle of their campaign. While the Jubilee Alliance was presented as the defender of Kenyan interests on the world stage, the ICC and “meddling” foreign donors were depicted as neo-colonial imperialists determined to undermine Kenyan sovereignty. Carefully constructing a siege mentality around their Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities, Ruto and Kenyatta hit upon a powerful way to emphasise the dividing line between “them” and “us”.

This narrative was particularly important for Kenyatta because it helped to compensate for some of his potential weaknesses as a candidate. There were two big dangers for the president in the run up to 2013. The first was that his vast wealth would make him vulnerable to an opposition campaign focussing on inequality and land alienation. The second was that he would struggle to mobilize support within his own community following his poor showing in the 2002 election when he was widely viewed to be a puppet of the Moi regime.

Against this backdrop, Kenyatta’s prosecution by the ICC was an electoral boon. In addition to emphasising his claim to be a defender of Kikuyu interests, and so rehabilitating Kenyatta within his own community, the campaign’s focus on sovereignty enabled Jubilee to deflect attention away from more problematic issues.

Hearts and minds

The challenge for both Odinga and Kenyatta in 2017 is that their most effective campaign slogans of the past are no longer relevant. On the one hand, Odinga’s team will sound tired and repetitive if he speaks too much about devolution, especially as it doesn’t seem like the government has any plans to close down the counties. On the other, Kenyatta’s camp can no longer hope to engender a siege mentality because the International Criminal Court proceedings have gone away and international donors have been careful to play a less interventionist role.

President Kenyatta’s team was quick to recognize this, and responded by rotating their campaign through 180 degrees. Whereas Jubilee’s message in 2013 was divisive and confrontational, more recently the government has used its transition from a coalition to a party to push the idea that it is an inclusive party ruling in the interests of all. The main slogans that Jubilee has adopted – Tuko Pamoja, Building a better Kenya, and so on – all reflect this change of focus.

For their part, the Odinga camp have fallen back on classic opposition tropes that are used by parties around the world, emphasising the value of change and the strength of their support base in an attempt to persuade Kenyans that victory is possible. The catchphrases used by leaders of the National Super Alliance (NASA) – Ten Million Strong, Vindi Vichenjanga, and so on – all speak to this theme.

But while both sides have clearly thought long and hard about their messaging, neither has yet hit upon a narrative that resonates beyond their heartlands. Although they will deny it in public, this point is understood by the public relations teams working for Jubilee and NASA – some of whom are starting to worry. Given this, it will not be surprising if the limited penetration of leaders’ slogans inspires a change in the way the campaign is fought over the next month. As the candidates scramble to capture swing voters and make sure that their supporters go to the polls, the amount of money spent on vote buying, and the amount of time devoted to negative campaigning, is likely to increase.

What does this tell us about Kenyan politics?

The struggle of both sides to effectively frame their message tells us something important about Kenyan politics: ideas matter. Why else would the government be spending so much money on hiring foreign consultants to help them get the message right?

Some people will be very resistant to this argument. They will say that Kenyan politics is all about ethnicity and that all you need to be able to do is add up the size of the different communities and you can tell who is going to win. But while this is a popular refrain, it is not – and never has been – entirely true.

Ethnicity is, of course, one of the most significant building blocks of Kenyan politics, but it is not the only one. Even if people are predisposed to support you because of your ethnicity, mobilizing voters is harder if you fail to capture their hearts and minds. As Musalia Mudavadi found to his cost in 2013 when he failed to secure a majority of votes in Luhya areas, ethnicity does not get you very far if you don’t have credibility. Ngala Chome’s analysis of the success of Mike Sonko demonstrates this point well: Sonko lacks “significant ethnic capital” in Nairobi, yet this has not undermined his rise to power.

The electoral fortunes of Kenyatta and Odinga are further evidence of the importance of ideas. Getting the message right helped to turn Uhuru from a political also-ran into the president, while Raila’s most rhetorically effective campaign was the one in which he out-mobilized a sitting president.

It is important to note that this argument should not be taken to imply that politics in Kenya is driven by ideology or that voters spend their time reading party manifestos. Successful messages often resonate precisely because they play on pre-existing stereotypes and tap into the hopes and fears of specific communities. In this sense, the power of political ideas cannot be separated from the underlying reality of ethnic politics, gives them their strength. However, the fact that ideas, messages and identities are deeply intertwined does not mean that the ideas themselves are not important, or that politicians can win elections without them.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at Birmingham University.

This piece was first published in the Sunday Nation.

South Korea – The Making … and Unmaking … of the People’s Party

The remarkable electoral success of the People’s Party at the April 2016 general elections –38 seats, beating some of the most optimistic predictions – boded well for a party that was formally launched less than three months earlier, on February 2, 2016. Here is a party that defied expectations of decimation, sometimes from fires set within the party itself. Instead, the party looked set to play a pivotal role in the legislature: with no majority party in the legislature, the People’s Party is well-placed to lend support to the liberal Minjoo legislative plurality or join hands with the rest of the legislative opposition to stonewall, if not defeat, the government’s policies. And, despite his defeat at the presidential polls, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, cofounder of the People’s Party, looked to be a viable candidate in presidential elections 2021 with his name recognition and experience. However, the latest scandal may bury the party: at a press conference on Jun 26, 2017, the emergency committee of the People’s Party revealed that an audio tape which surfaced on May 5, 2017 – allegedly proving that President Moon Jae-in’s son received special treatment to join the Korea Employment Information Service (KEIS) – was fabricated. People’s Party member and youth committee vice-chair, Lee Yoo-mi, has been arrested under the Public Official Election Act for making and releasing the fake audio tape. Lee has alleged that she was directed to make the tape by senior party members, and the fact that Lee was a former student of Representative Ahn at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology threatens to incriminate the highest ranks of the party. Here, I track the highs and lows of the People’s Party.

The People’s Party was formally launched in February 2016, then-led by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Chun Jung-bae, both of whom left the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chair of the NPAD, left on December 13, 2015, following open disagreements with NPAD’s then-chair, Moon Jae-in. Ahn’s departure ended a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that officially launched in April 2014, but it also bared open fractures within the alliance that the leadership had ineffectually tried to reconcile. Representative Chun Jung-bae left the NPAD in March, 2015 and successfully won the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April by-elections. 1

Ahn and Chun pooled 20 seats in the legislature to achieve a legislative negotiation bloc for the People’s Party; under Assembly rules, it was entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges, such as negotiating legislative calendars. However, not long following the official launch, senior party members fought openly over the possibility of merging with the Minjoo Party. Still, the People’s Party managed to smooth over the early difficulties to almost double its share of legislative seats in the general elections.

Soon after the general elections, however, the People’s Party was hit by a campaign kickback scandal: two of its proportionally-elected legislators and a deputy secretary general for the party were alleged to have demanded and received kickbacks from advertisers for the campaign. Both Ahn and Chun stepped down as co-founders to take responsibility; while the scandal may have singed Ahn’s position as leader of the party, it probably helped preserve Ahn’s politically “clean” image. As a result, when Ahn signalled his intention to run for the presidency, his candidacy had good momentum: some polls even showed him leading over Moon Jae-in at one point. Interestingly, the lead over Moon followed the resurfacing of the allegations that Moon’s son received special favours to assume the job with the KEIS.

Moon would go on to win the presidential race subsequently, with Ahn in third place after Liberal Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo. Ahn has kept low since the elections, but is facing calls to respond given his steady drum-beat of nepotism and special favors immediately following the fabricated audio tape. For now, party leaders have disavowed any knowledge of the fabricated tape, and also disclaimed any knowledge that Ahn may have had. Still, with the arrest of Lee and Lee’s insinuation of senior party members’ involvement, the investigation is likely to burrow deep into the party, at the party’s peril.

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  1. Yap, O. Fiona (2015). “Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263, December 16, 2015. <last accessed June 28, 2017>