Cameroon – Exploring the Anglophone Crisis: A Conversation with Felix Agbor-Balla

A political crisis continues to grip English-speaking regions of Cameroon, with no real solution on the horizon. A year ago strikes by various legal associations quickly expanded into a full-blown protest movement that encompassed teachers, students, and local trade unions. Underlying the movement are longstanding grievances and feelings of discrimination. These sentiments have been exacerbated by perceptions of misallocation of state resources and uneven representation in the highest levels of government. The government has heavily resisted this movement and responded with violence. During the most recent round of protests a reported 17 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

The solution to the crisis is not clear. Dialogue with the government has been limited, and there is no consensus on what an endpoint would look like. The Anglophone crisis involves the resolution of many longstanding issues regarding the region’s British heritage. However, fundamentally the crisis also implies some restructuring of the Cameroonian state. At one extreme are violent groups like the Ambazonia Movement, which advocate for secession. Others like the now-banned Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) seem to want a return to federalism, while the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) wavers between calls for federalism and decentralization.

With these tensions in mind I spoke with Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla. Agbor-Balla is a human rights lawyer and the president of the CACSC and the Fako Lawyers Association (FAKLA). On January 18, 2017 he was arrested and airlifted to Yaoundé. A 2014 anti-terror law allowed the government to try him in a military tribunal, and he remained in military detention without bail until he was released by presidential decree on August 31st. I spoke to him from London over Skype on October 23. Our conversation, which I excerpt below, revolved primarily around the roots of the Anglophone crisis and the difficulty of resolving it within the context of the Cameroonian political system.

The Roots of the Current Anglophone Crisis

The “Anglophone Problem” has historical roots in the country’s brief experiment with federalism that united former British and French territories. The specifics of unification have been covered extensively, but the federal arrangement left significant authority in the hands of the presidency. The president could appoint critical administrative figures, direct the flow of resources, and use emergency powers to curtail political expression. By 1972, both multipartyism and federalism were abolished. Since Anglophones have seen themselves as the main losers of this arrangement. This was true under first president Ahamadou Ahidjo and his successor Paul Biya.

At one level Anglophones are responding to a specific set of discriminatory government policies. For instance, Anglophone lawyers oppose the imposition of French magistrates in English-speaking areas and the absence of sufficient recognition of Common Law. Similarly, teachers and students have protested the lack of English-speaking educational and career opportunities. The issue of language and belonging looms large for Anglophones. As Agbor-Balla noted, “French is the language of oppression for many. And they [the Francophone] do not care about the Anglophone problem because they think that French is the only language you need to speak if you want to have your way.”

At another level the crisis is over the perception that Anglophones have not had an adequate seat at the political table. This is reflected in the distribution of senior appointments and economic resources. For instance, after 1972 many local economic functions were transplanted to Yaoundé, and the government invested in the Douala port rather than Limbe. Most importantly, political exclusion has instilled fear of permanent political alienation from the highest offices of power, namely the presidency. Under Ahidjo the sense was the politics tilted toward the north, while under Biya it is to the south.

The hierarchy of state positions was evident from my conversation. Most clearly, I pushed Agbor-Balla to consider whether a more empowered Prime Minister would be satisfactory. The position was reinstated in 1992 and has informally always gone to an Anglophone. Agbor-Balla claims this concession is meaningless: “Having a Prime Minister without any power! The power resides in the Presidency. What powers does the Prime Minister actually hold? We used to have a Vice President and Speaker who were second in command, but now we have a Prime Minister that does not really matter. Why can’t we have a President? Why not a Vice President?”

Resolving the Anglophone Crisis

The government has not conceded much ground. An ad hoc committee led by the Prime Minister was largely maligned by Anglophones, including Agbor-Balla: “These are the same people who are ministers, the prime minster, members of government, parliamentarians. These are people who do not recognize a problem, who have not accounted for previous government atrocities.” Similarly, a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism was seen as cosmetic and a way to demonstrate progress to the international community.

The most significant government concessions emerged out of the March legislative session. While nothing has been implemented, there are new laws that call for the creation of a Common Law bench on the Supreme Court, reforms to the National School of Administration and Magistracy, and the recruitment of additional Anglophone magistrates. For Agbor-Balla “the Common Law bench is a step in the right direction,” but he also claims that “we have passed the stage where we say it is just the legal and education based issues to a stage where we tackle fundamental problems with the form of the state.”

And it is here that significant tensions emerge. Simply addressing questions of discrimination might not be agreeable to the movement. Agbor-Balla advocates for an inclusive constitutional conference, but his position on the outcome shifts. He maintains that decentralization and some form of truth and reconciliation can work. But, he also noted that anything short of a return to federalism would likely not satisfy Anglophones: “The CACSC believes that that federalism is a midpoint between the unionists and the independence movement. It is a win-win situation.” This involves rotating the presidency between an Anglophone and Francophone, restoring the office of the Vice Presidency, and explicit protections for minority rights.

But, this type of change is improbable given the incentives that underlie the Cameroonian political system. The presidency holds together a tenuous multiethnic coalition of entrenched elites who view the question of distribution and political control quite starkly. As Agbor-Balla notes, “They do not have the political will and do not want to lose their control over power. It is a patronage system where you have to have allegiance to them so they can manipulate you.” Indeed, Biya amended the constitution in 2008 to extend his term limits, and is likely to run again in 2018 to prevent a divisive succession crisis.

This implies that many of the underlying issues that propel the Anglophone crisis will persist. Absent a clear political strategy that changes the calculus in the presidency, it is difficult to imagine the government embarking on true reform. Biya has demonstrated a willingness to use violence and curtail discussion of federalism and even decentralization. This leaves Anglophones in a precarious situation as different voices pull the movement in various directions, some potentially violent.

Tajikistan – Preparing a Succession in Power or Coping with a Severe Regime Crisis?

Tajikistan, the poorest Eurasian country besides Kyrgyzstan, is also one of the least free countries in a region where democracy generally faces a bleak prospect. Over the course of the last two years, President Emomali Rahmon, who has led the country since 1992, has taken a couple of measures that have been widely interpreted as preparation for an orderly, albeit undemocratic, transition of power to a handpicked successor, in all likelihood, his son Rustam.

In Tajikistan, like everywhere in the post-Soviet space, politics is based on the interaction of broad informal networks that pervade the state, economy and society. These networks consist of individuals and groups, such as extended families or business firms that strive for access to wealth and power. Whereas Eurasia’s more competitive regimes are vulnerable, displaying frequent reshufflings of network alliances and transfers of presidential power that are not always peaceful, the politically more closed regimes, such as Tajikistan’s, appear to be much more consolidated. Here, elite networks are integrated into comprehensive, nationwide “power pyramids,” which are led by presidents who enjoy the privilege of an often constitutionally granted status of the “Leader of the Nation.” They rely on a carefully calibrated mix of patronage and oppression vis-à-vis the elite and are eager to maintain a high level of popularity among their citizens.

In Tajikistan, the President’s home base is his extended family and the Kulob District, the region of the winning faction of Tajikistan’s civil war (1992–1997). This war was brought to an end by a power-sharing agreement, guaranteeing the opposition, led by the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), thirty percent of government positions. However, since the beginning of the new millennium, Rahmon has steadily reneged on this deal, clearing the government and the country of political opponents and getting a firm grip on the regime as its uncontested ultimate patron. As the opposition was being crowded out of legal politics, loyal networks were coopted into the regime. As a result, observers perceived the country to be increasingly stable, even though domestic security incidents continued to flare up from time to time on the country’s periphery. In September 2015, the IRPT was banned as an “extremist and terrorist organization,” and a May 2016 constitutional amendment prohibited political parties based on religion. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and the political opposition; between mid-2015 and the end of 2016, more than 150 activists have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Thus, one of the few international success stories of peace and reconciliation after a civil war has finally failed.

The Achilles heel of consolidated patronage-based regimes is succession in power. While monarchies are based on the principle of hereditary succession and democracies elect their leaders, Eurasia’s regimes face a double challenge. First, elections are crucial for legitimation, but the smooth operation of the power pyramid requires that the successor be a regime insider who enjoys the loyalty of the most powerful networks. Thus, replacing the leadership is precarious, and leaving it to the voter is not a viable option. Instead, presidents work to stay in office for life, which is why they tinker with the constitutionally mandated restrictions of their tenure. In Tajikistan, the original limitation of two five-year terms was turned into a single seven-year term by a 1999 referendum. A subsequent referendum in 2003 provided for two seven-year periods, simultaneously starting a new countdown for the sitting president. Most recently, the 2016 referendum on constitutional reform granted Rahmon the right to run for an unlimited number of terms.

Second, since even the most authoritarian president is not immortal, succession issues are inevitable at some point. When this moment approaches, the regime comes under stress. The elite may be fragmented into rival groups that are waiting for their chance to seize power as the incumbent weakens or dies. Thus, succession must be settled within the elite, the decision being submitted for confirmation to popular elections after the fact. Clever presidents groom handpicked successors to whom they can transfer power when the time comes. However, such plans are not without risk for the incumbent. If the wait becomes too long, the designated inheritor may get impatient and try to remove the patriarch. Moreover, after ascending to power, he or she may give in to the temptation to eliminate the predecessor in order to forcefully lend credibility to the claim of being the new chief patron.

From this it follows that the least dangerous strategy for an incumbent president is to prudently pave the way for a son or a daughter. The father’s popularity may rub off on his heir, who hopefully cherishes him so much that he or she will never be disloyal, and the elites get a strong signal of regime continuity that may deter quarrels over power. So far, this strategy has worked successfully in Azerbaijan but failed in Uzbekistan. At present, it is not sure or even likely that Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (77), the oldest incumbent in the region, will designate a successor. By contrast, the presidents of Belarus and Turkmenistan, 63-year-old Alexander Lukashenko and 60-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, respectively, are quite openly grooming their young sons.

Even more evident are the efforts of Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, who recently turned 65, to invest in the next generation. In the past two years, four of his nine children have received promotions. While the younger daughters Rukhshona and Zarina, both in their twenties, were appointed Deputy Heads in a department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s largest commercial bank respectively, in January 2016 now 39-year-old Ozoda, the President’s second oldest daughter, was elevated to a critical position in government, becoming Chief of the Presidential Administration. In May 2016, she was also unanimously elected to the Majlisi Milli, the upper chamber of the parliament.

However, the biggest jump up the career ladder has been made by Rahmon’s eldest son, Rustam Emomali. He had been chief of the country’s Customs Service since 2013 and of the State Agency for Financial Control and Measures against Corruption since March 2015. In January 2017 he was appointed mayor of Dushanbe, the country’s capital. Not surprisingly, Rahmon’s move fueled widespread speculation about Rustam being groomed to replace his father in office in the near future. Again, this interpretation is supported by the 2016 constitutional reform, which lowered the minimum eligibility age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 and also made 30 the new minimum age for being elected to the Majlis Milli. Obviously, this is a tailor-made clause for Rustam, who was born in December 1987. It would enable him to run for the presidency in the next election scheduled for 2020, and as a next step before that happens, it is expected that he will be elected speaker of the Majlis Milli, rising to the second highest post in Tajikistan, a position still held by the former mayor of Dushanbe.

However, as solid as these steps for the “completion of the transition to a consolidated monarchy-styled regime” may seem, managing the succession problem might be less than half of the story. What looks like Tajikistan’s definitive transformation into a family-run business may also signal a desperate effort to address serious cracks within the regime itself. Thus, analysts and independent media speculate about feuds within the extended family and regionally based political networks over political influence and resources.

Signs of clashes within the power apparatus, or “clan infighting,” as observers have labeled it, are indeed evident. Rustam Emomali’s appointment as the capital’s mayor ended the political career of Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, the second most influential person in Tajikistan, who has been both a powerful ally of Rahmon and his main rival since the early 1990s. He held this position for twenty years, but was released, together with all his deputies and the chiefs of Dushanbe’s city districts, in January 2017. Only weeks after his dismissal, the Anticorruption Agency launched a corruption investigation against the former mayor, initiated by the President’s son. Probably as a response to this move, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) began an anti-corruption sweep against the Anticorruption Agency itself as well as against the Customs Service, that is, against the two bodies that were formerly led by Rustam Emomali. As a result, fourteen leading officials of these agencies were recently convicted of fraud and bribery and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

The brittleness of the cohesion within the elite may be also illustrated by the defection of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a long-term close associate of Rustam Emomali. In 2015, the US-trained commander of the special forces of the Ministry of the Interior to combat criminals and terrorists joined the Islamic State, where he received a promotion to the position of the Minister of War.  This calls into question the capacity of the regime to retain the loyalty of even high-ranking members of the elite.

To sum up, Tajikistan’s recent political evolution raises some doubts about whether President Rahmon has a firm grip on power, meaning that he is about to elevate the succession problem as the most pressing issue of the day. His strategy of promoting close family members can also be understood as an attempt to place the most loyal core of his power network in the regime’s key positions in the face of the ongoing disintegration of Tajikistan’s power pyramid and to prevent the collapse of his rule.

Alexander Bürgin – Leadership of the European Commission President: An Assessment of Juncker’s Organisational Reforms

This is a guest post by Alexander Bürgin, Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor at Izmir University of Economics. It is based on his recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

When Jean-Claude Juncker took office as Commission President on November, 1, 2014, he set out to establish a more political and less technocratic Commission, implying a focus on a smaller number of priority projects, and a stronger top-down steering. This was intended to enable the Commission to shed its image as a bureaucracy responsible for over-regulation, and to strengthen its profile in areas where EU governance is potentially more effective than national regulations (European Commission, 2014, p. 2). To facilitate his political leadership inside the Commission, he introduced seven Vice-Presidents, each responsible for the coordination of a team of Commissioners working on a specific priority project. In addition, Juncker further increased the Secretariat General’s (SG) staff numbers and range of competences in the coordination of the services. To strengthen the Commission’s leadership role within the EU system, Juncker assigned to the Vice-Presidents the task of organising the representation of the Commission in their area of responsibility in the EP, Council and national parliaments (European Commission, 2014, p. 5). A special role is foreseen for the newly established post of the First Vice-President, responsible inter alia for the coordination of the inter-institutional work on policy programming and the ‘better regulation agenda’.

Intra- institutional Leadership

Among the 37 experienced officials from the Commission, the Council, and the EP whom I interviewed between April 2015 and January 2017, there was a consensus that Juncker’s reforms have contributed to a centralisation of the coordination process in three regards. First, interviewees highlighted the specific filter function of the First Vice-President. It was argued that whereas in the past, the working programme was a rather bottom-up process, making it difficult for Barroso to impose his will, it is now a centralised, top-down process, steered by the First Vice-President. Second, it was also a common view that the introduction of project teams leading Vice-Presidents has promoted coordination at an earlier stage, and thus has improved strategic political decision-making among the Commissioners, providing stronger policy guidance to the services, which are constrained to a more executive role. Finally, interviewees considered the reduced number of Commissioners with a specific portfolio as beneficial for a more centralised coordination.

As regards the role of the SG, a majority of interviewees considered that the SG has significantly gained in importance since the end of the Barroso Commission. Interviewees highlighted that due to new units, the SG has become less dependent on the input from the DGs. Furthermore, there was a wide agreement that the increase in coordination meetings between the services, chaired by the SG, has reduced the discretion level of the respective lead DG, which in the past, could neglect aspects raised by other DGs in the early stage of the policy-formulation process, and be assured that, due to time constraints, the initial draft of the lead DG could only be slightly amended in the subsequent inter-service consultation.

Inter-institutional Leadership

As concerns the leadership of the Commission within the EU system, there was a consensus among the interviewees that the internal reforms are beneficial for the Commission’s leadership in inter-institutional relations. Three main arguments have been offered. First, interviewees stated that the frequent contacts between the First Vice-President or the Vice-Presidents and the EP confer greater political weight to the Commission’s positions, as they are able to present a topic from a more holistic perspective than Commissioners, who, in the past, often focussed on technical messages from their portfolio perspective. It was emphasised that the political rather than more technical language used today better corresponds to the MEP’s expectations. Furthermore, interviewees mentioned the more active SG role in the EP’s committees. Interviewees stated that while the SG used to have rather a note-taking role, the SG now often presents the Commission’s position in its function as chef de file, or monitors whether the line DG’s communication fits with the priorities of the Commission President. A final argument was that the coordination in project teams has led to a trend towards proposing legislative packages, covering items of several policy areas, making it difficult for the EP to unpack the package. It was argued that the EP struggles sometimes with the Commission’s package approach, because it obliges rapporteurs of different committees, and often, from different political parties, to write a common draft report, a practise to which they are not yet used to.

In addition to the organisational reforms, a broad majority of the interviewees stressed that Juncker’s leadership vis-à-vis the member states had benefited from the new appointment process. The cooperation between Juncker, the then EP-President Martin Schulz and the Chairmen of EPP and S&D have been characterized as close as in a coalition government, thus increasing the common negotiation power of Commission and EP towards the member states. Interviewees stressed that the strong coordination with the EP contributed to the Commission’s courage to start initiatives which the Barroso Commission would not have dared to launch, such as for instance some features of the banking union which were against German interests. As an additional factor strengthening the main EP’s parties support for Juncker, interviewees mentioned the increased number of anti-European parliamentarians since the last election, making a grand coalition between EPP and S&D more important than ever.

These findings contest the accounts which describe a decline in the Commission’s leadership capacity, and which emphasize a trend towards a ‘new intergovernmentalism’ (Bickerton et al., 2015). The evidence from the interviews rather suggests that Juncker has in fact further cemented the presidentialization of the Commission, and has successfully improved the Commission’s political leadership capacity in the dialogue with Council and EP. These findings resonate with previous accounts which challenge the ‘new intergovernmentalist’ view of a Commission in decline (Nugent and Rhinard, 2016; Peterson 2015, p. 207).

References

Bickerton, C. J., Hodson, D. and Puetter, U. (eds) (2015) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

European Commission (2014) ‘Communication from the President to the Commission, The Working Methods of the European Commission 2014-2019’, C(2014)9004, 11 November.

Nugent, N. and Rhinard, M. (2016) ‘Is the European Commission Really in Decline?’ Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 54, No. 5, pp. 1199-1215.

Peterson, J. (2015) ‘The Commission and the New Intergovernmentalism: Calm within the Storm’. In Bickerton, C. J. et al. (eds) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 185-207.

Kenya – President Kenyatta seeks to legitimate his rule

President Uhuru Kenyatta has won two elections this year, but is still struggling to prove his legitimacy.

In the first election, contested on 8 August, he received 54% of the vote according to the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). However, that result was later nullified by the Supreme Court on the basis of significant procedural failures, necessitating a “fresh” election within 60 days.

In that contest, fought on 26 October, Kenyatta won again, this time securing over 98% of the vote. But despite securing a landslide victory, his political authority has once again been brought into question.

The reason for Kenyatta’s vast majority was that his main rival, Raila Odinga, pulled out of the contest in advance. While Odinga’s name remained on the ballot paper, the opposition leader asked his supporters to stay at home, arguing that the election had no prospect of being more free and fair than the first.

Although some criticised Odinga for bringing a petition to the Supreme Court demanding a fresh election and then failing to contest it, this strategy was largely successful: supporters of his National Super Alliance (NASA) largely stayed at home, resulting in a significantly lower turnout of 39%, less than half that of the first poll (80%). In a small number of places, most notably in Odinga’s Nyanza heartlands, protests by opposition supporters prevented polling stations from being opened at all.

Odinga’s complaints were dismissed by government leaders who alleged that his decision not to contest was a desperate attempt to save face, motivated by the knowledge that he was destined for defeat. This was backed up by a number of defections of his former allies to the ruling party, including Odinga’s point-person in the vote rich Rift Valley region, Isaac Ruto.

However, the opposition’s concerns were leant credibility by the decision of one of the IEBC Commissioners, Roselyn Akombe, to resign citing a lack of progress towards improving the electoral process. Having fled to the United States, Akome gave a series of interviews in which she argued that the political context in Kenya would not allow for a credible poll.

These statements were then followed by a worrying press conference held by the Chair of the Commission, Wafula Chebukati, who admitted that political interference within the IEBC had blocked a number of important reforms. In the days that followed, rumours spread that Chebukati was about to resign, making it impossible to hold the poll.

In the event, this did not happen, but the damage to the credibility of the Commission had been done.

Because the election of 26 October did not take place in all in all 290 constituencies – as required by the constitution – and as a result of the serious doubts about the competence and neutrality of the IEBC, Kenyatta’s victory has already been called into question by the opposition. And while Odinga has said they he will not be bringing another petition – arguing that the whole process has lost credibility – others already have.

Consequently, Kenya is heading back to the Supreme Court.

Thus, a president who has won two elections, one with a 98% majority, feels forced to defend himself. Most notably, Kenyatta used his acceptance speech to justify his position by reinterpreting the Supreme Court’s judgement to suit his own interests, arguing that:

“The Court did not Challenge my overwhelming mandate of 54%. The numbers were NEVER questioned. What the Court questioned was the process of declaring my victory. And because the court did not question my victory, they by extension, validated my 54% numbers. This was a Political Paradox.”

He also went to great lengths to depict voter turn out on 26 October as a demonstration of his popularity, rather than as a reason to question his legitimacy. Ignoring the drop off in political participation in many parts of the country, the president stated that:

“Here is the truth as recorded in our books. On August 8th, 15million Kenyans came out to vote. Of these 8.4 million Kenyans voted for me [The number is actually 8.2 million]. On October 26th, 90% of the same voters came out to support my Bid.”

These claims will resonate with Kenyatta’s supporters, but are likely to fall on deaf ears in opposition areas. For their part, the Courts now face another difficult decision. It is clear now that nullifying the result of the vote on 8 August did little to resolve the country’s political crisis; but it will be hard to make the argument that the “repeat” election represented a significant improvement than the first.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: The return of “belligerent democracy” in the aftermath of the 2017 electoral cycle?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó, CES/UCoimbra & IHC/UNLisboa

A few weeks before the inauguration of the “Government of National Inclusion” headed by Rui Maria de Araújo and supported by all four parties with parliamentary seats – the VI Constitutional Government of Timor-Leste (2015-2017) – and anticipating its success on the basis of the inter-partisan cooperation set in motion after the 2012 elections, Agio Pereira, a senior minister and Xanana Gusmão’s right hand man, claimed in a newspaper column that Timor was moving “from belligerent democracy to consensus democracy”.

This was the mood that most observers felt in the country prior to the 2017 cycle of elections (presidential polls in March, parliamentary ones in July). An opinion poll conducted for the Asian Foundation revealed that 58% of the Timorese were satisfied with the way the country was being run, and a similar figure expressed the view that the role of a candidate in the Resistance movement against Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) was the single most important determinant of their vote. If a question mark subsisted, it referred to the impact of the outgoing President, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), who had moved from supporting the formation of the VI Government to a position of open criticism of the strategic option of that broad coalition. TMR declined to seek a second term and formed a political party (PLP – People’s Liberation Party) to fight the premiership

Unlike the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (which were in line with what usually happens in two-ballot elections), when political parties presented their own candidates alongside some “independent” candidates, entering informal alliances for the second round, in 2017 FRETILIN managed to guarantee the support of Xanana and later of his party (CNRT) to its partisan candidate, Lu Olo. In a sense, this was regarded as an extension of the government agreement and as a suggestion that the two parties intended to maintain their collaboration beyond the electoral cycle. Lu Olo was elected on the first ballot as the first partisan president of the Republic, succeeding three “independent” ones.

The July elections returned FRETILIN as the largest party (23 seats) by a margin of barely 1,000 votes over CNRT (22 seats) – both hovering under 30% of the vote. PLP scored 11% (8 seats). Two other parties secured seats: PD, a junior partner in the outgoing government, has 7 seats (10%) and KHUNTO, another newcomer, 5 seats (6%). On the evening of election day, no one could say there had been any great surprise. But the next days would bring some.

As a party formed to oppose the strategic options of the former government, PLP announced rather naturally that it would sit in the opposition. Its leader declared he would not take his own seat in the House, but would support his party stance. The major surprise came when Xanana announced he would follow the steps of TMR, moving his party to the opposition and leaving his seat in parliament.

President Lu Olo understood the delicate nature of the situation and went beyond his institutional mandate to consult with all parliamentary parties (normally sending second-ranking figures to those meetings) and insisted on having FRETILIN secretary-general Mari Alkatiri sit with Xanana Gusmão and himself in the presidential palace. Lu Olo was not able to convince Xanana to accept the offers made by Alkatiri – although he pledged “not to obstruct” the functioning of institutions and exercise a “constructive opposition”.

FRETILIN tried to make a deal with the other parties. It succeeded in signing an agreement with PD – a party it had long been on cold terms with. KHUNTO also joined the negotiation table only to withdraw at the last minute, apparently because no agreement could be achieved on the share of seats in cabinet. PLP also entertained conversations, but as it was denied its ambition to have the Speaker of the House, it reaffirmed its intention to be in the opposition with a “constructive attitude”.

The rhetoric of “constructive opposition” and the hope the opposition parties would refrain from “obstructing” the functioning of institutions convinced Lu Olo that he could appoint Alkatiri to lead a government. It was a political judgement not grounded on any formal document. All that Alkatiri could do was to present the President and Parliament with the first minority government in Timorese history. To mitigate the lack of support from other parties, Alkatiri invited some “independent” figures (like José Ramos-Horta) and people closely associated with opposition parties to be members of his cabinet “on an individual capacity” –  casting a shadow on the actual meaning of “political parties” in contemporary Timor-Leste, still characterized by strong personality disputes of which parties are extensions.

Also for the first time, the President offered this government not only his institutional backing but also his political support. It was a bold move, perhaps a little too hasty, that bound together the fate of government with that of the president. It remains to be seen whether the fragility of the government does not interfere with the presidential political capacities.

The three opposition parties presented and won (October 19) a rejection motion against the government’s program (35 vs. 30 votes). This was another première: never before had a government been defeated in the House. Alkatiri responded by saying “while some dance in parliament, we shall dance on the streets” – adding another negative note to the prestige of democratic institutions.  Although not formally affected, the prestige of the President was politically tainted for being unable to anticipate and prevent this crisis.

This is how the situation stands as I write. What will come next?

The constitution is a little ambiguous. It states that the government must present its program within 30 days of being inaugurated (implicitly suggesting it will remain as caretaker until the program is decided upon). If the program is rejected (as this one was), the government has a second chance – but there is no explicit deadline, although some constitutionalists argue it should not exceed 30 days. The government has announced – after a great deal of threatening rhetoric – that it will submit a new program by the end of the year – and maybe the opposition will present a rejection motion prior to that if they understand the deadline has been run over (as they are now claiming). If a second rejection wins, then the government falls, and PR Lu Olo will have to take a decision. In my view, he has four options

  • to invite Alkatiri to try another coalition;
  • to invite an “independent” figure to try and form a coalition (in line with what happened with the VI Government);
  • to invite someone from the three opposition parties to try and form a government (and risk being cornered in a “cohabitation” with his rivals);
  • to keep Alkatiri as caretaker until new elections can be held and a new government envisaged

The constitution prevents the dissolution of parliament in the six months following an election, which means that Lu Olo cannot dissolve it before January 22. Then at least 60 days must elapse before the polls are held. And then another month before the parliament is inaugurated and the search for a new government begins. It could be late April before Timor-Leste has a normal government.

The opposition may also allow the passage of the second reading of the government program – having stated clearly that they command the majority in the House and that at any moment they can present a motion of rejection and bring down the government. “Normal” life would ensue – but the fragility of the government would certainly be visible.

How did we come to this precarious and fragile situation? Did the fact that Lu OLo is a party member interfere with the deterioration of the situation?

Immediately after the results of the parliamentary election were announced, FRETILIN claimed the premiership, which it was to accumulate with the presidency. In the previous legislature, CNRT had given up the premiership in order to create a Government of National Inclusion actually headed by a FRETILIN cadre acting as “independent”. Expectations that a similar situation would emerge again were dashed by FRETILIN’s claim. FRETILIN then used its position to claim the Speaker of the House (having the support of KHUNTO, at the time still negotiating its position in a coalition government). So, within a few weeks, a party that controls less than 30% of the vote had accumulated the three most important state roles in the hands of its militants. This concentration of powers generated resentment in a country that has some experience of power-sharing – and the fact that Lu Olo was seen as part of the whole process, rather than as someone who would remain above the party fray as his predecessors had done, did not help to create a more stable situation.

More than in the recent past, the impression one gets from the current situation in Timor-Leste is that institutions (namely the parliament) are a nice stage where little happens – the more important dealings are taking place behind the scenes, and they are dependent on inter-personal rivalries that have re-emerged. Together with those rivalries, “belligerent” democracy – which is not in itself an evil if it means the peaceful coexistence of government and opposition rather than a pot-pourri where everyone has a seat and no one is there to exercise control over the executive – seems to have made a return to Dili. The fact that the new president of the Republic is a member of one of the parties involved in this struggle and has not been able to carve for himself a position in line with his predecessors is, in my view, one of the main reasons why Timor-Leste faces instability once again.

France – Emmanuel Macron’s triple language

French Presidents regularly have difficulty in ensuring a good fit between their political actions (‘doing’) and their political speech (‘saying’). De Gaulle cultivated a rarified political parole: but his interventions at the height of the May ’68 events were out of touch with the popular movement and the new generation of baby boomers that was contesting the established order. Georges Pompidou (1969-1974) was notoriously ill-at-ease with the New Society of his premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1969-72). Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) sought to reach out to the people at the early stages of his presidency (inviting himself to dinner amongst ‘ordinary’ people), before the presidential parole became rarer as the misfit between proximity and the presidential function and personality became more manifest. Francois Mitterrand deliberately cultivated a mysterious, ambiguous language, consecrated in the image of the Sphinx, the mysterious Egyptian god. Closer to home, Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was left speechless during a televised campaign debate during the 2005 Europe referendum, as he was unable to comprehend the Euroscepticism expressed by young people. Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term (2007-2012) was deeply transgressive, not least at the level of his political language which descended to hitherto unfathomable depths (the famous ‘get lost, you loser’ [‘casse-toi pauvre con’] launched against an opponent at the Paris Agriculture show in 2008). François Hollande appeared to lack a consistent legitimising discourse to justify the main reforms of his presidential term, at least during the 2012-2014 period.

In practice, Macron appears still to be searching for a harmonious mix of language and practice. The young President is torn between two rival imperatives, each of which has discursive ramifications. First, to reinvest the presidential office with the dignity and abstraction that (in the view of Macron) proved beyond his three predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. The dignified part of the constitution incites the President to appear above the fray, above party, exercising a rare presidential parole, invested with wisdom and guided by the heavy charge of leading the national destiny. The early acts of the Macron presidency were quasi-regal in their symbolism. This positioning corresponds to the early period of the Macron Presidency, the courting of the image of Jupiter that was discussed in the previous blog. The sudden drop in popularity over the summer 2017 highlighted the dangers of this stance.

The second presidential imperative is the political need to confront the people with the harsh realities of France’s situation, along with the increasingly explicit blaming of the previous administration for current difficulties . The linguistic component of this claimed transparency is one of telling the truth, ‘saying’ as a prelude and accompaniment to ‘doing’. In his first TV interview since being elected (October 15th), Macron repeated pointedly ‘I do what I say’, a stance that recalled the ‘telling the truth’ mantra of former premier Michel Rocard (1932-2016). Implicit in this stance is the promise of a clear legitimising discourse around change (why it is necessary and what it implies), as well as a pedagogical commitment to justify the need for change or at least to convince doubters of the well-founded and necessary nature of reforms. This pedagogical ambition is arguably appropriate and necessary, given the ambitious reforms enacted or announced during first six months of the Macron presidency (in the field of labour law, unemployment insurance, social security, pensions, training: all fields where the previous administration is deemed to have failed). A carefully stage-managed pedagogy, based on the capacity of reason, even philosophical justification, is required to convince, to persuade, to carry the day. The second dimension involves the President coming down from his discursive pedestal and leading from the helm: the dangers of a hyper-president are assumed, though the risk is evident that Macron will eventually become discredited by the unpopularity of the measures he proposes (as did his predecessor Sarkozy). One interesting dimension of this transparency agenda is that it has been linked to France’s neo-Protestant moment, with Macron reputedly emphasising the Protestant values of individual rigour, effort, wealth creation and responsibility (The reference to neo-protestantism is that of Regis Debray, however, not Macron himself. See Regis Debray, Le nouveau pouvoir Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2017).

In practice, presidential language has appeared too often to tread water, drifting somewhat uneasily between these two registers. The early months of Macron’s presidency demonstrate a clash of linguistic registers. On the one hand, Macron speaks a language that the people have rarely spoken, replete with references to classicism and metaphors of a by-gone age. The recent (October 15th) TV interview concluded with the use of expressions such as truchement (the literal translation of truchement is by, or through) and croquignolesque (which, in old familiar language, signifies risible, though its usage is very rare for someone of Macron’s generation). Henceforth, this antiquated register must compete with against a popular (not to say populist) political language, designed to counter the image that Macron is the President of the Rich. For the 2018 budget has witnessed a minor rebellion from within the ranks of the LRM deputies. The decision to suppress the wealth tax (l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) and replace it with a property tax (impôt sur la fortune immobilière) caused unease amongst former Socialist deputies in particular. Under pressure, the government agreed to amendments whereby totems of ostensible wealth, such as yachts, fast cars and gold, will still be subject to wealth taxes.

In a register close to that of former President Sarkozy, Macron has taken to speaking the language of the people, criticising the lazy (‘les faineants’) who don’t want to work; professing ‘I’m not Father Christmas’, when faced with demands for Guyanese demonstrators for the massive aid and development package promised by the previous government; lamenting the ‘unreformable character’ of the French, denigrating those ‘people who are nothing’ who took to demonstrating against his government’s reforms, and condemning the ‘lazy’ and the ‘illiterate’. On occasion, Macron’s language has appeared callous and humiliating: such as the ‘bordel’ incident when he claimed that French workers being made redundant ought to look for new work rather than complain or demonstrate.

It is unclear whether the descent into popular language is deliberate (a carefully scheduled exercise in political communication) or reflects frustrations with the obstacles placed on the reformist path. Is it a simple example of cognitive dissonance or a deliberate strategy? Does it reflect Macron’s own frustration with the failure of the society to conform to the presidential desire for control? Probably. Macron is still forging a presidential style. The early positioning as Roman god Jupiter led to accusations of arrogance and distance from the people. A language based on reason and abstraction now coexists alongside something much more concrete, some might say vulgar: a language based on emotion, which probably betrays the President’s own frustrations and anger with the state of French society. The President is aware of the force of words, so much so that he was forced to clarify his use of language in his October 15th interview (” I do not speak to humiliate people’). Opinion surveys do little to suggest that such a regain of trust has taken place, however, and the image of arrogance has taken root. Only time will tell whether lasting damage has been done.

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

Saskia P. Ruth – Do populist presidents always pose a threat to liberal democratic institutions?

This is a guest post by Saskia P. Ruth at the Department of Political Science, University of Zurich. It is based on her recent article recent paper in Political Studies, ‘Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America’. Her webpage is here.

In my article “Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America” I explore which factors enable or hinder populist presidents in Latin America to pursue a radical strategy of institutional change to erode horizontal checks and balances in their respective countries. Prominent examples in Latin America that increased the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislative branch are Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But are populists in power always as consequential to democracy as these prominent cases imply? Looking at other populist presidents in Latin America, we can also find examples where the threat to liberal democracy did not materialize, like Alan Garcia in Peru or Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil.

While comparative research is important to unpack the ambiguous relationship between populism and (liberal) democracy highlighting how populist governments differ from non-populist governments, I focus on the systematic analysis of the conditions under which populists in power pose a threat to democracy or not. Only if we know when and how populists engage in eroding liberal democratic institutions, can we begin to design strategies to countervail their impact. To answer this question, I take an actor-centred approach focusing on specific constellations in the political arena that shape populist presidents’ incentives and their ability to engage in institutional change.

Following the minimalist ideational approach towards populism (see Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser forthcoming) – I argue that the antagonistic nature and the moralistic style of a populist discourse are often directed against liberal democracy, which is based on political pluralism and the constitutional protection of minorities. This inherent tension between populism and liberalism is the reason why populists are perceived as a threat to democracy itself (see Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012). More specifically, especially in presidential systems, like those in Latin America, populist ideas clash with one core principle of liberal constitutionalism, namely horizontal accountability (here defined narrowly as executive-legislative checks and balances).

I argue that the rise of populism to power opens a unique window of opportunity for institutional change, but that the success of populist presidents to increase the power of the executive to their advantage depends on the potential power of other political actors to defend the status quo. I identify three conditions that constitute the political opportunity structure of institutional change, and thereby, either condition the incentive or the capability of populist presidents to erode horizontal accountability. These conditions are: First, the absence of unified government between the executive and the legislature, second, the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in the political arena, and third, high public support in favour of the president.

These hypotheses are then tested by means of a Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) which is specifically suited for research designs with a low- or medium number of cases (Ragin 1987). Therefore, I compiled an original dataset covering all populist presidents elected under democratic rule in Latin America from 1979 until 2014. To identify presidents deploying a populist discourse in their electoral campaign I proceeded in two steps: First, using the ideational definition of populism as a benchmark I conducted an intensive literature review. Second, to validate this coding the dataset was sent to several experts in the field to benefit from their expertise.[1] This led to the inclusion of the following 16 presidents in the analysis: Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina; Evo Morales in Bolivia; Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil; Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic; Jaime Roldós, Abdalá Bucaram, Lucio Gutiérrez, as well as Rafael Correa in Ecuador; Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; Mireya Moscoso in Panama; Alan García (both in the 1980s and in the 2000s) and Alberto Fujimori in Peru; as well as Rafael Caldera and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

As to the results – the QCA identified a complex causal path towards the erosion of horizontal accountability, indicating that successful populist presidents had strong incentives to undermine the power of opposing traditional elites if they fell short of a supporting majority in Congress. However, they were only capable to do so if they were able to exploit the bad reputation of traditional elites and at the same time uphold high popular support levels in favour of their agenda of institutional change. Among the five cases that are covered by this causal path are some of the most prominent populist presidents in the region: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Alberto Fujimori, Carlos Menem, and Evo Morales.

Moreover, the analysis also enabled me to investigate factors that might hinder populists to successfully engage in the depletion of liberal democratic institutions. For one, the analysis highlights the importance of party systems with stable social roots as safeguards against radical institutional change. If populists come to power as candidates of traditional parties, their own party organization may keep them from inducing institutional change processes. Moreover, the analysis also highlights a combined impact of non-unified government and low levels of popular support on the absence of institutional depletion by populist presidents. This substantiates Hochstetler’s plea (2006) not to underestimate the power of the public in executive-legislative conflicts. Popular mobilization is a crucial factor with respect to populist presidents’ success in restructuring liberal democracy.

While these results are a first step to uncover different political opportunity structures that may increase or tame the threat of populism to democracy, further research needs to be done. For example, this study only highlights the effect of populism on executive-checks and balances, while other institutions of horizontal accountability, like the role of the judiciary or other independent state agencies have been excluded. Moreover, with populist candidates globally on the rise it is impervious to identify when and how populist engage in illiberal behaviour and how to countervail their intentions to destabilize liberal democracy beyond the Latin American region. The results of this study may travel to other regions in the world, most likely, to other presidential systems like the USA or semi-presidential systems like France.

References

Hawkins, Kirk, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. forthcoming. “The Ideational Approach to Populism.”  Latin American Research Review.

Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America.”  Comparative Politics 38 (4):401-418.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, eds. 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas. Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ragin, Charles. 1987. The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Note

[1] Experts have been selected based on their publication record as well as their comparative knowledge of populism in Latin America. The survey has been sent to six experts of whom three – Kirk Hawkins, Steven Levitsky and Carlos de la Torre – responded with their evaluations of the case selection.

Venezuela – Elections for Governor Cause Opposition Disunity

On October 15th, Venezuela held elections for the 23 state gubernatorial posts. Despite public opinion polls suggesting that the opposition would gain a significant number of the governorships, with one prediction suggesting they could even control 16 states after the election (from three), the governing coalition of Nicolás Maduro eventually won 18 states of the 23, with the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), taking the remaining five. These five states are Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta, Anzoátegui and Zulia, while the government regained the state of Miranda (which covers part of Caracas) and Hugo Chávez’s younger brother, Argenis, managed to maintain hold of the state of Barinas.

The MUD have since refused to recognise the legitimacy of the elections and have called for a complete audit. They accuse the government of widespread fraud and vote rigging. But the elections appear be driving a wedge among the opposition coalition and undermining their unity (and consequently their ability to challenge the government of Maduro). President Maduro insisted that before any of the governors take up their posts, they must swear allegiance to a new Constituent Assembly that Maduro created by decree in July.

The constituyente was created for two main reasons; firstly, to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state, and secondly, to sideline the opposition dominated Congress that has proven such a thorn in Maduro’s side. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, the government lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance. Although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking their seats, by barring three opposition legislators due to alleged election irregularities.

Initially, all five MUD governors choose to boycott the official ceremony in the Constituent Assembly where all governors were expected to swear their allegiance to the body. However, the governors from the states Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta and Anzoátegui changed their minds and did eventually swear the oath of allegiance. Now, one of the central figures in the opposition movement and a former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, has announced that he is leaving the MUD coalition in response to the decision of the four governors. This could have serious implications for the ability of the opposition to resist the increasing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.[1]

These gubernatorial elections have long been mired in controversy. The National Electoral Council, CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral) had long prevaricated about when, and indeed if, these elections would be held. They were initially slated to be held in December 2016, but the National Electoral Council decided to push them back until mid-2017. Last May, the elections were scheduled for this coming December, before the electoral council announced a date in October.  During the elections themselves, numerous problems arose. At the last minute, 273 voting centres were relocated, largely from areas where the MUD is strong, for security reasons, and some ballots continued to carry the names of defeated primary candidates.

Whether Maduro can use these elections as a means to consolidate his power in the face of an economic crisis and widespread unpopularity remains to be seen.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

 

Georgia – The president’s veto of the constitutional reform is overridden

On September 26, 2017, the Parliament of Georgia approved a set of constitutional amendments on their third and final reading with 117 lawmakers voting in favor and two against.[1] On October 9, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, vetoed the constitutional amendments and returned the draft bill to Parliament together with his objections. The president noted six points, four of which reflected commitments made by the governing Georgian Dream party before the Venice Commission. These were: the issue of the electoral bonus for the winning party at legislative elections, the creation of electoral blocks, and issues relating to the constitutional court and religious freedom. The president also noted Georgian Dream’s initiative relating to the introduction of a fully proportional electoral system in 2020. Finally, the president suggested the introduction of an indirect presidential elections at some time in the future rather than after the 2018 election.[2]

President Margvelashvili suggested that if Georgian Dream were to accept these proposals, then it would demonstrate that Georgia had a “European” political culture and that the government would be acting in accordance with the Venice Commission.

On October 13, the parliament of Georgia overturned the president’s objections with 117 votes and approved the initial version of the document. [3] The ruling party announced several days before the plenary session that they would support president’s objections if the president suggested only two changes: allowing the parties to form electoral blocs for the next parliamentary elections in 2020, and allowing the so-called bonus system.

The next step in the constitutional reform was the signing of the constitutional amendment. As the presidential veto had been overturned, many experts believed that the president would not sign the bill into law. According the Georgian constitution, if President fails to promulgate a law within the specified timeframe, the Chairperson of Parliament shall sign and promulgate it.[4] However, one week after the president had vetoed the bill, President Margvelashvili signed the amendments into law. The president made a special statement before signing the amendments. He said that it was extremely difficult for him to sign the Constitution. However, he said that he would do so to avoid any destabilization.[5]

The new constitution will enter into force following the next presidential elections in 2018. This means that the 2018 presidential election will still be held directly. More generally, the president remains the head of state, the commander-in-chief and the country’s representative in foreign relations, but no longer ensures “the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” At the following presidential election, the president will be elected by way of an electoral college composed of 300 members, including MPs, members of two Autonomous Republics and local government representatives. Thus, semi-presidentialism will be remain in Georgia until after the 2018 presidential election. Next year will show how successful the amendments turn out to be.

Notes

[1] http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/saqartvelos-parlamentma-konstituciuri-kanonis-proeqti-mesame-mosmenit-miigo.page

[2] President Margvelashvili Sends Six-Point Motivated Remarks to Parliament, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/saqartvelos-prezidentma-parlaments-6-punqtiani-mot.aspx

[3] The Parliament overrode the Presidential veto on the Constitutional Changes, 13 Oct 2017,  http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/parlamentma-sakonstitucio-cvlilebebze-prezidentis-veto-dadzlia.page

[4] Constitution of Georgia, August 24, 1995, http://www.parliament.ge/uploads/other/28/28803.pdf

[5] President Margvelashvili: It Is Extremely Difficult for Me to Sign This Constitution, but We Should Take All Steps to Avoid Possible Causes of Destabilization, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/giorgi-margvelashvili-chemtvis-uagresad-dznelia-am.aspx