Tag Archives: Central Asia

Grigorii V. Golosov – The Impact of Authoritarian Institutions on Party Systems in Post-Soviet Central Asian States

This is a guest post by Grigorii V. Golosov. It is based on the article “The Five Shades of Grey: Party Systems and Authoritarian Institutions in Post-Soviet Central Asian States”, in Central Asian Survey, doi:10.1080/02634937.2018.150044.

As of 2017, there was no single instance of a state that could be qualified as an electoral democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia. Meanwhile, all these states do conduct elections on a fairly regular basis, and they have developed party systems that display a remarkable cross-national variation. While the consequences of authoritarian institutions have been already subjected to a rather close scrutiny in scholarly literature, relatively little is known about the reasons why such institutions take their specific shape. This problem is particularly salient with respect to the most fundamental property of party systems, fragmentation, conventionally defined as the number of important parties in the system. While it is certainly true that the general tendency of authoritarian regimes is to create dominant party systems in which a pro-government party takes a lion’s share of votes and legislative seats, there are well-known instances of long-standing yet very fragmented authoritarian party systems, such as in Morocco. The reasons for this situation have not been clarified in the literature. The purpose of this study is to solve this puzzle by means of a systematic comparison of five authoritarian party systems that, while being quite similar in their origins, belonging to the same region of Post-Soviet Central Asia and thus sharing many similarities of context, do display a significant variation on the main parameter of interest, fragmentation.

In this study, I use a conventional measure of fragmentation, the effective number of parties, in the mathematical formulation developed by Golosov: where pi and p1 stand for the fractional shares of seats received by the i-th and the largest parties, respectively. Table 1 provides a brief summary of parliamentary elections, presented as the observed levels of party system fragmentation, in Central Asian states throughout the whole post-Soviet period. Since the electoral cycles of individual countries do not concur, each of the cells of the table reports the year of elections (or the year of the first round of elections, if different from that of the second round), and the effective number of parliamentary parties in parentheses.

Table 1. Years of parliamentary elections and effective numbers of parties (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Abbreviations: NPS – no party structure in the assembly; SPS – single-party system. Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Nohlen, Grotz and Hartmann 2001.

I hypothesize that the levels of party system fragmentation in autocracies are contingent upon the scope of presidential powers. This is not to say that formal constitutional provisions, shallow as they are in authoritarian political contexts, are matters of primary concern for the autocrats. Of course, they are primarily concerned with preserving and expanding their hold over the polity. Yet if they choose to follow the rules of the game as established in the constitution, then it is rational for them to facilitate the development of secondary political structures, such as party systems, in a way that is optimal for the consolidation of authoritarianism within the existing constitutional order. In other words, the autocrats are well motivated to seek congruency between the scope of their constitutional powers and party system properties. In fact, there is no reason to assume that in this respect, the autocrats are fundamentally different from democratic presidents. What differentiates the two is not motivation but rather capacity: the autocrats are much better equipped to shape party systems at their will.

For an institutionally strong president, the party composition of the assembly is not very consequential. Given that the president makes crucial political and administrative decisions without any parliamentary involvement and often possesses significant legislative powers, political fragmentation in the assembly can be affordable for the presidency. In democracies, the limits of such affordability are set by the president’s ultimate inability to pursue her legislative agenda in a complete defiance of the parliament, which explains why the coexistence of a strong presidency with a fragmented assembly is often problematic. In autocracies, a strong president is less constrained by such considerations. At the same time, parliamentary fragmentation offers several tangible rewards to an institutionally strong president. First, the presence of many parties in the assembly greatly increases the symbolic value of the parliament by providing a visible proof to the autocrat’s claim that the regime is democratic in its nature. Indeed, one of the primary goals of authoritarian institution building is to project an image of democracy without threatening the political survival of the autocrat. Second, the survival of autocrats in power largely depends on their ability to neutralize the actual or potential opponents by co-opting them into the institutional structure of the regime. This explains why cooptation is often viewed as the principal rationale for the very existence of authoritarian institutions. Yet for co-optation to occur, a wide range of elite groups – including those that do not belong to the autocrat’s ‘inner circle’ – should gain access to representation, however shallow, and to the spoils associated with it. Third, by allowing such groups to participate in elections under their own party labels, the regime makes use of their political machines, which is important in authoritarian electoral contexts that are often dominated by clientelism.

Taking this into account, consider a situation when the formal powers of the presidency are intermediate, neither very strong nor very weak. In this situation, the autocratic president still can afford a multi-party composition of the assembly. However, the payoff of this strategy is smaller than in the conditions outlined above. For example, if the president is involved in the formation of the government yet the parliament also has significant appointment / government censure powers, which is often the case when the constitutional powers of the presidency are within an intermediate range, then manufacturing a multiparty majority poses a problem for the president without significantly reducing the political capacity of the legislature. In this situation, it is in the best interest of the president to seek and obtain a single-party legislative majority. A fragmented legislature is not necessarily dangerous for an autocratic president with moderate formal powers, but it is certainly more difficult to handle. This creates a strong incentive for seeking a pro-presidential party majority in the legislature. In the presence of strong motivation towards single-party control over the assembly, those factors that have been listed above as facilitating the coexistence between institutionally strong presidents and fragmented assemblies become less consequential. Thus the main hypothesis of this study can be formulated as follows. There is a curvilinear pattern of association between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties in electoral authoritarian regimes. While institutionally weak and institutionally strong presidencies are associated with fragmented party systems, the autocratic presidents with moderate yet sizeable formal powers seek and obtain single-party majorities in their assemblies, which leads to low levels of party system fragmentation.

In order to test this hypothesis, I used the Prespow scores as reported at this site with some minor amendments. Table 2 presents the scores as used in this study. The structure of presentation is the same as in Table 1.

Table 2. Years of parliamentary elections and Prespow2 scores (in parentheses) in Central Asian states

Sources: Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017; Presidential Power 2017.

With the data on the powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties at hand, I proceeded with my statistical analysis. The overall number of observations in the analysis is 16, which corresponds to the number of party-structured elections held in Central Asian states throughout the period under observation, as defined above and reported in Tables 1 and 2. This is explained in detail in the previous section of this paper. Given that the relationship between the two variables of interest is expected to be curvilinear, I used a polynomial regression model. The scatter plot is provided in Figure 1 (note that two data points for Kazakhstan, 2012 and 2016, nearly coincide in space). As is evident from the figure, the trend line takes the form of a U-shaped parabola, which supports my expectations regarding the relationship between the constitutional powers of the presidency and the effective number of parties.

The observed relationship is very strong, with R-squared = 0.67, and statistically significant at 0.001. The regression equation is thus: where ENP stands for the effective number of parties.

The strength of the observed association between the scope of presidential powers and the effective number of parties in Central Asian states suggests that the presidents can direct political processes – in this case, the process of party system development – at their will. Here lies the main difference between the dynamics of party system development in democracies, where it is largely determined by societal cleavages and other factors beyond the control of the acting rulers, and in autocracies, where it is largely manipulated by the authorities. Of course, a wider cross-national inquiry is needed to fully substantiate this vision of institutional dynamics under electoral authoritarianism, and it might well be that the dynamics observed in Central Asia deviates from the general tendency.

Sources: see sources to Tables 1 and 2.

Latinization in the Turkic post-Soviet Republics

On 14 November 2018, at Kazakhstan’s universities, a nation-wide exam to test students’ proficiency in the Latin alphabet took place. Simultaneously, two major radio stations and websites invited people to take the test at home. This was the kick-off for the implementation of a reform, started by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s October 2017 decree ordering a switchover from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet for Kazakh, the country’s state language. If carried out as planned, the reform will proceed in three stages. After a preparatory period (2018-2020), teachers will be trained, and identity cards based on Latin script will be issued (2021-2023). Finally, during 2024-2025 state agencies and state-owned media must gradually transition to the Latin alphabet.

The writing issue is an eminently political one across Central Asia. During the early 1920s, Soviet authorities created five republics out of Turkestan, the vast internal colony of the Russian Empire. Here as well as in Azerbaijan, they first introduced a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it between 1927 and 1930 with Latin, and finally, between 1938 and 1940, with the Cyrillic script. This policy claimed to be a necessary measure to combat illiteracy and to raise the cultural level of national minorities to that of Russians, and also aimed to thwart the influence of Turkey in the Soviet Republics with their predominantly Muslim population.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Latinization, the transition of the state language of the new republics to the Latin alphabet, entered the political agenda again. Initiated by Turkey, in the early 1990s, the idea of a common alphabet for the Turcophone world was popular. Numerous conferences and meetings brought together political representatives and scholars from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, but also from Russia’s Turkic regions and elsewhere. The project of a common script turned out to be utopian and lost its appeal by 1996.

By this time, three of the five post-Soviet states had managed to introduce their versions of Latin scripts. They argued that the Latin alphabet is better suited for representing the sounds of Turkic languages than Cyrillic, that its adoption strengthens the cultural, intellectual and social identity of their nations and that it secures the computer compatibility of their state languages. However, this move was mainly considered to signal a break with the Soviet era and a geopolitical reorientation.

Already in December 1991, Azerbaijan introduced a modified version of the Latin Azeri script that had been used during the 1920s and 1930s. The Cyrillic alphabet, so the law stated, had been a “historical injustice” introduced “despite the people’s will” and as a “continuation of the mass repressions of the 1930s.” However, in practice, the transition unfolded slowly, until a 2001 presidential decree made the use of the Latin alphabet mandatory.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted Latin scripts in 1993, using alphabets that represented mere transliterations of the Cyrillic system. To date, the transition has not been fully completed here. This is most visibly in Uzbekistan, where both graphic systems continue to be used concurrently. The Latin alphabet prevails in many street names, on billboards, in public transportation, television and film productions, and the Cyrillic script in all other spheres.

The two remaining Turkic republics with their large segments of Russian-speaking populations approached the issue much later. In Kyrgyzstan, Latinization of the state language was included in a state program on language development during the period from 2000 to 2010. However, the project was not carried out. In July 2017, then-President Almazbek Atambaev declared that first, the shift to the Latin script might “divide Turkic languages and nations” across the post-Soviet region rather than unite them, because Turkic peoples in the Russian Federation continue using Cyrillic. Second, he argued, the change of the alphabet may also “break the link between generations, as many prominent Kyrgyz writers used Cyrillic when creating their works.”

In Kazakhstan, a six-step plan to switch the country to the Latin alphabet was launched by the Ministry of Education in 2007, but the program lost momentum soon. A new attempt followed in 2012 when Nazarbayev in his annual State of the Nation Address declared the transition to Latin part of the “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050,” a long-term program to push the country into the top 30 global economies by 2050. The recent measures aim to tackle this difficult task as smoothly and as well-organized as possible. Strikingly, and compared to the justifications for alphabet switchovers in the early 1990s, any geopolitical statements are avoided. Nazarbayev’s “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050” envisages the transition to Latin letters as one of several measures for modernizing the Kazakh language, the nation’s “spiritual center.” The move is incorporated into the seventh priority of the Strategy, which is titled “New Kazakhstani patriotism is the basis for the success of our multiethnic and multi-confessional society.” There, the use of the Latin alphabet is substantiated as a “decision for the sake of the future of our children,” easing access to English as a third essential language—along with Kazakh and Russian—and to the internet. When Russian media criticized this step as a geopolitical statement, the Kazakhstani foreign minister hastened to soothe his Russian colleague by underscoring that there was “no subtext and no geopolitical signal in Kazakhstan’s intention.” In the same vein, Nazarbayev declared in 2017 that “the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin-based script does not in any way affect the rights of the Russian-speaking citizens” in the country, which still makes up more than 20 percent of the population.

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

9781137387806

Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.