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Zimbabwe – Removing a tyrant but not a tyranny?

As the upper echelons of Zimbabwe’s ruling party shift following President Robert Mugabe’s ouster, what can we expect from the ‘new’ regime in Harare?

The ‘Soft’ Coup

When on 14 November, army personnel carriers rolled into Harare, social media was ablaze with speculation. At 4 am on the 15th, the military appeared on the public broadcaster to announce that they had ‘secured’ the first family and were working to arrest criminals around the president. Military officials stated repeatedly and emphatically that this was not a coup, and that the constitution had not been abrogated. On 21 November, after a week of negotiations, Mugabe’s removal from the head of the ruling party and the instituting of impeachment proceedings against him, he resigned – ending his 37-year tenure. Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko became possibly the shortest-serving acting president in African history upon Mugabe’s resignation, but his whereabouts remain unknown. Emmerson Mnangagwa was then chosen by ZANU-PF to be the new president of Zimbabwe, just twenty minutes later. Mnangagwa was inaugurated on 24 November as Zimbabwe’s third president.

It appears that the military had been planning their move for some time and had consulted with regional and international allies – although many, including China, deny this – to ensure that any intervention to remove the long-standing head of state would have international buy-in. But to carry it off, they had been warned that it needed to appear as legitimate and bloodless as possible. The military’s move had been planned for just before the December ZANU-PF congress where it was expected that Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa would be removed; but it was moved up when Mnangagwa was unceremoniously removed on 6 November and Army General Constantine Chiwenga (Mnangagwa’s closest ally) received reports that he was to be arrested upon arrival in Harare from a trip to China.

Mugabe’s removal was extremely popular – prompting thousands of Zimbabweans to march and celebrate in the country’s largest cities, and in cities around the world. Despite the popular celebrations, most analysts remain sceptical and believe that his removal has allowed the ruling party which backed him and sustained his regime for four decades to ‘renew’ itself. The title of this article was taken from a quote by Bulawayo MDC Senator, David Coltart on the day of the president’s ouster – a reminder that the system that had sustained Mugabe for so long remained intact, despite his removal.

The Enigmatic Mr Mnangagwa

For those who don’t watch Zimbabwe closely, Emmerson Mnangagwa appeared to be a new, fresh and unknown figure. But Mnangagwa – or the ‘Crocodile’ (Ngwena) – has been at the heart of ZANU-PF and Zimbabwe’s politics for more than four decades. Mnangagwa is one of just two politicians who have served in every cabinet under Mugabe since 1980. Billed as Mugabe’s most likely successor in 2014 when he was appointed republican vice president, he and his allies had increasingly come under attack in 2017 from Women’s League President and First Lady Grace Mugabe as well as the ‘young Turks’ in the faction who supported her.

Despite the public attacks against him, Mnangagwa has spent the last two years positioning himself as a pragmatist and negotiator who would help to resolve the political and economic crisis wrought by the Mugabe administration. He had been reaching out to the farmers dispossessed in the early 2000s, to foreign diplomats in Harare who had been eager to see meaningful re-engagement with ZANU-PF and the opposition whose fortunes had declined markedly since 2009. This was partly the reason for his ouster, when leaked Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) documents reported on by Reuters suggested that Mnangagwa was planning a post-Mugabe future which would involve a 5-year transitional government with the opposition, and the backing of Western diplomats.

Three days after his inauguration, Mnangagwa formally dissolved Cabinet and announced that he was returning his key ally, former Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa to his previous position to allow for continuity. Several key members of Mugabe’s last cabinet are facing charges, and their families have been subjected to significant abuse, harassment and intimidation by the security forces following the takeover. The former finance minister was also beaten so badly during his detention by the military that he had to be hospitalised. Despite Mnangagwa’s inaugural statement regarding a ‘return to democracy’ in Zimbabwe, many Zimbabweans are (understandably) sceptical. Analysts Tinashe Chimedza and Tamuka Chirimambowa refer to the new president as the ‘Trojan horse’ of the ‘deep state,’ which was desperate to ensure its political and economic survival. And despite the apparent lack of bloodshed of the ‘soft coup,’ it is clear that the involvement of the military in politics (and their choosing of an amenable successor) may set a concerning precedent.

The new president’s political history also provides some reasons to be suspicious regarding the likelihood of democratic breakthrough in Zimbabwe – he was implicated in the manipulation of electoral processes (including the stolen and violent 2008 polls) and in the misappropriation of diamond revenues in Zimbabwe and the DRC. He was also complicit in – and thus partly responsible for – the politically-motivated killings of 20 000 Zimbabwean civilians in the Matabeleland region between 1983 and 1987. As noted by Historian Stuart Doran, “Along with Mugabe and the minister responsible for defence, Sydney Sekeramayi, none of the Zanu politicians was more embroiled in the Gukurahundi than Mnangagwa. He was not the architect, but he was one of them. Of that there is no doubt.”

Where to from here?

If reports from inside the political negotiations are correct, it appears that Mnangagwa is still considering an ‘inclusive’ government which includes prominent members of the opposition – who had been caught completely unaware by the rejigging of the political playing field. It appears that he would like to use an inclusive arrangement to consolidate international goodwill, and possibly to postpone the elections scheduled for mid-2018. This is a risky prospect for the opposition, as suggested by Brian Raftopoulos; such an arrangement is likely to be a poisoned chalice for the weakened opposition who will almost certainly be given a marginal and negligible role. International political goodwill also already seems to be at a decade-long high, with the arrival of the first British Minister to the country in twenty years – though the content of the engagement was hardly a resounding endorsement. Less than a week after Mnangagwa’s inauguration, a Chinese envoy had also arrived in Harare and extended an official invitation from President Xi to the new head of state. Such events – along with frequent displays of public goodwill – may lead instead to a decision by Mnangagwa to renege on the negotiations for a more inclusive Cabinet.

The four years since Mugabe’s last electoral victory in 2013 have seen a collapse of living standards in the country. Zimbabwe’s economy is now half the size it was in 2000, with 95% of citizens no longer formally employed and a national budget of just $4 billion USD – of which 97% was spent on public sector salaries in 2016. The health and education systems are barely functional and propped up by donor interventions while the substitute currency has seen hyper-inflation soar at over 300% for 2017, despite the dollarization of the economy in 2009. Reports suggest that political insiders had been raiding the economy of hard currency while military elites monopolised the income from the country’s diamond reserves. On 28 November, Mnangagwa announced that he would be combining ministries and streamlining staff in an attempt to speed up decision-making, cut costs and increase productivity. He also plans to quickly revise the country’s indigenisation laws which legislate that all businesses must cede a 51% stake to a Zimbabwean partner. Suddenly – and for the first time in months – there are more dollars available in ATM’s, and reports suggest that black market premiums on notes have dropped from 85% to just 25%.

Although Mnangagwa clearly plans to repair the ailing economy, the likelihood of full liberalisation is low, given the high levels of military involvement – particularly in lucrative sectors such as diamond mining. Meanwhile, Ignatius Chombo – the finance minister at the point of Mugabe’s removal – has been charged with defrauding the central bank. These charges allegedly relate to corruption perpetrated two decades ago while serving as minister of local government, suggesting that the ‘new’ government will be loath to prosecute for more recent crimes in which current members of the administration might be implicated. Having instituted a three-month amnesty period for externalised ill-gotten funds and threatened to prosecute thereafter, it remains to be seen how tough the new administration will be on corruption. The high levels of complicity across the political and military elite suggest that this is unlikely. It appears that Mnangagwa is already reaching out to former dispossessed Zimbabwean farmers to help re-boot the agricultural economy – along with his flagship ‘Command Agriculture’ project.

Looking forward, the most likely outcome for Zimbabwe’s future is that we will probably see the emergence of something approaching a ‘developmental’ authoritarian state – in which levels of repression remain significant and citizen’s political and civic rights continue to be constrained, but the economy begins to grow again and people’s material prospects improve markedly. Having billed himself as a technocrat and pragmatist, Mnangagwa appears to have wagered that he can normalise relations with Western donor states to improve the economy and that – after decades of downward revision of democratic prospects in Zimbabwe and shifting donor goalposts – the international community would be satisfied by a veneer of democratic legitimacy coupled with significant economic growth and improved trade relations. However – in a stark break from the experience of his predecessor – Mnangagwa will only have two presidential terms in which to do so, following the introduction of a new constitution in 2013.

Amidst reports that Western diplomats had long been backing Mnangagwa’s push for the presidency, it is imperative that his administration is treated warmly, but with a healthy dose of scepticism, and that significant levels of aid disbursement are linked to meaningful democratic reforms. Equally, while they still have some leverage, opposition actors must also negotiate for an even playing field and the repeal of the most repressive legislation that had served the ZANU-state project for so long. If they fail to capitalise on it, this opportunity won’t come around again soon.

Venezuela – Protestors Storm National Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential or Not, Turkey Is a Competitive Authoritarian Regime

Turkey’s fragile democracy survived the recent coup attempt, but it may not survive the wrath of her defenders. After the most peculiar coup attempt in Turkish history by a fraction in the army on 15 July, a state of emergency has been declared. President Erdoğan accuses Fettullah Gülen of being the main perpetrator behind the coup attempt and believes his religious cult is purposely infiltrating government organisations and the judiciary in order to reshape and control the state. As a result there is a hunt for all Gülenists within all government institutions as well as private institutions having ties with him, such as media and business organisations.

Three newsagents, sixteen tv companies, twenty-three radio stations, forty-five newspapers, fifteen journals, twenty-nine publishing houses were shut down in one emergency decree. Overall 160 media outlets have been closed down. Also fifteen universities, more than 2000 educational institutions, and hospitals run by Gülenists were also closed down by emergency decrees.

Human rights guarantees in the Turkish Constitution and The European Convention on Human Rights have been suspended during the state of emergency. The government under the leadership of President Erdoğan issued several decrees removing over a hundred thousand civil servants, including not only military officers but also teachers, doctors, university deans, lecturers, ministerial staff. Also 2,747 judges and public prosecutors were detained and more than three thousand were suspended from duty including high court judges. None of the civil servants removed from their posts or private institutions shut down by emergency decrees has the right to sue government as those decrees are immune from law suits.

The fight against Gülenists includes also businessmen, who are detained and their property seized for aiding and abetting the terrorist organisation. Not to mention detained journalists and writers, including those who are accused of being members of Gülenist terrorist organisation and supporting the coup attempt and others who are accused of helping Gülenists without being a member. Their political beliefs and standings differ widely. Some support right wing beliefs including political Islam, but some of them are well known liberals such as Ahmet Altan, and his brother Mehmet Altan, or Kemalists like Atilla Taş. The government has been targeting not only Gülenists but also PKK, Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), secularists and leftists. Having declared a state of emergency, President Erdoğan has a free hand to tighten his grip over political life.

Many of civil servants who have been removed from their duties are accused of having links with Fettullah Gülen, but not all of them are Gülenists. Members of left wing unions have also been targeted. A total of 28 elected majors, the majority of whom are members of the pro-Kurdish HDP, have been removed from their posts and replaced by appointed substitutes by the government. No concrete proof is needed for removal even for judges. For instance, the Constitutional Court decided to remove the sitting judges from their posts based on “the belief” established by the majority vote that they have ties with Gülenists. Finally achieving his desire to have total control over judiciary, President Erdoğan also saw all high court judges bowing to him in his new palace at Beştepe recently. President Erdoğan made sure that no judge would stand up against his massive clear out.

After the coup attempt President Erdoğan invited his supporters onto streets for a month, organising political rallies named “democracy watch”. Ironically, members of other religious orders who also support political Islam and infiltrate government institutions like Gülenists played active roles in these street gatherings attacking Alevi’s (another sect of Islam), and secularists for supporting the coup despite the fact that the coup attempt was not supported by political parties, minorities or opposition groups. Opposing the government is almost presented as being treacherous. Mosques also played a major role supporting the government and inviting people hourly to defend Erdoğan and his party in the name of God and the Prophet Muhammed.

It is highly likely that if this coup attempt had been successful it would have caused a bloody internal conflict. The soldiers who attempted it fired the crowd in protest after the President Erdoğan’s call, bombed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, flew F16 fighter jets over Ankara, and killed many people. Such cruel acts of terror are the government’s main justificatory base. However, there are news reports alleging that the accused include leftists, Alevi’s and even atheists. With the legal guaranties of basic rights suspended, no one can be sure if the accused have been really involved in illegal activities or if they will have a fair trial. Many informants voluntarily denounce people for being involved Gülenist movement. Some of the accused people even fail to find lawyers to defend them in the criminal courts. Reports of torture and ill-treatment cases have been on the rise. Even though the state of emergency has been declared for three months, it would not be a surprise if it is extended for a much longer period.

The major question to be asked at this time is whether Turkish democracy has really survived this coup attempt. Is Turkey turning into a competitive authoritarian state? Having declared his will for a strong presidential system and having recently replaced his prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu with Binali Yıldırım, who was more willing to campaign for presidential system, President Erdoğan may no longer need a new constitution to create the type of presidential system that he longs for. The state of emergency under the current Constitution empowers the President by giving him the authority to lead the cabinet and issue emergency decrees having the force of law without the immediate approval of the legislative. Furthermore, guarantees of basic rights have been suspended under the state of emergency. With the Judiciary being completely out of the way after the post-coup reorganisations Erdoğan’s rule has no checks and balances and no political rival to voice their opposition.

In the light of the current political state, it is hard to call this regime a democracy anymore. The best way to describe it might be “competitive authoritarianism”. This concept has been defined by Levitsky and Way as “a hybrid regime type, with important characteristics of both democracy and authoritarianism” . In addition to the generally accepted four criteria that are famously described by R. Dahl as free and fair competitive elections, full adult suffrage, protection of civil and political liberties especially speech, press, association, absence of nonelected authorities such as military, monarchy that limit elected officials, Levitsky and Way offered an additional fifth criterion: the existence of a reasonably level playing field between incumbents and opposition. In competitive authoritarian regimes, elections may be free, but competition is hardly fair. Often incumbent parties violate basic rights, especially the freedom of speech, press and association. Most importantly there is no level playing field between a ruling party that excessively manipulates state institutions and resources and the opposition. Some of these manipulations are straight up violations of basic rights, but others are more subtle such as de facto control of private media and finances through informal patronage arrangements. Turkey fitted the picture even before the coup attempt.

Now, as an increasingly authoritarian president, Erdoğan has finally established his long-held dream of working without the constraint of the rule of law, and without any threat of losing power. The Turkish press is no longer considered free. Considerable elements of the media are controlled by Erdoğan, and the rest of them are fighting against daily criminal suits, detentions and even closures after the state of emergency has been declared. Free speech is heavily damaged. Opposition parties, especially the pro-Kurdish HDP, have already been under pressure. Many of their MPs’ legislative privileges, which constitutionally prevent criminal procedures without the assembly approval, have recently been lifted by a bizarre constitutional amendment before the coup attempt. All told, following the declaration of a state of emergency, Erdoğan has the opportunity to complete his aim of authoritarian rule.

Turkey – Erdogan tightens his grip via draconian Internet Law

Parliamentary elections are approaching in Turkey following a year of intense political turmoil. Arab Spring protests, corruption scandals, and a fall-out within the political elite – all events that appeared to threaten Erdogan’s grip on power. However, while arguably tremendously unpopular, recent developments seem to suggest that all is not over for the incumbent prime minister, and the ruling party – the AKP – is still going strong.

Popular demonstrations, anti-Islamist sentiments and accusations of corruption of the political elite have long been the order of the day in Turkey. So, how come domestic and international commentators were beginning to wonder whether Turkey was coming to the end of the Erdogan era? After all, not long ago, Erdogan had been awarded the Time’s people’s choice award,[1] and he had recently been described as the most powerful Turkish leader since Atatürk following the AKP’s successful campaign to edge out the once to powerful military from the political scene. The most straightforward answer appears to be that while Erodgan and the AKP had succeeded internationally in maintaining their hard-earned and carefully crafted reputation as Turkey’s new guarantors of democracy, this view was no longer shared by large segments of the population at home. As the popularity of Erdogan and the trust in the government began to decline – and at speed – both actors naturally became more vulnerable. In light of the Arab Spring, which successfully triggered regime change (in the sense of rotation of power elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa), the critics of the regime also became more outspoken.

This was brilliantly illustrated by the corruption scandal that erupted shortly before Christmas 2013, when Istanbul’s public prosecutor Zekeriya Öz had the police arrest some 50 members of the country’s political elite in a large-scale corruption case, involving bribes, the circumvention of sanctions against Iran, and money laundering.[2] Among those arrested were key personalities within the AKP, influential businesspeople, and the sons of three cabinet ministers, plus several senior lawmakers and the head of the state-owned Halkbank. A summons for Bilal Erdogan – the prime minister’s son – was also issued, but the police refused to obey the arrest order, a story that was repeated for several AKP members too. The handling of the corruption scandal raised serious eyebrows at home and abroad, not so much because of the people involved, but for the reason that the arrest orders were made in the first place, and due to the fact that the investigation was headed by Öz, who had previously aided Erdogan in the infamous ‘Ergenekon’ case[3], where a network of high-profile secular nationalists with supposed ties to the military were prosecuted for allegedly plotting a coup.[4]

The corruption scandal raised the issue of whether Erdogan was beginning to lose support within the establishment. In other words, if Öz was turning on the prime minister (regardless of whether that was, indeed, the case), who would turn next? This debate, in turn, opened up for the discussion of scenarios for the future. Amongst the general population, and within political circles too, people were beginning to consider alternatives to Erdogan, while Erdogan and his supporters grew increasingly paranoid, fearing disloyalty from within the establishment in an election year, and perhaps even a coup attempt. The chief suspect was Fethullah Gülen, a spiritual leader and head of the Hizmet movement, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US. Gülen was a close ally of Erdogan and the AKP in their challenging of the military, and he was generously rewarded for his efforts as Hizmet members were appointed to key positions within the establishment. Should Gülen turn, where would the loyalties of these people lie, the regime is beginning to ask.[5] Not surprisingly, there has been a purge within the state in recent months as Erdogan has ordered the sacking of some 2,000 police officers from their posts, and the sacking or ‘reassignment’ of no less than 96 judges.[6]

With the recent furore surrounding the new Internet Law, at least one name has been removed from the list of potential enemies: president Abdullah Gül. There had long been speculations of a rift between the president and the prime minister, but Gül’s endorsement of the highly controversial Internet Law, which he signed on 18 February, is widely seen as a sign that the two leaders are cooperating.[7] This reality is causing further concern, however. If Erdogan and the AKP are still going strong in a year where elections are coming up, and if both still enjoy the support of the president (who used to be affiliated with the AKP himself), where are the viable alternatives going to come from, and where is Turkey heading given that state control is on the increase, and the new Internet Law effectively provides the government (rather than the judiciary) with wide-ranging measures when it comes to curbing dissent and opposing opinions.[8]