Tag Archives: elections

Bolivia: A Testing Year for Bolivia’s Democracy

The tide that swept leftist governments to power in Latin America over a decade ago has dramatically receded in recent years. The resulting political struggles between left and right have seen a rise in undemocratic tendencies, with dubious methods utilised both by presidents to retain power, as well as by opponents seeking to depose incumbents. 

Bolivia under Evo Morales has proved no exception, as previously outlined in this blog. In this context, 2019 increasingly looks like being a pivotal year for Bolivia’s democracy. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 20th, where visions of the past and present will vie to control the country’s future. 

In particular, current President Evo Morales will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, having managed to overturnthe result of a 2016 plebiscite in which a majority voted against the abolition of term limits. 

Since the shock of that result, Morales and his government have done what they tend to do when faced with setbacks: retrench and find a way around the problem by whatever means necessary. In this case a friendly Supreme Court acceded to the government’s petition to override the plebiscite, thus abolishing term limits. In turn the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified that rulingand registered the candidacy of Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera.

The government’s manoeuvrings prompted a significant backlash. In the immediate aftermath of the TSE decision, a series of protests eruptedinvolving work stoppages, blockades, marches and vigils. Opponents have come together under the heading of ‘Bolivia Dijo No!’(Bolivia Said No!). The coalition is an uneasy one, however, as it contains a mixture of right-wing opponents from wealthy sectors and disillusioned former Morales supporters. The former group, in particular, has shown violent tendencies, evidenced by the burningof the TSE building in Santa Cruz. Such behaviour is unlikely to win over wavering middle-class voters, however.

Morales has sought to prey on these doubts by offering stability, further poverty reduction, and continued economic growth, which has averaged five per cent during his 13 years in power. Furthermore, the recent launch of a system of universal healthcareis a departure from the more targeted and clientelistic social protection measurestypically employed by the government.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers have noted that Morales has a habit of launching big initiatives in the period before presidential elections. Nor was the healthcare plan well-received by doctors, who launched industrial actionand criticised the lack of funding for beds, supplies and staff.

Other recent initiatives, however, appear to be more overt attempts to utilise state power to influence the outcome of the election. One example was the holding of mandatory primary electionsin January. While on its face a move to enhance democratic processes, critics viewed the primaries as an attempt by Morales to expand his electoral base following the humiliation of the 2016 plebiscite.

Furthermore, the measure was imposed in late 2018with little warning, and provided opposition parties with a very short period within which to register candidates. In particular, the timeframe meant that the opposition was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The conduct of the processwas also hampered by low turnout – partly explained by many parties calling for a boycott – and allegations of significant irregularities. The result was that the opposition emerged divided, with nine candidates set to contest the election.

Nonetheless, the main rival that has emerged is a name from Bolivia’s past: former president Carlos Mesa. A mild-mannered journalist and historian, Mesa is widely respected. Nevertheless, his association with the unpopular government of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (‘Goni’) – who Mesa served as Vice-President before taking over when Goni was ousted – continues to dog his candidacy. Mesa’s refusal to formalise an alliance with any party is evidence that he is aware of this weakness.

In response to the threat of Mesa, Morales has used more direct tactics to damage his rival. These have included accusing Mesa of causing economic damageto the state due to his nationalisation of a Chilean company when president – ironic given that Morales’ signature promise when first elected was the purported nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves – and levelling charges of accepting bribesfrom a Brazilian construction company. 

The overall image forged by Morales’ actions over the past three years – commencing with the overturning of the result of the 2016 plebiscite, and running through the primaries to the use of the state apparatus to target a political rival – is of a government that increasingly adheres to the typology of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[i]

The reason underlying these actions is that Morales’s grip on power has loosened significantly in recent years due to the inherent contradictions of his governing model. Morales relies heavily on rents from gas, mining and agribusiness for redistribution and public spending. The end of the commodities boom has seen the government go to ever-greater lengths to boost income, even opening up protected areasfor oil and gas exploration. 

The result has been a series of conflicts between the self-styled ‘government of the social movements’ and social movements themselves[ii]. The disconnect between this model and Morales’ environmentalist discourse can no longer be overlooked.

Furthermore, the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have traditionally been sources of patronage and bribery in Bolivia. It is far from surprising then that Morales’ government has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and vanity[iii].

Nevertheless, Morales remains a popular and indeed historic figure in Bolivia whose importance as a symbol continues to resonate with many. Recent opinion pollsappear to show that Morales’s lead over Mesa is growing, albeit slowly.

The biggest problem facing Morales looks likely to be the electoral system, and in particular the run-off vote. In each of his three previous victories, Morales was elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, thereby avoiding a second round of voting. That outcome appears unlikely on this occasion.

Instead Morales’ core vote appears to be closer to 30 per cent. Even allowing for the fact that polls routinely under-estimate support for Morales, if the president fails to triumph over Mesa by more than ten per cent it would trigger a run-off. A second round would place the president in a very different situation, facing a single candidate around whom a diffuse and divided opposition could coalesce. Indeed, opinion pollsindicate that Mesa would win a run-off vote against Morales.

Were this to occur, it would represent a significant test for Bolivia’s institutions and its current president’s commitment to democracy.


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

[ii]The ongoing socio-environmental conflict in the protected area of Tariquiaover hydrocarbon concessions granted without any prior consultation with indigenous communities is just the most recent of such clashes.

[iii]The construction of a 29-storey presidential palace – named The Great House of the People – for a cost of $34 million is the most high-profile example of this tendency.

What’s next for Ramaphosa as South Africa heads to the Polls?

Just 15 months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s new head of state following the long-awaited departure of President Jacob Zuma. Now on the 8th of May, South Africa will hold its 6th national and provincial elections, marking 25 years since the fall of apartheid. How will Ramaphosa fare, as the country battles a slow-burn economic crisis, an electricity sector meltdown and simmering discontent among all strata of society?

As noted previously in these pages, Jacob Zuma was removed in February 2018 to allow the ANC to revive their waning electoral legitimacy and clean up the party’s image in the wake of damaging scandals. After the party’s bruising loss of major municipalities in the 2016 local government elections and the decline of the ANC’s national tally to just 54%, most pundits predicted that the Zuma-effect would pull the ANC under the 50% threshold in 2019.

Enter Cyril Ramaphosa. Having served as Zuma’s deputy for the last four years of the Zuma presidency, the sceptics noted that he had said and done little as the scandals piled up and the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Zuma administration was intent on personalising the proceeds of the state for himself and his friends. But nonetheless, his ascendance as ANC and state president was greeted with hope and optimism, a welcome break from the deepening gloom that marked the end of the Zuma presidency.

This positive sentiment – dubbed ‘Ramaphoria’ – bolstered the currency, helped stave off a downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and left the middle class sleeping a little easier. But it wouldn’t last long. Before long it became clear that there was a fight-back from the Zuma camp, and that many of the worst leaders from his cabal had remained within the upper echelons of the party and state. Ramaphosa inherited defunct institutions, a vastly increased state debt burden and an electricity crisis prompted by corruption, mismanagement and rapid debt accumulation.

The battle of the pollsters

Polling has relatively consistently – and somewhat unsurprisingly – pointed to yet another victory for the ANC at the national level. An Ipsos poll conducted between March and April predicts a minor recovery for the ANC from the 2016 polls – suggesting a final tally of 61% for the ANC, 19% for the Democratic Alliance and 11% for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

But a new poll released by the Institute for Race Relations (a Johannesburg-based conservative think tank) has suggested that the ANC’s numbers will fall even further this year than they did in the last local elections, and that the ruling party is likely to lose again in major metros and is likely to lose Gauteng – the country’s economic heartland – entirely to other parties. The IRR poll suggests that the party will take 49.5% nationally (on a predicted turnout of 100% of eligible voters) and 51% on a 71.9% turnout scenario. The same poll places the DA at 21.3% (100% turnout) or 24% on a 71.9% turnout scenario while the EFF takes between 14.9% and 14% across the two.

Of course, a 100% turnout scenario is unlikely – and levels of apathy across the country appear to be reaching alarming levels. Almost one in four eligible voters – nearly ten million people – declined to register, and another 5 million are expected not to turn out based upon previous turnout levels. The electoral commission’s data suggests that most of the disaffected are in urban areas – the most populous province, Gauteng, had the lowest registration rate at 67.1% of eligible voters. Young voters in particular seem to be staying away, with just 18% of the country’s 18-19 year olds registering, and a little over 50% of 20-29 year olds.

This will likely hamper the EFF’s electoral fortunes and play to the ruling party’s advantage. Older voters are more likely to vote on historical lines while younger voters generally express far more dissatisfaction with the slow pace of transformation over the last 25 years and have fewer deep historical ties to the ANC. But between these two polls, it is probably reasonable to expect that (barring a major crisis in the next 6 days) the ANC will likely win these elections with between 50-60% of the vote, that the EFF will make the most substantial gains amongst the opposition and the DA will maintain its place as the country’s formal opposition but fail to capitalise sufficiently on the discontent in the country.

What comes next?

In some ways the election represents a continuation of the status quo – that the ANC will continue a slow electoral slide, but that the two major opposition parties are unlikely to be sufficiently able to take advantage of growing public discontent to displace the ruling party. What will be more interesting to watch is what happens at provincial level.

Africa Confidential reports that at the provincial level, Zuma-supporters with a strong provincial base are encouraging voters to undermine the ruling party at national level by voting ANC provincially, but voting for other parties in the national polls. Several weeks ago, Zuma himself endorsed the populist Black First Land First movement-turned-party. It is alleged that some within this camp hope to use poor national election result to try to remove Ramaphosa in a special elective congress. For his part, Ramaphosa is believed to still be trying to clear some of Zuma’s allies out of the ANC using a Special Investigation Unit tribunal which will be established immediately following the polls.

This factionalism within the ANC is unlikely to be quickly resolved following the polls, and the country will still have to face the current dire economic circumstances. With persistently high unemployment figures (at 37%), unsustainable debt levels (50% of GDP) and low appetite for foreign investment, the country will remain in a sticky economic position. It remains to be seen which way Ramaphosa will take the ANC and whether he will pursue a more market-friendly growth path that potentially worsens the plight of some of South Africa’s poorest.

Ramaphosa has previously shown his proclivity for ‘order’ over fairness during the Marikana strikes, while his recent xenophobic statements on the campaign trail and support for entrenching traditional authorities’ control over rural communities appears to demonstrate a preference for expedience over principle. He will have to tread a fine path to walk South Africa back from the brink and help to build an inclusive and equitable economy. Cyril Ramaphosa needs to be up to the task – or he risks rushing the country down an ever more precarious path.

Finland – modest but important gains for the political left in parliamentary elections

The Finnish parliamentary elections held last Sunday (14 April) received international media attention primarily on account of the anti-immigration and nationalist The Finns Party finishing second, winning just one MP less than the Social Democrats that emerged as the largest party for the first time in the 21st century. Overall, all three leftist parties – the Social Democrats, the Green League, and the Left Alliance – won more votes and seats than in the Eduskunta elections held four years earlier, while particularly the Centre Party suffered a major defeat.

Finland had been governed since the 2015 elections by a centre-right coalition that brought together the Centre, the National Coalition (conservatives), and the Finns Party. The top priority of the cabinet had been the reorganization of health and social services, which would have brought about both a larger role for the private sector in delivering such services (a key objective for the National Coalition) and the introduction of directly-elected regional councils (a key objective for the Centre that wins most of its vote in the rural provinces). The project had run into serious trouble in the Eduskunta, with also some backbench MPs of the governing parties voicing strong criticism and indicating that they might not support the bill. Finally, the project was buried on 8 March, with PM Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party immediately announcing the resignation of his government.

With just over a month to go before the Eduskunta elections, many speculated that Sipilä had resigned in order to focus on the campaign, especially as the Centre was doing so badly in the polls. Sipilä seemed concerned about the Centre losing its core supporters in the rural areas, and hence he defended strongly the increasing use of logging and ‘sustainable use of forest resources’. In fact, climate change and the need to address global warming became arguably the leading topic of the elections, with particularly the left-wing parties advocating bolder measures that were criticized by the political right, not least by the Finns Party. However, apart from climate change the campaign themes ranged from the state of economy and employment (with the governing parties defending their good track record) to immigration, equality, and social security. European integration and foreign and security policy did not feature at all in the debates. Surprisingly the failed social and health care reform package was also by and large missing from the debates.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. This time the Social Democrats captured only 17,7 % of the votes (+1,2 % compared with the 2015 elections, the worst performance of the party after the Second World War) and 40 seats (+6 compared with the situation after the 2015 elections), the lowest-ever share won by the largest party in Eduskunta elections. While the polls had predicted a bigger victory for the Social Democrats, finishing first means a lot to the party and more broadly to the political left in Finland. The last time the Social Democrats won the elections was back in 1999, and hence Finland has not had a social democratic prime minister after the era of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ headed by Paavo Lipponen between 1995 and 2003. The inclusion of Social Democrats in the government is also crucial for the trade unions that received wide-spread criticism during the Sipilä government. Antti Rinne, the party leader and thus also the likely next prime minister, has a trade union background, and this no doubt strengthens the links between the new government and the corporatist actors. Rinne himself has been quite heavily criticized, and again there are question marks over his leadership as still between January and early April the support of the Social Democrats was according to polls around and even above 20 %.

The Green League recorded its best-ever performance, winning 11,5 % of the vote (+3,0 %) and 20 seats (+5). However, the celebrations were nonetheless quite muted, especially as the polls had predicted a larger vote share for the Greens and many party activists surely hoped that the party would achieve the next step of joining the group of large parties in Finnish politics. Pekka Haavisto, a senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, had been appointed as the interim party chair in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. The Greens are in many ways close allies with the Social Democrats, and would thus be a logical coalition partner in a Social Democratic-led cabinet. The Left Alliance also achieved an election victory, winning 8,2 % of the vote (+1,0 %) and 16 seats (+4). Hence the combined seat share of the left-wing parties increased from 61 seats after the 2015 elections to 76 seats (38 %).

International media coverage focused strongly on the Finns Party which finished second with 17,5 % of the vote (-0,2 %) and 39 seats (+1). When interpreting the results, we must pay close attention to the recent history of the party. The ‘new’ version of the Finns Party was established in summer 2017 when Jussi Halla-aho was elected as the party chair. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues and the new leadership also advocates more pro-market solutions than the ‘old’ Finns Party chaired by Timo Soini between 1997 and 2017. The support of Halla-aho’s party increased in the months leading to the elections, but the final result nevertheless took most observers by surprise. Halla-aho himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30596 votes in the Helsinki constituency. Also many other leading anti-immigration figures, such as Laura Huhtasaari, Juho Eerola, and Ville Tavio performed strongly in their respective electoral districts.

The election was at the same time a catastrophe for the Blue Reform, the ‘losing side’ of the Finns Party’s 2017 party congress. The Blue Reform was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many felt that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform thus continued in the cabinet and in the elections tried to defend the achievements of the Sipilä government. It managed to win only 1,0 % of the vote and failed to achieve representation in the Eduskunta, meaning also that the ministers of the party (Soini was not seeking re-election), including the party chair Sampo Terho, were not re-elected.

The two main governing parties, the Centre and the National Coalition, did their best to defend the track record of the cabinet, particularly regarding employment rate. The National Coalition managed considerably better, finishing third with 17,0 % of the vote (-1,2 %) and 38 seats (+1). While party chair Petteri Orpo and the party faithful appeared jubilant, one could also sense disappointment as the National Coalition had won the 2017 municipal elections with 20,7 % of the vote and for a long time it had seemed that Orpo might become the next PM. The National Coalition and the Social Democrats have experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015), and the current prediction is that the new cabinet would be constructed around these two large parties.

The Centre Party in turn captured only 13,8 % of the vote (-7,3 %) and 31 seats (-18), its worst performance in elections held after the Second World War. This was essentially a repeat of the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing took its toll. The market-friendly policies of PM Sipilä clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. If the Centre is not part of the next government (as appears likely), Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils. Sipilä announced his resignation as the party chair after the elections.

Of the smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party received 4,5 % of the vote (-0,3 %) and held to its 10 seats (including the sole representative of the Åland Islands) while the Christian Democrats won 3,9 % of the vote (+0,4 %) and also retained its 5 seats. The final MP is Harry Harkimo, the leader of Liike Nyt (Movement Now) that very much ran an ‘anti-party’ campaign and advertised itself as a new way of making politics.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. While Halla-aho has indicated willingness to make compromises and to take part in government formation talks, it is more likely that the Finns Party will continue in the opposition. In terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the election result will probably not result in any significant changes. The political left is stronger now than four years ago, and this is probably good news for those defending the welfare state and the role of the trade unions. However, concerns about the state of the economy, including reducing public debt, act as a constraint on the new Finnish government regardless of its party-political composition.

Turnout was 72,1 %, or 68,7 % when including enfranchised citizens living abroad. 94/200 (47 %) of the elected MPs are women.

In Slovakia, voters elect Zuzana Čaputová the first female president in Central Europe

A novice to national politics, environmental and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová defeated the Vice-President of the European Commission for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič, in a runoff of the Slovak presidential elections. Her victory reflected growing dissatisfaction with the current government, especially with the Smer-Social democracy (Smer), the senior coalition member. The overall results signal a possible realignment on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2020.

Three events in 2018 strongly impacted the political atmosphere in Slovakia and directly influenced the presidential election and its outcome: Firstly, the country was shocked by the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Kuciak’s work focused on the possible corruption involving elected politicians, high public officials, and the criminal underworld. The country experienced a wave of anti-government mass protests, the largest demonstrations since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Secondly, amidst the protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Smer resigned, paving the way for a reconstruction of the three-party government under the Smer-nominated prime minister Peter Pellegrini. Thirdly, president Kiska officially announced in May 2018 that he would not seek re-election. Though Kiska hinted on his continued involvement in Slovak politics, at the time he refused to provide any details, citing the need to complete his mandate as the president above day-to-day party politics.

With Kiska’s announced departure, the presidential contest had no clear favorite. Early opinion polls suggested a host of potential candidates polled just about 10% support, with Miroslav Lajčák, a Smer-nominated Foreign Minister being a front-runner, should he decide to run. Robert Mistrík, a nominee of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), aspiring to become the preferred candidate of the democratic opposition, polled neck to neck with the leader of the extreme-right Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) Marian Kotleba, a controversial Supreme Court Justice Štefan Harabin, the leader of the governing Slovak-Hungarian Most-Híd party Béla Bugár and Veronika Remišová,  the leading parliamentarian of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) grouping. Zuzana Čaputová, nominated by extra-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia, seemed to stand no chance.

However, Lajčák repeatedly refused to enter the presidential race, citing his desire to continue his career in diplomatic service. Smer leader Robert Fico ruled out his presidential ambitions and instead announced his bid in January for one of the nine vacancies at the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the issue became an important issue of the campaign: the outgoing president Kiska declared he would not appoint Fico to the top court; the prospective presidential candidates also had to take a stance concerning the matter.

To maximize chances of a pro-democratic candidate to reach the runoff, OĽaNO and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) did not field any candidate. Also, they attempted to facilitate an agreement among Mistrík, Čaputová and František Mikloško (formerly of the KDH) that whoever of the three had the strongest popular support should get the endorsement of all the others before the first round of the election. Eventually, Mistrík and Čaputová agreed, while Mikloško decided to stay in the race. 

Smer eventually nominated Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission, who led the Smer party list in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Šefčovič, nominally a non-party independent, received substantial financial support from, and public endorsement of, Smer party and its leaders. Even though he has had a relatively liberal and pro-European social democratic record, his campaign had to rely on the more socially conservative support base of Smer. During the party rallies, Fico likened him to an 18-century Slovak folk hero; Šefčovič himself declined to take a clear stance on issues critical of Smer and its leader, and eventually even profiled himself as a champion of traditional Christian values.

The critical phase of the campaign – and Čaputová’s rapid increase of popularity – came with the first televised debates among presidential contenders. She presented herself as a thoughtful, calm and firm voice of social justice, criticizing defects in the rule of law, yet refraining from negative campaign and ad hominem attacks. Her performance seemed to resonate well with the public expectations and the general mood in the country. Robert Mistrík eventually honored their agreement, withdrew from the race, and unequivocally supported her before the first round. As a consequence, Čaputová’s approval ratings quickly reached 40-50%.

Her main opponents concentrated on getting to the second round: Maroš Šefčovič presented himself as an experienced politician, respected at the European scene, ready to lead the country and defend its national interests. Štefan Harabin appealed to disillusioned voters with his outright dismissal of the established political elites: He promised to exercise the presidential powers to the fullest extent, taking an active role in foreign policy to protect the country against what he called the dangers of Islamization and the loss of national sovereignty in the EU. Marian Kotleba of the extreme-right ĽSNS echoed his rhetoric, pointing out that Harabin himself contributed to the erosion of Slovak sovereignty by being a Justice Minister of the government that agreed with the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Čaputova won the first round held on March 16, gaining 40.6%, followed by Šefčovič, who received 18.7%. Harabin and Kotleba gained 14.4% and 10.4%, respectively, followed by Mikloško (5.7%) and the other minor candidates. With two weeks to the runoff, Šefčovič attempted to close the gap by aggressively addressing the supporters of Harabin and Kotleba: The day after the first round he portrayed himself as the champion of traditional Christian conservative values, criticizing Čaputová for her openness to LBGT agenda. He even claimed that he, as the member of the European Commission, actively opposed the Commission-sponsored proposal that would enable the relocation of asylum seekers across the EU countries. Later on, he returned to his previous agenda, stressing his experience and credentials in international politics. Čaputová, on the other hand, stood on her original message. As the favorite, she concentrated on mobilizing her support base from the first round, underlining the result of the contest were open. Her support reached 58.4%; her opponent gained 41.6%. Compared to 48.7% in the first round, turnout dropped to 41.8%, reflecting the fact that many supporters of Harabin and Kotleba did not take part in the runoff. Those who did mostly voted for Šefčovič. Čaputová managed to win over younger, and better-educated voters. Šefčovič’s support base contained mostly older, less educated voters who tend to support Smer.

Čaputová’s victory has significant consequences for the overall political development. Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, the presidential elections was a second nationwide contest that signaled a transformation of Slovak politics towards a tripolar configuration with a significant role played by the anti-establishment, anti-EU and extreme right parties. Even though two pro-European and democratic candidates succeeded, the proportional electoral system to the national parliament will probably ensure an increased parliamentary presence of antisystem, populist and radical parliamentarians. Presidential executive powers are limited. Nevertheless, President Čaputová will be appointing the next prime minister. Given an increasing fragmentation of the parliament and the likelihood that the next coalition government will consist of several parties, the influence of the president in the process will grow.  

A transformation of the Slovak party scene is likely to be further deepened by the announcement of outgoing president Kiska that he will set up a new political party after his departure from the presidential palace. A recent poll indicated some 9% of voters would “definitely” vote for his party and an additional 31% was “likely” to vote for it. Furthermore, a post-election poll also indicated the rise of Čaputová’s party, approaching double-digit numbers. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, the 2019 presidential elections seem to be a prelude to a far-reaching transformation of the Slovak political scene.

‘As soft as wool’? Reform and Repression in Zimbabwe

When he came to power in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa rode a wave of local and global goodwill. But by March 2019, the USA had renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe that have been in place for nearly 20 years. In February, the UK held parliamentary discussions on Zimbabwe and the Africa Minister, Harriet Baldwin, made it clear that a full normalisation of relations with Zimbabwe was no longer on the table.

So how exactly did we get here?

Mnangagwa the ‘Reformer’

“I’m as soft as wool,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa stated in an interview with Sky News in August 2018, in response to a question from a journalist regarding his fearsome nickname – the ‘crocodile.’ Mnangagwa had worked hard in the 18 months since the ‘coup’ that had put him in state house, cleaning up his image and promising to be a president for all Zimbabweans, vowing to set the country on a new path. President Mnangagwa came to power promising extensive reforms, global re-engagement and repeating the mantra that Zimbabwe was “open for business.”

Ahead of the elections on 30 July 2018, on the main thoroughfares through the capital and scattered across the country, big billboards towered over Zimbabwe’s citizens as they went about their business. These billboards were filled with images of an engaging and smiling President Mnangagwa, making sweeping promises about universal healthcare, decent jobs, power generation and ‘free, fair and credible elections.’ The administration invited credible election observation missions from around the world – missions that had not been allowed to monitor the country’s elections since the violent 2002 polls. Between them, the observer groups spanned 46 countries and 15 regional blocks, making the 2018 election the most observed election in the country since independence in 1980.

Mnangagwa had traversed the globe promising change and a “new dispensation” in Harare, and was well-received in global capitals, with the UK’s Rory Stewart – at the time the Minister of State for Africa – the first to arrive in Harare following Mnangagwa’s installation in 2017. Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth, with the UK supporting its application. The administration sought to re-engage with international financial institutions – the World Bank and IMF – from which it had been alienated since the early 2000s. The EU and USA began to discuss the relaxation of the remaining limited sanctions and it seemed that Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa might finally be welcomed back in to the international community, shedding its ‘pariah state’ status.

The July 2018 election

Despite all of the positive changes ahead of the polls, it was clear that there were rumblings of dissent from within the ruling party – and there were early indications that despite initial assurances about free and fair elections, some aspects of the playing field would remain skewed in the ruling party’s favour. The state media refused to give equal coverage to all 23 presidential candidates, particularly ignoring the ruling party’s key opponent – Nelson Chamisa of the MDC-Alliance. Despite their initial openness, the electoral commission soon began to stonewall key discussions on reforming the electoral process, making the electoral roll available for an audit and allowing the opposition to oversee the printing of ballots. Instead, an unconstitutional ballot was designed and printed, civic groups and opposition parties were left with little time to review and validate the roll and there were serious and widespread reports of intimidation in rural areas in the lead-up to the polls.

When 7 protestors were gunned down by soldiers in the streets of Harare in front of the global media on 1 August, the international community and political commentators were dumbfounded. The administration was so close to legitimating the 2017 coup with a flawed-but-meets-basic-standards election, that it seemed unthinkable that they would have squandered local and global goodwill so easily. At his inauguration, Mnangagwa condemned the violence, vowing that his new administration would usher in a “brighter tomorrow” – and he announced the creation of a commission of enquiry into the deaths on 1 August. He described himself as a “listening president”, and insisted that his government was committed to ‘constitutionalism, the rule of law and judicial independence.’ Again, the commentators were caught off-guard, and were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that perhaps the military had acted without sanction – or worse, that the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, had an eye on his boss’ job and had loosed the military on civilians to undermine Mnangagwa’s position.

To sanitise his image in the wake of the global outcry, several opinion articles appeared in the global media, ostensibly penned by Mnangagwa. He spoke of reconciliation, new beginnings and a better future for a long suffering populace. But when the commission of enquiry – headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – wrapped up its business, they had heard from soldiers that those killed had not been shot by soldiers but instead had been stabbed by members of the opposition; that the MDC-A was to blame for the violence and deaths; and that Mnangagwa had given the orders to set up the rapid response unit that had been mobilised to the streets in response to the protests. Despite all his assurances of being accountable, Mnangagwa is yet to publicly release the full report which was handed to him in December 2018.

A disastrous January

By January 2019, less than 6 months into the administration, a simmering economic crisis had prompted disgruntled and increasingly desperate members of the civil service to make more demands from the state. Inflation in the black market for the country’s surrogate currency was at over 50% in January, and long lines at fuel stations made basic tasks difficult.

Mnangagwa announced an enormous fuel price hike on 12 January, before jetting off in a private aircraft to Central Asia. The country’s labour unions called for a national stay away to protest the declining economy and unaffordable fuel prices, which was then enforced by unknown elements and angry youths. In the melee that ensued, shops were looted, cars were burned and a policeman was stoned to death. In the wake of this, the state launched a violent and angry three-week crackdown on the country’s poor, beating those who lived in close proximity to the worst of the looting and violence – and committing systematic torture and collective punishment. Nearly a thousand people were rounded up, beaten and put in prison. Fourteen women are reported to have been raped by soldiers, and at least 17 people were reported to have been killed.

In person, Mnangagwa seemed to condone the violence, though his Twitter feed condemned it and called for accountability for the state-sponsored violence. In a strange twist, his spokesman went so far as to tell the public not to believe everything said on the president’s Twitter feed. This fresh crackdown prompted yet another round of global concern, and it appears that all prospects for international re-engagement have stalled. ZIDERA has been renewed, and the UK has disowned any plans to support Zimbabwe’s bid to re-enter the Commonwealth. US sanctions will make the bailout that Zimbabwe so badly needs from international financial institutions even more unlikely.

Mnangagwa’s consistent inconsistency

While early in his presidency, many were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt, it is increasingly clear that the new administration in Zimbabwe is both more authoritarian than its predecessor, and less strategic. Having denounced the January 2019 protests as a Western-backed attempt at regime change, the ruling party has dusted off its old anti-imperial mantra as a cloak for their repressive actions. They have charged key opposition and civic leaders with treason. In 25-year old Joanah Mamombe’s case, she is alleged to be the first woman charged with treason in the country in over 150 years. According to veteran journalist, Peta Thornycroft, “about 10 MPs from the opposition MDC Alliance are variously charged with incitement, subversion and treason.”

In light of all this, in early March, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that it would send special rapporteurs to Harare to investigate the claims of human rights abuses. In another spectacular about-face, this has apparently been welcomed by President Mnangagwa. The Foreign Ministry’s official who was sent to brief the press appeared to be living in a parallel universe, and reported substantial gains at international re-engagement. In a similar vein, it was reported on 6 March that the government – who are currently unable to stabilise the economy, pay civil servant salaries or settle vast debts to neighbouring South Africa – have decided to engage the services of a Trump-affiliated lobbyist to have the US sanctions dropped. This comes at an annual cost of $500 000 dollars. The likely success of this initiative is low, and Zimbabweans will probably see little gain from their misspent taxes.

Unfortunately, this young administration has proven to be both erratic and tone deaf. Having had several chances at reform, they have consistently undermined their own case but still hoped to find themselves in a strong negotiating position. For now, the reform ship appears to have sailed, and the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe are likely to continue to suffer under a regime that seems to care little for their welfare, and less for their protest. As Panashe Chigumadzi stated in August 2018, “the old Zimbabwe is the new Zimbabwe.”

Preparing for regional elections in Russia

Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has taken a hit within the last year. From an 82 percent rating in April 2018, the figure now stands at 64 percent.[1] Not disastrous, you might say – but it’s all relative.

The proximate cause of this fall is no secret: a set of unpopular changes to Russia’s pension system. Specifically, the ages at which men and women start receiving their pension will be raised – from 60 to 65, and 55 to 60, respectively.

Putin initially tried to keep a safe distance from this deeply unpopular change. He finally intervened publicly to amend the legislative initiative during its second reading on 26 September 2018 in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly (the national-level parliament) – revising down the retirement age for women from 63 to 60. This ‘softening’ did little, however, to dampen public anger, as seen in protest activity and sentiment.

This unpopular policy change also contributed to electoral upsets for the Kremlin in the 9 September 2018 regional elections. (For an early review of the results, see my post for this blog.) Of most concern to Russia’s political leadership were the victories for opposition-party candidates in three gubernatorial races. (See my discussion of this in another post for this blog.)

The Kremlin doesn’t like losing elections. But that’s no surprise: displeasure with losing is neither distinctive to modern-day Russia nor other polities, regardless of their democratic credentials. What is worthy of note, however, is the set of measures being implemented now to make sure – or, at least, increase the likelihood – that the Kremlin gets its way in the next set of regional elections that will take place on 8 September this year. (According to Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, this will involve more than 5,000 electoral campaigns in 82 federal subjects (regions), including 16 gubernatorial elections.)

The Kremlin is currently taking at least five steps to help make sure it gets its desired results in this next round of elections.

1. Allowing independent gubernatorial candidates

In many Russian regions, gubernatorial candidates are required to be ‘party candidates’ – that is, politicians cannot run as independents (unlike, it must be said, presidential candidates). The worry for Kremlin-backed figures, however, is that the party of choice – the ‘party of power’, United Russia – is currently toxic by association. In April 2018, approval for the party hovered at 50 percent; the figure now is around 32 percent.[2] As with Putin’s approval rating, the reason for the fall is found in the pension reform. Now that the party brand is more a liability than a benefit, legislation in a number of regions is being changed to allow gubernatorial candidates to run as independents. Thus, for example, Aleksandr Beglov – Acting Governor of St Petersburg – introduced a bill to that effect on 20 November 2018; the initiative was approved by deputies of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly on 19 December.

2. Changing the electoral rules for regional assemblies

Many regions in Russia fill seats in their regional legislative assemblies using a mixed electoral system. Like elections to the national-level State Duma, half the seats are filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races, with the other half filled through party-list proportional representation.[3] So, voters make two votes: one for a particular candidate and one for a particular party. A number of regions have approved, or are considering, changing the proportion of seats filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races to 75 percent. The reason for the change is clear: campaigns focused on individuals rather than the party will help shift the focus away from the unpopular ‘party of power’. In addition, ‘administrative resources’ – the advantages held by being Kremlin-backed, such as favourable state media coverage – are more easily deployed in candidate-centred, rather than party-centred, races. Unsurprisingly, opposition party leaders are not keen on a change that will likely benefit United Russia.

3. Removing governors before the elections

The easiest way to win an election is to field a genuinely popular candidate. The Kremlin has, as a result, been polling citizens in the regions to gauge the popularity of incumbent governors. If there are doubts about these incumbents’ chances of winning, then they are replaced with an individual with better prospects. Thus, for example, Grigorii Poltavchenko – Governor of St Petersburg since 2011 – was replaced by Aleksandr Beglov in October 2018. This is a prime example of ‘sovereign democracy’: popular opinion still plays a role, but the Kremlin uses this information to try to avoid embarrassing electoral defeats, thus depriving Russians of the opportunity to ‘throw the rascals out’ at the ballot box themselves. (See this interview of Alexander Kynev by Maria Lipman for an excellent discussion of the recent reshuffling of governors.)

4. Carrying out an information campaign against opposition politicians

Getting elected is only one hurdle faced by opposition politicians. Once in office, they not only need to deal with local elites, but they also need to develop a working relationship with Moscow. Even if they do establish a pragmatic arrangement with the Presidential Administration, this doesn’t guarantee a quiet life. Take, for example, Sergei Levchenko – the Communist Party (KPRF) governor of Irkutsk Oblast’, elected in 2015. In September 2018, footage was uploaded on YouTube of the governor shooting a hibernating bear at point-blank range. The footage might be shocking, but the timing of its release is telling: although the hunt apparently took place in 2016, its upload to YouTube coincided with legislative elections to the Irkutsk regional assembly. Moreover, a criminal case was initiated on 29 December regarding ‘illegal hunting’ – something that might continue to dog Levchenko, in addition to more recent accusations of embezzling budget funds. The Irkutsk governor is up for re-election in 2020, so the point is not that the Kremlin is trying to frustrate an election campaign running up to 8 September. Rather, this case of ‘black PR’ appears part of a broader attempt to smear opposition politicians in general.

5. Blocking attempts to soften registration requirements for election candidates

A Presidential Administration working group – headed by First Deputy Chief of Staff, Sergei Kirienko – has been tasked with exploring ways to amend electoral legislation, including softening the ‘municipal filter’.[4] Given the Kremlin’s desire not to see a re-run of opposition wins, however, these liberalisations are unlikely to be implemented, especially before the 8 September elections. Another sign that reform is unlikely comes in the planned rejection of a legislative initiative (introduced into the State Duma by senator Vladimir Lukin) to make passing the ‘municipal filter’ easier. Opponents of the change have branded it ‘populism’.

*

These five steps are some of the ways in which the electoral playing field is being tilted in the ruling elite’s favour, not to mention methods of outright electoral fraud. If the rules don’t suit, then just change the rules. This basic message is not new, but it’s worth emphasising that the long-term effects of this legal instability are unlikely to help the development of a rule-of-law state in Russia.


[1] Data from the Levada Centre – an independent polling organisation.

[2] Data from VTsIOM – a Kremlin-friendly polling organization.

[3] The 2007 and 2011 State Duma elections did not use a mixed system, involving only party-list ballots.  

[4] The ‘municipal filter’ requires politicians to collect a certain number of signatures from municipal deputies in order to register their electoral candidacies. Such ‘municipal filters’ did not prevent the candidacies of the opposition-party politicians who ended up winning gubernatorial elections in 2018, as the Kremlin – in another manifestation of ‘sovereign democracy’ – approved their participation as ‘technical’ candidates. Frustratingly for the Kremlin, however, they ended up proving more popular than anticipated, if only, or largely, through votes cast as protests, rather than cast as positive endorsements of opposition electoral platforms.

Gubernatorial elections in Russia

In a post for this blog on 12 September, I provided an early review of the 9 September regional elections in Russia. This was a real mix of races, including ballots for regional legislatures, by-elections for the State Duma, and contests for regional heads. The last set of elections – for regional executives – has proved the most interesting, as no candidate secured more than 50 percent of votes in four of the first-round gubernatorial races, forcing run-off votes. What has happened since – and what can this tell us about politics in general at the start of Putin’s fourth presidential term?

 

Opposition-party victories

Of the four interesting gubernatorial races, opposition-party governors have already been elected in two regions. The second-round gubernatorial vote took place in Vladimir Oblast’ – a region to the east of Moscow – on 23 September. The sitting, Kremlin-backed governor, Svetlana Orlova (United Russia), lost to Vladimir Sipyagin – a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – who secured 57 percent of the vote. Similarly, an LDPR candidate, Sergei Furgal, beat the United Russia incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport, in the second-round vote in Khabarovsk Krai – a region in Russia’s far east – on 23 September, with 70 percent of the vote. Commentators have wondered whether this might be a moment when merely nominal opposition actors become real critics of the Kremlin, emboldened by electoral successes.

We should bear three things in mind when making sense of these opposition wins. Firstly, these losses for the Kremlin come in the context of the decision to implement a deeply unpopular pension reform – a policy change that has resulted in a sharp drop in support for United Russia. Rather than a positive vote for LDPR or KPRF (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), therefore, many Russians were using their votes in the 9 September elections (and subsequent ballots) to protest against this particular policy. Secondly, even though members of nominally opposition parties have become regional heads, that certainly does not mean that they will be combative with Moscow and Kremlin-backed actors. It has been reported, for instance, that Sergei Furgal has suspended his membership of LDPR in order to appease, and work with, members of the regional elite. Thirdly, and relatedly, these are not the first opposition governors in Russia. In Irkutsk Oblast’, for example, a KPRF politician – Sergei Levchenko – has been regional head since 2015. And LDPR’s Aleksei Ostrovskii has been the head of Smolensk Oblast’ since 2012. We should not, therefore, lose perspective on these opposition wins, regardless of whether they were a surprise for the Kremlin.

 

Unfinished contests

Two other regions have unfinished gubernatorial races. In Khakassia – a region relatively near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia – the second-round vote was scheduled to take place on 23 September. However, the incumbent governor – Viktor Zimin (United Russia) – withdrew his candidacy on 21 September, meaning that the ballot had to be postponed. In the run-up to the new voting date of 7 October, the “Just Russia” party candidate, Andrei Filyagin, also withdrew his candidacy, resulting in another postponement. The “Party of Growth” candidate, Aleksandr Myakhar, also withdrew on 15 October. The second-round vote is now scheduled for 11 November, with only one candidate, KPRF’s Valentin Konovalov, who secured 45 percent of votes in the first round on 9 September. One obvious explanation for the multiple postponements is that the authorities want to do all they can to frustrate another opposition-party victory – an explanation that fits with attempts to disqualify Konovalov from the race. Konovalov has a chance to win, but there have been further recent attempts to block his pathway to power.

The final gubernatorial vote is scheduled to take place in Primorsky Krai – a region in the far east – on 16 December. In the first-round vote on 9 September, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Andrew Tarasenko, won 47 percent of the vote, with the KPRF candidate, Andrei Ishchenko, achieving 25 percent. In the second-round vote on 16 September, Ishchenko looked certain to win. However, a dramatic surge for Tarasenko during counting of the final votes resulted both in his provisional victory and accusations of vote rigging. Indeed, these electoral fraud allegations resulted in the official invalidation of the voting results – something that deprived Tarasenko victory, but that has been challenged by Ishchenko in the courts, as he sees himself as the rightful winner. In light of this voting scandal, Tarasenko resigned and was replaced by Oleg Kozhemyako – until then head of Sakhalin Oblast’ – who will run as an independent in the 16 December ballot (although United Russia has declared its support for his candidacy).

The picture in Primorsky Krai has become even more complicated. On Saturday 3 November, the Primorsky regional KPRF branch voted not to field Andrei Ishchenko as its candidate in the December election. There are a number of reasons why this decision might have been taken. One possible consideration relates to reports of Kozhemyako’s rising popularity – something (if true) that will have been supported by the activities of Kremlin-funded political technologists dispatched to the region. Ishchenko’s withdrawal is, therefore, a pre-emptive move in anticipation of expected electoral defeat. Another possible reason relates to doubts about whether Ishchenko could clear the ‘municipal filter’ – a mechanism whereby electoral candidacy is only possible with the support of a specified number of municipal deputies. In practice, this provides a way for the authorities to block particular politicians from participating in elections. Indeed, there were reports that some municipal deputies in Primorsky Krai had complained of pressure not to vote for Ishchenko’s candidacy. The withdrawal decision might also signal the KPRF’s reluctance to incur the costs of opposing the Kremlin too publicly and meaningfully. As a member of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, the KPRF elite has to find the right balance between Kremlin loyalty and maintaining the semblance of an opposition political stance. It could be that the campaign leading up to the 16 December vote – never mind the prospect of an Ishchenko victory – upset that balance too much for comfort.

 

Not the end for Putin

Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term began six months ago, and should run until 2024. Do these regional election results constitute flashes of democracy in Russian politics – or signs that the Putin regime is in crisis?

No. But the electoral setbacks were not welcome for Putin’s team. A number of United Russia officials were fired following the regional race setbacks. This has been followed by moves to strengthen the party’s capacity in Russia’s regions. The reason is obvious: the Kremlin is keen not to see a repeat of the regional election surprises in 2019. It has been reported that the Kremlin has already begun evaluating the electoral appeal of governors up for re-election next year. Those who do not make the cut will be replaced with acting governors that the Kremlin thinks have better prospects of winning. This means that the Kremlin will reduce the likelihood of embarrassing electoral defeats, as well as giving incumbency advantage to more popular candidates. There is also a debate about whether to amend electoral legislation – a popular battleground for elements of the elite with differing views on how managed Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ should be.

Overall, then, the Kremlin was taken by surprise by opposition-party wins, but it is not in panic. Putin’s approval rating certainly took a significant hit as a result of the unpopular pension reform, but the numbers have stopped falling. Now, the task for ‘Team Putin’ is to adjust to the new normal – and to do what it can to prevent further opposition electoral gains. As the early anger resulting from pension reform has subsided, the protest-vote potential relating to this particular policy has certainly declined. But the regional election results will strengthen the position of those arguing for tighter, not looser, control of electoral campaigns – in the short-run, at least. In the longer term, this management might come into closer conflict with the rising importance placed by Russian citizens on democracy and human rights.

Mozambique – Facing critical challenges: local elections, peace talks, and emerging security issues

After much speculation, Mozambique held local elections on October 10th, which were the fifth since 1994. These elections were important on several grounds. First, they took place under new legislation for electing local authorities. Second, it was the first time in 10 years that  Renamo was going to compete in local elections, after boycotting the 2013 polls. Third, these elections presented a critical test to the country’s prospects for democratization and peacebuilding. They took place about one month after the signature of a memorandum of understanding on military issues between the incumbent President Filipe Nyusi and the acting leader of Renamo, Ossufo Momade. Therefore, there was some level of uncertainty on whether the formal consensus would endure as the campaign unfolded and after the results were announced. Overall, looking at the political leadership during this period can foreshadow what is to come a year from now, when the general election is expected to take place.

The peace talks   

On August 6th, President Filipe Nyusi addressed the nation to announce that the Mozambican government and Renamo had signed a memorandum of understanding on military issues. The long awaited memorandum represents an important milestone after several months of negotiations and the initial uncertainty on whether the death of Renamo’s leader (Afonso Dhlakama) would compromise the peace negotiations and whether acting leader Ossufo Momade would fulfil the compromises reached hitherto. The memorandum establishes the process of “integrating the officers from Renamo in the FADM and in the Republic of Mozambique Police (PRM)” and “the Renamo armed elements’ DDR process”, as well as clear mechanisms that allow the process to be monitored. More specifically, it creates a Joint Technical Group on DDR (JTGDDR) to ensure that “DDR activities are performed in a timely, effective and efficient manner”.

The signing of the memorandum highlights the relevance of political leadership. President Filipe Nyusi’s willingness to concede on Renamo’s longtime demands, namely the decentralization package and the incorporation of the latter’s men into the country’s armed forces, was crucial for this outcome. Moreover, throughout the negotiation process, he presented himself as committed to attaining consensus and peace.  His words at the announcement of the signature of the memorandum are a clear illustration of this: “we did this by believing that, with patience, tolerance, understanding, a spirit of reconciliation, and a singular dedication to results, Mozambicans can construct peace”. Ossufo Momade, on the other hand, strived to gain legitimacy as a peace negotiator and Renamo’s new “strong man”. Following a decision made by Renamo’s National Political Committee, he went on living in the Gorongosa (as Afonso Dhlakama did in the past), and he was expected to continue the peace negotiations from there. Still, he also alluded to the “good will between the parties” and to Renamo’s commitment to the disarmament process.  However, the holding of local elections, which were the first ones in which Renamo participated in 10 years, relaunched new uncertainties on whether the party would still fulfil the memorandum.

Local Elections

After the approval of new electoral legislation on July 19th, the competing political forces had only a few months to set up their lists of candidates for the October 10th local elections. Parties’ nominations for the country’s 53 municipalities were not consensual across all units. This was the case in the capital, Maputo. Here, Frelimo faced an important setback when Samora Machel Júnior, son of the first Mozambican president, Samora Machel, defected the party to run as an independent mayoral candidate against the party’s endorsed candidate, Eneas Comiche. Renamo, on the other hand, saw its first choice, Venâncio Mondlane, excluded by the National Elections Commission (CNE) and had to replace him with Hermínio Morais. The electoral campaign period had a few episodes of clashes between the opposing parties, and Renamo’s supporters claimed they were victims of intimidation and assault. Voting day was generally calm, although there were some procedural incidents. Overall, the results brought no significant changes: Frelimo elected mayors (the head of the list of the party with the most votes) in 44 municipalities, while Renamo elected 8 and  MDM 1. The results were not accepted by Ossufo Momade, who promised to contest the results. Following a strategy that was often used by the former leader of Renamo Afonso Dhlakama, he stated “We do not want war but we also do not accept any attempt to change the popular will”; moreover he threatened to walk out of talks if the electoral bodies failed to recognize that the local elections had been fraudulent.  So far the appeals submitted by the Renamo (and the MDM) against the election results have been rejected by the courts.

Leadership in times of uncertainty

President Filipe Nyusi has been facing critical tests since he was elected to office in 2014; however, the unfolding of the peace talks with Renamo and his party’s win in the local elections, reinforce his legitimacy and strength as leader. On Renamo’s side, the new leadership has a chance to refashion and strengthen the party if it is to continue to improve electorally. However, there are important challenges ahead. The implementation of the DDR process as delineated in the memorandum remains haunted by uncertainty, and Renamo’s leadership has already threatened to abandon the negotiations, as the party considers the recent local elections illegitimate. Furthermore, the economy is still volatile, and there are new emerging security threats in the country’s northern provinces that have been linked to Islamic terrorismillegal mining activity, and social inequality, which need to be addressed by the presidency. How both parties’ leaderships deal with the challenges they face and keep the peace process on track will be the keys to their success in the upcoming 2019 election.

Ukrainian Parliament Appoints a New Central Election Commission

Last week, after a 4-year delay, Ukrainian Parliament appointed 14 new members of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The process of replacing CEC commissioners whose terms expired has started more than 2 years ago. After years of failed attempts, the appointment of new commissioners has been determined to be one of the main tasks on the agenda of the 9th session of the Ukrainian parliament.

According to the Law on the Central Electoral Commission, Parliament appoints and dismisses 15 members of the CEC on the proposal of the president. Their term in office is 7 years. The size of the commission was increased to 17 on September 18, 2018. The president is supposed to take the proposals of political parties into account during the nomination process. The terms of 12 of the 15 commissioners expired in 2014, and another member reached the end of his 7th year in office in 2017. With quickly approaching presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, the policy-makers have agreed that the issue could no longer be postponed and had to be addressed as soon as possible.

Many have argued that the old CEC have long lost its credibility. Its members have been nominated by the Party of Regions led by President Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted in 2014. Furthermore, since 2016, its chairman has been under investigation for receiving illegal bribes. Given the salience and importance of the composition of the commission, the process of appointing a new CEC in Ukraine has been on-going for a couple of years now. The first attempt to replace the commission was made in June 2016 but at the time the process stalled.

On January 23, 2018, the president dismissed members of the Central Election Commission and signed a motion for the appointment of the new CEC. He followed it with a proposal of 14 new members in February. However, the Parliament failed to vote on the presidential proposal during its 8th session. Earlier this month, the president expressed his frustration on Facebook, writing that “the Verkhovna Rada should consider my presidential submission, which has been in parliament for more than a year, and elect a new composition of the CEC.”

On September 20, the Parliament successfully approved 14 new members of the CEC. The new partisan composition of the Central Electoral Commission is as follows:

Bloc Petro Poroshenko – 6 members

People’s Front – 3 members

Revival – 1 member

Batkivshchyna – 1 member

Self-Reliance – 1 member

People’s Will – 1 member

Radical Party – 1 member

Svoboda – 1 – remained in her post (until 2021)

UDAR – 1 – remained in his post (until 2021)

1 seat is currently vacant and is expected to be given to the Opposition Bloc

The members were proposed by political parties in proportion to their representation in Parliament. The only odd seat is the one which remained with UDAR. The party merged with the Bloc Petro Poroshenko in 2015.

The new CEC will organize the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and will play a critical role in ensuring that elections are conducted in a free and fair manner.

Navigating the Electoral Tsunami: The aftermath of Mexico’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.

Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.

I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.

Election Day

There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:

  1. Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
  2. (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
  3. Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.

The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena

Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.

Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results

Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here).  Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:

  1. Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
  2. Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
  3. Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.

Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography

To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.

Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges

In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:

  1. The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
  2. Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
  3. Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.

The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.


Javier Pérez Sandoval (javier.perezsandoval@politics.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.