Tag Archives: elections

Joel C. Moses – President Putin and the 2017 Russian Gubernatorial Elections

This is a guest post by Joel C. Moses, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Iowa State University (jmoses@iastate.edu, jcmoses23@gmail.com)

Elections for 16 Russian governors in the 85 regions of the country were contested on September 10, 2017. They were held in conjunction with nationwide local and regional elections that have taken place annually on the second Sunday of September since 2014.  In 2017, 6,000 races including the 16 for governor would affect 46 million voters, approximately half  the  entire Russian electorate, with 42 political parties registered to participate in one or more of  these races.

President Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia (UR), through its direct association with Putin has a huge monopoly advantage from financial contributions and national media exposure over the three other national parliamentary opposition parties.[i]  With UR winning almost three-fourths of all votes cast nationally in previous annual local-regional September elections, the 16 UR incumbent governors in 2017 counted on mobilizing an ensured turnout of support from the party’s base. The UR political base included state employees pressured to vote as an implicit requirement for their jobs  along with pensioners, students, and military oftentimes compliantly bussed en masse to precincts.

The remaining electorate has lacked equivalent motivation to vote. Many potential voters would only just have returned to work distracted from any campaigning on their August summer holidays or dacha gardening. They would be forced to choose between United Russia and an array of non-competitive party candidates on the ballot intended only to dilute the effect of any anti-UR votes. Low voting turnout in elections has reflected a certain political resignation among many Russian voters outside the UR base that their votes really don’t  matter. Their feeling was that results already were predetermined and if necessary fraudulently reported by regional election commissions to certify victories by the UR candidates.

President Putin suspended all gubernatorial elections in 2005-2011. When they were restored under a 2012 amended federal law, they included a new federally mandated requirement for all regions termed the “municipal filter.” Only candidates with notarized signatures from a minimal percentage of  local municipal deputies and chief executives in their regions from an equivalent minimal percentage of regional locales qualify to be balloted as gubernatorial candidates.

Like governors the previous five years, the 2017 incumbent governors took advantage of this  municipal filter in their regions to disqualify any real competition in Sverdlovsk, Buryatiya, and Sevastopol. They persuaded the overwhelmingly majority UR local deputies not to sign for potentially strong challengers or influenced regional election commissions appointed by the same governors to disallow allegedly invalid signatures. Even pro-Kremlin Russian analysts two weeks before September 10 conceded that only two of the 16 races were even very slightly competitive as a consequence of the municipal filter.[ii]  Russian gubernatorial elections since 2012 have been decided less by outright vote fraud at the polls on the day of the election than the limited choice on the ballot other than incumbents predetermined by the municipal filter  weeks  before the voting itself.

Gubernatorial elections are won by an absolute majority. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the top two finishers in the first round compete to decide the winner in a run-off held two weeks later on Sunday in September. Based on past results since 2012, the prospects for the 16 incumbent governors in 2017 appeared to be very good. A  total 7 gubernatorial elections had   been held annually since 2012. In all 71 races through 2016, the winning incumbent was the official UR nominee 67 times. Their winning margin averaged close to 75% with some achieving victories by 85-95% over all their opponents. The UR-nominated incumbent failed to win the election just once in the only gubernatorial run-off election since 2012 – Irkutsk with the Communist Party candidate winning an upset victory in 2015. The three other non-UR incumbents in Kirov and  Orel in 2014 and Smolensk in 2015 were in effect endorsed by President Putin with United Russia not contesting the races with their own candidates. Five additional UR incumbent governors nominated by Putin also were chosen unanimously by their regional parliaments in 2013 and 2014.[iii]

The 16 governors were slated to run for five-year terms with the allowance to serve not more  than two  terms in the same region since elections were restored in 2012. Yet the 16 scheduled races on September 10 were at least an uncertain political challenge for both the national government and  the incumbent governors. For the national government, Putin’s Russia in the first decade of the century riding high on soaring revenue from oil and gas exports is not Putin’s Russia over the past four years in economic recession with rising unemployment and inflation, drastically falling export earnings, depleted hard-currency reserves, a declining ruble exchange rate, and Western economic sanctions against Putin’s Ukraine aggression. All Russian  governors have been tasked to formulate economic crisis policies resolving the regional effects  of  the country’s national  recession. Adding to the challenge of the economic crisis is rampant official corruption throughout Russia with revenue and resources diverted into bribery, kickbacks, and embezzlement.

To burnish his anti-corruption image, President Putin has used governors as convenient scapegoats for mishandling their own economic situations actually stemming from his own national policy failures. Under provisions of the 2012 amended law on gubernatorial elections, President Putin has the constitutional authority at any time to depose governors for a range of  reasons including his “lack of confidence” in their ability. He has arbitrarily deposed even governors who may just have been elected a previous year. The governors in these 16 regions were appointed by Putin as the acting heads of  their  regions for 2017 under a presidentially granted right to run for election to their offices in the next scheduled September nationwide election.

In his third presidential term since 2012, Putin had replaced 2 of the 85 regions with allegedly incorruptible “outsider” (varyag) governors without any prior association or careers in their regions. Four of the 21 deposed governors  in Komi and Sakhalin in 2015, Kirov in 2016, and  Udmurtiya in 2017 were actually arrested and jailed on charges of bribery and embezzlement.  The problem for governors arises when still in their five-year terms or just appointed acting heads they run for the office. Governors hope by winning a direct election to bank a five-year  mandate with President Putin and their own population before economic conditions get even worse. Like their predecessors, election was the option by the 16 governors in 2017.

For Putin, the 2017 gubernatorial elections had an even more direct personal significance as political theatre. It would be the last nationwide election before the 2018 presidential election.  September 10 was important to have a relatively high voter turnout in regions and a  non-controversial outcome without widespread allegations of dishonest campaigning, election rules violations, and vote fraud by the incumbent governors. A marred election nationally would diminish the legitimacy for Putin’s own subsequent run for a fourth term as president in 2018.  The staged goal for September 10, 2017 was an enthusiastic public endorsement for Putin’s own presidential re-election on March 18, 2018. The election of the 16 whom Putin had appointed acting governors in 2017 was as much a referendum on himself for his 4th term.

Incumbent governors among recently appointed outsiders were less likely to win without dishonest campaigning, election violations, and fraud. More than their predecessors, the 16 faced uncertain campaigns in the few months between their appointments as acting heads by Putin and electoral success in September. Putin had appointed seven the new governors  of  their regions for the first time just from February to April of 2017. They were distrusted by the regional economic-political elites, unfamiliar with the particular nuances of campaigning in their newly assigned regions, and unknown by voters before their appointments. All 16 would have preferred only moderate turnout with a disproportionate UR political base voting and potentially anti-incumbent voters not showing up at the precincts on September 10.

Adding to their liabilities, many of the 16  were technocrats without any prior political experience or elected offices.[iv] They did not debate their opponents in public forums or on regional television over July and August. All 16 campaigned essentially as a public relations outreach of their office as governor. They traveled around their regions issuing policy statements before prearranged audiences to showcase themselves through their internet websites and regional media. Most UR incumbent governors since 2012 had won easily by their close Putin association enhanced since 2014 by the patriotic euphoria in Russia from Putin’s  annexation  of Crimea. The unpredictable factor for the 16 in the run-up to the election on September 10 was  the reaction of voters to the now almost four-year national economic recession.

Despite the uncertainties for the 16 governors and Putin, the results a week ago on September 10 must have seemed reassuring for both.[v] The political base of United Russia held firm for the election. All 16 incumbent governors won with an average victory margin almost exactly the same as governors since 2012 at 74.36%, ranging from 60-64% in four regions to 80-88% in six. The seven new governors just appointed in 2017 were not  disadvantaged with an even higher average victory margin of 77.92%, five between 78 and 88%, and only two marginally competitive at 61 and 68%. The new governor of Marii El just appointed by Putin on April 7 won by a 88% margin over his opponents with a reported 44% of the eligible voters in the region participating.

The election may have fallen short of President Putin’s goal of a large enthusiastic voter turnout as his referendum for 2018. Yet participation in these 16 regions at least was respectably equivalent to past September elections, averaging 39.83% of all their registered voters and only slightly less at 36.42% for the regions headed by his seven newly appointed 2017 governors.  Allegations of rule violations and vote fraud usually require a couple of weeks after an election to be filed with the Central Election Commission and courts, but early reports suggest that a fewer number of complaints will be submitted  than after past elections. As predicted beforehand by analysts in the Russian media, September 10 was a “quiet” election without any major controversies.

Putin soon will announce his intention to run again for president with his national public approval still at 80% or higher despite the economic recession. In retrospect, the election of the 16 incumbent governors only reaffirmed Putin’s seemingly unassailable political authority throughout Russia for his fourth term as president in 2018-24. Putin in Act 4 successfully previewed September 10, 2017.

Notes

[i] Communist Party of  the  Russian Federation, Liberal Democratic Party of  Russia, and A Just Russia.

[ii] Irina Nagornykh, “Munitsipal’nyi  fil’tr slishkom malo propuskaet,” Kommersant, 28 August 2017, at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3395829.

[iii] Under a 2013 federal amendment, regional parliaments are   allowed to suspend their gubernatorial elections and choose their governor from three candidates nominated by President Putin.  On September 10, the incumbent UR appointed governor of  Adygeya was chosen unanimously under the same provision by its regional parliament.

[iv] Carolina De Stefano, “Kremlin-Governor Relations in the Run-Up to the 2018 Presidential Elections,” Russian Analytical Digest, No. 201 (18 April 2017), pp. 2-6.

[v] Calculations for the final election results and voter turnout are based on totals for each of  the  16 regions compiled by Ivan Sinergiev and Andrei Pertsev, “Gubernatorskie vybory: kto bol’she,” Kommersant, 14 September 2017, at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3408129.

Miguel Carreras – The Rise of Political Newcomers in Presidential Systems

This is a guest post by Miguel Carreras at UC, Riverside. It is based on a forthcoming article in European Journal of Political Research

In the wake of the euphoria generated by the Third Wave of democratization during the 1980s, a group of scholars studying Latin America were more pessimistic about the prospects for democratic consolidation of the countries in the region. These scholars argued that there were a series of “perils of presidentialism” that created obstacles for the healthy functioning of democratic regimes in countries with presidential systems. Among the main perils of presidentialism, these scholars mentioned the dual democratic legitimacy, the temporal rigidity of presidentialism, the winner take all logic of presidential elections, and the principle of non-reelection (Lijphart, 1992; Linz, 1990, 1994). Since the early 1990s, several scholars of political institutions and Latin American politics tested most of these claims. The current consensus is that these perils of presidentialism were greatly exaggerated in these early studies (Carreras, 2012). However, the critics of presidentialism also claimed that the rise of political newcomers is a peril associated with presidential systems. This issue has been neglected until recently, and the main implication –i.e. newcomers are more likely to come to power in presidential systems– has never been tested empirically.

In a forthcoming article in the European Journal of Political Research (Carreras, fortcoming), I take on that task and I analyze whether the election of political newcomers is more likely in presidential systems. In my work, I define political newcomers in national executive elections as “candidates who lack substantial political experience in the legislative or the executive branches of government.” As for the operationalization, heads of government are considered as “political newcomers” when they had at most three years of political experience before reaching office –combining executive and legislative experience.[1] Using this definition and operationalization, I have identified 73 political newcomers elected (or selected) as heads of government following national elections around the world in the period 1945-2015. The sample includes 870 democratic national elections around the world. In other words, more than 8% of national elections in democratic countries have led to the election of a political newcomer as head of government.[2]

I assessed the impact of presidentialism on the success of political newcomers in national elections by estimating a series of random effects logistic regressions (this estimator is appropriate because the dependent variable is binary –1 if the elected head of government is a newcomer, 0 otherwise–). I also controlled for several other factors that might be related with the rise of political newcomers according to previous research (party system stability, economic performance, age of democracy, quality of democracy, and compulsory voting). The results of the main empirical model in the paper are presented below.

The empirical analysis demonstrates that Linz and the other critics of presidentialism were right about this particular claim. The variable “presidentialism” is positive and statistically significant in the statistical analysis, and this result is robust under different specifications and different operationalizations of the dependent variable. It appears that the personalized nature of presidential elections indeed facilitates the rise of politically inexperienced outsiders. But how exactly can presidentialism lead to the rise of political newcomers? I postulate that there are three causal mechanisms that may explain the connection between presidentialism and the electoral success of political newcomers. First, the organizational efforts that are necessary for leaders to become contenders for the top executive position differ significantly in presidential and parliamentary democracies. Political newcomers need to create a formidable party organization and have to recruit viable legislative candidates in many districts in order to have a chance to become prime ministers. Politically inexperienced candidates in presidential elections do not face equally insurmountable obstacles. Presidential elections are much more personalized, and political newcomers may win with very little support in the legislature (and without the support of any traditional party), especially in moments of deep economic and sociopolitical crisis that create a loss of confidence in the political establishment.

The second, and related, factor is the impossibility of popular inexperienced candidates to transmit their charisma or popularity. The deep popular dissatisfaction with the political establishment tends to be embodied by one or a few political leaders. Legislative candidates may ride on the coattails of very popular political newcomers irrespective of the type of political system, but the probability of them winning is always lower than the probability the charismatic candidate has of obtaining an electoral victory. Thus, in parliamentary systems the probability of an allied legislator winning a seat is always lower than the probability of the political newcomer winning a seat. In presidential systems, a charismatic neophyte candidate may become the president even if the party represented by the newcomer obtains poor results in legislative elections.

The third factor is the possibility to split the ticket in presidential elections. In presidential systems, voters normally have the possibility to vote for a legislative candidate of one party and for the presidential candidate of another party. Sometimes, this leads to a high discrepancy between the votes received by a party in concurrent legislative and presidential elections (Ames, Baker, & Renno, 2009; Helmke, 2009). The possibility to split the vote facilitates the election of a political newcomer in presidential systems, because it allows ambitious politically inexperienced public figures to run in presidential elections with a new party or a new electoral movement. These candidates may win, even if they are not associated with a single legislative candidate.

Notes

[1] The empirical results do not change if we adopt a more restrictive operationalization of “political newcomer.”

[2] The list of newcomer presidents and prime ministers  in the period 1945-2015 is  available in the supplementary information in the EJPR website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/1475-6765.12181/suppinfo

References

Ames, B., Baker, A., & Renno, L. R. (2009). Split-ticket voting as the rule: Voters and permanent divided government in Brazil. Electoral Studies, 28(1), 8-20.

Carreras, M. (2012). The Evolution of the Study of Executive-Legislative Relations in Latin America: Or How Theory Slowly Catches Up with Reality. Revista Ibero-Americana de Estudos Legislativos(2), 20-26.

Carreras, M. (fortcoming). Institutions, governmental performance and the rise of political newcomers. European Journal of Political Research.

Helmke, G. (2009). Ticket splitting as electoral insurance: The Mexico 2000 elections. Electoral Studies, 28(1), 70-78.

Lijphart, A. (1992). Introduction Parliamentary versus Presidential Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

Linz, J. J. (1990). The Perils of Presidentialism. Journal of Democracy, 1(1), 51-69.

Linz, J. J. (1994). Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference? In J. J. Linz & A. Valenzuela (Eds.), The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Georgia – Political Landscape After Parliamentary Elections

On November 16, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Georgia published its final summary protocol for October 2016 Parliamentary elections. The CEC confirmed that three electoral subjects: Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG), United National Movement (UNM) and the Alliance of Patriots would enter the Parliament of Georgia. Following the announcement of final election results, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, convened the inaugural session of the newly elected parliament on November 18.

The ruling GDDG received 115 seats in the parliament (both majoritarian and party list results), followed by its major opponent the United National Movement with 27 MPs and the Alliance of Patriots with six seats; additionally, one majoritarian MP from Industrialists and an independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili managed to enter the 150-seat-strong legislative assembly.

This parliamentary election was remarkable. Although, only one majoritarian candidate nominated by the Industry Will Save Georgia (Industrialists) party won the seat in Khashuri constituency of Eastern Georgia, the party itself did not clear the three percent threshold necessary for qualifying for public funding. However, the Central Election Commission made a judgement and took a decision to grant public funding to the Industrialists for being represented by one majoritarian MP in the parliament. The CEC judgement has received harsh criticism from major watchdog organisations (GYLA, ISFED, Transparency Georgia), who accused the CEC of putting one political party in a privileged position without it meeting the criteria for additional public funding. It is worth noting that the CEC decision will also affect the composition of the Central Election Commission, whereby the more GDDG-friendly Industrials will replace the Free Democrats, the more outspoken opponents to the ruling party.

Apart from that, the recent research findings published by Transparency International Georgia note that the use of administrative resources by the ruling party in some instances, notably public servants were mobilized for electoral events in many cases. However, Transparency Georgia does not view the observed cases as influential for the e-day outcome.

Confidence vote for Georgian Dream Government

Following the inaugural session, the Georgian parliament voted for a new cabinet of ministers headed by the same prime-minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Kvirikashvili himself led the Georgian Dream Democratic Georgia party list for parliamentary elections. The cabinet, where 18 ministers have remained after the portfolio of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues was subsumed by the Foreign Ministry, was reshuffled only slightly.

A four-year program of the government entitled “Freedom, Rapid Development, Welfare” was approved, as expected. Equipped with the supermajority in the parliament (115 seats), GDDG will be able to pass any initiative during the four-year term.

Elections over – political landscape still reshaping

The election had far-reaching for the rest of political spectrum. Before the run-offs, the leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, left politics and withdrew from the second round race in the Gori constituency. Apart from Alasania, several leaders and former Free Democrats MPs left the party and spoke of the possibility of cooperating with their former political opponent – GDDG. Just recently, one of the former leader’s of Alasania’s political party was appointed as a minister in the GDDG cabinet.

David Usupashvili, the Parliamentary Chairman (2012-2016) and the leader the Republican Party, has left the party as well. The Republican Party, the oldest political party in Georgia and prominent for its liberal values, was represented in the previous parliament (2012-2016) as part of the ruling coalition. Parting from the coalition just months before elections, the Republicans received less than two per cent of the vote in the elections and none of its majoritarian candidates succeeded. Several leaders and tens of party members followed Usupashvili’s decision. Although he made it clear he has no intention of leaving the political scene, Usupashvili’s political future is uncertain.

The post-electoral period has also revealed significant divisions in the United National Movement as well, where Mikheil Saakashvili, broadcasting live from Odessa inUkraine, called on the party not to recognise the election result, to reject any participation in the run-offs, and to refuse to take up any parliamentary seats. Part of the UNM leadership went against Saakashvili by accepting the parliamentary seats and running in the second round. Only Sandra Roelofs, who is Saakashvili’s wife and who was number two on the party list, withdrew from the runoff race and asked the Central Election Commission to annul her parliamentary mandate.

The internal feud in the United National Movement continued even after the decision to enter the Parliament. At this point, two major opposing groups have emerged. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of Georgian citizenship when he accepted a Ukrainian passport, automatically lost his position as a party chairman and his seat remains vacant. Saakashvili’s opposition in the party – Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava (former Mayor of Tbilisi, currently in prison) and their supporters – are advocating for a renewal of the party, which among other things includes election of a new chair.

Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst, views the internal conflict in United National Movement as deep and multidimensional. According to Nodia, by becoming a Ukrainian politician and being away from Georgia, Saakashvili lost his leadership and influence in the party. It is obvious for Ghia Nodia that fractioning will weaken the UNM more.

Internal developments in the UNM have attracted public attention for several reasons: firstly, it is the only former ruling party in Georgia which managed to avoid dissolution after the defeat in  the election; secondly, it continued functioning while its leader had to flee Georgia and while a number of other leaders are in prison (Former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia); thirdly, the UNM has remained a vocal parliamentary opposition against the government.

On November 30, Civil.ge reported that the UNM leadership held a meeting of its political council, the highest governing body of the party. The council decided in favor of the decision to hold a congress with the participation of 7,000 delegates, as ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili wanted. Twenty-four members voted against and two members abstained.

Saakashvili’s wing in the party has called for the election of a new chairperson as deciding otherwise would mean that the party distances itself from Mikheil Saakashvili, hence what they consider a “political suicide”.

Mikheil Saakashvili has just recently resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region and has become a leader of the opposition movement in Ukraine. He welcomed “the correct decision” taken by his party in favor of holding a large-scale congress.

For the UNM, unity is of critical importance at the moment. However, the depth of the conflict demonstrates the lack of resources in the party. At the same time, the need for renewal and change, or the confirmation of the fact that there is life after Saakashvili is absolutely obvious.

Ukraine – New Political Party, Corruption, and Calls for Parliamentary Election

On 28 November 2016, Mikheil Saakashvili, a former President of Georgia and a former Governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, held a rally in support of his new political party – Movement of New Forces. During the rally, Saakashvili told around 1,000 people who turned up to support him in the centre of Kyiv that he knew “how to make Ukraine great…and we will do it together.”

Educated in Ukraine and later in the U.S., Saakashvili first came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution. He served two terms as President of Georgia. Barred from running for a third term, Saakashvili left Georgia shortly after the expiration of his term in 2013. Today, he is wanted in Georgia on the charges of abuse of power and use of excessive force against the demonstrators in 2007.

Saakashvili renounced his Georgian citizenship in 2015 and accepted Ukrainian citizenship to become a Governor of Odessa region in Ukraine. On 7 November 2016, however, he resigned his governorship and accused President Poroshenko and his allies of supporting corrupt officials and undermining his reform efforts in the region. His resignation came just a week after the online declarations detailing the assets of around 50,000 top Ukrainian public official have been released. To the surprise of both Ukrainians and the West, the declaration revealed that Ukraine’s top officials owned millions in cash, luxury items, and properties raising questions about country’s commitment to curtail corruption.

In a recent interview with Kyiv Post, a famous Ukrainian newspaper, Saakashvili insisted that Ukraine needed to hold an early parliamentary election to get rid of its entire ruling political class. Next parliamentary election in Ukraine is scheduled for 2019. If Ukraine holds another election now, it will be its third election in the past two years. Nonetheless, Saakashvili insisted on “a real, clear threat of violence” if elections were not held, warning of a possibility of a military coup.

Some argue that Saakashvili came to Ukraine to start his second political career and was deeply dissatisfied to be only a Governor after holding a presidential post in his native Georgia. Although his motivations for coming to Ukraine remain unclear, his career offers an interesting perspective on term limits, presidents, and their future careers. In his recent book, Alexander Baturo examines why some executives willingly step down from power whereas others attempt to circumvent term limits. [1] Baturo argues that this variation can be explained by the cost and benefits of leaving office. Simply put, the executives will try to extend their tenure if the stakes of losing office are too high. These high stakes could include lucrative opportunities while in office as well probabaility of persecution once out of office. This theory would suggest that Saakashvili should have stayed in power in Georgia in 2013 given that he faced persecution after leaving office and little possibility of continuing his political career or extending his wealth once out of office. However, Saakashvili’s example shows that another possiblity for a former president who faces few benefits and relatively high costs of leaving office is to leave office and start over in another country.

[1]. Baturo, Alexander. 2014. Democracy, Dictatorship, and Term Limits. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Armenia – One year after the Constitutional Reform: Future perspectives for the President and his party

In 2015, after a referendum, Armenia voted to switch from a semi-presidential political system to a parliamentarian one. As a consequence of that, most governing prerogatives are due to shift from the president to the prime minister. This change has been accompanied by discussions about the implications of the change. Notably, both before and after the vote, the public debate has focused on the consequences on the tenure in power of President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been ambiguous as to whether he will run for Prime Minister after the end of his second and last presidential mandate. Almost one year after the constitutional amendment, the debate has not ceased.

The debate about the constitutional reform has centred on the personal gains of politicians (especially the serving President) rather than on the institutional implication. This is nothing new in either an Armenian or the South Caucasian context. More than a decade ago, in the months preceding the Armenian Constitutional Reform in 2005, the public debate in Yerevan focused on how the new legislative provisions would give substantial immunity to the president[1]. Similarly, in 2010, when neighbouring Georgia approved a similar reform to the 2015 Armenian constitutional change, critics observed that it would secure then then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s position in power. In the end, the electoral defeat of Mr Saakashvili’s party (UNM) in the 2012 parliamentary election was followed by a smooth transfer of power, often saluted by external observers as a crucial moment in the Georgian path towards democratisation.

Back in Armenia, the debate has been recently revitalised after the public declarations of the President. At the end of October 2016, when asked by Al Jazeera about his intention to run for Prime Minister in 2017, President Sargsyan answered evasively: “You know, I find it too early for these conversations.” While, for roughly one month, Mr Sargsyan refrained from further comments, in the following days and weeks different comments came from the ruling majority, the opposition and the press. Tatevik Shahunyan, who is Vice Speaker of the Armenian Parliament and Spokesman for the ruling “Republican Party” (RP), declared that it was premature to talk about the political future of the President before knowing the results of the Parliamentary elections in 2017; this statement neither confirmed nor denied the scenario of Mr Sargsyan becoming Prime Minister at the end of his presidential mandate[2].

As expected, the opposition commented on these developments in a much more decisive way. Levon Zurabian, a parliamentary leader of Armenian National Congress (HAK), interpreted President Sarksyan’s statement as an admission of political ambitions beyond his presidential mandate. This opinion was promptly reiterated by Mr Zaruhi Postanjian, the leader of Heritage party. The press enriched the debate by pointing out the potential intra-party implications of this “tandem”. The pro-opposition paper Zhamanak reported that an exceptional electoral result by the ruling Republican Party might be interpreted as stemming from the work of the current Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. In that case, his resignation in favour of Serzh Sargsyan would seem illogical. President Sargsyan might benefit more from a “moderately good” result which, without jeopardising the ruling majority, would not be interpreted as the personal success of Mr Karapetyan[3].

After roughly a month of silence, President Sargsyan finally spoke both about the Prime Ministership and party unity, denying any conflict between his personal ambitions and the future of his faction. On November 26, in occasion of a speech given at the “16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia[4]”, he ruled out the immediate substitution of the Prime Minister, saying that:  “[I]n case we receive the vote of trust in the coming elections, our government will again be headed by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian who will continue to implement the current programs.”. In spite of this declaration, which in any case did not clarify President Sargsyan’s intention after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018, some members of the opposition maintained their comments. For example, Levon Zurabyan (HAK) declared: “Karen Karapetyan is being used by the PR to secure their success in the parliamentary election. That will later pave Serzh Sargsyan’s way to the prime minister’s office”.

In relation to intra-party dynamics, President Sargsyan’s speech placed the emphasis on the need for the Republican Party to unite[5] and promote the modernization of the country. Notably, significant space was devoted to the economic results obtained in the last eight years in the face of the global financial crisis. He pointed out the need for Armenia to undergo a broad process of reforms, both in relation to the economic development of the country and in the face of external challenges. In the words of President Sargsyan: “We need to reduce and eliminate the negative [spill-over of the hostile external environment]. Any successful reform will bring also new success in other areas”. This insistence on change seems to refer not only to future targets but also to measures adopted in the recent months. Notably, a reduction in the gas price, effective as of July 2017, was approved in October. In the same month, an anticorruption bill was voted.

The lengthy speech by President Sargsyan at the annual party convention suggests that the forthcoming parliamentary campaign will be mostly centred on economic themes rather than on strong personalities. That is in line with one of the declared goals of the constitutional reform, namely the replacement of a people-based political culture with the consolidation of ideological platforms. Pertinently, the President’s rhetoric reveals the attempt to minimise intra-party divisions and shift the attention to a programmatic platform. In this perspective, the opposition, which is hardly unified, has already expressed its interest in joining forces to prevent a landslide victory of the Republican Party. The next months will be crucial in understanding whether the soon-to-be introduced parliamentary system can indeed foster democratisation as claimed by its proponents, rather than being the vehicle for personal political ambitions.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] Arminfo News Agency. 2005. “Those Who State that the Bill of Constitutional Reform will lead to Impunity of the President are Unaware of the Bill”, November 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Sharmazanov in the footsteps of Serzh Sargsyan’s interview to Al Jazeera: It is tactless to speak of President’s plans after 2017 elections until election results are known”, November 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian press discuss president’s interview with Al-Jazeera”, October 29 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] In occasion of the 16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia, Prime Minister Karapetyan has formally joined the Republican party.

[5] In spite of this pledge for unity, analysts suspect that the inclusion of Mr Karapetyan in the Republican Party has not been received with unanimous enthusiasm [ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Expert: with Karapetyan’s assignment the old guard turned the most vulnerable point of Republicans”, November 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

 

Moldova – Presidential election Round 2 between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu

The Republic of Moldova is a small country, penned in between Romania and Ukraine. It holds the sad title of being the poorest nation in Europe. And sure, one reason to engage more thoroughly with Moldova is the unquestionable wine culture; yet even more important is its geopolitical position in between two influential poles (the European Union and Russia) and its fascinating constitutional development since its independence in 1991. The constitutional choices made throughout the last 25 years cover variations of executive-legislative relations rarely found in the post-soviet area: in an earlier blog post I described it as a ping pong game (see Fruhstorfer 2016). At the moment the game is back to a semi-presidential system with a directly elected president. In this post, I try to offer a brief overview of the campaign and an analysis of the second round of the presidential election in Moldova.

One of the important slogans of the presidential campaign was in this or similar style “Viitorul Moldovei este alături de o Rusie puternică“ (Moldova’s future is with a strong Russia). This slogan illustrates the choice that was proposed to the people of Moldova. The two frontrunners after the first round of the election were generally described as the embodiment of this choice. Igor Dodon of the Party of Socialists (PSRM) plays the pro-Russian role and promised – among other things – to call for a referendum to withdraw from the European Union trade agreement. Maia Sandu played the clear role of an outspoken supporter of Moldova’s integration into the European Union.

But next to these candidates, who faced each other also in the second round, there are several other important actors that in one-way or another are of interest for the understanding of these elections. I would like to mention them briefly: First, Renato Usatii, who was no candidate in this presidential election. This is mainly related to the constitutional court decision to abolish the 2000 constitutional amendment and re-establish the direct election of the president. In this decision the court excluded some provisions. Most importantly it did not return to the age limit for running as president as stipulated by the 1994 constitution. This means the court showed great judicial activism and thus presumably excluded Usatii from running for president. In his place, Dumitru Ciubasenco (a journalist and self-proclaimed opponent of Plahotniuc’s oligarchic regime) ran as candidate for Our Party (he received only 6% of votes during the first round).

Another candidate, Andrei Năstase, withdrew his candidacy shortly before the election in support of Maia Sandu. Some argue that he was forced to do so by external pressure (i.e. the United States of America), but Năstase claimed he wanted to help in building a strong anti-Dodon coalition led by Sandu. The presidential bid of Marian Lupu, the chairman of the Democratic Party (Tass 2016) took a similar road, he also withdrew in support of the pro-EU candidate Sandu.

After the first round of the presidential election, during which only 49% of eligible citizens cast their votes (Rusnac 2016), none of the candidates received the necessary absolute majority. 48.3 % votes for Dodon and 38.4 % for Sandu (Rusnac 2016). These two candidates were then also the choice that represented itself to the people of Moldova: voting for Igor Dodon from the Party of Socialists (PSRM), an outspoken Putin fan, who campaigned for closer ties with Russia (BBC 2016) or voting for the pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu. Dodon won with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Sandu). The voter turnout for the second round (53.54%, see BBC 2016) increased, which I initially assumed would lead to a better chance for Sandu to win the election. So why did Igor Dodon win?

There are several reasons and we have to analyze each of them very carefully in further research: Yet for this post I will suggest that the following aspects played an important role.
First, the campaign for the second round was – although brief – dirty, revengeful and consisted merely in the smearing of candidates. But Dodon also managed to paint a slightly different picture of his ties with Russia than during the first round. This obviously was intended to gain the support of more moderate voters. It is also astounding that an anonymous ambassador for a EU member state revealed, “Dodon had privately told diplomats his party would not jettison the EU accord“ (CBC News 2016).

But still, Dodon (Minister of Economy during the ruling of the communist party 2006-2009) was running a smear-campaign. He attacked Sandu, her integrity and her past as member of the ruling elite (she was Minister of Education 2012-2015). He even tried to associate her with the devastating billion-dollar heist that left the country’s monetary system in peril (as far as the evidence suggest this allegation is unsubstantiated and she even demanded a more thorough investigation, see Brett et al. 2015).

Furthermore Dodon was supported by traditional media, had a much stronger ground game and was even supported by the Moldovan Orthodox Church (RFE/RL 2016). The support of the church is a particularly interesting element in this election as it points to an increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on Moldova (a phenomenon which can be observed in a variety of post-soviet countries). It is also worth noting that parts of the church leadership also engaged in the smear campaign against Sandu.

Similarly, the media support for Dodon might seem surprising as one of central figures in Moldovan politics and owner of a large media group is Vlad Plahotniuc, vice chair of the pro-EU Democratic Party (PDM). His role is mysterious. Some argue that he did not declare his support for Sandu publicly (see RFE/RL 2016), although some reports suggest otherwise (Popsoi 2016). Either way if Sandu had his support it was not necessarily helpful for her campaign; some labeled the support “toxic“ (Popsoi 2016). What is even more unexpected is that traditional media largely owned by him seem to have been more inclined to support Dodon. Some reports even claim that Dodon used Plahotniuc’s private jet during this campaign, but I cannot confirm this information with reliable sources.

As in many semi-presidential systems, also the Republic of Moldova now faces a period of cohabitation. It is unclear how confrontational this one will be. Prime Minister Pavel Filip from the Democratic Party (PDM) suggested a pragmatic working relationship. Thus, it remains to be seen if the future actually holds a Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon cooperation or if we will observe a further perpetuation of the conflict between the government in favor of EU integration and a head of state in favor of close ties with Russia.

Literature

BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite, in http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
CBC News (2016): Moldova elects a new president, who is seen as friendly to Putin, in http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/moldova-presidential-election-dodon-sandu-1.3849499, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Back to the future: The abolition of the parliamentary system in Moldova, in http://presidential-power.com/?p=4588
Popsoi, Mihai (2016): Russia Scores Symbolic Victory in Moldova’s Presidential Election, in:  https://moldovanpolitics.com/2016/11/14/russia-scores-symbolic-victory-in-moldovas-presidential-election/, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
RFE/RL (2016): Moldova Presidential Election Headed For Runoff, http://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-presidential-election-close-contentious/28082659.html. October 31 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Rusnac, Cornelia. 2016. “Moldovan Presidential Election Goes to Runoff“, ABC News, In. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/moldovan-presidential-election-runoff-43185557 [accessed October 31, 2016]
TASS (2016): Moldova’s opposition candidate drops out of presidential race, in http://tass.com/world/908914. October 26 [accessed November 15, 2016]

Sources

Constitution of the Republic of Moldova. Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Moldova_2006?lang=en. (accessed July 13, 2015)
Constitutional Amendment. 2000. Law No. 1115-XIV of July 5, 2000. Monitorul Oficial al R. Moldova, No. 88–90 July 28, 2000. Chișinău, July 28.
Constitutional Court of Moldova. 2016. Curtea Constituţională a restabilit dreptul cetăţenilor de a-şi alege Preşedintele. March 4. http://www.constcourt.md/libview.php?l=ro&idc=7&id=759&t=/Prezentare-generala/Serviciul-de-presa/Noutati/Curtea-Constitutionala-a-restabilit-dreptul-cetatenilor-de-a-si-alege-Presedintele. (Accessed March 6, 2016)

Slovakia – Government loses majority in elections but cohabitation likely to continue

On Saturday, 5 March, Slovakia held its seventh parliamentary election since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Although the SMER party of Prime Minister Fico emerged as the clear winner, it lost its absolute majority. Given that SMER only won 49 out of 150 seats in the Slovak National Council (falling short of the 63 seats predicted by the last opinion poll), Fico will have a difficult time forming a government. Nevertheless, a coalition of former and new centre-right opposition parties is unlikely and cohabitation between a (arguably only nominally) social democratic party-led government and the centre-right (yet independent) president could continue at least for another few years.

Party Votes Percent Seats
SMER – sociálna demokracia 737,481 28.28% 49
Sloboda a Solidarita (SaS) 315,558 12.10% 21
OBYČAJNÍ ĽUDIA a nezávislé osobnosti (OĽANO – NOVA) 287,611 11.02% 19
Slovenská národná strana (SNS) 225,386 8.64% 15
Kotleba – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (ĽSNS) 209,779 8.04% 14
SME RODINA – Boris Kollár 172,860 6.62% 11
MOST – HÍD 169,593 6.50% 11
#SIEŤ 146,205 5.60% 10
Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie (KDH) 128,908 4.94%
Strana maďarskej komunity – Magyar Közösség Pártja 105,495 4.04%
Others 108,874 4.12%
TOTAL 2,607,750 100.00% 150

When Prime Minister Robert Fico announced in early 2014 that he would run for president, it came as a surprise given not only the presidency’s limited powers but also the fact that his party held an absolute majority in parliament and was on course to form the next government if not alone then easily with support from a minor party. However, since Fico’s defeat in the presidential elections by independent Andrej Kiska, support for his government has dropped and a number of new political parties have appeared on the scene and each attracted a small, but significant share of the electorate. Although the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), Fico’s coalition partner from 2006-2010, re-entered parliament after having been absent during the last legislature, their 15 seats will not be enough to form a majority government. A potential third partner could be the far-right ĽSNS of regional governor Marian Kotleba, yet its inclusion in the government might be costly for SMER which is already facing internal divisions over its anti-refugee policies and facing criticism from Western European social democratic parties.

Already after the publication of the first exit polls, Richard Sulik – leader of the second-placed centre-right SaS – announced that he would attempt to form a government of right-wing parties. A coalition of moderate centre-right and right-wing parties (SaS, OĽaNO-NOVA, MOST-HÍD, Sme Rodina and #SIEŤ) would however only have 72 seats and thus have to rely on deals with other parties or – more likely – individual deputies from the opposition. Among these parties, the failure of #SIEŤ to garner more votes was the most surprising. Its leader, former KDH-deputy Radoslav Procházka, set up the party after finishing third finish in the 2014 presidential elections with 21% of the vote (only 3% less than first-round runner-up and eventual winner Andrej Kiska). His initial support and momentum did not translate into more seats and the party eventually barely passed the 5% electoral threshold. The other right-wing parties represented in parliament, SNS and ĽSNS, are unlikely to be included in a right-wing coalition – their nationalist views but also their desire for more/continued state intervention in the economy and welfare provision are incompatible with the traditionally economically very liberal Slovak centre-right.

In contrast to previous Slovak parliamentary elections, the president refrained from intervening directly. President Kiska continued to stand by his election promise to be the country’s first non-partisan president (Kiska never belonged to any political party, his policy views can however be described as centrist to centre-right). While the Slovak constitution foresees that presidents appoint the Prime Minister who is then subject to parliamentary approval, no Slovak president to date has used these stipulations to overly involve themselves in government formation and have appointed the party leader who presented a ready-formed majority government (similar stipulations in the Czech Republic have however allowed president Zeman to install the Rusnok government in summer 2013 which lacked any parliamentary support). It is clear that Kiska would prefer a coalition government that does not include Fico’s SMER, yet just like the parties of the moderate right, he might have to be more to gain from an unstable SMER-SNS-ĽSNS coalition. Not only would such a government have greater difficulties in overriding his vetoes (which generally only require a relative majority) but a weak government would also give the opposition parties (particularly new ones such as #SIEŤ) the opportunity to make their mark and win early elections triggered by SMER’s loss of support in a few years, potentially allowing him to win his second term in office on the coat-tails or even with the support of a new centre-right government.

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More detailed information about the election results, including preference votes for individual candidates, can be found at http://volbysr.sk/sk/data02p.html (Slovak and English).

Turkey – After a period of violence and threats of political instability Erdoğan’s party wins back its dominant position in the parliament

Turkish voters went to the polls once again on the first of November, only six months after the June 7 general election. Eventually, 49 per cent voted for the ruling AKP, thus reinstating the AKP’s single party rule and its dominant status once again. The main opposition party, CHP, sustained its votes, whereas the nationalist MHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP saw a decline in their support even though they passed the ten per cent national threshold. This result came as a surprise for many as even the pro-government polls failed to predict such a strong result for the AKP.

The AKP’s nine percent gain came after a period of increasing political violence, threats of instability, and authoritarian pressures over free press and atmosphere of fear. After losing their parliamentary majority in the June election – which was turned into an informal referendum for a presidential system by the President – the AKP continued to govern the country. Parliament stayed closed and opposition parties failed to come together to form a legislative or executive coalition. Meanwhile, President Erdoğan continued exercising de facto powers despite the fact that his recent aggressive campaign for a type of hyper-presidential system failed.

The rising star of the June 2015 election was Selahattin Demirtaş the leader of the HDP pro-Kurdish party, who famously declared that his party would not allow Erdoğan to form a presidential system. He led his party to crossing the ten per cent national threshold for the first time, and thus prevented President Erdoğan and his party from realising their goal of a presidential system by simply taking their fair share of parliamentary seats. As votes for parties which are unable to pass the electoral threshold are assigned to the biggest party, giving them a significant overrepresentation under the Turkish D’Hondt system, votes for the HDP in previous elections often translated into an increased seat share for the AKP.

Four parties entered parliament following the June 7 elections: the AKP, CHP, MHP and HDP. However, none of them had a clear single majority. In a highly polarised political climate this meant stalemate. Prime Minister Davutoğlu, the new “official” leader of the AKP was given the mandate to form the government but returned it unsuccessfully to President Erdoğan. The president also made it clear that he was in favour of a snap election rather than forming a coalition.

The six months period in which Turkey first discussed coalition formation, and later the possibility of snap election, coincided with the end of peace talks and a ceasefire agreement between government forces and the PKK. Bloody clashes between the PKK and security forces took place in civilian occupied town centres as well as mountains resulting in heavy civilian, military and PKK losses. Furthermore ISIL suicide bombers attacked two different political demonstrations in Suruç and Ankara, killing 136 people.

It was not only the increasing threat of political violence that contributed to the political instability of the country. Within this climate fears of economic crisis have been rising together with threat of political instability. In addition, there were attacks on newspapers and journalists opposed to a government run solely by the AKP members and MPs. Some of the opposing newspapers and TV channels have been seized, sparking reactions from journalists all over the world. Many of the TV channels’ and newspapers’ coverage have been pro-government and opposition parties were unsuccessful in voicing their opinion in a free, equal or fair election atmosphere.

The AKP’s election strategy was formed on the idea of stability. Single party rule against coalition governments, peace against violence, economic growth against economic crisis -propagating that coalition meant instability, political violence and economic crisis.
Furthermore, President Erdoğan was overall less visible as part of AKP campaigns and plans for the introduction of a presidential system were not mentioned this time around. This campaign strategy seemed to have worked well as the AKP regained the votes that it lost six months ago. It has been claimed that Erdoğan new strategy after June 7 election was reinstituting single party rule by the AKP which would enable his de facto presidential rule. In other words, a type of semi-presidential system without being forced to cohabit.

Meanwhile the HDP and its rising star Selahattin Demirtaş could not campaign after the Suruç and Ankara bombings which mainly targeted the party and its supporters. Campaign events had to be cancelled in fear of more violence. The CHP partly followed the same path and decided not to lead an aggressive campaign. The pro-nationalist MHP and its leader Bahçeli, who blocked any possibility for a coalition with the AKP or opposition after the June election, led an unsuccessful campaign trying to explain why he refused to form a coalition. In the end, the MHP lost more than 4 per cent of its votes to the AKP.

With this result Turkey’s chances for re-establishing a parliamentary system are significantly slimmer. President Erdoğan now has a free hand to control executive, legislative and judicial powers, resulting in a strong form of semi-presidentialism. There is no doubt that he will increase the pressure on the political opposition, free press or any force that opposes his neo-patrimonial rule. It is also highly likely that he will seek to change the constitution – even though his party lacks the necessary three-fifths majority with a referendum – to establish a so called “Turkish Type” of presidentialism.

South Korea – Presidential Decree, Presidential Veto, and Presidential Power

Elections are in the horizon for South Korea: legislative elections are scheduled for April 2016 while presidential elections are to be held in December 2017. With about nine months of campaigning to go under a president that seems under pressure of public disapprobation, and with the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) seemingly in disarray, this looks to be a good time for ruling Saenuri Party officers to re-evaluate loyalties to the “lame-duck” President while underlining allegiances to the public. It seems that floor leader Yoo Seung-min did just that: he brokered a deal with the opposition NPAD to pass the President’s public service pension reform by acceding to the NPAD’s demands to pass the National Assembly Act. Yet, within weeks of the path-breaking effort, both Yoo and the hard-won reforms would suffer the fall-out of the President’s wrath.

The National Assembly Act allows for the legislature to “request” changes to the president’s decrees or ordinances (itself a change from the previously, more strongly-worded “demand” changes in the Act). The Act, primarily targeted at reducing the executive’s influence on the investigations into the Sewol tragedy, provided for parliament to request a revision or change to an enforcement ordinance that requires the relevant ministry to respond to the request. The nimble balance of delivering on an important policy on the President’s agenda while acknowledging the public’s demand for greater accountability without compromising (and, indeed, perhaps enhancing) the ruling Saenuri party’s election chances was no mean feat. Indeed, the National Assembly Act was passed by 211 lawmakers – more than two thirds of the 298 incumbent members of the legislature – so that its strong support would underline to the President the significance of the brokered agreement.

Yet, the President not only came out blasting against the legislature’s “unconstitutional” encroachment of presidential powers but also threatened to veto the Act, and with it, the civil service pension reform bill that had been painfully and painstakingly negotiated. And, the President did not stop there. Following her veto on June 25, the President proceeded to cold-shoulder floor leader Yoo – notwithstanding his apologies and efforts to mend bridges with the executive – and her own party, until Yoo resign as floor leader for his “betrayal.”

Following the President’s veto, the Saenuri party recoiled from the Act, choosing to boycott the vote revisiting the Act and allowing the bill to die. The ruling party also recommended floor leader Yoo’s resignation from the post in a general assembly meeting, which Yoo accepted.

What is perhaps most curious is that these series of events have progressed while President Park is personally experiencing the most significant slide in public approval of her career, marked in turn by Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, an “influence” scandal in January 2015 that eventually led to the replacement of her highly unpopular chief-of-staff Kim Ki-choon, a huge corruption scandal that engulfed chief architects of her 2012 campaign as well as her government revealed in the aftermath of a business tycoon’s suicide in April 2015, to be followed by the government’s missteps and mishandling of the MERS crisis in June 2015.

What does this mean? At a minimum, it shows that the President retains significant political clout, which may set up political battles between the sitting President and prospective presidential candidates for control of the party going into elections.

Kiribati – What does it take to become President?

2015 shapes as an important year in Kiribati politics as it will be the last of current President Anote Tong’s tenure in office. First elected Beretitenti [President] in 2003, Tong has served the maximum three terms allowed for under the Kiribati constitution and so he cannot contest the next ballot. Taking up where I left off in this post about the profile of Presidents in FSM, here I look back at the people who have been President in Kiribati and cast my eye over possible contenders for the top job this time around.

As outlined here, Kiribati is somewhat unique among Pacific Island countries in that it has enjoyed relative political stability since independence in 1979. There have only been four Heads of Government, for example, which is a marked contrast to other Pacific countries, especially in neighboring Tuvalu or Melanesia. Like nearby Marshall Islands and Nauru, the President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government. One distinguishing feature is its two-round runoff electoral system in which the Parliament nominates up to four of its members after each election to contest a nation-wide ballot for the Presidency.

All four Presidents of Kiribati are currently still Members of Parliament (MP), although, as I will discuss further below, this may well change at the next election. The first President, Sir Ieremia Tabai, was New Zealand educated and took the country to independence at just 29 years old. On the completion of his three terms his Vice President, Teatao Teannaki was elected, although some commentators believed that Tabai continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes before and after his appointment as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1992. Teannaki, who incidentally is much older than the other three (he was born in 1936 whereas the others were born in the early 1950s), was educated in the UK and only served one term as President. His successor, Teburoro Tito, was educated in Fiji and came from the opposite side of politics to Tabai and Teannaki (although the membership of parliamentary coalitions is fluid in Kiribati). He is also the only one of the four to be elected from a Tarawa constituency. Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati and is home to around 50% of the population. Tito was eventually defeated in a no-confidence motion, which led to the election of Tong in 2003 after a brief caretaker period. Educated in the UK, Tong has been especially vocal on climate change issues during his Presidency, which has led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the sample is obviosuly tiny, many of the patterns identified in the FSM post are also apparent in Kiribati. Presidents tend to be male, overseas educated from professional backgrounds, which means that even if they are not born in Tarawa they have spent most of their lives living there or overseas. It also means that they have the financial resources to compete in election campaigns. Campaigning is increasingly expensive in Pacific Island countries and the two-round runoff system means that prospective Presidents have to fund both an initial parliamentary contest and then a later nation-wide Presidential campaign. Kiribati is a geographically large country (21 inhabited islands spread across more than 3 million kilometers of ocean) and so having a national profile, often developed by performance in parliamentary debates that are widely broadcast on radio, helps. The backing of local members from each of Kiribati’s atoll constituencies is also important.

Keeping that in mind, who might vie for the top job this time around? The fluid nature of Kiribati politics makes any outcome hard to predict but we might expect that the two losers in the last Presidential campaign, Dr. Tetaua Taitai and Rimeta Beniamina, might contest again. Taitai heads up the main opposition party, of which Tito is a member, while Beniamina is a former government MP but is now leader of his own party. Taitai, who was born in 1947, is of the Tabai/Tito generation whereas Beniamina, who was born in 1960, would represent a changing of the guard. This shift would be especially significant if other independence generation politicians like Tabai, Tito and Teannaki chose to step down or lost at the next election. The current Vice President, Teima Onorio, is another possibility. Hers would be a remarkable result, however, as no women has ever been elected Head of State in the independent Pacific. For this and other reasons her candidacy is unlikely.

No doubt others will emerge throughout 2015. What makes the outcome so difficult to predict, however, is that candidates and their supporters must first win their constituency seats and in a country where political parties have little bearing on voter preferences – family and church allegiances are more important – this is not an insignificant hurdle.