Tag Archives: minority government

Sierra Leone – Minority government leads to parliamentary impasse

This is a guest post by Iris Navarro de Tomas, Senior Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington, DC

Sierra Leone’s March 8 presidential and parliamentary elections and subsequent March 31 presidential runoff marked an important benchmark as the country saw the second peaceful transfer of power between its two major parties since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2002. Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) with 51.8 percent of the vote in the runoff. However, the APC maintained its majority in parliament, resulting in the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that parliament is controlled by the opposition party. The country is now faced with its first experience of minority government, and early indications are it is likely to be challenging.  

A divided government

The SLPP won a close presidential race, but did not succeed in securing a legislative majority. In the first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, the SLPP only increased its representation from 42 seats to 49, while the APC won 68 in a parliament with 132 elected seats. With a divided government, the SLPP will need to find ways to govern effectively without a majority in the House, facing additional hurdles in passing legislation and government budgets. President Bio will need to rely on cross-party consensus to successfully implement his political agenda.   

A few days after the run-off, newly elected President Bio made an appeal for cross-party cooperation as post-election violence erupted in Freetown, Kenema and Makeni after the announcement of results. The SLPP took to the streets to celebrate its victory, which led  to violent clashes between SLPP and APC supporters, confrontations with security forces and rioting. Bio established a joint APC and SLPP commission to investigate the violent incidents. These developments seemed to be a sign that the SLPP could make concessions to the opposition in the interest of moving the country forward.

President Maada Bio’s strategic move

Despite early signs of cooperation, a recent political impasse in Parliament is a concerning signal that when presented with a divided government, the ruling party is ready to use all means to regain power in the legislature.

In late April, Sierra Leone saw a political deadlock as the High Court placed injunctions on 16 APC and two SLPP parliamentarians, barring them from participating in the opening session of Parliament and thus in the election of the speaker of the House. The injunctions are based on SLPP and APC claims that the MPs illegally received government salaries during the campaign period and tampered with election results. In advance of the first parliamentary session scheduled for April 24, the outgoing speaker of the House postponed the session indefinitely due to the uncertainty. President Bio, citing article 84.1 of the Constitution that gives the President power to summon a parliamentary session, proclaimed that the first session of Parliament would occur on April 25, despite the large number of APC MPs barred from taking oath. All APC MPs attended the session, prompting police to forcibly remove the 16 APC parliamentarians who could not be sworn in due to the injunctions. In a moment of political solidarity, the remaining 52 members of the APC also left Parliament. The APC and its supporters claimed that President Bio’s move was evidence of an attempt to undermine the APC majority in parliament and ensure that an SLPP representative became speaker.  

As a result of the APC walkout, Dr. Abass Chernoh Bundu of the SLPP was elected speaker unopposed. While article 79.1 of the Sierra Leonean Constitution mandates that two thirds of parliamentarians must be present for the vote on the speaker, it does not clarify how the quorum is reached. SLPP claims that two thirds of the MPs who took oath were present, however APC interprets this requirement differently, claiming that at least two thirds of elected MPs must be present to elect the speaker, which would make this vote unconstitutional.

Bio’s push to move the vote of the speaker forward despite pending court cases appears as a strategic move to ensure a more favorable legislature to back his policy priorities.  Not only does the speaker administer proceedings on the House floor and has the power to recognize MPs to make motions, but the speaker acts as head of government when the President and the Vice President are out of the country. Both the post-election violence carried out by SLPP supporters and the events in Parliament are concerning  signals of the continued fragility of Sierra Leone’s nascent democracy.

What next?

Mediation efforts. In response to the events, a joint high-level delegation comprised of President of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS), Mr. Jean Claude Kassi Brou, and the Special Representative of United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, Mr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, began mediation efforts between the SLPP and APC leadership on April 29. Four days later, the delegation recommended that both parties establish effective channels and mechanisms for dialogue to resolve their political differences. The delegation also encouraged the judiciary to ensure prompt, fair, independent and timely adjudication of all injunctions, so all MPs can be sworn-in.  

High Court proceedings. The High Court asked the SLPP and APC to provide evidence by May 4 to substantiate the injunctions on the parliamentarians, and after review of the evidence, the High Court lifted the injunctions on the MPs. The parliamentarians have all now been sworn-in, and the APC will likely ask for a re-election of the speaker on the grounds that the vote was unconstitutional. Considering the likelihood that the SLPP will not allow a re-election and given that there are no provisions in the Constitution governing such a situation, further deadlock in Parliament is probable.

Constitutional Reform. A constitutional review process was initiated in 2014 but was paused until 2016 due to the Ebola outbreak. While consultations with political stakeholders and constitutional experts have taken place since 2016, the constitutional review recommendations have not yet been passed by Parliament. As political parties interpret the Constitution to fit their interests during the impasse in Parliament, it is expected that civil society groups will apply pressure to push the review forward. Groups are primarily advocating for measures to reduce presidential powers and mandate that the speaker of the House be a High Court judge to foster neutrality.

Passing Legislation. President Bio will need to build consensus and reach compromises between SLPP and opposition parties moving forward if the country is to avoid an ongoing impasse in the legislature. This could benefit APC MPs who may leverage their majority in the House to advance legislation that would benefit their local constituencies. If the APC majority in Parliament becomes obstructive in passing legislation, the government may resort to using the extensive powers of the executive to force policy adoption and implementation. Particularly, education policy is a potential source of political deadlock, as the SLPP’s key campaign promise was the establishment of a free education system, which was strongly opposed by the APC.  It should also be noted that there are significant divisions within the APC that emerged from the party nomination process and led to breakaway parties, which could make it easier for the SLPP to generate cross-party support on key issues.

While recent events in Sierra Leone are concerning for the stability of this nascent democracy, there remain opportunities for political dialogue and cooperation to strengthen democratic processes in the country. As Sierra Leoneans are anxious for change, with 80 percent responding the country was going in the wrong direction in the latest Afrobarometer survey in 2015, scrutiny of the government’s policymaking and demands for accountability and transparency are likely to be more sustained than under previous administrations. If the SLPP can overcome the current impasse and find ways to successfully manage a divided government, Sierra Leone would come out as a strengthened democracy.

Bulgaria – Snap election may bring another minority government and the end of “cohabitation”

Bulgaria held a snap general election on 5 October. This was the second early election in the last 18 months and the third consecutive election since 2009 in which the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CERB) came ahead in the polls. However, each contest has seen GERB slipping further away from obtaining a parliamentary majority. Compared to the 2009 and 2013 elections, when it won 116 and 97 seats respectively, this time around GERB will only get about 87 seats in the 240-seat assembly.

The single-party minority government formed in 2009 by PM Borisov, GERB’s leader, resigned in February 2013 following mass protests against austerity measures and high energy prices. Although GERB won the highest number of seats in the following election, a minority coalition government was formed by the Socialist Party (BSP) and the Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DSP), which together held 120 seats. As the two parties were one seat short of an absolute majority, their survival in office depended on the ultra-nationalist Ataka party, which held 23 seats.

To expose the executive’s reliance on the support of the far-right, GERB tabled five no-confidence motions, which the government survived only because the Ataka deputies abstained or did not take part in the vote. The government eventually resigned on 23 July 2014, following a poor showing of the Socialist party in the European Parliament elections, a coalition rift regarding the future of the South Stream pipeline, and a banking crisis.

No fewer than eight parties managed to pass the 4% national threshold in Sunday’s election:

  • Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CERB) – 32.67% (+2.13%)
  • Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – Leftist Bulgaria -15.41% (-11.2%)
  • Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) – 14.83% (+3.52%)
  • Reformist Bloc – 8.88% (New)
  • Patriotic Front – 7.29% (New)
  • Bulgaria without Censorship – 5.7% (New)
  • Ataka – 4.52% (-2.78%)
  • Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV) – 4.15% (New)

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the party led by Boyko Borisov is likely to fall more than 30 seats short of the 121-seat majority. On the other hand, the ultra-nationalist Patriotic Front and the far-right Ataka are expected to hold together about 30 seats. Given the weakness of the Socialist party, the unprecedented fragmentation of the parliament, and the fact that a coalition government between GERB and the next three parties has been ruled out, another minority government seems likely to form.

Several factors increase the likelihood of a minority government outcome. While ruling out a coalition with the Socialist party and the DPS, GERB is open to negotiating external support for certain policies with the two parties. A similar scenario could work for the Reformist Bloc, which refuses to enter a coalition government with GERB if Borisov takes over as prime minister, but does not rule out support for GERB’s governing programme. The formation of a minority government in Bulgaria is also facilitated by the fact that the investiture of new governments only requires the support of a simple majority in parliament.

Bulgaria’s snap election is also likely to change the working relations between the head of state and the new executive. The government formed by PM Plamen Oresharski, an independent associated with the Socialist party, could be described as one of cohabitation, since Rosen Plevneliev’s candidacy in 2011 was supported by GERB.

Indeed, the level of conflict between the president and the Socialist government was typical of a period of cohabitation. On top of openly siding with the anti-government protests that started as soon as the new cabinet took office, President Plevneliev also used his constitutional powers to put more pressure on the ruling coalition. For example, when the scandal regarding the appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of the state security agency broke out, the president asked the Constitutional Court twice to rule on whether state institutions have the power to dismiss or to reverse their own appointments to other state institutions.

The president also used his right to send bills back to parliament more frequently after the BSP-DPS government came to power. In just over one year, the president returned nine laws to the parliament, including a budget bill in August 2013. Moreover, the parliament failed to overturn a presidential veto in July 2014, after far-right Ataka started boycotting plenary sessions in anticipation of the assembly’s dissolution.

Nevertheless, the formation of a GERB-led government and the end of “cohabitation” does not necessarily have to see a decrease in presidential activism. As a matter of fact, President Plevneliev did not refrain from vetoing government bills in 2012, when PM Borisov was in power. In addition, the president’s standing has improved considerably as a result of the active role he took in selecting and setting the priorities for the caretaker government he appointed on 6 August 2014. Some pundits are also wondering whether President Plevneliev’s political career might one day include a move to the cabinet building. The performance and stability of the new government might have a big role to play in this regard.