Tag Archives: Presidency

Moldova – Electoral Dysfunction Approaching its End?

Moldovans are once again considering changes to the rules governing election of their president. The current election system has been the cause of recurrent crises, and if not changed promises to be so once again in the upcoming 2016 presidential election.

Until recently, presidents have played a central role in Moldovan political life, and competition among top leaders to achieve the post has been intense. During the first decade of the postcommunist period Presidents Mircea Snegur (1990-1997) and the Petru Lucinschi (1997-2001) made use of the post as a counterbalance, sometimes more and sometimes less effectively, to the fragmented legislature. In the following decade Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) leader, Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009) was able to effectively exercise both executive and legislative authority from the Office of the Presidency.
It is only since the most recent presidential election, held in March 2012, that the role of the Pesident has declined in significance. President Nicolae Timofti, the current incumbent, was selected for the position in order to end a deadlock between the dominant political party leaders, none of whom was willing to see one of the others assume the office. Previous to becoming President Timofti served as Chairman of the Supreme Council of Magistrates and was a political independent. Without control over major party resources, he was counted on not to emerge as a major competitor for power. He was apparently expected to remain neutral in the internecine disputes among ruling coalition members and to support the broad direction of established foreign policy orientation. During his tenure in office President Timofti has occasionally engaged in controversial partisan activity, but has in general lived up to these expectations.

Since Independence, Moldova has employed two presidential electoral systems. Like many post-Soviet republics it implemented direct election of the president at the time of the USSR’s break-up. Initially named President by the country’s last Supreme Soviet, Mircea Snegur implemented direct election to the office and was made President by popular vote in December 1991. Direct election of the president was retained in Moldova’s first constitution in 1994 and was employed for a second time in 1996 and resulted in the election of Petru Lucinschi. The following four years, however, were characterized by a nearly constant struggle between the legislative and executive branches. By the end of his term Lucinschi was actively lobbying for transition to a presidential system of government. In order to block Lucinschi’s election to a second term and avoid that outcome legislative leaders banded together in December 2000 to modify the constitutional regarding presidential election. According to the new formula the president was to be elected by parliament. Election requires the support of 3/5s, or 61 of Moldova’s 101 MPs. If no one wins, a second round it held between the top two candidates. If no one achieves success in the second round a new contest must be organized. If that ballot fails to produce a winner, new parliamentary elections must be called.

The new system, which remains in effect at present, immediately proved itself unsound under Moldovan political condition. On its first use in 2000 repeat elections failed to produce a winning candidate, leading to dissolution and early legislative elections in 2001. Those elections brought a Communist majority to power in Parliament. The following two presidential contests proceeded smoothly as a consequence of the PCRM’s legislative dominance, giving Vladimir Voronin first round wins on each occasion.

By the time of April 2009 legislative elections the Communist dominance had waned significantly. As a consequence the weaknesses of the 2000 presidential electoral rules resurfaced, producing a cycle of ongoing crisis. This began with the failure to elect a president after repeat attempts in May and June 2009. The repeat parliamentary elections held in July as called for by the constitution increased support for a new anti-communist coalition, the Alliance for European Integration (AEI), but left the Communists with sufficient seatsin parliament to block election of a President. According to the Constitution repeat elections could not be held again within a year, so AEI leaders employed the device of appointing one of their number, Liberal Party leader Mihia Ghimpu, Acting President until new parliamentary elections could be held. They then called a referendum designed to return the country to direct presidential elections. This measure, held in September 2010 gained nearly 90% support from those who participated, but did not achieve the 33% turnout required to alter the Constitution. On the failure of the referendum Moldova’s Constitutional Court called for Parliament to be dissolved. New legislative elections were held in November 2010, again without producing a majority sufficient to either elect a President or alter the Constitution from within the legislature. Once again, resort was made to the expedient of naming an acting-president, in this case Democratic Party (PD) leader Marian Lupu, while efforts were made to resolve the impasse before another round of early legislative elections would be required. Finally, after an abortive effort in Parliament to elect Lupu President on December 16, 2011, and under the pressure of a looming third set of early parliamentary elections, AEI party leaders with the support of defectors from the communists managed to elect President Timofti with 62 votes in March 2012.

Regularly scheduled parliamentary elections in November of last year left parliament once again in a state of disarray, with the former governing AEI coalition parties (Liberal Democrats (PLDM), Liberal Party and the Democratic Party) deeply divided and without sufficient votes to elect a President. When coalition negotiations between the former partners broke down a short-lived minority government which depended on parliamentary support from Voronin’s Communists was formed by the PLDM and the Democratic Party. That government, headed by Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici, collapsed this June amidst charges of massive corruption by political leaders and the failure of the Moldovan Banking System.

On July 23nd the previous pro-European AEI parties signed an agreement to resume their coalition based on a common program and a new division of ministerial and government posts. At the same time they agreed to reform the presidential electoral system in order to avoid the recurrent crises that have plagued the country’s politics as presidential elections approach in 2016. According to the new system, which will be submitted as a referendum, the President will continue to be elected by the Parliament, but in a new three round procedure. In the first round 61 votes would be required as at present. If no candidate succeeds a second vote will be held in which 57 votes will be required. If that vote fails, a simple majority of 51 will be needed to elect the President. Since the pro-European parties currently control 55 seats, they should in principle be able to successfully elect a common candidate.

The largest parliamentary party, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), immediately rejected the measure, calling for direct popular election to the post. This position was formerly held by the Reform Liberal Party (splinter faction of the PL) and Liberal Democratic Party leaders, who attempted last year o introduce a referendum for direct presidential election that would have been held in tandem with parliamentary elections, They were denied the right to do so by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that insufficient time was provided between introduction of the measure and the vote.

Will the measure pass? While indications are that the majority of the population would prefer direct presidential election, it is clear that the dominant party leaders are unwilling to allow control of the presidency to slip from their hands at this point. Neither, though, do they wish to continue on in the current state of perpetual crisis. The majority legislative vote proposal at least holds out for them the possibility for resolving the problem. It will in all likelihood be supported by Moldovan voters, if they are given no other choice.

William E. Crowther

Gary Murphy – Referendum on the minimum age of the President of Ireland

This is a guest post by Professor Gary Murphy of the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland

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The decision by the Irish people to overwhelmingly endorse same-sex marriage in the referendum on 22 May 2015 generated headlines all across the world and induced extraordinary scenes of celebration rarely seen in democracies after popular votes whether at general elections or referendums. As the first country to introduce same sex marriage by dint of popular vote in a referendum that meant so much to so many, Ireland took a decision after a robust debate where both political parties and civil society groups ran vigorous campaigns. The result was a citizenry which took an informed vote.

If only the same could be said for the other referendum. How the Irish people ended up voting to change the age of eligibility for running for president from 35 to 21 will go down in history as one of the great mysteries of Irish politics. And yet when in future years those assessing this referendum analyse it, they will note that the turnout at 60.51 per cent was extremely high for referendums; the eleventh highest of the thirty five referendums that have taken place since the constitution was introduced in 1937. There is one simple answer for this high turnout and that is that it was held in conjunction with same-sex marriage referendum which itself had a turnout of 60.52 per cent. 1,949,725 voted in the same-sex marriage referendum and 1,949,438 people voted in the presidential age referendum. High turnout, however, should not be mistaken for high interest.

Changing the constitution in any democracy is a serious business and theoretically speaking the Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour went through a very deliberative process before deciding to propose that the Irish Constitution be amended. The reality is completely different.

The proposal to reduce the age of eligibility for President from 35 to 21 was one of 19 recommendations that came from the Constitutional Convention. This convention was charged by the government with considering a variety of aspects of the constitution to ensure that it best reflected Ireland in the twenty first century and with making recommendations to the Oireachtas on future amendments to be put to the people in referendums.

The convention was an initiative of the government whereby in 2012 it established a decision-making forum of 100 people, made up of 66 citizens, randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, and the independent chairman. It heard evidence from a range of experts and engaged in serious debate on nine specific issues mandated by the government. None of these included the age of eligibility for president, although the convention did also have the power to debate other potential constitutional amendments. On the presidency the convention was asked to initially discuss whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five. It ultimately decided to reject such a view by 57 votes to 43. It also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a one-term presidency, but it did substantially endorse a proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates.

Currently the situation whereby candidates can get on to the presidential ballot is rather byzantine and is dominated by the political parties. A candidate must either get the backing of twenty member of the Oireachtas, which consists of 166 members of Dáil Eireann (the lower house) and 60 members of Seanad Eireann (the upper house), or four of the country’s 31 city and county councils. On the proposal that eventually found its way on to the ballot paper of reducing the age of eligibility from 35 to 21 the convention voted 50 to 47 to endorse such a position. Given the narrowness of this vote the question must be asked as to why the government then decided to put this question to the people above others which were overwhelmingly approved by the convention. For instance the government initially agreed to put the convention’s proposal that the voting age in general elections be reduced from 18 to 16 to a referendum in but later reversed this decision arguing that other referendums should take priority.

And these priorities seemingly included the referendum that even the constitutional convention itself was pretty much split on. Giving citizens who are resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections was one of the nine priorities suggested by Dáil Éireann when it approved the establishment of the constitutional convention to consider various reforms to the then seventy five year old document. But once the convention did indeed suggest that Irish citizens resident outside the state should be given the right to vote in presidential elections, it was reckoned by the government to be too radical and so instead it plumped for the rather innocuous proposal to reduce the eligibility age of the presidency.

In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. In that context reducing the age of eligibility was deemed by the government as being the perfect referendum accompaniment to the controversial same-sex marriage proposal; a safe proposal dressed up as a significant reform where the government could frame the change in the constitution as being indicative of inclusion and equality for a younger generation. Thus the proposal to amend the constitution, one of the gravest decisions a government can make, was decided upon by the Irish government who then decided not to bother campaigning on it.

The Tánaiste and leader of the Labour party, the junior partner in the coalition government, Joan Burton suggested during what campaign there actually was that the referendum was the result of a recommendation from the constitutional convention which had delivered its final report in March 2014. This of course was not only incorrect but also highly misleading. It was the government which decided to have this referendum. The Labour party then took the even more bizarre decision to declare it was staying neutral on the issue and would not campaign on it which was to in effect treat the constitution with disdain and contempt.

The major coalition party Fine Gael ran a campaign so desultory that it can hardly even be described as that and none of the opposition parties did anything beyond make the most rudimentary appeals to their supporters to vote yes. Ultimately the only real campaigning on a government proposal to amend the constitution was done by a number of youth advocacy groups. There was no real organised opposition to the proposal. A number of individuals were vocal on the issue but taking to Twitter to complain about the paucity of the campaign as a whole, one ‘no’ advocate, the public affairs consultant Gerard Howlin, was forced into asking whether only he and two others could be bothered to advocate a ‘no’ vote. One of those two others was my Dublin City University colleague Prof Colum Kenny who enthusiastically campaigned for a ‘no’ vote issuing no fewer than 37 press releases to the media and making numerous appearances in the print and broadcast media. And yet despite the individual nature of the ‘no’ campaign the proposed amendment was defeated by 73.06 per cent to 26.94 per cent with all 43 geographical constituencies voting no; the largest defeat for a referendum proposal since the constitution was introduced in 1937.

Writing just a day after the results were declared it is difficult to offer anything but the considered view that the reason 1,412,602 people voted against the proposal was simply because no convincing case was made that they should change their constitution. The Irish people are on the whole quite protective of their constitution. They are not opposed to changing it and doing so quite dramatically as in the same-sex marriage vote. They do need persuading, however, that it needs changing. Since 2002 they have twice rejected European treaties and in 2013 they rejected a populist proposal to abolish the second Oireachtas chamber, the Seanad, when the government again failed to make the case that it was necessary. On the same day that the Irish gave an overwhelming yes to same-sex marriage they also reminded their government that they know that changing the constitution is an important matter. It is something their government certainly needs reminding of.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University where he has worked for the past two decades. He has published extensively on the politics of modern Ireland. His latest book, a major reinterpretation of modern Ireland, entitled A brief history of continuity: Ireland since 1987 will be published by Manchester University Press later this year. He is a prominent contributor to political debates in Ireland in the print and broadcast media.

Latin America – Corruption and the Executive Office II

I have written before about the relationship between corruption and the executive office in Latin America. Across the region, presidents have often been accused and impeached for corruption while occupying the executive office. For example, this year alone, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In April in El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court in June to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

Explanations for the persistence of corruption in the presidential office in Latin America range from history and the evolution of a permissive political culture across the region to the combination of PR electoral systems and presidentialism.[1] Latin American executives often need to deal with uncooperative legislatures and so at times, corruption can appeal as the easiest way for the executive to pursue their agenda. The prototypical example of this dynamic can be found in the Mensalão scandal in Brazil.

Given this level of corruption in the highest political office, it is no surprise that many Latin American countries languish in the bottom half of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index.

Now, two new cases of alleged corruption, which are related to the executive office in Latin America, have come to light. The first of these involves the embattled president of Mexico, Enrqiue Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto was already facing huge political pressure over the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala. Now, his wife and former soap star, Angélica Rivera, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In November, Higa, as part of a larger consortium, was awarded a US$4 billion contract to construct a high-speed rail project. It has now emerged that Rivera purchased her house form a unit of Higa, and she has yet to hand over a sizable portion of the asking price. Higa still hold the deeds to the house. As a recent news story succinctly put it: “So the first lady’s mansion is owned by a construction company that has bid successfully for government contracts.” The government has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. The story is not going away however. On Friday, the Mexican Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray, was implicated in a similar house buying scandal.

The other scandal is even larger. Petrobras, the Brazilian state energy behemoth, was allegedly used in an elaborate kick-back scheme, where money from inflated contracts was channeled back to the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Thirty-five people, including top executives from Petrobras, have already been charged, and this schandal could have long-lasting and wide-ranging implications for the PT and president Dilma Rousseff. Currently, despite the efforts of the opposition, Dilma has remained above the scandal. She denies any knowledge of the kickback scheme, just as Lula did during the Mensalão scandal. It is expected that this story  will only get bigger.

One thing is for sure however. Corruption in the presidential office in Latin America remains a serious problem.

[1] For example, see For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

Taiwan – Party-nomination, Local Elections, and the Presidency

With a highly unpopular President at the helm of the country, the prospects for the opposition pan-Green camp led by the opposition DPP party to recapture the presidency with a concurrent a legislative majority – the latter has proven elusive so far for the pan-Green camp – appear probable. The KMT captured the Presidency and a significant majority in the legislature in 2008, raising concerns that the formidable largesse of the party may pave the way to a one-party dominant system. Fortunately for the country’s political development, those concerns proved unfounded: there has been a steady move back to viable competitive elections, although the KMT managed to retain the presidency and the legislative majority in the 2012 elections. But the progressive erosion of popular support for the KMT and President Ma has not ebbed, as evident in the low points of 2014 captured by the 24-day student-led occupation of the legislature and campaigns initiated to recall legislative members supportive of President Ma’s agenda.

Under these conditions, it is probably not surprising that many see – or hope to see – the 2014 November local elections as the bellwether for the 2016 national elections. In this context, the DPP and pan-Green camp has sought to identify and field viable candidates for the local elections to capture a victory-sprint towards the presidential and national races. In a recent development, physician Ko Wen-je bettered DPP-candidate Pasuya Yao in the second stage of the pan-Green primary process for the Taipei city mayoral race and will likely be supported by the DPP for the election.

Interesting or competitive or controversial cases tend to draw attention, and a highly-watched race such as the Taipei mayoral elections is no exception. Unfortunately, problems are particularly evident under scrutiny, and the usual suspects of strategic voting or weak-party identification pepper the two-stage nomination process in the pan-Green camp. As a result, it may be useful to point out a larger picture of transparency or accountability in the party nomination process.

Since the late 1990s, the DPP has implemented a two-stage primary process that pitches DPP-aspirants who win in telephone polls in the first-stage against independent pan-Green candidates in the second-stage. While that process has been criticized – most recently, former Vice-President Annette Lu withdrew from the primary, citing failure of DPP “integrity” and raising the prospects that she may run as an independent for the mayoral race of Taipei City – it has, at a minimum, brought greater transparency to the nomination process in the pan-Green camp.

Transparency is important: party-candidate nominations have come under significant criticism in several East and Southeast Asian emergent democracies, including South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia, with many viewing the process as the root of corruption in politics. Given the tepid party-identification in these emergent democracies, party-institutionalization needs to balance candidate-centered campaigns that bring popular support – but which are liable to become personality-oriented rather than party-oriented – with party-building efforts that focus on broadening the party-base. Having a clean nomination process is an important step in this process, and should be emphasized as one of these party-building efforts.

Corruption and the Executive Office in Latin America

The Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, has appeared in court this week in order to respond to allegations of corruption. Vice-President Boudou, during the period when he was Minister of the Economy (2009-2011), is accused of helping to illegally halt bankruptcy proceedings by Argentina’s tax bureau against the company Ciccone. For this service, Federal Judge Ariel Lijo claims that the management of Ciccone was pressured into handing over a 70 per cent stake in the firm to business associates of Boudou. At the time, Ciccone had a lucrative government contract to print pesos and Boudou is accused of taking control of the company for a bargain basement price via a shell company, while benefitting from numerous tax exemptions. His president, Cristina Fernández, already under pressure over spiraling inflation, has refused to comment, while the Vice-President has strenuously denied all wrongdoing.

Regardless of the outcome of this particular case, it does provide me with an opportunity to reflect on a problem that seems particularly prevalent in Latin America: corruption in the executive office. Repeatedly, across the region, politicians in Latin America have been accused, and often indicted and impeached, for corruption and graft while occupying the very highest political offices of the state.

Only last month, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In April in El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Not to mention the case of Luis González Macchi in Paraguay or Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Indeed, given this level of corruption in the highest political office, it is no surprise that many Latin American countries languish in the bottom half of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index.

But do we have any explanations for why we witness persistent corruption in the executive office across Latin America? Some suggest the root cause lies in history and the evolution of a permissive political culture across the region.[1] Others suggest the explanation can be found in the design of Latin American political institutions.[2] Specifically, it is Latin America’s combination of PR electoral systems and presidentialism, which gives rise to corruption. Latin American executives often need to deal with uncooperative legislatures and so at times, corruption can appeal as the easiest way for the executive to pursue their agenda. The prototypical example of this dynamic can be found in the Mensalão scandal in Brazil.

Of course, while this type of graft is quite probably a problem in many other regions of the world, what makes the Latin American case particularly interesting is the often very public judicial and legislative battles to bring this wrongdoing to heel. One thing is for certain. These public exposés of corruption in Latin American presidencies will most likely increase the demand, and space available, for radical outsider populist candidates. But as Kurt Weyland has argued, it is often these types of outsider populist presidencies where the executive is most forced to engage in corrupt practices.[3] Vicious cycle?

[1] For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] See Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

[3] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.