Tag Archives: presidential election

Kenya – President Kenyatta seeks to legitimate his rule

President Uhuru Kenyatta has won two elections this year, but is still struggling to prove his legitimacy.

In the first election, contested on 8 August, he received 54% of the vote according to the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). However, that result was later nullified by the Supreme Court on the basis of significant procedural failures, necessitating a “fresh” election within 60 days.

In that contest, fought on 26 October, Kenyatta won again, this time securing over 98% of the vote. But despite securing a landslide victory, his political authority has once again been brought into question.

The reason for Kenyatta’s vast majority was that his main rival, Raila Odinga, pulled out of the contest in advance. While Odinga’s name remained on the ballot paper, the opposition leader asked his supporters to stay at home, arguing that the election had no prospect of being more free and fair than the first.

Although some criticised Odinga for bringing a petition to the Supreme Court demanding a fresh election and then failing to contest it, this strategy was largely successful: supporters of his National Super Alliance (NASA) largely stayed at home, resulting in a significantly lower turnout of 39%, less than half that of the first poll (80%). In a small number of places, most notably in Odinga’s Nyanza heartlands, protests by opposition supporters prevented polling stations from being opened at all.

Odinga’s complaints were dismissed by government leaders who alleged that his decision not to contest was a desperate attempt to save face, motivated by the knowledge that he was destined for defeat. This was backed up by a number of defections of his former allies to the ruling party, including Odinga’s point-person in the vote rich Rift Valley region, Isaac Ruto.

However, the opposition’s concerns were leant credibility by the decision of one of the IEBC Commissioners, Roselyn Akombe, to resign citing a lack of progress towards improving the electoral process. Having fled to the United States, Akome gave a series of interviews in which she argued that the political context in Kenya would not allow for a credible poll.

These statements were then followed by a worrying press conference held by the Chair of the Commission, Wafula Chebukati, who admitted that political interference within the IEBC had blocked a number of important reforms. In the days that followed, rumours spread that Chebukati was about to resign, making it impossible to hold the poll.

In the event, this did not happen, but the damage to the credibility of the Commission had been done.

Because the election of 26 October did not take place in all in all 290 constituencies – as required by the constitution – and as a result of the serious doubts about the competence and neutrality of the IEBC, Kenyatta’s victory has already been called into question by the opposition. And while Odinga has said they he will not be bringing another petition – arguing that the whole process has lost credibility – others already have.

Consequently, Kenya is heading back to the Supreme Court.

Thus, a president who has won two elections, one with a 98% majority, feels forced to defend himself. Most notably, Kenyatta used his acceptance speech to justify his position by reinterpreting the Supreme Court’s judgement to suit his own interests, arguing that:

“The Court did not Challenge my overwhelming mandate of 54%. The numbers were NEVER questioned. What the Court questioned was the process of declaring my victory. And because the court did not question my victory, they by extension, validated my 54% numbers. This was a Political Paradox.”

He also went to great lengths to depict voter turn out on 26 October as a demonstration of his popularity, rather than as a reason to question his legitimacy. Ignoring the drop off in political participation in many parts of the country, the president stated that:

“Here is the truth as recorded in our books. On August 8th, 15million Kenyans came out to vote. Of these 8.4 million Kenyans voted for me [The number is actually 8.2 million]. On October 26th, 90% of the same voters came out to support my Bid.”

These claims will resonate with Kenyatta’s supporters, but are likely to fall on deaf ears in opposition areas. For their part, the Courts now face another difficult decision. It is clear now that nullifying the result of the vote on 8 August did little to resolve the country’s political crisis; but it will be hard to make the argument that the “repeat” election represented a significant improvement than the first.

Anna Fruhstorfer – The presidential election in Slovenia

The question of “will he need a runoff vote” was at the center of most news outlets’ attention prior to the presidential election in Slovenia in October 2017. He, the incumbent Borut Pahor, has been president since 2012 and was campaigning for re-election. Various polls suggested that he would already win the necessary absolute majority in the first round of the election. But Pahor fell short and won ‘only’ 47.1 percent with a low voter turnout of 43.5 percent. This now makes a second round of presidential elections in November necessary and thus gives his strongest contester Marjan Šarec a new chance to succeed. This election provides also “a large scale public opinion poll as well as a prequel to the parliamentary elections” (Bitenc 2017) – considering the results – a bleak outlook for the government. This post will focus on the two main candidates and their campaigns, describe the election results and discuss the chances for the two candidates to become the president in the run-off ballot.

During the first round of the presidential election a total of nine candidates ran for the office of Slovenian President (State Election Commission 2017). Presidential candidates are put forward by National Assembly deputies, political parties and the electorate. More precisely, according to the provisions of the Election Law of Slovenia, a candidate is required to fulfill at least one of the following requirements to be able to run: the support of either ten deputies; the support of at least one political party and three members of parliament (or the signatures of 3000 votes); or the signatures of 5000 voters (State Election Commission 2017). Most of the nine candidates were backed by parliamentary parties, among them Romana Tomc by the conservatives and Ljudmila Novak by the New Slovenia Christian-Democrats (Zerdin 2017).

Throughout the campaign the incumbent Borut Pahor and Marjan Šarec, the mayor of Kamnik (a town north of Ljubljana) were the two main contestants. Both candidates label themselves as more or less anti-parliamentary/establishment party politicians. This is a characterization that is particularly misleading for Borut Pahor. Already during the 2012 presidential campaign Pahor ran on an anti-establishment party platform, although he used to head the Slovenian government (until only a few months before the presidential election in 2012) and was chairman of the Social Democrats. During the 2017 campaign he ran again as independent and for example used the campaign to walk 700 km throughout Slovenia in an attempt to get to know local people (Novak 2017).

Marjan Šarec, who won 25% of votes during the first round, ran on the so-called List of Marjan Šarec. Both during the campaign but also now heading towards the runoff vote, Šarec pledged to provide change and to nominate a new generation of people for official posts. He also criticized Pahor for being rather a celebrity than a statesman (news outlets describe Pahor as instragram president due to his avid use of the application). This campaign issues have to be described within the context of the constitutional provisions concerning the Slovenian President. The 1991 constitution provides only a limited amount of constitutional power to the president. But presidents have established a – at times – powerful role in politics and are expected to fulfill a role of a non-partisan leader. As described in an earlier blog post, the Slovenian President is directly elected with an absolute majority in the first round (Art. 103). Slovenian Presidents do not participate in cabinet meetings, they hardly have any competences for times of crisis, yet a countersignature – e.g. by the prime minister – is not stipulated in the constitution. Without competences in the legislative process (no legislative veto and no legislative initiative; Art. 91 and 88), the president gains power mainly through the nomination and appointment procedure for the prime minister. In addition, “[…] in Slovenia the presidency depends very much on the charisma, political style and ambitions of the person holding the office” (Krašovev and Lajh 2008, 217; see also Cerar 1999). Thus, Slovenia has provided us with both restrained but also very active presidential leadership. Despite some instances that Borut Pahor is a representative of the latter type, with the end of his first term as president, it is safe to say that he was most of the times restrained and not involved in decisive political decisions. In the second round, Pahor is certainly the favorite, but the runoff will attract voters from different backgrounds for Šarec and he might be in for a surprise. It will not be unusual for the incumbent to serve only one term, Danilo Türk was the incumbent in 2012 and lost against Pahor in the runoff vote, and Janez Drnovšek decided to not run for a second term in 2007.

Literature

Bitenc, Aljaž Pengov (2017): A Preliminary Guide to Slovenia’s Presidential Elections, in: http://balkanist.net/a-preliminary-guide-to-slovenias-presidential-elections/

Cerar, Miro. 1999. “Slovenia.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 232–59.
Krašovec, Alenka, and Damjan Lajh. 2008. “Semi-presidentialism in Slovenia.” In Elgie and Moestrup, Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe, 201–18.

Lukšič, Igor. 2010. “Das politische System Sloweniens.” In Die politischen Systeme Osteuropas, edited by Wolfgang Ismayr, 729-772.

Novak, Marja (2017): Polls open as Slovenian president runs for his second mandate,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-slovenia-election/polls-open-as-slovenian-president-runs-for-his-second-mandate-idUSKBN1CR05R?il=0

State Election Commission (2017): http://www.dvk-rs.si/index.php/en/where-and-how-to-vote/the-electoral-system-in-slovenia

Zerdin, Ali (2017): Slovenia’s president wins most votes, but faces runoff, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/slovenians-choose-president-as-pahor-seeks-re-election/2017/10/22/c92d384c-b6f8-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.d460494591ba

Eugene K B Tan – Singapore’s First Reserved Presidential Election: More Haste, Less Speed, and A Missed Opportunity?

This is guest post by Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He served as an unelected lawmaker between 2012 and 2014 in Singapore’s 12th Parliament.

After much hype and anticipation that preceded it, Singapore’s sixth presidential election in September 2017 quickly reached an anti-climatic end when the Presidential Elections Committee in pre-qualifying three presidential hopefuls determined that only one person, Madam Halimah Yacob, was eligible to contest.

Madam Halimah Yacob, who was Speaker of Singapore’s Parliament between 2013 and August 2017, made history by becoming Singapore’s first-ever woman President. She is also Singapore’s first ethnic Malay President in 47 years since Yusof Ishak (1965-1970), and will hold office for a six-year term until 13 September 2023.

The 2017 election was the third time (after 1999 and 2005) that the presidential election was uncontested since 1993. Earlier, in 1991, the presidency was converted from a ceremonial appointment to a popularly elected one.

This year’s presidential election was unique. Prior to the election, the government had embarked on the most significant re-engineering to Singapore’s constitutional architecture since the introduction of the Elected Presidency (EP) in 1991. In the 1991 constitutional changes, the head of state became a popularly elected office.

The EP institution was born out of the fears of a popularly elected ‘rogue government’ that could send Singapore down the road to ruin and perdition through populist measures that are financially unsustainable and the corrupt appointments of cronies to key leadership positions. However, the EP does not, in any way, detract from the fact that executive power and responsibility resides with the Cabinet. Singapore remains fundamentally a parliamentary system of government.

Under the Singapore Constitution, the EP is not a separate, countervailing power to the elected government. The EP’s role has been likened to a ‘second key,’ a watchdog, and a custodian. Through his custodial powers, the EP provides an additional layer of checks and balances, an “intra-branch” check on the Cabinet, which did not exist prior to 1991, in specifically defined critical areas including the drawdown of past national reserves, key appointments in the Public Service, corruption investigations, preventive detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act, and restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

To enable the president to stand up to the popularly elected government, the constitutional designers in 1991 decided that the head of state should possess the requisite authority and legitimacy through a popular mandate obtained in a presidential election.

Where the EP institution did not fare as well as its predecessor was for the office to be rotated among the different races. Prior to 1991, Singapore had consciously sought to rotate the presidency among the different races. For example, the successors to Yusof Ishak (Malay) were Benjamin Sheares (Eurasian), Devan Nair (Indian), and Wee Kim Wee (Chinese). With the introduction of elections for the presidency, no Malay had been elected in the four elections between 1993 and 2017.

The constitutional review process on the EP began in February 2016 with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointing a high-powered, nine-member Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to work on three tightly scripted terms of reference. They sought to update the eligibility requirements for presidential hopefuls, as well as the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, including whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisors can be given more weight – and if so, how. The Commission was also asked to consider including a mechanism to ensure minorities have a chance to be elected as President.

The Commission, only the second in independent Singapore’s 52-year history, invited submissions from the public on specific aspects of the EP. It received more than 100 written submissions. Of these, 20 contributors were invited to expand on their submissions at four public hearings in April and May 2016. The Commission completed its work in August 2016 and its report was publicly released in early September 2016.

The Government followed up with a White Paper on 15 September 2016 outlining its agreement with many of the Commission’s recommendations but also noting some of the differences in implementation and ideas.

A critical proposal it made was to have “reserved elections”, to pre-emptively manage the potential issue of race marginalisation and the need to have a person from every major race for the head of state office. The Commission recommended a “hiatus-triggered” mechanism in which a reserved election is activated only after there has not been a president from a major racial community for five continual terms, or 30 years. Clearly, the Commission viewed the reserved election as an inter-generational safeguard for minority representation.

Besides providing for reserved elections, the amendments to the Constitution made in November 2016 also raised eligibility thresholds for candidates from the private sector to qualify to run for the presidency. Such candidates must be the most senior executive with executive control and being accountable for the entity they run. Such an entity must be at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, and the candidates must have a track record of running these entities well.

Second, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) was strengthened. The unelected CPA advises the President on matters pertaining to the exercise of the custodial powers, such as whether the government’s budget would draw on Singapore’s fiscal reserves not accumulated by the government of the day, and key appointments in the Public Service. This constitutional duty to consult the CPA applies to these decisions.

The President can exercise his discretion to veto the budget but if he does so against the advice of the CPA, then Parliament can vote to overrule the President. The November 2016 constitutional amendment increased the number of CPA members from six to eight.

In making consequential legislative amendments in February 2017, the government also announced that the 2017 presidential election would be a reserved election for the Malay community as the hiatus-triggered model came into play. (Whether the 2017 election ought to be a reserved election was the subject of an unsuccessful constitutional challenge.)

Historical Significance Overshadowed

Unfortunately, the historic significance of Madam Halimah’s election was overshadowed by the unhappiness among large segments of Singaporeans.  The public unhappiness cohered around two factors: (1) That the presidential election was uncontested, and (2) the apparent affirmative action provided for in a reserved election runs contrary to meritocracy, a key tenet of the Singaporean society which is almost sacrosanct for public office.

On the unhappiness over the uncontested election, the perception was that the enhanced eligibility criteria were unfair and sought to restrict the pool of eligible candidates to establishment figures and so strengthening the ability of the powers that be in ensuring that their preferred candidate would have a significant electoral advantage.

As for the apparent unhappiness over reserved election, this was not because Singaporeans did not appreciate that the presidency symbolised and embodied the nation itself and was a symbol of national unity. There is no doubt that having a minority President, elected by popular mandate, is a powerful statement of a thriving multiracialism in a polyglot society, where the ethnic Chinese comprise 75 per cent of the citizen population and the ethnic Malay is constitutionally recognised as the indigenous people and accorded a special position within the constitutionally setup.

Rather, Singaporeans were not persuaded that they could not see past a candidate’s race in deciding who to cast their ballot for. Again, the reserved election was seen as excluding candidates who might otherwise be eligible if it were an open election.

To be sure, the reserved election proposal was never popular right from the outset. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the reserved election “would be unpopular and cost us votes”.[1] For the government, their premise was that Singapore has “not arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race” even where progress have been made “but it is a work in progress”. He added that Singaporeans “should not be shy to acknowledge that in Singapore, the majority is making a special effort to ensure that minorities enjoy full and equal treatment”. The reserved election, in ensuring that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President, would also strengthen multiracialism: “[I]t is one important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspires to be. It is a reminder to every citizen, especially the Chinese majority race, that there is a role for every community in Singapore”.

However, there was the concern that the reserved election was an unfair indictment of nation-building efforts and the strength of the Singaporean-Singapore identity. Furthermore, there was also concern that the reserved election could transmogrify into a vehicle for affirmative action. A race-based election can give rise to the belief that a racial community has a legal right for one of its own to be elected president. Will there be subsequent expectations that other public offices be rotated among the races? If all races must have a chance to be elected head of state, would it also be setting a precedent for the other important public office such as the Prime Minister?

The concern with the erosion of the centrality of meritocracy was palpable. The Commission emphasised that candidates in a reserved election will have to meet the stringent eligibility criteria, similar to an open election. However, as a reserved election is not open to hopefuls from other races, a legitimate argument can be made that the meritocratic principle is not exercised in its full measure.

Furthermore, the reserved election approach also presupposes that only a minority race President can be a symbol of Singapore’s much-vaunted multiracialism. Indeed, it is not race or the colour of their skin that automatically endowed previous presidents as symbols of Singapore’s multiracialism. Rather, it was their practice and promotion of multiracialism that infused into the institution of the presidency the spirit and soul of multiracialism.

A reserved election might just reinforce the alleged tendency of Singaporeans to vote along racial lines. Voters might see that there is no necessity or urgency to vote for an electable minority candidate since the system will provide for a minority president in regular intervals if one is not elected.

Put simply, Singaporeans remained sceptical that they will compromise their own best interests and elect someone who is not deserving simply because they are of the same race. On the other hand, the government was of the view that multiracialism in Singapore needed the nudge of reserved election.

In essence, both sides of the debate saw the value and the power of electoral integration and how it could aid in the nation-building endeavour. The apparent chasm pivoted on whether integration should be allowed to develop organically or whether there should be deliberate effort at constitutional engineering. It probably boiled down to how the presidency can be safeguarded as a true symbol of Singapore’s national unity and to keep her multiracialism sustainable.

The above discussion does not at all deny that race, religion, and language remain fault-lines in Singaporean society. Neither do the above arguments under-estimate that these markers of ethnicity can induce and arouse primordial loyalties. Nevertheless, no amount of constitutional engineering can remove a racial or even a racist mindset and disposition in electoral behaviour.

Instead, the key questions that should arise from yet another uncontested presidential election is whether the reserved election mechanism would nudge and provide “incentives” for candidates and the electorate to think of how their electoral behaviour and their votes can entrench multiracialism and for their self-interest.

Singapore’s constant efforts at constitutional engineering suggest that in institutional design or re-design, process and procedures are not mere contingent tools or instruments by which the invaluable end of a more robust system of governance is realised. The process and procedures must be regarded and treated as necessary components of any system of governance.

How Singapore went about effecting the latest set of changes to selected aspects of the elected Presidency matters as much as the end result itself. Lessons will have to be learned as to why the ostensibly good intentions that formed the basis of the constitutional changes were not seen in similar light. It remains early days yet to determine whether values such as multiracialism, meritocracy, integrity, and the democratic mandate will be nurtured in the new constitutional framework.

The less than enthusiastic response to the no-contest outcome in September’s reserved presidential election suggest that ostensibly good intentions alone are inadequate as Singapore strives to create a system of governance that is robust, relevant, and resilient for the good and betterment of Singaporeans’ common destiny. Perhaps the process of engagement was inadequate.

In a one-party dominant system where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed uninterrupted since 1959, such significant constitutional changes are often perceived to be disguised attempts to maintain the political status quo and buttress the political hegemony of the regime. This is more so when the dominant impression was that of the government proceeding with undue haste especially when the system is not regarded to be broken. The process is as important as the final outcome, which in Singapore’s case is often seen as a foregone conclusion. This is a pity and could breed cynicism since the elected presidency, as the apex office in the city-state of 3.44 million citizens, can be a valuable safeguard in a system of government that has long taken pride in and become known for good governance, multiracialism, and meritocracy.

Notes

[1]  Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks at the People’s Association Kopi Talk at Ci Yuan Community Club, 23 September 2017. The title of his remarks was, “Race, Multiracialism and Singapore’s Place in the World”.

Nigeria – Will President Buhari seek a second term?

This is a post by Sa’eed Husaini

Nigeria’s next election is two years away which, based on the usual rhythms of Nigeria’s electoral cycle, might as well be tomorrow. President Buhari, who swept to power in 2015 following an unlikely opposition victory, just reached the mid-way point of his four year tenure this past May. Yet an energetic slew of endorsements, counter-endorsements, and official declarations of intent by presidential hopefuls have already brought to the fore the question of whether or not Buhari will seek to retain his seat in 2019.

Of course, the fact that Buhari’s second term ambition still remains a matter of speculation rather than a forgone conclusion is itself noteworthy in a broader regional context wherein assuming that incumbents will hold on to power has too frequently been the surest bet.

Closer to home however, Buhari is in a sense a victim of his own success, insofar as his historic victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan affirmed that a second term is no longer effectively a birthright for Nigerian presidents. Moreover, an ambitious and well-heeled crop of would-be successors are already making thinly veiled bids for the presidency meaning that Buhari will have to put up a serious fight if he will retain his tenancy in Aso Villa—Nigeria’s presidential palace—after 2019. Given these factors, what are some important considerations that might shape the president’s decision to either throw in the towel, or toss a hat in the ring?

Why he might run

Continuing to carry out what has largely been a personality-driven agenda will likely be Buhari’s key motivation for seeking to hold on to his seat. The security threat posed by Boko Haram and a fight against corruption have topped the president’s list of priorities during his past two years in office. Indeed Buhari’s background as an army general and a reputation cemented during his brief stint as military head of state for cracking down on corrupt officials were some of the bases for his popularity during his campaign.

Yet in government, much like in his campaign, Buhari’s strong personality, rather than wider institutional efforts, have been the ultimate base of his government’s agenda. Critics of the government’s anti-corruption fight in particular have pointed to its slow pace and unimpressive number of convictions it has scored as evidence of the president’s micro-managerial approach.

A promised clean up of Nigeria’s oil ministry—to which Buhari appointed himself as head—have also recently come under question, as two senior petroleum officials traded allegations of corruption on the front pages of national news. Buhari’s famous disdain for ‘Abuja politics’—or the regular dealings of Nigeria’s political class—has been at the heart of this close to the chest approach and might also imply a desire to personally see to the completion of his agenda, rather than to leave it in the hands of a successor.

Despite the setbacks, Buhari’s popularity, particularly within his core base in Northern Nigeria, is a second important reason why the president might still see a second-term bid as distinctly viable. To his base, built up across his four bids for the presidency, Buhari has represented the moral alternative to the corruption of mainstream Nigerian politics, a view which has been sustained (perhaps even been affirmed) amidst the difficulties his government has faced in navigating the treachery of high politics while in office. Firm affirmations and endorsements from across the North seem to suggest that, despite the stiffness of the mounting competition, he is still the man to beat in this region of the country.

Why he might not run

There are also a number of formidable hurdles that could dissuade Buhari against a possible second term.

Chief among these has been repeated health crises which have resulted in several extended medical absences during his presidency. This year, the president has spent more time in the U.K., where he has received medical treatment, than in Nigeria. Given his age of 74, these health challenges have been of particular concern.

The secrecy of the presidency about the exact nature of his illness strongly suggests a desire not to foreclose the possibility of a second term bid. Yet it also seems likely that audible doubts raised about his capacity to govern given his illness and advancing age will be a major consideration in deliberations about his political future.

Beyond the personal challenges, a Buhari second term bid also faces considerable political headwinds. Notwithstanding his popularity in the north, Buhari’s victory in the 2015 would not have been possible had he not joined a coalition with other regionally dominant political figures, including former governor of Lagos and southwestern political titan Bola Tinubu. This alliance, which is at the heart of Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC) party, has at various points during the presidency appeared to teeter at the verge of collapse. The party’s internal disfunction was brought home in 2016 when First Lady Aisha Buhari, in a publicly aired interview, criticized the president for failing to accommodate the interests of important members of the coalition and, significantly, threatened not to support her husband’s re-election in 2019. More recently, the President’s Women Affairs minister also publicly declared that she would support Atiku Abubaker, another major member of the APC coalition, over Buhari in a 2019 race. It is highly likely that these deep fissures in the coalition which brought Buhari to power will also constitute a significant consideration in the presidents’ assessment of his electoral prospects and ultimate decision to either return or retire.

What is at stake

Ultimately Buhari’s decision in either direction will be the most important test the APC would have faced since the 2015 elections, as the response of the party’s major stakeholders—whether to support or oppose Buhari’s decision—will determine the party’s continued cohesion and future. Furthermore, the chances that the opposition People’s Democratic Party, can make significant inroads before the 2019 election will also crucially depend on the candidate whom the APC selects as its frontrunner. The wider impact of a Buhari re-election bid for Nigeria more generally is also worth considering: a president walking away from a second-term ticket could signal that Nigeria’s democracy has matured to the extent that leaders see the best interest of the country as more important than personal ambition. How Buhari will ultimately decide still remains uncertain but what is clear is that his second term ambition is a matter that will certainly require some careful consideration.

Kyrgyzstan – A Setback for Democracy: The 2017 Presidential Election

Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan serves as a reminder that constitutional engineering can only go so far in furthering democracy. To inoculate Kyrgyzstan against the kinds of hyper-presidential regimes found in neighboring countries in Central Asia—and in Kyrgyzstan itself under President Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010)—the Constitution of 2010 transferred broad powers to the parliament and limited the president to a single six-year term. The first president directly elected under these new arrangements, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent weeks congratulated himself on adhering to the provisions of the Constitution, boasting that he had the political support to change the rules on term limits if he had wanted. However, the legacy of President Atambaev will be tarnished by his insistence on forcing on the country a successor whose election in the first round could not have occurred without the massive mobilization of the state apparatus and without Atambaev’s own campaign of innuendo and half-truths about the leading candidate of the opposition.

Preliminary results from 99 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s precincts show that Atambaev’s hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Zheenbekov, received almost 55 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov, captured just under 34 percent of the vote. Of the remaining 9 contenders in the race, some of whom were heavyweights in Kyrgyzstani politics, no one received over 6.5 percent of the vote. Almost three-quarters of one percent of the electorate chose the “vote against all” option on the ballot.

When Sooronbai Zheenbekov emerged in the late spring as Atambaev’s pick to represent the President’s party—the Social Democrats—in the presidential election in October, he seemed in many respects an unlikely figure to contest the presidency. Although he served as Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister from the spring of 2016 to the summer of 2017, he had not previously been in the leading rank of Kyrgyzstani politicians. A 58-year old official from the southern city of Osh whose wooden manner betrayed an early stint in the Communist Party apparatus, Zheenbekov’s energy level and demeanor contrasted sharply with the higher-octane favorite in the field, Omurbek Babanov, the charismatic 47-year old former prime minister and leader of the Republican Party. Where Zheenbekov had the support of the President and the machinery of state, Babanov was able to tap into his vast personal wealth to run an efficient, modern campaign that smothered the country’s physical and virtual space with the candidate’s image and, in the final days before balloting, sent individually addressed letters to voters.

In a country where regional and kinship ties can turn elections, Zheenbekov enjoyed a structural advantage over Babanov. He hailed from the largest region in the country, the southern province of Osh, whereas Babanov’s home was in the northern territory of Talas, Kyrgyzstan’s smallest region, one-fifth the size of Osh. Not surprisingly, it was in these two regions where voter turnout was highest. Whereas the national turnout approached 56 percent—the lowest on record for a presidential election, and well below the 61 percent participation rate in the previous presidential contest—over 68 and 61 percent of the voters turned out in the Osh and Talas regions, respectively. In a development that will surely raise doubts in the Babanov camp about the fairness of the count, the turnout rate in Talas declined by more than 20 percent compared to the 2011 presidential contest, while the participation rate in the Osh region increased by more than 15 percent. Given the very large numbers of migrant workers from the traditionally poorer southern regions who work in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, a turnout rate approaching 70 percent in the Osh region is unusually high.

Whatever the role of regionalism in voter behavior, that factor alone is unable to explain the success of Zheenbekov in Sunday’s election. For one, although individuals may come from a particular district or region, they surround themselves with political allies who are broadly dispersed across the country. In the case of Babanov, not only has his party traditionally enjoyed deep support in both the North and the South, but he concluded a pact less than three weeks before the election with a prominent candidate from the Jalal-Abad region in the South, Bakyt Torobaev, the leader of a parliamentary faction. The two men entered into a “tandem” that called for Babanov to appoint Torobaev prime minister if he won the presidency.
The Babanov-Torobaev “tandem” was but one of a number of pacts concluded in recent months that led to the withdrawal from the presidential race of prominent contenders for the presidency. This winnowing of the field through behind-the-scenes deal-making has become a standard feature of presidential races in Kyrgyzstan, and in this case it may well have helped Zheenbekov to win the contest in the first round. A larger field of veteran politicians, each with his or her own geographic and kinship networks, would have made it far more difficult for President Atambaev’s hand-picked successor to have achieved a first-round majority. As in previous contests, disqualifications based on the selective prosecution of prospective candidates and alleged violations of registration technicalities also narrowed the field of candidates considerably.

Assuming that the vote totals are accurate—and one official protocol from a southern precinct showing all 1369 votes for Zheenbekov raises serious doubts about that premise—the most compelling explanations for Zheenbekov’s first-round victory appear to lie in the campaign itself. State officials sympathetic to President Atambaev pursued a range of initiatives designed to tilt the scales in favor of Zheenbekov, from threats against government workers if they didn’t vote for Zheenbekov to en masse voting by teachers and university students, organized by the heads of state-related schools and higher education institutions. In a trip to the Batken region in the country’s South, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing the election was caught on tape telling local government personnel to vote for Zheenbekov or else. You mustn’t spit in the well you drink from, he warned them. For their part, leaders of the police and security services sought to convince the public that Babanov or those in his entourage were plotting to engage in violence to steal the election, accusations contained in leaked information from what should have been confidential interrogations. On election eve and election day, in several locations around the country the police brought in for questioning members of Babanov’s campaign team, which in some cases kept them from their duties as precinct observers.

In what may have been the most damaging blow to Babanov’s prospects, the Central Election Commission (CEC) heard a complaint in the final days of the campaign about a speech Babanov had given in the South to a group of Kyrgyzstani citizens of Uzbek ethnicity. The CEC concluded that Babanov’s comments violated campaign rules by “stirring up inter-ethnic enmity.” His offense: he told the ethnic Uzbeks that under his presidency, “if a policeman messes with (tronet) Uzbeks, he will be fired.” Although this complaint resulted in CEC’s third warning to Babanov, which could have disqualified him, it was the broad dissemination of portions of the speech, not just by the CEC but the Procuracy, which may well have undermined Babanov’s electoral prospects. In this case, President Atambaev’s team was engaging in what are called “dog whistles” in the United States, that is coded messages directed at nationalist voters among the ethnic Kyrgyz who have no interest in the state assuring equal treatment for ethnic Uzbeks.

President Atambaev and his political allies also exploited a meeting of Babanov with President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan to raise further questions about the candidate’s loyalty to the Kyrgyz nation. In a stunning reaction to the unexpected meeting of Nazarbaev and Babanov in Kazakhstan, Atambaev launched the harshest attack ever directed against a neighboring president by a Kyrgyzstani leader. The tirade enjoyed considerable popularity on social media in Kazakhstan, a country that is not used to seeing its long-serving leader subjected to criticism.

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We started this post by observing that a country’s institutional design is not a sufficient condition for democracy. Without leaders who are willing to lose and state officials who are willing to apply the laws dispassionately, elections will not ensure the accountability of a government to its people. But if there is a modicum of hope to be taken from Sunday’s presidential election in Kyrgyzstan, it is that the stakes of this election for the nation were not as high as in some earlier contests. The paring of the powers of the presidency—accomplished through the 2010 Constitution and amendments pushed through by Atambaev last year—mean that the prime minister’s office may at last emerge as the core executive institution in Kyrgyzstan’s peculiar and ever-changing form of semi-presidentialism. Other elements of the country’s institutional design encourage a multi-party system and coalition governments, which tend to create the kind of messy and inefficient governance that works against the consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual.

To what extent the departing president will remain in the political game as a force behind Zheenbekov and the prime minister will become clear when Atambaev leaves the presidency in December. When Zheenbekov resigned the post of premier to run for the presidency two months ago, Atambaev installed his 40-year old former chief-of-staff, Sapar Isakov, as the new prime minister, and Isakov then surrounded himself with youthful technocrats rather than politicians. This combination of a less than forceful President-Elect and an inexperienced prime minister would seem to prepare the ground for the continued involvement of ex-President Almazbek Atambaev at the apex of Kyrgyzstani politics.

Senegal – Implications of the July legislative election results for 2019

President Macky Sall’s coalition was the big winner of the July 30 legislative elections in Senegal, taking 125 of 165 seats in the country’s unicameral national assembly. This significant win was the result of a divided opposition, the country’s electoral system, and a determined campaign by the ruling coalition already eyeing the 2019 presidential poll where Sall will stand for reelection. “We aren’t talking any longer about July 30, but of 2019,” said Prime Minister Mahammad Boun Abdallah Dionne at a campaign rally in July.

Among Senegal’s 6.2 million voters, 54% turned out to vote, up from 37% in the 2012 legislative polls, a testament to the perceived higher stakes of these elections compared to five years ago. The campaign was tense, at times violent. Uncharacteristically for Senegal, administrative challenges marred the vote: delays in the distribution of biometric voter cards and confusion around voter lists prevented hundreds of Senegalese from casting their ballot.

The number of seats was this year increased to 165 from 150, to give room for 15 seats for the Senegalese diaspora that for the first time will have direct representation. The gender parity quota helped women win 42% of seats. The final results validated by the Constitutional Court after it threw out opposition electoral complaints are as follows:

Table. 1. Distribution of seats following July 30 legislative elections:

Coalitions/parties                                                                                                                            Seats

Benno Bokk Yaakaar – “Together for the same hope” (Pres. Sall) 125
Wattu Senegaal – “Winning Coalition” (former Pres. Wade)  19
Manko Taxawu Senegaal – “Accord to watch over Senegal” (Khalifa Sall)   7
Parti pour l’unité et le rassemblement (PUR) – (Prof. Issa Sall)   3
Kaddu Askanwi – “Patriotic Convergence Coalition” (Abdulaye Balde)   2
9 other parties/coalitions with 1 seat each   9
TOTAL 165

Source: IPU

Senegal’s electoral system, using a mix of party block vote (105 seats) and proportional representation (60 seats), greatly benefited the ruling coalition that won 75.8% of the seats with only 49.5% of the votes. This disproportionate win of seats was facilitated by the last minute weakening of the coalition around the mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall (no family relation to President Sall).

With former President Abdoulaye Wade returning to Senegal from France to head a separate opposition list – Wattu Senegaal – opposition votes split between two major coalitions, making it possible for the ruling Benno Book Yaakaar (BBY) coalition to win key constituencies, including Dakar, with just a relative majority of votes. Ironically, after being instrumental in hindering a wider opposition coalition, Wade is not going to take up his seat in parliament – he only ran to benefit his party.

The loss of Dakar was a particularly heavy blow for Khalifa Sall, the mayor of Dakar, currently awaiting trial for what his supporters say are trumped up fraud charges. They accuse President Sall of trying to sideline one of his potentially strongest competitors for the presidency in 2019 [see earlier blog post here]. Khalifa Sall campaigned successfully from his prison cell to win a seat in the new legislature, though his coalition overall fared poorly, winning less than 5% of seats.

Wade’s comeback likely reduced the overall number of seats going to the opposition, given the electoral system, but strengthened the relative position of his own party, the PDS (Parti Démocratique Sénégalais). Strengthening the PDS – which had 12 seats in the last legislature – is a means for former President Wade to “pave the way for his son” Karim Wade to run for the presidency in 2019, according to political analyst Ali Ndiaye. Karim, who was a powerful minister in his father’s government, was last year pardoned by President Macky Sall after serving half of a three-year prison sentence for corruption and has since been living abroad.

The legislative election victory was particularly significant for Macky Sall as the polls were widely seen as a referendum on his first five years in office and as the first round for the 2019 presidential election. While the win was noteworthy by most accounts, BBY nevertheless saw its majority slightly reduced in terms of percentage of seats – from 119/150 (79.3%) to 125/165 (75.8%) – and more importantly in terms of percentage of votes – from 53% to 49.5%. This is not surprising, given that most members of the Manku Taxawu Senegaal list were part of BBY in 2012. It means, however, that short of half of voters voted for the ruling coalition. Even if both Karim and Khalifa run in two years, given the two-round presidential election system 2019 is not a given win for Macky Sall.

Cyprus – Electoral politics and the 2018 presidential elections

The inglorious conclusion of the discussions for finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities last July and despite the personal involvement of the UN Secretary General has set the context for the campaign for the forthcoming presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The first round of the elections is scheduled for 28 January 2018 and if a second round is needed this will take place on 4 February. Interestingly, the elections were brought forward by two weeks because they overlapped with one of the most popular public feasts in Cyprus, probably the most popular, the carnival, and amidst fears for increased abstention because of that.

Four candidates have already announced their candidacy and it is expected that at least two more will join them: the current right-wing president N. Anastasiades, former president of the right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY), who is supported by DISY (30.69%); N. Papadopoulos leader of the Democratic Party-DIKO (14.49%), who is supported also by the social democrats EDEK (6.18%) and the Solidarity Movement (5.24%), while the Greens (4.82%) are also expected to support him; S. Malas supported by the left-wing AKEL (25.67%), the former governing party; and G. Lillikas president of the Citizens Alliance (6.01%). The extreme-right ELAM (3.71%) is also expected to place an independent candidacy, whereas the press reports that the Rector of the University of Cyprus is also considering running in the elections appealing to the non-partisan voters and those that systematically abstain and who comprise a large section of those entitled to vote.

As already explained in previous posts, the presidential system of Cyprus requires alliances between the parties to win election. These alliances have been shifting constantly. Although three of the four candidates (except Papadopoulos) also ran in the 2013 elections, in these elections the pattern and dynamics of alliances have shifted once again. In 2013, President Anastasiades was supported by two other parties beyond his own party DISY (DIKO and the right-wing European Party) which have now plead allegiance to N. Papadopoulos; G. Lillikas was supported back in 2013 by EDEK which is now supporting Papadopoulos and a large part of DIKO voters that disagreed with their party’s endorsement of Anastasiades at the time, whereas Malas is again supported by AKEL as in 2013. In 2013 the left-wing AKEL and Malas were in a very disadvantageous position having to defend a government that the people believed was the worst in the history of the Republic. Anastasiades, in 2013, was seen as the leader that could both solve the Cyprus problem and more importantly lead Cyprus out of the economic crisis.

These elections will be contested on two major issues – the Cyprus problem and the economy – around each of which conflicting narratives are presented by the candidates and their supporting parties. After falling back on the agenda for the first time in the electoral history of Cyprus, the Cyprus problem is expected to dominate political discussions once again. A resurfacing of the 2004 cleavage between pro-solutionists and the more hard-liners seems to have resurfaced in the last few months, with citizens, the press and political parties once again taking sides in hotly contested public debates.

The current president N. Anastasiades is considered the favorite to win reelection. However, he finds himself in the middle of crossfire. Anastasiades is targeted both by the pro-solution camp and the more hard-liners. The former accuse the president of missing a great opportunity to reach a solution to the long-standing ethnic conflict because he was already thinking about the elections ahead and because he knew that the more nationalistic part of his party’s electorate and the entire populace would never endorse a solution that provided for power-sharing with the Turkish Cypriots. The more hard-liners accuse the President of completely yielding to the demands of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots and that the only reason an agreement was not reached was because Turkey wanted even more.

The prominence of the Cypriot problem, however, does not mean that the economy will play no part; on the contrary. While Cyprus’s economy is now more stable than in 2013, unemployment is still high, many people are in need of public allowances and the conditions in the labour market have worsened for the working class. Two opposing narratives are already developing. The government and DISY support that the idea that the economy is now entering a phase of stability and growth, whereas the opposition parties and candidates accuse the government of numerous scandals, favouritism towards the big capital and ephemeral growth.

The most crucial aspect of this election campaign concerns the degree to which parties and candidates will succeed in convincing their supporters to go to the polls. As recent elections indicate, a process of dealignment is taking place whereby the electorate is now more suspicious of parties and more volatile than ever before; a quicksand!

Finland – Niinistö the clear favourite to win the presidential elections

The first round of presidential elections in Finland is set for 28 January, and the likelihood of the incumbent Sauli Niinistö getting re-elected is very high indeed. According to the latest survey conducted earlier this month by Helsingin Sanomat, the leading national daily, 68 % would vote for Niinistö. This suggests that Niinistö has a good chance of winning the election already in the first round, something that has not happened since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994.

Contextual factors have clearly favoured Niinistö. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia have become more important, with Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin receiving extensive media coverage. The current cabinet, led by prime minister Juha Sipilä, has also concentrated on its big projects in domestic politics, particularly the reorganization of social and health services, with the government seemingly happy to allow Niinistö to lead foreign and security policy – or at least relations with non-EU countries. Niinistö has consistently reminded the voters that we are living in unstable and turbulent times, and whether the use of such discourse is strategic or not, the heightened tensions have indeed highlighted the role of the president. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security or even survival, a role associated especially with Urho Kekkonen who ruled the country for a quarter of a century between 1956 and 1981.

Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö announced in May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The move came out of the blue, with Niinistö simply stating that the president represents the entire nation instead of any specific political party. Independent candidates are obviously common, for example in several Central and Eastern European countries, but Niinistö’s decision nonetheless came as a big surprise, not least to his old party who is now without a candidate of its own. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign.

The constitutional prerogatives of the president are limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government and to being the head of the armed forces, but it looks certain that the campaign will also focus on domestic issues. This would probably not hurt Laura Huhtasaari, the colourful candidate of the Finns Party known for her outspoken nationalist and anti-immigration views. Her party effectively split into two in June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the new party leadership looks set to take the party economically further to the right whilst engaging in hard-line attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Huhtasaari will no doubt try to steer the debate in that direction. In the survey her support was just 3 %.

Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, Timo Soini, who had chaired the Finns Party since 1997 and had been the key to the phenomenal rise of the party, drew his own conclusions and the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new parliamentary group of their own, the Blue Reform. This enabled Soini and his colleagues to remain in the government, but the future of the group looks very uncertain at the moment. The Blue Reform is yet to nominate a presidential candidate.

Of the other candidates, Pekka Haavisto of the Green League lost to Niinistö in the second round of the 2012 elections. A calm, analytical man with a strong background in UN and EU duties, the former environment minister came second in the Helsingin Sanomat survey with 13 % of the vote. Haavisto will no doubt appeal again to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters. This simultaneously undermines the prospects of MEP Merja Kyllönen, the candidate of the Left Alliance, whose support in the survey was 2 %. The Social Democrats in turn had clear difficulties in finding a good candidate, with Tuula Haatainen in the end nominated in early September. Her support was also extremely low, 3 %.

Moving to the centre-right parties, the candidate of the Centre is Matti Vanhanen, who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. In the survey he garnered 2 % support. The candidate of the Swedish People’s Party is another MEP, Nils Torvalds. The Christian Democrats decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

The popularity and media visibility of Niinistö raises serious problems for the other candidates. According to the public Niinistö has without a doubt performed well, particularly in foreign and security policy where his actions seem beyond criticism. This implies that at least some of the candidates have an incentive to steer the debate into policy areas not falling under the jurisdiction of the president. This would surely not be a good thing, especially as a large section of the population probably does not understand the division of competences between the government and the president.

Kenya – President Kenyatta remains in office as the country enters electoral limbo

The Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the result of the 8 August presidential elections, and hence the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, has sent Kenya into a state of electoral limbo. What happens in the next three weeks will not only define President Kenyatta’s tenure, but will shape the process of democratic consolidation more broadly.

Following a tightly fought campaign, early results appeared to show that Kenyatta had secured a comfortable first round victory with 54% of the vote. However, the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) immediately rejected the results, claiming that the election had been “hacked” and that in reality their candidate, Raila Odinga, had been victorious.

Although the opposition’s complaints inspired some protests in its heartlands – leading to a violent crack down by the security forces that culminated in over 50 deaths – they failed to force a re-think on the part of either the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) or international election observers, who largely endorsed the process. As a result, it was unsurprising when Odinga announced that he intended to appeal against the election results at the Supreme Court.

Evidence in favour of the opposition’s allegations included the fact that many of the results forms from the polling station level that are supposed to feature the signatures of party agents and hence validate the process appeared to go missing, the pre-election murder of the respected IEBC ICT official Chris Msando – who NASA claims was killed because he was determined to run a high quality election – and the fact that the Commission unnecessarily declared Kenyatta the victor before it had effectively responded to opposition complaints. However, in the absence of an obvious “smoking gun” proving the exact extent of rigging, most observers expected the Supreme Court to rule in favour of the ruling party, as it did in 2013.

Indeed, up to this point the elections confirmed to an established pattern: a heated campaign, a questionable process, a disputed result, a ruling party claiming victory, and an opposition protesting rigging. But that all changed when the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of upholding the opposition’s complaint and ordering the IEBC to re-run the contest, stating that the election had not been conducted in a legal manner. This verdict made history as the first time that a court of law had overturned the election of a sitting president in Africa, and was immediately seized upon by opposition leaders and supporters as evidence that Odinga was the true winner of the poll.

However, the implications of the Supreme Court’s verdict for Kenyan politics are unclear for two reasons. On the one hand, the Court has yet to deliver the explanatory text that will accompany its verdict and is essential to understanding why it ordered a “fresh” election and what changes to the electoral system will be required. On the other, although the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) quickly announced that it would organise the re-run on October 17, it is unclear whether the Commission has the credibility and capacity to deliver a good quality election within this time frame. Despite being short on detail, the Supreme Court’s decision suggests that significant reforms will be required – although it is not yet clear what these will be. Already, the opposition has rejected the new election date, complaining that it was arrived at without consultation.

With the fate of the electoral commission in doubt, it is difficult to see a way in which the 2017 electoral process can be brought to a consensual conclusion. While the IEBC is poorly placed to deliver a free and fair election, it is also unfeasible to create a new election management body in the time available – 60 days – before the next election needs to be held. As a result, a succesful resolution to the presidential election is unlikely to emerge from the judiciary or electoral commission alone. Instead, it will probably require a political compromise based on a period of negotiation between the main candidates. The danger for Kenya right now is that the growing degree of political polarization in the country militates against such a process.

The nullification of the result also generated other ambiguities. Having previously demanded that his rival respect the rule of law, President Kenyatta’s initial response to the result was consistent with his rhetoric. However, just hours after stating that he would abide by the decision, the president attacked the Supreme Court in off the cuff remarks, branding the judges “crooks” and pledging to “fix” the Court if re-elected.

Kenyatta’s ill-advised comments undermined his claim to be the candidate best placed to maintain law and order and preserve political stability, and hence called into question one of the government’s main criticisms of the opposition – namely that it is a force of “disorder”. They also generated concerns that the ruling party intends to sway the Supreme Court’s judgement by intimidating judges and threatening the institution with post-election reform if it does not bend to the will of the executive.

We have yet to see how the Supreme Court will respond to this provocation. In its initial decision, 4 judges voted to nullify the election while 2 expressed a dissenting opinion. The future trajectory of Kenyan politics will be profoundly shaped by the reasons that the four judges give for their verdict, the implications that this has for the IEBC, and the willingness of rival political leaders to come to an agreement on how to respond to the Court’s decision and move the political debate forward.

Carole Spary – From parliament to president: Symbolic representation and the candidacy of Meira Kumar

This post first appeared on IAPS Dialogue: The Online Magazine of Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Thanks to the Director of IAPS, Professor Katharine Adeney, for allowing the repost here

In late June, a collective of 17 opposition parties led by the Indian National Congress Party (Congress) announced Meira Kumar, the former Speaker of the lower house of the Indian Parliament, as its nominee for the election of the President of India, due on 17 July. Prior to this, the governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had announced Ram Nath Kovind, the governor of the north Indian state of Bihar as its nominee. Both are positioned as Dalit leaders, where Dalits are the most marginalised group in India’s unequal caste system. If elected on 20 July, Kumar would not be the first woman or Dalit to become President of India – Pratibha Patil (2007-12) and KR Narayanan (1997-2002), respectively, precede her. But she would become the first Dalit woman President.

Symbolic representation in candidate selection is nothing new for Meira Kumar. As the first woman Speaker in India (2009-2014), she provided her party, the Congress, with an important precedent. However, throughout her presidential campaign, she has rejected the emphasis on her and her rival candidate’s Dalit identity, stressing ideological differences with the governing party. Gender has been absent from the debate, except for the media’s labelling of Kumar as ‘Bihar ki beti’ (Bihar’s daughter) due to her place of birth. The unshakeable focus on identity demonstrates tensions inherent in symbolic representation – while it provides candidates and parties with political capital, candidates find it hard to control the message of who and what they claim to represent, with identity taking precedence over ideas.

Symbolic representation in Indian politics: intersecting identities

Kumar’s election as Speaker in 2009 exemplified complex intersections of gender, class, and caste underpinning debates on women’s under-representation in electoral politics in India and elsewhere. The unanimous election of a woman Speaker compensated for the Congress party’s failure to deliver a manifesto promise on parliamentary gender quotas in their previous term (2004-2009). The additional symbolic capital generated by Kumar’s intersecting identities meant she was chosen above other potential women candidates. Congratulatory speeches by MPs in the Lok Sabha professed the importance of her election for women, especially Dalit women. Kumar acknowledged in a press interview that her election as Speaker sent a positive message to women and Dalits. Sometimes overlooked is the fact Kumar was not the first woman to occupy a senior presiding role in India’s national parliament, that too a woman from an underrepresented group in parliament: Muslim MP Najma Heptulla was Deputy Chair of the upper house (Rajya Sabha) for seventeen years. As a more senior constitutional position, however, the first woman Speaker was an important milestone.

MPs were also optimistic she would represent women’s interests better than her predecessors. anticipating the passage of the long-debated legislation on gender quotas in parliament and state assemblies, which was eventually passed in 2010 during Kumar’s term but only by the upper not the lower house, and had not been introduced in the lower house by the end of Kumar’s term in 2014. Some past Speakers, particularly those who were not from among the ‘somatic norm’ of parliament – predominantly Hindu, upper caste, north Indian, and male – were subjected to similar expectations, like the late Speaker P.A. Sangma (1996-1998) whose election was expected to enable visibility of concerns of the North East.  This ‘burden of representation’ for under-represented groups is rarely placed on dominant-group representatives, at least to the same degree. Some argued, and still do, that Kumar’s privileged upbringing as a daughter of senior political leader, Jagjivan Ram, meant her experiences are unrepresentative of the ‘average’ Dalit woman in India. While this is a valid critique in class terms, we need to consider further the possibilities of the ideal ‘authentic’ representative, and why more attention is paid to Kumar’s supposed ‘inauthenticity’ than representatives from other dominant social groups.

Presidential candidacy and representative claim-making

Meira Kumar’s presidential nomination in 2017 means she again finds herself in the midst of a debate about identity and representation. She has tried to shift focus away from her and her rival candidate’s caste identity, reportedly saying that ‘”When an election to the highest office is being held, the Dalit issue is being raised. Earlier, the capabilities, merits and achievements of the two candidates used to be discussed and no one talked about their caste”. Elsewhere she was quoted as saying: ‘”Do we – Ram Nath Kovind and I — have no other qualities?…”’. In so doing, Kumar attempted to control representative claims. Throughout her presidential campaign she stressed support for secular and democratic values such as freedom of speech, contrasting this with the governing party, criticising a climate of fear and rising casteism and communalism and increasing violence against Dalits and Muslims. She publicly appealed to the electoral college to vote with their conscience.

Consequently, this presidential election has been more confrontational than her Speaker election in 2009, or her earlier diplomatic career. As outgoing Speaker in 2014, Kumar published a volume of her speeches linking her diplomatic career with her experience of parliamentary diplomacy, hosting foreign dignitaries and bilateral delegations, and participating in Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association activities. As Speaker, she claimed she took care to remain above political preferences, and that her speeches were a ‘reflection of a broader outlook’. These experiences provide a good foundation for presidential office. But her principled campaign focus begs the question of how she will manage this confrontation if elected, given conventional relations between the President and Prime Minister.

Gender issues have been notably absent so far in the campaign; if Kumar has discussed gender explicitly, the media have not covered it prominently, except to label her as  ‘Bihar’s daughter’. Perhaps this is because the symbolic dividend of a second woman President is reduced. Perhaps it is because neither the governing or opposition parties can claim a strong track record on gender issues. Perhaps it is because some of the opposition parties supporting her candidacy had vigorously opposed issues such as the gender quota Bill during Kumar’s term as Speaker. Perhaps it is because the current Speaker is an experienced woman parliamentarian from the BJP. Most plausibly, it is because casteism and communalism are the common denominators on which those parties supporting her can agree, even if in the past these have manifested in gendered forms.

The campaign emphasis on democratic values was a public intervention at a much needed time. Whatever the outcome on 20 July, this election demonstrates once again that representative claims by candidates, their supporters and detractors, about who and what they represent, are vigorously contested, and that identity and symbolic representation are likely to play an important role in electoral politics in India in the future. Is symbolic representation enough? No – precedents are welcome but the substantive transformation for marginalised groups needs to follow. Allrepresentatives, not just those perceived to embody more marginalised identities, need to be held accountable for bringing about the change.

Carole Spary is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations and Deputy Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. She tweets at @carolespary . For more on Meira Kumar’s election as first female Speaker in 2009, see the author’s published book chapter on first female Speakers co-authored with Faith Armitage and Rachel Johnson (in Rai and Johnson’s edited collection Democracy in Practice, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan). Image credit: CC by Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.