Tag Archives: presidential election

France – A Very Unpredictable Election

The 2017 French presidential election has proven to be one of the most unpredictable ever. Just before Christmas, the election promised to be very boring. François Fillon, who had recently won the right-wing primary, was a shoe-in. He and Marine Le Pen were far ahead of any other candidates in the polls and Fillon was easily beating Le Pen at the second ballot. Four months on, these two candidates could still qualify for the second round in which case Fillon would most likely still win. However, it is now only one of a number of possible scenarios with the outcome of the first and second rounds of the election still very much in the air.

There are 11 candidates. There is Marine Le Pen, an extreme-right wing populist; François Asselineau, a right-wing populist; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a populist conservative; François Fillon, a conservative populist; Jean Lassalle, an anti-European centrist; Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist, Benoît Hamon, a left socialist; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist socialist; Nathalie Arthaud, a neo-Trotskyist; Philippe Poutou, a neo-neo-Trotskyist; and Jacques Cheminade, a cheminadiste. There are eight avowedly anti-European candidates, some of whom are competing with each other to claim that they would be the first to withdraw France from the EU. There are also at least nine conspiracy theorists, even though they disagree about which occult forces are responsible for what.

From this motley bunch, four candidates have emerged – Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon, and Macron. A fifth candidate, Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the left-wing of the Socialist party (PS) and winner of the left-wing primary in January, has since faded away, with the polls showing that he is unlikely to reach double figures. This doesn’t bode well for the survival of the PS after the election, not least because various incumbent ministers and senior party figures, including the former PM, Manuel Valls and the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, have refused to support their party’s own candidate and have backed Macron. The only other candidate who has caused any ripples in the election is Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (not the old one, note). He caused a stir in the presidential debate a couple of weeks ago with a brilliant one-liner in relation to the personal and party scandals that have dogged Le Pen’s and particularly Fillon’s campaign. He was a breath of fresh air in the debate, but he hasn’t been rewarded with a meaningful bump in the polls.

Since 1974, the French presidential election has been a battle between left and right. The interaction of two factors has changed things this time. The first was the left- and right-wing primary elections. They returned candidates from the relative extremes of their electoral groupings. On a scale from 0 (extreme-left) to 10 (extreme-right), the PS chose Hamon with a score of 2.8 and the right chose Fillon with a score of 8.1. Their main left and right-wing challengers are Mélenchon, who comes in at 1.5, and Le Pen at 9.1 respectively. This left a huge gap in the centre that Macron with a score of 5.2 was able to fill. This gave him the space to put across a difficult message in the current era – he is pro-European and wants the prudent management of the economy. He has been lucky in that the primaries meant that he has been able to differentiate himself from all other candidates with such a message. At the same time, he has also managed to avoid any gaffes. In addition, the Russians have not been able to target him successfully. Faute de mieux perhaps, he is still the most likely president. The second factor was the series of personal scandals that hit Fillon and his inability to react to them other than petulantly. This led to a dramatic decline in the polls. The interaction effect comes from the fact that because Fillon was selected in the right-wing primary, it was subsequently very difficult to get rid of him when he became toxic. There was no obvious mechanism for standing him down and in any case the person who replaced him would immediately have been branded a ‘loser’. Fillon also had no intention of going anywhere. So, he stayed in the race and the right had to accept the fact. He has since clawed his way back and he is now within a margin-of-error of qualifying for the second ballot.

The recent surprise has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He was a candidate in 2012. Then, his support increased from about 8% to a high in one poll of 17% in mid-April. However, he finished with a score of 11.1%. Five years later, he was running at about 11% in the polls in March and has reached a high of 20% in one poll only recently. This time he hopes to maintain his momentum. Mélenchon’s stock (an inappropriate metaphor in his case) has risen since the televised debate a couple of weeks ago. He has mainly benefited from the decline of the PS candidate. At the beginning of March the two left-wing candidates were equal at about 12.5 per cent each. Now Mélenchon is at about 18 per cent and Hamon around 7 per cent. In other words, support for the left has not really increased, but within the left Mélenchon now dominates. He needs Hamon’s support to fall to below 5 per cent to maximise his chances of winning through to the second ballot. Mélenchon is anti-European, arguing that France should leave the EU if a list of impossible-to-agree-to demands is not agreed to. He also believes that France should withdraw from NATO. He is not against all international alliances, though, because he is in favour of linking with Cuba and Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. He has also refused to blame the Assad regime for the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. He believes that the war there is all about gas pipelines. He may yet qualify for the second ballot.

So, three days out from the first round there is a four-way contest.

Macron is still best placed. However, we should be wary of the polls in his regard. He has no party. He has no electoral history. In this context, how should pollsters adjust their raw data to get an accurate picture of his support? Who knows? In short, the polls could be greatly overestimating his support (or even greatly underestimating it). What’s more, a lot of people have yet to make up their minds. Typically, this involves left-wing voters being indecisive about which left-wing candidate to vote for and the same for right-wing voters. This time, though, people are also unsure about whether to vote for the centre rather than either the right or the left. They could choose to go with the left or the right, probably meaning Fillon in reality. Macron was weak in the televised debate. En même temps, his centrist moderation is also being increasingly lampooned. He looks well placed, but he could be the most disappointed on election night.

Mélenchon could also get through to the second ballot, especially if PS and Green voters completely choose to desert Hamon. He is the least likely of the top four to qualify.

For his part, Fillon is proving remarkably resilient. He has the advantage that there is some sort of party organisation behind him and a cohort of committed right-wing voters who want to support him. He has put some of them off with his scandals, but there could be enough for him to win through. I wouldn’t write him off at all. In fact, Bruno Jérôme and Véronique Jérôme have just issued a new Nowcast that shows Fillon going through to the the second ballot, confirming the worst fears of Macron’s supporters.

This leaves Le Pen. She has had a terrible campaign from her perspective. Amid rumours of party infighting, she has abandoned attempts to build some sort of coherent Trump-esque coalition and has fallen back on her most egregregiously atavistic historical revisionism and anti-immigration discourse. Her core supporters remain delirious at her campaign rallies, though, and there is no doubt that she will win the support of new voters who are fed up with everyone. However, she has not campaigned well. On the one hand, she hasn’t tried to win the support of moderate voters. On the other, she has been overtaken at the extremes by some other candidates on certain issues, notably Europe where has signally failed to monopolise the anti-European agenda. She is still likely to qualify for the second ballot, but it has been much more of a struggle than it ever seemed it would be.

The level of undecided voters is high and the level of abstention is likely to be greater than at the previous election. With four candidates so close together, this makes the election difficult to predict. What is more, the idea of ‘le vote utile’, or casting a ‘useful vote’, is playing out in different ways than usual. For some, a useful vote means supporting Macron as the most sensible candidate of them all. For those on the left, though, it can mean supporting Mélenchon as the candidate with the only chance of getting the left into power. For those on the right, it can mean going back to Fillon both as a way of keeping out Mélenchon and as a way of restoring some sort of order to the system. After all, this was an election that the right was going to win for a long time.

The bottom line is that no-one knows what will happen at the first ballot. In that regard, this has turned out to be a very unpredictable election.

Mali – President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s new cabinet, preparing for 2018

On April 11, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) announced a new cabinet, headed by former Defense Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga whom he appointed on April 8 to replace former Prime Minister Modibo Keita. Maiga becomes IBK’s fourth prime minister (PM) in as many years and is the first to belong to the Rally for Mali (RPM), the president’s party. His three predecessors were all independents.

Newly appointed PM Maiga is one of the founding members of the RPM and served as campaign director for IBK in the 2013 presidential campaign — an indication of where the priorities of this new government are going to be, as preparations for the 2018 presidential election get underway. The perhaps most surprising appointment in the new cabinet is the come-back  of Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly as Minister for Territorial Administration. Coulibaly was dismissed as Minister of Defense less than 8 months ago, in September of last year, following the loss of territory to Jihadist fighters in central Mali. Seen as a close ally of President IBK, he is now back in the cabinet with a portfolio that will put him charge of organizing the 2018 presidential election.

The 36-member cabinet (including the PM), of which 8 are women, sees the entry of 11 new ministers who join 25 remaining from the former government. At 22 percent, women’s representation falls well short of the 30 gender quota for appointed and elected office that was adopted in 2015. Eight former cabinet members leave, including notably the ministers of health and education, two sectors that have seen protracted strikes over recent weeks. A high profile departure is that of Mountaga Tall, president of the Democratic Initiative National Congress of Mali (CNID) and a likely presidential contender in 2018, who was formerly minister of IT and communication. The presence and responsibilities of ruling-party members and of members of its key ally, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) party, in the government appear to have been strengthened, overall. No opposition members are included. An overview of the new cabinet is provided in table 1 below.

The new government will have a busy and challenging agenda, in a context of social crisis and growing insecurity. An ongoing strike in the education sector will be one of the first priorities to address. PM Maiga met with labor union representatives within days of taking office. The 2015 peace accord with former rebel groups has struggled to get off the ground, resulting in weak state authority and presence in large swaths of the territory. Various Jihadist movements are taking advantage of this power vacuum, staging repeated deadly attacks. The UN mission to Mali – MINUSMA – is the deadliest in the UN’s history of peacekeeping. Without significant progress in the implementation of the peace accord, IBK’s ambition of winning a second term in 2018 could be similarly under threat.

Table 1: Mali’s new cabinet

Position Name Previous position in cabinet  Affiliation
Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga Defense minister RPM, vice-president
Defense Tiéna Coulibaly NEW Former amb. to US, former minister
Territorial Administration Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly NEW (was defense minister till 2016) UDD, president
Security Brigadier Gen. Salif Traoré Same Security sector
Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye Diop Same Career diplomat
Justice Mamadou Ismaïla Konaté Same Lawyer
Economy and Finance Boubou Cissé Same Former World Bank employee
Mines Tiémoko Sangaré Same ADEMA, president
Transportation Baber Gano NEW RPM, secretary general
Solidarity and Humanitarian  Action Hamadou Konaté Same Expert in social development
National Education Mohamed Ag Erlaf Decentralization and Government Reform RPM, member of leadership
Higher Education and Research Assétou Founé Samake Migan Same Public sector
Human Rights and Government Reform Kassoum Tapo NEW ADEMA
Decentralization and Local Taxation Alhassane Ag Hamed Moussa NEW Public sector
National Reconciliation Mohamed El Moctar Same Public sector, former minister
Malian Diaspora and African Integration Abdramane Sylla Same RPM
Investment Promotion and Private Sector Konimba Sidibé Same MODEC, president
Habitat and Urbanism Mohamed Ali Bathily Public Land Lawyer
Agriculture Nango Dembele Livestock and Fishery Public sector
Livestock and Fishery Ly Taher Drave NEW Private sector
IT and Communication Arouna Modibo Touré NEW Public sector
Equipment and Access Traoré Seynabou Diop Same Public sector
Industrial Development Mohamed Aly Ag Ibrahim Same Public sector
Employment and Professional Training Maouloud Ben Kattra NEW Labor union
Health Samba Ousmane Sow NEW Health sector
Labor Diarra Raky Talla Same Public sector
Trade, Government Spokesperson Abdel Karim Konaté Same (except new role as government spokesperson) ADEMA
Energy and Water Malick Alhousseini Same Public sector
Environment Keita Aïda M’Bo Same Former UNDP employee
Territorial Developm. and Population Adama Tiémoko Diarra NEW ADEMA
Culture N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo Same Private sector
Crafts and Tourism Nina Walet Intallou Same CMA (rebel group coordination)
Women, Children and Families Traoré Oumou Touré NEW Civil society
Sports Housseïni Amion Guindo Same CODEM, president
Religion Thierno Amadou Omar Hass Diallo Same Teaching and consultancies
Youth Amadou Koita Same PS, president

Source: Author’s research.

France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

Chris O’Connell – Presidential Election in Ecuador: Government Candidate Profits from Divisions

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

The run-off vote for the presidency of Ecuador has been characterised by some as a crucial indicator of the political tendencies in Latin America. According to this logic, the victory of government candidate and former vice-president Lenin Moreno over banker Guillermo Lasso is proof of the continued relevance of the left in the region following a series of setbacks. Beyond this notional left/right divide, however, the results of the election highlight interesting dynamics and divisions in what is often referred to as a ‘weather-vane’ country.

Firstly, to the results. With all votes counted, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced victory for Moreno by a mere two per cent – a difference of just over two hundred thousand votes. In the previous blog I wrote that after the first round Lasso supporters made accusations of vote tampering and fraud. As Moreno’s vote approached the forty per cent mark which would have given him outright victory at that stage, members of CREO set up ‘electoral vigils’ outside CNE offices to pressure Moreno into agreeing to a run-off.

This time around, however, such tactics have proved less successful. Several thousand CREO supporters again congregated outside election centres in Quito and Guayaquil on the night of the election, with Lasso travelling between the country’s major cities to address the crowds. While there were some skirmishes between the protesters and police, overall the government appeared better prepared this time around. Nor were the crowds as large as previously, with spirits perhaps dampened by the results of pre-election polls.

As noted previously, a feature of this election has been the politicised nature of opinion polling. This trend appeared to have been overcome in the days before the run-off when polling firm Cedatos gave Moreno a four-point lead, having one month earlier reported a similar lead for Lasso. New controversy erupted over the results of exit polls, however, with Cedatos giving Lasso a six-point lead and prompting conservative newspaper ‘El Universo’ to briefly declare him president.

As a result of the huge gap between that projection and the official results, along with a mysterious eighteen minutes during which the CNE website went offline, Lasso has alleged fraud and stated that government forces had “crossed a line”. CREO supporters have attempted to sustain a popular campaign outside CNE, but participants have numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Nonetheless, the government has agreed to a partial recount of the votes from five provinces, in response to a formal appeal by CREO. While this count is taking place, however, police raided the offices of Cedatos, apparently in response to allegations by Correa that the polling firm was contracted by CREO to sow confusion with its exit poll. The recount is not expected to yield any change to the results of an election that has been ratified by the United Nations and OAS.

Thus an underwhelming election cycle, dominated by negative tactics on both sides, and featuring two largely uninspiring candidates, appears likely to end with the status quo intact.

In fact an election that should have been about Ecuador’s future – this was the first campaign not to feature outgoing President Rafael Correa in fifteen years – ended up hinging to a significant extent on visions of the country’s past. More specifically, the campaign focussed attention on differing visions of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ led by Correa, and of the preceding ‘neoliberal’ period characterised by political and economic instability.

The Lasso campaign focussed on the economic and democratic problems allegedly wrought under Correa. In particular the candidate pointed to the country’s level of indebtedness, and to the concentration of power that he compared unfavourably to Venezuela. Members of CREO also alleged that the Moreno campaign made use of state funds and public media to gain an unfair advantage.

In turn Moreno’s team, with the support of Telesur, reminded voters of Lasso’s past involvement in the banking crisis of 1999, and in several administrations during the neoliberal era. Many of the attacks were led by Correa, who dedicated much of his ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ (‘Citizens’ Link’) television show to allegations that Lasso enriched himself from the crisis and transferred funds to offshore accounts.

Moreno’s victory was certainly due in part to the identity of his rival. While opinion polls in advance of the first round of voting had shown a generalised desire for change, Lasso’s professional and political past meant that he was unable to convincingly project that image. Instead he found himself compared unfavourably to other wealthy heads of state, including Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and even Donald Trump.

Nor should the track record of the government be discounted. While the opposition alleged that achievements in the provision of healthcare, education and (in particular) infrastructure have been funded by excessive borrowing, for the moment these benefits are there to be seen. Furthermore, the Correa government has achieved significant reductions in levels of poverty and inequality, even if similar figures in neighbouring Peru would suggest a considerable ‘growth effect’[i].

The results of this election also throw light on a number of interesting internal political dynamics.

In the first place, the results highlighted the re-establishment of regional cleavages within Ecuador’s polity. The divisions between the mountainous Sierra, Amazon and coastal regions have been largely replicated in voting preferences throughout the country’s history. This provincialism led to the prioritisation of local incentives and militated against projects with national scope[ii]. This dynamic was altered with the elections for the national constituent assembly in 2007, and continued through to Correa’s first-round victory in the 2013 presidential election[iii].

The results in 2017, in both first and second rounds, reveal a return to a regionalised voting pattern. First of all, while Moreno won the popular vote, he carried a minority of voting districts (twelve to Lasso’s fifteen)[iv]. Secondly, it is striking the extent to which the government’s main base of support has shifted since its emergence in 2006 from the Sierra to the coast. Particularly notable was Lasso’s triumph in the province of Pichincha, home to capital city Quito – once considered the government’s heartland. Also of interest was Moreno’s failure to win more than a single province in the Amazon region.

There are several possible explanations for these changes, but many of them are rooted not in the campaign, but in government policy over the past decade. For example, the Amazon region has been particularly impacted by the government’s expansion of extractive activities like oil and mining, many involving Chinese companies. These projects have led to a notable rise in socio-environmental conflicts, resulting in violence and repression[v].

Agrarian policies have been a particular source of disappointment for peasant farmers in the Sierra. Despite enshrining the concept of food sovereignty in the Constitution of 2008, the trajectory of agriculture under Correa has favoured agri-business interests and exporters that are concentrated almost exclusively in the coastal region[vi]. Also of note in the coastal region is the government’s adoption of local political ‘bosses’ to bring in votes.

Nevertheless, these dynamics cannot entirely account for Moreno’s victory in the populous province of Guayas. Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil is traditionally conservative, and is further home to all of the major right-wing opposition figures, including Lasso, first-round candidates Cynthia Viteri and ‘Dalo’ Bucaram, and Mayor Jaime Nebot. Lasso’s failure there is instead explained by fractures within the right: not one of those influential figures actively campaigned for his candidacy.

While divisions on the right helped Moreno, divisions on the left between and within social movements were also beneficial. While indigenous and social movements may have paved the way for Correa’s victory in 2006 and provided crucial support through the turbulent constituent assembly process, relations between them soured as the government sought to exercise its authority over these so-called ‘corporatist’ bodies[vii].

As with previous elections, the leadership of these movements were unable to properly define a position, with most simply refusing to support Moreno, thereby creating a tacit alliance with Lasso. Meanwhile the government cultivated relations with ‘second-tier’ local organisations, resulting in around 1,200 of them declaring support for the Moreno candidacy and isolating the leadership of once-powerful national movements.

Finally, the election in Ecuador raises questions about some core analytical concepts in Latin American politics. In the first place, while Moreno’s victory is widely described as a triumph of the ‘left,’ for many the Correa project is one of the modernisation of capitalism rather than socialism[viii]. Thus rather than a right/left divide, this election could more accurately be said to have pitted the neoliberal outlook of Lasso against a ‘post-neoliberal’ government that promotes a strong state that seeks to regulate the market and redistribute income[ix].

The Moreno candidacy also raises new questions about the contested concept of ‘populism’. Correa neatly fit the bill with his personal charisma, Manichaean discourse, and redistributive economic and social policies[x]. The mild-mannered and diffident Moreno is harder to classify in those terms, however. Thus discussion has turned to the ‘populist’ nature of his policy offering, evoking an economic rather than political or discursive definition[xi].

To conclude, Moreno has promised to be a president for “all Ecuadorians”, but a review of the electoral map would appear to make that aspiration unlikely and potentially undesirable. Ten years of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ has yielded a segmented country, with both winners and losers from government policy. If Moreno has aspirations of emulating Correa’s longevity, it would appear that division would serve him far better than unity.

Notes

[i] See figures from ECLAC in its annual Social Panorama of Latin America: www.cepal.org.

[ii] For more see: Simon Pachano, 2006. ‘Ecuador: The Provincialisation of Representation,’ in Scott Mainwaring, Ana Maria Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Correa won a plurality in 23 of the 24 voting districts in 2013, according to the election report by Jason Eichorst and John Polga-Hecimovich, 2014. Electoral Studies Vol. 34.

[iv] Three additional districts have been added since 2013 to allow for Ecuadorians abroad to vote.

[v] A conflict over a Chinese-backed mining project in the Amazon region of the Cordillera del Condor in late 2016 led to clashes with indigenous Shuar peoples that resulted in the death of a policeman, numerous arrests, and the militarisation of the region.

[vi] For more see: Patrick Clark, 2016. “Can the State Foster Food Sovereignty? Insights from the Case of Ecuador.” Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 16(2); Isabella Giunta, 2014. “Food Sovereignty in Ecuador: Peasant Struggles and the Challenge of Institutionalisation.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 41(6).

[vii] See: Carlos de la Torre, 2013. “El tecnopopulismo de Rafael Correa.” Latin American Research Review 48(1); Mark Becker, 2013. “The Stormy Relations between Rafael Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador.” Latin American Perspectives 40(3).

[viii] Former government minister turned opponent Alberto Acosta is a leading advocate of this analysis.

[ix] For more see: Franklin Ramirez Gallegos, 2015. “Political Change, State Autonomy, and Post-Neoliberalism in Ecuador, 2007-2012.” Latin American Perspectives.

[x] For more see: Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (eds.), 2013. Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Johns Hopkins University Press; George Philip and Francisco Panizza, 2011. The Triumph of Politics. John Wiley & Sons; Kurt Weyland, 2013. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy Vol. 24(3);

[xi] See: Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, 1991. The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić: the old and new strongman of Serbian politics

In this post, I examine the first and because of the results also final round of presidential elections in Serbia. The election was held on April 2 and Prime Minister Vučić won in this first round with predicted 54.9 % of the votes (with Sasa Jankovic coming as second with 16.2%) (see for the results Rudic 2017). This election comes roughly one year after the early parliamentary dissolution and the ensuing snap elections also won by Vučić. In the following, I will first briefly describe the process between the parliamentary and presidential elections, the campaign and motivations that might have driven Vučić’ candidacy. This is then followed by an assessment of the consequences of the results for the political process and the democratic development in Serbia.

In March 2016, the Serbian President – then Tomislav Nikolić – dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) and called for early elections (the third in four years). The reasons for the dissolution that I described in an earlier blog post discussing the parliamentary elections apply surprisingly well again and show the motivation why Vučić ran as candidate for the presidency.

Similar to the snap parliamentary elections last spring, the run for president by Vučić is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One main motive for the 2016 snap election was pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016). But considering the results of the early parliamentary elections, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. The SNS lost 27 seats in parliament and was far off by the projected +50% result (Pavlović 2017, 55). Even more important was a newly emerging opposition that was virtually non-existent or heavily discredited prior to the 2016 election. As Prelec (2016) has pointedly argued: “Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia”. This opposition consists now of an even more diverse group ranging from far-right to progressive movements. But still 48.2 percent of the votes guaranteed Vučić and the SNS a strong position, albeit within a coalition government he formed with some delay in August 2016. Many observers, including me, assumed that the new and old Prime Minister could continue his “domestic and foreign policy course [..] enacting the political and economic changes required for membership in the European Union, while simultaneously seeking closer relations with Russia.” (Brunwasser 2017)

But then something unexpected happened. Several viable candidates outside of the SNS influence emerged and made the presidency suddenly a possible veto point for Vučić’s plans of political leadership. Among possible contestants the most promising where Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli (an alias used by a satirical campaign) and the former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.  Vučić’s solution to the problem was running for president by himself. Next to the obvious threat of a loss of power Boban Stojanović, Fernando Casal Bértoa (2017) named 2 further reasons why he decided to do so, “the temptation of ‘illiberal democracy’” and “little significant change in terms of his [Vučić] capacity to influence policy or exert power”. In particular, the second argument needs some clarification. Contrary to what a variety of outlets reported, we should be careful when we characterize the presidency in Serbia as “largely symbolic” (Brunwasser 2017). Depending on the party majorities and the actors occupying the main posts within the executive, the assessment of intra-executive relations varies dramatically. One example would be the comparative case of the presidency of Boris Tadić. During his first term – also a period of cohabitation – he was often described as inactive. This however changed dramatically when his Democratic Party (DS) won the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary election. In his double role as chair of the party and president of the country he wielded enormous political influence and clearly dominated intra-executive relations. Mirko Cvetković as Prime Minister was however highly respected and his term and cabinet broke for a short time the unfortunate tradition of frequent cabinet reshuffles and snap elections.

After Sunday’s election and the landslide victory of Vučić, we can expect a similar development for Vučić’s presidency, when it comes to the part about the president’s dominance over the prime minister. He will influence the political landscape more than his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. Vučić will also aim for stability but this stability will actually mean something entirely different: stabilizing in this case will result in an even firmer and more authoritarian grasp on power in his bid for even more. Shortly after the election results were published, demonstrations against Vučić started all across Serbia and the organizers in several cities announced that they plan to continue their protest against election fraud, partisanship of media outlets and Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies.

Literature

Brunwasser, Matthew (2017): Serbia’s Prime Minister Projected to Win Presidency, Consolidating Control, in: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/europe/serbia-aleksandar-vucic-president-elections.html

Pavlović, Dušan (2017): Serbian Presidential Elections, in: Contemporary Southeastern Europe, in: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/sites/default/files/papers/pavlovic_serbian_elections_2016.pdf

Prelec, Tena: Serbian parliamentary election 2016: A gamble that almost backfired, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/04/26/serbian-parliamentary-election-2016-a-gamble-that-almost-backfired

Rudic, Filip (2017): Vucic Wins Serbian Presidential Elections, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vucic-wins-serbian-presidential-elections-04-02-2017-1
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2017): Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/04/serbias-prime-minister-just-became-president-whats-wrong-with-this-picture/?utm_term=.8cdfe26a5d7e

Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2016): There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

Former resistance leader becomes Timor-Leste’s first partisan president

The presidential election seems to have delivered a decisive victory for FRETILIN’s Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres. With some two-thirds of votes counted, the former independence fighter has received just under 60 per cent of the vote. For the first time since 2002 Timor-Leste will have a president formally affiliated to a political party.

It is the third time presidential elections have taken place in Timor-Leste, but the first time that a presidential candidate has managed to win a majority of the votes cast in the first round. Guterres owes much of his electoral success to the support of former President and PM Xanana Gusmão (CNRT) and FRETILIN. Together, the two parties control 55 out of 65 seats in parliament. In February 2015 cooperation between the CNRT and FRETILIN resulted in the formation of a government of national unity in which all political parties were represented, including opposition parties. The fact that Guterres managed to win an outright majority in the first round shows the broad popular support these parties have in Timor-Leste.

President Taur Matan Ruak did not seek re-election but supported Guterres’ closest rival António da Conceição of the Democratic Party (PD) who received 30 per cent of the vote. Last year, President Ruak created his own People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which will participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Recently, President Ruak has announced his desire to become the next PM.

To some extent, the presidential election was ‘business as usual’ in Timor-Leste: the candidate who has Gusmão’s support won the elections. What is new is that the president-elect is formally affiliated to a political party. So far, presidents have run on an independent ticket. Whereas under Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential system the head of state has limited executive power, in practice Timorese presidents have tended to take on the role of the opposition. During their presidency, Ramos-Horta and Ruak have frequently publicly expressed their concern with the rapid growth of the state budget, the increasing number of cases of corruption in which government officials were involved, and ‘unsustainable’ capital-intensive government investments. Both presidents lost Gusmão’s support and have only served one term.

It is unlikely Guterres will play a similarly active supervisory role during his five-year term in office. The president-elect is the official leader of the ruling party FRETILIN, which together with the CNRT will easily win the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Guterres will assume the presidency on 20 May. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early July.

Chris O’Connell – Ecuador: Run-Off Election Announced Amid Scenes of Chaos

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Following one of the most low-key campaigns in recent memory, Ecuador’s presidential election exploded into the controversy, protest, and rumours of fraud and military intervention. Following three days of chaos and contradiction, the final outcome is a run-off vote between front-runners Lenin Moreno of the government party Alianza PAIS (AP), and Guillermo Lasso of the right-wing CREO movement. While this outcome was widely predicted, the manner in which it played out has been dramatic, and points to problems for the government.

While the lack of both accuracy and impartiality has been a prominent feature of opinion polling throughout the election campaign, all the major pollsters were agreed that Moreno would obtain the most votes in the first round. The inevitability of a Moreno ‘win’ was sealed when the two major right-wing opposition parties – CREO and the Social Christian Party (PSC) – failed to agree on a shared candidate. With the PSC’s Cynthia Viteri also on the ballot, the right-wing vote was split.

The important question was therefore not whether Moreno would win, but by how much. While no polls gave Moreno more than fifty per cent, under Ecuador’s electoral rules a run-off can be avoided if a candidate gains forty per cent and exceeds the vote share of the runner-up by at least ten per cent. This rule became the focus of a battle that was much more intense than the campaign which preceded it.

With ninety-eight per cent of votes counted, figures released by the National Electoral Council (CNE) give Lasso 28.4% of the votes, and Moreno 39.3%. With votes slow to come in from Ecuadorian emigrants abroad, along with some of the country’s remote districts, CNE head Juan Pablo Pozo had announced on Monday that it would take three days to finalise the count, and appealed for calm.

Those appeals fell on deaf ears, however. Instead supporters of Lasso, led by his running-mate Andres Paez, occupied the space outside the offices of the CNE on election night. There they remained, ensuring that all eyes were on an institution believed by the opposition to be under government control. Belatedly groups of AP supporters followed suit, leading to a tense stand-off on the streets of capital city Quito. Meanwhile similar ‘electoral vigils’ sprang up outside CNE branches in major cities like Guayaquil and Cuenca.

Lasso, a former banker who was part of the truncated government of Lucio Gutierrez, continued pressuring the CNE, talking openly of electoral fraud and demanding the finalisation of the count. Unsurprisingly in such a febrile atmosphere, rumours flew of dumped ballot boxes and even military intervention – forcing the military high command to issue a statement denying “false rumours” and pledging to protect the electoral process.

Moreno remained outwardly calm, eventually accepting the need for a run-off having initially celebrated an outright victory. Secretly, however, he and others at AP must be extremely frustrated at missing out on what could well be their best chance of success by less than one per cent of the vote. Rumours of the absolute dominance of AP over Ecuador’s institutions would appear to have been exaggerated.

The results must be considered in the light of the regional political situation. Following the changes of president in both Argentina and Brazil – albeit the latter by way of a dubious impeachment process – questions are being asked as whether the ‘pink tide’ that swept South America during the past decade is going out. These results – along with setbacks for left-wing governments in Venezuela and Bolivia – has seen increasing attention paid to the apparent return of the right in Latin America[i].

In that context, the Ecuadorian elections represent the latest test of the durability of the left in South America. In particular, the 2017 presidential vote is viewed as an indicator of the sustainability of the so-called ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ driven by AP and its leader, President Rafael Correa, who is stepping down after a decade in office. This year’s slate of candidates is the first to not feature Correa in fifteen years.

As David Doyle has written about previously in this blog, AP used its super-majority in the national assembly to amend the constitution to allow for unlimited re-election. Nevertheless, in the face of opinion polls indicating overwhelming public opposition and a faltering economy, Correa opted against putting himself forward as a candidate.

Instead the AP candidate would be Lenin Moreno, Correa’s vice-president during his first six years in power. According to some accounts Correa’s preferred candidate was current vice-president Jorge Glas, but polling gave him little chance of victory. The mantle thus fell to Moreno, with Glas reprising his role as running-mate. Moreno is a popular if diffident figure who is most renowned for his work as a disability campaigner, having been confined to a wheelchair since being shot in an attempted robbery.

Nevertheless, the problems facing the governing party were not limited to the absence of Correa from the ballot paper. The most commonly cited issues are the slowdown in the economy since oil prices began to fall in 2014, and a series of corruption controversies. While not confined to the ruling party, these allegations have served to undermine the public legitimacy that has provided the foundations for its decade-long rule.

In spite of the promise of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution to institute a regime of ‘Sumak kawsay’ or ‘good living’, the economy remains heavily dependent on crude exports. Further adding to Ecuador’s economic difficulties has been the strengthening of the US dollar[ii], which has pushed up the price of Ecuador’s exports. In spite of these serious drawbacks the economy has contracted but has not entered recession, and doomsday scenarios have thus far failed to materialise.

For some this is evidence of the success of the economic management of governing party. It is certainly the case the under Correa has collected more taxes than previous regimes. However many suspect that the government’s high levels of public spending are supported mainly by large-scale borrowing from China. In return for credit, it is alleged that the government has given China first option on its crude output for years to come. The government’s cancellation in 2013 of its innovative Yasuni-ITT initiative may have been designed to placate Chinese interests, but the move cost AP in terms of popularity among the urban middle-classes[iii].

Oil and public spending have also been at the centre of a series of corruption scandals that have weakened the government further. The massive Odebrecht bribery scandal has implicated legions of politicians across the region. In the case of Ecuador, the scandal has lent credence to widely held suspicions about overpayments on public infrastructure contracts – suspicions that are only strengthened by government reticence to investigate the matter.

Furthermore, a corruption case involving state oil company Petroecuador has tarnished political actors from across the ideological spectrum. Specific allegations made by former Petroecuador head Carlos Pareja against Glas, however, have been particularly damaging to the government.

In what could be considered a classic AP move, the government sought to outflank its opponents on this very issue by including a referendum on tax havens on the ballot paper. The referendum proposed a prohibition on public servants holding assets or capital in tax havens. The measure forced opponents to take a position on the issue[iv], while simultaneously presenting the government as progressive. The effect of such moves has diminished over time, however, as highlighted by the fact that the proposal was carried by an underwhelming fifty-five per cent.

Perhaps of most concern to AP amid the fallout from this election is the way in which its right-wing opponents have taken effective control of street politics. When Correa rose to power ten years ago, it was on the back of a sustained period of mobilisation by social actors. Correa in turn harnessed this power to force through a plebiscite on the convening of a constituent assembly against fierce opposition[v].

Following the ratification of a new constitution in 2008, however, the government’s attitude to mobilisation altered dramatically. As a number of scholars have noted, the government introduced a series of measures designed to regulate civil society and to criminalise protest[vi]. The strategy seemed to revolve around controlling the social movements through state power while dominating the right-wing opposition electorally.

The first signs that this strategy might be failing came in July 2015, when government proposals to introduce a capital gains tax encountered strident opposition. The protests outside the AP headquarters by members of the middle and upper-middle classes made the government appear vulnerable for the first time. The proposed measures were withdrawn, but it would appear that AP learned little from the incident.

The protest at the CNE – which included a mix of businesspeople linked to chambers of commerce, PSC and CREO supporters, and members of the middle class – is the kind of manoeuvre traditionally associated with social movements and the left. As Ecuadorian sociologist Carlos de la Torre has outlined, the occupation of public spaces has long been fundamental to ‘populist’ visions of democracy in Ecuador[vii]. To see that tactic utilised by the right so effectively that Correa was reduced to tweeting impotently about electoral fraud indicates a tidal shift in Ecuadorian politics.

That is not to say that AP is spent as a political force in Ecuador, far from it. Along with Moreno’s ‘victory’, AP is also projected to hold a majority in the national assembly. But this is a party that has governed without political compromise, and in doing so has made few friends. The right has already coalesced around Lasso, with the PSC putting aside misgivings to pledge its support to the former banker. This combined vote share totals roughly forty-six per cent.

Under normal circumstances Moreno would command a similar vote share by harnessing the seven per cent that went to Democratic Left candidate Paco Moncayo. But these are not normal circumstances, and the strong ‘anti-correismo’ current is not confined to the right. Moncayo has thus far refused to endorse either candidate, while members of the traditionally leftist Pachakutik party have publicly refused to back Moreno. Under such circumstances, AP faces a stiff challenge to win the additional support it requires from an electorate in which opinion polls indicate that seventy per cent of voters favour “significant change”.

Notes

[i] For more on this, see: Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.), 2014. The Resilience of the Latin American Right. John Hopkins University Press; Barry Cannon, 2016. The Right in Latin America, Routledge.

[ii] Following a huge financial crisis in 1999, Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its currency in 2000.

[iii] Catherine Conaghan, 2016. “Ecuador under Correa,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 27(3).

[iv] Lasso, a former banker, campaigned against the measure on grounds of personal freedom.

[v] See Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] For more, see: Carlos de la Torre and Andrés Ortiz Lemos, 2015. “Populist Polarisation and the Slow Death of Democracy in Ecuador.” Democratization Vol. 23(2); Catherine Conaghan, 2015. “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Vol. 98.

[vii] Carlos de la Torre, 2015. De Velasco a Correa: Insurrecciones, populismos y elecciones en Ecuador, 1944-2013. Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar/Corporación Editora Nacional.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste upcoming presidential elections: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Rui Graça Feijó is Lecturer at CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Timor-Leste will hold its fourth presidential elections on March 20. In spite of the lack of opinion polls, it is possible to suggest that they will reveal a new political landscape, the extent of whose novelty is still to be decided. To start with, these elections will confirm the Timorese “rule” that no incumbent succeeds in obtaining a second term in office

The field of candidates is composed of 8 individuals who submitted at least 5,000 endorsements with a regional distribution of at least 100 in each of the country’s 213 districts. This is the same number as in 2007, and 5 less than in 2012. Underneath the “normality” of this picture, a major change is occurring: there is a very strong candidate alongside seven others with little or no chance of actually fighting for anything more than a modest result, at best an honourable second. The presidential elections will thus fulfil two purposes: one is the official task of choosing a president; the other is to help contenders ascertain their hold on popular vote and their chances in the legislative elections scheduled for June, allowing for tactical decisions. On top of that, internal party struggles, a show of personal vanity, and access to the generous public support to candidates (at least US$ 10,000 per candidate regardless of their electoral score) will play a minor part in the circus.

FRETILIN proposed Lu Olo, its chairman (not its leader, the secretary-general Mari Alkatiri), as it had done in 2007 and 2012. Both times Lu Olo came first on the initial round only to see all other candidates rally against him in the decisive one. He has now received the formal backing of the largest parliamentary party, CNRT, and most of all, of the charismatic leader of the young nation, Xanana Gusmão. He is “Snow White” surrounded by seven dwarfs.

The main rival seems to be António Conceição. He is a member of Partido Democrático, a party that suffered a heavy blow with the death of its historical leader Fernando Lasama de Araújo (2015), followed by internal strife. The party as such ceased to be part of the governmental coalition, although his ministers were allowed to remain in functions as “independent”. António Conceição is one of those, and his bid at the presidency is partly a test for a presumed bid for the party leadership. He may have the backing of a new party, Partido da Libertação do Povo, inspired by the outgoing president Taur Matan Ruak, who declined to seek re-election and is widely believed to be preparing a bid for the premiership (if the presidential elections allow for such presumption).

Former minister José Luis Guterres, whose party Frenti-Mudança is the smaller one in the governmental coalition, has also declared his intention to run.

Two non-parliamentary parties have also fielded candidates. Partido Trabalhista supports its leader, Angela Freitas, and Partido Socialista Timorense backs António Maher Lopes. Although PST has no MP, its leader, Avelino Coelho, holds an important position in government.

A former deputy commissioner in the Anti-Corruption Commission, José Neves, is among those who seek the popular vote without party support – a circumstance that in the past has been critical in winning the second ballot, as candidates in these circumstances were able to build coalitions of all the defeated runners against the “danger” of a partisan candidate. Two others fall in this category: Amorim Vieira, of whom very little is known apart from the fact that he lived in Scotland where he joined SNP; and Luis Tilman, a virtually unknown individual who also presents himself as “independent”.

A few things emerge from this picture. Against what is expectable in two-round elections in fragmented party systems (Timor has 4 parliamentary parties, about 30 legal ones, and the 2012 elections had 21 parties or coalitions running), which induce the presentation of candidates on an identity affirmation basis in view of a negotiation for the second ballot (as was the case in Timor in 2007 and 2012), this time the two largest parties negotiated a common candidate before the first round, significantly increasing the likelihood that he will be elected on March 20.

It thus highly probable that Timor-Leste will have for the first time a president who is a member of a political party. The experience of three non-partisan presidents comes to an end not because the rules of the game have been changed, but rather because the political scenario has moved considerably. Back in 2015, a government of “national inclusion” replaced the one led by Xanana with the backing of all parties in the House, even if FRETILIN, who offered one of its members for the premiership, still claims to be “in the opposition”.  The move has been called by a senior minister “a transformation of belligerent democracy into consensus democracy”. Although the outgoing president is supposed to have facilitated this development, he soon turned sides and became a bitter and very outspoken critic of Rui Maria de Araújo’s executive and the political entente that sustains it.

Now the two major partners of the entente agreed to go together to the presidential elections, signalling that they wish to continue the current government formula after this year’s cycle of elections (even if the place of smaller parties in the coalition is not secure, and a question mark hangs above the score that the new opposition PLP may obtain). More than this, they assume that the role of the president has somehow changed from being the guarantor of impartiality discharging a “neutral” function as “president of all Timorese” to be a player in the partisan game, throwing his political and institutional support behind the government coalition.

A question emerges when one considers that CNRT is the largest party in the House, and that it has relinquished the right to appoint the prime minister (who is a member of FRETILIN acting in an “individual capacity”) and now forfeits the chance of securing the presidency, offering it to its rival/partner. Will it maintain this low-key attitude after the parliamentary elections if it remains the largest party?

The CNRT/FRETILIN entente suggests that Timorese politics lives in a double stage: the official one with state officers discharging their functions, and the one behind the curtains where de facto Xanana (who is simply a minister) and Mari Alkatiri (who holds a leading position in a regional development entity) tend retain the reins of actual power. In this light, public efforts to promote the “gerasaun foun” (younger generation) in lieu of the “gerasaun tuan” (the old guard that was already present back in 1975) by offering the premiership and other jobs to those who are relatively younger needs to be carefully hold in check.

In Dili, I was told that Timorese presidents tend to suffer the “syndrome of the wrong palace”. This expression is meant to convey the idea that they become frustrated with the (allegedly limited) powers bestowed upon them by the constitution, and consider that the legitimacy conferred on them by a two round election that guarantees an absolute majority is sort of “kidnapped”. They are prisoners in their palace. They believe they have the right to determine strategic orientations and cannot find the actual means to implement them. So they look at the premiership in the palace next door. Xanana stepped down from the presidency and launched a party and a successful bid to head government; Taur Matan Ruak is trying to follow suit – but his chances are not deemed so high. If Lu Olo manages to get elected, the sort of relations he is likely to establish with the prime-minister are totally different, as he is compromised with “one majority, one government, one president” – only the president is not likely to be the one who leads. Will this resolve the syndrome issue? Interesting times lay ahead.

Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with  in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.

The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.

Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).

Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).

The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.

France – The presidential election takes shape

On Sunday, the Socialist party chose its candidate for the 2017 French presidential election. At the second round of the party primary, voters chose Benoît Hamon over the former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Hamon won about 59% of the votes cast. With his selection, the line up of candidates – or at least the serious ones – for April/May’s election is now probably complete.

There are five main candidates in the field. From left to right, they are: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of The Left Party; Benoît Hamon for the left of the Socialist party; Emmanuel Macron for the centre-left or centrist En Marche! movement (the exclamation point is obligatory); François Fillon for the right of the right-wing Republicans; and Marine Le Pen for the populist, alt-right, extreme-right National Front.

The election is François Fillon’s to lose and he seems to be trying his best to do just that. The received wisdom was that whoever the Republicans chose as their presidential candidate would be able to win the election easily. This was because there was no serious candidate on the left and because Marine Le Pen is unelectable at the second ballot. So, when Fillon won the party nomination in November, he seemed to be a shoe-in. However, things are perhaps changing.

Fillon won the primary by appealing to the conservative element within the Republicans. This made sense if we assume that the median voter in the party is also conservative. However, once selected, it would appear to make sense for him to move to the centre. He has to win 50% of the  popular vote to win the second round of the presidential election and he will need the vote of people other than traditional conservatives to reach that figure. Yet, since his selection he has pretty much maintained his conservative stance on moral issues, welfare policy, and public sector cuts. Perhaps he assumes that he is bound to go through to the second ballot. On that assumption, then he may also assume that he actually has to avoid moving to the centre too soon and in so doing cede ground on the conservative right to Le Pen, thus continuing to pen her in as it were on the extreme-right. However, his refusal to move anywhere close to the centre has merely created a wide-open centrist space for Emmanuel Macron to move into. What’s more, last week a story broke about Fillon’s wife. It has become known as ‘Penelopegate’ after his English wife’s first name. The allegation was that Fillon had employed the aforementioned Penelope from his parliamentary allocation, but that she had done no work in return. If so, this is a so-called ’emploi fictif’, which is a crime. In an attempt at political damage limitation, Fillon said that he would withdraw from the contest if he was formally put under investigation. The long timeframe that it would most likely take for a formal investigation to start works in his favour, so it was probably a safe declaration to make. However, his problem is that even if nothing comes of the allegations before the election or indeed ever, which is quite possible, it has painted Fillon as a person of the establishment, remunerating his wife, and it turns out his sons as well, from the public purse. Relative to Sarkozy and Juppé, he was able to position himself as a sort of outsider, despite the fact that he lives in a castle. (Sorry, manoir). Not any more. His poll ratings have dropped and he is now in a tight race to qualify for the second round.

Fillon’s main first-round challenger has emerged as Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself somewhere on the centre-left. Perhaps more importantly, while he has some ministerial experience, he too is presenting himself as an outsider. In the context of France, Europe, most of the previously civilised democratic world, and, who knows, perhaps the universe generally, this seems like a winning electoral strategy at the moment. He has been helped by Fillon’s political positioning and #Penelopegate. He should also be helped by the Socialists’ choice of Hamon, who is on the left of the party. Already some PS deputies have said they are going to support Macron ahead of their party’s official candidate. In the most recent poll, Macron came in at 21% on the first ballot, one point behind Fillon. We all know that polls are no longer worth the pixels they’re reported in, but it looks like a closer first-round race now than at any time before. Indeed, all polls show that, like Fillon, if Macron qualifies for the second round, then he will easily beat Le Pen. So, there is now much talk of President Macron.

However, some caution may yet be in order. Macron is still behind Fillon, though only just. More importantly, he has no campaigning experience. He has been astute so far, but the campaign is only really beginning. He could come a cropper, especially as he comes under more scrutiny. More than that, he has no policy programme yet. It’s promised some point soon. But, as it stands, we don’t really know exactly what he is proposing. When it appears, it could raise issues that he has difficulty responding to. Also, he doesn’t have the backing of the Socialist party. More than that, the party establishment, or parts of it at least, would probably wish to see him lose, maximising their chances of maintaining their position as the main force on the left, rather than helping him win and then having to play second fiddle to him and his new movement!. At some point, not being the candidate of a major party might be a problem, especially if the Socialists play dirty. So, while Macron is currently better placed now than ever before and while recent events have been favourable to him, as yet he is no certainty to qualify for the second round.

In terms of Mélenchon and Hamon, we can think of it as a battle for what’s left of the left of the left. Mélenchon would have preferred Valls to win the Socialist primary. This would have allowed him to take up the mantle of the anti-establishment left candidate unopposed. However, Hamon is a Socialist frondeur. He’s been a thorn in the side of the Hollande administration and has gained some popularity by proposing the idea of a ‘universal income’. With Hamon campaigning in the same general space, it’s difficult to see Mélenchon breaking through. The same can be said of Hamon, though. There’s probably around 15-20% of the population that might be tempted by a credible truly left-anchored candidate. However, Mélenchon and Hamon are likely to fight out that vote between them. In fairness to Hamon, though, he has revitalised a certain previously demoralised Socialist electorate that feels hard done by under President Hollande. Hamon has the wind in his sails for a short time at least. He too can credibly position himself as an outsider. He may well beat Mélenchon, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which he would make it through to the second ballot.

This leaves Marine Le Pen. She is still ahead at the first ballot in all the polls, though sometimes not by much. Her problem is that she loses to everyone at the second ballot by a large margin. Her hope is that she will be the Donald Trump of France. In fact, she had herself pictured in Trump Tower in New York just before the inauguration. She wants to bring together the usual anti-immigrant, extreme-right vote that has been loyal to the FN for a while now, but add to it a working-class electorate that is worried about economic issues and that doesn’t like the EU. She is pushing a certain social welfare agenda, pressing on populist economic issues, and, as usual, identifying lots of enemies at home, the near abroad (read Brussels), and further afield still. It’s a strategy similar to ones that have worked in the US, Austria (nearly anyway), and in the Brexit referendum. In terms of getting elected, it’s a strategy that might have legs, especially if Fillon and the right implodes, and if she faces Macron at the second ballot in the context where Macron’s own campaign has become derailed somehow. In other words, it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination that the polls are underestimating her support, that some of the filloniste right could vote Le Pen at the second round ahead of even Macron, and that some of the left might even stay at home and not vote for Macron, in which concatenation of probably unlikely circumstances Le Pen could perhaps just squeak through. (Did you see all the qualifications I put in there).

But even then it’s a long shot. While Le Pen’s strategy has allowed her to emerge as the first-placed candidate at the first ballot, there are still no signs that she has sufficient support to win at the second. In France, there is already a certain populist left. This makes it more difficult for Le Pen to build a populist left/right coalition that might be possible in other countries. She, and the party, also have their own corruption issues. Indeed, the FN was relatively slow to jump in on the #Penelopegate furore last week, at least partly because of those troubles. More generally, there is still a solid set of voters on the left, the centre, and on the right that sees the FN as illegitimate and that will not vote for it whatever the circumstances. Finally, if you tie your colours to the Trump mast (bright orange presumably), then while you may rise with Trump, you can also fall with him too. No doubt some of the things Trump is doing in the US also appeal to FN voters in France, notably the immigration ban from certain Middle East countries. However, for at least as many voters the prospect that a Le Pen presidency might engender the same sort of chaos in France as Trump is currently causing in the US is likely to be off-putting.

There was a time when the 2017 French presidential was very predictable. No longer.