Tag Archives: presidential election

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.

Walt Kilroy – The Gambia: The Departure of President Jammeh

This is a guest post by Walt Kilroy, Associate Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction and lecturer in the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

The peaceful handover of power after an election is not normally a major news event, especially when the outgoing president goes on television immediately to accept the results. However, the small West African state of The Gambia has seen high drama, U-turns, and gunboat diplomacy in the weeks since its opposition leader surprised everyone by winning the election on December 1st. In the end, it took sustained pressure from neighbouring countries – both diplomatic and eventually military – to remove Yahya Jammeh, the autocratic and ruthless president who had held power for 22 years. It is in fact the first time that power has been transferred peacefully in The Gambia, which is the smallest country on the continent of Africa, with a population of less than two million.

The first surprise was the election result itself, given that previous votes had confirmed the dictator’s hold on power. The final result gave the presidency to opposition candidate Adama Barrow with 43.3% of the vote, against 39.6% for the incumbent, Jammeh. A third candidate accounted for the rest of the votes. Adama Barrow himself was born in 1965, the same year that Gambia became independent. He spent some years in Britain working in real estate, before returning to set up in business back home. He hardly seemed destined to lead his country, and did not have a particularly high profile. He was chosen as an agreed candidate by a coalition of seven different parties – almost the entire opposition – only a short time before the election.

He was up against the man had ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years since taking power in a bloodless coup. But his regime was far from bloodless, and political opponents were shown little mercy. Jammeh was not just brutal: he was idiosyncratic in his own sinister ways too. He claimed to have cured AIDS, and that he could rule for a billion years. So it was a further surprise when he conceded defeat graciously within hours of the result being declared by the electoral commission on December 2nd. National television carried the outgoing president’s announcement that he would work with the new leader of country, and went on to show him phoning Adama Barrow to pledge his support. The public responses include what can only be described as outpourings of joy, mixed with disbelief. Gambians were finally losing their fear.

But within days the position had reversed, when Jammeh changed his mind and rejected the election results. He referred the outcome to the Supreme Court, one of the state institutions hollowed out under his rule. It did not actually have enough judges to hear the case. The international reaction was firmly behind Barrow, however, with support from the African Union, UN Security Council, and Organisation of Islamic States. Much of the work was done by the West African grouping, ECOWAS, and by individual leaders from the region. A series of delegations at presidential level held talks with Jammeh, trying to persuade him to stand down. They included Senegal, which surrounds The Gambia entirely apart from a small Atlantic coastline. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also spent considerable time on the case. So did Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who was appointed head of an ECOWAS mediation committee. He had himself benefitted from his own predecessor – Goodluck Jonathon – quickly conceding defeat in the country’s 2015 elections. Ghana meanwhile held elections on December 10th in which the incumbent lost, and outgoing President John Mahama joined the effort to ease Jammeh from office. The deadline was clear, since the inauguration was due to take place on January 19th.

In ways, the transition is a real success for regional diplomacy, helped by an immediate and clear consensus among neighbouring states. But from quite early on in the process, they made clear that ECOWAS troops would be used to ensure the election results were respected. The regional body had already used its forces during the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, which ended in 2002 and 2003 respectively.

Jammeh remained defiant almost to the end, even as former associates began to desert him. The attitude of the military was keenly gauged: the head of the armed forces initially appeared to back Jammeh. Adama Barrow left the country for neighbouring Senegal, with real fears for his safety. Preparations were explicitly made for his swearing in at the Gambian embassy there. And ECOWAS troops crossed into Gambia, meeting no resistance, while Nigeria added a gunboat to the diplomacy, by sending one of its most modern vessels to the area. At this stage head of the army added more colour by saying that ECOWAS forces would be greeted with flowers and tea – although the attitude of the presidential guard was not so clear.

Adama was inaugurated on schedule, albeit in the embassy in Senegal, with clear international backing, while neighbouring presidents visited Jammeh yet again to persuade him to go. Just over days after Barrow’s inauguration, Jammeh was flown out of Banjul, travelling on later to Equatorial Guinea. Naturally there was speculation about why the negotiations dragged on so long, even when it was clear the game was up. Did immunity from prosecution feature in the talks? The example of the former Liberian leader Charles Taylor might have played on Jammeh’s mind. He had been eased out during peace talks in 2003, helped by the idea that he could live an untroubled life in Nigeria. But he was eventually removed from that country, to face charges before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in whose war he had been leading player. He is now serving a long sentence for his crimes.

Or was it about keeping some of his wealth? The BBC reported that two Rolls Royces and a Bentley were loaded onto a Chadian air force plane on the weekend of his departure. One of President Barrow’s staff later said that $11 million was missing from government coffers, although the report has not been confirmed.

Adama Barrow has now returned to The Gambia as president and received a tumultuous welcome. After years of dictatorship, the country faces some real challenges. The new leader has never held elected office, and was voted in at the head of a coalition of seven parties who will have to work together. State institutions which would ensure accountability, such as the Supreme Court, will have to be rebuilt. Security sector reform will also be important, in a state where critics of the regime faced torture or worse. The recovery of stolen assets may arise. Processes of transitional justice can be important in moving on from the past, and a truth recovery process has already been announced. But what about prosecutions versus impunity for those involved in the brutalities of the old regime, even if Jammeh himself escapes justice? The example set will be watched with interest elsewhere, especially where presidents-for-life are being encouraged to opt for retirement rather than holding onto power to the very end in order to avoid prosecution.

In the meantime, it is clear that is there is a groundswell of goodwill and indeed hope in The Gambia and its neighbours. There is determination throughout civil society to opt for accountable government – along with expectations of real change in a country weighed down by poverty and drained by emigration. This will be an interesting space to watch.

France – The Socialists in Search of Survival?

In a previous blog entry (‘Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody’) I argued that the generalization of the mechanism of primaries to select presidential candidates challenged an unwritten rule of party competition: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. In the case of the Socialists, the success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Herein lies a paradox: while in 2011 the primary election produced victory for the candidate best placed to defeat the incumbent President Sarkozy, in 2017 the Socialist primaries are turning in favour of a candidate – Benoît Hamon –  who is considered to have no chance whatsoever to win the presidency, or even go through to the second round, but who represents a form of ideological purity that is valued by activists and sympathisers after five years of inevitable compromises in office.  The primary is being fought for the right to lead the party in opposition and define the contours of party renewal and survival after the heavy forthcoming defeat. The paradox is more apparent than real; in parties across Europe, primary elections (or similar mechanisms) have mobilised, first and foremost, enthusiastic (young) activists and sympathisers in search of ideological renewal and survival. Jeremy Corbyn provides a similar example in a rather different context. In the specific case of the Socialist primaries, some 73% declared their priority to be that of selecting a candidate faithful to the values of the left, as against only 24% who considered their vote would help to select a future President.[i]

What a difference a quinquennat makes. If the Socialist primaries were the great innovation of 2011, paving the way for the eventual electoral victory of François Hollande in 2012, the primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire[ii], taking place on 22 and 29th January 2017, are a pale imitation, a mere side-show to the shaping up of the presidential contest between likely players: François Fillon (Les Républicains), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!). The victor of the Socialist primaries – with Benoit Hamon the clear favourite in the run off with Manuel Valls – will likely feature in fifth position in the polls, behind Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. [iii] The primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire were originally conceived as a political instrument to allow incumbent President Hollande to gain momentum and stand for re-election.  Hollande’s dignified but unprecedented announcement in December 2016 that he would not stand for his own re-election was another novel precedent in the Fifth Republic.  Diminished for years as a result of persistently negative opinion polls ratings, Hollande fell victim to his proximity to journalists[iv], and the coup de grace exercised by two former protégés: for Industry minister Emmanuel Macron, who resigned as Industry minister in Summer 2016 to concentrate on creating the En Marche! movement and standing for the presidency; and former Premier Manuel Valls, who put maximum pressure on Hollande not to stand and pave the way for his own presidential bid. Hollande’s decision not to stand transformed the primary into a captivating side-show, one detail of which was the incumbent President’s refusal to watch the presidential debates (preferring to attend a show) or to vote in the first round of the primary (on account of an official voyage in Chile). Revenge of a sort…

The Socialist primaries are a rather melancholic retrospective on the inability of the French Socialists to reconcile their core contradictions that has a long history.[v] The primary election has laid bare the endless search for the reinvention of the PS based on bridging two increasingly irreconcilable families: the governmental left (represented by Hollande and articulated by Valls in the primary, notwithstanding his  contorsions and contradictions); and the ‘radical’ left, organized as the ‘frondeurs’ during most of the 2012-17 period. The leadership of the latter was one of the main issues at play in the primary. The mantle of leader of the left was disputed between the initial favourite, Arnaud Montebourg, already candidate in 2011 and former Minister of Industrial Renewal until being sacked by Valls in August 2014 ; and Benoît Hamon, a former Education Minister, who was also sacked early on by Valls for insubordination.  Both Hamon and Montebourg formed part of the Ayrault and Valls governments until their forcible ejection from the government in 2014. The primary played out, in miniature, the permanent drama that undermined the Socialists throughout the five years of the Hollande presidency: governmental versus radical left.

So what is the primary for?  To select the party’s presidential candidate? Yes, probably. There is no absolute certainty that the candidate selected on 22nd  and 29th January by the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will actually carry the colours of the party in April 2017. The most likely victor – Hamon – has made it be known that he might stand down in favour of Mélenchon in the interests of increasing the left’s chances of reaching the second round.  Is the main issue at stake that of determining the leadership of the rump Socialist Party after predictable defeat in the 2017 electoral series? Almost certainly. Hamon barely disguises his view that control of the PS rump will allow a transformation and ideological and organisational renewal of the party. But will there be any party left to lead? A Hamon candidate polling 7-8% at the presidential election would have disastrous consequences for Socialist prospects at the legislative elections that will follow the presidential contest in June 2017. The real benchmark is the 67 deputies retained by the PS in the 1993 legislative elections that concluded the troubled period of PS-run government from 1988-93. Will Hamon be able to ensure the return of a core rump of PS deputies? A credible performance in the presidential election might be the sine qua non for a successful capture and renovation of the party after the forthcoming electoral defeats; at present, the polls give little hope for Hamon (8-9%).

Within these narrow parameters, the three leading candidates have been navigating the horns of a dilemma. Manuel Valls, premier from 2014-16, has been forced into the role of defender of the record of the 2012-17 governments, indefensible in the eyes of the other leading candidates, Hamon and Montebourg. Valls (31.19% on 22nd January) has had to endure a complicated campaign: beyond the empty venues and frosty receptions, the former premier was forced to fight on the defense of the 2014-2016 record in office. He positioned himself as  unifier of the left, though he had diagnosed the  irreconcilable nature of the two lefts within the PS while still prime minister and called for the replacement of the PS with a more explicitly reformist party back in 2008. Symbolically, the commitment to exclude the future use of article 49, clause 3 was out of kilter with its use 6 times in 2015 and 2016 to force the Macron law and the El Khomri laws through their various parliamentary readings in the National Assembly and the Senate. The hard line taken on issues of laïcité  and security were reassuring to some, but deeply hostile to others.  The results of the first round, where Valls (31.19%) trails Hamon (36.21%) suggest that the record of the Socialist governments from 2012-17 has become a millstone around the neck of Hollande’s longest serving premier. The cocktail of economic realism + security + republican citizenship is not enough to re-mobilize a Socialist electorate disillusioned by the record of the 2012-17 governments.

Arnaud Montebourg (17.62%) fought a strangely  passéiste campaign, based on national protectionism, industrial revival (‘Made in France’) and Keynesian relaunch which  appealed to some traditional PS voters in industrial, non-metropolitan zones, but appeared strangely out of kilter with the younger, environmentally conscious activists. Benoît Hamon (36.21% on 22nd January) emerged as the only candidate with a real campaign dynamic, diffused by original ideas on political ecology, social protection (the ‘universal revenue’), social liberalization ( the legislation of cannabis, a new visa regime for refugees) constitutional reform (the suppression of article 16 of the 1958 constitution, before the eventual creation of a 6th Republic) and European relaunch (the ‘renegotiation’ of the Fiscal Compact Treaty [TSCG], and the renunciation of all debt contracted since 2008). Hamon’s campaign gathered momentum explicitly on the promise to revive a Socialist vision and programme, with its aspirational quality but distant relationship with reality. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Hamon’s appeal lies with those (often very young) sympathisers and activists engaged in re-thinking the future of a progressive left party to be built on the basic foundations of the Socialist Party.  A long spell of opposition would allow the return to a form of ideological purity – or at least a regeneration of ideas and personnel. The success of Hamon’s campaign was testified by the changing tone of the three televised debates between the candidates prior to the first round: there was a clear shift from the All Against Valls mood in the first two debates, to an All Against Hamon convergence in the third and final debate. For the record, the other candidates were Vincent Peillon (6.83%); François de Rugy (3.88%) Sylvie Pinot (1.99%) and Jean-Luc Benhamais (1.01%).

What about the broader impact of the results of the primary election? The likely victory of Hamon on 29th January is, on balance, good news for Emmanual Macron, as a Hamon victory will accelerate the move by many anxious PS deputies to En Marche!, in the hope of gaining the Macron label in time for the 2017 legislative elections. Look for movements as early as this week, before Hamon’s consecration. The result of the primary will have a more marginal impact, perhaps, on Mélenchon’s electorate; the leader of La France insoumise has built a solid electorate that is unlikely to cede to the Siren of Hamon. Indded, Mélenchon might even benefit from Hamon standing down in his favour in the broader interests of left unity and survival.   In the unlikely event that Valls overcomes Hamon on the second round, the main beneficiary would be Mélenchon, with Macron as a marginal loser.

The real action is playing itself out at the margins of the PS primary, initially envisaged as a mechanism to force recalcitrant Socialist electors to support Hollande’s reviewed bid for election. The former Left Front leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has demonstrated once again his talent for mobilizing the radical left against the party apparatuses of the PCF and PS. Mélenchon is currently on 13-14% in the polls, well ahead of any of the Socialist pretenders. Mélenchon pales beside the Macron phenomenon, the object of a future blog. The former Industry minister is currently polling up to 21% in the surveys, not far behind Fillon (23-24%) or Le Pen (25-26%).  If Macron might be likened in some respects to a French Tony Blair[vi] the underlying message from the Socialist primaries is that it might be too late to engage in a renovation of the existing Socialist Party. The PS has been a party searching for a role for a very long time; each episode of governmental power has produced an existential crisis that was, in its time, theorized by Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. The endogenous crisis is combined with a continent-wide crisis of social democracy. The decline of the Greek PASOK from over 40% to 5% in the course of a few years serves as a permanent reminder of the fragility of the govnermental left, as does the inability of the Spanish PSOE to form a government in 2016, as well as the current state of Corbyn’s Labour Party. The French Socialists have lost the core material bases of their organizational power over the past five years (defeats in the 2014 municipal elections and the 2015 departmental and regional elections) and look set to be decimated in terms of their parliamentary representation in 2017. Is there a way back from the brink, as occurred following the calamitous 1993 legislative elections (reduced to 67 deputies, but winning office four years later)? Or has the moment come for a lasting realignment, a quadrille quadipolaire, where key competition will occur between a robust left movement around Mélenchon, a reformed ‘ progressive’  centre party (En Marche!) a Conservative movement mobilizing on the themes of economic liberalism and social conservatism and a national populist movement, in the form of Le Pen’s Front national?  If the electoral setback is swift and thorough enough, the PS need not even put itself though the agony of self-introspection.

Notes

[i] Figures reported from an ELABE survey in BFM News 22nd January 2017

[ii]  The Belle Alliance Populaire was created with a view to broadening participation in the primary beyond the PS. In the event  the primary attracted Sylvie Pinel, of the Left Radicals,  and Francois de Rugy and Jean-Luc Benhamais, two independent ecologists.

[iii]  These figures are those of the latest round of the CEVIPOF IPSOS Sopra Steria survey, published in Le Monde on 20th January 2017. This survey, a longitudinal panel with 20,000 respondents, provides the most robust insights into the evolution of the campaign.

[iv]  Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… Paris : Stock, 2016.  Various confidential state secrets were revealed by these two Le Monde journalists in this book which did much to damage further Hollande’s reputation.

[v]  Alistair Cole,  ‘The French Socialist Party and its Radical Ambiguity’ French Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 29-48.

[vi] Gérard Grunberg, ‘Il réarticule libéralisme et solidarité’  Le Point 19th  January 2017.

Giorgio Comai – The presidential election in Transnistria

This is a guest post by Giorgio Comai, Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” fellow at Dublin City University

The presidential election that took place on 11 December 2016 in Transnistria, a de facto independent state within the internationally recognised borders of Moldova, ended with the resounding victory of the speaker of parliament, Vadim Krasnoselski (62,3%), over the incumbent president, Yevgeny Shevchuk (27,38%), the candidate of the Communist party, Oleg Khorzhan (3,17%), and others (including 3,4% who voted “against all”, which is formally one of the options given on the ballot). According to official data published by the local electoral commission, voter turnout reached 60,1% (corresponding to 252,659 voters), which is higher than both at the 2015 parliamentary election (47%) and at the previous presidential election in 2011 (58,88%).[1] There was, thus, no need for a second round, and Krasnoselski officially took office after an inauguration ceremony on 16 December.

The outcome was largely in line with the results of parliamentary elections in 2015 and with expectations on the eve of the vote. Krasnoselski was seen as the favourite thanks to his good connections in Moscow, strong support from Transnistria’s main economic actor (the Sheriff holding), and the economic uncertainty that has characterised Shevchuk’s rule.[2] Yet, the incumbent Shevchuk did fight to win the vote until the end, in an increasingly polarised context that at least in part explains the high turnout. Formally, the transition has been smooth so far, with a candidate winning a clear mandate, the electoral commission declaring him the president, and both the incumbent Shevchuk and the first Transnistria president, Igor Smirnov, being present at the inauguration ceremony.

Ensuring a smooth transition

An article published by the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” highlights the key role of Russian observers in defusing possible tensions, including remaining in contact with both of the main candidates on election day. Two days after the vote, Shevchuk flew to Moscow “invited by the Russian side” – as a concise press release put it – to hold a number of working meetings, where presumably he received instructions about how to ensure a smooth transition and was given reassurances about his own future.[3] On the same day, he signed a decree anticipating the inauguration ceremony to 16 December (a decree issued just a few hours earlier scheduled the inauguration on 27 December).

In his first meeting with journalists as president elect, Krasnoselski stated he would not take revenge on those working in the state media and security services who took sides with Shevchuk before the vote.  His words of reassurance should be seen in light of his commitment to keep stability in Transnistria during this period of transition. The fallout from the elections in the state media, the security services and other state institutions remains however to be seen, and in all likelihood there will be significant changes, in particular in senior positions. Immediate dismissals include the director of Transnistria’s public broadcaster, the head of the investigative committee, the republican prosecutor, as well as the head of Transnistria’s national bank.[4] The new configuration of power also implies that Transnistrian residents will have very little chance to hear any criticism of state institutions in the coming years, since both the Sheriff-owned TSV channel and the public broadcaster are due to support Kransoselski and the new government.

Developments

Krasnoselski’s victory puts an end to the institutional deadlock between president and parliament that stalled much needed reforms, in particular in relation to the ongoing currency crisis. After ensuring a strong majority in parliament at the 2015 vote,[5] the interest group around the Sheriff holding can now celebrate the victory of its candidate at the presidential election. In the short term, the renewed harmony between parliament, president, Sheriff, and Moscow is due to open the way for pragmatic solutions to long-standing problems that were hostage of the pre-electoral season. The newly installed government led by Aleksandr Martynov comes with a number of initiatives aimed at improving the economic situation in the territory.[6] But ultimately, Krasnoselski is not coming to power with fundamentally new recipes for enhancing Transnistria’s economy, or with a new foreign policy course.

When Shevchuk was elected five years ago, he was hailed as a reformist and there were even some hopes of an enhanced dialogue with Chişinău. No such hopes come with Krasnoselski. In line with his predecessor, Krasnoselski supports Transnistria’s integration (and eventual unification) with Russia. In spite of the monolithically pro-Russian rhetoric that characterised his campaign, however, he will also have to take a pragmatic stance and take all efforts needed to keep Transnistria’s export routes towards the West open. Limited room for manoeuvre is ultimately a defining characteristic of politics in de facto states, and in the next five years newly elected Krasnoselski will inevitably have to adapt to circumstances and external developments to keep Transnistria afloat.

Notes

[1]    An evaluation of voter turnout should take in consideration the fact that a significant share of Transnistria’s population effectively lives and works abroad (local scholars estimate that migrant workers make up about 20-33% percent of Transnistria’s population), and that it was not possible to vote from outside the territory.

[2]    See the previous post, The upcoming presidential election in Transnistria, for more background information.

[3]    In spite of accusations of corruption, also the first president of Transnistria Igor Smirnov has never been prosecuted after he has been voted out of office in 2011. He has been able to live in Tiraspol since then and has mostly remained out of public life (until the latest electoral campaign, during which he supported Krasnoselski), living – as he put it – the life of a pensioner. It seems likely that at least in the short term the younger Shevchuk will have the chance to spend more time with his wife Nina Shtanski (former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Transnistria) and their daughter.

[4]    The new head of the Transnistrian Republican Bank was until his nomination a senior manager in Sheriff-owned AgropromBank.

[5]    The well known connections between Sheriff and current members of parliament have also been recently highlighted by a report by a group of investigative journalists; in fact, 15 out of 43 members of the Transnistrian parliament are currently employed by Sheriff in managerial positions.

[6]    For a closer analysis of the economic issues the new government has to face, see Andrey Devyatkov’s analysis on Lact (18 December 2016).

Ghana – President Mahama accepts election defeat

On Friday 9 December, President John Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) called his rival, Nana Akufo Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), to concede defeat in the presidential election. Mahama’s defeat was comprehensive: he recorded the lowest vote share of any sitting president since the return of multiparty politics in 1992 (44%), and in the legislative elections his political party was reduced to around 105 of the 275 seats on offer (some results TBC). His defeat also made history in another way: he is the only sitting president to have lost an election in Ghana. All previous transfers of power occurred in open-seat polls, in which the sitting president had stood down as a result of presidential term-limits, and the ruling party was hampered by having to run a new candidate.

Does this mean that President Mahama will go down as one of the country’s least successful presidents? Not necessarily. Despite the disappointing result, few commentators believe that the NDC ran a bad campaign. The party focussed on its strengths and spoke about issues that were of interest to voters. Moreover, the general attitude towards Mahama among ordinary Ghanaians appears to be that he did not have the tools that the country required, but was a relatively benign leader. This perception, of course, will now be reinforced by the fact that he was willing to concede defeat, and did so before the official results had been announced by the electoral commission.

This raises the question of why the opposition won the election so comprehensively. Two factors seem to explain this. First, a period of sustained economic difficulties has hurt living standards, and has resulted in high levels of youth unemployment. In turn, this has encouraged Ghanaians to look for economic change – something that is promised by the NPP. While some of the country’s economic difficulties reflect global trends beyond its control, such as the slump in oil prices, the government’s handling of the crisis has been widely criticised, undermining the NDC’s claim that it was the party best placed to ensure economic revival.

Second, a number of high profile corruption scandals involving figures around the president enabled the opposition to argue that Ghana’s economic woes can not be fully explained by external factors, and are instead rooted in the dysfunctionality of the ruling party itself. This narrative appears to have been effective, particularly among younger voters. A nationally representative survey conducted by the author in December 2015 found that while many do not blame the president for what has happened in the country, a majority of people did not trust Mahama (56%), and that even in the NDC’s heartlands 41% of people had no trust, or only a little trust, in the executive.

Taken together, these developments strongly favoured the NPP. However, they played out in different ways across the country. In the NPP’s heartlands, there was stronger support for Nana Akufo Addo – who in the past has suffered from a lower turnout in Ashanti areas than his NPP predecessor John Kufour, in part because although both leaders belong to the Akan group, Kufour is an Ashanti while Akufo Addo is an Akyem. By contrast, in the NDC’s core areas the NPP did not secure that many more votes, but did persuade traditional Mahama supporters to stay at home. The resulting decline in turnout – up to 18% in some areas – significantly undermined the ruling party’s prospects. In swing areas the picture was different again, with the NDC holding on to some legislative seats but losing the presidential vote in a number of constituencies in Cape Coast, and winning the presidential vote but losing seats in others.

All eyes will now turn to the President Elect, Nana Akufo Addo, a trained economist and lawyer. Known for his probity and for not suffering fools gladly, the new occupier of Flagstaff House will begin his term in office with two big things in his favour. First, he enjoys a strong mandate and a dominant majority in parliament. Second, economic growth is projected to pick up to around 5% this year, from 4% in 2015.

However, he also faces a number of significant challenges. Although a clear majority of Ghanaians voted for him, it is often said that Akufo Addo is not well liked by his fellow countrymen – a fact that some NPP supporters have cited as the reason for his electoral defeats in 2008 and 2012. His brusque manner and elitist tone have meant that at times the new president has struggled to connect to the electorate. In this regard, it does not help that many voters can still remember the charismatic leadership of ex-President J. J. Rawlings, nicknamed “Junior Jesus” due to his charismatic persona and ability to generate great fervour among his supporters.

Akufo Addo’s lack of a human touch come back to haunt him at the next election if he is unable to deliver on his campaign promises. The 2016 elections are an important reminder that Ghanaians are now willing to vote out leaders who do not meet their expectations, incumbents or otherwise. Given this, it is particularly significant that in his desperation to grasp what was probably his final opportunity to win the presidency, Akufo Addo significantly overpromised. In addition the standard pledges to provide jobs and kick-start economic growth, the NPP made a specific set of high profile commitments that it may come to regret. These include creating an annual $1 million development fund for every constituency, and building a factory in every district.

Given that the country has 275 constituencies, and 216 districts, this effectively commits the new government to between $350 and $500 million of expenditure before it has even begun. Many critics have claimed that there is no way that the ruling party will be able to fund these promises, and that even if it can it will struggle to build 216 factories in four years. If this is true, and a difficult global context stymies economic recovery more generally, then the new president will be forced to fall back on his personal authority and the strength of his arguments. Should this come to pass, it may not be long before we start to hear talk of an NDC resurgence.

Walt Kilroy – The Gambian Surprise

This is a guest post by Walt Kilroy, Associate Director of the Institute and lecturer in the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

Reports of a property developer who has never before been elected to office unexpectedly winning his country’s presidential elections in may sound like old news. However, we are not in fact talking about the US elections, but Adama Barrow’s shock victory in in Gambia, the smallest country on the continent of Africa. Even more of a surprise – though admittedly with less important global consequences – is the fact this means the peaceful ousting of a strongman who has ruled the West African country with an iron fist for 22 years. Adding to the drama, the man widely regarded as an eccentric dictator, Yahya Jammeh, conceded defeat graciously within hours of the result being declared by the electoral commission on December 2nd. National television carried the outgoing president’s announcement that he would work with the new leader of country, and went on to show him phoning Adama Barrow to pledge his support.

For a man who came to power through a coup, imprisoned his opponents, and silenced critics, the decision to relinquish power without a struggle has prompted speculation as well as surprise. It was only hours before that the internet and international phone lines had been closed down during the vote. Was there a deal that he wouldn’t be prosecuted for crimes in office? Had the security forces signalled they might not continue to back him? It actually parallels the peaceful handover in Nigeria last year, when President Goodluck Jonathon surprised many when he phoned his opponent to concede defeat. While an orderly handover of power may not generate headlines, it is significant in its own way.

The reaction on the streets of the capital, Banjul, and online was swift and emphatic, when the result was declared just a day after the country voted on December 1st. There had been little sign that this election would be any different to the others, when Jammeh retained power. The responses include what can only be described as outpourings of joy, mixed with disbelief. Young people especially thronged the public spaces, expressing high hopes for a country weighed down by poverty and drained by emigration. The median age of the population is 20 years, and many young people felt they had few economic options other than trying to make their way to Europe. The hashtag #GambiaDecides took off, as people among Gambia’s diaspora talked of returning to their country. How the coalition will work remains to be seen. There are big expectations among those voting for change, and some of those hopes will be hard to realise in one electoral term.

The final result gave the presidency to Barrow with 45.5% of the vote, against 36.7% for President Jammeh. A third candidate accounted for the rest of the votes.

The regime being replaced was not just brutal; Jammeh was idiosyncratic in his own sinister ways too. He claimed to have cured AIDS, and that he could rule for a billion years. But the winds of change have been felt already: within days of the election, the courts freed opposition leader Ousainou Darboe and more than two dozen other activists and political prisoners who had been in prison since taking part in protests earlier this year.

The new man

Adama Barrow himself was born in 1965, the same year that Gambia became independent. He spent some years in the UK working in real estate, before returning to set up in business back home. He

hardly seemed destined to lead his country, and did not have a particularly high profile. He was selected as the candidate by a coalition of seven different parties – almost the entire opposition – only a short time before the election.

Gambia’s borders are of course a product of the great scramble Africa. The long, narrow territory which it comprises follows the River Gambia inland from the Atlantic, to give a total area of just 10,700 square kilometres. It has a population of 1.9 million. Gross National Income per capita is US$1,507 (in Purchasing Power Parity dollars), and it is ranked at 175 on the Human Development Index, placing it among the least developed countries. One of the intriguing aspects of the election – and a reason the result was known so quickly – is that voters cast their ballot by placing a marble into the drum which matches their choice. For the count, the marbles are then placed in trays which hold a specified number, and the number of trays are totalled.

Challenges ahead

Building an effective government out of the opposition and tackling the country’s immediate economic and developmental challenges will be difficult, especially when the new president has little political experience. The stance of the military, who are close to Jammeh, will affect how a transition can proceed. The new president takes office in January. An additional question is the future of the former dictator, who has said he will spend more time on his farm, although he is also reported to have bought a property in Cape Town, South Africa. There have already been murmurings about prosecution, or a truth and reconciliation process. Barrow said in an interview with Jeune Afrique that he is not interested in a witch hunt, although everyone must be accountable before the law. The change of power has come so quickly and unexpectedly that there is little public discussion yet about transitional justice measures. These are often appropriate for a post- dictatorship situations, as has been seen in Latin America. But the all-important sense of ownership of the process is hard to achieve, even before the difficult questions are raised concerning truth recovery, retribution, impunity, and accountability. It raises questions outside Gambia as well: impunity sends a strong signal, but then so too does the prosecution of former leaders. It makes it harder to encourage presidents-for-life to retire, rather than die in office in order to avoid the consequences of their actions.

But for now, the nature of his departure is important, along with the fact that he has stepped down. It is in stark contrast with other examples from 2016, such as Gabon’s disputed result in August, and Democratic Republic of Congo’s postponed elections which were supposed to have happened by November. News headlines naturally highlight conflict and the negative. So a peaceful handover of power will barely be noticed, while a stolen election and violence will get through most news organisations’ filter. The risk is that when it’s about places we don’t otherwise engage with, the dominant narrative in Europe is one of dysfunction and poor governance whenever African countries vote. So although it hardly registers as a news event, it’s nevertheless worth paying attention when Gambia joins those countries – including post-war states like Sierra Leone and Liberia – where governments can indeed be voted out of office.

Haiti – The vindication of Michel Martelly

On November 20 Haiti held presidential and parliamentary elections. The preliminary results indicate that the candidate of the PHTK party, Jovenel Moise, has won enough votes to secure the presidency in the first round of the elections. The party has also won, or is in good position to control, the majority of the senate and a healthy plurality of deputies. These results represent a very important departure from the situation a few months ago.

On February 7 Michel Joseph Martelly was forced to leave power after a constellation of opponents, through massive demonstrations on the streets, successfully discredited the electoral results that placed the now winner, Jovenel Moise, in ballotage. On that occasion Moise won a mere 33% of the votes ahead of Jude Célestin, with 25% percent. At that time, the opposition took power. Jocelerme Privert, a senator from the opposition, was sworn in as interim president. Ten months later, what appeared to be an opportunity for the opposition to oust the Martelly regime has become the most important vindication of the ex-president and his party.

What went wrong for the opposition? How was Jovenel Moise finally able to win? This post analyzes briefly the political situation that led to the triumph of the Pro-Martelly camp. Two elements stands out in explaining the results: the fragmentation of the opposition and the massive investment of the economic elites in Jovenel Moise. 

The designation of Privert to the interim Presidency and his subsequent decision not to honor the deal to give the office of the Prime Minister to an ally of the Martelly Camp, had a double effect on the political actors. On the one hand, the PHTK party and its allies quickly coalesced around the candidacy of Jovenel Moise. The amount of money they invested in the elections is a good indicator of their commitment. We do not have exact information about the level of spending, but all observers recognize that the PHTK heavily outspent all of their opponents. The endless resources available were in full display during the weeks after the powerful category 4 storm that ripped through Haiti on October 4 and forced the cancellation of the election previously set for October 20. All of the candidates used the emergency to manipulate the vote from the most affected regions by handing out goods to them. Yet Jovenel Moise was the one that spent most heavily. Evidence shows that his investment in the Departments most affected by the storm was rewardedAlthough Moise dominated in all regions, he especially outperformed his rivals in these regions. According to the preliminary results, outside the Northern regions where the candidate has been always very strong, he performed relatively well in the South, the Nippes and Grand Anse, the regions devastated by the storm.

As regards the opponents of Jovenel Moise, the popular front they created and that successfuly forced the departure of Martelly did not endure in the face of the real possibility that they might win the elections. With Martelly ousted and delegitimized, they entirely underestimated his protégé. Instead of using the new situation to campaign, like Moise was doing all through the transition period, they spent their time trying to influence and gain control over the new government. In the end, Jovenel Moise was able to use successfully all the resources that the economic elites were putting at his disposition. These facts explain in some measure the electoral results.

But can we expect a period of political stability after the elections? The answer, again, is not a definitive yes. It will depend on the ability of the new president to navigate the complicated political, economic and social situation. On one hand, it is worth pointing out that only 21% of the electorate went to the poll. On the other, the most important candidates are already protesting the results, both on the streets and before the Electoral Council (CEP). Three out of the 9 members of the CEP did not sign the preliminary results. The evolution of the situation in the next days will tell us what kind of 2017 Haiti will face politically.

Giorgio Comai – The upcoming presidential election in Transnistria

This is a guest post by Giorgio Comai, Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” fellow at Dublin City University

Presidential elections in Transnistria, a de facto independent state within the internationally recognised borders of Moldova, are scheduled for 11 December 2016. Out of a total of seven registered candidates, the two main contenders for the position are the incumbent president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, and Vadim Krasnoselski, who currently serves as the speaker of the Transnistrian parliament (locally still known as “Supreme Soviet”).

Freedom House ranks Transnistria as “not free”, yet elections take place regularly, are competitive and – as the 2011 vote showed – a serving president can lose at the polls. While media pluralism is limited, the work of civil society organizations is severely restricted (for example, interactions with external actors is to be agreed with the local ministry of foreign affairs), and those in power make extensive use of administrative resources to strengthen their positions, recent elections have been preceded by lively campaigns and outcomes were far from predetermined.

Previous elections

Since its inception with the demise of the Soviet Union, Transnistria had been ruled by Igor Smirnov, known for its authoritarian style of government that prevented any substantial form of contestation. Yet, with time both Moscow (a key provider of support for the region) and Sheriff (the holding company owning key sectors of Transnistria’s economy), grew dissatisfied with his leadership. When presidential elections took place in 2011, Smirnov ended only in third place. Yevgeny Shevchuk, previously speaker of the parliament and then leader of the Sheriff-supported party “Renewal”, won the run-off against Moscow-backed and then parliament speaker, Anatoly Kaminski.

During his presidency, Shevchuk has distanced himself from Sheriff and tried to establish an independent power block around his administration. However, Shevchuk-backers performed poorly at the latest elections to the Supreme Soviet in November 2015; formally independent candidates close to “Renewal” and Sheriff (and now in strong opposition to Shevchuk) won a strong majority in the 43-seat parliament, and elected Vadim Krasnoselski as parliament speaker.

According to key terms of reference of Transnistrian politics, the forthcoming presidential elections can thus be briefly characterised as a contest between an incumbent president with declining popularity (Yevgeny Shevchuk) and a speaker of the parliament backed by Sheriff (Vadim Krasnoselski).

Policies

The two key candidates do not stray from the main tenets of Transnistria’s mainstream politics, and ever closer integration with Russia is not a point of debate. They may have different views in terms of fiscal policy and a few other issues, but overall their programmes largely overlap, to the extent that in a recent talk show Krasnoselski’s supporters accused Shevchuk of lifting policy proposals directly from the pre-electoral programme of his opponent.

During the campaign, both candidates insisted on their pro-Russian credentials, declared their support for pensioners (and claimed their opponent would cut pensions), accused each other of close ties with Moldova, and substantially dismissed the issue of relations with the European Union. However, keeping preferential treatment for Transnistrian exports towards the EU and ensuring that agreements on the export of electricity to right-bank Moldova remain in place will be a key challenge for Transnistria’s next president.

While much of the ongoing struggle is effectively among two power blocks fighting against each other for access to political power and economic resources in the territory, there is one main question at the heart of the electorate: who among the candidates is best suited to keep Russian aid flowing, keep the economy afloat, and thus ensure that pensions and salaries of state-employees are not cut?

Transnistria through graphs

cashincomepmrpie

According to official statistics released by Transnistrian authorities, of the total number of people with a registered cash income, about half are pensioners, one quarter are state-employees and one quarter are employed in the private sector.

A one-to-one workers-to-pensioners ratio is hardly sustainable, in particular considering the fact that pensions are high by regional standards (pensions in Transnistria are more than 50 per cent higher than in neighbouring Moldova and Ukraine).

pensionstransnistriacomparison

Transnistria’s authorities can afford this relatively high level of pensions and salaries of state employees, as well as a degree of public services comparable with that found in neighbouring countries thanks to support from Russia. Transnistria’s president himself admitted that Transnistria would be able to cover for only about 20-25 per cent of its budget without external support. Russia officially covers some of the expenditure for pensions, and sponsors constructions (in particular in the health and education sector) through a “humanitarian aid” programme, but the bulk of its help actually comes in the form of free gas. In brief, Gazprom delivers gas to the region, but does not demand to be paid for it. The total amount of debt accumulated by Gazprom currently stands at about 5 billion USD, or about six times Transnistria’s yearly GDP. In recent years, Transnistria received every year about 300-500 million USD worth of gas (about as much as the total size of budget expenditures), without paying a penny for it.

transnistriabudgetgasaid

Individuals and companies based in Transnistria mostly do pay for the gas they use, but those payments are kept as a subsidy to the budget. Accordingly, in order to transform free gas into cash for the budget, Transnistria’s economy must function: hard currency does not come from Russia, but rather from the export of goods (such as metals and textiles) mostly to EU countries and Moldova. Electricity produced in Transnistrian powerplants and sold across the de facto border with Moldova is also important.

In brief, the local economy would not be able to function without Russian support, but it also needs open trade routes towards Moldova and the EU to keep itself afloat (only about 8 per cent of Transnistrian exports go towards Russia). It is ultimately those exports that provide the cash needed to pay for the pensions and salaries that are a core legitimizing element for Transnistria’s leadership.

exportpmrsharearea

What does this mean for the elections?

dinner-with-putin

In order to demonstrate they can be trusted with ensuring uninterrupted Russians support, each of the main candidates boasts that they have better relations with Moscow, and have direct contacts with the Kremlin. The fact that Transnistria’s parliament speaker Krasnoselski was sitting “at the next table to Putin” at a recent reception, while president Shevchuk was not even invited, was hailed by the Sheriff-owned TV channel TSV as a clear sign that Moscow supports Krasnoselski.

In the context of limited pluralism that characterises Transnistria, the current balance of power allows for an unusually high level of contrast among candidates. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, the Supreme Soviet has served as a platform for criticising the president’s performance. The deadlock between the presidency and parliament stalled much needed reforms, for example, in order to deal with the ongoing currency crisis.[1]

The year 2016 has been characterised by a constant blame-game between president and parliament that has been most noticeable on the two main local TV channels; the state-owned “Pervy Pridnestrovski” remained on Shevchuk’s side, while Sheriff-owned TSV openly campaigned for Krasnoselski.

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The two TV channels offered remarkably different perspectives on current events in Transnistria. TSV focused on Krasnoselski’s close ties to Moscow, on blaming president Shevchuk for the ongoing economic crisis and on highlighting the perils of a looming economic breakdown if Transnistria’s leadership does not change.[2] Shevchuk has also been accused of siphoning off large sums of money through an intermediary company involved in the export of electricity, and of conceding too much in negotiations with Moldova.[3]

“Pervy Pridnestrovski” broadcast multiple presidential addresses, and its news reports frequently blamed the parliament for inaction, reassured the public that pensions and salaries of state-employees will be paid in full in 2017, and tried to cast Shevchuk as the man of the people against the interests of big business (i.e. suggesting that Krasnoselski would govern in the interests of Sheriff, rather than of the common citizen).

What to expect?

Opinion polls published in September gave Krasnoselski a clear lead over Shevchuk and other candidates. The results of the November 2015 parliamentary elections also suggest that Shevchuk’s popularity has declined. Shevchuk has on his side the power of a substantial part of the state apparatus, but Krasnoselski has influence over some key institutions through parliament, is supported by the powerful Sheriff holding and at this stage seems to have better support from Moscow. Overall public dissatisfaction with the economic situation is also likely to play in Krasnoselski’s favour. Given that other candidates are also expected to gather a few percentage points of the vote (Oleg Khorzan, supported by the Communist party, got about 5 per cent at the 2011 elections), a run-off on 25 December cannot be excluded. With or without a run-off, we may be about to witness in Transnistria a new case of an incumbent president who loses at the ballot box and leaves office peacefully: a scenario that is still uncommon in the post-Soviet space, but not unseen in  Transnistria.

References

  1. While the Russian rouble as well as most other currencies in the post-Soviet space have lost half of their value against the dollar in the last couple of years, the Transnistrian rouble has kept its exchange rate unsustainably stable, with a number of consequences on the local economy, including shortages of currency.
  2. TSV also aired a sweet biopic on Krasnoselski, portraying him as a trustworthy family man.
  3. An analyst on Sheriff-owned TSV described it as a “purely Gorbachev-style policy of unilateral and unmotivated concessions”; in a context where the demise of the Soviet Union is largely perceived as a great tragedy, this is clearly meant as an offensive and disquieting characterisation.

Presidential power and the Austrian presidential election

In April 2016, I was asked by the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, to provide some general thoughts on presidents and presidential power in the run up to the first round of the presidential election there. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was expected to do well and I was asked about how the role of the president might change if he won. The article in Die Presse summarised my thoughts and is available in German here. With the re-run run-off election due to be held on 4 December and with the FPÖ likely to win, here is the full transcript of the comments I returned. They seem as relevant now as before except that the traditional situation in Austria is perhaps even more likely to change if Hofer is elected than was envisaged in April. Given the context of the election, if he wins he may wish to flex his presidential powers. Moreover, the presidency itself is also perhaps more likely to be the subject of controversy.

  • Which of the powers of a president have the greatest political significance in your view?

Presidential powers are always dependent upon context, particularly the party political context. For example, the power to dissolve parliament seems like a really important constitutional power. However, if the president’s party is poorly placed to do well at the election or if an election has been held only recently and another election is not going to change the situation, then the power to dissolve the legislature becomes almost a dead power. In effect, the president cannot use it. The same goes for the power to call a referendum. Presidents tend to call referendums when they know they are going to win them. If they are worried that they will lose, then they rarely risk calling one in the first place. So, the power in effect disappears.

Two important powers are the power to appoint and dismiss the PM. The power to appoint the PM seems very important. However, as before, often presidents have little choice. The election may have returned a party or coalition with a legislative majority. The party or coalition is likely to have its own Chancellor candidate. So, the president can often do little more than choose the PM that the parties have already agreed on. Only if there is a very fragmented party system, or if the government collapses and there is no clear alternative PM can the president exercise a personal influence. Clearly, this circumstance can arise, but it usually rare. By contrast, the power to dismiss the PM can be important. This situation can allow the president to take the initiative, especially if the PM is unpopular. The risk is that it brings the president into conflict with the parties in the legislature. Indeed, this power is one that is not recommended for young democracies.

  • Do you agree with the view that the actual power of a president depends on whether he controls (or is able to neutralize) parliament? Is it true that in a semi-presidential regime, a weak parliament is the precondition for a strong president?

Again, the exercise of power is a mix of constitutional powers and political context. France is the classic example here. In 1958 the constitutional powers of parliament were greatly reduced and by the mid-1960s the president was established as the main political leader of the country. So it looks as if a weak parliament was a necessary condition for a strong president. However, in France presidents have tended to be backed by a presidential majority in parliament. This majority has been loyal. The majority has not wanted to use any of parliament’s remaining powers to block the president. Even when the majority has been opposed to the president during periods of cohabitation, power has simply shifted to the prime minister. Parliament has not become any stronger. So, yes, the constitution matters. Parliaments can have more or less powers in that regard. However, the relationship between presidents and parties is equally if not more important. In practice, a weak parliament is often the result of a particular party political context, just as much as if not more so than the constitutional situation itself. Of course, the flip side can occur too. If the party political context is confused, then parliament can become strong, usually viz. the PM and government, though, rather than the president. That said, if parliament uses it power to vote down a government, then the president can be called upon to make a choice about a new government.

  • If you assess the constitutional powers of the Austrian president, could he – given different political circumstances – become as strong an institutional figure as the French president? What would be necessary for this to happen?

Austria is a very unusual case. Iceland is perhaps the only other country like it in terms of the presidency. In both countries, the powers of the president are strong relative to most other semi-presidential countries. For example, the Austria president probably has more constitutional powers than the the French president. The Austrian president can dismiss the PM and government, whereas the French president, according to the constitution at least, cannot. In practice, though, the situations in the two countries are reversed. In Austria, the president is a pure figurehead and has almost always simply executed the decisions that the government and parties have wanted. True, some presidents have been more willing to criticize the government than others, but none has used their powers independently. By contrast, the French president is seen as the leader of the presidential majority in parliament. This means that the president has usually been able to appoint a loyal prime minister who will carry out the president’s wishes with the backing of the majority. As the leader of the majority, the president has also had the de facto power to change the PM even though this is not in the constitution, whereas the Austrian president has not exercised that power, even though it is in the constitution.

For the situation in Austria to change, the political context must change. Up to now, parties have not chosen candidates who are likely to see the presidency as an active institution. This can be seen in the age and profile of previous presidents and presidential candidates. They have tended to be elderly figures, who have often had an important party career in the past but who are no longer senior party decision-making figures. Alternatively, they have been largely independent figures who have been adopted by political parties. In neither case have they had the party political authority to act independently. In this context, it is not surprising that they have been figurehead presidents. Moreover, there is also the historical factor in Austria. This has weighed against the desire for an active presidency. However, the political context can always change. If the president were to come from outside the governing parties, then this could change the situation. The new president might feel that s/he has a mandate to act. Also, if there was now a mood for a more active presidency to address the country’s difficult issues, then a new president might feel justified in using his/her powers.

Let’s go back to the Icelandic case. Here, it was very common to hear that the president’s powers were lost. The president was a pure figurehead. Nothing would change that. Powers would never be used. However, during the financial crash the president vetoed government bills on two occasions, leading to two referendums. Suddenly, the powers that some people had assumed had been lost came back. In fact, they had never gone away. It was just that the political context had changed and now the president was in a position to use them. The context in Austria may change too.

  • Is there any institutional aspect or authority that makes the Austrian president extraordinary in comparison with other European presidents (e.g. the right to freely choose the prime minister?

Other countries have this power. For example, the French president has the power to nominate the PM freely. It is worth noting that in contrast to some countries the Austrian president does not have long list of clearly defined executive powers. If the new president wanted to be more active and if the president was from a party that was not in government, there may be the potential for the constitutional powers of the president and government to be disputed. In this event, the courts might be called upon the interpret the constitution. This has happened previously in countries like Romania and Poland. So, the presidency could become a source of constitutional debate. Again, though, this would require a change of political context.

  • Do you think that directly elected presidents are (ceteris paribus) more powerful/influential than indirectly elected presidents, or are other factors (such as the configuration of the party system or the authority of the office-holders) of greater significance?

Direct election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a strong president. It is true that directly elected presidents tend to be more powerful than indirectly elected ones. For example, the directly elected French and Romanian presidents are more active than the indirectly elected German or Latvian presidents. That said, there are some very weak directly elected presidents. Austria is one case. Ireland and Slovenia are others. There are also times when indirectly elected presidents have been influential in countries like Italy. So, direct election is not a guarantee of power. Moreover, if we look at Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which changed their constitution and shifted from an indirectly elected president to a directly elected president, we see that the role of the president scarcely changed pre- and post-direct election. In other words, direct election has not made much difference to the exercise of presidential power in either country.

Again, what matters in the mix of the constitutional situation and the political context. The combination of a directly elected president, an important set of constitutional powers, and a political context where the exercise of those powers is seen as both legitimate and desirable can lead to a very influential president. In practice, that combination of factors has been relatively rare in post-war Europe. France is the obvious case where they have combined on occasions. In most cases, though, even when there has been a directly elected president, then either the president has not enjoyed very many powers, or, more usually, the party political context has not been particularly conducive to the exercise of those powers at least in the long-term.