Tag Archives: presidential election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Significance Overshadowed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Nigeria – Will President Buhari seek a second term?

This is a post by Sa’eed Husaini

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

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

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

Why he might run

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

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

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

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

Why he might not run

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

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

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

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

What is at stake

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

Kyrgyzstan – A Setback for Democracy: The 2017 Presidential Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senegal – Implications of the July legislative election results for 2019

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

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

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

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

Coalitions/parties                                                                                                                            Seats

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

Source: IPU

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

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

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

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

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

Cyprus – Electoral politics and the 2018 presidential elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finland – Niinistö the clear favourite to win the presidential elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolic representation in Indian politics: intersecting identities

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

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

Presidential candidacy and representative claim-making

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

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

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

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

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

Marisa Kellam and Boldsaikhan Sambuu – Battulga Victory in Mongolia’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post by Marisa Kellam (Associate Professor) and Boldsaikhan Sambuu (Graduate Student) at the School of Political Science & Economics of Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan

Battulga Khaltmaa of the Democratic Party (DP) won Mongolia’s presidential run-off on July 7th.[1] He obtained 50.6 percent of the vote, narrowly winning the election but at the same time soundly defeating Enkhbold Miyegombo of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP).

Battulga came in first-place on June 26th, but did not secure an absolute majority in the three-way race with Enkhbold, the government’s candidate, and Ganbaatar Sainkhuu, a populist who was nominated by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, for the first-time in Mongolia, the presidential election was forced into a second-round.

Third-party candidates have competed in past presidential elections, but they have never garnered much support. Ganbaater attracted support from independents who voted against the MPP and DP duopoly that has dominated Mongolian politics since democratization. Comparison of geographically disaggregated results suggests that Ganbaatar’s voters favored Battulga in the second round. But independents also advocated for a “white vote,” or casting a blank ballot. Had neither candidate received the required absolute majority in the second round, the law would require parties to put forward different candidates in a new election. Blank votes accounted for over 8 percent of the total votes cast.

Economic populism wins

The presidential election took place in a context of precipitous economic decline in Mongolia following the global commodity bust and prior policy mistakes. The MPP government recently accepted a politically unpopular IMF bailout, agreeing to belt-tightening measures and thereby backtracking on many of the promises it had made in last year’s parliamentary election.

Battulga attacked the MPP for betraying its promises and framed this year’s election as a referendum on the bailout. During the campaign, Battulga suggested that he might reinstate a bill requiring revenues from foreign owned mines, including the giant Oyu-Tolgoi, to be funneled through Mongolian banks, which the IMF opposed. He proposed forgiving individual debt held by Mongolians and distributing dividend payments from the shares of a state owned coal mine Tavan Tolgoi to every citizen. Ganbaatar, the third-party candidate, also railed relentlessly against foreign ownership of local mines.

The opposition also played the ethnic card in their attacks on Enkhbold by calling him an “Erliiz”—a person of ethnic hybridityof Mongolian and Chinese mix. Many Mongolians subscribe to a primordialist belief of ethnicity, according to which the essence of someone’s identity is contained within that person’s blood. As a defiant critic of China and an unapologetic nationalist, Battulga adopted an implicitly Sinophobic slogan Mongol ylna, the meaning of which is open to interpretation:  Mongolia will triumph or a Mongol will triumph.

The revolution and the evolution of political parties

The Mongolian People’s Party—to use its current name—and the Democratic Party have dominated Mongolian politics since the first free and fair election of 1992. The MPP is the former communist party; between 1924 and 2010 it was called the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. When the party dropped “revolutionary” from its name a dissenting faction usurped the revolutionary banner, forming a new party but adopting the former party name. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, the MPP has had full control of nearly all government institutions, barring the presidency. The MPP represents the more disciplined and mature political force in Mongolian politics, compared to the fraction-ridden opposition.

The Democratic Party traces its origins to the Mongolian Democratic Revolution of 1990. Many of its leaders were involved in the various pro-democracy forces that sought regime change in Mongolia. These forces ran as a coalition and won the parliamentary elections of 1996, stemming seven decades of uninterrupted one-party rule by the MPP (then called MPRP). Once in office, however, the coalition broke down due to factional in-fighting amid economic crisis and controversies involving allegedly corrupt privatization of public assets. In the subsequent presidential election, the incumbent president from the DP coalition lost to the MPP candidate. The MPP president and the DP controlled parliament clashed over the selection of prime minister and the formation of the cabinet. This power struggle paralyzed the operation of government for several months. In 2000, the MPP won a landslide victory and the losing democratic factions responded to their defeat by coalescing into the current Democratic Party.

The DP returned to power in 2012 at a time when Mongolia had seen record high growth, owing in large part, to high commodities prices and major foreign investment in mining projects. In a remarkably similar fashion to its first time in power, DP’s rule between 2012 and 2016 was characterized by factional struggle, economic slump, and controversial privatization of the Russian-Mongolian jointly owned Erdenet mine. Voters blamed the DP for the country’s economic ills and thoroughly rejected them at the polls last year.

In an effort to curtail the notorious infighting and regroup after their loss, the DP national party congress decided to hold a first-ever primary election to nominate a candidate for the presidential election. About 60 percent of all DP members participated (the DP counts more than 180,000 members nationwide) in the primary on May 3, 2017. The primary election was supposed to strengthen party discipline by letting the party members openly select a presidential candidate capable of uniting the factions. Instead, six DP leaders sought the party nomination and Battulga, a controversial and polarizing figure even within his own party, was able to defeat his rivals with far more experience and moderate views, even though he received only a third of the total votes cast in the DP primary.

Power struggles under semi-presidentialism

Following the transition to democracy, the 1992 Constitution created a semi-presidential system of government as a compromise, establishing a popularly-elected president who serves for a fixed 4-year term and a government comprised of a prime minister and cabinet that is responsible to parliament. The presidency is an important, but controversial, position in Mongolia’s semi-presidential system.[1]

The Mongolian president plays a primary role in foreign policy, chairs the National Security Council and serves as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

Also, the Mongolian president has coveted appointment powers which allows him to fill many positions in the Mongolian bureaucracy and name ambassadors and judges, including chief justices. The president also nominates the head of the Independent Authority Against Corruption, subject to parliamentary approval, and approves parliament’s nomination for the General Intelligence Agency. These presidential prerogatives may be particularly important to the current president-elect as these two institutions investigated Battulga for embezzlement during his stint as Minister of Industry and Agriculture between 2012 and 2014 and arrested his aids last year. This controversy led to the public falling out between Battulga and the outgoing DP president Elbegdorj, given his extensive influence over the country’s justice system and the IACA.

In addition, the president has the constitutional right to offer policy guidance to the cabinet and to sponsor and initiate legislation. The president has the power to veto bills passed by parliament, which requires two-thirds of MPs to override; given that the MPP controls 85 percent of parliament, Battulga’s veto power will not have much bite.

As readers of this blog are well aware, semi-presidentialism opens up the possibility of cohabitation where the president and prime minister are from different parties that have not formed a governing coalition. In Mongolia, the president is constitutionally designated as a non-partisan and apolitical “embodiment of national unity.” As such, Battulga will be required to forgo his party membership before taking the oath of office. However, only political parties represented in parliament are allowed to field candidates in presidential elections; this means Battulga will have a difficult task of remaining above partisan politics, while at the same time retaining enough influence and support within his party if he is to seek reelection. Despite the constitutional contradiction, de facto cohabitation has been common in Mongolia, and will continue given the outcome of this presidential election.

Under Mongolia’s semi-presidential constitution, the respective powers of the president and parliament in selecting the government have been subject to ongoing political disputes, legal reforms, constitutional amendment, and scholarly debate. Lkhamsuren Munkh-Erdene argues that Mongolia has been functioning like a typical parliamentary system since the 2000 constitutional amendments removed presidential discretion over the selection of the prime minister.  Yet, because the presidency is still directly elected, candidates seeking the office often have made ambitious and oversized promises to get elected (on this point, Battulga’s campaign was no different). This produces a mismatch between the voters’ expectation of an all-powerful president vis-a-vis what in reality the presidency is institutionally capable of and constitutionally empowered to do. As a result, confidence in the office of the president, which prior to the reform used to be higher than any other government branch, has declined dramatically. In opinion surveys, over 78 percent of respondents stated they have confidence in the presidency in 1997; that number dropped to 50 percent a decade later, before reaching an all-time low of 41 percent this year.

Although the MPP has the super-majority required to make changes to the constitution, it has so far hesitated to unilaterally push through any reforms. Major amendments in consideration include making the president appointed by parliament, rather than popularly elected, and stripping the president’s power to influence the cabinet, initiate legislation, and make judicial appointments. It remains to be seen whether defeat in this election will compel the MPP to pursue these or other constitutional amendments. The potential showdown with Battulga should raise Linzian-inspired concerns of democratic instability.

Strained democracy

All of the above points to looming economic and political crises in Mongolia. Although Mongolia lacks what scholars identify as prerequisites for the emergence and survival of liberal democracy, Mongolia’s “deviant” democracy inspires academics and policy-makers to praise the country as a democratic over-achiever and an oasis of democracy.

Nevertheless, the elections of this year and last year put more strain on Mongolia’s still relatively new democracy than it had ever experienced before.

While all previous DP presidential candidates were committed democrats and personally involved in the democratic transition, this cannot be said of Battulga, who entered politics relatively recently. Battulga ran a campaign that centered on his personality more than his party or program. Battulga’s supporters have likened him to the Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose popularity in Mongolia seems to have risen in recent years. Public opinion surveys indicate that close to 70 percent of respondents say it is either “good” or “rather good” to have a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with the parliament or elections.

Ganbaatar, in contrast, is a political opportunist, who has twice changed parties. He was one of the most popular politicians until a recent scandal revealed he had lied about his college degree and he lost his seat in parliament last year. In the middle of this year’s election, a video was released to the public that showed Ganbaatar accepting illicit campaign donations from a Korean national. The police authenticated the video; the case is pending investigation.

The opposition refrain against Enkhbold was that he is “turuus tursun bayan,” a popular Mongolian term referring to a corrupt insider who has gotten rich from embezzling the state. The refrain proved to be fatal in the context of growing wariness of voters following the Panama Papers’ revelations of off-shore accounts used by top Mongolian officials (not to mention several other political scandals).

A powerful anti-establishment narrative permeated this year’s presidential election, summarized by a Mongolian word for fog, manan, which is derived from combining the Mongolian abbreviations of the MPP and the DP, or “MAN” and “AN”, respectively. The MANAN narrative suggests that corrupt leaders from both major parties collude to exploit the country’s natural resources at the expense of Mongolian citizens.

The outcome of the presidential election gives no indication that the fog hanging over Mongolia’s semi-presidential democracy has lifted.

Notes

[1] For an excellent overview of Mongolia’s politics of semi-presidentialism, see Sophia Moestrup and Gombosurengiin Ganzorig’s chapter in Semi-Presidentialism Outside of Europe, edited by Robert Elgie and Sophia Moestrup, Routeledge 2007.

[1] It is custom to refer to individuals by their given name in Mongolia.

Kenya – The campaign for the presidency 2017 and what it tells us about the state of politics

The general election campaign is now in full swing. In some ways, it is heavily reminiscent of the 2013 polls: the presidential race will boil down to a contest between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, and the cast of characters supporting each leader looks familiar.

But a closer look at the campaigns reveals a number of important differences to recent elections. Both Odinga and Kenyatta have had to radically change the messages that they use to connect to voters as a result of changing circumstances over the past decade. As a result, both are casting around for a new way to frame their appeals – not always successfully.

So what makes for an effective narrative? And what lessons can the 2017 campaign teach us about the state of Kenyan politics?

Framing the message

One of the most common opinions I have heard when talking about the presidential race with friends and colleagues is that neither side has so far come up with a compelling narrative that resonates with voters. As Karuti Kanyinga has put it, the campaign seems to lack an organizing principle.

Of course, elections are complicated things and can’t be reduced to just one issue. Not only does each party make a large number of promises, but different themes also tend to come to the fore in different places. However, these caveats notwithstanding, political communication tends to be far more effective when a range of appeals are effectively integrated under a common argument that voters can easily understand and identify with.

In 2007, the dividing lines were clear. The Party of National Unity (PNU) represented the establishment and sought to preserve the status quo. By contrast, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) promised far-reaching constitutional reform, including devolution. As a result, debates over majimbo (regional government), and what majimbo would mean, came to dominate the campaign.

This framing was ideal for Odinga, because it enabled him to appeal to a broad variety of voters through a single slogan. His supporters from different communities in various parts of the country did not have to agree on the most important issue for the opposition to address, because the promise of devolution was that each community would be able to elect its own leaders and set its own priorities. Partly as a result, Odinga came as close as he ever has to occupying State House.

Shifting rhetoric

Things had changed radically by 2013. By the time of that election, the 2010 constitution had been introduced and devolution was becoming a reality. This took the wind out of Odinga’s sails: it is almost impossible to effectively campaign on something that has already been delivered. This did not stop the opposition from trying, arguing that the government could not be trusted to effectively implement devolution, but arguments about implementation usually have too many shades of grey to truly excite the electorate.

Partly as a result, it was the recently formed Jubilee Alliance that gained momentum by pushing a message that established a new dividing line within the electorate. Rather than pro- and anti- majimbo camps, the election hinged on how voters felt about the candidature of Kenyatta and William Ruto – the “alliance of the accused” – and their prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

In this context, UhuRuto cleverly made sovereignty the key organizing principle of their campaign. While the Jubilee Alliance was presented as the defender of Kenyan interests on the world stage, the ICC and “meddling” foreign donors were depicted as neo-colonial imperialists determined to undermine Kenyan sovereignty. Carefully constructing a siege mentality around their Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities, Ruto and Kenyatta hit upon a powerful way to emphasise the dividing line between “them” and “us”.

This narrative was particularly important for Kenyatta because it helped to compensate for some of his potential weaknesses as a candidate. There were two big dangers for the president in the run up to 2013. The first was that his vast wealth would make him vulnerable to an opposition campaign focussing on inequality and land alienation. The second was that he would struggle to mobilize support within his own community following his poor showing in the 2002 election when he was widely viewed to be a puppet of the Moi regime.

Against this backdrop, Kenyatta’s prosecution by the ICC was an electoral boon. In addition to emphasising his claim to be a defender of Kikuyu interests, and so rehabilitating Kenyatta within his own community, the campaign’s focus on sovereignty enabled Jubilee to deflect attention away from more problematic issues.

Hearts and minds

The challenge for both Odinga and Kenyatta in 2017 is that their most effective campaign slogans of the past are no longer relevant. On the one hand, Odinga’s team will sound tired and repetitive if he speaks too much about devolution, especially as it doesn’t seem like the government has any plans to close down the counties. On the other, Kenyatta’s camp can no longer hope to engender a siege mentality because the International Criminal Court proceedings have gone away and international donors have been careful to play a less interventionist role.

President Kenyatta’s team was quick to recognize this, and responded by rotating their campaign through 180 degrees. Whereas Jubilee’s message in 2013 was divisive and confrontational, more recently the government has used its transition from a coalition to a party to push the idea that it is an inclusive party ruling in the interests of all. The main slogans that Jubilee has adopted – Tuko Pamoja, Building a better Kenya, and so on – all reflect this change of focus.

For their part, the Odinga camp have fallen back on classic opposition tropes that are used by parties around the world, emphasising the value of change and the strength of their support base in an attempt to persuade Kenyans that victory is possible. The catchphrases used by leaders of the National Super Alliance (NASA) – Ten Million Strong, Vindi Vichenjanga, and so on – all speak to this theme.

But while both sides have clearly thought long and hard about their messaging, neither has yet hit upon a narrative that resonates beyond their heartlands. Although they will deny it in public, this point is understood by the public relations teams working for Jubilee and NASA – some of whom are starting to worry. Given this, it will not be surprising if the limited penetration of leaders’ slogans inspires a change in the way the campaign is fought over the next month. As the candidates scramble to capture swing voters and make sure that their supporters go to the polls, the amount of money spent on vote buying, and the amount of time devoted to negative campaigning, is likely to increase.

What does this tell us about Kenyan politics?

The struggle of both sides to effectively frame their message tells us something important about Kenyan politics: ideas matter. Why else would the government be spending so much money on hiring foreign consultants to help them get the message right?

Some people will be very resistant to this argument. They will say that Kenyan politics is all about ethnicity and that all you need to be able to do is add up the size of the different communities and you can tell who is going to win. But while this is a popular refrain, it is not – and never has been – entirely true.

Ethnicity is, of course, one of the most significant building blocks of Kenyan politics, but it is not the only one. Even if people are predisposed to support you because of your ethnicity, mobilizing voters is harder if you fail to capture their hearts and minds. As Musalia Mudavadi found to his cost in 2013 when he failed to secure a majority of votes in Luhya areas, ethnicity does not get you very far if you don’t have credibility. Ngala Chome’s analysis of the success of Mike Sonko demonstrates this point well: Sonko lacks “significant ethnic capital” in Nairobi, yet this has not undermined his rise to power.

The electoral fortunes of Kenyatta and Odinga are further evidence of the importance of ideas. Getting the message right helped to turn Uhuru from a political also-ran into the president, while Raila’s most rhetorically effective campaign was the one in which he out-mobilized a sitting president.

It is important to note that this argument should not be taken to imply that politics in Kenya is driven by ideology or that voters spend their time reading party manifestos. Successful messages often resonate precisely because they play on pre-existing stereotypes and tap into the hopes and fears of specific communities. In this sense, the power of political ideas cannot be separated from the underlying reality of ethnic politics, gives them their strength. However, the fact that ideas, messages and identities are deeply intertwined does not mean that the ideas themselves are not important, or that politicians can win elections without them.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at Birmingham University.

This piece was first published in the Sunday Nation.