Tag Archives: presidential election

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France – The presidential election takes shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.