Tag Archives: presidential elections

Czech Republic – Parties and candidates gear up for the 2018 presidential race

The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.

‘Zeman Again 2018’ – Poster of President Zeman’s re-election campaign | Source: zemanznovu.cz

Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.

To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.

At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.

Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.

ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.

South Korea – The Making … and Unmaking … of the People’s Party

The remarkable electoral success of the People’s Party at the April 2016 general elections –38 seats, beating some of the most optimistic predictions – boded well for a party that was formally launched less than three months earlier, on February 2, 2016. Here is a party that defied expectations of decimation, sometimes from fires set within the party itself. Instead, the party looked set to play a pivotal role in the legislature: with no majority party in the legislature, the People’s Party is well-placed to lend support to the liberal Minjoo legislative plurality or join hands with the rest of the legislative opposition to stonewall, if not defeat, the government’s policies. And, despite his defeat at the presidential polls, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, cofounder of the People’s Party, looked to be a viable candidate in presidential elections 2021 with his name recognition and experience. However, the latest scandal may bury the party: at a press conference on Jun 26, 2017, the emergency committee of the People’s Party revealed that an audio tape which surfaced on May 5, 2017 – allegedly proving that President Moon Jae-in’s son received special treatment to join the Korea Employment Information Service (KEIS) – was fabricated. People’s Party member and youth committee vice-chair, Lee Yoo-mi, has been arrested under the Public Official Election Act for making and releasing the fake audio tape. Lee has alleged that she was directed to make the tape by senior party members, and the fact that Lee was a former student of Representative Ahn at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology threatens to incriminate the highest ranks of the party. Here, I track the highs and lows of the People’s Party.

The People’s Party was formally launched in February 2016, then-led by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Chun Jung-bae, both of whom left the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chair of the NPAD, left on December 13, 2015, following open disagreements with NPAD’s then-chair, Moon Jae-in. Ahn’s departure ended a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that officially launched in April 2014, but it also bared open fractures within the alliance that the leadership had ineffectually tried to reconcile. Representative Chun Jung-bae left the NPAD in March, 2015 and successfully won the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April by-elections. 1

Ahn and Chun pooled 20 seats in the legislature to achieve a legislative negotiation bloc for the People’s Party; under Assembly rules, it was entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges, such as negotiating legislative calendars. However, not long following the official launch, senior party members fought openly over the possibility of merging with the Minjoo Party. Still, the People’s Party managed to smooth over the early difficulties to almost double its share of legislative seats in the general elections.

Soon after the general elections, however, the People’s Party was hit by a campaign kickback scandal: two of its proportionally-elected legislators and a deputy secretary general for the party were alleged to have demanded and received kickbacks from advertisers for the campaign. Both Ahn and Chun stepped down as co-founders to take responsibility; while the scandal may have singed Ahn’s position as leader of the party, it probably helped preserve Ahn’s politically “clean” image. As a result, when Ahn signalled his intention to run for the presidency, his candidacy had good momentum: some polls even showed him leading over Moon Jae-in at one point. Interestingly, the lead over Moon followed the resurfacing of the allegations that Moon’s son received special favours to assume the job with the KEIS.

Moon would go on to win the presidential race subsequently, with Ahn in third place after Liberal Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo. Ahn has kept low since the elections, but is facing calls to respond given his steady drum-beat of nepotism and special favors immediately following the fabricated audio tape. For now, party leaders have disavowed any knowledge of the fabricated tape, and also disclaimed any knowledge that Ahn may have had. Still, with the arrest of Lee and Lee’s insinuation of senior party members’ involvement, the investigation is likely to burrow deep into the party, at the party’s peril.

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  1. Yap, O. Fiona (2015). “Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263, December 16, 2015. <last accessed June 28, 2017>

South Korea – Presidential Elections, May 2017

The election of Representative Moon Jae-in as president on May 9, 2017, hands the political pulpit to the liberals in the opposition, following almost a decade of conservative policies under the previous ruling party, the Liberal Korea Party (LKP). The crowded presidential contest – up to 15 candidates declared or hinted their intentions at one point, likely spurred in part by the momentum of change leading to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye – whittled down to five, from each of the parties in the legislature. Moon was elected to the presidency with 41.1 percent of the votes, ahead of runner-up Hong and the others in the race. Turnout, at 77.2 percent, is the highest in 20 years. 

Candidates Estimated popular votes
Representative Moon Jae-in, Minjoo Party 41.1 percent
Representative Hong Joon-pyo, Liberal Korea Party 24.03 percent
Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party 21.41 percent
Representative Yoo Seung-min, Bareun Party 6.76 percent
Representative Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party 6.17 percent

Representative Moon Jae-in led the pack at the outset, but his lead was challenged regularly, first by former UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and then by his old rival-turned political partner-turned political opponent, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo. Former UN Secretary-general Ban was highly sought by the conservative parties, who saw his appeal to conservatives, moderates, and independents; early polls in December 2016 that gave Ban a lead over Moon seemed to vindicate that belief. However, that lead evaporated quickly, and Ban subsequently dropped out of the race on February 1, 2017. Both Ahn and Moon contested the 2012 presidential race, but Ahn left the race in favour of Moon to avoid splitting the liberal vote to the benefit of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye. That effort did not pay off: Park won the presidential election in 2012. In 2014, Ahn and Moon formed the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but the alliance was fraught with problems and failed to cohere.[1] Ahn and his allies split from the NPAD in December 2015 to form the People’s Party, and went on to defy expectations by gaining 38 seats in the legislative elections held shortly after in April, 2016. Polls in early April showed Ahn gaining momentum in the race, even as Moon kept the lead; however, by late April, Moon had widened the lead over Ahn.

A large unknown in the elections is whom the conservatives in the electorate would support. The former ruling Saenuri Party splintered into the LKP and the Bareun Party in 2017: the LKP’s candidate is South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo while the Bareun Party’s candidate is Representative Yoo Seong-min. The LKP is renamed from the Saenuri Party after the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; it may be interesting to note that Saenuri was renamed from the Grand National Party in an effort to distance the party from a series of scandals and voter dissatisfaction with then-President Lee Myung-bak. The Bareun party comprises members of the non-Park faction, many of whom lost party nominations for the general elections in 2016 to pro-Park supporters. Both Governor Hong and Representative Yoo did not have broad appeal to the conservatives; this partly explains the effort by the conservative parties to draw Ban into the race. However, with Ban out of the race and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn’s declining to run, conservative voters began to rally around Governor Hong late in the race particularly in the traditional strongholds of former President Park Geun-hye. The endorsement of the former President’s sister, Park Geun-ryoung, for Governor Hong, may have helped increase support for Hong: in late April, polls show the candidate in second place. 13 legislators from Bareun Party left the party to return to the LKP, in order to boost the support for the conservative candidate. Importantly, that precipitated a flood of members and donations to Bareun Party, as voters express their disapproval of such politicking.

Expectations are high for the new president, particularly following the decade of conservative politics in the country that may have engendered the “imperial” presidency of former President Park Geun-hye.[2] President Moon has pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people”; in addition, the president has signalled an important shift in the stance to North Korea (dialogue), while also negotiating with the US and China over the deployment of THAAD. However, the President also maintained a stance on “strong defense” for national security, perhaps to diffuse perceptions that the new administration will be soft on North-South relations, and likely also an olive branch to the conservatives in the country. On the domestic front, the president has already nominated his Prime Minister, the liberal governor of South Jeolla Province, Lee Nak-yon, an experienced public figure, and announced a presidential committee on job creation.

The President is clearly demonstrating an aptitude and preparedness to tackle the job. In the current international climate, it is certainly heartening.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea – Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263&cpage=1, December 16, 2015 <accessed May 10, 2017

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President? Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=6177, March 20, 2017 <accessed May 10, 2017>

Hungary – Janos Ader’s re-election, ‘Lex CEU’, and the future of the Hungarian presidency

Over the last years, I have regularly written about the changing role of the Hungarian presidency under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Although more hopeful at first, the conclusion that its existence appears to be largely irrelevant for the functioning of the country’s  political system has been confirmed once and again. Last month, the Hungarian parliament re-elected janos Ader for a second term as president. Although it is not clear what his thoughts about the role of the presidency are, even if he wanted to, his potential to become a proper check-and-balance is severely limited.

Plenary of the Hungarian Parliament | photo via wikimedia commons

Hungarian presidents have been elected by parliament since 1990 and any attempts to introduce a semi-presidential system (mainly in the 1990s) have been unsuccessful. The reelection of Janos Ader on 13 March 2017 was the second presidential election held under the modified rules of the new 2011 constitution. After the old constitution allowed for three rounds of voting (the first two requiring a two-thirds majority for a candidate to win before lowering the requirement to a relative majority in the third round), the new rules reduced this to just two: A candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win in the first round and in the second round (which is a runoff between the two frontrunners if there are more than two candidates) a relative majority is sufficient. Since 2011 it is also more difficult to nominate a candidate. The old requirement was the support of 50 of 386 deputies (i.e. 13%) for a nomination, while the new requirement is 1/5 of membership. The latter is aggravated by the fact that the size of the Hungarian parliament has been reduced to 199 deputies since the 2014 elections.

As expected, the government parties nominated incumbent Janos Ader for a second term. However, as the Fidesz-KDNP government had lost its 2/3 majority gained in the 2014 elections due to defections, it was not going to be a first-round victory as in 2012. An alliance of all opposition parties except the far-right Jobbik, nominated László Majtényi, a law professor and former data protection ombudsman. Ader received 131 votes in both the first and second round, which equates to the seat share of the government, while abstentions in the first round were equal to the seat share of Jobbik.

The election result first and foremost means continuity in the way in which Hungarian politics works until the 2018 election or possibly beyond. Although the Hungarian president belongs to the formally most powerful presidents in the region, political practice has long kept presidential intervention in day-to-day politics to a minimum. However, the rebuilding of the Hungarian state by Prime Minister Orban and his Fidesz party have also severely restricted the the effectiveness of presidential powers. The presidential veto of legislation can be overridden by parliament with a relative majority. This has never been a problem for Hungarian governments in the past, yet the restructuring of the electoral system – which greatly advantaged Fidesz and was crucial to its 2/3 majority victory in the 2014 elections – means that the parliament can even override vetoes of organic laws and constitutional amendments (requiring a 2/3 override majority) without problems. Furthermore, the disempowerment of the Constitutional Court (once one of the most powerful in the world) and nomination of judges loyal to Orban means that requests for judicial review are more likely to be decided in favour of the governing majority.

Interestingly, Janos Ader still uses his veto with relative frequency. In the first years in office, parliament still considered these seriously and often included changes proposed by the president into bills as part of the reconsideration process. Since the 2014 parliamentary elections however, all of ten his vetoes have been overridden. At the same time, Ader has not used his veto or the high public profile bestowed unto him ‘ex officio’ to address any major issues or points of contentions in the political debate. Rather, he failed to comment or sided with the government. In this regard the recent controversy surrounding the education bill dubbed ‘Lex CEU’, a new law on foreign universities operating in Hungary which specifically threatens the operation of the Central European University, is very telling. Despite large-scale international criticism and demonstrations, Ader signed the bill into law on Monday and ignored calls to veto it or send it to the Constitutional Court for review.

The above pattern is unlikely to change in the near future. During his second term in office (2010-2014) Prime Minister Orban repeatedly hinted at the possibility of introducing a semi-presidential or presidential system in the country in the past, but he has since changed his mind. While there is thus nothing new in Sandor Palace, the 2017 presidential election and other political developments pose the question why a government committed to an ‘illiberal state’ is still committed to keeping the presidency in its current form, given that it serves no obvious purpose anymore.

South Korea – The 2017 Presidential Candidates … so far…

 

Presidential elections in South Korea are scheduled for December 2017, but the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Dec 9, 2016, with 234 to 56 votes (with two abstentions and seven invalid), potentially brings the election forward if the Constitutional Court supports the impeachment. The Court has 180 days to decide, and six justices must support the impeachment or it fails. If the Court supports impeachment, then presidential elections must be held within 60 days. Not surprisingly, presidential aspirants are lining up to declare their candidacies in preparation for a shortened primary and election campaign. Perhaps curiously, the prevailing favorites have largely refrained from formal announcements and have only hinted at running.

The contenders who have announced so far are:

  • Gyeonggi Gov Nam Kyung-pil, Barun Party, which is the splinter from the Saenuri party comprising the non-Park faction. Nam was a five-term who has criticized the Park government for its authoritarian-leanings. The governor is also one of the first party heavyweights to quit the Saenuri party in November, 2016, and join the opposition to demand President Park’s impeachment.
  • Yoo Seong-min, Barun Party, is the former Saenuri floor-leader of the non-Park faction who lost that position following a clash with President Park and subsequently also lost the party’s nomination at general elections.[i] Yoo was folded back into the party after he won his seat as an independent. He is one of the 12 members of the crisis management council that included former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, to bring party members into supporting President Park’s impeachment.
  • Rhee In-je, a senior Saenuri party leader who was a member of the Supreme Council, and who has declared his candidacy three other times since 1997.
  • South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, Minjoo Party, who at 52 represents one of the new generation of leaders from the liberal camp seeking higher political office to run the country.
  • Seongnam city Mayor Lee Jae-myung, Minjoo Party, a progressive who has revived the city’s economy and put in place an extensive welfare program in the city. Lee was among the few politicians who took part in the large protest rallies in Seoul against President Park beginning in October.
  • Sim Sang-jeung, leader of the Justice Party, a minority party with six seats in the legislature.
  • Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, 2012 presidential contender, co-founder of the People’s party and former chair. In 2014, Ahn co-founded the NPAD with the Minjoo Party, but then split from the alliance in spectacular fashion in December 2015 to form the People’s Party. Ahn dropped out of the presidential race in favour of Moon Jae-in in 2012 so as not to split the vote for the liberal camp; given the many charged conflicts between the two in the last few years, it will be interesting to see if Ahn – who is polling at fourth place in public opinion surveys – will wrestle for the liberal mantle till the end.

The current two front-runners have not been as forward in their candidacies, to avoid a potential backlash if they are seen as excessive politically ambitious. Still, both have signalled interests in the presidential race:

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2015. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey, Vol. 56 No. 1, January/February 2016; (pp. 78-86) DOI: 10.1525/as.2016.56.1.78

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega Cements Power with Landslide Electoral Victory

Just over two weeks ago, Nicaragua held presidential elections. The incumbent, Daniel Ortega, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice-President, dominated the election, winning with approximately 72 per cent of the popular vote. Nicaragua has experienced steady economic growth in recent years and has not experienced the same level of violence and homicides that have plagued many of their Central American neighbors. Additionally, the opposition are currently weak and fragmented, with Ortega’s nearest challenger, Maximino Rodríguez of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), gaining only 14 per cent of the vote.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. In 2009, he also sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.

In 2013, Ortega sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. The reform also awarded presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allowed the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change involved the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which was replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.

What is more, the opposition is weak and fragmented partly because of the actions of the incumbent. Critics allege that the Ortega government has actively manipulated the political playing field to undermine the electoral chances of his competitors. For example, with just five months to go before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role. Additionally, opposition parties have claimed that the recent presidential election was in fact rigged and called for their supporters to boycott the vote.

Clearly, part of Ortega’s electoral success lies in the economic success of Nicaragua, its relative stability and a reduction in poverty since 2006 of nearly 13 per cent. But part of Ortega’s success lies in the increasing electoral authoritarianism of the regime. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. They are often accompanied by judicial reform and media manipulation. Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela, ticks many of these boxes, and indeed the recent electoral victory of Ortega with 72 per cent of the vote, exceeds the 70 per cent threshold that Levitsky and Way suggest in order to classify non-competitive elections. Echoes of electoral authoritarianism have also been heard in the Andes. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Ecuador – Ruling Coalition announces Candidate for February Election

At a convention over the weekend, Ecuador’s left-leaning ruling coalition, Alianza PAIS, announced that it had chosen Lenín Moreno as its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in February 2017. Moreno served as the vice-president of the current Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, from 2007 until 2013, before being appointed as the United Nations Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility. Moreno’s running mate for this election will be the current vice-president, Jorge Glas.

This election can be seen as a good litmus test of the sustainability of Latin America’s turn to left-leaning political parties and presidents that began with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. Given the income structure of the region, once left-leaning parties were able to institutionalise after the transition to democracy, it was no great surprise that they were able to successfully contest elections in the face of poor growth under right-leaning incumbents during the 1990s.[1] Recently however, poor growth following the collapse of the early 2000s commodity boom, and the fall in crude oil prices, has placed serious pressure on left-leaning incumbents; Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from power in Brazil; as was Fernando Lugo in Paraguay; the right-leaning Mauricio Macri won the presidency in Argentina; and the beleaguered left-wing government of Nicolás Maduro is looking increasingly fragile as the opposition gains strength. Suddenly, the right appears to be on the ascendency across the region.[2]

Similar dynamics can be observed in Ecuador. Falling oil prices have badly hurt the oil-exporting economy and economic growth has virtually ground to a standstill. The current left-leaning incumbent of Alianza PAIS, Rafael Correa, managed to maintain very high approval ratings through much of his presidency. He was re-elected for a third term in a veritable landslide victory in May 2013, and his approval rating remained consistently between 65 and 85 per cent. Back in April 2014, Correa began indicating support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits. Correa had already overseen a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term, and with national assembly backing of his proposed amendment to term limits, it was widely expected that he would run in 2017. The stuttering economy and his declining approval ratings appear to have convinced Correa to step aside.

Moreno, an experienced disability campaigner, who is in a wheelchair following a robbery in 1998 when he was shot in the car park of a supermarket will face a splintered opposition on the right. Although the Ecuadorian electorate appear eager for change, the fact that the right is split between Guillermo Lasso of Creando Oportunidades (CREO) and Cynthia Viteri of the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), will favour Moreno providing the election does not go to a run-off, which would allow the right to coalesce around one candidate.

It remains to be seen whether bad economic times will claim the scalp of another left-leaning incumbent.

[1] See Steven Levitsky and Kenneth Roberts (eds.) 2011. The Resurgence of the Latin American Left. John Hopkins University Press.

[2] See the companion book to the one above: Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.) 2014. The Resilience of the Latin American Right. John Hopkins University Press.

Estonia – Parliament elects first female president following electoral college failure

On Monday, 3 October, the Estonian Riigikogu elected Kersti Kaljulaid as the country’s new and first female president. Kaljulaid’s election comes after both parliament’s and subsequently the electoral college’s failure to elect a candidate with the required majority. Kaljulaid, although supported by five out of six parliamentary parties, entered the race as a dark horse – it is yet unclear how she will fill her new role but the long way to her election is likely to prompt a change to the mode of presidential election in Estonia.

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid | photo via riigikogu.ee

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid (centre)| photo via riigikogu.ee

The failure of both parliament and electoral college to elect a president in five rounds of voting was an unprecedented event in Estonian political history. Politicians from all parties – having faced wide-spread criticism over their inability to agree on a candidate – were quick to call for a joint, preferably non-partisan candidate to end the election fiasco. The Riigikogu Council of Elders (meeting of the six party faction leaders) was unofficially tasked with finding a new president (all previous six candidates were considered ‘burned’ through the unsuccessful election process) and soon narrowed down their selection to two people: Kersti Kaljulaid, former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, and Jüri Luik, the Estonian ambassador to Russia and a former minister of foreign affairs and defence. Eventually, the Council endorsed Kaljulaid and five of the six parliamentary groups followed by expressing support. Overall, 90 out of 101 MPs signed Kaljulaid’s nomination form – the eleven MPs refusing to sign being all seven deputies of the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) and four Centre Party deputies. As a candidate needs 21 signatures from MPs to be nominated and an MP cannot support two nominations at the same time, no other candidate was nominated. In the end, Kaljulaid was elected with 81 votes and 17 abstentions (three MPs did not attend the vote). While this is lower than the number of MPs who supported her nomination, it is technically the strongest mandate given to a president so far – Toomas Hendrik Ilves was re-elected in 2011 with 72. However, Ilves was elected in the first round of voting in parliament.

Kaljulaid is still largely unknown to the Estonian public as she has not held any front-line role in politics so far. Other than her two last predecessors who were party members when they were elected, she is non-partisan (according to the state broadcaster ERR she was nevertheless a member of the predecessor of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union – IRL – in 2001-2004). In the run-up to yesterday’s election, it also emerged that she had been approached about a potential candidacy for president over the summer but declined. Her political views are generally considered to be liberal on social matters and more conservative economically, yet do not clearly align with any political party. In her first interview after her election, Kaljulaid stressed her commitment to equal treatment of Estonia’s sizeable number of ethnic Russians as well as her support for upholding economic sanctions against Russia. Previously, she also mentioned issues such as the gender pay gap and women’s role in society as well as corruption as issues she would like to address. While she has acknowledged the Estonian presidency’s limited formal powers and direct influence over day-to-day policy-making, Kaljulaid is unlikely to be a comfortable president for government and opposition parties alike. Her eloquence and outsider status will likely help her to quickly garner greater public recognition and support so that she can effectively use speeches and other non-formal ways of activism to become an active check-and-balance vis-a-vis other institutions. This becomes even more a possibility given the overall similarity of her election to that of Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga in 1999 – first presented as a compromise candidate after several failed rounds of election, the non-partisan Vike-Freiberga who also lacked significant political experience (she was previously a psychology professor in Canada) soon became arguably one of the most prominent politicians in the country.

Irrespective of how Kaljulaid will interpret her new role once she is inaugurated on 10 October, the long way towards her election will have consequences for how Estonian presidents are election. Before her election on Monday, 31 MPs presented a motion to speaker Eiki Nestor to introduce popular presidential elections. Such initiatives – the last one was submitted by the Centre Party in 2013 and subsequently rejected – are however unlikely to succeed. A more likely solution will be to lower the majority required in the last round of election in the electoral college (i.e. a relative rather than an absolute majority) which is already common practice in most other parliamentary republics (e.g. Germany or Hungary). The electoral college itself could also be reformed and potentially reduced to give parties greater planning certainty or at least establish a parity between parliamentary and local council representatives. Nevertheless, for now it appears that there is no cross-party consensus on the matter and a solution might very well only come after the parliamentary election of 2019 where the presidential election debacle of 2016 will surely feature in campaigns.

Germany – The headache of choosing a presidential candidate

When German Federal President Joachim Gauck declared that he would not run for a second term in February 2017, The Guardian described it as a ‘headache for Merkel‘. Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor best known for his work in overseeing the extensive archives of the former East German secret police 1991-2000, had been elected as a joint candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, Green Party and Liberal Democrats (FDP) after his predecessor Christian Wulff resigned amidst allegations of corruption. Many had hoped that Gauck – who still enjoys support from all major parties in the Bundestag except DIE LINKE (successor to the East German communist party) – would run for a second term, thus sparing parties the need to find a new candidate so closely before the next general election due to be held in October 2017. Avoiding a signalling effect for potential post-election coalitions, together with parties’ desire to have their candidate elected by absolute majority in the first or second round (rather than by relative majority in the third and last round of voting) complicates the situation and creates headaches for all party leaders – not only for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Federal Convention

The German Federal Convention 2012 meeting in the Reichstag building, Berlin | © bundespraesident.de

Since 2013, Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) hold a 71% majority in the Bundestag and form a grand coalition. Even though the Federal Convention – the electoral college convened for electing the German president – consists not only of members of the Bundestag but also the same number of delegates from state parliaments, both parties would have no problems to elect a joint candidate. Nevertheless, neither CDU/CSU nor SPD see this as an ideal option. With the exception of Joachim Gauck, first nominated by SPD and Greens in 2010, both parties have not nominated a joint candidate so far (rather, either party occasionally supported the re-election of the other’s incumbent). This time, too, both parties would most likely be happiest with a candidate clearly affiliated with or at least nominated only by them (not excluding support from a minor party). Nevertheless, the seat distribution the Federal Convention (see projection below) leaves little room for manoeuvre if parties want to see their candidate elected in the first two rounds. Neither CDU/CSU+FPD nor SPD+GREENS, who previously held majorities in the Federal Conventions and subsequently saw their candidates elected, hold a majority. Even a left-wing alliance of SPD, GREENS, DIE LINKE and the SSW (Danish Minority) would fall two votes short of an absolute majority.

German parties are generally cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future coalitions on the federal level. Thus, a cooperation of the SPD with far-left party DIE LINKE is unlikely because the SPD leadership has so far categorically denied federal-level coalition potential (despite cooperating with DIE LINKE on state level) – not only could it deter SPD voters, but the CDU/CSU would also likely try to use this pairing for their advantage in the electoral campaign. Similarly, the liberal FDP – although having been in coalitions with the SPD in the past – will likely try to avoid supporting a left-wing candidacy as it hopes to re-enter the Bundestag in 2017 by taking away voters from the right-wing/populist Alternative for Germany. Last, the often-floated option of cooperation between CDU/CSU and Greens is out of the question for similar reasons. Overall, a compromise candidate elected by CDU/CSU+SPD thus seems most likely.

Projection_Seat distribution in the German Federal Convention 2016

1260 seats total; 631 votes required in first and second round, relative majority in third and final round; for more information see http://www.wahlrecht.de/lexikon/bundesversammlung.html

Analysts have highlighted over the last months that parties, particularly the CDU/CSU, would like to see a ‘professional politician’ in the presidential office – although Joachim Gauck has not opposed the government in a major way, some MPs have criticised him for contradicting government positions and even went so far as to investigate means to ‘muzzle’ the president. The CDU/CSU also still lament the resignation of Horst Köhler in 2010 following public criticism of his statements regarding German military deployment which was put down party due to him not having a sufficiently think skin to withstand conflicts of this kind. Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has been mentioned most consistently (even before Gauck’s announcement) as a potential candidate. Despite having been the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in 2009 and serving as deputy party chairman, he is seen as a relatively party-neutral choice – the fact that he is by far the most popular German politican (71% approval) adds to his suitability. Interestingly, the second most popular politician, veteran politician and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), is also frequently named as a potential candidate. Nevertheless, his hard line on Greek state debt makes him less presentable on an international level. Also, Schäuble is already 73 years old would thus also likely be unavailable for a second term in office. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has a number of supporters across the political spectrum, yet is likely more keen to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor than become Germany’s first female president. Last, some social democrats have suggested social science professor Jutta Allmendinger (SPD member), director of the prestigious Berlin Social Science Centre, as a candidate. Nevertheless, the SPD previously failed to see a similar candidate elected on two occasions. On suggestion of then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD nominated professor Gesine Schwan, president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder), for president in 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, she failed to win and was involved in a number of controversies resulting in several SPD and Green electors refusing to cast their vote for her.

Until now, only the Free Voters – represented only in the state parliament of Bavaria and projected to send a mere 10 electors to Berlin next February – have officially nominated a candidate: Alexander Hold, a judge who gained national prominence by appearing in court room shows on German private TV station SAT 1, currently serving a local councillor and party faction leader for the Free Voters in the town of Kempten. There is little chance that Hold will gain more than the 10 votes of his party colleagues, but the nomination has already produced some headlines which might benefit the party. It would not be the first time that a party nominates a candidate know for their work on TV – in 2009 DIE LINKE nominated actor Peter Sodann as their candidate for president (he received 91 votes – two more than the total number of DIE LINKE delegates – in the first and only round of elections).

The race for president thus still remains open. In contrast to Estonia – where political leaders find themselves in a similar situation – however, there is still sufficient time for parties to find a candidate. On the other hand, a timely decision could mitigate the election’s signalling effect for the next Bundestag election and give parties more time to focus on their campaign. It is without question that all of them do not want to live with a headache for too long.