Tag Archives: Protests

Venezuela – Protestors Storm National Assembly

I have written a lot recently about the situation in Venezuela. There are recurrent shortages of goods in supermarkets across the country, and inflation continues to rise, unabated. The capacity of the state is slowly crumbling, epitomized by rising infant mortality and malaria cases. With oil prices far from the highs of the mid-2000s, investment in the state oil company PDVSA, mooted to come from Russia, is a political and economic necessity. Given this context, political capital has been hard to generate, and since taking office, in response to weakening support, the successor of the late Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro, has increasingly adopted authoritarian tactics to quell and suppress opposition movements and parties.

Part of Maduro’s authoritarian turn can be explained by Venezuela’s current experience of divided government. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, President Maduro and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January 2016, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

The executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. Although the opposition don’t have the magic two thirds majority, they have placed persistent pressure on President Maduro. In turn, Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court, which has struck down a number of the opposition initiatives. Two months ago, President Maduro issued a decree to establish a constitutional assembly, or constituyente in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Street protests have become a near daily occurrence, both in opposition to, and in support of, the Maduro regime and over the last months, we have seen a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors.

Now it seems as if the crisis is moving to the next level. Yesterday, approximately 100 government supporters stormed the opposition-controlled National Assembly, where they attacked and beat up a number of opposition legislators. A crowd had been gathering for a number of hours outside the Assembly, and following a session to mark the country’s independence day, and a speech from vice-President Tareck El Aissami, urging a new constitution to end the last vestiges of empire, the crowd attacked the building and kept roughly 350 people hostage for nearly four hours.

All of this came amid a video last week that purportedly showed a police helicopter attacking the interior ministry and the government-backed Supreme Court. The helicopter was apparently piloted by Oscar Pérez, a former member of Venezuela’s intelligence services. The Maduro regime are claiming that Pérez received support and backing from the CIA.

It has been asserted that the executive-legislative deadlock in Venezuela is living proof of Juan Linz’s direst predictions. Regardless of what the truth actually is, and the support that Pérez and his group have, one thing is for sure: things in Venezuela are only going to get worse.

Venezuela – Current and Former Latin American Presidents Denounce Recent Events

The situation in Venezuela appears to be deteriorating. Amid daily street protests, a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors, rampant price instability and food shortages, and against a backdrop of a crumbling state, epitomised by rising infant mortality and malaria cases, Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela, has stepped up his confrontation with the opposition controlled legislature.

As I have written recently on this blog, although political machinations denied the opposition the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution, they have nonetheless been a thorn in the side of President Maduro, and at the end of last month, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. In the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of opposition initiatives.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Now, President Maduro has called for a new constitution, and requested that a constitutional assembly, or constituyente, be established in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state. President Maduro issued a decree to begin the process of convening such an assembly. This move has sparked even more intense protests and to add to the chaos, President Maduro’s supporters have also taken to the street to defend the call for the assembly.

Given that presidential elections are due to held in December 2018, it seems likely that the purpose of the constitutional assembly would be to prolong or delay this election, and extend the tenure of President Maduro. At the same time, the existence of an alternative legislative body, could undermine the legitimacy and power of the current opposition dominated Congress. A similar tactic was employed by Rafael Correa in 2007.

But the last vestiges of the Venezuelan government’s international legitimacy appear to have ebbed away. Having been suspended from the Mercosur since December, today at a meeting in Buenos Aires, a group of current and former Latin American Presidents denounced what they termed the “descent into hell” of Venezuela. This group included President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, former Uruguayan president, Julio María Sanguinetti, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Spanish prime minister, Felipe González.  They specifically criticised President Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.

Of course, what effect this will have remains to be seen. It doesn’t appear as if President Maduro has very many options. Given the depth of polarization in Venezuela and the anger of the opposition, any chance of a controlled transition seems improbable. In response to increasing opposition, the government has moved towards increasing authoritarianism. For the people of Venezuela, an end to this crisis still seems like a long way away.

Guatemala – Minister of Social Welfare Arrested

In mid-January, the neophyte politician and President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, completed his first year in office. In the two months since then, Morales has faced mounting pressure on a number of different fronts, including a horrific fire that saw the death of forty girls, the forced resignation and arrest of one of his ministers, the investigation of a special advisor and an ongoing corruption scandal involving members of his own family.  All of this amidst a number of public protests calling for his resignation.

Morales was always going to face difficulties. Elected in October 2015 as a prototypical outsider riding a growing wave of the ‘politics of anti-politics’, Morales, of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación), a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Although a social conservative, his policy platform was always something of a mystery given his election manifesto was only six pages long. During the campaign, Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. But his party won only 11 of 158 seats in the house, and it seemed likely that this outsider was going to face problems governing effectively.

Last Wednesday, these problems began to come to a head with a fire in a government-run children’s care home near Guatemala City, which has resulted in the death of 40 teenage girls so far. Amidst allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the care home, together with overcrowding, the Minister for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, resigned on Monday, but was then promptly arrested, along with the director of the shelter and a ministry official on charges of negligent homicide.

Morales replaced Rodas with Candida Rabanales, but this has not stemmed public anger. The socialist political party, Convergencia CPO-CRD, yesterday formally asked Congress to withdraw the immunity of President Morales, so that he can be charged in relation to the disaster. Although this is highly unlikely, there have been a number of public demonstrations and protests in response to the fire and the government’s response. These can be added to a number of other demonstrations in Guatemala city since mid-January, including a large agricultural protest that called President Morales ‘incapable’ of governing and demanded his resignation.

This has not been helped by an ongoing corruption scandal involving the president’s brother Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, both of whom have been placed under investigation by the UN-supported International Commission on Corruption in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. They allegedly fabricated invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and concerns Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party.

And today, Guatemala’s Supreme Court removed the immunity of Edgar Justino Ovalle, a former military officer and currently a member of congress for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional. Ovalle, one of the co-founders of the President’s party, and a close adviser to Morales, is accused of human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war, including forced kidnapping and murder.

All of this must worry the President. Since the return to democracy across Latin America, large sustained street protests, often in response to allegations of corruption, have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Guatemala is not witnessing widespread protests akin to Brazil last year, for example. Far from it and what is more, although protests played a role in the downfall of many presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive. But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.[1]

With so few seats in Congress, and beset on all sides, Morales’ position is precarious. If noting else, it goes to show the difficulties that these outsiders will face when trying to govern with little institutional knowledge or support.

Notes

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

South Korea – Collective-Action and President Park’s Impeachment: Did Corruption Galvanize Protestors?

President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on December 9, 2016, when the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the president – following consecutive weekends of large-scale protests against her – seemed nothing short of stunning. Here is an executive who has consistently weathered criticisms of her unconsultative style and recurring influence-peddling scandals to remain the Queen of Elections and assert her priorities over the opposition and even at the expense of her ruling Saenuri Party.[i] In fact, President Park was instrumental in the candidate-nomination debacle that led to departures of high-profile senior party-members and accounted in part for the Saenuri Party’s resounding defeat in the 2016 general elections. That the President managed to keep the now-minority party in government following the drubbing is instructive. Indeed, even following the President’s impeachment, Park loyalists retained leadership control of the ruling Saenuri Party (renamed since as the Liberty Korea Party); as a result, non-Park legislators and members left the party – some would say, again – to form the conservative Bareun Party. Given President Park’s apparent staying power, how did impeachment happen?

Public activism is the mainstay that underpins the resolve to bring about the President’s impeachment. The weekly protests that began in October and, at various times, exceeded two million, likely played a key role in bringing together the fractured opposition in the legislature to pull off the impeachment. It should be noted that the Park government had faced public protests previously, the most consistent being the Sewol protests to demand an independent investigative counsel for clear resolution of the tragedy in April 2014. What is different this time around is the size of the public protests: these are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987.

That large public protests are part of the knockout punch on a regime is not surprising: Tucker (2007) noted that electoral fraud led citizens to overcome collective action problems and form the Colored Revolutions protests that revolutionized politics in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.[ii] What other issues galvanize public protests? My own work on anti-corruption efforts show that government corruption may have such a galvanizing effect: in particular, experiment results show that Korean citizens are willing to join others to demand government accountability for corruption, even when they suffer no losses through the corrupt actions, if  expect others to pursue that course of action.[iii]

President Park’s fall from grace, then, may lie less in her susceptibility to the influences of her confidante, Choi Soo-sil, and more with her alleged role in aiding bribery and corruption from Korean conglomerates to said confidante. The President and her lawyers have been stalling and stonewalling the special investigation counsel as well as the Constitutional Court, in an effort to delay the Court’s decision. Still, the Constitutional Court has made clear that it will decide by March 10, lending to speculations that the collective protests have had an impact even on the mostly-conservative court. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, it may well be useful to uncover other issues that galvanize citizens and lead to demands for government accountability.

 

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[ii] Joshua Tucker. 2007. “Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions.” Perspectives on Politics vol 5 no 3: 535-551

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “How do South Koreans Respond to Government Corruption? Evidence from Experiments.” Korea Observer vol 47 no 2: 363-386

 

 

 

Honduras – Protests to Remove President Amid Allegations of Corruption

On this blog, my posts on Latin America have a few recurring themes. Two of the most prominent must surely be related to corruption in the executive office and public protests calling for the president’s impeachment or resignation.

Well, once again I return to this topic. Juan Orlando Hernández, the President of Honduras, from the conservative and right-leaning Partido Nacional, is facing calls for his resignation over allegations of corruption, following a large public demonstration attended by thousands of marchers last Friday in Tegucigalpa. This was the fifth Friday in a row that saw demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation.

JOH came to power following the December 2013 elections, which saw him defeat the left-leaning wife, Xiomara Castro, of a former president, Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a coup in 2009 by pro-military conservative factions. However, the president and his party have now been accused of embezzling over US$90 million from the state social security agency, which was then used to fund Hernández’s victory in the 2013 election. This is part of a larger scandal involving the state agency, El Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS), which provides one in every eight Hondurans with healthcare, that has seen over US$200 million embezzled from its coffers over the last few years. Hernández has claimed that he was unaware where the money came from.

These allegations of corruption in Honduras at the very highest institutional level join a long list for Latin America. Across the region, presidents have often been associated with corruption while occupying the executive office. For example, last year alone, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In April in El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court in June 2014 to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

These countries are also no strangers to mass protests. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests, motivated by allegations of corruption, have frequently acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela.

The combination of a corruption scandal and mass protests can, and indeed has, forced presidents to pre-emptively resign, or has forced the house to begin impeachment proceedings. Nonetheless, even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast institutional support have proven very difficult to remove from office.[1]

In Honduras’ conservative and oligarchic institutional system however, Hernández appears reasonably safe. He has the backing of the Supreme Court, the traditional and conservative, Partido Nacional and many within the Partido Liberal and crucially, the support of the military. Only recently, Hernández managed to introduce a new constitutional amendment, allowing for consecutive presidential election, the very same proposal that resulted in the removal of Zelaya. It is all not easy sailing for the president however. Since 2013, a third party, Partido Libertad y Refundación (Libre) the party of Castro, have held a third of the seats in the house and the legislature has proved a somewhat persistent institutional obstacle for Hernández.

For Honduras however, these protests and this scandal only add to the woes of the already beleaguered democracy.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; or Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101.