Tag Archives: Senate

Paraguay – President Horacio Cartes Offers Resignation and then Withdraws it

At the end of May, President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay formally submitted his resignation to Congress. This was to enable him to take a seat in the country’s senate. His term was due to officially end in August, but given that incoming senators are to be sworn in on June 30 and the Constitution prohibits officials holding two offices simultaneously, his resignation from the presidency would allow him to assume his senate seat.

On Tuesday however, President Cartes announced that he was withdrawing his resignation. Successive attempts to try and get Congress to accept his resignation were stymied by opposition parties, including the left-leaning alliance led by the former President, Fernando Lugo, together with members of his own Colorado Party. The opposition of these legislators prevented the senate achieving a quorum and so Cartes’ resignation remained formally unapproved.

Paraguayan presidents are limited to one five-year term, but the Constitution allows for former presidents to become senators for life. These are relatively toothless positions however, whereby former presidents are allowed to express their opinion in the senate, but they have no vote or no real capacity for political leadership. Cartes therefore, and with the backing of the Constitutional Court, ran for a full senate seat in the recent elections on April 22nd, which he duly won. An attempt last year by Cartes to reform the Constitution to allow for the extension of the current provision on term limits ultimately ended in failure amidst popular opposition and public demonstrations.

Accession to a full, elected senate seat, as opposed to the largely ceremonial seat he is constitutionally entitled to, would also afford Cartes the complete set of rights and prerogatives available to senators. This includes immunity from prosecution, which some have suggested is the major impetus behind Cartes’ eagerness to leave the presidency and assume a senate seat.

Before he became president, Cartes built up a family empire spanning businesses involved in banking, tobacco, the drinks industry and even soccer. But during his presidency, WikiLeaks published a 2010 US State Department cable alleging that Cartes was the head of a criminal operation involving drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1986, Cartes spent sixty days in jail as a result of an investigation into currency fraud.

The general assumption is that once the term-limited Cartes leaves the presidential office, he will face criminal charges relating to his business activities. Hence the resistance of the opposition and some members of his party to his proposed resignation.

Cartes is not alone in seeking immunity from prosecution in the sanctuary of a senate seat. Most famously, Augusto Pinochet became a senator for life with immunity from prosecution in Chile following his defeat in the 1988 referendum. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is also facing prosecution over the alleged cover-up of Iranian involvement in the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, a Jewish community centre, in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, but is currently protected by her position as a senator. And given the current legal woes of former Peruvian presidents, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala, and Alejandro Toledo, in the wake of the Odebrecht affair, I have no doubt they would welcome the protection a senate seat (with immunity) might bring.

France – Government gets a shellacking in mid-term Senate elections

Elections to the Senate, the upper house of the French legislature, were held on Sunday. The Senate is an indirectly elected body, though the electorate is large, mainly comprising local councillors and there are many of them. Since recent changes, the mandate of a Senator lasts six years and one half of the senate is elected every three years.

In 2011, the left gained a slim majority in the Senate. This was first ever left-wing majority in the upper house since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The left has traditionally been disadvantaged at Senate elections, because there are many councillors and, hence electors, from rural areas who have tended to support the right. While the left enjoyed a slim majority after 2011, the government did not. The left’s majority included the Communist, Republican, and Citizens group, which included representatives from left-wing parties not in the government. Moreover, the majority also included the Greens. However, they left the governing coalition with the Socialists in March 2014. Partly because the government of socialist President François Hollande never enjoyed a majority even when the Greens were in office, it was defeated a number of times in the Senate after it took office in 2012.

Following the election at the weekend the state of the parties is roughly as follows:

  • UMP (right-wing opposition) – 145 seats (+12)
  • UDI (centre-right opposition) – 38 seats (+6)
  • Socialists (government) – 112 seats (-16)
  • RDSE (government) – 12 seats (-7)
  • Greens (opposition) – 10 seats (no change)
  • Communists and left opposition  – 17 seats (-3)
  • National Front (extreme right) – 2 seats (+2)

So, as expected, the left has lost its overall majority. Moreover, the Socialist group is weakened further. This was expected, but it will make life for the government of PM Manuel Valls more difficult. Not entirely unexpectedly, but newsworthy nonetheless, was the arrival for the first time of the National Front (FN) in the Senate. One of the noteworthy elements of the election of their two Senators is that they received the votes of electors who were not representatives of the FN on local councils. This is perhaps a sign that the FN is becoming more mainstream, less untouchable.

These two lessons of the Senate elections confirm general trends. The popularity of President Hollande is still hovering around an all-time low at less than 20%. He has become a figure of ridicule. This is being felt within the Socialist party itself. The President and PM are having difficulty keeping their majority together in the National Assembly. It is not unrealistic to think that the government may lose its majority there in the coming months. At the same time, the National Front is polling very well. There is no chance, as yet, of its candidate being elected President of the Republic in 2017. However, there is every chance that the candidate, which is almost certainly going to be the party leader, Marine Le Pen, will win through to the second ballot.

The prospect of a weak PS and an unelectable FN is one of the reasons why former president Nicolas Sarkozy made a political come back only last week. If he were to stand as the UMP’s candidate in 2017, he would be well placed to win again, though the same could be said about any UMP candidate at the moment, notably Sarkozy’s main rivals on the right, former PMs Alain Juppé and François Fillon. Sarkozy’s chances are not unrealistic. Some of his judicial issues have gone away at least for the time being. He is also a dogged political fighter with a history of reinventing himself and identifying popular (or populist) issues.

As things stand, the FN will continue to make headlines over the next couple of years, but the significant battle is the one that is taking place within the UMP.

Haiti – In search of Senate elections

The political system in Haiti is in a constant state of flux. Since the onset of some form of democracy in 1987, there have been repeated collapses, transitions, and occasionally some governance. In part, this is due to the constitution. The president has relatively few powers and requires a majority in parliament to govern. Parliament is split between two chambers. They have basically equal powers. Both have to approve the government and both can bring it down. The Senate also sits in permanent session, meaning that the government is permanently looking over its shoulder. While the constitution is poorly designed, the earthquake in January 2010 was so devastating that existing political and economic problems were exacerbated making all aspects of governance more difficult.

President Michel Martelly took office in May 2011. He has struggled to win majority support in either house, and has faced particular difficulty in the Senate. Elections to the Chamber of Deputies were held with the presidential election in November 2010/March 2011. They are due to be held at the same time as the next presidential election. However, elections to the Senate are overdue. If they were to be held and if the president could win a majority there, then he would be much better placed to pass legislation. However, holding elections to the Senate is causing problems.

The Senate comprises 30 Senators. Full elections were held in 2006. Since then, there have been a number of constitutional amendments that have changed the duration of their mandate. However, the current situation is that Senators serve for six years with a partial renewal of the seats every two years, with 10 seats being elected each time on a rolling US-style basis. There were partial elections in 2009. There were also partial elections in 2010/2011. There were due to be partial elections at the end of 2011. However, they were delayed because of problems with establishing an acceptable, independent and permanent electoral commission. This means that since 2012, there have been only 20 Senators in office. The next round of partial elections was scheduled for later this year when they were due to be held with the local elections, but there is no guarantee that they will go ahead. This opens up the possibility of there being only 10 Senators left if elections do not take place.

The delay in holding elections has partly been caused by a delay in setting up a new and permanent electoral commission. In April 2013 a so-called Collège Transitoire du Conseil Électoral Permanent (CTCEP) was established. This was an interim electoral commission. It was the result of a lot of bargaining between the executive and the legislature. However, it meant that in theory there was now an institutional mechanism for organising elections. In December an electoral law was passed by both chambers of parliament and was promulgated by the president. In January of this year the president of the interim commission announced that elections to the Senate could be held within six months, begging the question of whether this would be just for the 10 vacant seats or for those seats and for the 10 seats that are due to expire at the end of this year as well. However, faced with these difficulties and also a cause of them, various Senators have been pressing for the length of their mandate to be extended. More than that, some Senators, notably those associated with the former President Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas group, have threatened violence if their terms are not extended. So, the absence of elections is more than just the inability of political groups to agree on the composition of an electoral commission. It is also the result of some groups not wanting an election to be held at all.

To help resolve the situation, at the end of January at the suggestion of the churches there was a two-week-long period of ‘national dialogue’. This brought together representatives of the executive, legislature, political parties and civil society, though not all representatives always attended, notably the Fanmi Lavalas.

In the end, an agreement was reached. There are signs that it would have led to a new electoral commission with the promise of new elections as well as a change of government but not necessarily the PM, who is an ally of the President Martelly. However, the agreement was still-born. President Martelly refused to name 10 members of the Cour Supérieure des Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif (CSCCA) as required by the deal. Therefore, the president of the Senate, Simon Dieuseul Desras, who is an opponent of President Martelly, refused to sign the agreement. The agreement has now been delayed ‘sine die’.

However, maybe there is hope. President Martelly and the president of the Senate, Simon Dieuseul Desras, are both travelling to Rome to attend the investiture of Haiti’s first ever cardinal on Sunday. They are not travelling together, but there is the hope that they may meet on the margins of the visit and reach a deal that will end of the country’s many periods of transition.