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Remembering Robert Elgie – Scholar, Colleague, Friend

Robert Elgie (1965-2019)

Robert Elgie, our dear friend, colleague, supporter, and founder of the Presidential Power blog, passed away on July 14, 2019. We bid Robert farewell in this memorial post, with testimonials from current and former contributors.

“Sometimes the waiting can seem endless. But be patient and in time everything will turn out right”. Robert’s last post on his Half-Life Music blog is as inspiring in its simplicity as every other piece he ever wrote. His contribution to comparative politics scholarship is enormous, but it was his gift of clear, simple writing that always stood out to me. Even in the quickest of blog posts, Robert was able to pack a breakthrough idea in a single sentence that made more sense than whole chapters written before. Arguably, there are few things more daunting for a PhD student than to have their work read by somebody like him. His “this is not English” scribbles in the margins of the first thesis chapter I handed in were etched in my mind for a long time. Later on, I would never miss an opportunity to take him back to his harsh words, and he would always say that I fully deserved them. No need for sugar-coating then or ever. Undoubtedly, if my writing is any better nowadays, it is because I tried hard to reach (not successfully enough, I’m afraid) the high bar he had set. Sure enough, in his book, the wait never meant sitting idly by until things just happened. It was more about how hard work will eventually turn everything right. It was a great honour to be one of the founding members of the Presidential Power blog – and indeed witness the idea of the collaborative blog forming into his mind. I was simply astonished by the energy he put into making sure that not a day passed by without a new post, that we covered a wide range of regions, came up with new sections often enough, used every possible social media to spread the message… quite simply, the determination with which he made sure that every single piece of a project he ran was fine tuned to perfection, as if it had not been just one of the tens of things he was juggling with at the same time, was out of this world. I will deeply miss Robert’s kindness, wise words, his everyday “less-is-more” examples, and a myriad of other little caring gestures that he seemed to make so effortlessly…

Cristina Bucur

“Robert shared his knowledge, his experiences and his enthusiasm freely, he was a wonderful scholar and treated everybody with a great amount of respect. He will be terribly missed, not only as a scholar but as a mentor and a friend. And, I will never forget his pure joy in discussing a paper: both the big questions – of which he asked plenty –  and the very, very specific details – with his mountain of knowledge.”

Anna Fruhstorfer

“Robert and I first met in late 2013, yet as bloggers on presidential politics had ‘known’ each other ‘virtually’ for at least two years before then. Starting with the creation of the Presidential Power Blog, we were often in weekly contact. After Robert served as the external examiner for my PhD in 2014, emails were no longer limited to discussing aspects of the blog and he became a trusted colleague, resourceful advisor, and one of my most important mentors (only second to my doctoral supervisor). As such, Robert was always empathetic, supportive, and accommodating in my professional and personal struggles as an early career academic. This is also how I got to know him as a scholar. Robert was always curious and had an amazing ability to ask (very) critical questions without stifling enthusiasm or innovative thought. Despite his prestige as a scholar, he was approachable; he was always happy to reach out to others, particularly to junior scholars, for new insights; he did not mind when others disagreed with his work but valued them and their contributions regardless. Robert leaves an impressive scholarly legacy; however, and maybe more importantly so, he also leaves an unparalleled legacy of kindness to others.”

Philipp Köker

“I met Robert at the beginning of my PhD. He was my ‘research design’ lecturer. His classes were extremely clear and inspiring, I learned an awful lot in these months. I also got a lot of encouragement down the line; even if he was a senior faculty member, he was always available to give me clear feedback on my essays and related issues. One year after he asked me to contribute a guest post to ‘Presidential Power blog’ and, immediately after, he invited me to join as a regular contributor. For three years I was part of that project. Sometimes I wonder if Robert had more than 24 hours in a day. No matter what time I sent the blogpost in, it was always edited within a few hours. We all were motivated by the love and passion he put into the project. I will always remember Robert as an inspiring person, extremely competent and approachable at the same time. His premature departure is a loss not only for political science but also for all current and past researchers who had the luck to meet him.”

Chiara Maria Loda

“Robert was an outstanding scholar, friend and colleague. As a scholar of political institutions, he put semi-presidentialism on the academic map and vastly expanded the study of presidential powers, including by creating the Presidential Power blog. As a friend and colleague, Robert was extraordinarily generous with his time and advice, establishing networks across continents and specializations that we have all benefited greatly from. Fifteen years ago, he accepted to work with me on a book project though we had never met, and that became the start of a long friendship and collaboration I will forever be grateful for. His passing is a great loss. Though we will miss him terribly, the impact of Robert’s many scholarly contributions and friendship will live on.”

Sophia Moestrup

“I met Robert Elgie in 2008, when I started my doctoral studies at Dublin City University. I knew that he was a leading academic in comparative politics, and because of this, as a young PhD student who was trying to find his feet in academia, I couldn’t help feeling a bit intimidated by his wealth of knowledge and academic authority.
He was not directly involved in my studies, but I was fortunate enough to meet him in person and to get his advice in several occasions, be it to improve a paper, to understand the functioning of the academic market, or simply to encourage me to develop confidence. He did not receive a better salary for assuming those roles, he did it out of vocation. Many people who knew him or read his work know about his significant contributions to political science, but he was also a kind teacher and mentor who inspired many students like me.
I consider Robert one of my mentors, to whom I am also deeply grateful for taking me into account to participate in his latest projects, such as this blog.”

Juan Muñoz-Portillo

“Robert was the best colleague, a friend who was always ready to support people. In 2012 I was looking for a Mentor for my post-doctoral research project. In fact this was my first program abroad and I was worried. I wrote a letter via e-mail to a number of professors. To my surprise, Robert whom I did not know at all gave me the chance to be my host professor in Dublin. His immeasurable attention and daily support during that visit had a great influence on my career. I was surprised by his approach to professional activities. At the end of the visit, Robert suggested to me that I write a chapter on Georgia for his book, which was a great honor for me. From then on, I was a part of many important projects with Robert’s support and I was very proud to work with him. Finally we met in Oslo, Norway, where he offered me to think about a book on Georgia and gave me recommendations on the book structure with his usual attention. I don’t know of any other scientist who gave this kind of attention and support to young researchers. I will always appreciate his help and kindness, and I am very saddened by the sudden passing of Robert. My sincere condolences are with his family and all his friends.”

Malkhaz Nakashidze

“I had the great fortune to have Professor Robert Elgie as my PhD Supervisor. Beginning a PhD in my forties was a huge challenge, but one that was made infinitely easier thanks to Robert’s unstinting support and guidance. In spite of his innumerable achievements and responsibilities, Robert was never anything less than generous with his time and constructive with his opinions. I learned a great deal from Robert, both personally and professionally, and will be forever grateful that I got to work with him. May he rest in peace.”

Chris O’Connell

“I come to praise Robert, for there is so much about Robert to honour and praise.[1]
I met Robert some 15 years ago, at a three-day workshop and conference at the University of Edinburgh. We used to joke about the fact that our friendship was due in no small part to three-nights of whiskey drinking – almost all on my part, but Robert was always too English to say so – which was, in turn facilitated by the thoughtfulness of our hosts to put us up right next to an all-night pub.
He was a prolific, insightful, deep-thinker, with no fewer than 10 single-authored or co-authored books, 8 edited books, 58 journal articles, and 73 book chapters. So accomplished, dedicated and successful a scholar was Robert that he was inducted to the Royal Irish Academy in 2016.
But Robert was more than that: he was a generous and enthusiastic mentor, supporter, cheer-leader, champion. He founded the Presidential Power Blog, which has become a platform that many early career researchers find handy for information, disseminating research, and networking. So many have flourished with Robert’s help, support, encouragement, and guidance.
But Robert was more than that: he was also worldly. He could talk about soccer, music, food, whiskey, and, of course, politics. I have never seen Robert drink much at all, yet he knew and shared and suggested. And, wise about drinking: for instance, he shared the adage, “grape after grain, never more pain.” Or was that, “grain after grape, never more ache?” And don’t get him started on Thatcher, or May.
Yes, Robert was more than that: he had a great sense of humour. I can always count on him for a wry comment. I remember asking if he’d come through Australia to visit with me, to which he replied drolly: sure, with all the improvements to transportation, it only takes 2-3 weeks by boat now, doesn’t it?
Yes, Robert was remarkable in so many ways. I wish I wasn’t lulled by the complacency of expecting to see him, hear from him, talk to him, write to him, that I forgot how far-flung we are, as academics. Or how isolated we can be, as academics. Or how solitary our work usually is, as academics.
Robert, I will miss you deeply, and for a very long time. May you rest in peace, until we meet up again for whiskey, my dear friend.”

[1] With apologies to Shakespeare, capturing the spirit, if not the wording, here.

Fiona Yap
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Sad and untimely passing of Robert Elgie

We are profoundly sad to share news of the sudden passing of our dear friend, colleague, and founding editor of the Presidential Power blog, Professor Robert Elgie. Robert’s kind, gentle, and unstinting generosity as an academic, mentor, and friend will be greatly missed. Our deep condolences are with his family.

Robert’s funeral will take place Tuesday, July 23, in Dublin. More details on the arrangements can be found under this link.

Acting with Impunity: Who Can Force Paul Biya’s Hand?

In the midst of the most serious crisis that Cameroon has faced since the 1950s, with over 1,850 people killed, 500,000 displaced, and perhaps as close as 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, President Paul Biya decided the time was ripe to vacation at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. The location is not new. Over his 35 years in power, Biya has spent approximately 15% of his time abroad, often in Geneva, at an astonishing cost of $50,000 a day. During this visit, over 250 Cameroonian demonstrators greeted him, and were dispersed by Swiss police using teargas and riot gear. A petition by Swiss parliamentarian Sylvain Thévoz to oust Biya from Switzerland went nowhere. Biya returned to Cameroon, where he is expected yet again to postpone legislative and municipal elections

The impunity with which Biya has been able to operate is remarkable. Almost two years into the crisis, the violence continues to take a heavy toll. Human Rights Watch has documented several new instances of abuse by security forces, including indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests, and scorched earth tactics. Separatist groups still attack security forces, but have increasingly turned toward kidnapping and intimidating civilians. John Fru Ndi, the once venerated chairman of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was kidnapped twice in the span of two months and pressured by separatists to authorize a recall of his parliamentarians. Meanwhile, political rights remain heavily constrained, and 350 supporters of imprisoned presidential candidate Maurice Kamto were arrested in June. The president has delegated the new Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, to visit Anglophone regions on a peace-seeking mission, but has also refused to support efforts to create an All-Anglophone Conference that could bring various groups together into dialogue.

What would lead to a breakthrough that could bring some modicum of dialogue and solution to the crisis? The gaps between Anglophones and the regime are large. The Anglophone movement now consists of numerous armed groups, a government in exile, civil society organizations, churches, and the SDF. These groups have held positions that range from addressing cultural grievances to decentralization to federalism to separatism. On the other hand, the government has vehemently rejected any changes to the structure of the state, and has only offered half-measures in support of decentralization, like constrainedregional elections. The government would have to be pushed to consider genuine decentralization, and Anglophone groups would be forced to coalesce around the idea. Moreover, it is not even clear what set of confidence-building measures any side would agree to, just to get people to the table. Sisiku Tabe, the imprisoned former president of the Ambazonia Interim Government, has called for the complete retreat of armed forces and civil servants from Anglophone regions and the release of all prisoners as a precondition for internationally sponsored talks. The SDF has specified a less stringent set of requirements, but these are also not likely to garner any regime support.    

There are signs that the international community is beginning to take this crisis more seriously. In February, the United States withdrew $17 million of military aid, and in March the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, visited Cameroon for the first time. The EU representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, described the situation in Anglophone areas as unacceptable. In May, the United Nations Security Council held its first informal meeting on the crisis.  The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned of escalating violence and criticized the security force’s scorched earth tactics. These efforts have not yet borne fruit, and to some are unlikely to unless international actors, and particularly the United States, significantly increase pressure on the Biya regime

But, the reality is that Cameroon has always been an astute player of international affairs, and has been able to position itself as a key strategic ally. The “special relationship” between Cameroon and France is well documented. After colonialism, France made it a key priority to maintain political support from Cameroon, in part because of existing economic interests (particularly French oil companies), and in part because it wanted Cameroon’s support in international organizations. Throughout the current crisis, France has maintained a lower profile, and presented itself as more diplomatic and private in its approach, in contrast with the growing public criticism and condemnation from other international actors. While French diplomats have privately pushed the regime toward some concessions like releasing prisoners, this is not backed up with any real pressure on the regime to enter into negotiations. This relationship limits the efficacy of other international pressure, and the ability of international institutions to coordinate a response.   

The United States was once a vocal critic of Cameroon, and withheld aid from Cameroon from 1992 to 2001. However, the second Iraq War and the global war on terror brought Cameroon back into the American fold. In my other research, I note how Cameroon was heavily lobbied by the George W. Bush administration to abstain on an Iraq War resolution, when Cameroon held a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. The United States returned the favor with support for Cameroon during the Bakassi Peninsula dispute. Cameroon has also developed elaborate security ties with the United States, as part of the coalition to combat Boko Haram and terrorism in the Sahel. Cameroon banks on its image as an “island of stability” to maintain these security ties. By the same token, Cameroon has spent large amounts of money on US-based lobbying and PR firms to bolster its image abroad. In one of the more blatant examples, in 2004 Cameroon paid $80,000 for an election observation mission organized by the US Association of Former Members of Congress. In my research, I also document how local embassy staff was acutely aware of the contradictions of their mission in Cameroon, and the difficulty of balancing national security incentives with a commitment to democracy and human rights.  

Changing these geopolitical incentives and perceptions of national security is quite difficult, absent substantially more lobbying and advocacy. But, might the mechanism of accountability instead come from insidethe regime? There is actually a divide in the governing elite of Cameroon’s ruling party, the CPDM. Most Francophone leaders are quick to defend the government’s military solution, and those who are critical of the government are not likely to express that sentiment publicly. By contrast, many Anglophone CPDM MPs have deep reservations about the government’s strategy, but little credibility among the Anglophone population. During the last legislative session in March (which I attended), the Anglophone MPs had basically decamped from their home regions to Yaoundé, and felt that it was unsafe to return to their constituencies. Fearful of massive public backlash, there was likely lobbying on their part to postpone the legislative elections. This divide extends to the military, where there is evidence of disagreement among senior officers about the sustainability and utility of the anti-insurgency campaign, absent greater political dialogue or strategy.

One visible internal effort at pressuring the Biya regime is the NW/SW Peace Movement, founded by Chief Robert Nangiya Mbile (a former MP and the son of a known CPDM elite from Ndian) and current CPDM MP Francis Ndi Enwe. The movement takes the position that the Cameroonian parliament should openly discuss the Anglophone crisis, and that it should be open to meeting with all leaders, including those who are jailed or in the bush. This places them at odds with the government’s attitude, which demands a full ceasefire before negotiations and refuses to recognize separatist groups. Nonetheless, the movement has been met with extreme skepticism from Anglophones, who doubt Enwe’s credibility and capacity to pressure the Biya regime. This is a valid criticism, especially given fear that the regime implicitly supports these kinds of initiatives as a way to stall and buy more time. The movement, while perhaps laudable in its goals, is unlikely to gain much traction under the current circumstances.  

These dynamics have emboldened the Biya regime. Stronger international pressure, seen by many as an essential step, is difficult to fathom without a change in how international actors view the question of regional stability in Central Africa. Highlighting the internal divisions within the CPDM also faces a problem since anyone associated with the regime (including opposition parties) are now viewed with intense suspicion by Anglophones. Solutions might only be possible in that ever-elusive “post-Biya world.” In the meanwhile, as the country burns and the economy suffers, Biya knows that he can wait all of this out with a taxpayer-funded vacation to Switzerland. 

Malkhaz Nakashidze – Anti-occupation protests in Georgia and the announced constitutional amendments

This blog is devoted to the memory of our dear friend, colleague, founding editor of the Presidential Power blog and  great scholar, Robert Elgie. I am very sad about his passing and will always be very grateful for his help and support.

Protests have been ongoing in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi over the past few weeks. On June 19, 2019 the 26th General Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Orthodox Church (I.A.O) opened in Tbilisi. The I.A.O. is an inter-parliamentary body formed under the initiative of the Greek Parliament in 1993.

Protests were sparked by the arrival of the Russian I.A.O. delegation to the plenary hall of the Georgian Parliament, and the decision to let a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, temporarily sit in the chair of of the speaker. This act was considered very insulting by Georgian opposition members and the public at large, as the Russian Federation has occupied 20% of the territory of Georgia and Georgia does not have diplomatic relations with Russia. It should be noted that most of the public and the opposition initially objected to hosting the I.A.O. Assembly and demanded to not allow Russian MPs to enter Georgia, including Sergei Gavrilov. Gavrilov had visited occupied territory, participated in armed conflict against Georgia and voted in 2008 in the Russian parliament to recognise regions of Georgia as independent states.

The opposition MPs protested the appearance of the Russian MP in the Parliament of Georgia. MPs from the “United National Movement” (UNM) and “European Georgia” gave the government half an hour for all Russian MPs to withdraw, saying that “if the government did not withdraw these people from the parliament building, they would start mobilizing and bringing people to the Parliament Hall”.[1]

The government was forced to suspend the assembly and remove the Russian MPs from the Parliament building. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling party, said he fully shared the concern of citizens with regard to the presence of a representative of an occupying state in the Parliament of Georgia. But he said that it was a protocol error, whose political significance, unfortunately, the organizers did not take into consideration. Ivanishvili noted that he had already talked to the Chairman of the Parliament, expressed his concerns and that his recommendation was to immediately terminate this session. [2]

Ivanishvili’s statement was not enough to calm the protest and citizens started gathering at the parliament building. A group of activists and political parties announced a large-scale demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, and in the evening several thousand people gathered outside the parliament. In parallel, the government started to mobilize law enforcement and special forces units. As the number of people at the rally grew, civil activists and members of political parties addressed the public. One of the leaders of the UNM, Nika Melia addressed the government and gave a one hour delay to replace the Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the State Security Service Vakhtang Gomelauri, and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Otherwise, Melia said that the citizens would enter the parliament.

The authorities did not consider these demands and deployed special forces units at the entrance of the parliament in front of the protesters.  A one-hour confrontation ensued between demonstrators and law enforcement services. The situation could not be solved by Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who came to the parliament to negotiate with the opposition leaders. Finally, riot police started to disrupt the rally. The government used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters to no avail. Finally, with the use of water cannons, the protest was disbanded. However, riot police pursued rally participants after the end of the protest, chasing them on various streets and using force. Ultimately, several hundred people were injured as a result of the violent dispersal, including policemen, journalists and peaceful protesters. Three rally participants lost their eyesight after being hit by rubber bullets.

Though the Georgian authorities succeeded in violently dispersing the rally, the citizen protest was not over. On the second day after the demonstration, protesters raised three demands. They demanded the resignation of the Interior Minister, the adoption of proportional representation for the next parliamentary elections, and the immediate release of the detainees. [3]

Though concerned about the high tensions, the government struggled to place political responsibility. Ultimately, at a session of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Irakli Kobakhidze resigned from the Speaker of Parliament position. His resignation was not enough to calm the protesters, however, who maintained their other political demands, including the adoption of proportional representation for the 2020 parliamentary elections. On June 24, 2019, a few days after the rally was dissolved, the Georgian Dream coalition acquiesced and said that the 2020 parliamentary elections will be conducted through a proportional system under a zero electoral threshold. [4]

This unexpected change to the electoral system was considered a victory for the protesters, but many remained suspicious of the annulment of the election threshold. Election observer organizations also commented on the abolition of the threshold which currently, in accordance with the constitution of Georgia, is set at 3% for the 2020 elections. On the one hand, the abolition of the election threshold is useful for the ruling party and on the other hand it could pave the way for different nationalist, pro-Russian or fascist groups. The opposition fears that the ruling party, which has the most financial resources, will facilitate the creation and purchase of various satellite parties, and has been vocal about its concerns. [5]

It should be noted that the adoption of a proportional electoral system could have a significant impact on politics in Georgia. In fact, since 1995, Georgia has been a single-party administration, with one party securing an absolute majority in parliament. This situation is partially the result of the current mixed electoral system, where 77 MPs are elected by a proportional electoral system and the remaining 73 MPs are elected in single member districts. MPs members of the majority consistently support the ruling party and always take pro-government positions. During the constitutional reform of 2017-2018, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition postponed the introduction of a system of proportional representation to 2024 despite demands from the opposition, NGOs and international organizations. The ruling party said its implementation would require a constitutional amendment process.

In order to change the constitution of Georgia, and thus the country’s electoral system enshrined therein, it is necessary to publish the bill, have public discussions during a one-month period, followed by discussions in Parliament. The bill must achieve the support of ¾ of the Members of Parliament; in the absence of such support, the initiative should be considered by the next elected legislature.

It is too early to say what the prospect are to achieve this significant change that requires broad consensus and agreement. In the past, the government has always been able to win time and get its way. To ensure that this initiative is implemented, it is necessary for the opposition and civil society to remain united and maintain pressure on the government.


[1] https://jam-news.net/სკანდალი-საქართველოს-პარ/?lang=ka

[2] http://41.ge/new/802-bidzina-ivanishvilis-ganckhadeba

[3] http://liberali.ge/news/view/45791/aqtsiis-monatsileebi-giorgi-gakharias-gadadgomas-itkhoven

[4] https://1tv.ge/news/bidzina-ivanishvili-2020-wlis-saparlamento-archevnebi-chatardes-proporciuli-sistemit-nulovani-saarchevno-bariebis-pirobebshi/

[5] http://unipress.ge/post/938

Timor-Leste: the shadow theatre and the powers of the President

President Francisco Guterres “Lu Olo” was the first to be elected on a partisan platform after the country had experienced three presidents who presented themselves as “independent”. Soon after the presidential election of 20 March 2017, parliamentary elections were held in July, but the president’s party, FRETILIN, obtained no more than a plurality of the vote and was unable to obtain a parliamentary basis to secure full investiture after the appointment of its leader to the post of Prime Minister. President Lu Olo responded to the vote of non-confidence in his party’s government by dissolving the assembly. The parties that had shown opposition to FRETILIN ran as a coalition which secured the necessary majority in the new parliament (May 2018). President Lu Olo accepted to appoint a representative of the winning coalition to the post of Prime Minister, inaugurating the first full fledged cohabitation in the history of the country. The course of the last year has shown that institutional life in Timor-Leste can be significantly different from real political disputes, and a sort of shadow theatre has emerged and seems to be set to persist, as will be shown in the first section of this post. In the meantime, questions about the nature and the limits of presidential powers have been brought to the fore, and these will be considered in the second part.

The first clash between rival politicians occurred when Taur Matan Ruak, the appointed Prime Minister, proposed his list of government members. Out of a total of 42 ministers, vice-ministers and secretaries of state (the three grades in the governmental hierarchy), President Lu Olo vetoed 12. One case was merely bureaucratic, and the question was solved within a week. Two others were replaced by the Prime Minister, and the new names were accepted by the President. Nine others, however, were not replaced nor accepted. President Lu Olo claims that the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste grants him the power to act in this way, which is an understanding of the presidential competences espoused by previous presidents who acted in the same way, blocking appointments to the government. Both José Ramos-Horta (2007-2012) and Taur Matan Ruak (2012-2017) publicly rejected names presented by prime ministers. In this occasion, the names in question were rejected by President Lu Olo on the basis of an alleged “lack of moral integrity” and more specifically, suspicions as to their involvement in corruption cases. If the former argument is elusive and difficult to oppose, the latter is institutionally linked to the activity of the judicial system. None of the nine vetoed ministers was at the time, or has since been brought under formal investigation – and thus the presidential initiative may be considered as an act that denies them presumption of innocence. Be it as it may, the presidential decision has been taken and politically criticised, but institutionally it remains in force, and reveals the extent to which presidents can actually use their powers. The response from the Prime Minister has been to insist on their appointment, refusing to propose other names.

These would be ministers were supposed to take important government portfolios, such as Finance, Natural Resources, Health and Internal Security. All of them belong to one of the parties supporting the government – Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT – which is the largest in the coalition. This party has two senior ministers, one serving as foreign secretary, the other as “Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers”, effectively taking the institutional functions of all 9 ministers. Simultaneously, those nine individuals are serving as “advisors” to the ministries which they were supposed to lead (popular voices saying they have larger salaries than would otherwise be the case). Officially, they are not entitled to take part in decision making, and do not attend cabinet meetings. All this instills the feeling among the population that there is a widening gap between institutions and real policy making. The economic atmosphere has also been sensitive to the difficulties faced by a government without key ministers, and several important investments have been put on hold. People on the street complain that government is running late on payments of different kinds, and there seems to be good reason to believe they are right.

The rationale for this attitude resides in two combined sections of the Constitution. First, section 86 h stipulates that the President shall “nominate, swear in and remove the members of government following a proposal from the Prime Minister”. Section 106.2 further stresses that the Prime Minister has the competence to propose ministers to the President (who cannot appoint any minister without the agreement of the Prime Minister), but the President retains the capacity to judge the suitability of the proposal and is not compelled to accept it. Second, section 107 stipulates that “the Government responds before the President of the Republic and the National Parliament for the conduction and execution of the internal and external policy of the country”. This section has been widely commented by different scholars who often cite a distinction between “institutional” and “political” responsibility. However, it is a fact that successive presidents have interpreted this section as defining a principle of double dependence, and found no reason to distinguish between the two kinds of responsibility. They have not been challenged in their views. Presidents tend to interpret this double responsibility as a way of granting them more than the powers of a notary who would be limited to the technicalities and formalities of the political process. In this light, there seems to be no way out of a presidential veto on the name of would be minister despite the fact that he may have the support of the Prime Minister and presumably that of the parliament.

The second aspect of the tug-of-war between the President and the Prime Minister refers to the veto powers of the head of state. In December 2018, President Lu Olo vetoed the State Budget approved by the National Parliament, and immediately a question emerged: how to overcome his veto? After some preliminary debate, the National Parliament bowed to the President’s remarks in the address he sent the deputies, and accepted to modify the Budget so as to please the President, who then promulgated it. It was a sound victory to the President. But the question remains: how can Parliament overrule the President in the case of the State Budget?

The Constitution grants presidents the competence to veto laws and decree-laws (Section 88). The latter cannot be overrun, the former can. The general rule is that an absolute majority of MPs can overrun a presidential veto, but there are exceptions: those that refer to matters contained in section 95. This is a section that establishes a general principle – the National Parliament legislates on the basic elements of national and international policy – and a more precise one: according to section 92.2., there are some areas in which the National Parliament is the sole organ with capacity to intervene (i.e., these cannot be delegated). The catalogue of these areas is substantial, and point q states that “the budget system” is included.

For matters falling into the catalogue of section 95.2., an absolute majority is not sufficient to overrule a presidential veto. It requires a qualified majority of two thirds of MPs (section 88.3). The question then is: is one State Budget something to be considered under the provisions for the “budget system”? In a very thoroughly argued comment on the Timorese Constitution, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos considers that section 95.2.q. refers to “budgetary matters”, thus seemingly inclined to offer a broad interpretation of this precise item.

This is consequential to the workings of the political system, and to ascertain the role of the President of the Republic. If one assumes that the President’s veto on a State Budget can only be overrun by a two-thirds majority, then his power is significantly increased in relation to what has been more commonly – but not universally – accepted as the limited boundaries of his competences. Faced with a veto on a budget, the National Parliament and the political majority would face an alternative (as happened early this year): either to accept the President’s views and modify the most critical element of governance, or to challenge it and risk a prolonged stalemate until some entity takes a decision on the legality of the President’s interpretation of the law . This latter course of action is problematic. In fact, the Supreme Court of Justice has the power “to review and declare the unconstitutionality and illegality of normative and legislative bills by the organs of the State” (Section 126.1.a), and this might be an avenue to explore. However, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos restricts this power to the laws of National Parliament and Decree-Laws of the Government – excluding presidential initiatives and actions from the scope of this norm.

Both in the case of the ministers he refuses to swear in and in the case of the effects of a presidential veto on the State Budget, Lu Olo has been testing the limits of presidential powers. So far, he has not been challenged in any institutional manner. The image these episodes project is one of significant powers in the hands of the President of the Republic, competences that he is using to assert his position in the centre of the political system and defying those who insist on granting him no more than cerimonial, institutional functions. The President of the Republic in Timor-Leste is a first rate political figure

South Africa – Ramaphosa faces populist pushback

This is a guest post by Dr. Jason Robinson, Oxford Analytica

While trying to inspire a nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa is hamstrung by those within the ruling ANC and outside who are seeking to derail reform efforts.

Two months on from the May general election, an ongoing populist pushback led by allies of former President Jacob Zuma (2009-18) is distracting Ramaphosa’s focus and posing serious governance risks.

Restoring the state

Voters and investors alike hoped after the May 8 polls that Ramaphosa would quickly move to unveil various measures to reform government, boost economic growth and curb unemployment. However, such hopes have largely been dashed.

Key turnaround plans for state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom and South African Airways (SAA) have yet to be unveiled, while Zuma’s allies in the ANC, in particular Secretary-General Ace Magashule, are regularly undermining Ramaphosa’s authority with statements contrary to party and government policy, spooking both markets and citizens alike.

Even some of his supposed allies are causing Ramaphosa problems, with the president recently forced to take national and provincial officials to task for contrasting public utterances on controversial e-tolls.

All the while, economic growth remains stagnant, rampant unemployment persists, and high crime and insecurity is a pressing (longstanding) concern; troops from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are shortly about to deployed to gang-plagued areas of the Western Cape province after a recent spike in killings.

Many of the predicaments facing Ramaphosa are undoubtedly not of his own doing, but rather the damage wrought by what he has previously dubbed ‘nine wasted years’ under Zuma.

Key among these are the corrosive undermining of key institutions through ‘state capture’, including the country’s law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.  

Since taking office 18 months ago, Ramaphosa has begun to repair their functions, with a newly installed head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) bolstered by a new anti-graft unit.

Similarly, an overhaul of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), once a shining light of South African governance but gradually decimated during Zuma’s tenure, should gradually help overturn declining tax returns and help to improve currently subdued growth prospects.

Shortly after the May election, Ramaphosa appointed a new streamlined cabinet, trimming the number of cabinet ministers from 36 to 28, with an avowed goal of more effective governance and service delivery, and giving long overdue policy certainty in key sectors.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly cognisant of his still precarious hold over his party and forced to placate the ANC’s alliance partners, Ramaphosa was forced to keep the same number of deputy ministers, in addition to retaining several poorly performing officials (including Zuma allies) in the interests of increasingly illusory party ‘unity’.

Similarly, tainted ANC figures pervade parliament, with several of those implicated in ongoing state capture revelations recently selected to head up various legislative committees, reaffirming public perceptions of a largely unreformed ANC.

Populist pushback and attacks from within

Yet while core state institutions can, over time, be repaired, perhaps one of the most problematic legacies of the Zuma tenure is the stifling of South Africa’s policy space replete with a populist resurgence.

For all the goodwill that Ramaphosa still has both at home and abroad, even as the hopes of quick post-election reforms have largely been dashed, this pushback represents a dangerous long-term challenge.

Not only does it threaten to derail Ramaphosa’s reform programme but, in the worst-case scenario, it could leave openings for his ouster and space for a populist figurehead to ascend to the ANC leadership once more.

Such infection of public discourse has been evident in the recent (largely redundant) debates over the the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), with Magashule and others resurrecting the trojan horse of altering its scope and mandate, including a potential policy of quantitative easing, which sent markets reeling and the South African rand tumbling.

Similarly, a renewed clash between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkwhebane and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, a key Ramaphosa ally, reflects the latest deflection tactics on the part of the Zuma-aligned elite.

In a July 5 report on alleged maladministration at SARS, Mkhwebane accused Gordhan of creating an illegal ‘rogue unit’ during his time as SARS commissioner (1999-2009), and separately that (as minister) he lied over meetings with the controversial Zuma-aligned Guptas, after previously stating that he had not met members of the business family, but later clarifying that he may have on one occasion.

Mkhwebane mandated the president to take disciplinary action against Gordhan within 30 days; the latter has lodged an urgent court application to interdict the report and its remedial findings.

While Mkhwebane’s charges against Gordhan may come to naught, amid apparent investigative failings and questionable understanding of both the law and her constitutional mandate, they are an unwelcome distraction for Ramaphosa given the host of pressing political issues currently facing him.

Although Mkhwebane is viewed as a Zuma surrogate after repeatedly erratic and politicised findings, she has received the backing of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have long tried to sideline Gordhan.

Last week, EFF legislators called Gordhan a “constitutional delinquent” and attempted to disrupt his budget speech, before they were removed from parliament.

In bitter contrast, Mkwhebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, showed just how South Africa’s Chapter 9 institutions (eg, independent electoral commission, human rights commission) could hold the executive to account, when led by a capable individual.

When the ANC stood firm behind Zuma as graft and state capture allegations proliferated during the end of his tenure, it was Madonsela who shone a light on the unconstitutional upgrades to Zuma’s personal homestead at Nkandla, and later the problematic state capture allegations involving Zuma, his associates and the Gupta family.

Mkhwebane’s approach thus puts Ramaphosa and his allies in a substantial institutional and public relations bind.

Should the president push for her ouster by the ANC in parliament, something backed by several opposition parties, Ramaphosa will be accused of the very kind of executive overreach perpetrated by his predecessor. Similarly, given Mkhwebane is shortly expected to release a report into donations to Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign, such a move could be portrayed as politically motivated.

Plus ca change?

In his State of the Nation Address last month, Ramaphosa outlined key strategic goals for a prospective two terms and ten years in office, including tackling hunger; getting 2 million more young people into employment; raising economic growth above that of population growth; halving violent crime; and improving child educational outcomes.

However, like so many of the government’s stated aims over the past decade, the problem is not for want of ambition, but rather governance and implementation. While Ramaphosa has taken steps to halt the rot across national government, corruption pervades at the provincial and municipal levels: only 18 of 257 municipalities received a clean audit in fiscal year 2017/18.

Ramaphosa’s allies speak to a calculated long game in the president’s cautious and methodical approach, arguing the consensus-seeker and pragmatist will ultimately (indirectly) sideline many of his enemies as the capacity of law enforcement agencies are gradually restored, and anti-corruption cases gain traction.

Nevertheless, while the deflection tactics of Magashule, Mkhwebane and the EFF may be transparent to most outside observers, they are successfully muddying the waters and distracting the president’s focus. 

EFF leader Julius Malema has suggested that Mkhwebane’s forthcoming report into Ramaphosa’s leadership campaign will damage the president and could even prompt his replacement by controversial Deputy President David Mabuza, a provincial powerbroker and former Zuma ally with a questionable past.

A continual whittling away of Ramaphosa’s pro-investment mantra and overall authority, coupled with still dormant economic growth, ongoing insecurity and high unemployment, risks ever increasing voter apathy and disillusionment with government over Ramaphosa’s first full term in office.

All the while, Ramaphosa’s enemies will be circling, hoping to undermine his good governance mantle and hasten his downfall.

Dr. Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions expressed are his own.

Twitter handle: @SpeedTrials

Peru – Odebrecht ‘Disaster’ Claims More Than Reputations

The fallout from the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been felt across the entire region of Latin America. The investigation into the political dealings of the giant Brazilian construction company – known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) – has led directly and indirectly to the downfall of high-profile politicians, notably in Brazil.

Nevertheless, the impact of the scandal has been most dramatic in Peru. Variously likened to a “tornado”, a “tsunami” and an “earthquake”, Odebrecht is the unnatural disaster that has upended the existing political order.

As noted previously in this blog, the investigation has implicated all four of Peru’s most recent presidents, along with other important political figures. Alejandro Toledo remains a fugitive; Ollanta Humala is likely to be charged along with his wife, Nadine Heredia; and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is under house arrest.

Yet all of that pales in comparison with the dramatic, near-public suicide of Alan Garcia on April 17th. When police came to his home in Lima to arrest the twice-president of Peru, Garcia was seen to produce a gun before retiring to an office to shoot himself. It was a tragic end to a controversial life and career, and has given rise to a new phase of public questioning of Peru’s approach to the Odebrecht scandal.

For many in Peru the sight of so many former presidents implicated in bribery is a source of considerable shame. But others point to the investigations of powerful figures as evidence that Peru is the only country in the region in which the “wheels of justice are truly turning”, and have exhorted other countries to follow Peru’s example.

It is certainly true that the tough approach adopted by Peru’s prosecutors and judiciary has come as a surprise to many given the country’s reputation for weak insitutions. However, it is also the case that these investigations have not run their course, and may yet be derailed. Furthermore, analysis of Peru’s political institutions reveals a more complex scenario.

Early investigations of so-called ‘leftists’ like Toledo, Humala and, most recently, former Lima Mayor Susana Villaran, were headline-grabbing but did not touch the real power players in Peruvian politics: Garcia’s APRA and the party led by Keiko Fujimori, Fuerza Popular. A more substantive test of the strength of Peru’s judicial system came with the scandal of the “CNM audios”i. Those recordings of judges peddling influence placed ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ in the firing line.

The prosecutors running the Lava Jato invevstigation, José Pérez and Rafael Vela, have not backed down in the face of fierce attacks by apristas, including former Attorney General Pedro Chávarry, who attempted to oust them and was later forced to resign himself. For some, these events demonstrate the democratising force of public prosecutors, and represent the “triumph” of the judicial over the political class in Peru.

Such statements may be premature, hoewver, and it is clear that politics still matters a great deal. For starters, the backing of “accidental president” Martin Vizcarra, who has taken up the mantle of fighting corruption, has also proved crucial to date. Vizcarra’s programme of political reform outlined previously included dissolving the CNM, which effectively removed the ‘shield’ against prosecution that Garcia had erected through his control of a large number of judges.

But neither the smooth procession of the investigation nor the passage of Vizcarra’s reforms are by any means certain. The fujimorista bloc in the legislature has used its majority to weaken or obstruct the reforms, forcing Vizcarra to repeatedly threaten to dissolve Congress. Recently those in Fuerza Popular have taken to describing Keiko – who remains in preventative detention – as a “political prisoner”. The claim has been dismissed by Human Rights Watch, but found support from another public prosecutor, proving that not all prosecutors are alike.

Furthermore, following Garcia’s suicide many supporters of APRA openly blamed the prosecutors and civil society for his death. Initially Vizcarra’s resolve appeared to weaken when he questioned the use of preventative detention against politicians. But the subsequent testimony by Jorge Barata, erstwhile head of Odebrecht in Peru, wherein he produced documentation to evidence huge payments to a high-ranking Garcia aide, appears to have ended that line of attack.

All of which brings us back to the fallout from the Odebrecht investigations in Peru. Beyond whether or not the investigation and its impacts reflect positively or negatively on Peru’s democracy lies another, more fundamental question: does any of this matter?

In his recent book on Odebrechtii, Francisco Durand argues that the use of Peru as an “operational hub” and main channel for its investments in Latin America was not happenstance. Dating back to the government of Alberto Fujimori, Durand reveals that Odebrecht found in Peru an ideal mix of ideological compatibility and low state capacity that allowed its systematic bribery operations to thrive. Furthermore, Odebrecht family members established key personal and professional relationships with members of Peru’s business and media elites, granting the company unparalleled influence and access.

For Durand, the Odebrecht case is but the most prominent example of the “political capture” of the Peruvian state by corporate interestsiii. Per this concept, bribery is just one form that this influence can take in attempts by large corporations to avoid state regulation and lower standards, such as those relating to the environment. This influence, frequently but not exclusively channelled through associations known as ‘gremios‘, appears unaffected by recent events.

This analysis fits conceptually with that of other scholars who have noted Peru’s puzzling stability in the context of a collapsed party system and weak state capacity, wherein the prevailing neoliberal economic model functions largely on “auto-pilot”iv, untroubled by the government of the day. In other words, politicians are simply not that important to the running of the state in Peru.

The coming two years will put this theory to the test. In the view of many commentators the Odebrecht scandal signals the end of the existing political order in Peru, leaving an extremely open field ahead of the 2021 elections. Furthermore, these events have somewhat strengthened public faith in the judiciary and civil societyv, and have opened up new spaces to at least debate structural reform, albeit confined to the political sphere.

But others have interpreted the huge public concern with corruption as a demand for social and indeed economic inclusion. Whether political voice can be given to such demands will perhaps prove the true legacy of the Odebrecht disaster in Peru.

i “CNM” refers to the Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, or National Judicial Council.

ii Durand, Francisco, 2018. “Odebrecht: La Empresa que Capturaba Gobiernos”. Fondo Editorial PUCP.

iii See also Crabtree and Durand’s book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

iv Melendez, Carlos, and Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, 2013. Peru 2012: Atrapados por la Historia? Revista de Ciencia Social Vol. 33(1).

v The role played by Gustavo Gorritti and his teams of investigative reporters at IDL-Reporteros in exposing the scandal is particularly noteworthy.

Indonesia: Opposition disbanded (finally), but lingering effects?

On Thusday, 27 June, 2019, the Constitutional Court finally ruled to throw out the challenges to the presidential election results put up by presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, and his vice-president running mate, Sandiaga Uno. The Court’s ruling ends Prabowo’s efforts to dispute the election outcomes since election day, April 17, 2019, when quickcount results show that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, had won the elections by as much as 10 percent over rival candidates Prabowo and Sandiaga. When the General Elections Commission (KPU) officially announced the results on May 21, 2019, declaring Jokowi-Amin had secured 55.5 percent of the votes cast, against Prabowo-Sandi’s 44.5 percent, Prabowo submitted a legal challenge to the Court, claiming “structured, systematic and massive” fraud and vote inflation by the KPU for the Jokowi-Amin ticket. Prabowo has announced that he accepts the Constitutional Court’s decision, but the former general has yet to concede defeat; instead, he has made clear that he will look for possible legal venues to appeal the Court’s ruling. In this post, I discuss some of the costs that has resulted from this tenacious opposition.

The opposition, named the Red-and-White Opposition, was formed after April 2014 general elections, i.e., during the period of horse-trading among the various legislative parties to join party-camps in the lead-up to presidential elections in July. This was under the previous Presidential Election Law, Law No. 42/2008, which ruled presidential elections were held three months following the general elections so that only parties or party-coalitions with 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of the parliamentary seats were able to nominate presidential-vice presidential candidates. Although President Jokowi won that election, his party and coalition fared worse: they formed the legislative minority with 207 seats, against the Red-and-White opposition’s 353 seats. Indeed, by the time President Jokowi was sworn in until October 20, the opposition-majority had made some palpable changes, including changing the rules of leadership appointments so that leadership positions in House committees and even the House speaker went to the opposition. The most damaging change by this conservative coalition was the abolishment of direct elections for regional leaders, but that was eventually reversed by the President’s Perppu or Presidential, followed by a unanimous support in the legislature in January 2015 for the reinstatement of said elections.[i]

The Red-and-White opposition stalled or misdirected President Jokowi’s agenda for a year before coalition parties in that opposition fell away to join the President. By January 2016, Gerindra and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) looked to be the only parties left in the Red-and-White opposition. And, with the most recent electoral and Constitutional Court defeats, Prabowo has disbanded the coalition and his campaign team.

Still, the damage from this conservative coalition extends beyond the time that it held together. For instance, the Red-and-White opposition orchestrated the use of religion in elections: religion has used successfully as a strategy to divide the popular vote in the 2017 Jakarta 2017, when Governor Anies had sought the support of Islamist groups, including militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), known for hard-line stances and attacks against minorities, during the campaign.[2] The social media campaign, #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangePresident) campaign, was initiated by the PKS party and it echoed the Jakarta campaign where opposition was aimed at undermining the incumbent candidate rather than providing viable alternatives.

President Jokowi’s response — picking Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body that comprises all registered Muslim organizations – as his running mate clearly helped strengthen considerably the President’s position in the Muslim community. However, Ma’ruf’s convictions are also fiercely orthodox; indeed, as the chairman of the MUI, Ma’ruf signed a document recommending that the statement former Jakarta governor Ahok made be considered “blasphemous” for insulting Islam, essentially adding the nail to the coffin on Ahok. Ma’ruf also advocates for the criminalization of gay sex, so that the effect that this incoming Vice President has on legislation will be important to watch.

Meanwhile, the House – which has prioritized revisions of the criminal code – has put in articles that critics charged are problematic, including criminal codes that would take corruption investigation out of the KPK, criminalization of same-sex relations, extramarital sex and adultery, and codes that affect the civil liberties and rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups, and the poor. At the same time, religiously motivated attacks have been on the rise in Indonesia, prompting the legislature to pass the President’s Perppu to ban organizations that did not support Indonesia’s ideology of Pancasila. That law has been used to disband extremist hard-line Islamist groups, such as the Hizbut Tahrir; however, critics are concerned that the law gives the government the right to disband organizations without due process of law.

The opposition may have disbanded, but the conservative turn that it has shepherded continues to linger. Politics in Indonesia remains important to keep watch.


Endnotes

[i] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “Indonesia – The President, Awesome Indonesia, and the Red-White Opposition.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=3084 <accessed July 1, 2019>

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. April 27, 2017. “Indonesia – The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Politics, and the 2019 Presidential Elections.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=6369 <last accessed July 1, 2019>

Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

Lithuania’s new president to be sworn in on July 12, 2019

This is a guest post by Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University and Researcher at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania

On July 12th, Gitanas Nausėda will be sworn into office as president of the Republic of Lithuania.  Nausėda, who is 55, is a former chief economist at SEB bank. He defeated former Finance Minister Ingrida Šimonytė with 67% of votes in the second round of the presidential election. In his first address to the nation, on the evening election results were announced, Mr Nausėda promised that “from this day forward things will be different.”

Who is Gitanas Nausėda?

Lithuania‘s incoming president is a long-time chief economist of SEB bank, and an associate professor at the International Business School at Vilnius University. He has a degree in economics and holds a PhD in social sciences. He previously worked at the Competition Council of the Republic of Lithuania and at the Bank of Lithuania. During the presidential election campaign, Nausėda declared his intention to unite Lithuania‘s political parties and increase political cohesion, promote the openness of the presidential institution, and seek to establish a welfare state. Nevertheless, the presidential election campaign and Nausėda‘s public pronouncements tell us little of his political character and personality.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Nausėda demonstrated openness, participated in debates, visited Lithuania‘s regions and probably intended to distance himself from President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s style of communication. On the other hand, it has been difficult to pinpoint the ideology and main political principles that Mr Nausėda represents. Some analysts (such as Šarūnas Liekis) have referred to Gitanas Nausėda as a candidate who lacks character and is supported by business interest groups.

The composition of the president‘s team does not shed much further light on the new president‘s political program. The formation of the president‘s team is still underway and its membership remains unclear.  Although the new president has not been communicative about his new advisors, he has made it clear that he prefers professionals from academia and the diplomatic corps to political party members. So far, only a couple of names are known: Aistis Zabarauskas, who was responsible for communication during Nausėdas‘ election campaign, and Povilas Mačiulis, a former vice mayor of the Kaunas city municipality. Among potential foreign policy advisors, the name of Linas Kojala, director of Eastern Europe Studies Center, a PhD student at Vilnius University, was mentioned, but Mr Kojala declined the offer. Under circumstances such as these, when a president does not have extensive political experience, his choice of domestic and foreign policy advisors might give a strong indication of his future politics, but in this case Lithuanians will have to wait a bit longer.

Why did Gitanas Nausėda win the presidential election?

When Gitanas Nausėda announced his decision to run for president in the autumn of 2018, some analysts (Kęstutis Girnius, for instance) were sceptical about his chances to win the election as an independent, nonpartisan candidate without experience in politics. However, during the presidential campaign, public opinion polls (SPINTER, Baltijos tyrimai, Vilmorus) constantly mentioned Mr Nausėda as one of the top presidential candidates.

Several factors could have contributed to Nausėda‘s victory in the presidential election. First may actually have been the fact that he ran as an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Some analysts claim that in Lithuania‘s presidential election many people voted not for Gitanas Nausėda, but against Ingrida Šimonytė who was supported by the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. During the presidential election campaign, Gitanas Nausėda consistently highlighted his independence from any political party. This proved to be a wise strategy since Lithuanians do not trust political parties. Public polls demonstrate that political parties are the least trusted political institution in Lithuania: according to the latest polls (Vilmorus: June 2019), only 6.2% of Lithuanians trust political parties (in comparison, 58.2% of Lithuanians trust the presidential institution). Second, Nausėda‘s opponent‘s election campaign was not aggressive enough: under criticism for poor management of the 2008 financial crisis (she was Finance minister back then), Ingrida Šimonytė chose to talk about future plans instead of effectively countering criticism of her past performance. Third, for some of the voters Gitanas Nausėda embodied an example of the classical ideal family, in contrast to his opponent and current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Finally, Lithuania‘s 2019 presidential election once again shows that the electorate tends to vote for „hope“ and new faces in politics.

How might Nausėda‘s foreign policy look like?

So far, it seems that the new president will follow up on his earlier expressed foreign policy ideas. It is already known that for the first official state visit the new president of Lithuania will continue a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus (interrupted by D. Grybauskaitė) by going to Poland (the visit is scheduled for 16 July). Soon after the election, Mr Nausėda also reaffirmed his intention to maintain the current foreign policy line towards Russia, while also claiming that he will aim to be more diplomatic. The current minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius, states that there will not be any strategic changes in Lithuania‘s foreign policy.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Nausėda expressed support for Lithuania‘s status quo policy and pro-Western orientation based on membership in NATO and the European Union: he claimed to perceive the United States as a security guarantor and one of the most important allies of Lithuania; emphasized the importance of a value-based foreign policy and a strict position towards Russia; underscored the need for stronger cooperation with Poland; and stressed the need for closer cooperation with Latvia and Estonia, and for regular meetings with Baltic leaders.

Some analysts claim that in the 2019 presidential election the Lithuanian electorate demonstrated its political maturity. Indeed, Lithuanians gave their support for the candidates with a declared pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation. On the other hand, the electorate voted in the second round for the candidate who does not have any political experience. Thus, Lithuania‘s presidential election results still confirm a general trend to vote for new faces in politics.