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On defining regime types (I) Including a super-majority clause

In a recent post, I linked to a new time-series, cross-sectional dataset on semi-presidentialism. The dataset provides an annual, cross-national coding of semi-presidential countries since 1900. V2.0 is available here.

The dataset contains two codings of semi-presidentialism. One conforms to – let’s call it – the standard definition. Here, semi-presidentialism is where the constitution provides for a directly (or popularly) elected president and a prime minister and cabinet that are collectively responsible to the legislature. The other adds another clause. Here, semi-presidentialism is where the constitution provides for a directly (or popularly) elected president and a prime minister and cabinet that are collectively responsible to the legislature other than by a super-majority vote. The second coding was added to V1.0 along with codings for countries that conform to – let’s call them – the standard definitions of premier-presidentialism and president-parliamentarism plus countries that confirm to those definitions with the addition of an equivalent super-majority clause.

Where does the need for a coding that includes a super-majority clause come from? I have been aware for some time that Samuels and Shugart (2010, p. 30, fn 4) excluded countries, such as Madagascar, from their list of semi-presidential regimes because of the introduction in the Constitution at a certain time of a super-majority requirement. In fact, they classed Madagascar as presidential for this reason (e.g. ibid. p. 33 and p. 258). Yet, I don’t remember seeing any definition of semi-presidentialism that explicitly includes this clause. Also, as far as I am aware, it isn’t part of any formal definition of the concept that Samuels and Shugart provide and the equivalent clause isn’t included in their (or Shugart and Carey’s) definition of premier-presidentialism or president-parliamentarism. So, it seems to be post-definitional add-on, or an implicit assumption of the formal definition.

In one sense, I’m indifferent as to whether a super-majority clause should be included as part of the definition of semi-presidentialism, because even if it is included it still allows for the reliable classification of countries. No expert knowledge is needed to determine whether a country should be classed as semi-presidential or not. We just need to apply certain rules to publicly available constitutional information. This reliability is the most important part of the classification process.

Three points, though. First, if it is to be operationalised, then I think the clause should be stated as part of the definition. If it isn’t stated, then for me semi-presidentialism still includes countries with a super-majority requirement. If it is stated, then it obviously excludes them. In other words, we should avoid post-definitional add-ons or implicit definitional assumptions.

Second, I think it is still better to class countries with a super-majority requirement as semi-presidential (or as a sub-category of semi-presidentialism) rather as presidential. After all, the constitution does still allow the legislature to bring down the government, whereas under presidentialism, by definition, it does not. Sure, it might take an extraordinary and almost unimaginable set of circumstances for, say, a two-thirds majority to come together and bring a government down, but constitutionally it could happen. (Think how opposing parties can vote together to end a nominally fixed-term legislature). In other words, whether or not it happens is a matter of politics not the constitution. If we are classing countries on the basis of constitutions, which is the only reliable way of doing so, then surely it is better to think of a country with a super-majority clause as being semi-presidential not presidential? The survival of one part of the executive is still not separate from the legislature.

Third, a super-majority requirement has implications for the classification of parliamentary regimes too. Maybe there are no examples, but what if there was a super-majority clause in a nominally parliamentary regime? For me, this would still make the country with such a clause parliamentary, although we might want to think about classifying the country as a sub-category of parliamentarism. Whatever the choice, I would be wary of classifying that country as presidential.

This is all very nerdy. But why stop there? Next week, I am going to discuss the classificatory implications of introducing other clauses.

Ukraine – High Anti-Corruption Court and Prospects for Curbing Corruption

On June 26th, President Poroshenko signed a law establishing the High Anti-Corruption Court. The creation of the body was highly anticipated by both domestic and international observers. The Court is expected to be the last link in the chain of recently established bodies designed to fight top-level corruption in Ukraine and is one of the key conditions to unlock 1.9 billions in IMF aid.

As we previously mentioned on the pages of this blog, it has been a long and rocky road for the fight against corruption in Ukraine. Ukraine’s corruption levels reached an all-time high under the rule of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 and is currently under investigation. Since being elected in 2014, among other economic, political, and military problems facing the country, President Poroshenko also had to reform the justice system. In the past 4 years, Ukraine established three institutions tasked with fighting corruption in the country – National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the National Agency for Corruption Prevention. The role of the newly created High Anti-Corruption Court is to ensure that officials indicted by NABU face trial. Up to now, out of 220 indictments, only 21 officials have been convicted and no senior officials were imprisoned.

Since one of the central demands of the 2014 protests was to eradicate corruption in the country and bring corrupt officials to justice, the lack of convictions has started damaging the credibility of NABU as well as other institutions and governing bodies. According to the nationwide public opinion survey conducted in May 2018,

  • 83% of Ukrainians believe that the fight against corruption in the country has not been successful so far
  • Half of the population (50%) surveyed believe that it is a total failure
  • 48% of the population believe that currently no institution in Ukraine is actively fighting corruption
  • Only 11% believe that the National Anti-corruption Bureau was actively combating graft, but only 15% believe that its efforts are effective
  • Only 4% of those surveyed believe that the President is actively fighting corruption

The new law addressed the criticism previously raised by the IMF and the World Bank and allowed international experts to play a significant role in selection of judges. At the NATO summit in Brussels on July 13, the President confirmed his willingness to allow international experts to be involved asking NATO member countries to provide experts as soon as possible.

However, barely signed, the law was criticised again for allowing a loophole. According to the original law, all politicians and other suspects currently under investigation by NABU would not have to face trial in the newly established anti-corruption court. Instead, they could be considered in ordinary courts. This affected not only 135 cases currently under investigation but also all other cases submitted before the court was established. Given that it may take between 6 months and 2 years before the anti-corruption court is fully established and operational, this would have given significant leeway to a number of corruption cases.

On the urging of the IMF, the original law had to be amended on July 12th to address the criticism. The amendment expanded the jurisdiction of the High Court to include the cases opened before the court was established. Whether the amendments will be enough to unlock the aid from the IMF remains to be seen. More importantly, however, experts agree that the reduction of corruption may require much more than punitive measures alone.

Timor-Leste – “Belligerent cohabitation” at work

One week after the parliamentary elections that returned an absolute majority for the AMP coalition (comprising former president Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, former president Taur Matan Ruak’s PLP and a youth-oriented KHUNTO) but awarded the current president’s Fretilin the largest bloc of seats in the House (the party being unable to capitalize on its five percentage points increase in the number of votes due to a different composition of running parties), president Lu Olo addressed the nation on the occasion of the 16thanniversary of the restoration of independence (and the first of his assuming the presidency). In his speech, Lu Olo made three very important points

  1. He claimed he would discharge his functions as “president of all Timorese” but would not give up his position as chairman of his own party. This was no more than the confirmation that for the first time Timor-Leste would have a president who is aligned with one specific party, all his predecessors having been “independent” without party ties (although two of them did form their own parties after stepping down, in order to run for the seemingly more powerful premiership);
  2. He stated he would be particularly attentive to “the national interest” of which he argued the president is the highest and more authoritative interpreter;
  3. He reaffirmed is willingness to use all the constitutional powers at his disposal, contradicting those who expected that after a significant political defeat (he called early elections that did not change the nature of the distribution of power among competing parties and his own party failed to secure the bases to form or integrate the new government) he would assume a lower profile

In brief: Lu Olo made it plainly clear his would be a very active presidency not shying away from confrontations when he would feel it necessary to intervene. He was comforted by the fact that a substantial number of cases to overturn a presidential veto require a two-thirds majority  – and his party had more than one third of the parliamentary seats. Cohabitation was emerging under the sign of “belligerent democracy”. A sign of this general attitude was Fretilin´s decision to threaten with expulsion any militant who might be tempted to accept a place in government in a “personal and technical capacity” as had been current in the country for over a decade. A new era is definitively making itself present, eventually making political decisions more transparent and in line with normal expectations on parties’ behaviour.

The first serious confrontation occurred with the formation of the VIII Constitutional Government. Contrary to early expectations (based on declarations in the aftermath of the elections), Xanana declined to assume the premiership, entrusting the job to Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), leader of a much smaller party (8 seats versus 21), and reserved for himself the role of “state minister councillor to the prime minister”. TMR was sworn in as prime minister and proposed to the president a cabinet with 41 full ministers and junior ministers. Lu Olo rejected 12 of those names. One of them was personally close to the new prime-minister, and the refusal was explained on strict bureaucratic terms: as he was serving in the high command of the armed forces, he would need his resignation from the previous post to go through the necessary legal steps. In due course, he was appointed to serve as minister for defence. As for the other 11 – all of whom belonged to Xanana’s CNRT, the only party in the coalition with government experience – the reason given was that two of them had not “the right moral profile” and the others were supposedly under investigation by the judicial authorities on corruption charges.

Although the president denied that he had vetoed names, but only “called the attention of the prime minister” to situations that might harm the public opinion on the government, he also claimed he “was intent on reinforcing the judicial system” by not granting immunity to some politicians that had, in the past, benefitted from their status to avoid immediate prosecution (an allegation directed at Xanana who, as prime minister, had asked parliament to keep some of his ministers under conditions of immunity till the end of their terms). Regarding the use of his powers, he said: “The choice of ministers belongs to the majority in the House. The president may not say that this one is more capable than the other. He has to wait and see, only later can he interfere”. But at some point, he can actually interfere by refusing to appoint ministers.

Lu Olo’s interference in the composition of government generated a first moment of tension within the coalition. The prime minister seems to have accepted the president’s opposition to empowering individuals tainted with corruption charges in a country where this is a critical issue as constitutionally and politically warranted, and showed signs of pressing his coalition partner to propose new names.  TMR was also prisoner of his own public rejection of a minister when the V Government was formed soon after his election for the presidency back in 2012, and thus very limited in his capacity to deny Lu Olo the power to reject some of his ministers. Xanana, on the other hand, received the news as a personal attack, and reacted angrily: he and few other ministers from his party failed to take the oath, leaving the government with sensitive portfolios without their ministers. Besides the strong portfolio entrusted to Xanana, the minister for finances is among those remaining vacant due to presidential opposition. In parallel, he mounted an attack on the president. On the one hand, he claimed he had received undue payments from the state related to his presidential campaign – an accusation that failed to gain traction; on the other, he claimed that not only was the president disregarding the principle of presumption of innocence, but that he had acted in a completely different manner when Mari Alkatiri presented the composition of the VII Government in which four members were also under judicial investigation. He also made public statements from judicial authorities allegedly denying the basis for the president’s attitude.

In the meantime, arguing the inconvenience of the absence of the president from the country at a time when there was only “half a government”, the National Parliament denied the president’s request to undertake a state visit to Portugal which had been scheduled for quite a while. This move was openly criticized by the commander in chief of the armed forces, a move that does not bode well for the neutrality they are supposed to keep, and add a new player to an already confusing situation

The VIII Constitutional government, which is ruling under the provisions of the 2017 state budget in 1/12 monthly instalments, approved a piece of emergency legislation destined to raise funds from the Petroleum Fund in order to meet its financial obligations. However, the sum in question is above the Estimated Sustainable Income of the fund, and expectations are high that the president might use his veto power to put additional pressure on the government, which might be unable to meet its monthly obligations (and therefore suffer in its level of popularity)

At the time of writing, time is ticking for the government to present its program before the House, which must occur within thirty days of the appointment of the prime minister (22 June). Devoid of key ministers, the prime minister has conducted cabinet meetings open to those who have been rejected by the president to help with drafting the program. It is not clear what will happen if the deadline is broken, but grounds might emerge for the president to consider that political institutions are not performing adequately – a case allowing for the dismissal of the prime minister

The tension between the president of the republic and the leader of the winning coalition is unprecedented. It rests to be seen whether Lu Olo and his party are not attempting a political move to break the coalition between Xanana and TMR, who appears to be more sensitive to the president’s arguments on corruption, and suggest a change of horses: Fretilin might be prepared to switch the leadership of the opposition with CNRT. In Dili, voices are heard calling for yet another dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, which in any case could not be decided before mid-November to be held in 2019.

The present situation in Timor-Leste has revealed that presidential powers, even though they may be dormant for a while, do not lapse by virtue of not being exercised. And presidential powers in the country are superior to what much of the literature has argued so far. Critically, the dual responsibility of the government before the parliament and the president of the republic (stated in section 107 of the Constitution), and the ways in which this prescription can legitimately be understood by a proactive president, require new consideration. Ultimately, the scope of effective powers of the president may be regarded as the reason for the current instability, much as the argument has been made for president-parliamentary systems.

The fact that Lu Olo seems to be adopting a proactive role should not be isolated from the fact that he is the first president who discharges his functions at the same time that he holds a high position in a political party – Fretilin – which is not represented in TMR’s government. The effective experience of cohabitation in its formal sense is a novelty, as the first three presidents were “independent”. Their terms were comparably more stable that the early part of Lu Olo’s term (disregarding the case of the 2006 crisis which had deeper roots), adding weight to the suggestion that the political wisdom of choosing non-partisan presidents reduced the prospects and the scope of confrontation that the constitutional model of dual responsibility of the executive might facilitate. With the decision to move away from the legacy of the previous experience, Timor-Leste is now confronted with a much more unstable situation.

Maryia Rohava and Fabian Burkhardt – “Modernizing” the constitution to preempt a succession crisis? Belarus between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia

This is a guest post by Maryia Rohava, University of Oslo, and Fabian Burkhardt, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen

During the annual state-of-the-nation Address to the Belarusian People and the National Assembly on 24 April 2018, President Aliaksander Lukashenka fiercely rejected the notion that a referendum to amend the country’s 1994 Constitution was imminent. Belarus’ long-time ruler accused the foreign-funded press of peddling constitutional amendments. Opposition politicians calling for a referendum just wanted to provoke a fight and eventually a Ukrainian Maidan. Acting “against the People” by holding a referendum “tomorrow” could lead to the worst-case scenario, “just like in Armenia”, Lukashenka argued. The day before, on 23 April, the Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had resigned in the wake of street protests later called the Velvet Revolution[i].

Lukashenka’s lengthy digression into the intricacies of constitutional politics in the course of his Presidential Address is remarkable. Insofar as it had been precisely Lukashenka – and not the opposition which has been forced into a permanent state of “ghettoization”[ii]– who has been talking about the need to amend the current constitution – or even pass a new one – for the past four years. What does explain Lukashenka’s flirtation with potential constitutional amendments which peaked in the first months of 2018 until mid-April, on the one hand, and the almost complete turnaround on 24 April, on the other?

After all, his current presidential powers are virtually unconstrained, and the term limit was abolished after the 2004 referendum on the constitutional amendments, which turned him in a de facto president for life. Moreover, aged 63, Lukashenka is still relatively young compared to other post-Soviet leaders for life: Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev, for example (just as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov when he died in 2016) aged 78, is 15 years older than the Belarusian leader. In other words, even if we accept that authoritarian leaders outside of monarchies with hereditary succession rules, or without a hegemonic party such as Mexico’s PRI or China’s communist party with institutionalized rules for rotation, need to take care of succession for the sake of their own safety, there is no obvious reason why the succession issue was that urgent as to justify the frequency of references with regard to the Constitution.

Therefore, one might assume that the Belarusian Constitution does have a particular function even though it does not limit executive power and has been violated on numerous occasions. It can be argued that just as in comparable authoritarian regimes,[iii] the Belarusian Constitution has information-related properties which contain a political vision, which defines the nature of the political community, and therefore shapes the identity of the community’s members by signaling and disciplining allies and opponents of the autocrat.[iv] Judging by the discourse on the Constitution in the past four years, there are several tenets at the core of this political vision: the supremacy of the presidency in all spheres touched upon in the Constitution; state sovereignty with regard to the outside world including neutrality in foreign policy, while maintaining constitutional order and stability in domestic politics; Belarus as a social state which guarantees social rights in a paternalistic way, but places the needs of the state and political community over those of the individual; and sovereignty of the people who need to be consulted (at least formally) by referenda if any substantial change was to be probed. However, given the external pressure of a volatile and fast-paced geopolitical environment, and the stalling, or even the end, of the Belarusian model of economic growth[v], Lukashenka and other state actors have recognized that adapting to ever-changing circumstances was necessary.

Calling for a change without changing anything

In the course of the past years, Lukashenka has built up public expectations that sooner or later, constitutional amendments were inevitable. On the 20thanniversary of the Constitution on 15 March 2014, for instance, Lukashenka declared that Belarus had fully “established itself as a sovereign state” by “realizing the aspirations of the Belarusian people of becoming the rightful masters of their home country”. At the same time, “sooner or later, a new constitution needs to be adopted,” – he argued insinuating that the current Constitution is a document of Belarus’ “transitional period”. During his speech addressed to the members of Parliament on 7 October 2016, the head of state went even a step further by calling for the formation of a “group of wise men and lawyers to analyze the Basic Law”. Although in 2017 and early 2018, Lukashenka frequently mentioned how rapidly the world was changing and that the time asked for adaptations[vi] and “something new,” he never really expanded on whenand what kindof changes were expedient.

Moreover, contradictions between the Constitution as theguarantor, core, and foundation of Belarusian statehood, on the one hand, and ever more frequent calls of the regime for amendments to this very pillar became increasingly evident. Discursively, Lukashenka attempted to dissolve this apparent contradiction by distinguishing between the “Constitution” and the “Basic Law” in reference to one and the same legal document. While the Constitution was this very pillar of stability and sovereignty, rhetorically, the Basic Law was not much different from ordinary laws: “We need to understand that law-making is an ongoing lively process. Like all laws and other regulations, it [the Basic Law] is a living organism which is bound to evolve and not to fall behind the pulsating life out there in the world”, he remarked during his annual meeting with the Constitutional Court’s judges on 15 March 2018.

How pliable the official rhetoric was became most obvious in statements of Lukashenka’s mouthpiece Lidziia Iarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission. In January, she conceded that the Constitution needed to be “modernized”, but this kind of “cosmetics” or “renovation” could only be tackled once the basic question of the overall “construction” was decided upon, of course, by the President. But on 28 April 2018, just after Lukashenka had excluded that amendments were to be launched any time soon, Iarmoshyna admitted that the Constitution contained “a lot of obsolete norms” but that stability was much more important than modernizing these norms as they do not harm and obstruct the Belarusian society.

Also, no working parliamentary group or even a constitutional commission was set up to debate constitutional amendments or reforms in a systematic manner. Lukashenka did mention constitutional issues when addressing the Parliament, the Constitutional Court or the Central Election Commission, but separately. Naturally, this line of action retained the President’s full organizational and informational control over the process by preventing potential collective action or coordination among other state bodies with regard to discussing changes. The Constitution, therefore, served as an ideal issue to debate and signal a desire for evolution while any attempt of revolutionary change could be dismissed and blamed on oppositional and hostile foreign actors.

Cementing the supremacy of the presidency?

After the constitutional overhaul in 1996 and the abolishment of term limits in 2004, presidential power has been de jureand de factounconstrained. The position of the President above all other state organs is bolstered by a “theory of legal laws”[vii] propagated within the presidential administration and accepted in the judicial community. Laws were constitutional if they follow both the will of President Lukashenka and “the People”. They were considered unconstitutional and subsequently ignored by scholars if they did not.

When swearing in Viktar Rabtsaŭ as new constitutional court judge on 2 February 2017, Lukashenko addressed a critique frequently put forward by Belarusian NGOs and international actors that Belarus needed a human rights ombudsperson. In his view, such a position would be entirely redundant, since the President should be the “main inspector” of compliance with human rights principles in the country. Following this logic, the Constitutional Court was ascribed a supportive, but not constraining or limiting function of the presidency.

The law-making process is controlled by the Presidential Administration, and virtually all bills are initiated by the executive. Presidential decrees (dekrety, as opposed to the more mundane ukazy) are frequently used as policy initiatives and policy programs. Among others, this practice has been criticized by the OHCHR Special rapporteur on human rights in the latest report: “The legal framework continues to be amended and governed by presidential decrees, which overrule constitutional law”. Two recent examplesare the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment.

First, in an effort to foster the Eurasian integration, Lukashenka used his presidential mandate to introduce the judicial reform of 2013-2014 (Decree No. 6 accompanied by ordinances [ukazy] No.529 and 530) via presidential decrees bypassing the legislature and public debates. The presidential decree No. 6 dated 29 November 2013 made explicit reference to Article 101 of the Constitution. Article 101 stipulates that the President can issue temporal decrees, which have legislative validity, but they require approval of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic. Such temporal presidential decrees should not include changes, additions and interpretations of the Constitution and changes and additions of the legislative program. However, Article 97 clearly assigns the constitutional right to propose legislative bills amending the judicial system, judicial procedures and the status of judges to the House of Representatives.

The judicial reform resulted in the incorporation of the Supreme Economic Court into the Supreme Court despite the fact that the autonomy of the Supreme Economic Court is granted by Article 34 of the Constitution, and references to the Supreme Economic Court still remain in the Constitution.[viii] In the review of the judicial reform, the Constitutional Court confirmed the validity of these acts referring to Article 109, Paragraph (3): “The judicial system in the Republic of Belarus shall be determined by the law.” Thus, the interpretation of the law and legislative acts was de facto expanded to temporary presidential decrees. The Constitutional Court has also recognized that the judicial reform would require constitutional amendments. Thus, it appears that it was this somewhat hurried judicial reform that has opened up the Belarusian leadership to the debate on the Constitution back in 2013-2014.

The second example was the Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social parasitism” from 2 April 2015 which introduced a tax for citizens who did not contribute to funding state expenditure, or did so less than 183 days per year. Therefore, the decree was targeted at unemployed and those employed in the informal economy to prop up state revenue. The reasoning to legitimize the decree was the notion of Belarus as a social state, i.e. contributing financially to social services was portrayed as obligatory. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee argued that the decree violated at least five articles of the Belarusian Constitution, most importantly Article 41, Paragraph (4) (de factointroducing forced or obligatory labor), but also articles 32, 56, and 101.

On the grounds that Decree No 3 violated Article 41 as well as the ILO Convention No. 29 “Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, 1930” and 105 “Abolition of Forced Labor”, the oppositional Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly) filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in July 2015. The Court, however, rejected to review the complaint on the merits as citizens and legal entities are formally not entitled to file a complaint. In the wake of street protests inMinsk and some regions in February and March 2017, the Constitutional Court did react to electronic citizen complaints. While the Court refused to start a constitutional review based on the complaints, it cited legislation and previous decisions of the Court and, therefore, indirectly confirmed the legality of the decree. It made reference to Article 56 of the Constitution and equaled state taxes, duties and other payments to an “unconditional demand by the state” that citizens must comply with following their duty to “contribute to funding public expenditure”. Hanna Kanapatskaia, one of the two independent MPs elected into the House of Representatives in 2016, tried to petition her chamber to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court, but her request got stuck for three months and was formally declined by the House in July 2017.

Decree No 3, therefore, once more highlighted the enormous powers of the presidency to make inroads into key tenets of the Constitution – in this case the notion of the social state. As the state bodies entitled to file complaints with the Constitutional Court are loyal to the president, citizens and other legal entities such as parties are de facto barred from checking the presidency, leaving the street as the only option to vent anger. Lukashenka did not repeal the decree, but complaints and protests did have some results. Among the 470,000 citizens obliged to pay the tax by mid-February 2017, only slightly more than 10% had complied. In March, Lukashenka decided to suspend and reconsider some terms of the decree until 2018. An amended Decree No. 1 was passed on 25 January 2018 which will come into force on 1 January 2019, which, however, also contradicts international and domestic norms on forced and compulsory labor according to an assessment of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Unions.

Overall, there is no reason to doubt that decrees will remain one of the most powerful tools for policy-making by the president. But the apparent lack of feedback mechanisms with the broader population can make its use a costly and, at times, even risky business.

Debating foreign models of constitutional amendments

There is evidence that Lukashenka and his entourage are actively monitoring constitutional amendments in the post-Soviet space aimed at bolstering the regimes of the incumbents, in particular Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. This might indirectly implicate that there are clandestine considerations about how to gradually adapt the current institutional setting and therefore to preempt a potential succession crisis.

In July 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev announced constitutional amendments that were later approved by the Constitutional Court and put to a national referendum on 29 September 2016. The amendments prolonged the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, introduced the post of First Vice President and Vice President, and strengthened the presidential mandate with the right to dissolve the Parliament. Azerbaijan’s model of constitutional changes included even less than a three-month turnaround of amending the Constitution (from announcing the proposal to organizing a national referendum), a package of constitutional amendments presented to the public that removed a number of obstacles with just one plebiscite and a maximized national campaign, opening additional polling stations in Azerbaijani embassies, to legitimize the referendum results.

About the same time, after the Belarusian parliamentary elections in September 2016, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a pro-government party, and its leader Haidukevich proposed changing the terms of office for members of Parliament from 4 to 5 years and extending the presidential tenure from 5 to 7 years by means of a nation-wide referendum which would coincide with local elections in early 2018. Although this initiative evaporated rather quickly, at the time analysts believed that the LDP’s proposal of a referendum had official backing. The prolongation of presidential term limits was discussed with regard to the 2020 electoral cycle when both parliamentary and presidential elections will coincide. Combining a referendum on the extension of presidential term limits with local elections in 2018 could have postponed the next presidential elections until 2025. Another option still in the cards would be an early presidential election in 2019 in combination with a referendum.

The 2017 constitutional reform in Kazakhstan caught Lukashenka’s particular interest. During an official meeting with Nazarbaev in March 2017, just a week after the constitutional amendments were signed into law, Lukashenka commented: “Very often, I observe, analyze and try to learn from the experience and activities (especially during last months) of your government, and above all the President. […] I think that you are making important steps for Kazakhstan to sustain stability and independence of your country. You are trying to reinforce your reforms, especially those with regard to the government and constitutional amendments, with concrete economic steps. This is a great example for others.”

Contrary to previous constitutional amendments aimed at expanding presidential powers, the 2017 reform redistributed 34 presidential powers between different branches of government, strengthening the role of the Parliament and enhancing the separations of powers principle. Moreover, procedurally the process was much more open and at least formally consultative than the Azerbaijani maneuver. Draft constitutional amendments in Kazakhstan were originally formulated by a special working group, comprised of the members of the government, Parliament, Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, academia and civil society, and were discussed publically prior to the approval of the final draft law by a joint session of Parliament. From the Belarusian perspective, this might indeed look like a viable “operation successor” as part of a Kazakhstani “sustainable system,” where Nazarbaev could at one point take over another position – e.g. as a chairman of the National Security Council – whilst a designated successor would secure his safety until the final power transition.

Lukashenka, himself has alluded on multiple occasions that presidential powers should be distributed among other state organs, most importantly the government to strengthen the “power vertical” for the days “when Lukashenka will be no more”. But this power redistribution, he emphasized, is not going to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, with Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in April 2018, the dangers of tinkering with the country’s institutional design clearly outweighed the perceived advantages. Given that Lukashenka had done away with the presidential term limit long ago, the “Armenian model” of switching from semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism with the President indirectly elected by the Parliament was the least relevant in any case. Besides the more obvious lesson that an allegedly popular president can be toppled by street protests rather quickly and unexpectedly when constitutional amendments are perceived as overt manipulations and feedback mechanisms, such as media and polls, are flawed, the Armenian case might have contributed to shelving once again reforms of the electoral code and the party system.

After all, it was the Armenian ruling Republican Party that had nominated Serzh Sargsyan and later lost power to a coalition of parliamentary factions around the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. From the perspective of Lukashenka, transforming the pro-regime platform Belaia Rus’ into a proper party of power now accompanied by a change of the electoral system from majoritarian first-past-the pole single member districts to a proportional system with party lists carries more disadvantages than simply maintaining the status quo. The Central Election Commission’s Iarmoshyna has made it clear on numerous occasions that amendments to the election law to a proportional or a mixed system would also require constitutional amendments such as the removal of citizens’ right to recall elected deputies (Article 72). Finally, Lukashenka remarked that firmly grounding the notion of the multi-party system in the Constitution would precede any steps of turning Belaia Rus’ into a party. A proper party system, however, would result in “endless debates”, and it was far from clear whether Belarus was ready for this sort of “fist fight”.

Conclusions

Over the last years, the Belarusian President, Aliaksander Lukashenka, has been building up public expectations that amending the Constitution was inevitable.

The reality is different. Despite numerous statements, the Constitution has remained unscathed since 2004. The discussed two examples of the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment are just the tip of the iceberg of the law-making done by presidential decrees. However, they showed that touching the Constitution is unnecessary as presidential power can be expandedby laws or decrees. Nevertheless, as the cases of Kazakhstan and Armenia revealed, dealing with the succession issue would involve a decrease and redistributionof presidential powers to other state organs, mainly to the legislature and the government. In the presidential discourse, however, the Constitution is firmly associated with stability, state sovereignty, security, and an evolutionary path of state-building. Opposition groups who have been campaigning for a constitutional referendum such as Gavary Praūdu (Tell the Truth) can thus easily be denigrated as subversive and anti-Belarusian.

In the absence of independent public opinion surveys, there is a vacuum of reliable comparative data that measures regime support. This is not only problematic for researchers working on Belarus[ix], it seems that the regime also struggles to measure people’s attitudes and support for the government and its policies. Given recent events in Armenia of yet another “color revolution” in the post-Soviet space, freezing the status quo and postponing the successor issue by talking about constitutional changes while changing nothing so far has proved to be a successful recipe, at least from the perspective of the Belarusian ruler.

Notes

[i]In December 2015, constitutional changes were designed to transfer significant powers from the Armenian president to the Prime Minister. The presidential term limit prevented Sargsyan from getting elected as President for the third time. By getting appointed by the ruling Republican Party as Prime Minister on 11 April Sargsyan hoped to remain in power, but in vain.

[ii]Bedford, S., & Vinatier, L. (2018). Resisting the Irresistible:‘Failed Opposition’ in Azerbaijan and Belarus Revisited. Government and Opposition, online first: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.33.

[iii]Ginsburg, T., & Simpser, A. (Eds.). (2013). Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Cambridge University Press.

[iv]Ungated version: Burkhardt, F. (2016). Belarus. In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe(pp. 463-493). Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

[v]Dabrowski, M. (2016). Belarus at a Crossroads(No. 2016/02). Bruegel Policy Contribution.

[vi]Frear, M. (2019). Belarus under Lukashenka. Adaptive Authoritarianism. Routledge.

[vii]Partlett, W. (2012). The Dangers of Popular Constitution-Making. Brooklyn Journal for

International Law 38(1), p. 228.

[viii]Kazakevich, A. (2008). Belarus. Nations in Transit Country Reports 2018. Freedom House.

[ix]Rohava, M. (2018). Identity in an Autocratic State: Or What Belarusians Talk about When They Talk about National Identity. East European Politics and Societies 32(3), pp. 639–668.

Edalina Rodrigues Sanches – Cabo Verde: Political leadership in the most exceptional democracy in Africa

This is a guest post by Edalina Rodrigues Sanches: Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa.

2018 marks the 43rd anniversary of Cabo Verde independence and 27 years of an exceptional democracy  with a tradition of  free and fair elections as well as peaceful transitions in power.  While historical and geographic factorsmay have facilitated these developments, political institutions such as executive systems, and political leadership have also played an important role.

A stable two-party system

Since the founding multiparty elections of January 1991, Cabo Verde has developed a balanced and stable two-party system in which the  PAICVand the MPDare the major parties. The PAICV is the older party in the system, and a forerunner of the PAIGCwhich was formed in 1956 during the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonial rule. It was the sole legal party during the authoritarian regime that spanned between 1975 and 1990; and it continued to play and important role in the post-transition era.  After losing parliamentary elections in 1991 and 1995, the PAICV won subsequent elections (2001, 2006, 2011) with broad parliamentary support (more than 50% of the seats).  The MPD, the second party to become legal in the country, was formed in 1990 during the critical juncture of democratic transition. It unexpectedly won the founding multiparty elections in 1991 and repeated the win in 1995 and more recently in 2016[1]. In all these polls the MPD managed to secure more than 50% of the potential seats.

Leadership successions within these two parties have been relatively peaceful. In the PAICV, there have been three transfers of power since 1991. In 1993, Aristides Lima replaced Pedro Pires as the new secretary-general and stood as prime-ministerial candidate at the 1995 elections but eventually lost. In 2000, José Maria Neves was elected new party leader, a position he held for 14 out of the 15 years he acted as the country’s prime-minister (2001-2016). This was a period of strong external projection of the country; but, internally, the government faced important challenges namely economic slowdown, rising unemployment, and higher levels of social contestation, particularly between 2008-2015.  In 2014, José Maria Neves announced he was not going to run for the party presidency. This happened before the end of his mandate as Prime Minister and paved the way for the election of a new leader that would also run as prime-ministerial candidate in the 2016 polls. Janira Hopffer Almada was elected the new leader in the highly disputed party primaries of 2014 and became the first female to be elected party leader and to run for prime minister. The party never came together to support her leadership and she eventually lost the 2016 elections but saw her legitimacy as leader sanctioned in the 2017 primaries.

In the MPD, leadership successions have been more difficult. Carlos Veiga’s leadership was marked by economic recovery and good governance but conflicts within the party led to the first scission in 1993 and to the formation of Partido da Convergência Democrático (PCD). In 2000, he decided to step down as both Prime Minister and party leader, and to run as presidential candidate. But in-fighting persisted and led to a new offshoot in 2001 – Partido da Renovação Democrática(PRD). This crisis set Jacinto Santos, the then President of the Praia municipality and member of the Political Committee of MPD, against Gualberto do Rosário, the then Prime Minister. With the 2000 MPD convention ahead, Jacinto Santos withdrew from the leadership race and went on to form the PRD with other party members. The Convention confirmed the leadership of Gualberto do Rosário who was succeeded by Agostinho Lopes (2002-2007), Jorge Santos (2007-2013) and most recently Ulisses Correia e Silva (since 2013), the current Prime Minister.

The key lesson that can be drawn from this is that leadership successions in Cabo Verde – both within the parties and in the executive – have become sufficiently institutionalized, and help maintain regime stability.

Symmetric and stable relations between the president and the prime minister

Cabo Verde has been a semi-presidential regime from the outset of democratic transition. The amendment to the 1990 constitution in 1992 reduced presidential powers to dissolve parliament and dismiss the cabinet, and strengthened the legislative initiative  of the executive[2]. Eight years later, a new revision defined that presidential and legislative elections should no longer be almost concurrent (only one month between them) but were now to be held with a six-monthlag.

When compared to other former Lusophone countries, the Cabo Verdean president is theweakest in terms of formal powers, but his role has never been irrelevant[3]. The overall relationship between the president and the prime minister has been balanced and symmetric whoever is in leadership. One contributing factor is that the rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections held since 1991 have produced successive episodes of unified government in which the same party has the majority in the parliament and in the presidency[4]. The only episode of cohabitation was in 2011 when the PAICV had the majority in parliament and the MPD was able to elect its presidential candidate. Power sharing between Prime Minister José Maria Neves and the elected President, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, generatedpolitical tensions and conflictsover the appointment of state officials and foreign policy issues. Despite this, these two strong charismatic leaders maintained an amicable relationship throughout the period of cohabitation.

Since 2016, “normality” has returned as there is again a situation of unified government. In his second mandate, Jorge Carlos Fonseca has already stated the need for a constitutional revisionthat reinforces democratic institutions as well as social justice.  Following some problems related to the performance of some ministers and the coordination between the different portfolios,Prime Minister Ulisses Correia eventually reshuffled the cabinet.  But in a context of balanced intra-executive relationships, there are signs of increasing contestation from civil society. This year the celebration of Cabo Verde’s independence on July 5 was marked by several protestsin the main Islands and the same happened last year. This time, citizens’ complaints included a broad range of  issues from  unemployment, to regionalisation  and to the Status of Forces Agreement(SOFA)with the United States. With further impending strikes and protests, it remains uncertain how the new political leadership will address social contestation.  So far, the Prime Minister has refused to take responsibilityfor the complaints made, although the rights of individuals to protest  is generally acknowledged.

Notes

[1]Sanches, E.R. 2018. Party Systems in Young Democracies: Varieties of institutionalization in Sub-Saharan Africa. London and New York: Routledge.

[2]Évora, R. 2013. Cabo Verde: Democracia e sistema de governo, in Costa, S. & Sarmento, C. (orgs). Entre África e a Europa: Nação, Estado e Democracia em Cabo Verde. Coimbra: Almedina

[3]Costa, Daniel. 2009. O Papel do Chefe de Estado no Semipresidencialismo Cabo-verdiano, 1991–2007, in Lobo, M.C., & Neto, O. A. (orgs). O Semi-Presidencialismo nos Países de Língua Portuguesa, Lisbon: ICS.

[4]MPD’s cabinets were supported by President António Mascarenhas Monteiro (two mandates 1991-2001) while PAICV’s were supported by President Pedro Pires (two mandates 2001-2011).

Uganda – President Museveni and the politics of quick-fix taxation

At the end of May, Uganda’s Parliament passed the equivalent of a political bombshell. The Excise Duty Amendment Act (2018), to which the President quickly assented, introduced a range of new tax measures, including a one percent duty on mobile money transactions and a daily Ush200 ($0.05) “Over the Top” tax on the use of social media. The popular reaction to these new measures was swift. It started with an explosion of online criticism—on Uganda’s vibrant social media, no less—before taking physical form in the streets.

The vehemence of this response, and the government’s subsequent scramble to “clarify” its position, begs the question, why did President Museveni back such a predictably controversial tax reform? And how do we account for the influence—as well as the apparent limitations—of the subsequent pushback?

The political benefits of balancing the books… by taxing the poor

Uganda has an urgent need to generate more revenue. It lags its East African neighbours, collecting taxes equivalent to only 14 of GDP relative to Kenya’s 18 percent and Rwanda’s 16. At the same time, expenditure continues to outstrip revenue generation, driving the government to borrow more. Although sustainable for now, Uganda’s debts are rapidly accumulating while its interest rate payments to local and external creditors are expected to exceed 12 percent of the total budget this financial year.

The social media and mobile money taxes have the advantage of being relatively easy to administer, and government initially estimated that they would generate revenue worth Ush284bn ($75.9m) and Us115bn ($30.7m) respectively over the coming year, contributing to a budget pegged at Shs32.7tr ($8.7bn). President Museveni has also repeatedly derided social media, declaring that the new taxes could help reduce “gossip”.

Yet aside these benefits, real or imagined, the two new taxes come with clear downsides. First, government critics stress that these taxes are sharply regressive, hitting the poor hardest. The tax on social media use specifically has the further potential to limit access to information. Meanwhile, the tax on mobile money will likely reduce financial inclusion. It is recorded that 23.6m Ugandans use mobile money services—sending and receiving money via their phones—and that 61 percent of these transactions are below Ush45,000 ($12). There is also the very real risk that the mobile money tax will prove self-defeating, reducing the volume of transactions and harming growth—not to mention exacerbating existing inequalities.

There are notable alternatives to the two controversial taxes, which the Ugandan Government could consider. For instance, in its most recent “Uganda Economic Update”, the World Bank details a range of options for raising domestic revenues, recommending in particular a reduction in tax exemptions, estimated to equal between 4.5 and 5 percent of GDP in 2016/17. These exemptions are generally awarded to larger businesses and foreign investors, further accentuating the overall regressive nature of Uganda’s tax regime.

Another related concern is the nature of government expenditure. Excessive spending—notably on Defence, the Office of the President and other non-developmental areas—adds to the overall strain on the budget, and thus to the need for additional revenue. It has not helped that the controversy over the new tax measures coincided with Museveni’s promise that individual MPs will be guarded by military snipers and provided with escort cars to ensure their security. If implemented, this plan would quickly cancel out any contribution the social media and mobile money taxes could make towards balancing the budget.

So why is it that the government insists on widely unpopular, regressive taxes instead of ensuring a more efficient and equitable tax regime? The official justification for exemptions—one that until recently the IFIs themselves endorsed—is that they encourage investment, which then bolsters growth. But analysts of Uganda’s political economy have long stressed the additional, political imperative prompting Museveni’s government to adopt a more discretionary tax policy. Indeed, exemptions are a form of political favour granted to leading economic actors, who then reciprocate through their political loyalty and financial backing of the regime. Similarly, excessive spending on certain, seemingly non-priority sectors is another way for President Museveni to distribute patronage, including to ensure the support of ruling party MPs.

Even with these seemingly skewed political incentives, though, Museveni does have to worry about the broader legitimacy of his government. And following the widespread condemnation of the recent tax reforms, the President blinked. His response suggests the potential influence—but also the limitations—of popular pressure on government decision-making.

The popular backlash, and its significance

Opposition to the social media and mobile money taxes has united a broad coalition, if one most visible around Kampala. Activists, journalists, politicians, comedians, musicians and other social media users took to Twitter with a variety of hastags: #ThisTaxMustGo, #Mobilemoneytax, #SocialMediaTax. This helped kindle the debate surrounding the new measures, which played out across Uganda’s print and broadcast media. It also helped mobilise support for a march through Kampala, called by the fast-rising musician-turned-opposition leader, Bobi Wine. But while a widely known broadcast journalist linked arms with Bobi Wine to protest, the demonstration also drew in large crowds of market vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers, who faced off against armed riot police.

Following the protest, and with a court case pending and an online petition quickly gaining signatures, Museveni changed his tune. Seemingly making up policy on the hoof, he claimed that the one percent tax rate on mobile money “came up by mistake” and that he “signed the law with the error because we could not delay the other measures.” While Museveni refused to change the social media tax nor to scrap the tax on mobile money, he did indicate that the latter would be reduced from one to 0.5 percent.

The government went on to table an amended Excise Duty Bill on 19 July, less than two months after the first was enacted. Activists have vowed to push for further concessions as the legislation moves through parliament. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition, Winnie Kiiza, called for more popular protest against the disputed taxes, noting that without this outside pressure the parliamentary opposition alone was helpless.

Popular protest is not the only factor underlying the government’s partial climb-down. It appears the Cabinet was divided about the mobile money tax rate to begin with, and that government initially underestimated the revenue they could generate through the tax. Yet it is striking that Museveni only mentioned the 0.5 percent rate after the Kampala protests, and with the prospect of further protests looming. This timing, when considered alongside the government’s contradictory and rapidly evolving official position, leaves little doubt that popular protest has prompted the concessions to date, whatever the government may claim to the contrary.

It remains to be seen, though, whether activists can successfully pressure parliament to further amend the new Excise Duty Bill. For that, they will have to win over a large portion of ruling party MPs of whom only a handful have come out openly against the controversial taxes. That said, MPs have also been loath to voice their support for the measures, preferring instead quietly to vote in favour or else de facto to abstain through their absence from the House. Speaker Kadaga, meanwhile, entrusted her Deputy to oversee the vote when the Excise Duty Bill was first passed in May. She tends to delegate in this way when there is controversial and generally unsavoury business to handle.

Although the NRM parliamentary caucus continues to back the President, it may still be possible for popular pressure to open up divisions within the ruling party and, by leveraging those divisions, to win further concessions through parliament. This has happened in the past, notably regarding controversies over health and education spending as well as previous unpopular tax proposals. Such a positive outcome may seem unlikely in this instance, but the previous successes—however partial—show that there is still space to push for more progressive outcomes, even in the context of Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

Marcelo Jenny – Austria’s President Van der Bellen speaks up

This is a guest post by Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Marcelo Jenny from the Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Innsbruck

Austria belongs to the semi-presidential regime type and the head of state has some strong constitutional powers, but after his election the current president Alexander Van der Bellen has conformed to the familiar role model of Austrian presidents. Of beeing seen as an impartial political authority in reserve by staying away from the day-to-day tug of war between the government and the parliamentary opposition parties. As a consequence the president may be absent from the political news sections for extended periods of time. When Van der Bellen made news with statements on issues of international and domestic policy several times in a row, some started to take notice.

Van der Bellen has been in office since January 2017, after a thrilling election year 2016 that ended with a final win over rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in a repeated run-off ballot. The Constitutional Court had annulled the first run-off vote due to voting irregularities. Coming from the most left party in parliament, the Greens, Van der Bellen managed to project himself as a centrist candidate against Hofer who came from the most right party in parliament. Last year’s legislative elections in autumn brought in a right-wing coalition government between the People’s Party led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hofer’s Freedom Party. Van der Bellen swore in his previous rival Hofer as the new Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

In their presidential campaigns both had been very critical of the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), stating that as president they would not sign the treaty. CETA was and still is very unpopular in Austria. Van der Bellen announced last week that he would not sign the free trade agreement after its ratification by the national parliament in June. He clarified that he would not sign now, but rather wait until the European Court of Justice issues a verdict on CETA’s compatibility with European Union law. He is on constitutional safe ground, but it is also a reminder of the president’s political views. The previous government coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) signed the treaty, against the opposition of Freedom Party and Greens. The current government parties ÖVP and FPÖ, plus the liberals party NEOS, followed through with parliamentary ratification. The SPÖ now in opposition has strongly come out against the treaty, the Freedom Party now unwillingly backs it.

A step deeper into the thicket of domestic politics was Van der Bellen’s recent statement of support for upholding a tradition of social partnership in social and economic policy law-making. The government had just pushed through a controversial law increasing working time flexibility. The bill by-passed the usual process of pre-parliamentary review by interest groups and experts. While interest groups representing business, traditonally politically close to the two parties currently in government were happy with the new law, the labour union federation and the chambers of labour, close to the Social Democratic opposition, came out strongly against it and organized a demonstration of about 100,000 people (which is extraordinary by Austrian standards). The president was later joined by some ÖVP Land governors who also expressed unease about the government’s rushed, controversy-inducing style of policy-making.

The most recent and strongest statement of disapproval with the government came with Van der Bellen’s criticism of FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky, a Member of the European Parliament, two days ago. Vilimsky demanded the resignation of EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accusing him of being an alcoholic, which led Bellen to call Vilimsky respectless and foul-mouthed. The president also critized the government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for remaining completely silent on the issue. Austria currently holds the EU presidency. Representatives from the Freedom Party’s representatives then doubled down on their criticism of Juncker and called on Van der Bellen to return to a position of political impartiality.

The episodes of Van der Bellen speaking up might have come together by coincidence and the media attention the president gets is perhaps an unintended consequence of Federal Chancellor Kurz’s media strategy of making himself rare. It remains to be seen whether Van der Bellen will be frequently drawn into political disputes in the future. Yet they remind us of the new political constellation Austria is in with a leftist president facing a right-wing coalition government.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Social turbulence for the Cypriot president

N. Anastasiades was reelected in the February 2018 presidential elections enjoying a strong majority over his opposition: 56% to 44%. Following a very intense electoral campaign where all major policy issues were harshly contested, the result was thought to have given the current president space for implementing his policies both in internal affairs and the Cyprus problem. However, this assessment proved short-sighted and failed to grasp the complexities of Cypriot politics.

Immediately upon his reelection and in a period of just five months the new government has been confronted with a number of problems that created an atmosphere of social turbulence. All these contested issues touch upon fundamental aspects of the government’s policy. Currently, these issues include the economy and the education system. Before these, it was the medical doctors of the public sector that collided with the government over the character of the health system on the island, whereas a couple months ago hundreds of environmental activists protested in various parts of the island against government decisions favouring big developments (skyscrapers) on the coasts of Cyprus, as well as in environmentally protected areas incorporated in the EU’s Natura 2000 network.

In the economy, Cyprus experienced once again the fear of a bail-in, similar to that of March 2013; this time the focal point was the Cyprus Cooperative Bank (CCB). CCB has a 110-year history in Cyprus and is currently a large, systemic bank (the third largest bank in Cyprus). The CCB focuses on retail banking, serving some 400,000 Cypriots with more than 30% of the total deposits. Given the problems faced by this bank the government decided, back in September 2013, to inject money and put it under its total share capital control. Since then, it has become very obvious that the right-wing government of N. Anastasiades favoured the privatization of the CCB but was unable to do so in its first tenure because of the reactions of the opposition and other social actors.

Eventually, and despite the opposition’s resistance, the government began the process for privatizing the CCB, while also making it clear that they preferred another local bank (Hellenic Bank) to take over. Some misguided (some say targeted) statements by government officials and rumours for a forthcoming bail-in unless the parliament authorized the privatization of the bank resulted in a bank run from the CCB. Withdrawals totalled €1.9 billion in the first three months of 2018.

The deal, as it was negotiated, would have led to the Hellenic Bank acquiring the “good part” of the CCB (deposits and assets) and for the government to take over the “bad part” (i.e., the non-performing loans). This deal has generally been viewed as very favourable for Hellenic Bank, but bad for the Cyprus tax-payer. As pointed out by the press (and also the opposition), the deal could prove to be very expensive for the central government and ultimately for the tax-payer. The government issued Development Bonds totalling €3.35 billion to bolster the ‘good part’ of the CCB, raising the public debt to GDP ratio from 97.5% to approximately 120%. In addition, the government has agreed to protect the assets of the Hellenic Bank by providing guarantees which could eventually be very costly if exercised. Furthermore, the government has agreed to make redundancy payments to the 1000-plus employees of the CCB who are expected to be laid off as a result of the deal.

Notwithstanding the positive vote that the (scant) majority of the parliament gave to the government’s bill on this issue, criticism has been very strong by most political parties (even those that supported the legislation). Most of the criticism has targeted the Minister of Finance whose resignation was demanded; the president and his overall economic policy was also targeted as one that favours big capital. A protest was also organized by a civil society group, the Movement Against Foreclosures, in the capital city of Nicosia and was backed by some of the opposition parties.

And while the fire from this issue was still burning another one lit up. This time it was the teachers associations of primary and secondary education that protested against government decisions. Thousands of teachers, parents and students gathered outside the education ministry in the sizzling heat to demand the resignation of the Education Minister. The pretext for the row focused on a cabinet decision to abolish exemptions from teaching hours for trade union activities and extra-curricular activities, and fewer hours for teachers with many years of service. However, the teachers were quick to introduce wider issues relating to the overall government policy towards the pubic character of the education system in Cyprus. Protestors chanted ‘give up’ and ‘hands off education’ in front of the ministry. According to most sources it was the most massive demonstration held in Nicosia in recent years gathering thousands of protestors. The unions have threatened to strike in September if the problems are not solved.

Demonstrations and opposition to government policies by various parties, unions and social groups reveal important underlying social tensions and show that the president has a difficult path to cross in his second and final term. His policies favouring a smaller state will probably be at the heart of discussions and it must be taken for granted that they will provoke strong opposition. With the negotiations for the Cyprus problem expected to resume in the fall, the government cannot operate in such a tumultuous environment. A more consensual approach will be probably sought in the forthcoming days and weeks.

Georgia – Mass demonstrations and the resignation of the prime minister

In May a wave of demonstrations hit Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. They started when the government suddenly carried out a series of operations against the night clubs there and the so-called “Night Economy” that was led by by Mayor of Tbilisi, the former AC Milan defender, Kakha Kaladze[1]. The Tbilisi nightclub scene is among the best in the world[2] and the government’s actions led to the anger of young people in particular, with thousands coming out onto the street to protest[3]. Such demonstrations have been rare in Georgia under the current regime. However, the government was forced to respond by reopening a number of the night clubs[4].

Shortly thereafter, a second wave of public protest occurred. The murder of two young people in a public school in Tbilisi was not being investigated thoroughly. Following a verdict of the Tbilisi Court, the father of the deceased and his supporters launched mass protests in the capital. They believed that the family members of high-ranking officials were guilty of the murder and the government was protecting them. Some political parties supported the protest and the government said that they were political. Finally, though, the chief prosecutor resigned[5] and the government agreed to create an investigative commission[6] in parliament. With the government enjoying a majority there, the main goal was to stop the protests and calm the situation down for a period.

Soon, though, there were calls for the resignation of the government and a short time later Prime Minister Kvirikashvili announced his resignation[7]. When he explained the reasons for his decision[8], he did not mention the protest rallies. The Prime Minister simply said that there were differences between him and the governing team[9]. We still do not really know why the prime minister resigned. It is noteworthy that the President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, questioned the change, wondering why Kvirikashvili had disappeared from the political arena[10].

After Kvirikashvili’s resignation, the ruling Georgian Dream party named a new prime ministerial candidate, Mamuka Bakhtadze[11]. He had been the Finance Minister in Kvirikashvili’s cabinet and is known as a close and trusted friend of the founder of the party, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Bakhtadze is 36 years old and has little political experience, working in managerial positions in the public and private sectors. He is considered to be a “technocrat” and experts say that political decisions will be made by Ivanishvili himself.

The new Prime Minister formed a temporary government with the same composition[12]  stating that he would submit a new government to Parliament when changes were made. The Parliament of Georgia quickly expressed confidence in Bakhtadze’s caretaker government[13].

Despite its status, the government proposed a series of reforms. Prime Minister Bakhtadze put forward the concept of so-called “small government”, which implies the unification of certain ministries and state agencies, leading to cost reductions. The government envisages up to 11 reductions to 14 ministries. However, a long-term strategy of deregulation, decentralization, or deployment is absent. . This has been a feature of Georgian politics recently. There have been a lot of new structures, commissions and the like, creating a certain instability, but very few strategic reforms.

In the end, Prime Minister Bakhtadze presented a new government[14], in which the Ministers of Education, Science and Sport, Finance, Economy and Sustainable Development, and Foreign Affairs changed. In addition, a minister from the old government, Kakhishvili, who had successfully conducted reforms of the prison system was appointed as the head of the government administration. Following two days of hearings, parliament expressed confidence in the government. This is the fourth Georgian Dream government since 2012.

Overall, we can say that with Georgia trying to develop a classical parliamentary or mixed system of governance, governmental changes are not related to electoral accountability.

Notes

[1] Special operation in clubs: Who killed Kaladze’s “night economy”? https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/სპეცოპერაცია-კლუბებში-ვინ-გაწირა-კალაძის-ღამის-ეკონომიკა/29222990.html

[2] Tbilisi Night Club is among the 20 best night clubs in the world; https://pia.ge/post/138360-tbilisis-ramis-klubi-msoflios-20-sauketeso-ramis-klubs-soris-liderobs

[3] We dance together – in “Basian” action; http://netgazeti.ge/news/280606/

[4] Club “Basiani” was opened; https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/კლუბი-ბასიანი-გაიხსნა/29245833.html

[5] Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze resigned; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/223907-mtavari-prokurori-irakli-shotaze-gadadga/

[6] Temporary Investigation Commission has been approved in Khorava Street case – get acquainted with the composition; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/224191-xoravas-kuchis-sakmeze-droebiti-sagamoziebo-komisia-damtkicda-gaecanit-shemadgenlobas/

[7] Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned; https://www.ambebi.ge/article/224495-premier-ministri-giorgi-kvirikashvili-gadadga/

[8] Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned as prime minister; https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29288896.html

[9] Kvirikashvili: There was a difference of opinions between me and the ruling team; https://on.ge/story/24070-კვირიკაშვილი-ჩემსა-და-მმართველ-გუნდს-შორის-აზრთა-სხვადასხვაობა-გამოიკვეთა

[10] Giorgi Margvelashvili: Why did Kvirikashvili leave the political field? In fact, why is it cut out of the textbook? https://commersant.ge/ge/post/giorgi-margvelashvili-ratom-gaqra-politikuri-velidan-kvirikashvili-faqtobrivad-saxelmdzgvaneloebidan-misi-fotos-amochra-ratom-xdeba

[11] The Prime Minister of Georgia will be Mamuka Bakhtadze; http://www.newposts.ge/?l=ge&id=176100-ბახტაძე,%20პრემიერი

[12] Mamuka Bakhtadze holds the first session of the government as prime minister; https://www.ipress.ge/new/116660-mamuka-bakhtadze-premieris-rangshi-mtavrobis-pirvel-skhdomas-martavs

[13] Bakhtadze’s temporary government is approved – list of ministers; http://www.resonancedaily.com/index.php?id_rub=4&id_artc=50459

[14] Mamuka Bakhtadze presented the new composition of the government; https://imedinews.ge/ge/saqartvelo/69732/mamuka-bakhtadzem-mtavrobis-akhali-shemadgenloba-tsaradgina

Navigating the Electoral Tsunami: The aftermath of Mexico’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.

Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.

I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.

Election Day

There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:

  1. Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
  2. (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
  3. Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.

The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena

Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.

Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results

Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here).  Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:

  1. Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
  2. Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
  3. Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.

Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography

To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.

Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges

In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:

  1. The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
  2. Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
  3. Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.

The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.


Javier Pérez Sandoval (javier.perezsandoval@politics.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.