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Senegal – Back to presidentialism?

Newly reelected President Macky Sall has given his prime minister, Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, the unenviable task of eliminating his own position. This will entail changing Senegal’s constitution — once again — and reintroduce a presidential system.

Despite Senegal’s history of relative political stability, the country’s constitutional history has been far from stable. Senegal is at its fourth constitution, since 1959, and has changed government system several times already. In between constitutions, there have been numerous constitutional amendments, most of which have been passed by a legislative vote without resorting to a referendum.

In August 1960, Senegal adopted its second constitution — and its first as an independent, separate republic — after abandoning the short-lived Mali Federation created by the first 1959 constitution. The 1960 constitution was modeled on the 1958 French example with a dual executive: with an indirectly elected president as head of state and a prime minister (“cabinet president”) appointed by the president, but accountable to the National Assembly. Léopold Sédar Senghor was elected Senegal’s first president and his close political ally Mamadou Moustapha Dia became the country’s first prime minister.

This two-headed executive system did not survive a rapidly mounting power struggle between Senghor and Dia that culminated in a constitutional crisis in 1962. Legislators were about to take a no confidence vote in Dia, when the prime minister ordered the army to hinder access to the National Assembly building. Senghor accused Dia of a constitutional coup attempt and had him arrested. The military remained loyal to the president and Dia spent the next 12 years in jail. Senghor promptly took steps to avoid a similar situation in the future and initiated a new, presidential constitution that was approved by referendum in March 1963 (the country’s third constitution in four years). Senghor was reelected in December of that year by popular vote for a four-year presidential term, without term limits. In 1967, in the first of what was to be a be a total of 20 revisions to the 1963 constitution, the presidential term was increased to five years.

Senegal returned to a dual executive system in 1970 with the reintroduction of the prime minister position, in an effort to defuse tensions in a context of social unrest with student demonstration and labor strikes. Senghor initiated a referendum on a constitutional change that this time resulted in a fully fledged semi-presidential government system, providing for a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to parliament (modeled on the 1962 revised French constitution). This revision also introduced a two-term presidential term limit. This limit was, however, removed again in the fifth constitutional revision of April 1976.

Before finishing his fourth elected term, Senghor resigned on December 31, 1980. Prime Minister Abdou Diouf became president and served out the rest of the term. Shortly after being elected president on his own account in 1983, Diouf initiated a constitutional change to return Senegal to presidentialism. The argumentation presented for the revision included the need for greater efficiency and effectiveness of government action and the expressed desire for a more direct contact between the president and the population. This time, presidentialism survived for eight years, till 1991. With the return to semi-presidentialism in 1991, as the third wave of democratization swept across Africa, Senegal also reintroduced presidential term limits. The term limits were, however, removed again in 1998, in the 19th revision to the 1963 constitution.

When Abdoulaye Wade won the presidency in 2000, marking the first time that executive power transitioned from one party to another in Senegal’s history, the new president initiated the elaboration of a new constitution. The country thus got its fourth and current constitution adopted by referendum in 2001. Senegal retained a semi-presidential system of government, and reintroduced presidential term limits. This new constitution has not fared much better than the old one, however, in terms of amendments. By 2010, the constitutional text had already been revised 15 times, according to Robert Elgie.

Senegal – Changes in government system and presidential term limits

1960Dual executive system, no presidential term limits
1970Semi-presidentialism, term limits introduced [removed again in 1976]
1991Semi-presidentialism, term limits reintroduced [removed again in 1998, reintroduced in 2001]

President Macky Sall, shortly after being elected in 2012, initiated a constitutional revision to remove the senate from Senegal’s democratic architecture, but has overall had a less piecemeal approach to constitutional reform. In 2016, the government introduced a series of amendments that touched 20 articles of the constitution and were passed by referendum. Chief among these was the reduction of the length of presidential terms to five years, from the seven years it had been increased to under Wade. Sall’s second term, after his reelection in February of this year, will thus be reduced to five years.  

Sall is now following in the footsteps of Diouf, moving to return Senegal to presidentialism. Perhaps it is his shortened presidential term that provides Sall with a sense of urgency and the desire to streamline decision-making processes. His arguments for returning to presidentialism echo those of Diouf, saying that eliminating the prime minister position will help “reduce administrative bottlenecks” and “bring the administration closer to the people.” His critics allege it is a power grab. It is striking that Sall did not mention his plans to change government system during his campaign for reelection. The first indication of his intentions came in an announcement on April 6, by Mahammed Dionne whom he had just reappointed prime minister. The government thereafter moved quickly and on April 17 adopted a constitutional amendment removing the prime minister position.

The proposed constitutional amendment was on April 24 sent to the National Assembly that will now review and debate the proposed changes. A vote is set for May 4th. It will require a three fifth majority to pass the amendment by legislative vote, a likely outcome in a legislature where the presidential coalition controls a 75 percent majority (125 out of 165 seats). Should the legislative vote pass with less than 60 percent, a referendum is required. The text of the constitutional amendment has not yet been made public, but an alleged copy is circulating online. Reportedly, besides transferring responsibilities as head of government to the president, the revised text also foresees a clearer separation of powers between the legislature and the executive: on the one hand the legislature can no longer topple the cabinet through a no confidence vote, on the other hand, the president cannot dissolve the legislature as is currently the case.

There is no indication that the proposed constitutional amendment will touch on presidential term limits. Hopefully Sall will not follow in the steps of another previous president – Wade – who stood for a third term despite term limit provisions. Wade argued in 2012 that he should be allowed to run again because presidential term limits had been reintroduced in 2001, after he was elected, and could not be considered retroactively. Elsewhere on the continent, Côte  d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has argued that the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 reset the term limit counter and that he could therefore run again in 2020, if he wanted to. In Senegal, the difference is that if the amendment passes, the country will have a new government system, but not a new constitution. It remains to be seen whether this is a sure bulwark in a country and region where term limits have proven fickle in the past. In neighboring Guinea, President Alpha Conde and his supporters seem increasingly intent on initiating a constitutional referendum that would lift term limits before Conde’s second and last term comes to an end next year. Despite significant democratic progress in West Africa over the past decade, the notion of presidential term limits does not yet appear to be firmly entrenched.

Tanzania – The politics of being Auditor General

Tanzania’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Prof. Mussa Assad, is by turns the most celebrated and vilified man in the country right now. His predicament, far from a matter of personality, speaks to broader questions of accountability, institutional oversight and economic strategy under President Magufuli.   

The current tensions began in early January. Speaker of Parliament Job Ndugai accused Prof. Assad of “contempt of Parliament” after the CAG referred to parliament’s oversight performance as “weak” during an interview. The Speaker summoned Assad before a parliamentary disciplinary committee to explain himself, meanwhile briefly suspending the work of parliament’s oversight committees.  

Fast forward to April and the disciplinary committee tabled its report in Parliament, recommending that Parliament suspend work with the CAG, a recommendation that was then voted through by the ruling party majority.

This move elicited a prompt reply from Prof. Assad, warning of a potential constitutional violation. The decision to stop working with Assad came at a sensitive time, just as Parliament was due to debate the CAG’s audit report for the financial year 2017/2018. Assad pointed out, “My office has already submitted the audit report to the President, and it must be submitted to parliament in seven days,” adding, “If this is not done, it will mean breach of the constitution.”

A campaign quickly picked up on social media with many activists praising the CAG and demanding Parliament honour its constitutional duties. Ndugai responded by clarifying that Parliament would review the CAG’s reports, but that it would work with his office and not with the man himself, that is, with Prof. Assad. The Speaker went on to suggest that Assad should in fact resign. This latest move has elicited a response in kind as an online petition calling for Ndugai’s ouster is now fast gaining signatures.

The immediate concern raised by Ndugai’s critics is that he is effectively undermining the independence of the CAG, threatening Prof. Assad to discourage proper oversight of public finances. Relatedly, many see the Speaker’s intervention as part of a cover-up, the main aim being to stop revelations of money “missing and misappropriated under the government of President Magufuli.” While Magufuli has himself remained silent on the CAG issue, Ndugai has developed a reputation as the President’s right-hand-man in Parliament, adding to the impression of executive interference in key oversight institutions, first Parliament and now the CAG. Ndugai’s latest intervention, moreover, is not the first one to come at a sensitive and seemingly strategic moment. When the Speaker challenged the CAG back in January, it was just as a special audit report, critical of government’s financial management, was due to be debated in Parliament.

Whatever the reality of the situation, Ndugai’s heavy-handed interventions certainly reinforce the impression that the government has something to hide. But this raises the question, what does the CAG’s latest audit report actually tell us?

On certain points, it paints a fairly good picture of government’s financial management. For instance, 97 percent of the 241 government bodies audited by the CAG had their accounts in perfect order, a percentage that compares well with the previous administration of President Jakaya Kikwete.

Yet on other points, the CAG’s report does raise significant concerns, not only about government accountability but also about the viability of its current development strategy.

Critics have been quick to note several anomalies, for instance, poor reconciliation of reported funds released by the treasury and received by relevant government bodies. Another worry is the decision to transfer the vastly expanded budget of the state-owned Air Tanzania Company Ltd. (ATCL) to the State House budget, i.e. the President’s office, which the CAG does not audit.  As opposition MP Zitto Kabwe affirmed, “This issue is very important because past experience shows that anything that has a stench of corruption or doubtful expenditure Government moves it to the State House budget because it knows it is not openly audited” (my translation).

Leaving aside accountability, the CAG report highlights several issues regarding government performance. These include delays in development projects due to government’s failure to pay, underperformance of state-owned enterprises (including ATCL), losses at state-owned banks like the Tanzania Agricultural Development Bank (TADB), and unpaid debts owed to various pension funds.

Magufuli has built his no-nonsense, “only work”, “bulldozer” brand, in part, on claims to rapidly implement big infrastructure projects and with a preference for public enterprise in the name of efficiency and cost-cutting. He has also relied on funding from pensions and banks like TADB, which among other things, played a central role financing the government’s ill-fated cashew-buying operation. It is thus not insignificant that these are the precise areas where the CAG has identified shortcomings in government performance.

Arguably, the CAG’s report is most damning not where it points to potential financial mismanagement; rather, the truly concerning take-away is that central pillars of the government’s current development approach are resting on shaky foundations [i]. Ndugai’s criticism of the CAG seemingly only draws more attention to these findings. And in any case, as the IMF revises down Tanzania’s growth forecast from 6-7 percent to a mere 4 percent, the real-world results will be all too plain to see.

[i] As I will elaborate in a follow-up piece, I do not mean to draw a crude contrast between market- v. state-led development strategy, perhaps leaving readers with the impression that I think Magufuli is simply too statist. To the contrary, there is good reason to think public development banks, state-owned enterprise and the like can and should play a more central role in the government’s development strategy. Indeed, a consensus on this issue began to emerge already under Kikwete. But just as there are many “varieties of capitalism”, i.e. many ways of managing a market-led economy, there are also various ways of integrating a more state-led development strategy. The approach Magufuli is currently pursuing, not least privileging public enterprises like the highly costly ATCL, is neither economically nor politically the most desirable.

In Slovakia, voters elect Zuzana Čaputová the first female president in Central Europe

A novice to national politics, environmental and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová defeated the Vice-President of the European Commission for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič, in a runoff of the Slovak presidential elections. Her victory reflected growing dissatisfaction with the current government, especially with the Smer-Social democracy (Smer), the senior coalition member. The overall results signal a possible realignment on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2020.

Three events in 2018 strongly impacted the political atmosphere in Slovakia and directly influenced the presidential election and its outcome: Firstly, the country was shocked by the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Kuciak’s work focused on the possible corruption involving elected politicians, high public officials, and the criminal underworld. The country experienced a wave of anti-government mass protests, the largest demonstrations since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Secondly, amidst the protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Smer resigned, paving the way for a reconstruction of the three-party government under the Smer-nominated prime minister Peter Pellegrini. Thirdly, president Kiska officially announced in May 2018 that he would not seek re-election. Though Kiska hinted on his continued involvement in Slovak politics, at the time he refused to provide any details, citing the need to complete his mandate as the president above day-to-day party politics.

With Kiska’s announced departure, the presidential contest had no clear favorite. Early opinion polls suggested a host of potential candidates polled just about 10% support, with Miroslav Lajčák, a Smer-nominated Foreign Minister being a front-runner, should he decide to run. Robert Mistrík, a nominee of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), aspiring to become the preferred candidate of the democratic opposition, polled neck to neck with the leader of the extreme-right Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) Marian Kotleba, a controversial Supreme Court Justice Štefan Harabin, the leader of the governing Slovak-Hungarian Most-Híd party Béla Bugár and Veronika Remišová,  the leading parliamentarian of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) grouping. Zuzana Čaputová, nominated by extra-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia, seemed to stand no chance.

However, Lajčák repeatedly refused to enter the presidential race, citing his desire to continue his career in diplomatic service. Smer leader Robert Fico ruled out his presidential ambitions and instead announced his bid in January for one of the nine vacancies at the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the issue became an important issue of the campaign: the outgoing president Kiska declared he would not appoint Fico to the top court; the prospective presidential candidates also had to take a stance concerning the matter.

To maximize chances of a pro-democratic candidate to reach the runoff, OĽaNO and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) did not field any candidate. Also, they attempted to facilitate an agreement among Mistrík, Čaputová and František Mikloško (formerly of the KDH) that whoever of the three had the strongest popular support should get the endorsement of all the others before the first round of the election. Eventually, Mistrík and Čaputová agreed, while Mikloško decided to stay in the race. 

Smer eventually nominated Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission, who led the Smer party list in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Šefčovič, nominally a non-party independent, received substantial financial support from, and public endorsement of, Smer party and its leaders. Even though he has had a relatively liberal and pro-European social democratic record, his campaign had to rely on the more socially conservative support base of Smer. During the party rallies, Fico likened him to an 18-century Slovak folk hero; Šefčovič himself declined to take a clear stance on issues critical of Smer and its leader, and eventually even profiled himself as a champion of traditional Christian values.

The critical phase of the campaign – and Čaputová’s rapid increase of popularity – came with the first televised debates among presidential contenders. She presented herself as a thoughtful, calm and firm voice of social justice, criticizing defects in the rule of law, yet refraining from negative campaign and ad hominem attacks. Her performance seemed to resonate well with the public expectations and the general mood in the country. Robert Mistrík eventually honored their agreement, withdrew from the race, and unequivocally supported her before the first round. As a consequence, Čaputová’s approval ratings quickly reached 40-50%.

Her main opponents concentrated on getting to the second round: Maroš Šefčovič presented himself as an experienced politician, respected at the European scene, ready to lead the country and defend its national interests. Štefan Harabin appealed to disillusioned voters with his outright dismissal of the established political elites: He promised to exercise the presidential powers to the fullest extent, taking an active role in foreign policy to protect the country against what he called the dangers of Islamization and the loss of national sovereignty in the EU. Marian Kotleba of the extreme-right ĽSNS echoed his rhetoric, pointing out that Harabin himself contributed to the erosion of Slovak sovereignty by being a Justice Minister of the government that agreed with the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Čaputova won the first round held on March 16, gaining 40.6%, followed by Šefčovič, who received 18.7%. Harabin and Kotleba gained 14.4% and 10.4%, respectively, followed by Mikloško (5.7%) and the other minor candidates. With two weeks to the runoff, Šefčovič attempted to close the gap by aggressively addressing the supporters of Harabin and Kotleba: The day after the first round he portrayed himself as the champion of traditional Christian conservative values, criticizing Čaputová for her openness to LBGT agenda. He even claimed that he, as the member of the European Commission, actively opposed the Commission-sponsored proposal that would enable the relocation of asylum seekers across the EU countries. Later on, he returned to his previous agenda, stressing his experience and credentials in international politics. Čaputová, on the other hand, stood on her original message. As the favorite, she concentrated on mobilizing her support base from the first round, underlining the result of the contest were open. Her support reached 58.4%; her opponent gained 41.6%. Compared to 48.7% in the first round, turnout dropped to 41.8%, reflecting the fact that many supporters of Harabin and Kotleba did not take part in the runoff. Those who did mostly voted for Šefčovič. Čaputová managed to win over younger, and better-educated voters. Šefčovič’s support base contained mostly older, less educated voters who tend to support Smer.

Čaputová’s victory has significant consequences for the overall political development. Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, the presidential elections was a second nationwide contest that signaled a transformation of Slovak politics towards a tripolar configuration with a significant role played by the anti-establishment, anti-EU and extreme right parties. Even though two pro-European and democratic candidates succeeded, the proportional electoral system to the national parliament will probably ensure an increased parliamentary presence of antisystem, populist and radical parliamentarians. Presidential executive powers are limited. Nevertheless, President Čaputová will be appointing the next prime minister. Given an increasing fragmentation of the parliament and the likelihood that the next coalition government will consist of several parties, the influence of the president in the process will grow.  

A transformation of the Slovak party scene is likely to be further deepened by the announcement of outgoing president Kiska that he will set up a new political party after his departure from the presidential palace. A recent poll indicated some 9% of voters would “definitely” vote for his party and an additional 31% was “likely” to vote for it. Furthermore, a post-election poll also indicated the rise of Čaputová’s party, approaching double-digit numbers. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, the 2019 presidential elections seem to be a prelude to a far-reaching transformation of the Slovak political scene.

Nigeria: President Buhari hits the ground walking

There were good reasons for President Muhammadu Buhari to seek to make a big impact in the days following his re-election. Having been accused of not having the energy needed to run one of the world’s most complex countries, he has a strong incentive to cultivate a new dynamic reputation. The controversial nature of the elections, which were rejected by the opposition despite his comfortable victory – with Buhari’s main rival calling the polls a return to “military dictatorship” – provide another reason to grasp the political mantle.

The country’s poor economic condition, complete with continuing local resistance to central state authority in parts of the north and also the east of the country, also suggests that urgency is required. One might also expect Buhari, for whom this represents an important opportunity to supplement his existing reputation as a stoical military leader with a degree of democratic legitimacy, to be determined to make the most of his final term in office – Nigeria employs a two-term limit on the presidency, and this has so far been respected by all multi-party leaders in the current political dispensation.

Despite this, the first few weeks of the President’s second term have been anything but dynamic. There have been no fresh initiatives to rebuild bridges with disgruntled members of the Igbo community, some of whom speak of the need to return to the days of Biafra – bringing back memories of the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the widespread suffering that occurred following the attempted secession of the Eastern region in 1967.

The pace of economic reform is also closer to a crawl than a sprint. While the government will increase the national minimum wage from Naira 18,000 to N30,000, after this was approved by the Senate in mid March, it is not yet clear how this will be funded. One option – supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – is to bolster revenues by increasing and effectively collecting Value Added Tax (VAT). However, while the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Babatunde Fowler, has stated that the government intends to raise greater revenue VAT – potentially from 5 to 7.5% – this plan has been in the background for some time and there seems to be no urgency about implementing it now.

The slow start of the new government appears to be rooted in three main factors.

The first is that the electoral cycle continued after the presidential election, with a further round of sub-national elections, including for local representatives and the influential position of Governors, held in 29 of the country’s 36 states. These contests have been particularly hotly contested, with considerable evidence of electoral manipulation and no little political unrest. As a result, Buhari’s government has invested more effort in consolidating its hold on power than in governing the country.

The second is that Nigeria is stuck in a rut because the most effective policy options available to the government are unpalatable and have been for some time. Many of the policies that might actually generate revenue and so create new possibilities for government investment are unattractive precisely because they would be politically unpopular. Increasing and implementing VAT, for example, would mean asking citizens who feel that their government is failing to provide for them to pay more for the privilege. The response could be similar to that which greeted an increase in the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012 – popular protests and the emergence of a growing sense that the government is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The third factor is that President Buhari himself seems to have run out of ideas. Despite the vast amount of money invested in his re-election, there is no evidence that he has the vision or energy required to effectively lead the country. Back during the chaotic reign of President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s focus on order and discipline appealed to ordinary Nigerians fearful of the spread of Boko Haram and unrestricted corruption. Now that the memory of Jonathan is starting to fade, and the country desperately requires a more creative and inclusive development strategy, the former military ruler’s limitations risk being painfully exposed.

Time will tell whether the more reformist elements around the president will be able to impress on him the need to respond more effectively to the popular thirst for change. If not, it could be a long and painful second term for one of Africa’s most powerful leaders.

Costa Rica – Indigenous leader is assassinated motivating a reaction against the government

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the School of Political Science, University of Costa Rica.

The morning of March 19th, 2019 Costa Ricans woke up with the news that the indigenous leader Sergio Rojas Ortiz had been murdered. He was shot numerous times the night before in Salitre, an indigenous reserve in Buenos Aires, province of Puntarenas, located at the southeast of the country, which has been the focus of a conflict over land during many years.

The situation had a big impact on news outlets and specially on social and academic circles. The broader repercussions of the incident involved—apart from the public anguish for the incident—the government who was accused of indifference towards the conflict situation in Salitre to which has been aware of for many years, with some blaming the government—and even the President Carlos Alvarado—for Rojas Ortiz’s death. The murder of this indigenous leader takes place three years after the murder of the Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist, Berta Cáceres in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. Cáceres was general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). At the time of her murder, she was leading a movement against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River (department of Intibucá). Before her death, Cáceres reported receiving several death threats against her and members of her family, about which some argue that the Honduran State did not follow due.

In both, Costa Rica and Honduras, the indigenous leaders were beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2015, for which their respective governments had to guarantee their safety. Their lack of effectiveness or negligence is one of the reasons why in these two countries governments are being made responsible for the murders of these leaders.

The deaths of Rojas Ortiz in Costa Rica and Cáceres in Honduras remind us that societies in Latin America are multicultural, and that there are ethnic minorities that due to their culture and ancestral past, possess special rights recognized by international law. However, the State, as the comparative politics scholar Donna Lee Van Cott reminded us, in many cases does little to enforce those rights, with negative consequences for democracy: “Even where relatively free and fair multi-party elections are regularly held, governments violating the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, or failing to constrain dominant groups from oppressing and exploiting others, prevent their citizens from enjoying democratic rights and political freedoms”. Clashes between ethnic groups are common in different parts of the world and they have motivated multicultural public policies. Why is this happening in Costa Rica? In Costa Rica as in the Honduran case—as in other parts of Latin America—there is mobilization from indigenous organized groups which are associated with other national and international social movements, often linked to leftist political movements. In the reminder of this post we focus on the recent events that took place in Costa Rica.

The Salirtre’s Bribri situation  

Sergio Rojas Ortiz was broadly known for his leader role in the Bribri’s cause in Salitre—to protect and preserve their land from illegitimate foreign farmers and landholders. The Bribri are one of the eight indigenous groups that inhabit Costa Rican territory. Rojas and other Bribri have strived for the indigenous people rights, locally and in a nationwide scale. As a minority in the country, the Bribri—as other indigenous groups—have had limited access to the fulfillment of their demands.

In Costa Rica, the indigenous people represent a very small minority. In the last 2011 census, the people that identified themselves as indigenous were around the 2.5% of the population of the country. These populations live mostly in rural areas. Many believe that historically, the Costa Rican government has been in debt to this minority as their rights have not been respected entirely, albeit the Indigenous Law of 1977 protects their rights and in recent years there has been an approach from authorities to jointly satisfy their grievances.

In the Salitre’s Bribri case, the Costa Rican State might had indirectly allowed the hoarding of lands that by law are restricted to only natives. Sergio Rojas himself—and what he stood for—caused frictions among the people of Salitre. While it is true that the location is an indigenous reserve protected by law, there are non-indigenous “white” people (the Sikuas) living there, and the clashes between the Bribri and Sikuas were increasingly recurrent in recent years. The main reason for that is that the Bribri started land recovery processes against the Sikuas, in which—not a few times—violent incidents were registered, causing the need of constant vigilance of police authorities to avoid new riots and attacks from the confronted sides.

The situation of Salitre is in fact more complicated, with historic and ethnic differences being central to understand the conflict. In Salitre—one of the four indigenous reserves of the Bribri in Costa Rica—the Bribri, Sergio’s ethnic lineage, and the Brörán—another ethnic ascendancy—live in constant disagreements between them. This has also led to violent episodes, as the former have accused the latter of being allies of the Sikuas, and of not respecting their sacred land which has to be for no one but the natives. The physical violence between Brörán and Bribri  has not been  usual, but when the Sikuas are involved, the discrepancies amongst them arise. In these circumstances, the confrontations remain frequent, and the State approach about this has not been satisfactorily coherent.

The problem even got international relevance as the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 2015 demanded that the Costa Rican government—under the administration of President Luis Guillermo Solís—to adopt all the necessary actions to respect the Bribri’s claims and rights. This was almost four years ago. Yet, machete wounds in indigenous men and women, house fires, and shootings are still common in this area. In the end, the measures were not abided by the government, as problem exists nowadays, with the death of Sergio Rojas as proof.

The presidential response

The next day after Sergio Rojas’s death, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada convened a press conference, in which he stated that “this is a tragic day for the Bribri community, the indigenous people and for all of Costa Rica… We manifest our pain and indignation to his family and all the Bribri people”, he also insisted on the trust he has on the Judiciary, to get with those responsible for the crime, and his compromise with the respect of the Human Rights, minorities and aboriginal rights. Also, the President commanded the police to give Rojas’ family protection; correspondingly he requested for dialogue and peace.

As the days go by, doubts persist about the possibility of coming to a viable solution. There is, evidently, a beforehand lack of trust from the Bribri people towards the government and the justice system. This is one of the main reasons why they try to recover their lands by their own means. The violence experienced in recent years and the murder of the leader Sergio Rojas puts even more pressure on the government to solve the conflict.  A week after the events, the government, headed by president Alvarado sent a group of vice ministers and other officials to keep track of the situation in Salitre, as pressure from national and international organizations mounts on the government to fulfill the rights of the indigenous minority.

Chile: Sebastián Piñera enters his second year in La Moneda

Piñera’s international agenda

In 2019, President Sebastián Piñera seems to have tightened his grip on the political agenda. During January and February, Piñera focused almost exclusively on the Venezuela issue. He made periodic remarks in the media on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela, condemning human right violations by the government of Nicolás Maduro.  In a reckless political gamble in February, Piñera traveled to Cúcuta in Colombia to deliver humanitarian aid for Venezuelans across the border. Once there, together with Colombia’s President Iván Duque, Piñera even took part in Venezuela Aid Live, a musical concert whose major highlight was the appearance of Juan Guaidó, acting President of Venezuela.

At home, Piñera’s anti-Maduro rhetoric and trip to Colombia took the left-of-center opposition by surprise, as only a handful of politicians raised their voice to criticize him. The reason for such a muted reaction might well be that February is a summer break for most politicians. However, their internal division and conflicting positions on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela possibly prevented them from launching a coordinated response to Piñera’s international agenda.

In addition to his Venezuela intervention, Piñera took advantage of South America’s right turn by pushing for the creation of Progress for South America (PROSUR), a regional initiative that seeks to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the bloc created in 2008 by left-wing South American leaders but in decline since the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. PROSUR’s inaugural meeting was recently held in Santiago, Chile. The visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro captured the attention of the media and Chile’s leftist opposition. Piñera was criticized at home for being too close to right-wing populist leaders like Bolsonaro, as well as for his attempts to dismantle UNASUR.

Nevertheless, whether Piñera’s “international agenda” enhanced or weakened his popularity is an entirely different question. Piñera’s approval ratings had dropped to 38% in December, his lowest in 2018. Even though no reliable polls have yet been published in 2019, nothing indicates that Piñera’s approval has improved this year. Unemployment, probably the best indicator of Piñera’s progress in making good on his campaign promises, is still relatively high at 6.8% for the November-January trimester, topping the previous trimester and the same trimester from the previous year.

Preemptive identity control and a divided left-of-center opposition

A few days ago, La Moneda announced its intention to push for a bill to reduce the minimum age for being subject to identity checks by Carabineros, Chile’s police force and the Investigations Police (PDI) from 18 to 14. In 2016, the Michelle Bachelet administration passed the first bill allowing Carabineros and the PDI to request ID from anyone 18 years old or older, whether they were suspected of a crime or not. The left-leaning opposition has opposed Piñera’s initiative, arguing that it violates the rights of minors and would do nothing to reduce crime. Whatever the future of the bill, it helped bring some unity to a splintered political opposition. The bloc of left-of-center parties has rarely presented a united front except for its demand that the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Mauricio Rojas be fired (he resigned after 96 hours in his post), and its insistence that Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick be summoned to answer questions in Congress following the assassination in October 2018 of Camilo Catrillanca by members of police special forces.

 Such fragmentation in the left-leaning opposition may stem from their different pro and anti-establishment stances, as well as political style. However, inter-party polarization in the opposition seems to have increased over the few last months. In January, legislators from the Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front), a political bloc mostly comprised of leftist and some far-left small parties, decided to break an pact with the rest of the opposition in which it had agreed to support the Christian Democrat (DC) candidate in elections for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. The election, in which every deputy has a single vote, was held on March 19th.Taking advantage of the  left opposition’s troubles, parties of the right-wing Chile Vamos, Piñera’s political coalition, backed the nomination of Deputy Jaime Bellolio (UDI), who won the first round with 73 votes, two more than the DC candidate, Deputy Iván Flores.  Nevertheless, since neither Bellolio nor Flores secured the required majority, a second round was held. Finally, after hours of intense negotiations within the opposition alliance, Flores won the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies with 81 votes, against Bellolio’s 68. 

The risk of defeat faced by the opposition parties alarmed many on the Left. Since the return of democracy in 1990, this was the first time a second vote had been necessary. Coalitions and parties had always held enough support and abided by the pacts made to secure the presidency of the lower house. This issue illustrates the widely commented splits and divisions between the opposition parties. 

Eyes on the future

Politicians and parties are already anticipating the 2021 presidential election. Piñera and Chile Vamos, whose problems appear to be far less serious than those of the opposition, are dealing with the challenge of how to manage several aspirants to La Moneda in 2022. In fact, Piñera has been the target of mild critiques from his own coalition because of his personalistic leadership style, one that does not promote the visibility of other potential presidential candidates from within the ruling alliance.[1]

On the other hand, in the left-of-center opposition no single viable candidate has emerged. They barely secured the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies where they, at least nominally, hold a majority of seats. This is just one example of the many coordination problems they have faced in the first 12 months since PIñera’s inauguration. The 2020 local elections are the first major challenge the left of center has to face. A resounding defeat may well seal the fate of the coalition and assure the right-wing Chile Vamos’s occupancy of La Moneda for another term. If Michelle Bachelet decides to make a third bid—an unlikely scenario but not one that can be easily dismissed—we would be in a completely different political scenario.

[1] In Chile, presidents are not allowed to seek consecutive reelection.

Getting serious: “Operation successor” enters critical phase In Kazakhstan

On March 19, after almost 30 years of rule, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longest-serving head of state in the post-Soviet space, announced his immediate resignation as President of Kazakhstan. As stipulated by the constitution, in the event of early retirement of the incumbent, presidential powers pass to the Chairman of the Senate, the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament. Thus, the next day, 65-year old Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in to serve as acting President until the next regular election scheduled for April 2020. Succeeding Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga (55) was elected the Senate’s Chairwoman in a unanimous secret ballot making her number two in Kazakhstan’s power hierarchy.

Nazarbayev’s resignation is a remarkable move, which has been in the air for some time. In contrast to his colleagues in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who left unresolved questions of succession after their deaths in office, Nazarbayev had made it clear for years that he does not intend to leave the fate of the regime he created to those who would survive him, thereby provoking the risk of violent clashes between competing factions. In contrast also to Azerbaijan’s first President Aliyev, who pushed through a dynastic solution, he claimed to be more interested in regime continuity than in securing family business. And in contrast to Russia’s Yeltsin, who was not only constitutionally prevented from running again but also severely incapacitated by the end of his second term in office, Nazarbayev is not obviously ailing, has not (yet) declared the name of a successor and seems to retain full control over the process of power transfer.

In fact, it is not so much the resignation itself that is surprising as is the impression that “Operation Successor” follows a thoroughly planned, quite effective schedule, thus creating a precedent in the post-Soviet region. So far, the whole process fits the framework Nazarbayev outlined during an interview in November 2016, where he declared that he was willing to work as president until 2020, followed by an orderly, constitutional power transition to a successor who is not his child.

By now, strategic choices for the choreography of a smooth power transition have been made in at least three directions. The first one is constitutional and legal reforms to retain control over the process.  When Nazarbayev was granted the title “Elbasy” (“Leader of the Nation”) in 2010, he was not only entitled legal immunity but also obtained the lifelong right to submit “initiatives on major issues of state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security” as well as the right to personally address parliament, government and other bodies about “important issues.” Since then, these bodies have to coordinate their activities “in key areas of domestic and foreign policies” with Nazarbayev even in case of his retirement.

While these moves can be regarded as the climax of personalization of power, in 2017 and 2018 they were underpinned by institutional changes, effected through constitutional and legal reforms. As has been argued in an earlier post to this blog, the most important of these changes consisted of the elevation of the National Security Council from a merely ceremonial to a constitutional body by a special law from July 2018. Since then, the Security Council is responsible for securing domestic political stability, the constitutional system, and Kazakhstan’s national independence and territorial integrity. The Council’s members are the most important ministers, the Speakers of both Chambers of the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the President, all subordinate to Nazarbayev, the Council’s lifelong Chairman.

The final preparatory legal step took place on February 4, 2019, when the Constitutional Court accepted Nazarbayev’s appeal to clarify the conditions under which a president could leave office, as stipulated by paragraph 3 article 42 of the Constitution. On February 15, the Court concluded that voluntary retirement would be constitutional, even if this way of power transition was not explicitly provided for in the text itself.  

In the same vein, Nazarbayev has been preparing for power transfer through his “cadre policy,” the second strategic tier of “Operation successor.” Different from other post-Soviet autocrats, Nazarbayev has always pursued a sophisticated policy of frequent personnel rotation, thus preventing the entrenchment of people into their offices but awarding loyalty and devotion. Not only did Dariga, the President’s daughter, make her way to the highest echelons of power, but also a whole series of capable and trustworthy other people. The career of acting president Tokayev is a case in point. A Moscow-educated diplomat, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994-1999 and 2002-2007, served as Prime Minister in 1999-2002, held the position of an Under-Secretary-General, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and was the Senate’s Chairman in 2007-2011 as well as in 2013-2019.  

The third dimension of the strategy of smooth power transition concerns the choice of pace and timing. While Nazarbayev was entitled to call snap elections to put a chosen successor to popular confirmation, he declined to do so during a press conference in December 2018. Instead, he decided to quit the presidency two days before Norouz (Nauryz), the country’s springtime New Year’s holiday. This would not only get the issue quickly out of the headlines but also be interpreted as a symbolic new beginning, thus leveraging the emotional atmosphere of Kazakhstan’s greatest feast, which is celebrated for three days.

Overall, the past week showed that power transfer is far from complete. Rather, Nazarbayev started the implementation of his project of stepping down as President while staying in power. In his TV address on March 19, he said that he remains chairman for life of the National Security Council and chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party that he founded, as well as the Constitutional Council. Elbasy assured he would stay with the Kazakhstani people, because “the concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns.”

Nazarbayev seems inclined to allow for a roughly year-long interim period, before a new president will be confirmed by popular vote in April 2020. The question of who will follow him in office may indeed still be open. In fact, many observers of Kazakhstani politics doubt that Dariga Nazarbayeva’s new position as Senate spokeswoman will lead her unequivocally to the presidency. Decent chances of getting Nazarbayev’s authorization to run for president are also attributed to acting President Tokayev and new Prime Minister Askar Mamin (53).

Perhaps, competition between the candidates is already in full swing. At least, the somewhat weird urgency with which Tokayev convinced the parliament to rename Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, into Nur-Sultan could be seen as a hint. This move is a strong signal of loyalty to Nazarbayev, demonstrating the initiator’s utmost devotion as well as his intention to secure regime continuity by accepting the long shadow of the First President.

However, the renaming of Astana also provoked some protest on the streets of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent. Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh Service reported dozens of people detained by the police on March 22, and an online petition against the renaming gathered about 45,000 signatures. These rallies were said to be organized online by the leader of the banned Democratic Choice movement (DVK), Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in exile in France. It remains to be seen whether Nazarbayev’s resignation from the presidency will become a focal point for gathering an effective, united opposition. However, this is a rather unlikely scenario.

Sudan’s president faces ongoing protests

Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir approaches the 30th anniversary of his rule in June with the most serious protests his regime has faced. More than three months after they began, people are still in the streets on an almost daily basis calling for the president to step down. Many people are feeling the pain of the country’s worsening economic crisis, with both price increases and shortages of bread and fuel. The scale and persistence of the demonstrations is unprecedented, despite a brutal crackdown in which dozens of protesters have been killed. What is also worrying for the regime is the fact that they have erupted in many locations across the country, not just in the capital, Khartoum. They started unexpectedly outside Khartoum in mid-December 2018, but spread quickly to the capital, where most are now held.

A further challenge for al Bashir is the fact that protestors seem to have lost their fear of his regime. Demonstrators recently gathered in front of the headquarters of the much-feared National Intelligence and Security Service, demanding the release of relatives detained there. The government says that 31 people have died during the protests, but human rights organisations say that more than 50 were killed, and Human Rights Watch has released videos showing the violence used against protestors. The use of live ammunition against them, and the targeting of medical staff, have been widely criticised. International condemnation by governments has, however, been relatively muted.

Response to the economic crisis

The country has faced spiralling inflation and steep falls in the value of its currency over the last few years, which as in turn hit food imports. The disruption of oil exports through Sudan and the loss of direct revenue from oil production when South Sudan broke away have been factors. The economy has long been affected by US sanctions which were imposed more than 20 years ago. Washington lifted some last year, and signed a framework agreement last November to remove the remainder, which would require some democratic reforms and greater press freedom.

The president announced the government was being disbanded on 22nd February with a plan to replace ministers with technocrats. State governors were also replaced by security officials, a state of emergency was declared, and unauthorised public gatherings were banned. Parliament subsequently reduced the state of emergency from a year to six months. A new government has since been put in place with the task of dealing with the economic crisis, but in fact includes many former ministers – some of them in the same positions as before.

History of the regime

Omar al Bashir is now aged 75 and not without health problems. He came to power in a military coup in 1989, and has remained in office through elections which are usually boycotted by the main opposition parties. He previously indicated a number of times that he would not seek a further term of office, only to stand again. Elections are due again next year, and his latest reversal and move to stay in power was dealt with in a recent blog here. Power is retained by the military and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which al Bashir has been particularly adept at managing by effectively ensuring the support of key figures, with important patronage networks in place.

He is of course wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in crimes against humanity, genocide, and other attacks on civilians in the western region of Darfur. Despite being the first serving head of state to be indicted by the Court, he travels freely throughout Africa and the Arab world, and is also supported by Russia, which has invited him to the first Russia-Africa summit due to be held this October in Sochi. In the region, Khartoum helped to mediate shaky peace agreement in neighbouring South Sudan, which achieved its independence from Sudan in 2011, but has experienced civil war for most of its short history since then as a state. More than third of the population there is displaced by fighting, insecurity, ethnic cleansing, and food shortages. Importantly for Khartoum, South Sudan’s oil production has been badly hit by the war. This has had devastating consequences for the economies of both countries, since Sudan received substantial income for the use of pipelines through its territory to the Red Sea – the only possible export route for the oil.

One interesting phenomenon seen in different contexts is how demands change and evolve as protests gain momentum. The demonstrations by the jilets jaunes in France were sparked by a carbon tax which was reversed, but the protests continued while the demands broadened. Similarly in Algeria, people took to the streets and won the major concession, with President Bouteflika agreeing not to run for a fifth term in elections due this year. But the demonstrations continue, with the demand that he step down by the time his terms ends in April, as the prospect emerged that that would continue in power while the electoral process was under review. In Sudan, however, while the spark was economic hardship the demand has remained clear: for al Bashir’s regime to be replaced by an interim administration which would prepare the way for free and fair elections.

Protests are not new in Sudan, but the duration of these ones have taken many by surprise. Their persistence, despite the firm support of the army for the regime along with a brutal crackdown, has been described by some as becoming a war of attrition. This is the most serious threat al Bashir’s regime has faced. Much will depend on the ability of the traditionally divided opposition parties to unite and take advantage of the opportunity.

Blog news

This is the time of year when the Presidential Power blog typically takes a short hiatus. This time it will be a little longer than usual.

I am stepping down as the manager of the blog. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog since it began over five years ago. This includes the current list of regular contributors, previous contributors, and guest contributors. It has been a pleasure managing the blog, reading the posts, and learning about presidential politics in so many countries.

I am delighted to announce that Sophia Moestrup and Fiona Yap are planning to take over the management of the blog. They will start posting again at the beginning of February. In the meantime, Philipp Köker will continue to re-post some of the highlights of the last five years.

Thank you for visiting the blog, for reading the material, and for commenting on the posts. Do please keep returning to the site, especially when it is relaunched in February.

Robert Elgie

Holiday Quiz

Thanks to everyone for visiting the site since we started in October. It’s been a busy schedule. So, we are going to take a little time off from blogging. We will be back on Monday 6 January, 2014. However, we will be posting to the Facebook page throughout the holiday period.

Between now and then we are running a holiday quiz. At the top of this page, there are pictures of presidential residences from 14 different countries. Can you name them, starting with the top line and going from left to right?

We think this is pretty difficult. So, we are going to try to arrange a small prize if anyone can name them all. If more than one person gets all of them right, then we will have a tiebreaker.

If you want to enter the quiz, then the closing date is Friday 3 January at midnight GMT. Please feel free to post your answers as a comment here or contact me directly at

Good luck and, if you’re having them, then happy holidays.