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Kazakhstan: “Operation successor” complete or in jeopardy?


 

When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s interim President, called early presidential elections on April 9, his victory was a foregone conclusion. In fact, the ballot on June 9 brought him 6.54 million votes, nearly 71 percent of all votes cast.

The next day, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a presidentially appointed advisory body of the President, declared Tokayev’s victory the confirmation of “a clear and understandable mechanism for the continuation of the strategic course of Elbasy,” i.e., Nazarbayev.

At the same time, international observers made their comments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called the elections “transparent, reliable and democratic.” The same conclusion was reached by the CIS observer mission, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and official observers from Russia.

Only the OSCE mission, acknowledging the efficiency of the preparation and administration of the election, criticized the ballot as “tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The observers found “considerable restrictions on the right [of independent candidates] to stand” and “limits to peaceful assembly and expression [inhibiting] genuine political pluralism.” On election day, they witnessed “significant irregularities, […] including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures” as well as “widespread detentions of peaceful protesters” in major cities.

However, the main problem with the recent presidential election is not its lack of integrity. Trying to measure electoral integrity in a country like Kazakhstan, which has never been a democracy in the first place, misses the point. In a very basic sense, democratic elections are but the method by which the top executive leadership is selected. In Kazakhstan, however, the people were not meant to choose who would run the country in the years to come. The election was announced, because of the new President’s need for legitimacy. Winning the election by a huge margin would strengthen his position against intra-elite rivals as well as vis-à-vis Nazarbayev, the “Leader of the Nation,” Chairman of the so-called ruling party Nur-Otan and Chairman for life of the National Security Council.

This situation is a consequence of the logic of personalistic regimes. To survive, this kind of regime is in urgent need of a strong leader, able to coopt all relevant elite groups into a nation-wide politico-economic network, i.e., an integrated “power pyramid.” Thus, a president who cares about the future of the regime he created, must also arrange for a successor who is acceptable to the main elite groups, instead of leaving this critical question to an aggregated and unpredictable “will of the people”.

Since about 2013, Nazarbayev—the most experienced, smartest post-Soviet leader beside Putin—had repeatedly been explicit in public about the personal responsibility he felt for managing an orderly succession of power to secure political stability in the country. With the 2017 and 2018 constitutional reforms, he implemented the institutional design of a possible post-Nazarbayev regime – a slight redistribution of competencies between the power branches at the expense of the future president, and a lifelong supervisory position for the retired “Leader of the Nation.” The next step followed in March 2019, when he resigned from the presidency, paving the way for his trusted ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then Chairman of the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament.

What happened since then seems to fit well into the picture of a thoroughly choreographed transition. The successor in office preponed elections by almost a year, declaring that “in order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty.” The goal of this move was to gain legitimate power via electoral acclamation as well as to shorten the window of opportunity for the opposition to organize and unite.

Obviously stage-managed was also the nomination process of the contenders. A total of seven candidates were registered by the country’s Central Election Commission, which claimed the upcoming election to become the most competitive one in the country’s history. Nur-Otan nominated Tokayev as the chosen successor. Three other candidates were nominated by the loyal pro-government opposition, i.e., by parties owing their orchestrated existence to serve specific clienteles: the Democratic Party Ak Zhol, which is somewhat more reform-oriented than Nur-Otan, the Social Democratic Party Auyl, which addresses the needs of the countryside, as well as the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Trade Unions nominated a former short-term member of the parliament, and a movement aiming to develop Kazakhstan’s cultural and national values nominated the President of the Equestrian Federation.

The only surprise was the participation of Amirzhan Kossanov, a moderate opposition politician. Since leaving the ruling coalition two decades ago, he has been engaged in the loyal opposition, and later in political organizations that were denied official registration. In 2006 and 2012, he was sentenced to several 15-day jail terms for organizing unauthorized rallies in support of the victims of political repression.

Kossanov’s nomination was widely seen as a political concession by the authorities, but critics suspected him in having struck a deal with the ruling elite group or blamed him for legitimizing an unfree and unfair election. Actually, any textbook for authoritarian rulers would recommend staging select oppositional candidates to divide the opposition over the question of whether or not to boycott elections. In fact, domestic experts noted rising levels of activity among the electorate during the rather low-key, even sluggish election campaign, with the boycott question moving center stage. This eased Tokayev’s situation, whose campaign ran under the motto “Prosperity for all! Continuity. Justice. Progress.”

At first glance, the results of the presidential race seem to attest a happy end of Nazarbayev’s thoroughly managed “operation successor.” Having won the election, Tokayev declared the power transfer complete. All contenders—including oppositional Kossanov—accepted his victory and offered congratulations.

However, there are some signs that this conclusion might be premature. Power transfer in a heavily personalized regime is a risky endeavor for various reasons. The obvious one is that people might not agree to accept the chosen successor. In fact, the table below shows that the authorities rightly claim the presidential elections to be the most competitive elections ever held in the country. This is true not only by the number of competitors—which was under the ultimate control of the Election Commission—, but also by the results of the ballot itself.

Results of presidential elections in Kazakhstan (in percent)

Date Number of
candidates
Votes for the
winning candidate
Votes for the
“best loser”
Turnout
01.12.1991 1 98.8 88.2
29.04.1995 * 95.5 91.2
10.01.1999 4 81 11.9 87
04.12.2005 5 91.15 6.61 76.8
03.04.2011 4 95.55 1.85 89.98
26.04.2015 3 97.75 1.61 95.22
09.06.2019 7 70.96 16.23 77.5

* Referendum on extending Nazarbayev‘s presidential term without elections

First, as big as the margin of victory between the victor and the second-place finisher remains, it was never as small as in 2019. Kossanov’s 1.5 million votes are a solid, respectable result. Second, turnout was notably lower than in all previous elections except in 2005, meaning that the regime was unable to mobilize the electorate to the same degree as during the last decade when Nazarbayev was the country’s uncontested leader. If the ballot count was indeed manipulated, which is highly likely, the degree of non-approval may be much higher than reported.

Moreover, independent, mostly international, media such as Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and the BBC reported rising civil disobedience on the streets and on the internet, signaling widespread discontent and annoyance with politics in general—ranging from the renaming of the capital into Nur-Sultan over entrenched corruption and poor public sector services to socioeconomic grievances—and the handling of the succession question in particular. New civil society groups emerged, such as “Wake up, Kazakhstan,” calling citizens to demand more say in government. Public awareness for possible electoral fraud was also on the rise, and many Kazakhstanis became eager not only to cast their vote, but also to become election observers.

On election day, a series of protest rallies took place, and over two days, around 700 people were detained by the police. According to the latest news on June 11, protests continue. Reuters speaks of “the biggest display of public discontent since 2016”.

While the Kazakhstani people do not select their president, mass protest would become meaningful, because it would damage the legitimacy of the newly elected office-holder. This, in turn, might spur elite competition, affecting the expectations of various elite groups whether Tokayev will hold himself at the helm of the power pyramid or not. Consequently, they would have to decide whether to back him or to coordinate around a more promising candidate. At the time being, Kossanov, for example, did not rule out the possibility to create a political party to run in the legislative elections, scheduled for 2021.

It is too early to speculate about whether Tokayev will manage to stabilize his position. The next couple of weeks will show, whether the recent presidential election completed “operation successor” or, instead, was the prelude to severe regime turbulences.

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

Elections 2019 in Georgia – the chances of ruling party and opposition

On May 19, 2019, several extraordinary elections were held in Georgia. In particular, the Mayor’s extraordinary elections were held in 5 cities: Zugdidi, Marneuli, Zestafoni, Chiatura and Khulo. By-elections of Local self-governance councils – Sakrebulos were held in 8 electoral districts: Sagarejo, Akhmeta, Adigeni, Zestafoni, Chiatura, Tkibuli, Tskaltubo and Ozurgeti. In addition, elections were held in the capital city of Tbilisi, Mtatsminda majoritarian district, where the MP was elected. This parliamentary mandate became free after the majoritarian MP Salome Zurabishvili became the President of Georgia. As for the Mayor’s extraordinary elections, some of them were detained by the self-regulatory bodies, and the second one was addressing the council for early termination of authority. The city mayors were elected directly in 2017, and the termination of the power in such a short period had a lot of questions in the opposition and non-governmental sector. The corruption scandal was also preceded by the suspension of some of them. Also, the termination of the authority of Sakrebulo deputies were based on their own application, due to absence of sessions or on the basis of the decision of the court.

At first we can think that these elections are one of the usual election processes, but they had a great deal of importance both for the government and the opposition before the parliamentary election of 2020, when the second term of the Georgian Dream ruling party expires. This midterm election was to examine some forces before the next parliamentary elections for the government and the opposition. The main battle was not held between the United National Movement and the United Opposition and the ruling party. Candidates were also nominated by other opposition parties for the elections but the opposition could notmake coalition before the election. It is possible to say that the ruling party has more advantages in terms of utilization of financial and non-governmental resources in this election. Observer organizations noted that the elections were largely peaceful, but it was also pointed out that observers have observed voters’ bribing, illegal agitation, violation of voting secrets and unauthorized persons at the polling stations.[1]

In the mid-term elections, Zugdidi mayoral elections were the most important where Sandra Roelofs, the former First Lady of Georgia, the wife of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili was nominated as a candidate. Opposition parties and various experts also noted that the opposition had a chance to win in this election district. The victory of the election in this district for the government was strategically important because he did not want to let the opposition, in this case the victory of the former ruling party Candidate, because it was negatively affected on the political rating of ruling party. That is why a particularly tense fight was held in this election and finally the ruling party was declared the winner in the first round. According to the vote count, the ruling party’s candidate won 54.18 percent (30 470), while Sandra Roelofs candidate of “National Movement” received 42.84 percent of votes (24 095).[2]

Candidate of the opposition Sandra Roelofs said on the same day that she do not recognize the ruling party’s election results, according to which his opponent, Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Shengelia won. He said that it was not the elections, it was very simple, joint operation of the CSU and criminals was held in Zugdidi. It’s unprecedented, unprecedented sadism, intimidation, intimidation, and criminal all that can be imagined. [3] He also said that if the second round would be announced, I would continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi. [4]  However, the ruling candidate was declared the winner in the first round.

In fact, in the first round of May 19, 2019, all candidates of “Georgian Dream” won the Mayor’s extraordinary and Sakrebulo midterm elections. [5] The only district where the second round of elections was appointed was Tbilisi Mtatsminda district where in the second round of parliamentary elections the candidate of European Georgia and Free Democrats Shalva Shavgulidze and Candidate of “Georgian Dream” Lado Kakhadze participated because no candidate in the first round could not get more than 50% of the votes.

The second round was held on June 9, 2019 in this election district. Both candidates were convinced of victory, but the activation of citizens was important for the opposition and in case of high voter turnout of opposition, the chance of opposition was increased. Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the election and said that “the preliminary data shows that the big advantage is to congratulate Mr. Lado Kakhadze.[6] ” 75% of the votes are numbered and 62, 5% are “dreams Lado Kakhadze has a candidate, and 37, 5% has Shalva Shavgulidze. [7] In turn, the opposition has testified that it is completely unclear to Kakha Kaladze’s preliminary congratulation and the announcement of Mayor’s announcement is not clear for the final results of the elections.[8] Later, the opposition candidate admitted defeat and said that it was a badly organized government, not for democracy and the government had made a dirty campaign against him.[9]

It is important who will win in Mtatsminda election district, which is a kind of rehearsal for the 2020 elections. Support of the opposition parties by candidates who took support in the first round of elections for the second round was very important. It should be noted that the UNM said that party will support the opposition’s candidacy in the second round. As for the some other political parties, party “Girchi”, as well as the “Civil Movement” [10], said they would not support any candidate. Independent candidates Koba Davitashvili and Grigol Gegelia also did not call for voters to support any candidate. [11] Thus, in the second round of the elections, the unity of the opposition was important for the defeat of the government, but such an extensive agreement could not be achieved.

Finally we can say that the ruling party, despite its low trust[12], managed to win the mid-term elections and saved some extent the political preservation, but it is hard to say what the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections will be completed in Georgia.


[1]ISFED: The voting day passed without significant violations, 20.05.2019. 00:32,  https://droa.ge/?p=47556

[2] After counting all the precincts in Zugdidi, “Georgian Dream” candidate Giorgi Shengelia wins by 54.18 percent, 03:12, 20.05.2019, https://1tv.ge/news/zugdidshi-yvela-saarchevno-ubnis-datvlis-shemdeg-qartuli-ocnebis-kandidati-giorgi-shengelia-54-18-procentit-imarjvebs/

[3] Sandra Roelofs: We do not recognize their victory, especially their elections Monday, May 20,2019 – http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/149040-sandra-rulovsichven-ar-vaghiarebt-mat-gamarjvebas-mit-umetes-mat-archevnebs

[4] If the second round will be announced, I am ready to continue fighting in the name of Zugdidi – Sandra Roelofs, May 20, 2019, http://liberali.ge/news/view/45192/tu-meore-turi-gamotskhaddeba-mzad-var-gavagrdzelo-brdzola-zugdidis-sakhelit—sandra-rulovsi

[5] Mayor’s extraordinary and municipal elections were won by “Georgian Dream” candidates, 20.05.2019, https://droa.ge/?p=47577

[6] Kakha Kaladze congratulated Lado Kakhadze on 4 minutes after the end of the elections, https://on.ge/story/38851-კალაძემ-კახაძეს-გამარჯვება-არჩევნების-დამთავრებიდან-20-წუთში-მიულოცა

[7] Lado Kakhadze 62.5%, Shalva Shavgulidze 37,5% – Kakha Kaladze publishes data obtained by “Dream”, 10 June 2019, http://www.rustavi2.ge/ka/news/135543

[8] Elene Khoshtaria is absolutely incomprehensible to Kakha Kaladze’s pre-congratulations, June 09, 2019https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29989839.html

[9] Shalva Shavgulidze admitted defeat: “We look at the fact that the parliamentary candidate will be the candidate of the government”, http://guardian.ge/44634-shalva-shavgulidzem-damarckheba-aghiara-chven-thvals-vustsorebth-im-faqts-rom-parlamentis-tsevri-khelisuflebis-kandidati-iqneba.html

[10] Levan Ioseliani, former candidate of Mtatsminda Majoritarian MP, does not support any candidate in the second round, 29-05-2019, https://palitranews.ge/video/mtatsmindis-mazhoritarobis-qofili-kandidati-levan-ioseliani-meore-turshi-mkhars-arts-ert-kandidats-ar-uchers

[11] https://civil.ge/ka/archives/307019

[12] If the elections are held tomorrow, 17% of the respondents will vote for the Georgian Dream – NDI, 21 May, 2019, https://on.ge/story/37947-ხვალ-რომ-არჩევნები-ტარდებოდეს-ქართულ-ოცნებას-გამოკითხულთა-17-დაუჭერდა-მხარს-ndi

Honduras – President Juan Orlando Hernández confronts migrant caravans to the United States, surveillance of the DEA, and mass protests

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the University of Costa Rica.

Juan Orlando Hernández is the first re-elected president in the history of Honduras, in highly contested elections held on November 26, 2017, which left many doubts about whether minimum standards of free and fair elections were met. The process by which the presidential re-election was made possible was already highly questioned.

It has been a year and six months since the inauguration of the second presidency of Hernandez, time during which has had to navigate through many difficulties. The political, social and economic situation in Honduras is more complicated than what Juan Orlando Hernández had to face during his first term (2014-2017). The once very popular president elected under the banner of the National Party of Honduras, is now getting one of the worst approval ratings since transition to democracy.

The country has been international news in recent months due to several massive caravans of migrants marching to the United States. The US President, Donald Trump, far from offering help to tackle the roots of the problem causing emigration to the United States from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), has hardened its foreign policy towards Central America, withdrawing millions of dollars in aid under the premise that their governments are not making enough to prevent emigration.

For several weeks now the government of Juan Orlando has been challenged by strikes and mass demonstrations. What began as a protest against a plan that seemingly would privatize education and health services, became a demand for the resignation of Hernández. As if that were not enough, a few days ago it was known that President Hernández was being investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to possible drug trafficking. It is not clear if the case has been closed or he still remains under investigation.

The migrant caravans

A year ago, a caravan of migrants headed to the United States started in Honduras, and caught the attention of the US government. Immigration overall has been one of the prioritized themes in US foreign policy towards Central America. At the time, President Trump gave a loath coverage of the issue, by just threatening in social media of sending troops at the Southern border to prevent the caravan to get into American soil. Nonetheless, it is no novelty that even during his campaign for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump held a hardline position towards Central American immigration into the United States.

But that first caravan was not the only one that formed; in fact, on October 12, 2018 a bigger one got on its way to the US. This caravan has been the largest and more mediatic in the past few years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that the caravan consisted of around 7,000 people, although some media outlets have given different numbers. The conjuncture caught the immigration offices and governments of the countries involved (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico) with little time and resources to handle the situation.

The circumstances in which these caravans formed are not new. Emigration from most Central American countries into the United States has traditionally been very high. Comparing the census rounds of 2000 and 2010, it is estimated that the population of Honduran migrants who left to the US increased during that period 191.1%, followed by Guatemala (180.3%), and El Salvador (151.7%) (Carlos Sandoval García, No Más Muros: Exclusión y Migración Forzada En Centroamérica. San José: Editorial UCR, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales).

In Central America, and in the case of the Northern coast of Honduras the problems are generally poverty and unemployment. There are historic conflicts that push people to leave, including land issues, and forced displacement that many farmers and peasants have suffered from agro-export businesses. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city, is where the first migrant caravan formed to leave to the United States.

There are no clear reasons why migrant caravans formed. A possible explanation is that opposition movements against Juan Orlando Hernández have been helping them to organize them, in order to embarrass his government and promote instability. They gained momentum with more migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala joining them.

Albeit some in the caravan have agreed on staying in Mexico as refugees, some have desisted on their attempt by their own will, returning to Honduras; others less fortunate have been deported along the way. Some others do not lose hope in reaching their desired destination. This first mediatic big caravan, did not succeed in its attempt to enter into the US as asylum seekers; nonetheless, it got very close, as its final destination got to be Tijuana, a Mexican location near the American southern border. The uncertainty, high inequality and poverty conditions do not seem to be solved any time soon, as it is becoming more of a rule than an exceptional crisis. At the time of writing, more caravans have been organized in El Salvador and Guatemala too, noticeable, at least three have departed. By April, another caravan got going, having its starting point in San Pedro Sula, as the first one did. Thus, is expected that some other caravans might be encouraged to leave from the Northern Triangle.

What is to be seen, too, is the course in the immigration policies of these countries involved as they got pressures from very different actors, specially Mexico which connects between the US and the Northern Triangle, and the Trump Administration, as it is coming towards the end of its four-year term. But, importantly too, is the fate of these people who escape from the conditions of their countries, since in most cases, people who choose to migrate this urgently do not so for their own sake; many of them have no control over the causes of their situation.

Strikes and demonstrations

The strikes and social protests began at the end of April this year, when the government was preparing to put into effect two highly controversial executive decrees, PCM-026 and PCM-027. With these norms, the Executive was declaring a national emergency in the health and education systems. The decrees proposed to create special commissions in each sector. These would be responsible for preparing national plans for transforming the systems that provide the healthcare and education public services. In addition, it created a budget for salary settlements in case of dismissal.

The confusing wording in these documents about the potential dismissal of employees, was interpreted by the unions of educators and workers of the health sector as a plan to privatize these services. Although Hernandez repealed the decrees, the protests have been transformed into a movement to demand the resignation of Hernández. Nonetheless, the roots of the problem are also to be found in the underfunding of these services, which have received significant cuts over the past decade, impoverishing the already low quality services.

The DEA investigates Hernández over possible drug trafficking

In the last week of May, it was reported that Juan Orlando Hernández and several of his collaborators were being investigated for drug trafficking by the US Drug Enforcement Administration under the suspicion that he was taking part of “large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States.” The report was released by the Southern District of New York, which has not clarified if the investigations continue.

The President’s brother and former Honduran deputy to the National Congress, Antonio Hernández Alvarado, is waiting for trial in the US after being arrested in November 2018, and accused of cocaine trafficking, and weapon offences. It is suspected that Juan Orlando Hernández would have participated in the criminal activities with which he relates to his brother at least in 2013.

Juan Orlando Hernández is undoubtedly a skilled politician. As stated by The Economist, he is a politician with Machiavellian talents. A lawyer who was previously trained in the Honduran Army, a conservative and supporter of the National Party of Honduras, a right-wing party, Hernández comes from Lempira, one of the poorest departments in Honduras; although he himself has not experienced poverty. This politician has achieved what many thought unthinkable in Honduras: the presidential re-election. Only a few years ago, the issue of re-election was a taboo whose insinuation cost former President Manuel Zelaya Rosales the presidency through a military coup.

Hernández was a poster child of the International Monetary Fund because of the fiscal discipline with which he governed during his first term—a strong program of fiscal austerity was imposed throughout his government—with ambitious plans for development. He is trying to implement special economic zones that would attract—they argue—foreign direct investment in different parts of the country. He also manoeuvred to obtain in his first term some of the best popularity ratings for a president in Honduras, a country with high poverty, inequality and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But now, as mentioned, his popularity ratings have plunged in his second term. Possibly, Hernández expected to start his second term with favorable conditions to accomplish his political, and economic goals. Perhaps he foresaw that it was not going to be an easy term due to the dubious method that lifted term-limits, letting him seek re-election but prompting in response mass protests, and a campaign to discredit him. He dodged skilfully many of those attacks. Nonetheless, this time the President is facing probably one of the most difficult periods of his career as a politician.

Czech Prime Minister’s Troubles and Presidential “Kisses of Death”

In spring 2019, Czech politics was largely shaped by the European Parliament election campaign and election results as well as by ongoing street protests against controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to allegations of conflict of interests and other affairs.

Before turning to the results of the vote for the European Parliament in the Czech Republic, I will summarize problems Andrej Babiš is currently facing. Anti-Babiš demonstrations have been regularly organized by a civic initiative called „Millions of Moments for Democracy“, which seeks to attract the general public’s attention to multiple problems related to Babiš’s political and notably economic interests. First, is in a gigantic conflict of interest because of his business conglomerate “Agrofert” of some 250 companies. Agrofert receives tens of millions of euros each year in EU funding, mostly farm subsidies. Even though Agrofert was placed in trust funds in 2017 to comply with a new conflict of interest law, Babiš has command of trust funds that control the Agrofert group and Babiš’s cabinet formulates farming, environmental and other policies that affect Agrofert business. Since Babiš came to power, there has been a clear rise in the total amount of subsidies for the Agrofert conglomerate. The subsidies outweigh the amount of taxes paid by Agrofert to the state. The above civic as well as partisan opposition, was fueled by a European Commission’s report that confirms that Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest. The Czech branch of Transparency International which initiated the EU probe estimated the Czech Republic would have to return about 19 million euros in EU subsidies. Consequently, the Czech government will be obliged to claim the money back from Agrofert. The opposition Pirate Party claimed it would seek a vote of no confidence in the minority cabinet led by Babiš. However, the government may count on a solid base of support in the Chamber of Deputies. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, have proved reliable support parties.

However, this is not the only instance of conflict of interests for Babiš. Agrofert is the owner of two national newspapers with high circulation, several magazines and a radio station, a fact that allows Babiš to significantly affect the media atmosphere in the country, including his own media image. Babiš also faces the charge of the alleged misuse of 2 mil euros in EU subsidy. Moreover, Babiš has been criticized for having sacked the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek, who resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped up their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial over the above-mentioned affair of misappropriating an EU subsidy. Mrs. Marie Benešová, President’s Zeman advisor, was appointed to replace him at the head of the Ministry of Justice. Protesters complain that Benešová may hinder the independent work of judges and affect the final outcome of the trial.

Despite these serious problems which would likely derail the political careers of most politicians elsewhere, Babiš remains the dominant figure of Czech party politics. This is exemplified by the fact that his political party (officially called “movement”) – ANO 2011 – won a relative majority in the European Parliament elections. Sure, his victory was not as great as expected by many commentators and polls, still, ANO 2011 gained two more seats in comparison to the 2014 EP elections. Overall, opposition parties won a majority of 12 out of 21 MEPs, whereas the ruling parties, including the two support parties scored 9 MEPs.

To explain the dominance of ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic is not an easy task. The party has been a ruling party since 2014 (as a junior coalition party 2014-2017). One could expect the gradual decline of its popularity, as has been the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) that has been in power together with ANO 2011 since 2014 (in 2014-2017 as the leading coalition party). ČSSD and ANO exchanged roles after ANO won in the 2017 elections. It could be generally argued that in contrast to the ČSSD, Andrej Babiš and his business-firm party has been skillful in communicating its policies and political successes to the voters. Babiš is a charismatic figure and remained a popular chairman of the party, portraying himself as a successful businessman which made him also a successful politician. He was able to reap major credit for rising pensions and for a good economic performance of the country, including rising GDP per capita and notably almost non-existent unemployment. His party uses efficient political marketing and promotes Andrej Babiš as a leader who is able to deliver the policies that most people wish for.

In contrast, the ČSSD failed in the elections and gained no MEP. Its voters deserted to ANO and other political parties. The ČSSD lacks charismatic figures, clear policy messages and remains torn between a liberal pro-European wing on the one hand and a national-conservative Eurosceptical wing on the other hand. Some former ČSSD’s voters cannot forgive the party for being in the ruling coalition with Babiš’ ANO 2011. Other voters, who value liberal democratic principles, opt for other parties, including the Czech Pirate Party. Traditional left-wing voters may consider Babiš as more skillful than the ČSSD in securing social benefits. Shortly before the EP elections,  ČSSD’s reputation might have been negatively affected also by the fact that the ČSSD’s Minister of Culture, Antonín Staněk, demonstrated a lack of competence and resigned. It is uncommon that ministers of culture, a generally weak portfolio with a small budget, attract so much attention. In media terms, Staněk was originally almost an invisible minister. Media focused on him only two times, both times unfavorably. First, he participated in the presentation of a controversial book written by a communist MP, Miroslav Grebeníček, who strongly criticized financial compensetion to churches in the Czech Republic. The churches were deprived of their properties during the 1948-1989 Communist dictatorship and in 2013 the right-wing coalition pushed trhough a bill which introduced the compensation. Second, Staněk recalled the director of the National Gallery in Prague as well as the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. The arguments that were to support the recall of both directors appeared unconvincing and led to a number of protests and petitions against Staněk who eventually resigned from office. The ČSSD was pictured as a party, which lacks enough competent persons to fill ministerial posts.

There is a special feature of the Czech politics that is related to the ČSSD electoral disaster in 2019. There has been a tradition of (at least rhetorically) non-partisan presidents. At the same time, however, the Czech presidents have repeatedly attempted to form a loyal party in the Chamber of Deputies. However, once they openly supported any political party, the party failed in the elections. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “the kiss of death”, can be consistently and repeatedly illustrated by all the three Czech presidents. None of them was able to create solid partisan support in the Chamber of Deputies. From public opinion surveys, it can be inferred that voters insist on a non-partisan president who is not directly associated with any political party loyal to the head of state.[1] As for the most recent case of the kiss of death, Miloš Zeman strongly advocated for ČSSD’s involvement in Babiš’s cabinet in 2017. At the March 2019 ČSSD party congress, Zeman praised the party for having joined the coalition and made it clear he would vote for the party, which received less than 5 percent in the EP elections. Of course, Zeman’s kiss of death can be hardly identified as the primary source of the ČSSD’s debacle, still it has confirmed this peculiar pattern of Czech politics.



[1]
M. Brunclík and M.
Kubát, Parliamentarism,
Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe
 (London and
New York: Routledge, 2019), 110-113

Ethiopia – Sahle-Work Zewde elected first female president

On 25 October 2018, the Ethiopian parliament elected Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s new president. Sahle-Work, who is a long-time diplomat, becomes Ethiopia’s first female president and – following the departure of Malawi’s Joyce Banda and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from the political scene – Africa’s only female head of state.

The move was been celebrated by women’s rights activists, especially after Sahle-Work used her inauguration to promise to make gender equality a reality. Although the country was governed by Empress Zewditu in the early part of the 20th Century, more recently the political system has been male dominated. As the chief of staff of the Prime Minster put it,

“in a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalises women as decision-makers in public life”.

President Sahle-Work is seen as a credible figure with considerable experience. In addition to serving as Ambassador to Senegal and Djibouti, she has fulfilled a number of different roles for the United Nations, and was most recently the UN’s representative at the African Union. This means that she brings with her a good understanding of how regional bodies operate, and will therefore be an asset to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he seeks to reformulate Ethiopian foreign policy.

Sahle-Work’s forthright approach – and in particular telling Members of Parliament that if they thought she was talking too much about women she had only just begun – has also led to genuine hope that her strong words will translate into actions. Along with other recent appointments, including Abiy’s decision to split ministerial positions equally between men and women and the selection of a female to Chair the electoral commission, this has led to growing belief that there is political will to deal with issues such as the gender pay gap – which is estimated to stand at around 44% – at the highest levels.

Some analysts are more cautious, however, pointing out that the presidency is a largely ceremonial position and that power is wielded by the Prime Minister. Abiy has committed himself to reforming the country’s political system and promoting equal rights for women, but has not yet had sufficient time in office to effect these changes. Given past experiences, some activists worry that more radical change will not be forthcoming, especially given that the Prime Minister already faces a difficult task to ensure political stability and lead the ruling party into an election that is scheduled for May 2020.

The experience of other states in Africa suggests that the promotion of women in political positions is not always a pathway to broader transformation. In Rwanda, for example, it has been argued that the promotion of women within parliament has been used to sanitise the reputation of an authoritarian regime, rather than to genuinely pursue an agenda of gender equality.

Kyrgyzstan Weakens Legal and Social Guarantees for Ex-Presidents amid Continuing Confrontation Between the Current and Former President

My previous post for this blog illustrated that approximately half of the post-Soviet states modeled their laws on immunity for ex-presidents on Russian legislation, which was put in place at the very end of 1999 when Boris Yeltsin transferred power to Vladimir Putin.[1]  In some cases, post-communist states copied provisions from the Russian Federation law word-for-word, a phenomenon known as diffusion by imitation.  In an important related study, whose results were just announced, Edward Lemon has discovered that “[a] whopping 79% of Kyrgyzstan’s and 56% of Tajikistan’s laws [on extremism] are identical to the Russian law (compared with 4% for Kazakhstan, 5% for Uzbekistan).”[2]  As Lemon’s work suggests, given the availability of software that makes it easy to do textual comparison, we are in a position to rigorously test the extent to which the Russian Federation has managed to shape the “legal space” in the Soviet successor states, especially in those countries that lie within what President Medvedev referred to in 2008 as Russia’s sphere of privileged interests.  

Comparing legislative practice allows us to assess not only the extent of policy diffusion but also the robustness of Soviet-era legacies.  My last post noted that Moscow’s role as law-giver was reminiscent of traditions from the Soviet-era, when a model law developed in the center served as a template for legislation in the 15 union republics.  When asked this month to justify Kyrgyzstan’s “plagiarizing” of Russia’s laws on extremism, Karima Amankulova, a spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, offered the following explanation.

“What some call plagiarism, others would label the unification of legislation.  The member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States develop model legislation and then countries may decide which norms they wish to implement [adopt as legislation].”[3]

Given Russia’s political prominence in the region and the depth of its technical expertise in legislative drafting, there is little doubt that Moscow still takes the lead in shaping model legislation.  The power of legacies and diffusion has its limits, however.  In the case of Kyrgyzstan, last year’s dramatic falling out between former President Almazbek Atambaev and his designated successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, led those in power in Kyrgyzstan to embrace some Russian-inspired norms on protections for ex-presidents while advancing others that diverge from the model established in Moscow. 

Following the arrest last year of Atambaev loyalists and calls for the prosecution of Atambaev himself—in part for his alleged involvement in fraudulent activities associated with the renovation of Bishkek’s heat and power generating plant—opponents of the former president launched efforts to strip all Kyrgyzstani ex-presidents of immunity from prosecution.[4]  These efforts took the form of parallel assaults in judicial and legislative institutions on the protections enjoyed by ex-presidents.  A lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber resulted in an October 2018 decision that invalidated what the court concluded was a blanket immunity granted to former presidents.[5]  The court accepted the need for limited immunity as a means of protecting ex-presidents from baseless investigations, and at the same time it insisted that any procedures put in place to overcome immunity guarantees for ex-presidents “should be no less complex than those employed in impeachment proceedings for a sitting president…”[6]  The Constitutional Chamber also took the highly unusual step of instructing the country’s Minister of Justice and parliament to enact a corresponding statute.[7]   

Prior to the issuance of the Constitutional Chamber’s decision, a group of parliamentary deputies had submitted a bill removing all protections from criminal prosecution for former presidents.[8]   In the view of these deputies, as well as the complainant in the case before the Constitutional Chamber, ex-presidents should be on the same legal footing as ordinary citizens.  This bill passed its first reading in December 2018, but amendments adopted during the second reading introduced two critical changes to the legislation.  The first, which accords with the language of the Constitutional Chamber ruling, permits the removal of immunity from criminal prosecution for ex-presidents only if (1) the Procurator-General issues an accusation of wrongdoing [obvinenie] in connection with the commission of a grave crime [tiazhkoe prestuplenie] and (2) the parliament votes to strip the former president of immunity by a two-thirds majority.[9] These provisions brought the Kyrgyzstani law into close conformity with Russian legislation on the subject.[10]     

The second revision, however, departed decisively from Russian practice.  It denied ex-presidents the traditional package of publicly-funded social and financial benefits, including medical care, housing, a salary, and free transportation, if he or she chose to remain active in politics or return to government service.  In other words, the revised legislation sought to encourage future ex-presidents to pursue the kind of quiet, apolitical retirement that President Atambaev claimed he would enjoy upon leaving the presidency.

On April 4, 2019, Kyrgyzstan’s 120-member parliament passed the law with the above revisions by a vote of 111 to 4.  Among the four no votes were sponsors of the legislation, for whom the amendments introduced in the second reading afforded legal protections for ex-presidents that they believed were excessively generous.   Notwithstanding the misgivings of these deputies, President Jeenbekov signed the bill into law on May 16, and in so doing limited the protections that he himself would enjoy on leaving office in 2023, at the end of his single, six-year term.[11] 

Numerous commentators have argued that because the Kyrgyzstani Constitution prohibits the application of laws retroactively if they impose new obligations or additional responsibility [otiagchaiushchaia otvetstvennost’] on citizens, the first ex-president to whom the new legislation would apply is the incumbent, President Jeenbekov.  In this reading, former presidents Otunbaeva and Atambaev would continue to enjoy the full range of protections from criminal investigation and prosecution contained in the laws in force when they left the presidency.[12]  However, in an effort to extend the reach of the law to Otunbaeva and Atambaev, deputies included a provision in the legislation which insisted that the new rules would apply to any actions committed by a president since 2007—a provision that will surely provoke a challenge in the Constitutional Chamber.[13] 

By weakening immunity from prosecution for ex-presidents, Kyrgyzstan has not only aligned itself more tightly with the Russian model on criminal responsibility for former leaders, it has also moved the country closer to the norms championed by Western-oriented organizations such as the Venice Convention of the Council of Europe and the OECD.  Both of these organizations have advised post-communist countries against introducing broadly-worded immunity for politicians because it encourages corruption.[14]  Paradoxically, one of the most robust defenses of the values espoused by the Venice Convention and the OECD was made by Almazbek Atambaev in 2011.  In his words:

“It’s going to be hard to establish order in Kyrgyzstan unless we can show that there aren’t untouchables, and there will no longer be untouchables in Kyrgyzstan.  And that includes the president himself.  If I’m somehow involved in something I am prepared to be held to account.  I don’t need any immunity.”[15]

Former President Atambaev may be rueing these words today.     

In closing, it’s worth repeating that the leverage and linkages enjoyed by centers of geopolitical power have their limits as explanations of policy diffusion.  The recent legislative changes regarding immunity for ex-presidents in Kyrgyzstan appear to draw their primary inspiration not from Moscow or Paris or Washington but from mundane maneuvers in a domestic political game, a game in which a sitting president and his allies have been under assault for more than a year by a former president who is also their erstwhile patron.  If there is one broader lesson to be taken from the specifics of the Kyrgyzstani case, it is that protections for ex-presidents are only viable when former leaders observe reasonable political restraint in their presidential afterlife. 


[1] “Post-Communist Countries: Policy Diffusion relating to Immunity from Prosecution for Ex-Presidents.”  http://presidential-power.com/?p=9483

[2] https://twitter.com/EdwardLemon3/status/1125427216739966983

[3] AzattyqTV, May 9, 2019, at 9:20 mark.  https://rus.azattyq.org/a/nastoyaschee-vremya-azia-8-maya/29930014.html

[4] The investigation into wrongdoing in the repair of the power plant appeared to trigger the initiatives for stripping Atambaev and all ex-presidents of immunity, though Atambaev has been subject to calls for his prosecution for numerous scandals dating to his time in office, including the release of a powerful ethnic Chechen criminal kingpin, Aziz Batukaev. 

[5] Whereas sitting presidents are subject to impeachment in Kyrgyzstan, ex-presidents are not, and therefore because they were immune from both judicial and legislative responsibility, former presidents have arguably been in a more impregnable legal position than presidents.  In this regard, Kyrgyzstan has for some time differed from Russia, where, as noted below, ex-presidents have been subject to prosecution if certain procedural hurdles are overcome.

[6] Reshenie Konstitutsionnoi palaty Verkhovnogo Suda Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki, 3 oktiabria 2018 goda 06-r.  http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/preview/ru-ru/9748/10?mode=tekst

[7] Some deputies insisted that the Constitutional Chamber exceeded its authority in giving these instructions to executive and legislative institutions.  See, for example, Bakyt Asanov, “Neprikosnovennost’ eks-prezidenta.  Chem reshenie suda vozmutilo ZhK,” Radio Azattyk, April 10, 2019.  https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan-ex-president-parliament/29664302.html

[8] The bill was in fact a set of revisions to The Law on the Activity of the President, O garantiiakh deiatel’nosti Prezidenta Kyrgyzskoi respubliki, ot 18 iiulia 2003 no. 152.  http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/1278

[9] Zhazgul’ Egemberdieva, “’Instrument protiv Atambaeva.’ Kak budet rabotat’ zakon o lishenii eks-prezidenta Kyrgyzstana neprikosnovennosti,” Nastoiashchee vremia, April 5, 2019. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/ex-president-kyrgyzstan/29863858.html

[10] In the Russian case, criminal cases against ex-presidents are initiated by the Head of the Criminal Investigative Commission rather than the Procurator-General, and only a majority of votes in each of the country’s two legislative chambers is needed rather than two-thirds approval.

[11] The Kyrgyzstani Constitution gives presidents 30 days to sign a law once it has been transmitted from the legislature.  For reasons that are unclear, in recent months President Jeenbekov has taken from 20 to 27 days to give his assent to legislation; in this case, he signed the bill into law on the 29th day. 

[12] Ekaterina Ulitina, “Podpishet li Zheenbekov zakon o lishenii eks-prezidentov neprikosnovennosti?” Vechernyi Bishkek, April 5, 2019.  https://www.vb.kg/doc/377646_podpishet_li_jeenbekov_zakon_o_lishenii_eks_prezidentov_neprikosnovennosti.html; Aidai Erkebaeva, “Pochemu lishenie neprikosnovennosti eks-prezidentov ne pomozhet privlech’ Atambaeva k otvetstvennosti,” Kloop, May 23, 2018.  https://kloop.kg/blog/2018/05/23/pochemu-lishenie-neprikosnovennosti-eks-prezidentov-ne-pomozhet-privlech-atambaeva-k-otvetstvennosti/  Among those disagreeing with this interpretation is the current head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Damir Sagynbaev, who insists that if Atambaev lost immunity he could be brought to justice.  According to Sagynbaev, “If there’s evidence, we’ll open a case.”  “Na Atambaeva mogut vozbudit’ delo, esli ego lishat immuniteta,–Sovbez,” Sputnik, 7 February 2019.  https://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20190207/1043226413/atambaev-delo-immunitet-sovbez.html  

[13] Emil’ Sultanaliev, “Parlament okonchatel’no odobril zakonoproekt o sniatii neprikosnovennosti s eks-prezidenta,” Kloop, April 4, 2019.  https://kloop.kg/blog/2019/04/04/parlament-okonchatelno-odobril-zakonoproekt-o-snyatii-neprikosnovennosti-s-eks-prezidenta/ Curiously, although the Constitution in place before 2007 granted immunity to presidents, since that time immunity provisions have only appeared in the Law on the Activity of the President and not in the Constitution itself. Adding an additional wrinkle to the uncertainty about the impact of the new law are revisions to the country’s Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that came into effect in January of this year.  Article 478, paragraph 4 of the amended CPC, which was adopted well before the Constitutional Chamber decision or the new law on immunity, places the decision on bringing an ex-president to justice in the hands of the country’s Procurator-General.

[14] Kyrgyzstan (Promezhutochnyi doklad) [March 2019], Chetvertyj raund monitoring Stambul’skogo plana deistvii po bor’be s korruptsiei.  OECD,  Set’ po bor’be s korruptsiei dlia Vostochnoi Evropy I Tsentral’noi Azii.  www.oecd.org/corruption/acn ; Zakliuchenie po proektu Konstitutsii Kyrgyzskoji Respubliki, Zakliuchenie No 582/2010, 8 iiuniia 2010 g.  Evropeiskaia komissiia za demokratiiu cherez pravo (Venetsianskaia komissiia).  https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2010)015-rus

[15] Kubanychbek Zholdoshev, “Nuzhna li eks-prezidentam neprikosnovennost’?” Radio Azattyk, March 1, 2019.  https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan-pravo-neprikosnovennost-ex-prezidentov/29184972.html  Iskhak Masaliev, a sponsor of the 2018 bill amending the immunity provisions, noted that there were efforts from 2011 to 2014 to strip ex-presidents of immunity from prosecution, but none was successful.  Kybanychbek Zholdoshev, “100 golosov ‘za’. Kogo iz eks-prezidentov mogut lishit’ neprikosnovennost’,” Radio Azattyk, December 14, 2018. https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_ex-president_neprikosnovennost/29655573.html  Curiously, although the Constitution in place before 2007 granted immunity to presidents, since that time immunity provisions have only appeared in the Law on the Activity of the President and not in the Constitution itself.

Negotiations continue on what will replace the al-Bashir regime in Sudan

In the end, the fall of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir seemed to come quickly, with rumours circulating on the morning of 11th April that a debate was underway within the state security services and the military about how it would be handled – and who would replace him. He was gone by that evening, after almost 30 years in power. But the dramatic events came after months of protests, which began in December over food price increases and quickly turned into a demand for his regime to go. They continued despite a harsh crackdown in which scores of demonstrators were shot dead by state forces, including medics. It is hard to overstate the importance of these events, even though it’s not yet certain that fundamental and lasting change will happen, or whether some factions in the security forces will manage to hold on to the real power.

The background to the demonstrations is explained in a previous blog post on this site, and the regime itself is also analysed here. The organisers remained relatively united and channelled the anger felt by many ordinary people. At a certain point, it seems that many lost their fear of the regime, felt that there was a realistic chance of change, or were simply prepared to risk sacrificing their lives. Eventually a demonstration outside the national military headquarters in Khartoum on 6th April became a round-the-clock affair, and then a remarkable thing happened: soldiers were seen on the streets supporting the protesters. The various elements and ranks of state security apparatus, which Omar al-Bashir had managed so skilfully over the years, were clearly at odds with each other. On a number of occasions, soldiers returned fire on units of the state security which turned up and shot at the protesters. Several soldiers lost their lives. The future of the country was no longer being decided on the streets, but now also through a struggle within the security services.

On 11th April, it was clear that a coup had taken place. Later in the day the country’s First Vice President, Lt Gen Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced that he was in control. The constitution was suspended and there would be a two-year transition period. However the protesters outside the headquarter in Khartoum remained determined, knowing that Auf was not only the defence minister but also a key figure in the old regime. He was replaced the following evening by another military officer, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, who is seen as more open to the protesters’ demands, and had in fact met with them in the previous days. There were scenes of joy, as soldiers and demonstrators mingled outside the headquarters.

Transition process underway

Power is currently held by the Transitional Military Council, under al-Burhan, while negotiations on a transition continue with an alliance of opposition groups. These talks were continuing as this piece went online. The opposition is grouped under an umbrella body, the alliance of the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”. Agreement apparently reached so far included a three-year transition period, with a parliament whose 300 members would be appointed rather than directly elected. Two thirds of the members would come from the Freedom and Change group. A cabinet of technocrats would be nominated by the opposition groups, however a “Sovereignty Council” would also have real powers, and be made up of both military and civilian representatives.

As a sign of ongoing tensions within elements of former regime as the talks continued, protesters continuing the sit-in outside the military headquarters were attacked on 13th May by unidentified elements wearing uniforms of one of the state security services. Five civilians and one army officer were killed. The Council later announced the arrest of those responsible, who it described as infiltrators. Meanwhile, the Popular Congress Party, which held power under al-Bashir, is unhappy with the power-sharing arrangements, in which they would apparently have little say.

There is some international pressure on the Transitional Military Council to finalise a handover of power, from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the EU. The AU’s Peace and Security Council called at the end of April for the transition to civilian rule to be completed within 60 days. However both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the Council, with an offer of $3 billion in budget support and aid.

The fate of the detained former President al-Bashir is a key question for whatever political order replaces his authoritarian regime. An indictment for genocide and other crimes in Darfur still hangs over him, despite which he managed to travel internationally as president without any attempt to arrest him. His fate is more likely to be decided within Sudan, however, although it is far from certain what will happen. Having been held initially in what the military called a “safe place”, he was later moved to the notorious Kobar prison in Khartoum, where so political opponents suffered at the hands of his regime. He has now been charged in relation to the deaths of protesters during the four months of demonstrations since December which ended his 30-year rule.

The resilience of different elements of the former regime is not to be underestimated – but neither is the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the civil groups staging these protests, along with a well-educated and mobilised diaspora. Whoever is control, the severe economic problems facing Sudan which prompted the protests last December, along with the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan, will be a significant challenge. But it is clear that things will never be quite the same.

Presidential power, consistency in constitutional design and its effect on democracy

This blog post summarizes some of the key findings from my article “Consistency in Constitutional Design and its Effect on Democracy” recently published in Democratization. In this article, I first ask whether the art of crafting and amending a constitution leads to a consistency among constitutional provisions. And second, if that is so, what effect has this consistency on a country’s democratic performance? Drawing from theoretical claims on the separation of power and electoral legitimacy, I develop a concept that identifies the institutional characteristics of consistency and inconsistency in the constitutional design with the example of the presidency and test its effect on the quality and level of democracy.[1]

The Idea

Research has provided us with substantive evidence that more presidential powers are associated with poorer democratic performance. But we also know of the problems of a causal argument because of the endogeneity of power (Cheibub 2007). Considering this, scholars have in recent years pushed the discussion in different directions, most importantly towards the advantages and disadvantages of individual constitutional provisions and their interaction when it comes to the power of the president (for example ,Elgie and Schleiter 2011; Sedelius and Linde 2018). Combined with the observation that the internal coherence of the classic categorizations of presidentialism, parliamentarism, and semi-presidentialism is not as strong as has been long assumed (Cheibub, Elkins, and Ginsburg 2014), I argue in this article that a new approach to understanding the mechanisms behind institutional effects on the quality of democracy is necessary.

Hence, I utilize a concept of consistency and inconsistency in the constitutional design of the presidency to assess institutional balances and effects. Constitutional designs usually combine ideas from different constitutional logics and sometimes also legal traditions. They rarely develop carefully mixed and matched institutions. Rather, constitutional designers go to a constitutional grab bag and often create a Frankenstein constitution with – presumably – very little attention to how different parts of the constitution might interact. The reasons to do so range from power considerations to historical legacies but can also be “caused by a polity’s commitment to apparently conflicting values” (Hirschl 2009, 1349). This grab bag is not necessarily a bad thing: Jacobsohn (2010, 16) for example stresses that “disharmony” in constitutional design can be a valued asset in the necessary process of renegotiation and recalibration. His idea is that inconsistency and disharmony in these designs may be more helpful in the democratic development of countries than harmonious or consistent constitutional solutions. This also informs the main hypothesis in which I assume that inconsistency benefits the level and quality of democracy.

Consistency and Inconsistency

But what is consistency in constitutional design? To develop a concept of consistency/inconsistency and assess its importance and impact on democracy, I focus on a core element of constitution making: the interaction of the way a president is elected and his/her constitutional power. This core element is often contested but is also central in nearly every modern republican constitution. This idea of consistency and inconsistency between election and power of the president touches upon two core principles of democratic government: the balance of power and the legitimacy of the presidency. Within the logic of checks and balances, a direct presidential election should be counterbalanced by a limited amount of power. But arguing in the logic of presidential legitimacy, a consistent constitutional design emphasizes the alignment of legitimacy and de jure power, and an inconsistent design reveals the counterbalance of legitimacy and de jure power. I follow the latter, relying on the rationale that a consistent constitutional design will align the way the president is elected with a coherent amount of de jure power. Hence, a constitutional design is defined as consistent when the introduction or abolition of the president’s direct election comes in tandem with matching constitutional powers or allows for an adaptation to the pre-existing order in a coherent way. Conversely, I define an inconsistent constitutional design (and amendment) when it counterbalances the mode of election with diametrically opposite powers.

Empirics

In order to empirically test my theoretical expectations, I focus on parliamentary and semi-presidential systems because the varying degree of the dual authority of a prime minister and a president. I rely on a new data set of the 79 republican countries that have experienced parliamentarism or semi-presidentialism at some point in their history since 1918 (Cheibub, Martin, and Rasch 2015; Elgie 2018). The constitutions and constitutional amendments analyzed in this study can be found in the repository of the Comparative Constitutions Project (Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton 2009).

Based on these data, we see that consistency in the constitutional design of the presidency is more frequent in parliamentary and semi-presidential republics. Also, to no one’s surprise, direct presidential elections mostly result in an accompanying higher level of constitutional power: Constitution-makers obviously consider the legitimacy of the direct presidential election and honor it by bestowing more de jure power.[2]

Depending on the measure I use to quantify the quality and level of democracy, the effect of a consistent constitutional design varies. But the results show that a consistent design of the presidency is not supportive to democracy but suggest that inconsistency is beneficial. The inconsistency of constitutional design, a directly-elected president with only little power or an indirectly-elected president with a constitutionally powerful position, explains a higher quality of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and horizontal accountability. As one could expect, we see the strongest positive influence of inconsistent constitutional design on horizontal accountability as measured by V-Dem (Coppedge et al. 2017).

Table 1. Effect of consistent constitutional design on horizontal accountability (GLS regression with random effects).

Source: Fruhstorfer, Anna. “Consistency in constitutional design and its effect on democracy.” Democratization (2019), Online First. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1590815.

This supports the assumption that a consistent design of the presidency creates either a president that is too strong or too weak and thus threatens the equilibrium between the core political institutions. Consistency and inconsistency are, an equally strong (in the case of the V-Dem measure an even stronger) explanation for the quality of democracy as the governmental type (parliamentary/premier-presidential/president-parliamentary system). Yet, as mentioned earlier, constitutional design is never picked in an absolute vacuum and the obvious endogeneity of this argument has to be taken seriously. But, the finding that constitutions that counterbalance the power and the election of the presidency are beneficial to the quality of democracy has major implications for the role of institutional design and the question of best institutional solution in democratization and democratic consolidation.

References

Cheibub, José A., Zachary Elkins, and Tom Ginsburg. 2014. “Beyond Presidentialism and Parliamentarism.British Journal of Political Science 44 (03): 515–44.

Cheibub, José A. 2007. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy: Cambridge University Press.

Cheibub, José A., Shane Martin, and Bjørn E. Rasch. 2015. “Government Selection and Executive Powers: Constitutional Design in Parliamentary Democracies.” West European Politics 38 (5): 969–96.

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[1] The article also includes two important case studies on the inconsistent constitutional amendment in Czech Republic and the consistency of the constitutional design in Moldova that will not be discussed in detail here.

[2] In order to study the consistency of the constitutional design of the presidency, I rely on an original dataset of constitutional presidential power, which is measured with a revised and updated version of the measurement index (Shugart and Carey 1992). Based on this, I use the mean of de jure power, i.e., 23 points, as threshold for the distribution of power. An inconsistent design interlocks an indirectly-elected president with a score that exceeds the mean of de jure power (e.g., in Bangladesh) or a directly-elected president with a score that is below the mean of de jure power (e.g., in Czech Republic post- 2012). Conversely, a consistent constitutional design gives a directly-elected president a more than mean level of de jure power, and an indirectly elected president less than the mean level of de jure power.

Portugal: is Marcelo “popularist”?

Last March 9, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa completed three years as President of Portugal. His tenure has been widely acclaimed among the population, and stirred some controversies in academic and some political circles. What is Marcelo’s imprint on the political landscape of the country?

Recent opinion polls suggest Marcelo has reached very high levels of popularity. Although with a slight tendency to decrease over the last year, Marcelo still commands some 70% of positive opinions among the population at large – restoring the popularity of presidents to the levels obtained by Mario Soares (who left office in 1996 with 70%) or Jorge Sampaio (who also terminated his term with more than 55%), in sharp contrast with Cavaco Silva who, in spite of having had high marks, ended his tenure with negative (-13%) ratings. Cavaco Silva’s poor showing dramatically reduced his capacity to interfere in the political arena, and this fact has been widely acknowledged. So, restoring popularity is normally seen in Portugal as a necessary means to enhance the capacity of presidents to have a significant word on a multitude of aspects of political life, regardless of the constitutional provisions that remain unchanged. To dispose of high rates of popularity is thus a goal of every president.

Marcelo originates from the centre-right wing of politics, but his rise to power was mostly achieved by means of personal qualities and less by virtue of his line-up with the leadership of the parties of his political family, as his predecessor had done. His atitude towards the government issued from the 2015 elections was radically different from that of Cavaco Silva or the leaders of PSD and CDS: he recognised it as legitimate due to the existence of a parliamentary majority that supported the prime minister, even though the Socialist Party had only scored the second place in the popular vote. Throughout these three years, Marcelo has maintained the same position, not challenging the legitimacy of the government. He could then benefit from the positive atmosphere generated around a government that also benefits from the esteem of the electorate, as seen by the local elections of 2017 and consistent opinion polls that grant the left-wing parties a comfortable majority.

On the other hand, Marcelo has made a point of surgically distancing himself from the government in some critical instances, always intent on asserting the lineage of a centre-right politician. To start with, he broke with the tradition that assigns presidents a visit to Spain as the first foreign trip of their terms in office, and preferred to fly to the Vatican to meet the Pope (the country is nominally Catholic but the state is laic). Several other symbolic initiatives were taken along similar lines. But the confrontation that many expected he would pursue was not systematic. More than this, it did not derive from the use of his constitutional powers. For instance: veto power. In this area, Marcelo only used his veto power on eight occasions, and in all of them he forfeited the possibility of having the bills appreciated by the Constitutional Court, which might have produced a constitutional veto which would then require a special majority to be overturned, and preferred to use a political veto that could be overturned by simple majority. They were, so to speak, “friendly vetoes” that could be accommodated by the prime minister. In fact, as a former professor of constitutional law, Marcelo has never called upon the Constitutional Court to help in the analysis of controversial bills.

The source of Marcelo’s influence, paradoxically, resides in his extra-constitutional powers – namely the power of the word. As a former pundit who entered every house on Sunday nights for long years, commenting on every aspect of public life, Marcelo envisages his presidency much in the same vein: he offers his view on whatever issue is on the news. This technique of mass communication tends to generate an effect of proximity with citizens (illustrated by the fact that he excels in taking selfies with whoever asks for), and thus his presidency has been termed “the presidency of affections”. The photo that illustrates this post bears testimony to the proximity of the president with the people at large.

The power of the word, exercised in full view of the public, is critical to understand Marcelo’s presidency. Contrary to convention that suggests presidents and prime ministers exchange views in private (as Cavaco Silva has recently reminded us in bitter terms), or that their views are expressed after some bill has been presented for promulgation, Marcelo has inaugurated a new figure: to offer his opinion (and suggest the sense of his action) before the bill is presented to him, as to preempt the possibility of a veto. Two important pieces of legislation illustrate the presidential influence. Back in 2016, the prime minister announced he wished to propose a bill referring to the direct election of metropolitan areas governance bodies – and the president said it was not a good idea. Although the measure was in PS electoral manifesto and the government’s programme accepted by parliament, the prime minister did not pursue this initiative. More recently, Marcelo made it public he wished the proposed new law on the Basis of the Health System (framing the existence of the National Health Service) to be approved by more than the left wing majority in the House, and went further as he suggested that he would veto the bill if it were to exclude the private sector from participating in the management of units of the National Health Service. He even expressed his support to a draft bill proposed by a former Health minister which did not garner support in the parliamentary majority. Although the presidential position evolved (as he must have realised this is a bill which needs only a simple majority and therefore it would be possible for the left majority to impose its view whatever it would be), PS was split by this initiative and the original project was withdrawn in order to accommodate the presidential views. These examples make it clear that the weight of the president’s word is enhanced (or diminished) by their popularity and their capacity to stay tuned to the main stream of public opinion, even though one may not posit that in every instance the president expresses majoritarian views.

We have so far established that Marcelo is a popular character in Portuguese politics. For some people, however, the price of popularity is a concession to populism. Does the president enjoy high levels of popularity because he opens the doors to populism, i.e., to a form of political criticism that downplays the role of constitutional institutions? Or, conversely, is the president’s popularity an antidote to the rise of populism in the country (as many suggest), being able to contain criticism within the boundaries of established institutions?

Marcelo has been a moderate critic of the government, not less because the prime minister enjoys the sympathy of the electorate. But he has been tough on various occasions. Perhaps the most dramatic intervention of the president is the one linked to the great fires of 2017, which represented a very clear failure of the government to act swiftly. Public opinion turned then against the government, and the president expressed their voice. As mentioned in a post in this blog published at the time, Marcelo both expressed the view that the minister of Home Affairs was no longer able to keep her position (the prime minister proposed to replace her the following day) and the government needed to have its legitimacy refresh in the House (CDS presented a rejection motion that did not pass). Again, a tough intervention through the use of the power of the word – not the decision to dismiss a minister or the prime minister. On another count, Marcelo has made it clear time and again that he regards as a democratic imperative that the opposition to the government be strong and offers real alternatives. The fragility of the right of centre parties at a time when polls indicate they are at a loss and strategically divided offers the president an important arena to have his voice heard. However, he never hinted he would intervene directly over the party system (as he remains a member of PSD, albeit with his militancy suspended)

However, the frontier between the intervention of a popular president and that of a populist leader tend to be fluid. For this reason, it has been suggested that Marcelo should be considered as a “popularist” – i.e. both popular and at times populist. If so, it would be adequate to acknowledge that Portugal has so far been spared the plague of extreme right wing populism. The thesis that the Iberian Peninsula would avoid those dangers to democracy due to the long and painful experience of 20th century authoritarian regimes (Salazar and Franco) seems to be at odds with the reality of the emerging Vox party in Spain, and so new ideas are required to explain why Portugal has so far avoided the contagion of what seems to be a powerful force in modern Europe. So far, we may consider that Marcelo’s popularity has been a factor in mitigating its impact. The next elections will be a test. Will Portugal pass the test?

Nicaragua-An Ortega-Murillo Presidency?

Nicaragua: An Ortega-Murillo Presidency?

David Close

1May 2019

July 19, 2019 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. In those forty years the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has governed for twenty-four; and during all those years in power Daniel Ortega has been the key player in the executive branch. From 1979 to 1984, he was the co-ordinator of the Governing Council for National Reconstruction (JGRN). He was elected president of the republic in 1984, 2006, 2011 and 2016. The first two were free elections. In the latter pair, although there was no doubt that Ortega won, there were clear signs that the Sandinista-controlled electoral commission massaged the results.

            In the forty years since the revolution, Nicaragua has operated under four distinct political systems. From 1979 to 1984 it had a revolutionary vanguard regime, albeit one featuring an uncommonly high degree of pluralism. Then, from 1984 through 2006, Nicaragua was an electoral democracy: winning free elections was the only way to win the right to rule.  By 2008, when tainted municipal elections brought protests and a heavy-handed response from the government, to 2018, the country’s political system is best described as hybrid – having both democratic and authoritarian traits – leaning somewhat authoritarian. It is currently best described as authoritarian, though with some pluralist characteristics.

            In authoritarian systems, we expect to find either a dictator’s personal rule or an official party that cannot lose power via elections. That being the case, Nicaraguans should speak of the Ortega administration; yet they routinely refer to the Ortega-Murillo administration: President Ortega and Vice -President Rosario Murillo, his wife. Though this seems strange, it accurately reflects the structure of power in both the FSLN and the Nicaraguan government since 1998. That is when Zoilamérica Narváez—Murillo’s daughter and Ortega’s stepdaughter—charged Ortega with rape and sexual abuse. Murillo took Ortega’s side and mounted a fierce campaign to discredit her daughter, labelling her a CIA agent. Soon Murillo was remaking Ortega’s image (no more olive drab fatigues) and that of the FSLN (now Christian, Socialist and Solidaristic). Though the changes did not bring the Sandinistas back to power, that needed a serious split in the Liberal vote, Ortega’s comeback win in 2006 brought Murillo into government, albeit in an unpaid, appointed role. She was elected vice-president in 2016.

Since becoming vice-president, Murillo has served as the administration’s public face, the person who appears on TV and radio. President Ortega’s televised appearances are limited to special occasions, such as the anniversary of the victory of the Sandinista Revolution on July 19th. Moreover, it is Murillo who convenes and chairs cabinet meetings. Thus she is effectively the administrative president of Nicaragua. These are not responsibilities normally assumed by a vice-president, so it is reasonable to view Nicargua as a de facto collegial executive. Ortega, however, is still the president, the nation’s political chief as his role in the crisis of 2018 demonstrated.

Entering 2019 it seemed that the administration’s hard line toward protesters had paid off. The presidential couple controlled the streets, had broken the back of civil society groups critical of their governance, harassed independent news sources and held many demonstrators and other foes of the regime as political prisoners. That situation soon changed. Not only did the economy shrink by 7.7 percent in the last quarter of 2018, but foreign investment fell by 53 percent in 2018 and fears were expressed that farmers might be unable to secure loans to let them sow their crops of corn, beans and rice: Nicaragua’s basic foods. Worse, experts foresaw no recovery before 2023. There were even predictions of a further 5 percent contraction in 2019.

Equally disturbing was the political pressure the government faced. The UN, OAS (Organization of American States), the US and most of Latin America condemned the violence the administration used to defeat the demonstrators, killing as many of 455, jailing even more and sending thousands into exile. In the Americas, strong support came only from Cuba and Venezuela. So in February 2019 the president and almost certainly the vice-president too, agreed to renew talks with its opponents, now operating as the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.

The Alliance brought together those who supported the protests of 2018: students, pensioners and Nicaraguan big business. These groups had slightly different aims, but all agreed that everyone imprisoned for participating in the protests must be freed immediately and that full civil liberties must be restored for talks to be held. Further, though not a pre-condition for talks, both the Alliance and the OAS made advancing the date of Nicaragua’s next general election and reforming the country’s electoral commission to make it a non-partisan body non-negotiable demands.

As in the dialogue held in July 2018, Ortega refused to make significant concessions. Civil liberties remained effectively suspended, and regarding freeing arrested protesters, the administration’s initial response was to offer to do so in six months. By early April the talks had broken down. This likely was Ortega’s aim. His administration gained nothing by negotiating with the Civic Alliance, so stonewalling was the best option.

In the 1980s Nicaraguans said the Sandinistas would negotiate anything but their control of government. In the 2010s it seems that the FSLN of Ortega and Murillo will only deal with those they choose, and solely on topics the administration wants to discuss. As there are few instruments the public can use to make the government accountable, Nicaragua’s president is effectively above the law. This applies with equal force whether one speaks of an Ortega administration or an Ortega-Murillo government.