Monthly Archives: January 2018

Finland – Niinistö re-elected in the first round with 62.6 % of the vote

In the first round of the Finnish presidential elections held last Sunday, 28 January, the incumbent Sauli Niinistö secured his re-election with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. Turnout was 69,9 % (including only those resident in Finland), just below the 70,1 % achieved in the latest parliamentary elections held in 2015.
Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö had announced last May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign, and the party indeed campaigned quite actively in support of Niinistö. Also the Christian Democrats had decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

Niinistö was the clear favourite throughout the campaign. In all surveys conducted since last summer between 60-80 % said they would vote for Niinistö. Contextual factors favoured the president. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the neighbouring area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia became more important, and Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin and other leaders received extensive friendly media coverage. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security, and the unusually high approval ratings indicate that voters appreciated Niinistö’s foreign and security policy leadership. Another, quite different, type of a boost to Niinistö’s campaign came in the form of an announcement in October by the president and his wife Jenni Haukio that they were expecting a baby in February. Niinistö, who turns 70 in August, has also two adult sons from his previous marriage.

As the voters clearly approved of Niinistö’s track record in office, the other ‘mainstream’ candidates found it extremely difficult to challenge him. The constitutional prerogatives of the president are essentially limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government, and the debates largely focused on familiar themes – relations with Russia, the EU and NATO. To be sure, there were some relatively minor differences, with the left-leaning candidates – Merja Kyllönen (Left Alliance), Tuula Haatainen (Social Democrats), and Pekka Haavisto (Green League) – emphasizing global issues and equality, with Niinistö and Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) in turn adopting more ‘realist’ positions. This was most evident in debates concerning relations with China, as two giant pandas donated by China arrived in Finland in mid-January. Nils Torvalds (Swedish People’s Party) in turn was the only candidate openly supportive of NATO membership.

At least some colour and ideological alternatives were brought to the campaign by Laura Huhtasaari (The Finns Party) and Paavo Väyrynen, currently an MEP and a long-standing, popular yet controversial, Centre Party politician who was now running as an independent candidate having been the presidential candidate of the Centre Party in the 1988, 1994 and 2012 elections. Both Huhtasaari and Väyrynen utilized anti-EU discourse, with Huhtasaari in particular also advocating much stronger powers for the president, including the right to dissolve the parliament. Such sentiments are shared by the electorate, with surveys reporting that the majority of the Finns would favour a stronger presidency and that the president should be also involved in domestic politics and EU affairs. The other candidates appeared by and large willing to respect the constitutional division of labour between the state institutions, but essentially all of them nonetheless flirted with the idea of an active president that would also, if needed, intervene in domestic matters.

Turning to the results, appealing primarily to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters, Haavisto finished second with 12,4 % of the vote. This was obviously a clear disappointment, given that six years earlier Haavisto had made it to the second round against Niinistö. The personal popularity of Haavisto combined with the recent rise of the Greens in Finnish politics undermined the prospects of Kyllönen and Haatainen. Kyllönen, an MEP known for her colourful rhetoric, finished with 3,0 % of the vote. The Social Democrats in turn had experienced major difficulties in finding a credible candidate, and Haatainen, known for her expertise in social and health policy, was clearly outside of her comfort zone. Haatainen received a dismal 3,2 % of the vote. This meant that the Social Democrats fared again really badly in presidential elections, with their more high-profile candidate Paavo Lipponen, the prime minister from 1995 to 2003, winning only 6,7 % of the vote in the 2012 elections.

The main excitement in the Centre Party was whether Väyrynen, who had severed ties with his party in the early 1990s over EU membership, would beat Vanhanen who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. The race was indeed quite close, with Väyrynen getting 6,2 % and Vanhanen 4,1 % of the vote. To put it mildly, the outcome was a major embarrassment to Vanhanen and his party. Torvalds received 1,5 % of the vote.

Huhtasaari, the candidate of the populist and anti-immigration Finns Party, won 6,9 % of the vote. Her party had effectively split into two last June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho, convicted in court for hate speech, as the new party leader. Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new party, the Blue Reform, which did not nominate a presidential candidate nor support any of the candidates. Huhtasaari was also the youngest (38) and least experienced of the candidates, having first entered the parliament in the 2015 elections. Hence she clearly performed well, and, together with Väyrynen, the combined vote share of the two Eurosceptical candidates was 13,1 %.

Overall, the results mean more of the same. Niinistö is not in favour of NATO membership, but supports the development of EU’s security and defence policy, bilateral security policy cooperation with Sweden, and maintaining close ties with NATO, views largely shared by the mainstream parties and the public. During his first six-year term Niinistö shared power with cabinets led by centre-right prime ministers, and this clearly contributed to smooth co-leadership in foreign policy. It also facilitated presidential activism, especially since the 2015 parliamentary elections as PM Juha Sipilä has proritised domestic issues such as reviving the economy and the re-organization of social and health services. Hence the results of the next parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2019 and the personality of the next PM will be important in terms of Niinistö’s second term in office.

Rui Graça Feijó – Timor-Leste: The president dissolves the Assembly

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of the Institute for Contemporary History, New University of Lisboa

Over the last year or so, Timor-Leste has been confronted with a significant number of political novelties, the positive effects of which are reflected in the last Freedom House index “Freedom in the World” where the country has finally moved into the club of “Free Countries”. If the move has long been expected, the reasons evoked –  the success of the 2017 round of elections – are far less so.

Major changes started roughly a year ago when the two largest forces in the country – the historical Fretilin and the charismatic leader Xanana’s CNRT – joined forces in the first round of the presidential elections to support the candidacy of the chairman of Fretilin. In the previous three elections, the two forces had opposed each other, and twice (2007, 2012) they had faced each other (if only by proxy in terms of “independent” candidates supported by CNRT) in the electoral run-off. In 2017, however, the fact that the two parties supported a “Government of National Inclusion” formed in early 2015 and expected to last well into the next legislature, created a different situation. Francisco Guterres Lu Olo easily won the presidency in the March election. He was the first President to be affiliated to a political party.

Legislative elections were held in late July, and the parties supporting the outgoing government (except for the small Frenti-Mudança) did well, winning close to 70% of the vote. Fretilin was the winner by a mere 1,000 votes. Two new parties – one formed by the outgoing president, Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), before leaving office (PLP), and KHUNTO, whose roots are in the new generation and has close links to important martial arts groups – both of which opposed the strategic options of the government, obtained 10.6 and 6.4. percent respectively. It would seem that the conditions were ripe for the continuation of the Government of National Inclusion.

However, one of the critical conditions for the creation of such a government – that the old guard, the Gerasaun Tuan of those who had lived the critical period of 1974-76, would gave way to the Gerasaun Foun of those who came of age under Indonesian occupation – was soon questioned when Fretilin’s secretary general and actual leader, Mari bin Amude Alkatiri, claimed the right to be appointed prime minister. Both CNRT and PLP declared they would rather sit in the opposition, and spoke vaguely of providing confidence and supply to Fretilin’s executive.

Fretilin announced it would seek a broad coalition, but faced great difficulties when it came to talking to Xanana and TMR. With two major players now feeling free to act against the government, President Lu Olo felt compelled to intervene and promoted a meeting in the presidential palace with himself, Xanana, TMR and Alkatiri. But he was not able to convince Xanana or TMR to accept Alkatiri’s terms, nor was Alkatiri willing to change his mind on the conditions under which he would form a coalition with CNRT and/or PLP.

Fretilin negotiated then with two smaller parties: PD (a member of the last three executives) and the newcomer KHUNTO. While negotiations were happening, the three of them joined forces to elect the Speaker of the House, a member of Fretilin. But further agreement could not be found with KHUNTO, and it abandoned negotiations. As a result of this brief period of collaboration with KHUNTO, Fretilin – which had polled just under 30% of the vote – managed to control the three leading figures of the state – PR, PM and Speaker of the House. This is in sharp contrast with the recent history of institutional equilibrium and power-sharing in which “independent” presidents had a major role.

Lu Olo invited Alkatiri to form a government. When he came back with his government proposal, it was based on an agreement with PD alone, which together were supported by 30 out of 65 seats in the House. Thus, it was a minority executive. At that time, the three other parties had not yet formed an alternative alliance, which offered some room for a positive expectation regarding the minority government. The president could nevertheless have asked Alkatiri to find a sounder basis for his government by including members of the opposition parties (PLP expelled two of its militants who accepted jobs in the government) as well as respected independent figures like former PR and PM José Ramos-Horta (JRH). However, the leader of Fretilin insisted on moving ahead with the minority government, admitting that either the opposition would not block the way in the House, or that some opposition MPs would defy their party’s stance and abstain. So, on 15 September, Lu Olo agreed to put all his political (and not merely institutional) weight behind a government that was sworn in that day.

The Constitution offers presidents room for the choice of the prime minister (as JRH did in 2007 and TMR in 2015), but it stipulates that the government must undergo a parliamentary investiture vote. The government must present its program before the House within 30 days of being sworn in (Art. 108.2), and during that period it is merely caretaker cabinet not being entitled to take major political decisions. There is no mandatory vote on the program, but both the opposition and the government may take action: the former proposing the rejection of the program, the latter proposing a vote of confidence (Art. 109). In Dili, in October 2017, the opposition – now formally comprising CNRT, PLP and KHUNTO which had formed a Aliança para uma Maioria Parlamentar /Aliance for a Parliamentary Majority – AMP) – moved to reject the government’s program and it won 35 to 30 votes. For the first time in Timorese history, the government lost a vote in the House. However, the Constitution offers new governments a second change of submitting a revised program before it implies its dismissal (Art. 112 d.).

So far, all was within the constitutional boundaries. Henceforth, the process would derail and move into wild institutional territory. Although the Constitution does not explicitly refer to any deadline for the second presentation of the government’s program, it is assumed that it cannot take longer than the original period of thirty days. Alkatiri, however, suggested he would need ”until the end of the year” (i.e., two-and-a-half months) to resubmit its program. More than that, he assumed the government was fully invested (which was a false premise) and capable of full powers. In this vein, he submitted a revision of the state budget – something that clearly goes beyond the powers of a caretaker government. In the end, the AMP parties used their majority to block such move. This governmental attitude was to be seen in other initiatives. For instance, in late January, the vice-minister for Education (Lurdes Bessa) decided to alter the legislation on a sensitive issue – the use of native languages in school – arguing that “this may be our last bill but until the last day of this government we are working hard”. This position is not supported because it has not been supported by a parliamentary investiture vote.

Once a month had elapsed since the rejection of the first program, and without any signs that a second version would be presented on time, AMP tabled a motion of no-confidence, which, if approved by an absolute majority of MPs, would bring the government down at once (Art. 112 f.). President Lu Olo could also consider that the government was in breach of its constitutional duties and dismissed it in order to “secure the regular functioning of institutions” which was patently the case.

The most unexpected event was still to take place: the Speaker of the House refused to set a date for the plenary session to discuss and vote on the no-confidence motion, which in the overwhelming majority of parliaments takes precedence over other matters. Before such a situation, the opposition tabled a motion to revoke the Speaker’s mandate, in accordance with the House’s regulation (approved a few years ago with the active support of the current Speaker). The Speaker referred the issue to the Courts, where he lost in the first instance, but then made an appeal (still pending).

In order to try and ease the growing tension which was being fuelled by radical rhetoric from both camps and by the clear deviation of National Parliament from its powers, the Speaker took two initiatives: in late December he wrote to the PM asking for the new government program to be submitted “within the next thirty days”; and he set a date – with the approval of the government – to discuss and vote the rejection motion for 31 January 2018, that is, two full months after it had been presented, suggesting that a rejection motion should be voted at the government’s discretion and not as a priority matter.

This sequence of events constitutes an attempt to reduce the role of Parliament in the equilibrium of powers inscribed in the constitution, and it reveals that institutions are not functioning according to the law. As such, it offered ample grounds for the President to intervene, force the dismissal of government, and consider other alternatives: he could have invited the outgoing PM to try to reach another, broader agreement; he could have appointed an independent formateur to try to build a majority coalition including Fretilin; or he could have offered AMP a chance to form a government. He chose otherwise not to interfere, as his power to dissolve the parliament was curtailed until January 22, 2018, that is, exactly six months after the last parliamentary election. And early elections rather than a solution within the incumbent parliament was Fretlin’s preferred choice for resolving the political crisis in Dili.

On January 23, Lu Olo called all the parliamentary parties as it is his duty before dissolving the House; next day he summoned the first meeting of the Council of State, an advisory organ whose opinion he is bound to seek, even if the Council has no binding powers (Art. 86 f.). And on 26th January he announced on TV that for the first time the parliament was dissolved and fresh elections would be called (though a date has not been set).

The Chairman of the National Electoral Commission has stated that he is preparing the “machinery” for early elections (implying, among others, an update of the voting register), and suggested that more than the constitutionally necessary sixty days would be preferable to guarantee a modicum of quality in the electoral process. So, for the first time Timor-Leste will experience early elections somewhere between late March and May 2018 – and a new, fully installed government is likely to see the light of day around a year after the last parliamentary elections. As the country has not passed a state budget for 2018, it must live with a copy of the 2017 one – and this may generate several problems, not least in the amount of money spent on the electoral process. It will take the goodwill of the opposition to vote in favour of various budgetary measures necessary to finance the electoral process.

It is unclear whether the current government parties will form a pre-electoral coalition or not, or whether AMP will run alone. However, a new entity has been formed: 9 smaller parties who failed to pass the 4% threshold, but who together polled about 10% created the Forum Democrático Nacional/ National Democratic Forum – FDN). If they run as a pre-electoral coalition they may contribute to the rise in the number of parliamentary parties (in theory, by running together they might get one seat each) – and they have been severe critics of Fretilin and the way the process has evolved. If they run as FDN, life is likely to be more difficult for Fretilin.

President Lu Olo chose not interfere when Mari Alkatiri failed to secure majority support in parliament (but then again, minority governments are legitimate). Later, when the process of the government investiture in parliament went completely off the track stipulated by the Constitution of Timor-Leste., he was deaf to cries that instability was threatening social peace, and that the economic rate of growth was slowing down significantly on account of instability and uncertainty of the political process. His silence and inaction was only broken when his party was about to suffer a number of humiliating defeats in the House (rejection of government, recall of the Speaker).

Lu Olo’s recent (in)actions were clearly in tune with the options of his own party  (favouring early elections) and in this way he broke with the traditional position of presidents in the Timorese system, who are not supposed to interfere in the party political arena. The future of his presidency hinges, thus, on the results of the legislative elections. Should Fretilin win, or at least be in a position to lead the future government, he will have a peaceful presidency, and his behaviour in the last months will be vindicated; should, however, the fate of Fretilin be different, he will have to face a period of true cohabitation with a group of parties and personalities whose rhetoric against the way he has behaved is quite aggressive – and he may feel the loneliness of the Presidential Palace.

Let’s just hope that elections will be free, fair, and peaceful.

Yonatan L. Morse – Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa

This is a post by contributor Yonatan L. Morse, based on his article ‘Presidential Power and Democratization by Elections in Africa’ that will be published in the journal Democratization

In traditional studies of democratization, elections are generally the end phase of a prolonged process of liberalization and political opening. However, in recent years political scientists have also entertained the idea that elections might actually be the starting point of a process of democratization. In foundational work on Africa by Staffan Lindberg, he contended that repeated consecutive elections could create self-reinforcing mechanisms that deepened democracy over time. This approach is intuitively appealing for an era in which elections are commonplace, yet many countries still fail to live up to democratic standards. And expectedly, this thesis has been subject to quite widespread replication, scrutiny, and criticism.

In new research, now published online by the journal Democratization, I engage with the democratization by elections thesis in Africa, and argue that repeated elections can induce some forms of democratic behavior but face real limitations when formal presidential powers are strong. This is because under certain conditions strong presidentialism reinforces incentives for elections to become opportunities for clientelistic exchange, rather than moments of self-expression. Powerful presidents that control legislative agendas, access to political appointments, and the purse strings, might lead certain actors to behave more democratically during elections, but not necessarily to develop more robust notions of citizenship. This holds true in Africa because levels of economic development and inequality reinforce the role of clientelism as a central way elites and citizens access their government.

A caveat is in order here first. If the democratization by elections thesis has been so heavily scrutinized (in Africa and elsewhere), what is there to add to the debate? Other studies have generated, at best, mixed results. For instance, in Latin America democracy was restored in the 1980s after periodic interludes of authoritarianism. Therefore, many of the indicators of democracy simply jumped back to their prior levels, and have in fact declined since in many countries. Most importantly, in many countries repeated elections seemed to reinforce rather than undermine authoritarianism. Referred to as electoral or competitive authoritarian regimes, in these cases repeated elections appear to offer incumbents the ability to reshuffle their coalitions, gather information about their levels of support, and generate international legitimacy. In one study of Africa, the authors found that democratization by elections could only truly be found in a handful of cases.

The problem with previous studies is that they often mischaracterize what the democratization by elections thesis is actually about. Lindberg makes a crucial distinction between the “process of democratization” and a “transition to democracy.” Regimes can show improvements in specific indicators of democracy, while not necessarily transitioning to a new regime. Indeed, autocratic regimes can exhibit more or less democratic behavior. For instance, when actors participate more, compete more effectively, or appear to accept the legitimacy of the election process, this is a sign of democratic progress. Specifically, for Lindberg this is evidence of how elections create self-fulfilling expectations. Elections might also lead to improvements in other realms of democratic life like the protection of civil liberties. This indicates some form of socialization by elections, whereby citizens learn from election experience to demand voice in other realms of life. Using this more limited definition of democratization yields quite different results from previous studies.

My contribution is therefore to stress which factors condition the impact of repeated elections on much more specific democratic outcomes. I gathered information on 679 African elections since 1990, and combined this information with data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) and Presidential Power (PRESPOW) datasets. These data offer new ways to explore both numerous democratic outcomes, and to compare and contrast the extent of formal presidential power across Africa. The V-DEM data includes measures of electoral participation, competition, and legitimacy. But, it also includes indexes of many non-electoral elements of democracy like the protection of civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. I controlled for numerous other factors like executive years in office, levels of economic growth and development, foreign aid, ethnic heterogeneity, religion, and historic experiences with democracy.

A key utility of this study is its use of formal measures of presidential power in Africa. In many studies of African politics the focus has often been on the various ways in which presidents violate constitutions and operate through parallel informal institutions. This approach is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, it is equally clear that African presidents routinely amend constitutions, which means that the formal powers of presidents are not trivial. Second, using formal measures of presidential powers limits the risk of endogeneity in a study. For example, if a president unconstitutionally repeals legislation, this is often coded as both a violation of the democratic process and stronger informal presidential power. It is difficult to know what factor is influencing what factor. By focusing on the formal attributes of presidents, this risk of conflation is mitigated.

The analysis shows that improvements in the election process do not depend on levels of presidential power. Using Lindberg’s criteria, with more experience African elections become more participatory, competitive, and legitimate. This validates the notion that elections reinforce actors’ expectations and conditions them to accede by the rules of the game if they want to get ahead. On the other hand, presidential power significantly conditions the impact of repeated election on civil and private liberties, civil society participation, and equal protection under the law. When presidents are formally strong, repeated and consecutive elections limit the ability of elections to socialize more participatory and democratic behavior. These results hold up to various statistical models, and even the inclusion of a measure of the unfairness of the election.

This corresponds with expectations regarding the intersection of presidential power and clientelism in Africa. When levels of access to a system of spoils define the political game, and when presidents control that access, elections become devoid of deeper civic meaning. Rather, actors decide to accept electoral processes because fighting the system keeps them excluded. These results do not reject the democratization by elections thesis, but rather shed light on its limitations. Moreover, it also corroborates that the problem of democratic progress is not only due to the fact that elections themselves are unfair. In many cases the playing field remains heavily tilted toward incumbents, but clientelism and powerful presidents exist in diverse settings and exert an independent impact on democratic outcomes. It is not enough to just get the elections right, the disproportionate formal powers of presidents need to be tempered too.

Venezuela – Snap Presidential Elections for April Announced

On Tuesday of this week, Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly announced that a ‘snap’ presidential election would be held this April and shortly after this announcement, President Nicolás Maduro confirmed at a public rally that he would be seeking another six-year term. Presidential elections in Venezuela have traditionally been held in December and the decision of the Constituent Assembly to bring the election forward at such short notice appears to be part of a wider government strategy of electoral manipulation to ensure that they remain in power. The actual date of the election in April has yet to be set.

The announcement has been condemned by both the US State Department in Washington and the Lima Group, comprising the foreign ministers and representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia.

In a highly controversial move, President Maduro created the constituent assembly by decree in July, primarily for two main reasons; firstly, to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state, and secondly, to sideline the opposition dominated Congress that has proven such a thorn in Maduro’s side. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, the government lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance. Although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking their seats, by barring three opposition legislators due to alleged election irregularities.

Since then, Venezuela has been mired in a deep and protracted political and economic crisis. In order to provide some respite from this crisis, the Venezuelan government and members of the opposition have spent the last three months meeting in the Dominican Republic to thrash out a set of electoral procedures that would be acceptable to both sides, including reform of the National Electoral Council, CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral). Announcing a presidential election at such short notice before any agreement has been reached however, suggests that the government is abandoning this process.

This does not augur well for the fairness and competitiveness of the scheduled presidential elections. We have written before on this blog, particularly with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much-weakened variety.

This announcement seems to be straight out of the competitive authoritarian handbook and the election in April will most likely follow the script of recent gubernatorial elections from October of last year, where the governing coalition of Nicolás Maduro eventually won 18 states of the 23, with the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), taking the remaining five. These gubernatorial elections had long been subject to political manipulation. The CNE had prevaricated about when, and indeed if, these elections would be held. Initially slated to be held in December 2016, they were pushed back until mid-2017. In May 2017, the elections were scheduled for December 2017, before the electoral council announced a date in October.  During the elections themselves, numerous problems arose. For example, at the last minute, 273 voting centres were relocated, largely from areas where the MUD is strong, for security reasons, and some ballots continued to carry the names of defeated primary candidates.

The big question of course is whether Maduro can win this snap election, even with the concomitant manipulation of the process. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil, Maduro’s approval rating has fallen to about 30 per cent. The gubernatorial elections however, and the decision of the newly elected opposition governors to wear allegiance to the Constituent Assembly, has caused a rupture and in-fighting within the opposition coalition. For Maduro, this might explain the decision to hold the elections so soon. Carpe diem.

 

New publications

Yonatan L. Morse, ‘Presidential power and democratization by elections in Africa’, Democratization, Online first pp. 1-19.

Yonatan L Morse, ‘Electoral authoritarianism and weak states in Africa: The role of parties versus presidents in Tanzania and Cameroon’, International Political Science Review, Volume 39, Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 114–129.

Marino De Luca, ‘The end of the French primary? Measuring primary election impact on electoral performance in the 2017 French presidential election’, French Politics, Online First.

Cynthia McClintock, ‘Reevaluating Runoffs in Latin America’, Journal of Democracy, Volume 29, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 96-110.

Fortunato Musella, Political leaders Beyond Party Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Battal Yılmaz, The Presidential System in Turkey: Opportunities and Obstacles. Palgrave, 2018.

Dan Slater, ‘Party cartelization, Indonesian-style: presidential power-sharing and the contingency of democratic opposition’, Journal of East Asian Studies, Online First.

Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan, ‘Gendered Opportunities and Constraints: How Executive Sex and Approval Influence Executive Decree Issuance’, Political Research Quarterly, Online First.

Gregory J. Love and Leah C. Windsor, ‘Populism and Popular Support: Vertical Accountability, Exogenous Events, and Leader Discourse in Venezuela’, in Political Research Quarterly, Online First.

Marina Costa Lobo, ‘Personality Goes a Long Way’, Government and Opposition, 53(1), 159-179, 2018.

Łukasz Jakubiak, ‘Formulas of cohabitation in rationalised parliamentary systems of government. The cases of France and Poland’, Journal of Comparative Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 51-65, Jan. 2018.

Rolando Tarchi, ‘La forma di governo del Messico: dal presidenzialismo imperiale alla “parlamentarizzazione” del presidenzialismo?’ [The Mexican form of government: from the “imperial presidentialism” to a parliamentarization of the presidential system?], Vol. 33, No. 4, (2017): DPCE Online 4-2017, available at: http://www.dpceonline.it/index.php/dpceonline/article/view/468

Machiko Tsubura, ‘“Umoja ni ushindi (Unity is victory)”: management of factionalism in the presidential nomination of Tanzania’s dominant party in 2015’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Online first pp. 1-20.

Ukraine – President Poroshenko and the Anti-Corruption High Court

On 31 December 2017, President Poroshenko used his Twitter account to post a video on the last day of the year. The 1 minute 41 seconds video was a collection of clips with a short text underneath each providing a summary of the greatest achievements of the year. Among the biggest successes, the President named the establishment of the visa-free regime and the association agreement with Europe, the release of 73 hostages held in captivity by Russian-led militants in Donbas, large scale highway works as well as pension, education and medical reforms.

One reform area, however, was absent from the video – a demonstration of achievements in the fight against corruption. Given that corruption is one of the chronic, endemic problems that plagues Ukraine and was the reason for ousting its previous President, it is the reforms in this sphere that Ukrainian civil society is most adamant about.

As we mentioned previously on the pages of the blog, to address the demands for corruption reform the President promised to sign a law launching an anti-corruption court by the end of 2017. On December 22, President’s draft law “On the High Anti-Corruption Court” was registered in Ukraine’s parliament. However, the civil society groups and opposition legislators criticized the President’s draft arguing that it did not guarantee the selection of independent judges.

Civil society groups were not the only ones to disapprove the draft law. Transparency International urged the President to withdraw his draft, rework it and submit a new one, listing several areas where the draft did not adhere to the recommendations of the Venice Commission of October 2017.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also wrote to the President’s office this month expressing concern that the draft law fails to meet the recommendations of the European rights and legal watchdog. Establishing an independent and effective Anti-Corruption Court is one of the reforms required for Ukraine to qualify for the further funding from the IMF, which amounts to $800 million.

Political scientists Robertson and Pop-Eleches call this joint effort between the Ukrainian civil society and the international community to force the country down the road of anti-corruption reforms a “sandwich” model. The model worked effectively in the case of defending the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and other anti-corruption reformers. Whether it will be effective in the case of the Anti-Corruption Court remains to be seen. Recently, the President confirmed that he will amend his legislation to make it more effective.

However, Anders Aslund, a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, is pessimistic about the prospect of the effective reforms in Ukraine. In a recent article, Aslund wrote that the ruling coalition did not seem to be interested in a real independent anti-corruption court or electoral reform even if legislation was under way. Instead, Ukraine’s politicians seemed to be deeply absorbed by the upcoming election scheduled to be held in May 2019.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius – Where rules are lacking, presidents prevail: Explaining presidential influence in Lithuania

This is a guest post by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’ that will be published in Government and Opposition

Despite more than two decades of research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister (PM) and her cabinet on the other. With some exceptions, even country studies have not probed the regular interaction between the executives. Our fresh case study of Lithuania seeks to partially fill that gap.  As part of a comparative project on semi-presidentialism granted by the Swedish Research Council, we use official documents and interviews with key civil servants and ministers for examining in detail how executive coordination has worked in Lithuania since the early 1990s (Raunio and Sedelius 2017).

Our research was driven by two inter-related questions: how does coordination between the president and PM actually work and how institutional design influences the balance of power and level of conflict between the two executives. The basic premise was that institutional design is related to the level of conflict between the cabinet and the president, and that conflicts over policy, legislation or appointments are manifestations of coordination problems. By institutional design we mean those rules, organizational arrangements and conventions that structure routine coordination between the two executives.

Challenging previous accounts of the Lithuanian case, our article argues that the existing modes of coordination facilitate presidential dominance. Absent of written rules or otherwise strong norms guiding intra-executive coordination, Lithuanian presidents have clearly enjoyed a lot of discretion in designing their own modes of operation. The transition period from authoritarian to democratic rule presented the opportunity to set rules about coordination, but there was insufficient political will for constraining the presidency through more precise legal rules or regular cooperation mechanisms. In line with institutional theory, the adopted approach has become the appropriate course of action, with each new president bringing her own staff, personality and leadership style into the equation. The presidents also have the power of initiative regarding cooperation, with forms and levels of intra-executive coordination essentially always determined by the president. For example, while joint councils or ministerial committees might facilitate better coordination, presidents do not need such bodies. As one of our interviewees put it: ‘Presidents that have enough powers do not create such councils, they do not need such kind of institutions, they just arrange ad hoc meetings despite the fact that it is not foreseen in any law.’

The obvious challenge stemming from lack of rules is that power is very much ‘up for grabs’, particularly given the Lithuanian personality-centred political culture which favours strong leadership and presidential activism. As another of our informants expressed it: ‘one side might ask “where is it written?” and another can argue “where is it forbidden?”’ There is a rather broadly shared expectation, especially by citizens, that the president is the ‘political authority’, and the successive presidents have repeatedly leaned on their popular support to intervene in questions falling under the government. Presidents have also essentially hand-picked various prime ministers and have forced PMs and other ministers to resign. Like in other semi-presidential regimes, much depends on party politics, with periods of cohabitation reducing the influence of the president and bringing about a more strict division of labour between the executives. At other times, such as when the current president Dalia Grybauskaité entered office in 2009, the economic and political conditions facilitated subsequent assertive presidential behaviour.

Another example of a ‘power grab’ is EU policy. Constitutionally European affairs are the domain of the government, with the PM leading Lithuanian integration policy. The cabinet is thus responsible for coordinating EU matters and for preparatory work ahead of the Council and the European Council. During the presidency of Adamkus the president participated in those European Councils which featured foreign and security policy while the PM would cover other matters. Often both executives would attend the summits. Grybauskaitė in turn participates in the meetings of European Council, even though constitutional provisions about division of labor clearly suggest that the PM should represent Lithuania. Again, this power of interpretation shown by Grybauskaité and bending rules in her favour can be explained by lack of formal regulation. The constitution, secondary laws, or the rules about domestic EU coordination do not detail who should represent Lithuania in the European Council.

Our article also highlights the role of advisors. The size of the president’s office may be small, but, interestingly, the staff of each president has comprised mainly policy advisers in areas falling under the competence of the government – including social policy, economic policy, education, culture, religion etc. Such advisors can be important for the presidents, not least through forming contacts with political parties and MPs, individual ministers and ministries or civil society stakeholders.

However, we should not exaggerate the powers of the Lithuanian president. The balance of power between the Seimas, the government and the president ensures that the president can achieve very little alone – and this in fact explains the strategic behaviour of the president and her advisers. Despite the lack of rules, intra-executive coordination does exist and in most instances conflicts are avoided. This applies particularly to foreign and security policy – an issue area that is both highly salient in Lithuania and where the president and the government constitutionally share power. Also the perceived role of the president as a ‘constructive statesman’ constrains the incumbents. But while Lithuanian semi-presidentialism has functioned by and large smoothly, the personality-centred politics commonly found in Central and East European countries does create favorable conditions for presidential activism. While one might argue that institutional flexibility has served Lithuanian politics quite well, the apparent lack of constitutionally regulated coordination between the two executives can prove a profound challenge during a long-term political and economic turmoil.

References:

Raunio, Tapio and Sedelius, Thomas (2017): Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania. Government and Opposition   https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.31.

Azerbaijan – The New Year Eve presidential speech: External legitimacy & economic issues

Year 2017 is drawing to a close. All the goals we set ourselves at the beginning of this year have been achieved. Stability has been established in Azerbaijan“. With these words, the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev started his last New Year’s Eve speech. First, the speech emphasised the growing international ties of the country and the commitment to “multiculturalism”. Second, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was mentioned at length, specifying how Azerbaijan enjoyed both a diplomatic and military advantage over Armenia. In this regard, it was proudly said that, as a result of the warfare operations in April 2016, Azerbaijan had recovered some villages previously under the control of the enemy. Finally, the economic situation was tackled, arguing that, despite the low oil prices, the country successfully had managed its currency reserves and promoted its non-oil sector.

The emphasis on multiculturalism and international ties seems to reveal a willingness to boost the external legitimacy of the country. As already discussed in this blog, Azerbaijan has recently adopted a much less confrontation attitude vis-à-vis the international community. Political discourse now consistently portrays Azerbaijan as an internationally-oriented and multicultural country. For instance, in addition to including the multicultural nature[1] of the country in the aforementioned New Year’s speech, President Aliyev raised this theme again while giving his Christmas congratulations to the Azerbaijani Orthodox Christian community. In President Aliyev’s words: “‘The atmosphere of intercivilizational and intercultural dialogue (…)  day played an exceptional role in building rich traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance, national moral and public values, establishing civil solidarity in our multinational and multiconfessional society[2]”.

Nevertheless, this type of rhetoric does not shield Azerbaijan from international criticism. Notably, in September 2017 the European Parliament called for an investigation into Azerbaijan’s alleged attempts to corrupt influential Europeans, paying them money in exchange for a favourable representation of the country. In the same month, MEP Daniele Viotti formally asked the Commission Vice-President (and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) Federica Mogherini to specify the Commission’s position about Azerbaijan’s repressive approach to the LGBT community[3]. The head of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland also voiced his concern over political prisoners in Azerbaijan and suggested legal actions that could lead Azerbaijan being ejected from the Council of Europe.

Along with its (only partially successful) search for international legitimacy, the president’s speech also addressed economic issues. However, it is worth noting the relatively limited emphasis placed on these issues. This is in sharp contrast to past declarations, especially those given in the happy years of the oil bonanza (i.e. when the oil price was extraordinarily high). For instance, in his presidential inauguration speech in 2013, President Aliyev declared that: “We conduct an independent policy. Our independent policy is underpinned by economic independence”.

Azerbaijan has tried to foster its economy partly to offset the drop in oil prices (as already discussed in this blog). While the New Year’s Eve speech did not provide too many details, there have recently been attempts to increase tourism and foreign investments. However, there are limits to their implementation and effectiveness.

In December 2016, the setting up of a national Tourism Council was approved by presidential decree. According to Abulfas Garayev, Minister of Culture and Tourism, in its first year of existence, the Council has already taken important decisions[4]. Remarkably, in 2017, the number of visitors increased by 20% to almost 2.5m tourists, who it is estimated spent around 1.3 billion in the country[5].  Muzaffar Agakarimov, the adviser of the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Tourism Association, recently declared to local media that: “Incoming tourism is becoming more popular in Azerbaijan, [which] is the most important part of the overall tourism sector as it brings foreign currency and creates new workplaces for local people,”. Additionally, he pointed out the abolition of licenses for tourism companies and the plans to construct more hotels, including budget ones[6].

Notwithstanding this optimism, the full development of the tourism sector faces some challenges. For instance, high taxes and fees make it particularly expensive to fly to and from Baku (reportedly, many Azerbaijani citizens chose to save money by using Tbilisi airport, in neighbouring Georgia). These costs have discouraged some foreign low-cost companies, such as the Russian ‘Pobeda’, which decided to discontinue their Baku route[7].

Similar considerations can be made about the attempts to attract foreign investors. However, foreign investments are hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, such as the slow privatisation process and unfair advantages to state enterprises[8]. These considerations are fully in line with a report of the German-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce about Azerbaijan’s business climate, based on a survey conducted among 300 companies from 19 EU countries. According to more than half of the respondents, the business and investment climate is negatively affected by custom scontrol and corruption, and by the ineffective measures to tackle these problems[9]. These issues were also lamented by some Azerbaijani experts. As the local expert Nemat Aliyev noted, foreign bankers and investors are discouraged not only by the economic crisis but also by “monopolism, corruption and bribery[10].

The contradiction between Azerbaijan’s craving for foreign investments and the endurance of such obstacles is not easily explicable. However, it can be partially understood in light of Dr Farid Guliyev’s research. According to him, in the years of the oil boom the state channelled oil profits into the construction of extravagant infrastructure projects. These empowered a small elite of private entrepreneurs, whose success is rooted in political support and oil earnings. Considering the potential risks related to a radical shift of the status quo, this elite is not likely to support a genuine diversification of the economic structure, regardless of the benefits for the country as a whole[11].

In conclusion, the tone of the recent New Year’s Eve speech by President Ilham Aliyev is entirely in line with the challenges Azerbaijan is currently facing. The drop in oil prices, and the related economic consequences, are making Baku not only reform its economic structure but also its attitude in international forums. Azerbaijan needs to make economic and foreign policy adjustments to combat its diminished leverage vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

Notes

[1] Additionally, 2016 was proclaimed the year of multiculturalism.

[2] Azerbaijan News Gazette. 2018. ‘President Ilham Aliyev extends Christmas congratulations to Azerbaijan`s Orthodox Christian community’, January 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Also Western newspapers, such as “The Guardian”, covered this issue.

[4] TendersInfo. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan: The board meeting devoted to the results of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2017 has been held’, December 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘This Year Tourists Spent 1.3 Billion Dollars in Azerbaijan – Deputy Minister’, December 18 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Azer News. 2018. ‘Association: New types of tourism develop in Azerbaijan’, January 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Guliyev, E. 2017. ‘Azerbaijani Citizens Prefer to Fly through Georgia, AZAL Prefers to Remain Silent’, Turan Information Agency, October 2 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] CountryWatch Reviews. 2018. ‘Investment Climate Azerbaijan’, January 6 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘EU-companies about the business climate in Azerbaijan’, January 16 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri opposition daily says foreign companies flee Azerbaijan’, January 29(Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[11] Guliyev, F. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan’s Uneasy Transition to a Post-Oil Era. Domestic and International Constraints’, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 475, May.

Zimbabwe – President Mnangagwa blows cold and then hot on elections

These are confusing times for Zimbabwean voters and political commentators.

On 12 January, the spokesperson for the country’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told journalists that the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had asked to postpone the general election. In a meeting between the two, which appears to have been inspired in part by Tsvangirai’s poor health, the opposition leader is said to have demanded that the polls – which are currently scheduled to take place between July and September 2018 – be deferred by three years to allow much needed reforms to be implemented.

The fact that this information was leaked by the government immediately raised suspicions that in reality the story was being used by the ruling party to “fly a kite” for a plan to push the elections back. The idea that a ZANU PF faction was testing the waters to see whether the government could get away a power grab were leant credibility when Tsvangirai’s advisors subsequently rejected the president’s account, claiming that “the matter was never a subject for discussion”.

This interpretation subsequently gained further ground when former Cabinet Minister and Mnangagwa rival Jonathan Moyo used an interview with Zeinab Bedawi on BBC’s Hard Talk to say what many were thinking, alleging that it was in fact the president who had tried to persuade Tsvangirai to agree to an election delay because he is “afraid of losing”.

However, Zimbabwe has entered new and less predictable political times, and rumours don’t last long these days.

Just six days later, the headline on the front page of the Herald, a recognized government mouthpiece, screamed “Elections in five months: President”. According to the story, elections were not to be postponed but rather brought forward. Although July 23 is the earliest date that elections can be held without a change of the law, the president told Zimbabweans that the country was “going for elections in four to five months’ time”.

This was followed up by a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times in which Mnangagwa committed himself not only to holding elections quickly, but to holding good quality ones. According to the president, “We want fair free credible elections … In the past those who had pronounced themselves against us; who pre-determined that our elections would not be free and fair, were not allowed to come in. But now with this new dispensation I don’t feel threatened by anything.”

Promoting democracy to secure development

In a surprise to many, the president did not leave things there. Instead, in a move designed to build bridges with the West ahead of the World Economic Forum at Davos on 23-26 January, Mnangagwa committed himself to a wide-ranging process of democratization.

This, he pledged, would include holding credible elections and allowing international observers from the Commonwealth and the United Nations to oversee the process – something that the government did not allow last time round.

The president also said that he was willing to enter into talks with the United Kingdom about Zimbabwe re-joining the Commonwealth. This would be something of a fillip for the British government, signalling that Zimbabwe had genuinely returned from the cold — and that Mnangagwa’s administration had recognized that the demonization of the UK that occurred under Robert Mugabe had not been in either country’s interests.

It would also have important implications for politics in Zimbabwe going forwards. In 2013, Robert Mugabe withdrew his country from the Commonwealth after the organization decided to maintain Zimbabwe’s suspension indifferently.

That suspension resulted, in part, from a flawed election in 2002, when Mugabe retained power in controversial circumstances. Allegations of violence and intimidation during the presidential election campaign led the UK, Australia and New Zealand to express deep concern, and a critical report from the Commonwealth Observer Group proved to be the final nail in the coffin.

Thus, while Mnangagwa can expect a soft landing from the Commonwealth as a new leader preaching reform, he would also be taking a risk. Inviting international scrutiny and welcoming international observers could easily backfire, especially if the president turns out to be less popular than he hopes.

Which all raises one big question: does he really mean it?

Why democracy now?

We know that Mnangagwa is not a democrat by instinct.

Although he has sought to disassociate himself from the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s, few believe his protestations of innocence. The deaths of around 20,000 mainly ethnic Ndebeles in Matabeleland occurred while he held prominent roles within the security forces, and his public statements around the time were telling.

According to The Chronicle newspaper, at a rally in Victoria Falls in 1983, Mnangagwa likened the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs – anticipating the language of the Rwandan genocide – and “said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring ‘DDT’ [pesticide] to get rid of the bandits.”

More recently, it is important that the new president did not come to power through the ballot box but through a very carefully orchestrated palace coup. The lesson that this episode taught him was straightforward: the one thing that can save you when your influence is on the wane and people you know are turning their backs on you is military support.

In other words, the new president is not someone who is ever going to believe the naïve cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Given this, how are we to interpret his newfound commitment to democratic norms and values? It is possible that Mnangagwa has had a “road to Damascus” moment and that the leopard really has changed his spots. But a more likely answer is that he is using the promise of democracy to pursue other ends.

The president knows that Zimbabweans will judge him on the state of the economy, which is looking like a tough ask. Despite all of the talk of a more clean and efficient government, and of an open door for foreign investors, many are waiting to see if the government will come through on its promises before parting with their money.

This represents a significant challenge for Mnangagwa, because while some of his own speeches have stoked popular expectations of an instant recovery, the reality is that the economy has been tanking for so long that it will take a while to turn it around.

One thing that could help to change this picture is debt relief. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe will owe external lenders more than US $10 billion. Because this represents over half the country’s annual GDP, the government’s capacity to invest in public service and economic recovery will be severely hampered unless this debt can be cancelled or heavily rescheduled.

And while that is said to be a purely economic decision by key players such as the IMF and the World Bank, in reality it us much easier to justify saving the economic bacon of governments that take and hold power legitimately.

But if Zimbabwe’s new leader is mainly talking up democratic reforms to unlock economic assistance, what does that mean for the next election – might we actually see a “good enough” contest? Or is there a way that the president can have his cake and eat it?

What does a quick election mean?

There are some presidents in the world who do not really understand the nuts and bolts of how an election works – who make mistakes by failing to grasp key procedures and processes, and agree to what the think are small changes, only later to find that they have large consequences.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is not one of these presidents.

Having played a central role in the ZANU-PF election machine for many years, he has an intimate knowledge of how to control the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, the mechanisms that the party uses to mobilise the vote, and is well aware of the fact that the government’s hegemony relies on a system of intimidation to keep opposition supporters away from the polls.

If he is floating the idea of an early election it suggests that he thinks doing so will be to his advantage. Why might that be the case?

An early election could help Mnangagwa in three ways.

First, going to the polls quickly gives voters less time to be disappointed if the promised economic resurgence does not materialise. The longer the president leaves it, the more he will need to show some green shoots of recovery to back up his claim to be the answer to the country’s financial difficulties.

Second, with Morgan Tsvangirai in poor health and the opposition divided over the question of whether or not he should be replaced by a younger leader, there may be no better time for the president to test his popularity. Whether or not Tsvangirai asked Mnangagwa to postpone the election, it is clear that the Movement for Democratic Change is not in great shape to contest one today.

Finally, the new president is well aware that clever autocrats rig elections well in advance – through the electoral roll, the channelling of patronage, and the manipulation of traditional leaders – and that to detect and expose these abuses the international monitors need to have long-term observers on the ground months ahead of any contest. If a snap election is called, it will be impossible for international monitors to deploy in time – even if the president keeps his promise to invite them – because they would effectively need to be in place already.

A quick election might therefore be just what ZANU PF needs. By taking advantage of Mnangagwa’s honeymoon, the challenges facing the opposition, and the massive head-start that the ruling party enjoys after decades of political manipulation, the government can retain power without needing to do anything on polling day that will create troublesome media headlines.

And by inviting international election observers who will only be able to deploy close to an election day, missing the preparations, the president will be able to sustain the image of being a democratic reformer without actually having to hold a democratic election …

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election

Moldova – Temporary Suspensions of the President of the Republic

The constitutional choices made in the Republic of Moldova throughout the past 25 years cover an intriguing variety of executive-legislative relations. In the style of a ping-pong game (Fruhstorfer 2016), the idea of going back and forth between a parliamentary and semi-presidential system is a constant theme in the political discussion. At the moment, the game has moved back to a semi-presidential system. This change was not based on a constitutional amendment, but a decision of the constitutional court to declare the 2000 amendments unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016). This decision helped to diffuse the massive protests after a corruption scandal and bank heist in course of which the country lost approx. 1 billion USD (Kottasova 2015, see also Brett et al. 2015). During this crisis, the constitutional court showed an unprecedented level of judicial activism that was, as we will discuss below, no isolated case. It was the start of the Moldovan political elite relying on the constitutional court to help solve inter-institutional conflicts. It is also an example of how a ruling elite tries to preserve its hegemonic status (see Hirschl 2004). To address these issues, this post will briefly describe the chain of controversial decisions of the constitutional court concerning the president since 2016. This is followed by an analysis of the most recent decision to temporarily suspend the president.

The constitutional court and the direct presidential election

In a controversial and surprising decision in March 2016, the constitutional court ruled the 2000 constitutional amendment unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016) and de facto re-established the 1994 constitution and reinstated the direct election of the president. (For an analysis of this court decision, see an earlier post). The first presidential elections under the reinstated 1994 constitutional order took place in November 2016. Igor Dodon won the run-off vote with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Maia Sandu). As in many semi-presidential systems, this led to a period of cohabitation with the government of Pavel Filip. This per se conflictual situation is exacerbated by the constant, yet informal influence of Vlad Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc is a wealthy oligarch, chair of the PDM (Democratic Party of Moldova), and is incredibly unpopular according to recent polls (IRI.org 2017, originally cited by Popșoi 2017). But he managed to transform the PDM that won only close to 16% of the votes in the 2014 parliamentary election into the main political force in Moldova. Right after the election, it was unclear how confrontational the Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon relation might be. Since then, we have seen an “inter-institutional deadlock” (Popșoi 2017), which is, according to a variety of independent observers, only a sham to disguise how Plahotniuc and Dodon have consolidated their power with the help of each other.

The suspension of the president

The activism of the court in recent years has often targeted the presidency, yet the suspension of the president in October 2017 and again in January 2018 added a whole new chapter to the already complicated relations between the president and government. Much of the reasoning behind the motivation of Dodon and Plahotniuc is highly speculative, so it seems useful to describe the facts first.

In October 2017, the Moldovan Constitutional Court suspended the president temporarily. The reason was Dodon’s refusal to appoint Eugen Sturza as Minister of Defense, an appointment process that had already started in December 2016. Early in 2017, the constitutional court had issued an interpretation of Art. 98 of the constitution, whereby the president can only reject the nomination of a cabinet member once (Constitutional Court 2017). Thus, the repeated refusal to appoint Sturza led the government to appeal to the constitutional court again. The court first decided that the refusal to confirm a cabinet nomination is considered a violation of the constitution and can led to a temporary suspension. This suspension was issued by the court and was in force until the acting president (the head of parliament) appointed the new minister.
Yet, the constitutional procedure stipulated by Art. 89 would have been entirely different:

(1) In the event where the President of the Republic of Moldova commits grave offenses infringing upon constitutional provisions, he may be suspended from office by Parliament if two-thirds of the members cast their votes in support of suspension.
(2) The motion requesting the suspension from office may be initiated by at least one-third of the members, and it must be brought to the knowledge of the President without delay. The President may give explanations on the actions for which he is being censured before Parliament.
(3) If the motion requesting suspension from office meets with approval, a national referendum shall be organized within 30 days for removing the President from office.”( Constitution of the Republic of Moldova)

A temporary suspension – not because of health reasons – is thus an invention of the constitutional court that sets a dangerous precedent. Two months later the government again appealed to the court to temporarily suspend the president from office, because Dodon refused to appoint seven new ministers. And again in early 2018, two days after the decision of the court on the second appeal, a third complaint reached the court for another temporary suspension, because the president refused to sign a law banning alleged Russian propaganda. According to Art. 98, the president has only a suspensive veto power, but has to promulgate a law after the initiative is reconfirmed by parliament. However, Dodon refused to promulgate the law and the interim president (again the speaker of parliament) appointed both the ministers and promulgated the law.

Any assessment of the role of the constitutional court, the president and the head of the PDM in this complicated power structure is hardly possible without a partisan reading. Some describe Plahotniuc as a pro-democratic, pro-western figure and the PDM as the main party that guarantees democratic development (RFE/RL 2017). But Plahotniuc is also profiting from East-West tensions, has autocratic tendencies and is accused of corruption (Popșoi 2017a). In any case, he is a main player within the government, although he has no formal governmental role (he is member of parliament and chair of the PDM). Dodon’s role and motivations are less clear. On the one hand, he was the former head of the Socialist Party and has a declared pro-Russian stance. This is a logical explanation for his refusal to promulgate the anti-Russian propaganda law. On the other hand, he cooperated closely with Plahotniuc and the PDM to change the country’s electoral law to a mixed electoral system. This move was widely condemned by international actors (among them most importantly the Venice commission, see Venice Commission 2017). Some observers have even argued that Dodon has reached an informal agreement with Plahotniuc and informally supports the political course to hold his position (see for example Necsutu 2017). Authors have described this as a “political cartel narrative” (Popșoi 2017a) with the aim of a Russia-backed coalition between the Socialists (PD) and the PDM after the upcoming parliamentary elections in November this year.

Beyond the speculation about the motives that led Dodon to comply with the course of Plahotniuc, it is clear that the constitutional court is instrumentalized in allowing the ruling elite to preserve their newly won influence and power. The inter-institutional deadlock is nothing new for the Republic of Moldova and neither is the issue of EU integration vs. close ties with Russia. Neither is necessarily beneficial for democratic development, but both always seemed possible to overcome. Yet, what will have a lasting influence on the downward spiral of Moldovan democracy is the unprecedented involvement of the court in the power struggle that will undermine what is left of the public’s trust in the constitutional court.

Literature

BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Constitutional Court (2017): http://constcourt.md/libview.php?l=en&idc=7&id=938&t=/Media/Noutati/The-President-of-Moldova-may-only-once-decline-PMs-proposal-of-Cabinet-reshuffle/ [accessed January 14 2018]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Moldova, in: Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Edited by Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Springer VS, 359-387.
Kottasova, Ivana (2015): How to steal $ 1 billion in three days. http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/07/news/economy/moldova-stolen-billion/. May 7 [accessed January 10, 2018]
IRI.org (2017): Public Opinion Survey (2017). http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_moldova_poll_march_2017.pdf. [accessed January 10, 2018]
Necsutu, Madalin (2017): Dodon Response to Suspension Puzzles Moldova’s Socialists, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/dodon-response-to-suspension-puzzles-moldova-s-socialists-01-10-2018 [January, 14, 2018]
Popșoi, Mihai (2017): Moldovan President Igor Dodon Suspended by the Constitutional Court. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/10/25/moldovan-president-igor-dodon-suspended-by-the-constitutional-court/ [last accessed January 15, 2018]
Popșoi, Mihai (2017a): Moldovan Politics 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/12/27/moldovan-politics-2017-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/ [accessed January 15, 2018]
Venice Commission (2017): Joint opinion on the draft laws on amending and completing certain legislative acts, in: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)012-e [accessed January 10, 2018]