Monthly Archives: March 2019

Chile: Sebastián Piñera enters his second year in La Moneda

Piñera’s international agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes on the future

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

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


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

Ecuador – Mid-Term Elections Send Ecuador Back to the Future

The results of Sunday’s mid-term elections indicate that Ecuador may be returning to the days of political fragmentation and instability, raising issues for the country’s democracy.

It was not supposed to be like this. A little over a year ago President Moreno received overwhelming support for his plebiscite, was riding high in the polls, and heading a largely unified political sector. Yet, as outlined previously in this blog, the point of unity was a shared opposition to former president Rafael Correa. As predicted, this proved a less-than-satisfactory basis for future governance.

Instead Ecuador’s economic and political future has begun to resemble its past. Moreno’s beleaguered administration bears an increasing resemblance to the chaotic governments that made Ecuador a byword for instability during the 1990s and early 2000s[i]

Beset by economic and political problems, Moreno’s approval rating has slumped to 30%; he has lost a second vice-president to a corruption scandal; and ruling party Alianza PAIS has been broken into “100 pieces”. The month of March witnessed the return of the “demonised” IMF to prop up the country’s ailing economy, evoking memories of former crises[ii].

Now the country’s politics is following a similar path. After a decade of near-hegemony by Alianza PAIS, Sunday’s elections for prefects, mayors, and councillors saw the resumption of what Simon Pachano dubbed the “provincialisation of representation”[iii]. The best that Moreno can say after failing to run candidates in the mid-terms is that no other party or movement has emerged obviously strengthened. 

An election that saw 11,069 posts contested by over 84,000 candidates from among seven political parties, nine national movements and 54 provincial movements, has left Ecuadorian politics atomised.  Localised, proto-populist movements have helped to elect mayors in four of the country’s five major cities, including the capital Quito.

The results have implications for some established political players. Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution Movement failed to  make any headway, although this can be largely attributed to the government prohibiting them from running candidates. Meanwhile the overwhelming ratification of Cynthia Viteri as mayor of Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, may point to a return from the political wilderness of the conservative Social Christian Party.

But the overall picture is one of a “political vacuum” that has not been filled by any political force, mainly due to squabbling and division. This may be good news for Moreno in terms of political survival. 

Taking a broader view, however, the results bode ill for Ecuador’s democracy and economy. Having won elections as Correa’s former vice-president, Moreno has steadily moved away from his predecessor’s geopolitical and economic positions. Late last year Moreno introduced an ‘paquetazo’ of austerity measures, including layoffs in the public sector, and cuts to state subsidies. These moves paved the way for the formal approval of a $4.2 billion line of credit from the IMF, a highly controversial move.

Moreno has sought to blame the poor economic circumstances that he inherited from Correa. There is no doubt that levels of public debt were understated by Correa, and issues with salary payments for public sector workers pre-date the current president. But there is some evidence to suggest that Moreno is now overstating debt, perhaps to justify more cuts. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian economy is continuing to contract.

While it is valid to argue that Moreno has largely continued the economic policies of Correa’s latter years – the former president reached an accord with the IMF for interim credit in 2016 –Moreno has significantly “accelerated” this process. As prior research shows, this kind of ‘switch’ can have a strongly negative impact on public faith in democracy[iv]. Recent survey data from Latinobarometro revealed that almost 20% of the public would favour an authoritarian government, providing some support for this thesis.

Accordingly, Moreno has been branded a “traitor” not only by Correa, but by many on the left. Justifying his break with the past by painting the Correa administration as corrupt, Moreno has overseen the conviction of his former vice-president and Correa loyalist Jorge Glas on corruption charges, and has sought Correa’s extradition from Belgium. 

But attempts to portray himself as the new broom of Ecuadorian politics have failed. Moreno’s second vice-president, María Alejandra Vicuña, was forced to resign following a corruption scandal, while rumours of offshore accounts and secret payments continue to swirl around the president. At a time when Ecuador is in dire need of political leadership, its president enjoys little credibility.

Instead of national unity, the mid-term results indicate a return to the days of high electoral volatility and moveable allegiances – referred to as “swapping jerseys” in Ecuador. Reduced policy coherence and enhanced instability appear the likely outcomes.

Geopolitically, Moreno has re-aligned Ecuador with the US, supporting Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and pulling out of the Unasur regional body. Economically, Moreno’s plan involves a combination of IMF-mandated cuts to the public sector, renewed privatisation, and a continuation of the extractivism that characterised the Correa era.

Yet the mid-term results point to issues for the president in this area also, with the election of indigenous anti-mining activist Yaku Perez Guartambel as Prefect of mineral-rich Azuay, and the rejection of the Quimsacocha mining project in a local popular plebiscite. Along with the protests that met Moreno’s austerity measures, these events may herald the return to political prominence of Ecuador’s social movements, so weakened under Correa[v]. Were that to occur, the echoes of the past would be undeniable.


[i]Pérez-Liñán, A. (2007), Presidential impeachment and the new political instability in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[ii]Aguirre, M. (2019), ‘Informe de Coyuntura: El Juego del Ahorcado’, CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Enero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_enero_2019_opt.pdf.

[iii]Pachano, S. (2006), ‘Ecuador: The provincialization of representation’, in S, Mainwaring, A.M. Bejarano, and E. Pizarro Leongómez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[iv]Stokes, S. C. (2001). Mandates and democracy: Neoliberalism by surprise in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; Johnson, G. B., & Ryu, S. R. (2010), ‘Repudiating or rewarding neoliberalism? How broken campaign promises condition economic voting in Latin America’, Latin American Politics and Society52(4), pp. 1-24.

[v]Becker, M. (2013), ‘The stormy relations between Rafael Correa and social movements in Ecuador’, Latin American Perspectives40(3),pp. 43-62.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudan’s president faces ongoing protests

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

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

Response to the economic crisis

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

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

History of the regime

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump: The Populist Political Superhero

This is a guest post by Andrea Schneiker (University of Siegen, Germany). It based on her recent article ‘Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’ in Political Studies Review which is available here.

With heads of states such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, populism has climbed into the driver’s seat of powerful states. While much has been written on populism, and populist foreign policy in particular, we still know little about populist leadership. If one defining principle of populism is its anti-elitism, how can populists such as Donald Trump maintain the illusion of not belonging to the ruling elite, once they become heads of state? The figure of the superhero can help us to answer this question. By adopting the image of a superhero, populist leaders can pretend to be ordinary citizens while at the same time ruling the country. Donald Trump is the prime example of such a ‘populist political superhero’. In the following and based on an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets — posted on his account @realDonaldTrump between March 2016 and January 2019 — I will briefly explain the characteristics of the superhero that make it a perfect fit for populist leadership, and highlight the consequences of such populist leadership for democracy and for foreign policy.

Instagram post by Donald Trump Jr. from 21 October 2017 (© Donald Trump Jr. 2017, displayed here under fair use)

Just like Spiderman, Superman or James Bond, the superhero marketed by Donald Trump is an ordinary citizen who, in case of an emergency, uses his superpowers to save others, in this case: the United States of America. To portray himself as an ordinary citizen, Donald Trump not only presents himself as a proud husband and father, but also regularly claims that he is close to everyday citizens and understands the problems and needs of ordinary Americans. For example, he tweets that he knows what they are worried about—namely, ‘rising crime, failing schools and vanishing jobs’ (1 August 2016). Furthermore, in line with the figure of the superhero, Donald Trump claims that he is the only one who can solve and respond to these problems and needs. No matter whether it is about national security, economy, or tax laws, Donald Trump proposes that he is the only one who can fix even existential problems.

According to Donald Trump, the need for a superhero to solve the problems of ordinary Americans and the nation as such arises from the inability of politicians to do so. Hence, the populist superhero is necessarily an anti-politician. Consequently, it is no surprise that Donald Trump uses words such as ‘politician’ and ‘politics’ in a derogatory way. He presents ‘politicians’ as by definition apart from the people, as an elite class, as the establishment. He portrays his rival politicians as incompetent, unable to solve problems, and as untrustworthy – supposedly his complete opposite. This strategy was not limited to his presidential campaign in which he, for example, criticized his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) for ‘never [having] created a job in her life’ (20 October 2016) and declared that ‘Owned by Wall St and Politicians, HRC is not with you.’ (1 October 2016). Donald Trump continues to blame politicians for their incompetence after he became President. In November 2018, for example, he tweeted ‘Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot.’ (19 November 2018).

Yet, in contrast to superheroes such as Superman, the populist superhero Donald Trump cannot operate in secrecy or in disguise. In order to differentiate himself from his competitors and politicians, Donald Trump has to convince the audience (his electorate), that he is better suited than anyone else to deliver on this promises, i.e. to solve problems. Hence, Donald Trump needs the world to know that he, and only he, can fix and has fixed a situation. Otherwise, he could not use his alleged exceptional problem-solving capacity as a unique selling point.

Twitter as communication channel fits perfectly the requirements of such populist leadership. It is fairly anti-elitist in that it is easily accessible as wireless technology allows for a tweet to be posted and read from almost anywhere at any time. On the one hand, Twitter provides a platform that Donald Trump can use to tell the world whatever he has done or plans to do. On the other hand, in order to know about what Donald Trump is doing, people do not have to listen to press conferences or read the newspaper – they just need to access Twitter. People can also ‘follow’ Donald Trump or even address him directly by using his @username reference – @realDonaldTrump. All these features create the impression of proximity between Donald Trump and ordinary citizens.

Yet, this is just an illusion, because this type of populist leadership, and the use of Twitter to communicate it, denigrate democratic politics. The populist political superhero reflects an understanding of political decision-making as an authoritative setting of ‘the truth’ by one supposedly competent individual, instead of through a deliberative process based on pluralistic ideas and interests. Furthermore, claims that current problems such as lacking job opportunities are the fault of incompetent politicians (rather than complex political decision-making and interdependencies in a globalised world) arguably oversimplify the issue. Such simplifications can be posted on Twitter without having to engage in a dialogue and without taking into account different opinions. In contrast to, for example, press conferences, Twitter allows Donald Trump to evade critical comments and debates, because questions and comments can remain unanswered. Twitter even, at least in theory, allows for blocking individual users and their comments.

Populist leadership in terms of a superhero is not only consequential for domestic politics. It also has effects on the international level, because it leads to a rejection of multilateralism. The latter generally requires some sort of power restraint and willingness to make compromise based on agreed-upon rules that equally apply to all participating states. Hence, multilateral forms of decision-making are incompatible with the requirements of the superhero – they do not allow Donald Trump to present himself as the one and only problem-solver. In multilateral settings, Donald Trump is just one head of state among many others. Therefore, he prefers bilateral negotiations or what he calls ‘deals’. These allow him to show the world that he is in control of the process, for example by continuously updating the public via Twitter on the state of the negotiations. Thereby, Donald Trump can also present himself as the only person being able to negotiate agreements with other states. This becomes apparent when looking at the US’ relations with North Korea or at the trade negotiations with China. Regarding the latter, Donald Trump for example tweeted that ‘President Xi and I […] are the only two people who can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond’ (3 December 2018) and that ‘No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points.’ (31 January 2019).

Overall, the figure of the populist superhero not only explains how populists can continue to pretend to be separate from the elite even after ascending to power; it also reveals populists’ disregard of democratic decision-making processes at the domestic level and for multilateral agreements on the international level.

Andrea Schneiker (schneiker@sozialwissenschaften.uni-siegen.de) is assistant professor (‘Juniorprofessorin’) in Political Science/International Relations at the University of Siegen, Germany. Her research focuses on Global Governance, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Political Communications. She is author and co-editor of several books, including ‘Researching Non-state Actors in International Security’ (Routledge 2017, co-edited with Andreas Kruck) and ‘Humanitarian NGOs, (In)Security and Identity’ (Routledge 2015). She tweets at @ASchneiker.

Germany – Party strategies and the selection of electors for presidential elections, 1949-2017

This blog post is based on an article by Philipp Köker recently published in German Politics.

Indirectly elected presidents and their elections are still an underresearched subject in political science. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of fierce competition between political parties over filling the nation’s highest office (many of these documented on this very blog) that highlight the presidency’s importance. In fact, all parties have a vested interest in determining the next president: Indirectly elected presidents often hold important reserve powers and are thus able to tip the balance of power in one’s favour. At the same time, they are effectively agents of parliament and thus less likely to interfere in the work of their principals. However, indirect presidential elections are also publicly observed events that allow parties to send signals to voters and position themselves for the next legislative elections. Therefore, we need to ask: How do political parties strategically approach the indirect election of presidents? Specifically, what value do parties place on capturing the presidency compared to signalling their voters?

The case of Germany offers a particularly interesting perspective on this question. The German president is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), an electoral college consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of electors nominated by Länder (state) parliaments. There are up to three rounds of (secret) voting in the Federal Convention – in the first two rounds, candidates need an absolute majority of electors to win; in the third and final round a relative majority suffices (to date all but three out of ten elections were held in a single round note that no candidate has ever been elected with less than a majority of votes). Electors are elected by state parliaments using proportional representation and must only satisfy criteria for active suffrage; thus, parties have free reign in who to nominate and their delegations can also include nominees who are not members of state legislatures (extra-parliamentarian electors – EPEs).

As can be seen in the above figure, state delegations since 1949 have always included a substantive share of extra-parliamentarian electors (EPEs). Media reporting regularly focusses primarily on the various celebrities (athletes, singers, writers, actors, and socialites) among the EPEs, but parties also nominate representatives of affiliated organisations (e.g. the Social Democratic Party always nominated the president of the German Trade Union Federation). Thus, EPEs can act as celebrity advocates for political parties and provide an opportunity to strengthen ties with other organisations or reward local campaigners. However, EPEs are not subject to the same kind of political socialisation or institutional pressures as deputies of state legislatures; information on their political preferences is also often limited, so that their voting behaviour is considerably more difficult to predict. Therefore, the share of EPEs in party delegations presents an indicator of the relative importance that parties place on capturing the presidency (fewer EPEs) versus exploiting the process for publicity and reward (more EPEs), and allows for assessing the determinants of their strategic considerations.

My main argument is that parties primarily want to see their chosen candidate elected president (or delay the election by preventing a victory in the first two rounds when their candidate has no realistic chance of winning). Exploiting the media attention of the election and strengthening ties with other groups presents a secondary goal. Both goals are in conflict with each other as the realisation of the primary goal requires high levels of voting unity, whereas the subsidiary goals can most effectively be achieved by nominating the – less predictable – EPEs as electors and risking deviations from party line. Based on these initial considerations, I formulate seven hypotheses on when parties should nominate more/fewer EPEs as part of their state delegation to the electoral college.

In my analysis, I use a new data set on 791 party delegations between 1949 and 2017 and use the share of EPEs as the dependent variable. The results confirm most of my hypotheses, yet also challenge some conventional wisdom about presidential elections in Germany. Scholars and journalists previously assumed that parties will nominate more EPEs when the outcome of the election is clear beforehand and competition is low. However, it appears that competition in the electoral college only played a minor role (if any). Rather, party strategies were influenced by the varying signalling power of the elections, i.e. the way in which the presidential election helped to position them with regard to upcoming legislative elections.

Parties were for instance more risk-averse and nominated fewer EPEs when they were part of the federal government, or when federal elections approached. Both scenarios increased the ‘seriousness’ of the election for political parties: Although research has shown no evidence for presidential coattails in Germany, governing parties should perceive themselves to be under greater pressure to display high levels of voting unity. The same applies to all parties if federal elections approach. In contrast, parties nominated more EPEs when they had a larger support base to reward (likely to include more representatives of other organisations, or because larger parties were rather able to accommodate EPEs alongside their political leaders). Interestingly, although electors are chosen at the state level, the control variables about parties’ membership in state governments and approaching state elections did not show statistically significant effects. While it appears that there is a need for a further differentiation of EPEs (e.g. some members of state governments do not or cannot hold legislative office at the same time), this overall supports my assertion that the nomination of electors is a federal strategy that is implemented at state level.

Unfortunately, there is yet little systematic and comparative research on indirect presidential elections. However, Germany is not the only country to elect their president in an extended electoral college (other cases include India and Italy) and/or includes extra-parliamentarian electors in the process (Estonia and Nepal do so, too). Furthermore, the signalling power / publicity potential of indirect presidential elections is likely to exist in other countries, too. Future research should thus analyse the role of the different compositions of electoral colleges, and assess and to what extent parties in other countries are torn between electoral success and exploiting the elections’ publicity potential.

__________________________________________________________________
This blog post is based on a recently published article:
Köker, Philipp. 2019. Risk vs Reward Strategies in Indirect Presidential Elections: Political Parties and the Selection of Presidential Electors in Germany, 1949-2017.
German Politics, [Online First; DOI: 10.1080/09644008.2019.1590549].
The data underlying this study are available via figshare DOI:
10.6084/m9.figshare.6263060.v1

Angola – The MPLA and the fall of Dos Santos’ dynasty

The change in the top leadership post of Angola, which started in 2017 through a sequential state ruling party leadership strategy, ended the long rule of José Eduardo dos Santos as both the head of state and the ruling party (MPLA) leader. João Lourenço succeeded Dos Santos in this unprecedented political leadership transition in the country’s post-independence and multiparty era. Along with Zimbabwe, Angola’s leadership change is somehow perceived as the beginning of a trend in which dynastic takeovers seem to no longer be acceptable in Africa.

But what do we know about leadership change in Africa and what can Angola tell us?

In overall terms, leadership change constitutes a moment of uncertainty, and it is particularly worrying in Africa. Taking power through violent means such as military coups and leaders overstaying in power are two highlighted trends in contemporary African politics. Concerning the latter trend a recent study by Denis M. Tull and Claudia Simons observes that in almost half of the cases in which an incumbent president reached the term limit, he attempted to extend his term by rewriting or reinterpreting the constitution, and the vast majority of these attempts were successful. Moreover, sitting presidents were able to win third-term elections, despite the popular protest demanding the enforcement of presidential term limits.

Dos Santos long rule spanned the years of the civil war (1975-1992; 1993-2002) and was extended resorting to an instrumental interpretation and rewriting of the constitution. The 1992 constitution established a three-term limit, but since elections never took place between 1993-2007, due to the reignition of the civil war after the first multiparty elections in 1992, Dos Santos managed to prolong his stay in power throughout this period. Ahead of the 2008 general elections, there were discussions on whether Dos Santos had already attained the limit of the presidential terms or if he would be eligble to two more mandates. The constitutional interpretation which then prevailed established that the second presidential term of Dos Santos was to start in the 2008 elections and that he would still be able to run for a third mandate in the 2012 elections. However, the new constitution approved in 2010 reinforced his presidential powers and allowed him to legally remain head of state until 2022.

The Africa Leadership Change (ALC) dataset reveals some important patterns of leadership change in the sub-Saharan region. First, there is a long list of African presidents who have managed to stay in office despite the “electoral revolution” of the early 1990s. Indeed, until 2017, Dos Santos was in the top 5 of the longest-serving presidents in Africa. Second, multiparty elections have seemed to be the most common way of replacing a leader after 1990. However, the incumbent wins in most elections, followed by an increased number of electoral succession cases (see the “no alternation” column of the figure below).

Source: Giovanni Carbone & Alessandro Pellegata (2017): To Elect or Not to Elect: Leaders, Alternation in Power and Social Welfare in Sub-Saharan Africa, The Journal of Development Studies, p. 6. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1279733.

The August 2017 elections in Angola represented a case of electoral succession in the sense that the new president comes from the same party of the outgoing president; however, it is a case of nonhereditary succession. João Lourenço was not Dos Santos’ first choice (he even tried to revert the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections) and speculation around the leadership succession pointed to his eldest son, José Filomeno dos Santos (aka Zénu).

Did the MPLA limit hereditary politics in Angola?

The hereditary succession has been a topic of concern in several authoritarian regimes. In 2007, Jason Brownlee developed an argument that emphasizes the role of ruling parties to account for differentials of hereditary succession in modern autocracies. He contends that hereditary succession depends on the precedent for leadership selection, i.e., if the party enjoyed a precedent for selection from within the ranks, as was the case in Angola, then elites will defer to the party as the recognized arbiter of succession, which is likely to be nonhereditary.

José Eduardo dos Santos was the successor of Agostinho Neto in 1979 and was selected by the MPLA. It remains unclear if Dos Santos tried to somehow impose his son in 2017. What we do know is that the continuity of Dos Santos in office or his succession was something that was deeply discussed and negotiated inside the ruling party by the political bureau. João Lourenço’s selection was also the MPLA’s response to the widespread dislike of the Dos Santos’ dynasty and, more importantly, to the ruling party’s growing crisis of legitimacy linked to Dos Santos’ rule. Thus, despite his personal rule, José Eduardo dos Santos is a case of a “ruler predated by the ruling party” in terms of leadership succession. We can also say that his grande famille has been also predated by the new leader.

The fall of Dos Santos’ dynasty

In less than a year in office, the new president began to remove members of the Dos Santos clan from Angola’s epicenter of political and economic power. João Lourenço deposed Dos Santos’ daughter and one of the richest woman in Africa, Isabel dos Santos, from the presidency of the state oil company, Sonangol. Also, her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, was removed from the chairmanship of Angola’s $5 billion USD sovereign wealth fund (FSDEA). More importantly, Filomeno was detained last September and held in custody over “practices of [alleged] various crimes, including criminal associations, receipt of undue advantage, corruption, participation in unlawful business, money laundering, embezzlement, fraud among others”. Isabel dos Santos also faces corruption investigations, allegedly for having funneled oil funds into her consulting companies. Moreover, João Lourenço’s “bulldozer” also affected the privileges of two other members of the Dos Santos family, as the new executive decided to put an end to the contracts with Semba Comunicação, a media sector company founded by José Eduardo Paulino (aka Coréon Dú) with his sister and partner Welwitschia “Tchizé” dos Santos, who is also an MPLA deputy.

According to Alex Vines, these removals have been effortless, as the former president’s family neither receives the MPLA’s support nor enjoys popularity. Furthermore, João Lourenço’s actions affecting Dos Santos’ family increased his popularity levels inside and outside the ruling party and thus didn’t allow the former president to stand up for his targeted family members, as pointed out by Ismael Mateus. Indeed, it was only in November of last year that the former president reacted, claiming during an unprecedented press conference held at the headquarters of his foundation in Luanda that, contrary to the previous declarations of his successor, he did not “leave the state coffers empty.” At the same time, Isabel dos Santos posted several messages on social media criticizing João Lourenço and emphasizing the dangers of having a deep political crisis coupled with the existing economic one, and also defending her honor and work for Sonangol. Tchizé dos Santos has also been using social media to defend both the paterfamilias and her arrested half-brother. Also, she has recently expressed that the leadership transition has not been as peaceful as expected and that João Lourenço should be focusing on the true problems of Angola.

These reactions from the members of Dos Santos clan show us that this powerful political dynasty doesn’t gather support from the MPLA and from the population. On the other hand, the anti-corruption discourse gave legitimacy to João Lourenço’s power consolidation strategy and that targeting the untouchables facilitates the fall of the Dos Santos’ dynasty for now. In addition to their family members, some of the closest allies of Dos Santos were also removed from government and the MPLA political bureau, and some of them are under investigation.

Is the ruling party a gatekeeper for leadership change?

The recent processes of leadership change in Angola or in Zimbabwe highlights the importance of the ruling party in selecting new leaders and limiting hereditary successions of long-serving presidents. African politics is often characterized by personal rule or “Big Man rule”. However, the case of Angola is revealing that strong ruling parties are important gatekeepers for leadership change, and can influence the rise, persistence and fall of ruling dynasties in competitive authoritarian regimes in Africa.

Cyprus: Creeping populism in view of the forthcoming European Elections

The concept of populism is controversial among scholars as to its analytical validity and utility. However, when populism is approached as a political strategy and style of political discourse that can be very useful in analyzing and understanding developments in political and party systems.

In Cyprus, most analysts agree that populism seems, at present, to be a limited force and has not become a threat to the mainstream political parties yet. However, there are circumstances of creeping populism that might favour the rise of populist actors in the near future. The forthcoming European elections present a good opportunity for this.

The major trends of this creeping populism are summarized below. These trends are repeatedly found in national opinion polls and Eurobarometres of recent years.

  1. There is a strong sense of identification with ethnicity and country.
  2. Turkey and immigration are perceived as the most significant and material threats to peace and security in Cyprus. These issues are among the most privileged ones for populist actors not only in Cyprus but all over Europe.
  3. The perception that ‘ethnic diversity destroys the unity of a country’ is widely held among Cypriots. Again this can be easily directed against immigrants and other minorities in Cyprus and particularly the Turkish Cypriots.

The above (1-3) must be seen in combination with the revival of nationalism in Cyprus society in the context of the Cyprus problem; nationalism is one of the most important ingredients of (right-wing) populism.

4. Very low levels of trust in national institutions. Eurobarometers continuously record very high numbers of people’s distrust towards political parties, national parliament, government, the president, the media, and recently the Cypriot Central Bank and the judiciary. These results indicate a great disappointment among the Cypriot citizens with the entire national political system which can be easily taken up by populist actors. 

5. Economic situation and corruption are the two most important problems faced by Cypriots which again lay the ground for future populist actors. This is coupled with widely held perceptions that socioeconomic changes in recent years have increased the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the underdogs.

6. Most Cypriots believe that corruption among public officials is high and widespread. Corruption is often cited as a pre-condition for the emergence of populism. Corruption issues feature high on populist parties’ campaign agenda and populists often use anti-corruption rhetoric to attract people’s support.

7. Perceptions of political party homogenization are high indicating that most Cypriots consider either all parties being the same or that all big (mainstream) parties are the same. However, they don’t put the small parties in the same frame; they consider small parties to be different. This reveals feelings of protest and anti-establishment politics which could be easily mobilized by a (small or new) populist actor.  

8. Cypriot citizens increasingly favour technocratic solutions sidelining all ideological and political discussions.

The above (4-8) suggest that Cyprus is facing a huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This crisis was intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and the inability of the political parties and the governments to protect the people from the economic crisis. The fact that both the left and the right had governed during the period of the crisis Cyprus (and Europe) went through has made all political forces looking the same. Moreover, all mainstream political parties are accused of having presented no solutions to the problems of the people. Therefore, a strong dichotomy was created between voters in general on the one hand and mainstream parties on the other.

All the above suggest that there are important contextual parameters that could provide a fertile ground for populism to rise. Populism can take both (or either) socioeconomic and cultural characteristics. Some polls when comparing the ideology of those expressing the above positions/feelings on the various issues find that there are stronger positions on all issues held among the nationalists. This is an important indication that shows that the possibility of populism is far bigger on the right than on the left.

The most possible candidate to adopt populist strategies is the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM). ELAM is essentially a branch of the Greek Golden Dawn but they carefully position themselves as nationalists who struggle for their country against the corrupted political and economic elite that has governed Cyprus since independence. According to some recent polls ELAM is a serious contender for the sixth seat of Cyprus in the forthcoming EU elections.

Finland heading for another coalition between Social Democrats and the conservatives?

In Finland the elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. Unfortunately this also means that European elections will definitely be ‘second-order elections’, with the political parties and the media investing their resources in Eduskunta elections and in the government formation talks that follow them.

With just over a month to go, it appears that the Eduskunta election campaigns will be dominated by a single topic – the reorganization of social and health services. It is essentially a deal between the two main coalition parties, Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting directly-elected regional councils (the Centre wins most of its votes in the rural areas of the country) and the latter in turn ensuring a larger role for the private sector in delivering social and health services. However, the process with all its twists and turns has dragged on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the required legislation cannot be approved before the April elections. In fact, the whole package may fail, especially as there is stronger criticism from within the governing parties, with several of their MPs already indicating that they will vote against the laws in the Eduskunta. Recently there has also emerged a wave of scandals concerning nursing homes and other facilities operated by private companies: public authorities have intervened, reprimanding companies for inadequate staffing and overall poor treatment of the occupants, and even enforcing the closure of some of the facilities.

It is perfectly understandable that the project has produced heated debates within and between parties, not to mention in the society at large. Finns are used to a high level of social protection and to health services being delivered mainly by the public sector, with the welfare state regime enjoying strong support among the population. To be sure, municipal councils that are responsible for providing the services have increasingly been purchasing them from private companies, but as the above-mentioned scandals indicate, there are genuine concerns about the quality of social and health services. The government has been arguing that the new system would be cheaper, but economists are not convinced. Also the introduction of directly-elected regional councils would involve a significant transfer of decision-making authority from municipal councils upwards to the regional level, and hence many fear the erosion of local democracy.

Whatever the merits of the planned reform, the timing could not have been worse for the cabinet. The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted by the leading daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat from 14 January to 14 February, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 20,8 % of the vote. If the SDP holds on to its lead, this will be the first time that the Social Democrats are the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. In the 2015 elections SDP captured only 16,5 % of the vote, its lowest share ever in Eduskunta elections. Social Democrats have criticized heavily the planned reorganization of social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering the services. However, for the most part SDP and the other opposition parties have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes. But whether the Social Democrats manage to keep their pole position depends on the final weeks of the campaign and on how the party leader Antti Rinne performs in the main television debates. Rinne just returned from a two-month sick leave, and there is general agreement that his past appearances in such debates have left considerable room for improvement. Rinne has a trade union background, and SDP will no doubt also emphasize employment and other labour market issues in its campaign.

The National Coalition came second in the poll with 18,6 % of the vote. The party is seen as the ally of large private companies, and thus it is logical that leading party figures, including party chair Petteri Orpo, have tried to divert attention to other issues. The Sipilä government has by and large achieved its main goals regarding employment and competitiveness, and the National Coalition has warned about the potential economic consequences of a SDP-led cabinet. While the National Coalition and the Social Democrats are currently fighting hard for the position of the prime minister, the two parties have also considerable experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015).

The Centre Party is in serious trouble, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll predicting the party winning only 14,7 % of the vote. This would be major loss for the party – it emerged victorious in 2015 with 21,1 % of the vote – and in line with the setback experienced in the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing seems to take its toll. The market-friendly policies of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä have clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. Hence it is not surprising that over the past few weeks Sipilä has focused in his speeches on issues close to the heart of rural voters, not least on the question of forest harvesting where Sipilä has defended increased use of forest resources. If the Centre is not part of the next government, Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils.

The third cabinet party is the Blue Reform, formed after the split inside the Finns Party in the summer of 2017. The party has found it difficult to establish an identity somewhere between the hard-line anti-immigration views of the Finns and the mainstream centre-right parties, and according to the Helsingin Sanomat poll its support was only 1 %. The support of the Finns Party has meanwhile been on the rise, with the recent poll giving it 11,4 % of the vote. Party chair and MEP Jussi Halla-aho is surely hoping for immigration and multiculturalism to become the main topic in both the Eduskunta and the European Parliament elections. Here the party may benefit from recent multiple abuse cases involving iimmigrants, with the victims including under-age girls. Halla-aho himself is seeking a return to the Eduskunta in the April elections.

Of the other opposition parties, the Green League appointed Pekka Haavisto, a popular and senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, as its interim leader in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. Under Haavisto the Greens have improved their ratings, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll indicating 13,6 % of the vote. This would mean a substantial victory for the Greens, as the 8,5 % achieved in the 2015 elections was their best-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. Climate change and education are the pet themes of the party, and such topics are likely to appeal to particularly urban, younger voters. The Left Alliance also has a popular party chair, the energetic Li Andersson. Under her leadership, the party’s election manifesto centres around equality, justice, and the need to prevent poverty. In the Helsingin Sanomat poll the party’s support was at 8,7 %. The Swedish People’s Party received 4,3 % and the Christian Democrats 4,0 % of the vote in the Helsingin Sanomat poll.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. The centre-left parties (Social Democrats, Left Alliance, and arguably also Greens) look set to perform much better than four years ago, and this is potentially also good news for the trade unions that have been the target of strong criticism during the reign of the Sipilä government. However, in terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the elections will not produce any significant changes. This applies also to foreign policy leadership which constitutionally is shared between the president and the government. None of the prime ministerial candidates are known for their expertise or interest in foreign affairs questions, and hence the highly popular President Niinistö is likely to retain his strong position in Finland’s foreign and security policy.

‘As soft as wool’? Reform and Repression in Zimbabwe

When he came to power in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa rode a wave of local and global goodwill. But by March 2019, the USA had renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe that have been in place for nearly 20 years. In February, the UK held parliamentary discussions on Zimbabwe and the Africa Minister, Harriet Baldwin, made it clear that a full normalisation of relations with Zimbabwe was no longer on the table.

So how exactly did we get here?

Mnangagwa the ‘Reformer’

“I’m as soft as wool,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa stated in an interview with Sky News in August 2018, in response to a question from a journalist regarding his fearsome nickname – the ‘crocodile.’ Mnangagwa had worked hard in the 18 months since the ‘coup’ that had put him in state house, cleaning up his image and promising to be a president for all Zimbabweans, vowing to set the country on a new path. President Mnangagwa came to power promising extensive reforms, global re-engagement and repeating the mantra that Zimbabwe was “open for business.”

Ahead of the elections on 30 July 2018, on the main thoroughfares through the capital and scattered across the country, big billboards towered over Zimbabwe’s citizens as they went about their business. These billboards were filled with images of an engaging and smiling President Mnangagwa, making sweeping promises about universal healthcare, decent jobs, power generation and ‘free, fair and credible elections.’ The administration invited credible election observation missions from around the world – missions that had not been allowed to monitor the country’s elections since the violent 2002 polls. Between them, the observer groups spanned 46 countries and 15 regional blocks, making the 2018 election the most observed election in the country since independence in 1980.

Mnangagwa had traversed the globe promising change and a “new dispensation” in Harare, and was well-received in global capitals, with the UK’s Rory Stewart – at the time the Minister of State for Africa – the first to arrive in Harare following Mnangagwa’s installation in 2017. Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth, with the UK supporting its application. The administration sought to re-engage with international financial institutions – the World Bank and IMF – from which it had been alienated since the early 2000s. The EU and USA began to discuss the relaxation of the remaining limited sanctions and it seemed that Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa might finally be welcomed back in to the international community, shedding its ‘pariah state’ status.

The July 2018 election

Despite all of the positive changes ahead of the polls, it was clear that there were rumblings of dissent from within the ruling party – and there were early indications that despite initial assurances about free and fair elections, some aspects of the playing field would remain skewed in the ruling party’s favour. The state media refused to give equal coverage to all 23 presidential candidates, particularly ignoring the ruling party’s key opponent – Nelson Chamisa of the MDC-Alliance. Despite their initial openness, the electoral commission soon began to stonewall key discussions on reforming the electoral process, making the electoral roll available for an audit and allowing the opposition to oversee the printing of ballots. Instead, an unconstitutional ballot was designed and printed, civic groups and opposition parties were left with little time to review and validate the roll and there were serious and widespread reports of intimidation in rural areas in the lead-up to the polls.

When 7 protestors were gunned down by soldiers in the streets of Harare in front of the global media on 1 August, the international community and political commentators were dumbfounded. The administration was so close to legitimating the 2017 coup with a flawed-but-meets-basic-standards election, that it seemed unthinkable that they would have squandered local and global goodwill so easily. At his inauguration, Mnangagwa condemned the violence, vowing that his new administration would usher in a “brighter tomorrow” – and he announced the creation of a commission of enquiry into the deaths on 1 August. He described himself as a “listening president”, and insisted that his government was committed to ‘constitutionalism, the rule of law and judicial independence.’ Again, the commentators were caught off-guard, and were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that perhaps the military had acted without sanction – or worse, that the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, had an eye on his boss’ job and had loosed the military on civilians to undermine Mnangagwa’s position.

To sanitise his image in the wake of the global outcry, several opinion articles appeared in the global media, ostensibly penned by Mnangagwa. He spoke of reconciliation, new beginnings and a better future for a long suffering populace. But when the commission of enquiry – headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – wrapped up its business, they had heard from soldiers that those killed had not been shot by soldiers but instead had been stabbed by members of the opposition; that the MDC-A was to blame for the violence and deaths; and that Mnangagwa had given the orders to set up the rapid response unit that had been mobilised to the streets in response to the protests. Despite all his assurances of being accountable, Mnangagwa is yet to publicly release the full report which was handed to him in December 2018.

A disastrous January

By January 2019, less than 6 months into the administration, a simmering economic crisis had prompted disgruntled and increasingly desperate members of the civil service to make more demands from the state. Inflation in the black market for the country’s surrogate currency was at over 50% in January, and long lines at fuel stations made basic tasks difficult.

Mnangagwa announced an enormous fuel price hike on 12 January, before jetting off in a private aircraft to Central Asia. The country’s labour unions called for a national stay away to protest the declining economy and unaffordable fuel prices, which was then enforced by unknown elements and angry youths. In the melee that ensued, shops were looted, cars were burned and a policeman was stoned to death. In the wake of this, the state launched a violent and angry three-week crackdown on the country’s poor, beating those who lived in close proximity to the worst of the looting and violence – and committing systematic torture and collective punishment. Nearly a thousand people were rounded up, beaten and put in prison. Fourteen women are reported to have been raped by soldiers, and at least 17 people were reported to have been killed.

In person, Mnangagwa seemed to condone the violence, though his Twitter feed condemned it and called for accountability for the state-sponsored violence. In a strange twist, his spokesman went so far as to tell the public not to believe everything said on the president’s Twitter feed. This fresh crackdown prompted yet another round of global concern, and it appears that all prospects for international re-engagement have stalled. ZIDERA has been renewed, and the UK has disowned any plans to support Zimbabwe’s bid to re-enter the Commonwealth. US sanctions will make the bailout that Zimbabwe so badly needs from international financial institutions even more unlikely.

Mnangagwa’s consistent inconsistency

While early in his presidency, many were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt, it is increasingly clear that the new administration in Zimbabwe is both more authoritarian than its predecessor, and less strategic. Having denounced the January 2019 protests as a Western-backed attempt at regime change, the ruling party has dusted off its old anti-imperial mantra as a cloak for their repressive actions. They have charged key opposition and civic leaders with treason. In 25-year old Joanah Mamombe’s case, she is alleged to be the first woman charged with treason in the country in over 150 years. According to veteran journalist, Peta Thornycroft, “about 10 MPs from the opposition MDC Alliance are variously charged with incitement, subversion and treason.”

In light of all this, in early March, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that it would send special rapporteurs to Harare to investigate the claims of human rights abuses. In another spectacular about-face, this has apparently been welcomed by President Mnangagwa. The Foreign Ministry’s official who was sent to brief the press appeared to be living in a parallel universe, and reported substantial gains at international re-engagement. In a similar vein, it was reported on 6 March that the government – who are currently unable to stabilise the economy, pay civil servant salaries or settle vast debts to neighbouring South Africa – have decided to engage the services of a Trump-affiliated lobbyist to have the US sanctions dropped. This comes at an annual cost of $500 000 dollars. The likely success of this initiative is low, and Zimbabweans will probably see little gain from their misspent taxes.

Unfortunately, this young administration has proven to be both erratic and tone deaf. Having had several chances at reform, they have consistently undermined their own case but still hoped to find themselves in a strong negotiating position. For now, the reform ship appears to have sailed, and the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe are likely to continue to suffer under a regime that seems to care little for their welfare, and less for their protest. As Panashe Chigumadzi stated in August 2018, “the old Zimbabwe is the new Zimbabwe.”