Tag Archives: no-confidence

South Africa – President Zuma survives no-confidence vote but many questions remain

On March 17, South Africa’s National Assembly voted against a no-confidence motion tabled by the opposition party Agang SA. With 113 members in favour, 221 opposed and eight abstaining, it was an easy win for the President. Beyond the official vote tally, however, this was a hollow victory. It left Zuma and his government on the defensive while raising constitutional concerns regarding South Africa’s political system.

The March 17 no-confidence motion was not the first Zuma has had to face as President. In March 2010, after only 10 months in office, another no-confidence motion was defeated by 241 votes to 84, with eight abstaining. The main justification for the vote then involved Zuma’s admission that he had fathered a child out of wedlock and concern that he had not declared his financial interests on time.

Since this first vote, the list of charges against Zuma has ballooned. The main justification for the latest no-confidence motion was Zuma’s failure to address allegations that he misappropriated R246m of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his country home in Nkandla. During the parliamentary debate, MPs also accused Zuma of fuelling patronage politics in the ANC, mismanaging South Africa’s economy, and sending police to Marikana to kill striking mineworkers in 2012.

The debate was all the more heated given the backdrop of last month’s State of the National Address. The usually polite and rule-governed parliamentary chamber looked more like a boxing ring as plain clothes police forcibly removed Economic Freedom Fighter MPs after they interrupted the President’s speech, demanding to know when he would pay back the Nkandla money.

The response from government also indicates Zuma and his close allies are on a back foot. During the no-confidence debate itself, Minister of the Presidency Radebe was full of bravado, declaring that for the vote of no confidence to succeed, pigs would fly and hens would grow teeth. Shortly after the vote, however, he issued a detailed statement defending Zuma’s record, much of which Africa Check has revealed is either ill-founded or ‘nonsense.’

Zuma too seems to be veiling any insecurities in a fresh volley of bullish statements. He has again brushed off Nkandla critics. He also sent ripples through the media with his recent ‘If I was a dictator’ speech. In a rebuff to critics both in and out of parliament, Zuma accused people of ‘exaggerating’ their problems and of relying too much on the state for help. He went on to lament how people blame him personally: ‘Anything that goes wrong in the country it’s “that Zuma.” I’m sure even if a person falls from a chair – “This bloody Zuma man made me fall.”’

The fact that Zuma’s hold on power remains so unshakable despite widespread public outcry has led opposition to point a finger at South Africa’s electoral system. During the no-confidence debate, the United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa called for a reform of the current system so as to enable voters to elect their President directly. At present, the only way Zuma could be ousted before 2019 would be if the ruling African National Congress decided to ‘recall’ him in the way Thabo Mbeki was removed as president in 2008. There appears, however, to be little appetite within the ANC to engage in another leadership battle. As one observer argues, too many high ranking party cadres, as well as rank and file MPs, see their own political fortunes as somehow tied to the President.

While another no-confidence motion is certainly possible, it would likely be a repeat of the past opposition efforts, leaving Zuma unscathed. Given South Africa’s constitution, the electoral dominance of the ANC and the state of internal party politics, demanding accountability from President Zuma is a formidable challenge. In the end, Minister of the Presidency Redebe does not seem so far off the mark. When pigs fly…

Vanuatu – Choosing a president

On 2 September the search for a new President of Vanuatu officially commenced when the five-year term of the incumbent, HE Iolu Johnson Abbil, came to an end. The country now waits on the deliberations of an Electoral College comprising of all 52 members of parliament and the presidents of Vanuatu’s six provincial governments to find out whom the next president will be. Early indications are that a politician attached to the main governing party and from Malampa Province could be the front-runner to be the next Head of State. The usual process is that the Electoral Office declares the position vacant and invites applications, with political parties nominating candidates. In 2009, 11 of the 13 people who applied for the position were subsequently approved by the Electoral Office to stand as candidates. Abbil eventually won the support of the Electoral College after two days of voting.

In line with the conventions of its Westminster-inspired parliamentary system, Vanuatu’s president has historically served a ceremonial non-executive function similar to that of a Governor-General. Vanuatu is a cultural and linguistically heterogeneous country but Anglophone-Francophone cleavages have played an important role in post-colonial politics – Britain and France shared administrative responsibility for the New Hebrides colony under a ‘condominium’ arrangement until independence in 1980.[i] The early dominance of the Vanua’aku Pati in post-independent politics meant that it wasn’t until 1994 that a Francophone candidate, Jean Marie Leye, was elected president. This transfer of power and authority from English-speaking to French-speaking leaders has led some commentators[ii] to argue that despite having limited involvement in the day to day operation of government, the office has the potential to facilitate an ‘integrative nation-building processes in which marginalized minority elements are brought into high status decision-making positions’.

On the other hand, what makes the outcome of the ballot somewhat uncertain is that since 1991 Vanuatu has seen successive coalition governments who are regularly subject to votes-of-no-confidence. The current government, for example, was installed in May of this year after successfully bringing down the previous coalition in a no-confidence vote. In such circumstances, while the position itself is largely ceremonial, any such appointment is subject to intense political manoeuvring in a context where the allocation of power and patronage is finely balanced. Indeed, some commentators have argued that disagreement over how to divide the spoils of office have underpinned the collapse of successive coalitions governments since 1998.[iii] So, while in theory the government has the majority, in practice wheeling and dealing is required, especially as the expanded Electoral College alters the numbers.

One prominent example is the 2004 presidential ballot when friction between government and opposition, and within both camps, led to the election of a compromise candidate who it later turned out was under a suspended sentence for fraud (they were forced to resign weeks later).[iv] In this instance, dissatisfaction with the way the prime minister handled the matter led to the disillusionment of parliament and fresh elections. Indeed, while a ceremonial role has been the norm, the presidency of Vanuatu has been known to attract controversy. Most prominently, the inaugural president, Ati George Sokomanu, was dismissed by the Electoral College in 1989 after his decision to dissolve parliament, call elections and appoint an interim government, led by his nephew, was deemed unconstitutional (he was initially arrested and convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, among other things, but the charges were later dropped on appeal).[v] So, while the position is largely ceremonial, and the institutional procedure for electing a new president relatively straightforward, the politics of presidential appointments in Vanuatu can be more complex and uncertain.

[i] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[ii] Levine, S., and N. Roberts. 2005. “The Constitutional Structures and Electoral Systems of Pacific Island States”. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 276-295.

[iii] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[iv] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[v] Van Trease, H. 1995. “Years of Turmoil: 1987-91” In H. Van Trease (ed.) Melanesian Politics: Stael Blong Vanuatu. Christchurch and Suva: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies and the Institute for Pacific Studies, p. 73-118.

Nauru – Suspensions, standoffs and the perpetual question of confidence

The suspension of three opposition MPs from parliament has resulted in a dramatic standoff in the Pacific nation of Nauru where the Speaker called on the police to remove one of the offending members – Dr Kieren Keke, the other two were out of the country – from the chamber. Protestors later gathered outside the parliament building in support of Dr Keke.

The rationale given for the suspension by Minister of Justice David Adeang was that the three members were ‘talking too much to foreign media’ to the extent that their critical commentary was damaging Nauru’s development. The presence of foreign media has become increasingly controversial on the island since the Australian government reopened its asylum seekers detainee facility for 2012. In mid-2013 a number of detainees rioted, bringing heightened interest from overseas observers. Along with raising the cost of visa applications for foreign media, the government recently dismissed the chief magistrate and barred the chief justice from returning to the country.

The alternative, and perhaps more insidious, explanation for the suspensions is that the government was facing dwindling support and potentially a motion of no-confidence and so needed to shore up its numbers until the current session of parliament was completed.

The question of confidence is a perpetual problem for many Pacific democracies (last week Vanuatu was the most recent example of a government brought down in this fashion). And, as I have outlined in previous posts (here and here), Nauru has more experience with these types of standoffs than most. In part, this is because prior to 2010 the parliament had 18 seats and so always faced potential gridlock. The addition of an extra seat ameliorates this tendency but the absence of political parties means that the President, currently Baron Waqa, who is elected from the floor of parliament, relies on the fluctuating support of ten MPs to retain government.

In other Pacific countries – namely PNG – protections have been introduced to prevent no-confidence motions in the early period of a government’s term. In Nauru, Waqa’s government is barley one year old.

In either case, these are tense times for Nauru where, despite (or perhaps because of) the financial fillip provided by the detention centre, disagreement over who and how the nation should be governed remains shrouded in controversy.

Marshall Islands – A question of confidence

President of Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, last week survived his second motion of no confidence in six months. In this case, the opposition brought forward the motion on the grounds that the government had ignored proper process in its attempt to appoint Jamil el-Sayed, a Lebanese national, as its representative to UNESCO. Specifics aside, the incident raises numerous interesting questions about the nature of presidential politics in Marshall Islands, and the Pacific region more generally.

The Marshallese constitution is commonly known as a ‘hybrid’ of Westminster and Presidential systems. In reality, however, it is more Westminster or Parliamentary than it is Presidential with the President – who is also the head of state – elected by parliament and answerable to it for all government decisions. Should a motion of no confidence – passed by a simple majority on the floor of parliament – be successful then the President is deemed to have tendered their resignation.[i] Historically, this has meant that both the Speaker and the judiciary have had a significant influence on when these motions are brought forward and the procedures by which they are resolved.

What regular readers of this blog will note is that in definitional terms the Marshallese constitution does not quite fit the established typologies. In a broad sense we might call it a Semi-Presidential system but with the added feature that the functions usually ascribed to either the President or the Prime Minister are effectively undertaken by the same person. In practice, however, the Marshallese system works in much the same way as a Westminster system does, thus begging the question of whether, aside from the name of the office, it is really Presidential at all.

Definitions aside, one of the interesting features of this type of arrangement is that while, in theory, the standard Westminster formula allows political parties to guarantee the executive numbers on the floor of the house, in practice the opposite often occurs. The main reason is that while political parties exist in the Marshall Islands, they have tended to function as loose blocs rather than institutionalised machines. When combined with the relatively small size of the Marshallese Nitijela [parliament] – it has 33 members – a decision by a few parliamentarians to switch sides can bring down the government whose position is perpetually precarious.

The Marshallese experience is not unique as this feature of political life is common to both standard Westminster and hybrid constitutional systems across the Pacific. Indeed, Marshall Islands is relatively stable when compared with neighbouring Nauru, which has similar constitutional arrangements, where more than a dozen successful motions of no confidence have resulted in changes of President since independence in 1968.

To solve this instability, several countries have attempted to introduce legislation that stops MPs crossing the floor. However, it remains to be seen whether this will increase stability, as, in some cases, these mechanisms have been deemed unconstitutional. What does seem certain, however, is that the regularity of these no-confidence events will continue to sharpen calls across the region for constitutional reform that either alters Westminster to suit the Pacific context or ushers in full Presidential regimes.


[i] Stege, K. 2009. “Marshall Islands.” In Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, ed. S Levine, pp. 112-120. Wellington: Victoria University Press.