Tag Archives: presidential election

Sierra Leone – Minority government leads to parliamentary impasse

This is a guest post by Iris Navarro de Tomas, Senior Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington, DC

Sierra Leone’s March 8 presidential and parliamentary elections and subsequent March 31 presidential runoff marked an important benchmark as the country saw the second peaceful transfer of power between its two major parties since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2002. Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) with 51.8 percent of the vote in the runoff. However, the APC maintained its majority in parliament, resulting in the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that parliament is controlled by the opposition party. The country is now faced with its first experience of minority government, and early indications are it is likely to be challenging.  

A divided government

The SLPP won a close presidential race, but did not succeed in securing a legislative majority. In the first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, the SLPP only increased its representation from 42 seats to 49, while the APC won 68 in a parliament with 132 elected seats. With a divided government, the SLPP will need to find ways to govern effectively without a majority in the House, facing additional hurdles in passing legislation and government budgets. President Bio will need to rely on cross-party consensus to successfully implement his political agenda.   

A few days after the run-off, newly elected President Bio made an appeal for cross-party cooperation as post-election violence erupted in Freetown, Kenema and Makeni after the announcement of results. The SLPP took to the streets to celebrate its victory, which led  to violent clashes between SLPP and APC supporters, confrontations with security forces and rioting. Bio established a joint APC and SLPP commission to investigate the violent incidents. These developments seemed to be a sign that the SLPP could make concessions to the opposition in the interest of moving the country forward.

President Maada Bio’s strategic move

Despite early signs of cooperation, a recent political impasse in Parliament is a concerning signal that when presented with a divided government, the ruling party is ready to use all means to regain power in the legislature.

In late April, Sierra Leone saw a political deadlock as the High Court placed injunctions on 16 APC and two SLPP parliamentarians, barring them from participating in the opening session of Parliament and thus in the election of the speaker of the House. The injunctions are based on SLPP and APC claims that the MPs illegally received government salaries during the campaign period and tampered with election results. In advance of the first parliamentary session scheduled for April 24, the outgoing speaker of the House postponed the session indefinitely due to the uncertainty. President Bio, citing article 84.1 of the Constitution that gives the President power to summon a parliamentary session, proclaimed that the first session of Parliament would occur on April 25, despite the large number of APC MPs barred from taking oath. All APC MPs attended the session, prompting police to forcibly remove the 16 APC parliamentarians who could not be sworn in due to the injunctions. In a moment of political solidarity, the remaining 52 members of the APC also left Parliament. The APC and its supporters claimed that President Bio’s move was evidence of an attempt to undermine the APC majority in parliament and ensure that an SLPP representative became speaker.  

As a result of the APC walkout, Dr. Abass Chernoh Bundu of the SLPP was elected speaker unopposed. While article 79.1 of the Sierra Leonean Constitution mandates that two thirds of parliamentarians must be present for the vote on the speaker, it does not clarify how the quorum is reached. SLPP claims that two thirds of the MPs who took oath were present, however APC interprets this requirement differently, claiming that at least two thirds of elected MPs must be present to elect the speaker, which would make this vote unconstitutional.

Bio’s push to move the vote of the speaker forward despite pending court cases appears as a strategic move to ensure a more favorable legislature to back his policy priorities.  Not only does the speaker administer proceedings on the House floor and has the power to recognize MPs to make motions, but the speaker acts as head of government when the President and the Vice President are out of the country. Both the post-election violence carried out by SLPP supporters and the events in Parliament are concerning  signals of the continued fragility of Sierra Leone’s nascent democracy.

What next?

Mediation efforts. In response to the events, a joint high-level delegation comprised of President of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS), Mr. Jean Claude Kassi Brou, and the Special Representative of United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, Mr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, began mediation efforts between the SLPP and APC leadership on April 29. Four days later, the delegation recommended that both parties establish effective channels and mechanisms for dialogue to resolve their political differences. The delegation also encouraged the judiciary to ensure prompt, fair, independent and timely adjudication of all injunctions, so all MPs can be sworn-in.  

High Court proceedings. The High Court asked the SLPP and APC to provide evidence by May 4 to substantiate the injunctions on the parliamentarians, and after review of the evidence, the High Court lifted the injunctions on the MPs. The parliamentarians have all now been sworn-in, and the APC will likely ask for a re-election of the speaker on the grounds that the vote was unconstitutional. Considering the likelihood that the SLPP will not allow a re-election and given that there are no provisions in the Constitution governing such a situation, further deadlock in Parliament is probable.

Constitutional Reform. A constitutional review process was initiated in 2014 but was paused until 2016 due to the Ebola outbreak. While consultations with political stakeholders and constitutional experts have taken place since 2016, the constitutional review recommendations have not yet been passed by Parliament. As political parties interpret the Constitution to fit their interests during the impasse in Parliament, it is expected that civil society groups will apply pressure to push the review forward. Groups are primarily advocating for measures to reduce presidential powers and mandate that the speaker of the House be a High Court judge to foster neutrality.

Passing Legislation. President Bio will need to build consensus and reach compromises between SLPP and opposition parties moving forward if the country is to avoid an ongoing impasse in the legislature. This could benefit APC MPs who may leverage their majority in the House to advance legislation that would benefit their local constituencies. If the APC majority in Parliament becomes obstructive in passing legislation, the government may resort to using the extensive powers of the executive to force policy adoption and implementation. Particularly, education policy is a potential source of political deadlock, as the SLPP’s key campaign promise was the establishment of a free education system, which was strongly opposed by the APC.  It should also be noted that there are significant divisions within the APC that emerged from the party nomination process and led to breakaway parties, which could make it easier for the SLPP to generate cross-party support on key issues.

While recent events in Sierra Leone are concerning for the stability of this nascent democracy, there remain opportunities for political dialogue and cooperation to strengthen democratic processes in the country. As Sierra Leoneans are anxious for change, with 80 percent responding the country was going in the wrong direction in the latest Afrobarometer survey in 2015, scrutiny of the government’s policymaking and demands for accountability and transparency are likely to be more sustained than under previous administrations. If the SLPP can overcome the current impasse and find ways to successfully manage a divided government, Sierra Leone would come out as a strengthened democracy.

Turkey – First Concurrent General Elections under the New Presidential System

Concurrent presidential (first round) and legislative elections are to be held, one year earlier than the original date, on 24th of June, for the first time since the adoption of presidential system in a highly debated referendum in April 2017. A majority runoff system will be used for presidential election and the D’Hondt system with a 10 percent national threshold will be used for legislative elections.

There are two major election alliances. The ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its partner the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) formed an alliance called “Cumhur/Public”. The main opposition party, the CHP (the Republican Peoples Party), formed an alliance called “Millet/the Nation” with 3 other parties (İyi Parti/the Good Party, Saadet Partisi/the Happiness Party, Demokrat Parti/ the Democratic Party). The pro-Kurdish HDP (the Peoples Democracy Party) has not participated in any of the alliances so far but remains an important player despite the fact that its leaders and many of its MPs are currently in jail.

The ruling party and its partner favoured concurrent elections and changed the electoral rules in order to avoid divided government. According to the new system, each partner in an alliance needs to pass the ten percent national threshold if the total votes are higher than the threshold. This is a great incentive for smaller opposition parties to join an alliance to pass the national threshold in the legislative election. Each party can have their own list under the umbrella of an alliance. The total number of seats that each alliance gets will be decided by looking at their total votes. After the total numbers of seats are known, they will be distributed by party according to their portion in the total votes by the D’Hondt method. According to this system, the more votes remain under the threshold the larger the share of the biggest party within the total numbers. Accordingly, the main opposition party’s (the CHP) strategy to include other three opposition parties into the alliance aims to make the ruling party’s share more proportionate.

As for the effect of concurrent elections together with the majority runoff system generally, the results of legislative elections echo the results of the first round of presidential elections in presidential systems (1). Research shows that the majority run off system encourages a larger number of candidates at the first ballot in the attempt to gain a better bargaining position in coalition building at the second round as well as increasing the number of parties in the assembly (2). In that respect, the majority runoff system encourages coalitions before the election, especially before the second round (3). On the other hand, concurrent elections lower the effective number of parties in the assembly (4). Creating friendly majorities in assemblies still depends on the party system’s level of fragmentation (5). For instance, in a country where the political party system presents signs of polarised pluralism (6) (highly fragmented and ideologically polarised political parties) concurrent elections tend not to produce a solid majority in the parliament. The higher the level of fragmentation, the lower the possibility of a single party majority in the assembly. In such situations, presidents face uncompromising opposition in assemblies which can lead to a constitutional crisis such as in Guatemala and Peru in the 1990s (7). In both countries the presidents (Serrano and Fujimori respectively) ordered the military to close the assembly and arrest the opposition leaders. In Peru Fujimori succeeded whereas in Guatemala Serrano was abandoned by the military and removed from office. Either way the result was not supportive of democracy.

Concurrent elections can help to lower the possibility of divided government and strengthen elected presidents only under the right conditions, such as high popularity of a single strong presidential candidate. The Turkish case seems to confirm this general wisdom. The ruling party’s strategy is to win the much-needed support from its smaller partner in order to win the presidential race in the first round as well as alienating and pressuring the leaders and members of the HDP in order to push the party below the threshold in legislative elections. Meanwhile all the parties in the opposition alliance are running their own candidates in the first round of the presidential race and have decided to support whoever reaches the second round. Their strategy is to push the presidential election into a second round and win a majority of the assembly.

This situation encourages certain outcomes. First, there is the likely increase in the number of parties represented in the parliament. It is highly likely that President Erdoğan’s coalition will gain fewer assembly seats than at present and might even lose its majority in the assembly.

Secondly, there may be more coalitions under then presidential system than previously because of the majority runoff system. Despite the fact that President Erdoğan defended presidential system for not needing coalitions, he has been forced to form a coalition with the MHP in the first round. Whichever alliance wins, it is clear that there will be coalitions in both the legislature and the executive.

Thirdly, the pro-Kurdish HDP seems to be treated as an “anti-system party” (8). Its ideology has been alienated and it has a polarising effect on other electors. For that reason, other opposition parties have refrained from being in a coalition with it. However, the HDP may yet the key to victory for both alliances since the polls are showing a close race.

Notes

1. J. M. Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices on the Performance of Presidential Regimes.” Journal of Social Science and Philosophy 11, no.1 (1999), p. 97, and F. Nunes and M.F. Thies, “Inflation or Moderation? Presidential Runoffs Legislative Party Systems, and Coalitions.”, p.9 . Available at http://felipenunes.bol.ucla.edu/runoff.pdf, accessed 20 March 2015.

2.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p. 95; Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”, p. 8-9.

3. Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”,p. 26.

4.Ibid., p. 18.

5.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices” p.101.

6.G. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems a Framework for Analysis, ECPR Press, 2005 , p. 117-118.

7.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p.96.

8.Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, p. 118.

Nigeria – Ekiti State’s July Governorship poll is a crucial litmus test for the 2019 presidential Election

The southwestern state of Ekiti is one of the smallest of Nigeria’s 36 states but, in terms of presidential politics, might well be one of its most important.  This is true for two reasons. 

The first is, in part, a matter of scheduling: in Ekiti state, unlike in most others, governorship polls are held just under a year before —rather than at the same time as—presidential polls. This means that, like with other mid-term governorship elections (in fellow southwestern state of Osun and in southeastern Anambra) the Ekiti polls provide an early indication of important factors which will determine the conduct and outcome of the subsequent presidential race. Chief among these is the question of how prepared Nigeria’s electoral management body, INEC, is to conduct presidential elections; if the one-off midterm polls are poorly organized then, there is a slender hope that next year’s polls— which will be held concurrently across the entire country— will be credibly managed. Relatedly, in a consolidating democracy with a powerful executive such as Nigeria’s, mid-terms governorships also shed light on the extent to which the president is willing to use ‘federal might’ or to tip the electoral scale in favor of his party, as was widely reported to have happened in the last Ekiti State election in 2014. It is reasonable to expect that a president who fails to play fair in state mid-terms will not hesitate to pull out all the stops (both legal and otherwise) in subsequent presidential polls in which his own seat is on the line. 

But beyond general issues related to the timing of mid-terms, there is a second reason why the Ekiti State poll in particular could have a dramatic impact on the electoral prospects of Nigeria two leading parties— the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition party the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—in the 2019 polls. The reason is this: whichever party wins Ekiti state in the upcoming governorship poll will most likely also take the state in the 2019 presidential elections. This is due to the fact that Nigerian voters tend to vote in presidential polls in favor of the party to which their state governors belong — or put otherwise, that incumbent state governors tend to ‘deliver’ their states in presidential polls. Thus, despite the incumbent PDP’s historic loss to the APC in the 2015 presidential and state polls, Ekiti state, under a PDP governor, was able to swim against the national tide. 

Crucially, this has also meant that the state is the last remaining stronghold of the former ruling party outside of its southeastern and middle-belt heartlands (see map). This latter factor is a particularly important consideration since constitutional rules require that a presidential candidate must, in addition to a simple majority, also win one fourth of the votes in 24 states in order to be elected president. Thus, even with strong support in its heartlands, if the PDP is completely shut out of the Southwest then it may struggle to meet the technical requirements for winning the presidential race. Cumulatively, these factors suggest a striking possibility: if the PDP is to lose Ekiti state in the upcoming polls, then it may already have sealed its fate to remain the opposition party at the national-level for the next 4 years.

Map of Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election results with states that voted PDP in green and APC states shaded red. Ekiti is the leftmost state shaded green. Source: Varavour [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In light of this picture, how is the Ekiti State election likely to play out? To return to an earlier point, the first issue to consider is the extent to which the polls will be conducted in a credible manner and without the undue interference of ‘federal might’. In terms of the conduct of the election, Nigeria’s electoral umpire, INEC though widely praised for its management of the 2015 polls, has had a mixed record under its new management. On one hand, the last mid-term governorship elections held in Anambra state in 2017 were regarded as modestly well conducted and a sign of INEC’s fairness. On the other hand, there have been accusations that INEC permitted underage voting in 2018 Local Government Elections in northern Nigeria, which, the PDP claims, benefitted the APC in these elections and point to INEC’s bias in favor of the ruling party. Its ambivalent performance suggests that INEC’s fairness and capacity will remain a major bone of contention in the Ekiti election. 

The influence of ‘federal might’ will also be an important consideration in the upcoming poll. Though President Buhari was praised for his fair play in the Anambra mid-terms in which his party lost, this was also a race held in a traditionally heartland of the opposition where Buhari’s party has not had much of a fighting chance. It is therefore unclear whether Buhari will be willing to leave things to chance in the case of Ekiti where the stakes are much higher. The candidates who are likely to be the front runners make this an even more pertinent question. On one hand, running as the APC frontrunner is Kayode Fayemi, a former governor of the state and a current federal minister. On the other hand, Ayo Fayose, the current term-limited incumbent and one of the most vocal critics of the Buhari administration has endorsed his deputy, Olusola Kolapo, as the PDP candidate for Ekiti. Giving these profiles, the temptation Buhari will face to throw the full weight of the federal government behind Fayemi will be great. 

Last but certainly not least, influential in determining the outcome of the Ekiti polls will be the mood of voters in the state. Though Fayemi, while an incumbent of the state was defeated by Fayose in 2014, the latter ran a campaign that was largely personality based; meaning that Fayose’s party may fair much worse in an election in which he is no longer on the ticket. Although too early to make precise pronouncements — particularly in the absence of polling data— it is clear that the incumbency advantage does not decisively favor either camp in the coming polls. Thus, with the likelihood of being a hotly contested election with nation-wide ramifications, the Ekiti polls will be worth paying close attention to. 

Montenegro – Milo Đukanović wins the presidential election

“(E)lections are readily perceived as a new beginning. Not so in Montenegro. In the last years the dominant figure in Montenegrin politics was one person: Milo Đukanović. Unlike any other politician in this region, he has remained on the forefront of political decision-making for now 25 years and has switched between being prime minister and president. His political career and his ideological adaptation mirror the development of the country since the end of communist rule.”

This was the introductory sentence to my last blog post about Montenegro in the Fall of 2016 on the occasion of the parliamentary election. It says a lot about the political role of Milo Đukanović that it would be possible to use this section again, only replacing parliamentary elections with presidential ones. Yet, the 1.5 years since the parliamentary election were not as uneventful as this little jab suggests. This blog post will briefly summarize the developments after the 2016 parliamentary elections, present the results of the recent presidential election and provide a forecast of what this might mean for Montenegrin political stability and democratic development.

The aftermath of the 2016 parliamentary elections

After the parliamentary elections that were won by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its candidate Milo Đukanović[1], the Democratic Front (DF) and other opposition parties declared that they would not recognize the election results due to the pressure on all opposition parties throughout the campaign (in particular, as the coup claims and the arrest of allegedly Serbian paramilitaries arguably influenced the election or at least the turnout). Due to this, Đukanović stepped down as prime minister (yet not as chair of the ruling DPS) and was replaced by Duško Marković. Some analysts argue that Milo got ahead of his intra-party critics, who blame him for the waning power and influence of the DPS. Until recently, the DPS had what Komar and Živković (2016, 793) described as an “image of invincibility”, a phenomenon characterized by a dominant or hegemonic party that gains from “the public perception that it cannot lose any elections”. The fear of losing this image of invincibility and not being able to form a coalition government led to the Đukanović’s retreat.

What seemed to some as the final ouster of a political dinosaur at the forefront of Montenegrin politics for 30 years was nothing more than an embossed tradition. It was actually the third time that Đukanović had used this ‘replacement technique’. In 2006 he announced his retirement from politics, installing Željko Sturanović as his replacement as prime minister. In 2008, after Sturanović resigned – due to health issues – Đukanović came back. Similarly, in 2010, Đukanović installed his long-time supporter Igor Lukšić to become the next prime minister. And again, Milo returned two years later and was elected to a seventh term by the Montenegrin parliament (RFE/RL 2012). There is little doubt that all three were a “political ploy” (Pavlović 2016), although Đukanović also pursued business interests. These business interests make him and his family very rich and the focus of immense criticism, even getting him labeled as Podgorica’s Godfather by international media (Ernst 2016).

Presidential elections 2018

After Đukanović’s retreat in 2016, talk started immediately about him running for president (a position he had already held from 1998 to 2002). He confirmed his candidacy in March 2018. He was unanimously backed by the leadership of his DPS (Reuters 2018), the coalition partner, the Liberal Party (LPCG), as well as a variety of other groups. Similar to the 2016 parliamentary elections campaign, the brief campaign for the presidency was styled as a contest between two opposing directions: Either EU membership and thus an – at least proclaimed – orientation towards the West or closer ties to Russia. Yet, the intensity that was reached during the 2016 campaign where Đukanović painted the dire picture of Montenegro becoming a “Russian Colony”, was not the same (see for reports e.g. Deutsche Welle 2016). It was not possible to confirm similar dramatic statements for the presidential campaign. Even more so, Đukanović moderated his verbal tactics and instead emphasized that he was not running for personal ambition: “(Victory) is more important for Montenegro and its path than to me personally, I am someone who has fulfilled my ambitions in politics,” (McLaughlin 2018).

At the same time, the opposition was not able to agree on a common candidate, yet Mladen Bojanić was supported by a broad group (among them the Democratic Front, Democratic Montenegro, United Reform Action and the Socialist People’s Party) (OSCE 2018) as well as Goran Danilović (a former candidate). A third candidate – Draginja Vuksanović – could also have had a key role. If she had reached close to 10% of the votes, a second round would have become likely.

Roughly one month after announcing his candidacy Đukanović was elected president in the first round with a projected majority of 54 % over the 33% of his main opponent, Mladen Bojanic (CeMI 2018). He was directly elected for a term of 5 years (with a maximum of 2 terms) (Art. 96 Constitution of Montenegro).

Outlook

Milo Đukanović has had a formative influence on the democratic practice, the political process and the development of the society in Montenegro (Banovic 2016). But since stepping down in 2016 as prime minister and installing one of his most important allies, Duško Marković as prime minister, their relation has reportedly soured (Ernst 2018). Đukanović’s impact over key political issues has become more constrained. The presidency is however not a powerful institution – at least constitutionally. Apart from a rather active role in the investiture of a new prime minister, his power and influence are limited. But it is also a fact that as chair of the DSP, Đukanović will be able “to wield considerable power and influence policy through the ranks of his Democratic Socialist party” (The Guardian 2018). It is unclear how the relation between Marković as prime minister and Đukanović as president will play out. In particular, his role in negotiating the EU accession of Montenegro will be of interest. Traditionally, presidents try to influence foreign policy even when they are not powerful in other areas. Đukanović’s main interest was always the orientation towards the West and it can expected that he will be involved in the EU accession negotiations. There is an inevitable conflict with the prime minister looming.

Literature:
Banović, Damir (2016): Montenegro, in: Fruhstorfer, Anna, and Michael Hein (eds): Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe, 289-306.

CeMI (2018): Election Results, in: https://twitter.com/CeMI_ME/status/985606974682353664?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.euronews.com%2F2018%2F04%2F16%2Fmilo-djukanovic-wins-montenegro-s-presidential-elections-pollster-cemi&tfw_site=euronews, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Deutsche Welle (2016): Montenegro’s longtime ruler faces ballot test (October 16), in: http://www.dw.com/en/montenegros-longtime-ruler-faces-ballot-test/a-36052927, last accessed October 18, 2016.

Ernst, Andreas (2016) Der Pate von Podgorica, in: https://www.nzz.ch/international/europa/djukanovic-haelt-montenegro-fest-in-der-hand-der-pate-von-podgorica-ld.122532. Last accessed April 16, 2018.

RFE/RL (2012): Djukanovic Gets Seventh Term As Montenegrin Prime Minister, in: https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-djukanovic/24789724.html, December 5, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Komar, Olivera & Živković, Slaven (2016). Montenegro: A democracy without alternations. East European Politics and Societies, 30(4), 785-804.

McLaughlin, Daniel (2018): East-West relations and mafia violence dominate election in Montenegro, in The Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/east-west-relations-and-mafia-violence-dominate-election-in-montenegro-1.3460842, last accessed April 13, 2018.

OSCE (2016): Montenegro, in: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/montenegro/295511?download=true

OSCE (2018): Interim Report, in: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/montenegro/376573?download=true, last accessed April 14, 2018.

Pavlović, Srđa (2016) Montenegro’s ‘stabilitocracy’: The West’s support of Đukanović is damaging the prospects of democratic change, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/12/23/montenegros-stabilitocracy-how-the-wests-support-of-dukanovic-is-damaging-the-prospects-of-democratic-change/, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Reuters (2018): Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s long-serving PM, to run for presidency, in: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-montenegro-election/milo-djukanovic-montenegros-long-serving-pm-to-run-for-presidency-idUSKBN1GW1PJ, last accessed April 16, 2018.

The Guardian (2018): Pro-EU politician set to win Montenegro’s presidential election, in: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/15/montenegro-votes-in-first-presidential-election-since-joining-nato, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Note

[1] The DPS won with 41% (36 seats in the 81 seat parliament) (OSCE 2016).

Walt Kilroy – Sierra Leone opts for change

This is a guest post by Walt Kilroy, Associate Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction and lecturer in the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

A presidential election in Sierra Leone involving an upset for the ruling party, court challenges, and even a delay in holding the vote has nevertheless delivered something generally taken as a sign of a healthy democracy: a peaceful change of leadership in an internationally recognised poll. The outgoing president Ernest Bai Koroma had in fact reached his term limit, after serving two five-year terms. But his hand-picked successor from the ruling All People’s Congress (APC), former finance minister Samura Kamara, was the surprise loser. The country’s new leader, President Julius Maada Bio, comes from the main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party.

This is in fact the second time since the end of the civil war in the West African country in 2002 that there has been a peaceful transfer of power between the two main parties on the basis of an election. The first round of voting on March 7th showed it was a very close race, with the main candidates receiving 43.4% for Bio compared with Kamara’s 42.7%. A candidate had to receive 55% of the vote to win at the first round. Two new political parties ate into the support base of each of the main parties.

Court intervention

But before the second round could take place, it was held up by a court challenge which has been linked to the ruling APC, alleging electoral irregularities. It is unusual to see such a challenge from a ruling party, which is normally the side accused of interference. The High Court ruled that the second round could go ahead as planned on 27th March, but its decision came just before the vote. So the National Election Commission itself requested the courts to grant a short delay, saying logistical problems meant they needed more time. It went ahead on March 31st, four days after the planned date.

Interestingly, this is the third time in less than year that elections in Africa have been held up or indeed overturned by a court ruling. The second round of the presidential election in neighbouring Liberia was also delayed by a challenge alleging fraud, and last August the Supreme Court in Kenya faced uproar when it annulled the presidential election and ordered that it be held again. The opposition refused to take part in the re-run, and the original winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, was elected once again.

Turnout in Sierra Leone was high: 81% (2.5 m voters), and Bio received 51.8% of the vote. Kamara received 48.2% and did meet Bio to congratulate him but refused to concede. He later launched a further legal challenge to the final result. In accordance with the electoral law, Bio took the oath of office within hours of the final tally being announced, and has proceeded to appoint his cabinet. International monitors were satisfied overall with the poll, although some of the language during the campaign did cause a worry.

There are some interesting parallels. The same pattern of change occurred in neighbouring Liberia a few months before: Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was completing her second and final term in office, and again it was the opposition candidate who won on the second round, after a brief court challenge to the first round from the government side. President George Weah’s past is also unusual, in that he was still better known as a football star rather than a politician. He took office in January.

Previous military rule

President Julius Maada Bio (53) has an interesting past, as a former military junta leader. He briefly led a military coup in 1996, which replaced a previous junta which had seized power some years earlier during the 1991-2002 civil war. He handed over power to a civilian government after a few months. (This track record parallels that of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who took power in a military coup in the 1980s, and many years later defeated an incumbent president to head a civilian government in the 2015 elections). After living in the US for years, Bio returned to Sierra Leone following the war. He has also been studying for a PhD in peace studies at the University of Bradford. He campaigned against corruption and mismanagement, striking a chord with many voters in Sierra Leone.

There were some reports of violence in the run up to both rounds of voting during rallies or confrontations between rival supporters. What is also worrying is that while ethnicity is not openly discussed, support for each of the main parties falls along ethnic lines.

There are plenty of problems to be addressed in the country of six million people, such as desperate poverty and deeply embedded corruption. Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index places it 130 out of 180 countries. The country is still recovering from its war and the Ebola epidemic in 2014-15 which killed more than 4,000 people. The health system was left weakened, with one physician for every 50,000 people. During the outbreak schools were closed, economic life curtailed, and the economy shrank by nearly 20% in one year.

The figures from the Human Development Report (2016) are stark. It is ranks at 179 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. Life expectancy at birth is 51. Infant mortality has improved considerably but 12% of children still do not make it past their fifth birthday. The literacy rate is 48%, and while it is much better among those aged 15-24, there is still a wide gender gap (59% for young women, and 76% for young men).

One thing which may give Bio a break is that he was not elected on an enormous wave of hope, so at least unrealistic expectations (and inevitable disappointment) are not a major factor. However, Sierra Leone has suffered more than its fair share of poor governance (an important factor in creating the conditions for its civil war in 1991). For a country rich in natural resources, and population with a median age of less than 19, real leadership would be welcomed by many ordinary citizens.

Costa Rica – Centre-Left Candidate wins Presidency

In the second round of presidential elections held last Sunday, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, of the left-of-center, Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), convincingly won the Costa Rican presidential election with 60.66 per cent of the vote. His competitor, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, of the right-leaning Partido Restauración Nacional (PRN), received only 39.34 per cent of the popular vote as of the last count on Monday, April 2. With 97.47 per cent of all votes counted and processed and with a respectable 66.46 per cent turnout, Fabrico Alvarado quickly conceded defeat, leaving Carlos Alvarado with a healthy electoral mandate.

The first round of the election was held on February 4th and Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz and the PRN topped the poll with 24.9 per cent of the vote, leaving Carlos Alvarado and the PAC in second place with 21.6 per cent with the centrist Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) and the center-right Partido Unidad Socialcristianai (PUSC) in third and fourth place respectively. As no candidate received over 40 per cent in the first round, the contest went to a second round run-off between the leading two.

At one point in the campaign, Carlos Alvarado, a former labor minister (and a rock musician and novelist) under the current president, Luis Guillermo Solís, was under pressure due to corruption allegations against the Solís government, involving kickbacks and Chinese imports. However, the campaign became dominated by social issues, particularly same-sex marriage, and the anti-gay marriage conservatism of Fabricio Alvarado, a former evangelical preacher, television journalist and member of the national assembly (elected in 2014), failed to resonate with the majority of voters.

Although the campaign touched upon other issues such as the national deficit, stubborn unemployment levels and the surprising recent rise in Costa Rica’s homicide rate, by the second round, the election had effectively become a ‘referendum on same-sex marriage.’ This became the central issue of the campaign due to a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José and of which Costa Rica is a member, in January shortly before the first round contest. In response to a petition from the Solís administration, the Court ruled that couples in same-sex relationships should be entitled to the same family and financial rights as heterosexual couples and as such, all signatories to the Court must recognize same-sex marriage. The Court even recommended that in contexts where domestic opposition is particularly virulent, governments use temporary decree measures until the passage of statutory legislation. Currently in the Americas, same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the US, Uruguay, and some parts of Mexico. Ecuador currently legislates for same-sex civil unions.

The Solís administration, and Carlos Alvarado, embraced the decision, but it generated a backlash among Costa Rica’s growing evangelical Christian population, whom Fabricio Alvarado actively courted during the campaign. While this worked as a strategy in the first round, it did not appeal to the majority of Costa Ricans. Interestingly, this was the first time that neither of the two traditional parties had a candidate in the run-off election and is indicative of the increasing fragmentation of the Costa Rican political system.[1]

Carlos Alvarado will take office on May 8th for his four year term.

[1] See Roberts, Kenneth M. Changing Course in Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Egypt – The 2018 presidential election

This is a guest post by Jean-Francois Letourneau of the Department of Political Science, Université Laval, Canada

Between the 26th and the 28th of March, Egyptians were called to cast their ballots in a presidential election. The intentions of the regime, though, were very clear: all serious opposition candidates had been either arrested or pressured to quit the race. Only one candidate was to win, and the outcome could easily be predicted.

The context

The history of modern Egypt as a truly sovereign polity began with a military coup against the monarchy in 1952. The Free Officers, under the leadership of Nasser, redistributed much of the state’s infrastructure to loyalists, who were unprepared for and in some cases uninterested in the entrepreneurialism that had led Egypt to be one of the most advanced economies in the then “Third World”. Indeed, since the historic coup, capital accumulation and the capture of rents have been mostly limited to an elite close to (or members of) the three pillars of the Egyptian state: the presidency, the armed forces, and the security apparatus.

Presidential and parliamentary elections were introduced by President Sadat, Nasser’s successor, but from the beginning were intended only to give the regime a façade of democracy working in synergy with a increase in crony capitalism catalyzed by neo-liberal reforms. Under Sadat’s successor, President Mubarak, the regime very slowly descended into a “social-fiscal trap”: although elites increasingly benefited from more market-oriented policies, the state, which had lost its direct control over most of the economy, found itself less able to finance its immense public sector (which constitutes half of the country’s nominal GDP) or to maintain high subsidies for basic foodstuffs and essential commodities. Eventually, the regime collapsed, unable to bear the weight of its own contradictory nature, at which time the armed forces stepped in to pick up the pieces. The results are well know: free elections led to a Muslim Brotherhood government and presidency, which was later overthrown (with the support of a large segment of the population) by the armed forces.

The presidential elections held in 2014 led to the victory of Abdel Al-Sisi, the very man who, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had ordered the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.(1) Since the beginning of his first mandate as president, Al-Sisi has pursued policies quite similar to those of his predecessors (with the obvious exception of Morsi), albeit he has maintained closer ties to the military and allowed it to accumulate more economic and political power. It is perhaps a testimony to his political acumen that he has, up to now, successfully based his legitimacy on his role as a bulwark against terrorism.

The Constitution

In the last 6 years, Egypt has seen two new constitutions. The first of these was mostly written by members of the 2012 constituent assembly (CA) loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood and included controversial clauses, such as the creation of a non-elected “Shura council” and the granting of a legislative veto to Al-Ahzar University. The second constitution was drafted by a new CA formed after the overthrow of the Egyptian Brotherhood government. The draft was then approved by a referendum in early 2014 “in an atmosphere marred by street fighting, terrorist attacks, political apathy, and a large Islamist constituency boycotting the vote altogether”. This new constitution considerably bolstered the role of the military: no longer was there any pretense of accountability to the parliament or courts. Indeed, the armed forces now had a clear mandate to interfere in civilian affairs if its leading officers and the president felt it was needed. Moreover, the powers of the presidency were increased: the president now had the explicit capacity to call cabinet meetings and make policy without consulting the prime minister. As for the judiciary, the constitution admitted that its independence “should” be maintained, but that this would be accomplished through legislation.(2)

The candidates

A number of candidates entered the race in January 2018 (the official beginning of the presidential campaigns). However, one after the other were either arrested or pressured into rescinding their candidacy. One important threat to the incumbent was the candidacy of Sami Anan, a retired general and former chief of staff of the armed forces.(3) Having announced, on January 20th, that he represented a real alternative to president Sisi, he was later arrested on the rather dubious charges of having forged his release as a reserve officer in the armed forces. Another high-profile potential candidate, Mohamed Al-Sadat, the nephew of former president Sadat, announced in mid-January that he would not be participating in the campaign, explaining that it would “be like committing suicide running against someone like [Sisi]”(4). Perhaps most threatening to President Sisi was the candidacy of Ahmed Shafik, former commander in chief of the air force and presidential candidate in the 2012 election, which he lost by 48% to 52% in a runoff against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi. Shafik was in the UAE when he declared his candidacy in the 2018 election. UAE police soon deported him and his whereabouts remained unknown to his family until a video of him appeared in the Egyptian media reminiscent of the Moscow trials: downtrodden and submissive, Shafik announced that he had reconsidered and was no longer running as he was “out of touch” with Egyptian politics.(5) With no candidates remaining, the regime appears to have hastily propped up a lone candidate to oppose Sisi: a obscure politician named Mostafa Moussa who, before registering himself as a candidate, was campaigning for the incumbent president. As could be expected, the “campaign” itself was mostly a matter of a variety of electoral posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote for the incumbent president.

Conclusion

Although the victory of the incumbent president was almost certain, and there were little “campaign issues” outside the menace of violent jihadists, there are numerous pressing issues that the re-elected president will need to address. One is the effects of the austerity measures on the Egyptian people: lower subsidies, fewer public servant jobs and high inflation could easily lead to a storm of discontent, perhaps worse than what occurred during the so-called “bread riots” that followed an attempt to lower subsidies under president Sadat. Indeed, the very fact that two generals attempted to run as candidates could be a signal that some parts of the military are discontented with Sisi’s policies.(6) Moreover, the grandiose infrastructure programs announced by Sisi have yet to take off: the building of the “New Capital” on the east side of the Greater Cairo area has been plagued with delays and contract cancellations, and the plans to supply the new metropolis with water seem somewhat implausible considering the scarcity of the already available water supply and the very real possibility that water will become even scarcer as Ethiopia begins to fill the reservoir behind its newly constructed “Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”.(7) Only time will tell if President Sisi will be able to successfully address these imminent crises.

Notes

[1]Robert Spingborg. Egypt, Polity, 2017

[2]EU Directorate-General for external polices. Egypt: in depth analysis of the main elements of the new constitution, 2014

[3]Madaonline [https://www.madamasr.com/en/2018/01/23/news/u/former-armed-forces-chief-of-staff-arrested-referred-to-military-prosecution-after-announcing-presidential-bid/]

[4]Ruth Michaelson. The Guardian,  Jan 15th 2018

[5]BBC world newsonline [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42597803]

[6]Carnegie Middle East Center. Why Sisi seams worried[http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/75509]

[7]Carnegie Middle East Center. River of Discontent[http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/73491]

Georgia – The 2018 presidential election: Political Parties and Candidates 

Presidential elections will be held in Georgia in October 2018. This will be the last election when the president will be directly elected and for 6 years. From 2020, the country is moving to a parliamentary system. the presidential election is a rehearsal for the 2020 parliamentary elections. Although the power of the president is significantly weakened as a result of constitutional reform, the president will still play an important role in the country’s politics. This was confirmed by President Margvelashvili’s activities. Margvelashvili with the right of the veto, public speeches, appointments, cooperation with opposition parties, civil sector and other mechanisms was able to influence the ruling Georgian Dream party, which provoked serious criticism from them. For the 2018 elections, the ruling majority will try to field a presidential candidate who will be loyal to the ruling party and will be able to fully manage the country’s move to the parliamentary system by 2024.

The presidential election is important for opposition political parties. The opposition, which has lost several elections since the change of government in 2012, will try to win the presidential election in 2018. If we look at the political landscape, the Georgian opposition is weak. Political parties can be divided mainly into two camps. The first are the pro-Western parties that support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The second are Pro-Russian parties that openly support cooperation with Russia. Political parties are very fragmented on both sides, but these divisions also reflect the public attitudes.[1] There are also other small political groups. The vast majority of the population supports Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. In general, though, trust in political parties is very low in Georgia.

Significant changes were made to political parties after the 2016 parliamentary elections. The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has been dissolved. There was a split in the United National Movement, which ruled the country until 2012. One part of this party supports former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the other created a new party, the “European Democrats”. In addition, one of the other pro-Western parties, the Free Democrats” also disintegrated when many leaders left the party, some of them moving to Georgian Dream, while others left politics altogether. In addition, another pro-Western party, the Republican Party, which is the oldest party, also disintegrated when the party leader and former parliamentary speaker, Davit Usupashvili, and his supporters left. They later formed a new party called the Development Movement.  The National Forum was also divided, with some leaders moving to Usupashvili’s movement and others joining Nino Burjanadze’s United Democratic Movement. After the 2016 parliamentary elections, Paata Burchuladze, another leader of the Movement for the People, which won 3rd place in the 2016 elections, also left the politics. Later a criminal case was started against Burchuladze in connection with financial violations regarding charitable activity. At the same time, new parties have been formed by the former members of the National Movement: there is New Georgia under the leadership of Giorgi Vashadze and Zurab Japaridze’s political union “Girchy”. The Labor Party of Georgia is also represented in the pro-Western wing under leadership of Shalva Natelashvili. The Labor Party often participates independently as a single party in the parliamentary elections. The party leader contested the presidential election twice and received  6,49% in 2008 and 2,88% in 2013. The Labor Party received 3.45% of local self-government elections in 2014. [2]

The most aggressive defender of cooperation with Russia is the United Democratic Movement led by former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. Burjanadze has twice carried out the duties of the President of Georgia. Once in 2003 during the Rose Revolution and again in 2008 when early presidential elections were held. He also participated in the 2013 presidential election and received 10.18% of the votes. In the same political space, there is also the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia. This party won 5,01% of the votes in the 2016 parliamentary elections just over the election threshold. The Alliance of Georgian Patriots is support by the ruling party in many aspects of domestic and foreign policy of the country.

The 2018 presidential election is interesting in many ways. First, how will the opposition will take part in the election? Theoretically, the opposition is in a competitive position. If we look at recent surveys, distrust to the government is increasing in society. According to the NDI survey, only 13% of respondents consider the government to be performing well. According to the survey, 27% will vote for the Georgian Dream, 10% for the UNM, and 3% for European Georgia. 24% said that they would not vote for any party, 15% did not know, and 13% refused to answer. [3]

The opposition has some well-known candidates. Labor Party leader, Shalva Natelashvili, first officially expressed his desire to participate in the elections in December 2017. According to the survey, Shalva Natelashvili’s rating is 39%. The leader of the Development Movement, Davit Usupashvili, has also not ruled out standing in the presidential election. According to the survey, his rating is 50%.[4]

Former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who currently does not have Georgian citizenship, called supporters from Amsterdam to prepare for the presidential campaign and the opposition parties have jointly selected one candidate for the primary election.[5]  It is also widely believed that Mikheil Saakashvili’s wife, Sandra Roelofs, who lives in Georgia, is running for the election from the National Movement, but her candidacy has been excluded from the party at this stage.[6]

The ruling party has not officially nominated a presidential candidate. However, some names have been widely discussed. Including former Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. He was personally welcomed in 2016 by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream. The current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili was also mentioned in the press, but he has not confirmed his participation in the election. Given the low rating of the government, Bidzina Ivanishvili himself may be the only successful candidate for Georgian Dream. For example, the Chairman of the Parliament said that Ivanishvili would be the best candidate for the election. [7] It should also be noted that after the amendment of the constitution there has been a lot of talk about a non-partisan president and it is possible that a well-known person in Georgian society may be nominated. The media have also covers talked about the nomination of a female candidate from the Georgian Dream, including the Minister of Justice, Tea Tsulukiani, and the independent MP Salome Zourabichvili.

Whether or not the current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, decides to run again is also important. According to the survey, President Giorgi Margvelashvili is in top place with 65% trusting him. During his presidency, Margvelashvili has actively cooperated with the opposition parties on various issues and he may be jointly nominated by the opposition.

Apart from the political parties, there is discussion of other non-partisan candidates. In this regard, former Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili said that he might participate in the presidential election. Elisashvili received 17.48% in the local self-government elections in 2017 as an independent candidate, which was the best result after the ruling party. However, Elisashvili will not be able to win a presidential election without the support of a political team. It is true that he has promised to create a political movement, but it has not yet been established.

To sum up, the best way to defeat any candidate of the government is the unification of the opposition parties and the nomination of a joint candidate. This is not a simple task when the opposition is very fragmented. However, there is a 14-member council of leaders who say that they are discussing a common candidate. That said, the UNM thinks that the candidate must be chosen by primaries, and the European Democrats consider that parties should participate individually in the first round of the election and then all must unite around the common candidate in the second round. It is difficult to se how the opposition will be able to unite, and who will be able to defeat the ruling party, which is equipped with government resources and backed by a billionaire.

Notes

[1] Public attitudes in Georgia Results of December 2017 survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20poll_December%202017_ISSUES_ENG_vf.pdf

[2] Results of the local self-government election 2017, Central Election Commission, https://results20171021.cec.gov.ge

[3] Public attitudes in Georgia Results of December 2017 survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20poll_December_2017_POLITICAL_ENG_final.pdf

[4] Survey of Public Opinion in Georgia, Center for Insights in Survey Research, February 22 – March 8, 2017, http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_poll_presentation_georgia_2017.03-general.pdf

[5] Mikheil Saakashvili – We should win presidential elections and dismantle Ivanishvili’s government, https://1tv.ge/news/mikheil-saakashvili-chven-unda-movigot-saprezidento-archevnebi-da-chamovshalot-ivanishvilis-mtavroba/

[6] By this time, I will rule out Sandra Roelof’s presidential candidate – Nika Melia, http://fortuna.ge/am-droistvis-sandra-rulovsis-saprezidento-kandidatobas-gamovrickhav-nika-melia/

[7] Kobakhidze at the presidential election: Bidzina Ivanishvili would be the best candidate for us, http://netgazeti.ge/news/259921/

Russia – Putin Wins! Engineering an Election without Surprises

Following an adroitly-managed presidential election campaign, Russia’s leader for the last 18 years, Vladimir Putin, won a new six-year term of office in decisive fashion on Sunday, garnering over 76 percent of the vote.  If President Putin completes his new term, he would be only the second ruler of post-Imperial Russia to have governed the country for more than 20 years; the other was Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps the only elements of drama in the campaign surrounded the final margin of victory and the level of turnout.  For leaders in soft authoritarian regimes like Russia, it is not enough to defeat opposing candidates.  One must project an aura of political invincibility, which requires reducing opponents to also-rans in high-turnout elections where there are at least the formal trappings of competitiveness.

As the tables below illustrate, Putin’s victory margin was almost 65 percent, the highest in the post-communist era.  His vote total exceeded 56 million, over ten million more votes than he received in the previous presidential election.  Voter turnout reached 67 percent, up from the previous presidential election but below the 70 percent figure that the Kremlin apparently set as its goal.

To engineer these impressive results, Putin and his political allies pursued a carefully-calculated strategy, whose opening move was the exclusion from the presidential race of the Russian president’s most vocal and visible opponent, Alexei Navalny.  An anti-corruption campaigner whose mastery of social media and internet memes had electrified some segments of Russia’s political opposition, Naval’ny was unable to contest the presidency because of a 2014 criminal conviction for fraud, a decision labeled “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights.  Following his disqualification in December of last year, Navalny launched a campaign to boycott the election as a means of sullying Putin’s mandate for his fourth and—under current constitutional provisions—final term of office.

If the official election results are accurate—and there is credible video evidence of ballot stuffing in some Russian precincts—Navalny’s appeals for a boycott were no match for the combination of rule changes, media exhortation, and administrative resources marshalled behind the official get-out-the-vote effort.   In fact, by tossing down the gauntlet, Navalny encouraged the authorities to redouble their efforts to achieve a healthy turnout.  For the first time in the post-communist era, the Central Election Commission allowed voters to cast their ballots outside the precinct in which they were registered, provided they had informed the authorities of their intent by March 12.  Moreover, the Central Election Commission carried out a purge of voter rolls prior to the election in order to remove approximately 1.5 million “dead souls” as well as voters who were registered in multiple districts.  Without this initiative, turnout figures would not have increased appreciably from the last presidential election.

As in earlier electoral contests in Russia, state officials, from governors to university administrators, served as prodders and proctors to boost turnout in the election.  In one provincial university, students faced eviction from their dormitory if they didn’t turn out to the polls.  As observers from the OSCE revealed, governors in some regions organized competitions among electoral commissions and “offered monetary rewards for PECs [Precinct Electoral Commissions] with the best performance and the highest voter turnout.”[iv] Despite the full-court press to mobilize voters, turnout varied widely across the country, with some regions in Western Russia and Siberia lagging 35 points behind the ethnic republics of the Northern Caucasus and Tyva, which are the perennial front-runners in voter turnout in Russian elections.

Whether in Russia or the West, the electoral playing field is never level when an incumbent is in the race.  A sitting president in any country enjoys greater media attention because the daily tasks of governing shine a spotlight on the incumbent that is not available to challengers (see table below).[v]  In the Russian case, however, the Putin campaign was able to control the rules and the narrative in ways that constantly played to the strengths of the incumbent while highlighting the vulnerabilities of his opponent.  For example, the authorities moved election day up by a week to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which remains a wildly popular decision in Russia.   President Putin arranged to give his State of the Union address (Poslanie) just a little over two weeks before the election, an address that dominated several news cycles because of its dramatic claims that Russia possessed novel weapons systems for which the West has no answer.  Even the ballot itself presented President Putin in a distinctly favorable light.  Vladimir Putin’s name stood out in the middle of the ballot with its brief two-line biography, while all of his contenders had unwieldly six to eight-line descriptions of their backgrounds.  More importantly, the ballot listed Putin as a “self-nominee” [samodvyzhenetz], whereas the other candidates stood under a party banner at a moment when parties were the least respected of all Russian political institutions.[vi]

During the electoral campaign, the advantages of incumbency in a soft authoritarian regime were on full display on Russia’s main evening news broadcast, Vremia, which treated its viewers to campaign coverage that set President Putin apart from the seven other contenders for the presidency.  Each broadcast offered a short segment devoted to the campaign activities of Putin’s opponents as they traversed Moscow and the country in search of votes.   This daily news block on the election always ended with coverage of the Putin campaign, without featuring Putin himself.  While the president was pursuing the Russian equivalent of the Rose Garden Strategy, his designated electoral agents [doverennye litsa] were pictured on the hustings.  Among these agents was an assortment of celebrities drawn from the worlds of culture and sports.

Set against the star power of the Putin team was a rag-tag band of opposition candidates for the presidency, whose backgrounds and behavior were no match for the sober, dignified, and professional image projected by President Putin.  During one of the presidential debates, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the mercurial leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, hurled sexist insults against the only woman in the race, Ksenia Sobchak.  Sobchak responded by dousing him with a glass of water.   In another debate, the candidate representing the Communists of Russia, Maxim Suraikin, had to be physically restrained on stage as he charged a designated agent standing in for the candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grudinin.

Where most of Putin’s opponents escaped frontal assaults by the country’s media, almost all of which are pro-Kremlin, that was not the case with Pavel Grudinin, the millionaire businessman-cum-Communist who finished second in the presidential race.  The vitriolic news anchor for Vremia, Kirill Kleimenov, relentlessly criticized Grudinin’s business practices and his family’s ownership of luxury properties abroad, including ones in what Kleimenov called the “NATO country of Latvia.”  Kleimenov claimed that such links to the West should be a disqualifying factor for a Russian presidential candidate.  This tactic was emblematic of Putin’s campaign, and of Putin’s leadership more broadly, which has sought support and legitimacy in its championing of what one observer called “anti-Western, isolationalist, and conservative values.”[i]  Portraying Russia as the perennial victim of the actions of nefarious Western elites, who seek to demean and diminish Russia through indignities ranging from doping scandals to economic sanctions, Putin offered himself to the nation as the only guarantor of Russian security, honor, and grandeur.

The question now is what the Russian president will do with the resounding mandate achieved in the March 18 “referendum on Vladimir Putin,” as two Russian journalists dubbed the election Sunday evening.[ii]  The opposition may be in complete disarray, but Putin still faces serious challenges to his presidency from a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, from a shrinking labor force and increasing pension commitments to the morass in Syria.  In recent years Putin has postponed confronting Russia’s systemic problems by deflecting attention onto foreign adventures and by offering the “balm of righteousness”[iii] to a nation whipped into a frenzy about its unfair treatment by the rest of the world.   It is unclear how much longer Putin can rely on these tactics to sustain his personalist regime.

At an impromptu press conference immediately after the election results were announced, a journalist asked the Russian president whether “in the next six years we will see a new Vladimir Putin or the old one?” Putin’s response: “Everything changes…we all change.”  At the moment, though, change does not seem to be in the offing.

Notes

[i] Interim Report (5 February – 1 March), OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Election Observation Mission, Russian Federation, Presidential Election, 18 March 2018, p. 4.  https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/russia/374137?download=true

[ii] The table contains figures drawn from a search of the East View database of central Russian newspapers, using the first and last names of candidates as the search terms.

[iii] Polls conducted in October 2017 showed that political parties were viewed as completely trustworthy by only 19 percent of the population; the corresponding figure for the President was 75 percent.  Levada Center, Institutional Trust, October 11, 2017. https://www.levada.ru/en/2017/11/10/institutional-trust-3/

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Frozen Landscape: The Russian Political System ahead of the 2018 Presidential Election,” Carnegie Center Moscow, March 7, 2018. http://carnegie.ru/2018/03/07/frozen-landscape-russian-political-system-ahead-of-2018-presidential-election-pub-75722

[v] Pavel Altekar’ and Vladimir Ruvinskii, “Kogo pobedil Vladimir Putin,” Vedomosti, March 18, 2018. https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2018/03/18/754114-kogo-pobedil-vladimir-putin

[vi] A phrase used to describe George Wallace’s rhetoric and actions directed to white Southerners, whom he cast in the role of victims, in this case due to the imposition of Northern values on the South.   Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), p. 109.

Fabian Burkhardt – The non-campaign of the 2018 presidential election in Russia

Keep Navalny out, programmatic statements to a minimum, and turnout up. If one had to summarize the non-campaign of the 2018 presidential elections from the Kremlin’s vantage point in one sentence, this would probably be it. It will most likely go down in history as the most uninspiring presidential election in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Even President Vladimir Putin’s campaign slogan “A strong president – a strong Russia” had been copy-pasted from Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 referendum campaign. The incumbent is slated to win the elections on 18 March with a landslide and will then embark on his fourth presidential term ending in 2024 which – according to the constitution – would be his last six years in power as president. Vladimir Putin’s anticipated status as a “lame duck” in conjunction with the non-competitive, largely predetermined and non-programmatic nature of the campaign has led many analysts to speculate about the “arrival of a post-Putin Russia.” Nevertheless, elections under authoritarianism are not void of meaning. From a functional perspective, researchers conclude that “the role of Russian elections has evolved from information-gathering and co-optation to primarily signaling the regime’s strength and sporadically dividing and embarrassing the opposition.”[i] And indeed, signaling strength by showing strong turnout and splitting the non-parliamentary opposition seemed to be high on the agenda of the presidential administration.

The setup

The incumbent Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for president on 6 December 2017. This unusually late announcement three months before the election fits the overall impression of Putin’s campaign: The campaign trail and programmatic statements were reduced to a minimum. In fact, only the presidential address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March gave the broader public a glimpse into how Putin views the next six years, a vision analysts called “conservative technocracy”. Among the other seven registered candidates, two are outright spoilers (Sergei Baburin and Maksim Suraikin). Two represent parliamentary “systemic” opposition parties: Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the LDPR and Pavel Grudinin for the Communist Party (CPRF). Zhirinovsky has been a regular at presidential elections since 1991. In 2018, too, he played his role well of a scandalous, anti-Western, far-right scarecrow and clown that makes everyone else look well-behaved and decent. Shortly before his candidacy was announced, Pavel Grudinin himself did not know he would replace the CPRF’s long-term general secretary Gennady Zyuganov. Grudinin is not a party member, but was actively promoted by the leftist former protest leader Sergey Udaltsov during the party primaries. As director of the Lenin-Sovkhoz (sic) he merges both a capitalist and pro-Soviet or even Stalinist world view. As a newcomer his popularity quickly rose to higher single digits in official polls, but state television was quick to launch a smear campaign against him. This lead to speculation that his candidacy had not been agreed with the presidential administration or whether it signified infighting of various groups within the elite. Otherwise, Boris Titov – chairman of the Right Cause party and acting business ombudsman officially accountable to the president – admitted that he does not consider himself as a genuine candidate and sees the campaign rather as an opportunity to follow up on his cause as a business representative by other means. Grigory Yavlinsky, the co-founder and long-term leader of the liberal Yabloko party once more decided to take part in the election after he had not been registered in 2012, but observers describe his campaign as half-hearted at best. Probably the biggest surprise was the candidacy of journalist and socialite Kseniya Sobchak. During the campaign she has tried her best to convince the public that she was not a spoiler launched by the presidential administration although she did admit she had informed Vladimir Putin (who had worked under her father in the St. Petersburg city hall) about her plans. The amount of airtime on state TV she receives attests to claims that she fits the presidential administration’s plans rather well. Overall, it remains to be seen whether she aims to capitalize on the publicity she has received to increase the number of Instagram followers she has or to launch a new political party in the future. On the other hand, she has received praise from human rights defenders for speaking out in favor of some repressed activists like Yury Dmitriev and Oyub Titiev.

Boosting turnout to convey strength

Signaling strength to the elite, opposition and the wider population is among the core functions of authoritarian elections[ii]. Despite Putin’s approval ratings, which have remained above 80% since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this “approval” for various reasons does not automatically translate into electoral turnout in favor of the incumbent. In general, turnout has been declining across presidential, parliamentary, and gubernatorial elections (Figure 1). Nevertheless, this decline has been least pronounced for presidential elections, therefore a turnout between 65 and 70 percent might still be in the cards.

Given Vladimir Putin’s predominance in Russia’s state media and public sphere in normal times, pushing his person during the election campaign even more could backfire. Quite the contrary, at times observers have had the impression that the presidential administration has tried to restrict Putin’s election-related campaign events and TV reporting.

Overall, two main strategies to boost turnout can be identified. The first is a massive public relations and ads campaign launched by the Central Election Commission to inform citizens about the upcoming election. The official budget of the CEC for public relations amounts to 770 million rubles (13.6 million USD), but reports indicate that many companies voluntarily place information on the upcoming elections. Mobile telecom operators sent SMS text messages, the state services website Gosuslugi emailed users on behalf of the CEC, and companies ranging from the retailer Magnit to gas stations and Burger King placed election-related information on their receipts. Large state companies such as Aeroflot, Sberbank or VTB also placed ads on their websites, celebrities placed paid-for posts on Instagram, and youth TV channel ran clips about the most fashionable event of the spring.

Second, recent research[iii] has demonstrated that voter intimidation and mobilization at the workplace is an important component of elections in Russia. Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi (2018) report that during the 2012 presidential election campaign “17 per cent of employed respondents experienced intimidation by their employers.” Future research will have to investigate the scale of workplace mobilization during the 2018 elections, but at this point we already have evidence that especially large companies are preparing to do so, such as the Chelyabinsk-based metal producer Mechel or the oil giant Rosneft. It is also crucial to keep in mind that this is as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon. Given the large dominance of the state in the Russian economy, large companies have significant incentives to demonstrate loyalty to the state because they might be treated with sticks such as reprisals in form of oversight bodies or even expropriation, or with carrots such as a preferential treatment with state contracts.

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

While Sobchak’s campaign started from a mostly apolitical (“Sobchak against all”) slogan to a more political and programmatic platform (For Sobchak), Aleksey Navalny’s bid was political from the very beginning with a strong organizational component. His Foundation for the Fight against Corruption (FBK) managed to sign up more than 700,000 supporters and opened 81 regional headquarters all over Russia. Moreover, especially in the first half of 2017 Navalny managed to stage two comparatively successful protest marches with a strong regional focus in March and June despite increasing pressure from the authorities. In November 2017, for example, he announced that his employees in Moscow and the regions (i.e. not counting volunteers and supporters) had spent more than 2000 hours under arrest and had paid more than 10 million rubles (USD 175,000) in fines. As there is little doubt he would have been able to collect the 300,000 signatures demanded by law, Navalny announced a “voters’ strike” (Zabastovka izbiratelei) after the Central Election Commission rejected his bid to register officially as a candidate on 25 December 2017. Given the resources invested by Navalny, a “boycott” seemed rational, but this automatically pitted him against Sobchak and Yavlinsky. From the perspective of the Kremlin, this constellation was ideal for splitting the opposition with a minimum of effort by the presidential administration itself. What ensued was a rather fierce and at times self-destructive debate by supporters of the various camps about the perils and virtues of electoral boycotts. Electoral mathematicians such as Sergey Shpilkin and Andrei Buzin argued that a boycott that comprised only opposition supporters, but not Putin voters, would only marginally decrease turnout, but inevitably increase Putin’s vote. Notable political scientists such as Grigory Golosov and Aleksandr Kynev support the boycott. Quite interestingly, the debate frequently made reference to boycotts around the world. The most-cited reference was Matthew Frankel’s 2010 paper “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea”[iv] who argued that boycotts are rarely the correct strategy unless the opposition has widespread public support. But even supporters of the boycott found arguments in the Frankel piece that seemed to underscore their position, therefore cherry-picking among expert opinions and academic writings for political purposes was widespread. The whole debate illuminates blank spots in the reasoning and what the various political actors omitted. First, not much has been written about electoral boycotts in comparative politics, so it seems doubtful whether it is actually possible to draw robust conclusions “from the literature” for the Russian case. Second, Navalny’s ”voters’ strike” counts as a “minor boycott” at best. But comparative research so far has predominantly focused on major boycotts. In the most comprehensive work on boycotts to date, Emily Beaulieau only includes those boycotts in which more than 50% of the opposition takes part[v]. And third, the public debate mostly focused on the depression of turnout to harm Vladimir Putin’s claim to legitimacy, but other crucial aspects are kept quiet about. Staffan Lindberg found that boycotts are often positively correlated with electoral violence[vi]. Moreover, oppositional actors preferred to ignore that boycotts are frequently associated with a post-electoral crackdown by the authoritarian regime, and that the long-term prospects of democratization in the aftermath of boycotts are rather bleak[vii]. Overall, the debate on boycotts was rather superficial, but managed to drive a wedge between various opposition actors.

Election monitoring

Navalny and his team underscored that the election boycott was only one element of his strategy of voters’ strike, other elements include nation-wide protests and election monitoring. In fact, right after Navalny was denied official registration as a candidate he announced that his regional campaign headquarters would be transformed into election monitoring headquarters that would help organize and train the regional independent monitoring on election day. In early March, his website boasted more than 45,000 registered election monitors with an overall aim of 50-70,000 (there will be more than 95,000 polling stations). More crucially, while the debate on a boycott was mostly divisive, the election monitoring initiative seems to have led to some collective action and cooperation, and therefore also to a build-up of trust, social capital and experience among opposition actors. In late January, former Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, who is largely supportive of Yabloko, reached an agreement with Navalny: Gudkov aimed to cover all of Moscow’s 3500 polling stations with two observers (in early March 5500 had registered on his website), and Gudkov and Navalny would share expertise and training capacities.

While the scale and effect of this monitoring campaign remains to be seen, in the light of recent research this strategy seems to be justified from the opposition’s point of view. Rodion Skovoroda and Tomila Lankina, for instance, show that “reports by independent observers of subnational electoral irregularities could be employed as reasonably reliable indicators of fraud, and could be utilized alongside other data to ascertain the incidence of misconduct in Russia and other settings”[viii] In an another paper on Russian regional politics, Skovoroda and Lankina find that election fraud has the potential to generate protest[ix]. Depending on the degree of electoral fraud and the quality of election monitoring, the signaling effect and potential ensuing protests could actually prove more effective in delegitimizing the elections than the boycott which has been so divisive for opposition actors.

Constitutional politics and presidential power

The presidential campaign has once more highlighted how the expansion of constitutional and subconstitutional presidential powers[x] and the “rule by law” bolsters authoritarianism.

Navalny’s non-registration: On 25 December 2017 the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register Aleksei Navalny as a presidential candidate. In its decision the CEC argued that Navalny did not possess the passive right to be elected president due to his five year suspended criminal conviction in the Kirovles 2 case. The CEC’s point of reference was the federal law “On the elections of the President of the Russian Federation”, which states that persons convicted of severe or very severe crimes cannot be elected. Navalny, for his part, argues that Art. 32 of the Russian constitution only bans those citizens from being elected that are “kept in places of confinement by a court sentence.” Therefore, Russian federal law is more restrictive than the constitution which – as the supreme juridicial force with direct action – in Navalny’s and some notable constitutional lawyers’ reading should therefore trump federal law. Both the Russian Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court declined to review the Navalny case on the merits. Moreover, Navalny filed a second petition with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the repeated Kirovles 2 decision was handed down with major procedural irregularities. It is expected that the ECHR – just as in its first sentence on Kirovles 1 – will decide in favor of Navalny. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers already had appealed to Russia to allow Navalny to stand for elections.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly: Russia’s equivalent of the American State of the Union Address is usually held by the president every year. In 2017, however, Putin failed to deliver the address to the Russian political elite, a first in the post-Soviet Russian history. If the address is regarded as a duty, and not as a prerogative of the president, then Putin’s omission has to be interpreted as a violation of the constitution. In addition, in February the date of the address was postponed several times and finally took place only on 1 March. Due to the close proximity to the elections, the speech was in fact an address of the main presidential candidate, and not the president, to the political elite, and therefore not only dilutes the constitutional meaning of the address, but also even more distorts the electoral playing field in Putin’s favor.

Presidential term limit: Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 for his third term was accompanied by a debate about the meaning of paragraph 3 of Art. 81 of the constitution that “one and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running [dva sroka podryad]”. Many founding fathers of the constitution argued that this formulation essentially copied and implied the French meaning “two consecutive terms” that would not allow another term, even if the third was not consecutive as in Putin’s case. Kseniya Sobchak reinvigorated this debate by filing a lawsuit with the Supreme Court the aim of which was to achieve a ban of Vladimir Putin running for president in 2018. As expected, the SC confirmed that Vladimir Putin’s registration as a candidate by the CEC was lawful. Nevertheless, both Sobchak’s petition and her speech at the SC as well as her lawyer’s comment on the SC’s justification of its appellate ruling will be useful for posterity to judge Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Sobchak claims that a Constitutional Court ruling from 1998, a SC ruling from 2001 as well as a textbook written by the current chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin clearly underscore that one person cannot occupy the post of the president more than two times. But more interestingly, she also argues that Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin admitted on multiple occasions that they secretly conspired to retain the presidency within their elite group. In Sobchak’s reading, this plot constitutes a usurpation of power: even when Vladimir Putin was prime minister he de facto controlled the presidency and therefore in 2018 he has already held the presidency for four consecutive terms. Needless to say, the SC did not expand on the alleged secret deal. But still her legal reasoning resonates with Alexander Baturo’s work on term limits and continuismo[xi].

These three examples illustrate that talks about a post-Putin Russia appear to be premature at this point. At least the legal and political barriers for extending his rule beyond 2024 are low. More crucial still is what Henry Hale has called “the great power of expectations”[xii]. Vladimir Putin will leave the presidency voluntarily or by force only when a significantly large part of the elite will expect him to be weak. Monitoring and assessing these elite beliefs and expectations will be essential for Vladimir Putin’s fourth – or fifth – term to understand whether it will be his last, or not.

Notes

[i] Zavadskaya, M., Grömping, M., & i Coma, F. M. (2017). Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007–2016. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 25(4), 480.

[ii] Simpser, A. (2013). Why governments and parties manipulate elections: theory, practice, and implications. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Frye, T., Reuter, O. J., & Szakonyi, D. (2018). Hitting Them with Carrots: Voter Intimidation and Vote Buying In Russia. British Journal of Political Science, 1-25.

[iv] Frankel, M. (2010). “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea. Brookings Policy Paper, Nr. 19, 1-12.

[v] Beaulieu, E. (2014). Electoral protest and democracy in the developing world. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Lindberg, S. I. (2006). When Do Opposition Parties Participate? In: Schedler, A. Electoral Authoritarianism. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 149-163.

[vii] Smith, I. O. (2014). Election boycotts and hybrid regime survival. Comparative Political Studies47(5), 743-765.

[viii] Skovoroda, R., & Lankina, T. (2017). Fabricating votes for Putin: new tests of fraud and electoral manipulations from Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs33(2), 100-123.

[ix] Lankina, T., & Skovoroda, R. (2017). Regional protest and electoral fraud: evidence from analysis of new data on Russian protest. East European Politics33(2), 253-274.

[x] Burkhardt, F. (2017). The institutionalization of relative advantage: formal institutions, subconstitutional presidential powers, and the rise of authoritarian politics in Russia, 1994–2012. Post-Soviet Affairs33(6), 472-495.

[xi] See pages 49 to 53 for Baturo’s discussion of the extension of term limits and the Russian case: Baturo, A. (2014). Democracy, dictatorship, and term limits. University of Michigan Press.

[xii] Hale, H. E. (2014). Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.