General elections were held in Pakistan on May 11, 2013. 272 of the 342 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly (ایوان زیریں پاکستان) were up for reelection. These 272 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP in Pakistan’s four provinces, the Islamabad Capital Territory and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in Kashmir and northern Pakistan are basically ruled as Pakistani colonies and don’t get to vote – besides, large parts of it are occupied/ruled by India.
Only Muslim voters are allowed to vote, but non-Muslim voters (including Ahmedi Muslims) have 10 non-Muslim members allocated between the parties in proportion to the seats they already won. After the official results are declared, 60 seats reserved for women are allocated between the parties in proportion to the seats they already won. Candidates are allowed to stand in more than one constituency, but if they’re elected to more than one seat they must choose which seat they will represent within 60 days. Candidates who win their seats as independents have three days after results are announced to join a political party or remain as independents – oftentimes, ‘independents’ will end up joining whichever party won the election.
Pakistan, theoretically, is a federal parliamentary democracy. It has a bicameral legislature made up of the directly-elected National Assembly and the indirectly-elected Senate (سینیٹ). The Senate, with 104 seats, is made up of twenty-three members elected by each the four provincial assemblies (including 4 seats reserved for women in each province, 4 for technocrats and Ulama and one seat for religious minorities), eight seats chosen by the National Assembly for the FATA and four seats chosen by the National Assembly for the federal capital. Although both houses must agree on a bill for it to pass (except for money bills, which is controlled only by the lower house), if they disagree, both houses may sit together – meaning that, effectively, the National Assembly wins over the Senate.
The President is elected to serve a five-year term (renewable once) by an electoral college composed of all MNAs, senators and provincial legislators.
The powers of the President have shifted depending on the nature of the regime in place at the time. Theoretically, as mentioned above, Pakistan is a federal parliamentary democracy. In practice, Pakistani democracy – since the country’s creation – has been tested (to say the least) several times. In Malaysia, which is also defined as a federal parliamentary democracy, the system was subverted by a governing alliance in power since independence which has structured the system to its wants and needs. In Pakistan, the system has been subverted by military intervention into politics, in the form of several coups which overthrew democratically-elected governments. Therefore, Pakistani democracy came in four periods broken by military rule. The military ruled the country between 1958 and 1971, 1977 and 1988 and most recently between 1999 and 2008. Democracy – imperfect, unstable and often illiberal democracy – has prevailed in between those periods.
During periods of military rule, Pakistan effectively became a presidential regime in which the President (the military dictator) held strong powers. Similarly, Pakistani federalism – always of a fairly centralized variant – was undermined by military regimes. This was the case under the last military regime, led by General Pervez Musharraf. He amended the 1973 constitution (which created a parliamentary republic) in the form of the seventeenth amendment, which gave him reserve powers enabling him to dissolve the National Assembly at his discretion.
After the end of the Musharraf era and the restoration of democracy, the new government passed the eighteenth amendment which revoked these special powers. The President has returned to a more symbolic position, with the real powers being held by the Prime Minister, who is elected by the National Assembly rather than nominated by the President. The 18th amendment also devolved more powers to the provinces and revised the rules on the National Finance Commission Awards (fiscal transfers to the provinces, including equalization).
Pakistan’s four provinces also elected their provincial assemblies on May 11. Each province’s legislature, like the federal National Assembly, has directly-elected ‘general’ seats and seats set aside for women and non-Muslims. The sizes of these legislature range from a total of 371 seats (297 general seats) in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province (containing over half of the country’s population to itself) to only 65 seats (51 general seats) in Balochistan. Each province has a Chief Minister, elected by the provincial legislature.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, an exceptionally dangerous isolated mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, are ruled by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation. The area self-governs under traditional arrangements but there are a collection of agents from the Pakistani central government who oversee arrangements. The FATA elect MNAs and senators, which is rather silly because the Parliament cannot legislate for the FATA (unless the President consents). This arrangement has created a huge number of problems, notably in terms of human rights and security. Local elites – most significantly the Taliban – effectively make the rules on their own and govern their territories, with the only interference coming from the Pakistani (and American) military
Pakistan is one of those countries which everyone thinks they know a whole lot about, but in reality they don’t know much besides the stereotypes incessantly parroted by the media. I certainly don’t claim to know much about Pakistan, in fact much of this post is based on Who rules where‘s brilliant piece on these elections.
A particularly annoying tendency in the Western media is the necessity to assign an easily identifiable and coherent “Western ideology” to political parties, when a lot of those parties don’t actually have coherent ideologies and even when they do, their ideologies tend to be complex so that they can’t fit into our molds of “left-wing”, “liberal”, “conservative” or whatever. In Pakistan, the guiding ideology for most major parties tends to be corruption rather than any conventional ideology.
As described by Who rules where, Pakistani politics in rural areas is dominated by “big men” power brokers who control large vote banks which they basically sell to the highest bidder; parties get their votes in return public goods or money. They control these large vote banks through bribery, intimidation, violence or providing access to patronage. Traditional parties (PPP, PML-N and others) have found it hard, however, to operate with the same tactics in Pakistan’s growing urban areas. Again, as described by Who rules where, religious groups and ethnic parties (MQM, ANP) are the masters of operating in the urban context, because they know how to form networks, mobilize opinion and use the media. In good part, the traditional parties respect this – because the groups which master urban politics can’t win a national election. Therefore, the traditional parties reach informal local agreements with the ideological or religious groups. Religious parties tend to lend the mainstream parties informal support during elections, and in return they access patronage and the governments turns a blind eye to their illegal actions. Arguably, this explains the disproportionate influence religious parties have over policy and politics in Pakistan.
The governing party is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), an ostensibly centre-left secular and social democratic party founded in 1967. The party’s founder was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of the few Pakistani political leaders who actually had a coherent ideology. Bhutto led Pakistan between 1971 and 1977, first as President and later (after 1973) as Prime Minister under Pakistan’s current (but oft-amended) constitution. In office, Bhutto nationalized a large number of industries and all banks, enacted an agrarian reform, weakened the military leadership and initiated the country’s nuclear weapons program. But this agenda caused unrest and economic stagnation, and he was deposed by General Zia-ul-Haq in a military coup in 1977 and later executed by the new regime. Since then, the PPP has become the Bhutto’s family party. Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto took control of the party and the PPP won the first elections after Zia’s death in 1988 and Benazir became Prime Minister (until the President removed her from office in 1990). She returned three years later, winning the 1993 election and governing the country until 1997. Under Benazir Bhutto, the PPP largely quit being a centre-left party and became – like most parties – a corrupt nepotistic party, whose policies have usually been far removed from their founders’ policies. Although the PPP is more favourable to state intervention in the economy than its main rival (the PML-N), Benazir Bhutto’s governments started privatization programs. Benazir Bhutto fled into exile in 1998 as her political star faded (under Nawaz Sharif) and remained in exile until the end of Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.
As Musharraf made moves towards re-democratization of sorts in 2007, with the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which amnestied politicians accused of corruption (read: all of them, except those like Nawaz Sharif which Musharraf still didn’t like), Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan to lead the PPP into the 2008 elections. She was assassinated in December 2007. With her death, the PPP’s leadership passed to her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, but since he was only 20 at the time, the real leader became Bhutto’s widow, Asif Ali Zardari, who has the reputation of being extremely corrupt (he’s also very unpopular). The PPP easily won the 2008 election, and Youssouf Raza Gilani became Prime Minister. Asif Ali Zardari was elected President in September 2008 after Musharraf’s resignation.
By most evaluations, the PPP’s government since 2008 has been a failure. Of course, it must be one of the world’s worst jobs to be in charge of Pakistan, which often appears to be almost impossible to govern, in no small part because the civilian government certainly isn’t the only source of power in the country. Politicians and parties often contribute to the mess by being corrupt and, at times, being the cause of the political violence which has undermined Pakistan for decades (this is the case for the PPP’s two governing partners, the MQM and the ANP).
Since 2008, the security situation in Pakistan has probably worsened (certainly it hasn’t improved), and it remains one of the world’s top powderkegs and the Pakistani state often appears in the top spots for ‘failed state’ rankings (even if ‘failed state’ rankings are pretty dumb). The government has had bad relations with the influential and powerful military, currently led by Ashfaq Kiyani; and often difficult relations with the United States (given the American presence in Afghanistan and the war on terror crossover in the FATA and NW Pakistan, the American military is often considered as a major player in Pakistani internal politics). In November 2011, relations with the military hit a low with “Memogate”. After the American raid which killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, in an operation unbeknownst by the Pakistani military (though Zardari apparently knew), the Pakistani military was not in a good mood and thought to be mulling a coup. In a memo by the Pakistani embassy in Washington to the US government, Islamabad requested American support to prevent a military coup. Ambassador Husain Haqqani was recalled and replaced by somebody on better terms with the military, but in December 2011, Gilani gave a speech unusually critical of the military. Relations with the United States deteriorated after Osama bin Laden’s death and reached a low in November 2011 when NATO helicopters accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan demanded an apology and blocked the Khyber Pass (a NATO supply route), while the US blocked $1.1 billion in aid to the Pakistani military. Relations only improved in July 2012. Washington still harbours suspicions that Pakistan is, as America has always believed, playing a two-faced game and covertly backing certain terrorist groups – in September 2011, the then-Chairman of the Joints Chiefs Mike Mullen claimed that the ISI (Pakistan’s CIA) was supporting the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization.
The Pakistani government has supported the expansion of military actions against the Pakistani Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, but it has resisted American pressures to launch an offensive into North Waziristan.
Terrorist attacks across the country, notably in large cities like Karachi, have continued unabated since 2008. This election campaign was one of the most violent election campaigns on record, with a number of Taliban attacks targeting anti-Taliban secular parties.
The economy has fared no better. After strong economic growth (up to 8%) between 2004 and 2008, growth has slowed to only 3% since the global economic crisis. Additionally, with high inflation (11% in 2012), the country has entered another spiral of inflation. The government’s policies – an eclectic mix of privatizations and nationalizations with a preference towards state intervention – have failed to redress the situation. Agriculture is still dominated by feudalism, the industry suffers from mismanagement and incompetence from an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy.
Pakistan also faces an energy crisis, which has resulted in load shedding and severe blackouts. The state-owned electricity companies have been unable to cope with rising demand and are saddled with debt, given that a lot of their customers – notably the governments – don’t pay their bills.
The government was also widely criticized for its response – or perhaps lack thereof – to the huge floods in July 2010 which affected almost every region of the country, on the banks of the Indus River. The government underestimated the scale of the disaster and fumbled its response accordingly. President Zardari’s refusal to cut short a trip to Europe in August angered many Pakistanis. Observers feared that the Islamists would organize rescue efforts in the government’s stead (notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), boosting their legitimacy and popular support.
It doesn’t help matters that corruption drains away huge sums of money every year.
The last military government was brought down in large part because of the lawyers’ movement, a part-popular, part-judicial movement which rose up against Musharraf in December 2007 after Musharraf sacked Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had already been removed from office by Musharraf for a few months in March 2007, had suspended Musharraf’s NRO in October 2007. The anti-Musharraf parties (including the PPP) supported, opportunistically, the lawyers’ movement. Once in office, however, the PPP and Zardari were in no great rush to reinstate the sacked justices, given that Zardari and other corrupt politicians were benefiting from the NRO’s blanket amnesty. The opposition PML-N continued supporting the lawyers’ movement.
In March 2009, Gilani apparently convinced Zardari to reinstate the Chief Justice and the other sacked justices. In December 2009, the Supreme Court cancelled the NRO and directed Gilani to write a letter to the Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a case against Zardari. The Swiss case, which has been closed since 2008, concerns some illegal dealings Zardari would have had with a Swiss company in 1994. They tried various tactics to get Gilani to write the letter, but Gilani refused, arguing that the President benefited from immunity. The Swiss kept pointing out that the whole thing was fairly trite given that they had closed the case, but nobody ever really cared about the Swiss and the issue became about principle and politics.
In February 2012, the Supreme Court indicted Gilani of being in contempt of the court, and he was found guilty in April. He was sentenced to a symbolic 30 seconds in detention, in the court while the judges read his sentence. In June 2012, the Supreme Court disqualified Gilani from holding office and removed him from office.
The PPP replaced him with Raja Pervez Ashraf, the former water and energy minister. Their original candidate for the post turned up to be a drug dealer, but Raja Pervez Ashraf was hardly better – he is accused of having received bribes in the awarding of contracts when he was water and energy minister (and by all indications, he was probably a miserable failure in that job given Pakistan’s energy situation). The Supreme Court told Raja Pervez Ashraf to send a letter to the Swiss (again), and he refused (again). In January 2013, the government-courts conflict was aggravated when the Supreme Court ordered the Prime Minister’s arrest in the corruption case related to his time as energy minister. But the anti-corruption organism, the National Accountability Bureau, which is controlled by the PPP and used for the government’s political vendettas against rivals, was never very interested in the case. The Supreme Court kept insisting, in vain, that the Prime Minister be arrested. But he was never troubled and was able to finish his term in mid-March, the legal conclusion of the Parliament’s five-year term. At the same time as the Supreme Court was ordering the Prime Minister’s arrest, a large popular movement organized by religious cleric Tahir ul-Qadri rallied thousands of protesters who demanded the government’s resignation and snap elections.
The government has maintained that the Supreme Court’s actions are politically motivated, encouraged by the opposition PML-N. It has also said that the whole crisis boils down to the legitimacy of an elected government versus an unelected activist judiciary. The Court has said that it is doing its job as the guarantor of the rule of law, without any political motivations.
Despite a pretty terrible record, this government did manage the impossible: actually completing its constitutional term, without being overthrown or forced to resign. This is the first time that one directly elected government will be succeeded by another directly elected government. That’s basically where we are today.
The PPP’s official leader is now Bilawal Bhutto, the 24-year old son of Benazir and Zardari. But at only 24, he is too young to be Prime Minister of Pakistan (you have to be 25) and besides that he seems fairly uninterested by the whole politics thing. Fearing for his safety or just uninterested by the elections, the PPP’s “leader” spent most of the campaign in Dubai. The real top brass of the PPP in this campaign was formed by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and former Prime Minister Youssouf Raza Gilani, who really headed the PPP’s campaign despite his son having been kidnapped.
As explored above, there’s little left of the PPP’s erstwhile socialist secularism. They are probably a bit more interventionist and secular than the other major parties, but what differentiates them from the PML-N (their main rival) and the other parties is their support base. The PPP is a predominantly Sindhi party, with strong support in rural Sindh and strong links to the Sindhi landed elite. The Bhutto/Zardari family are part of Sindi Rajput (elite) clan. By being more Sindhi, and thus less Punjabi, the PPP tends to be more pro-decentralization and popular with non-Punjabi Pakistanis who decry the Punjabi domination of the country. This is the case for the Saraiki in southern Punjab, who speak a slightly different form of Punjabi. The PPP is proposing that Punjab be split in two and a Saraiki province established. The PPP also get votes from the country’s Shia minority, which means that the PPP tends be a bit more secular and not as big on political Islam.
The PPP’s traditional rival is the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz Group (PML-N), a more right-leaning party founded in 1988 and controlled by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N is one of several continuing factions of the Muslim League, a movement which finds its roots in Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s movement in favour of an independent Muslim state and the partition of British India in 1947. After independence and Jinnah’s death in 1948, the Muslim League became an unruly party which suffered from internal disagreements, the lack of a coherent program and a poor performance in government.
Nawaz Sharif is a self-made businessman from Lahore (Punjab, although his family is from Kashmir). Although he is one of the few politicians not to come from an historically influential family, his father and uncle became industrialists with Ittefaq Foundries, a large steel conglomerate. His family’s business was nationalized by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972 as part of the PPP government’s nationalization program. Seeking his ‘revenge’ on the Bhutto family, Nawaz Sharif – as well as other members of his family like his brother Shahbaz – entered politics. After Bhutto was overthrown by Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif became a supporter of Zia’s regime. Near the end of the Zia regime, the governing Muslim League (reincarnated) split between an opposition (anti-Zia) faction led by Zia’s former Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo and a pro-Zia faction organized by Sharif.
The PML-N lost the 1988 and 1993 elections to the PPP, but it won the 1990 and 1997 elections. Nawaz Sharif served as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1993 and again between 1997 and 1999. In office, Nawaz Sharif’s governments privatized a large number of state-owned companies, effectively taking his ‘revenge’ on the Bhutto family for the nationalization of his family’s steel business. In 1998, he gave the go-ahead for six test nuclear explosions. He also built the country’s first highway, and he continues to make a big deal out of that.
During his second term in office, Nawaz Sharif confronted the judiciary and, most importantly, the military. Shortly after the Kargil conflict in the Kashmir with India, Nawaz Sharif was overthrown in a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, who had ironically been appointed as chief of staff by Nawaz Sharif in 1998.
Escaping jail time in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was able to negotiate a long exile in Saudi Arabia instead. He finally returned to Pakistan in November 2007 to participate in the 2008 election. The PML-N originally allied with the PPP as part of a broad anti-Musharraf and pro-democracy front, and the PML-N entered government as a strong junior partner after the 2008 elections. But as the Musharraf regime faded out of sight, Pakistani politics reset to normal and the old rivalry between PPP and PML-N returned to the forefront. The PML-N quit the government in August 2008.
In opposition, Nawaz Sharif allied himself with the lawyers’ movement in 2009, launching a ‘long march’ to reinstate the sacked judges.
A lot of the old PPP/PML-N feud boils down to regionalism (Punjab vs Sindh) or family reasons (the Bhutto vs the Sharif clans), rather than deep-seated ideological differences. The PML-N tends to be more favourable to privatization, ‘free enterprise’, foreign investment and economic liberalization in general. It is also slightly more Islamist, but only very mildly so. The PML-N’s platform this year included economic reforms to boost economic growth, proposing measures including fiscal reform, reducing the debt/deficit, investing in infrastructures through public-private partnerships and reducing inflation. For all these niceties, Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N bigwigs are no less corrupt than the PPP – both parties compete in a race to determine who can steal the most money.
The PML-N is the party of Punjab, the powerhouse province of the country home to over half of the Pakistani population. More precisely, it tends to be the party of industrialized and extensively urbanized northern Punjab, drawing votes from industrialists, urban dwellers or the Punjabi feudal aristocracy and their voter banks. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz has been Chief Minister of the Punjab since 2008.
To make a long and complicated story (which I don’t know every part of), the other provinces of Pakistan resent the perceived Punjabi domination of the country. The PML-N’s support is, partly as a result of regional animosity towards Punjab, traditionally quasi-exclusively concentrated in Punjab. The PML-N appears practically non-existent in Sindh, and not particularly vibrant in either Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the old Northwest Frontier Province, NFWP).
Pakistani parties campaign using flags and, more amusingly, ballot paper symbols (so that illiterate voters can identify the parties). The PPP’s symbol is a fairly boring arrow, but the PML-N’s symbol – the tiger – has caused endless amounts of fun. PML-N supporters dress up in plush tigerskins, cover their cars with tigerstripes or stick a tiger (or an ugly object which doesn’t necessarily look like a tiger) on top of their cars.
The only thing which interested most foreign observers in this election was Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, PTI), a party led by former cricketer Imran Khan. Imran Khan was a very good cricketer, leading his country to victory at the 1992 Cricket World Cup. But his cricket career is long over (he retired in 1992) – he has been a political and philanthropist since at least 1996. After his cricket career, he became a bit of a playboy – moving to London and marrying a British woman (they divorced in 2004). In Pakistan, he opened the country’s only cancer hospital and set up some very good charity organizations.
At the same time, he’s been active in politics since 1996, when he founded the PTI. But prior to 2012-2013, Khan never had any semblance of popular support. In the 1997 and 2002 elections, the PTI won all of 0.8% of the vote and he was the party’s only candidate to win a seat in 2002. He boycotted the 2008 election, but nobody cared.
His ‘tsunami’ of popular support began with a rally in Lahore in October 2011, attended by more than 100,000 people. A bunch of polls also showed that the PTI was riding a wave of popular support, but polling in Pakistan is of dubious value. Given how his past political career was a joke, a lot of people were rather skeptical about the media’s fascination with Imran Khan. However, Imran Khan’s support turned out to be real. The media coverage of the PTI created a bandwagon and turned him into a media phenomenon picked up around the world.
Imran Khan and the PTI have been turned into what everybody would want them to be. According to various media reports and the like, they are secular and (moderately) Islamist, liberal and conservative, nationalist (anti-American) but also still acceptable to the West (probably because their anti-Americanism doesn’t involve blowing up Americans; kind of like Zia-ul-Haq in that sense). The word ‘communitarianism’ has come up to describe the PTI, though that word – like almost everything about the PTI – is so vague that it can mean anything.
Imran Khan rails against corruption, deeply ingrained in both the PPP and PML-N, and promises some kind of populistic citizens’ revolution to rid the country of the corrupt elites. His rather novel populist, anti-corruption, anti-establishment and mildly Islamist/nationalist rhetoric has attracted large crowds, particularly younger voters – especially in urban areas – who don’t have much in the way of family/patronage ties to the other parties. A lot of those voters have no great love for either the PPP or the PML-N (or the millions of other parties), which they view as corrupt and incompetent political dinosaurs.
Khan’s fairly nationalistic and anti-American message also struck a chord. In October 2012, he led a ‘caravan’ from Islamabad to Waziristan to protest against American drone strikes in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, American drone strikes are very, very unpopular in Pakistan. It’s not because Pakistanis love the Taliban – as some crass tabloids or rags in the West insist – but rather because a lot of those drone strikes end up killing a lot of civilians. A few days ago, a court in Peshawar ruled that drone strikes constituted an unacceptable violation of Pakistani sovereignty (akin to international war crimes) and that no Pakistani government may authorize such attacks. Imran Khan has taken a strong stance against drones (going as far as saying that he’d shoot them down apparently) and military actions in NW Pakistan and has instead promised that he would sit down for negotiations with the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan has still received tons of fairly positive and flattering reviews in the Western media. Mohammed Hanif (from BBC Urdu) in The Guardian encapsulated the whole media attention on him pretty well: “visiting foreign journalists have profiled Imran Khan more than they have profiled any living thing in this part of the world. If all the world’s magazine editors were allowed to vote for Imran Khan he would be the prime minister of half the English-speaking world.”
It hasn’t hurt that Khan has received the support from various technocrats (including the former PPP foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi), dissidents from other parties and local landlords. He is also suspected of having (or having had) the tacit backing of the army.
Late in the campaign, Imran Khan had his own Jennifer Lawrence moment, falling off a stage – although mockery aside, his fall was far more serious than Jennifer Lawrence’s tumble – he fell 5 metres from a forklift and ended up in hospital for a few days with two broken vertebrae.
The other parties at this point are less relevant. The Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) was basically founded by the military in 2002 to act as a pro-government and pro-Musharraf party in 2002. It won the most votes and seats in the 2002 election, but already by 2008 it placed only third with 54 seats. Like the PML-N, it is a conservative and predominantly Punjabi-based party; like the PML-N it is led by two industrialist brothers, the Chaudhry family of Gujrat. However, the PML-Q hates the PML-N, so it has allied with the PPP since 2008. As a party of power for somebody who has since lost power and who is politically irrelevant (Musharraf tried to return from exile with his own new party to run this year, but the courts banned him from politics), the PML-Q is basically dead at this point.
There are a ton of parties with PPP or PML in their name, born from various splits in the larger ‘mother’ parties. Generally, the PPPs tend to hate the PPP, the PMLs tend to hate the PML-N. The PML-F (the F stands for ‘functional’) is one of the most significant of these parties. The PML-F was founded in 1985 and it is associated with Pir Pagara, the leader of a Sufi Muslim community (the Hurs) – and former cricketer – who died in 2012.
The religious parties have been mentioned above in the passage about the nature of Pakistani party politics and religious competition. They do run candidates in elections, but they generally don’t win all that many seats – the 2002 election, in which the religious alliance (MMA) won 59 seats and formed government in the NFWP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) was an aberration rather than the norm. The MMA split ahead of the 2008 election and the component parties contest the elections on their own (or boycott them, for a few of them). The Islamist parties which ran in 2008 did really poorly, and collapsed entirely in the NFWP. In government, the MMA had turned out to be corrupt and incompetent.
The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is the oldest Islamist party, having been founded in 1941, and they have also tended to be the strongest of all parties – although this was not the case this year.
The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) or JUI (F) is a part of the Deobandi movement, a traditionalist and very conservative Sunni (Hanafi school) revivalist movement. The JUI seems to include a bunch of parties, the largest of which is the JUI (F), led by prominent cleric Fazal-ur-Rehman. Fazal-ur-Rehman was a close ally of Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s, and has remained on good terms with the PPP. After all, Benazir Bhutto’s government in the 1990s played a large role in installing and recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.
The Awami National Party (ANP) are an ostensibly left-wing secular party, in practice they are a Pashtun/Pathan ethnic (ethnocentric?) party. The party is strongest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where they currently are the governing party in provincial government. The ANP also has a significant base in Karachi, which has a huge Pashtun population as a result of years of immigration to Pakistan’s largest cities. The party is viscerally anti-Taliban, and it has been the target of a large number suicide attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the ANP accepted some concessions to the Taliban in 2009 – it supported the deal signed between the government and the Taliban in 2009, which would have instituted Sharia law in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ party, but in reality there’s nothing liberal about them although they’re secular (if only by virtue of being hated by the Taliban). The MQM is a Karachi-based ethnic party representing the Muhajirs – the Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees who came from India after partition in 1947, with most of them settling in Karachi were they gained prominence in business and white-collar jobs. The party sees itself as an inclusive, centre-left, secular party – like the ANP – but in practice, the word ‘fascist’ or ‘traitors’ gets thrown around a lot when people talk about them, and there’s some justification for those terms. The MQM is the dominant party in Karachi, where the Muhajirs are the majority (along with Pashtun/Pathan immigrants); the pro-PPP Sindhis who inhabit the countryside are only a minority in Karachi, so the PPP is basically dead in the water in Karachi. The MQM, PPP and the ANP are engaged in a literal battle for control of the city, which has made Karachi the most violent city in Pakistan – more people die in Karachi than in American drone strikes. Politicians and their supporters are often killed in bloody street fights or gun battles with members of their rival political parties.
The MQM’s leader, who leads the party from self-imposed exile in London, is Altaf Hussain – a mafia kingpin. In practice, all parties active in Karachi, especially the MQM, are more mafias and paramilitary thuggish gangs than actual political parties. For example, the PPP’s only stronghold – Lyari town – is controlled by the Baloch brothers and their mafia.
In 2000-2005, the military regime created some nonpartisan local government structure which allowed the MQM to gain control of the Karachi local government (in 2005) and rule the city until 2010, when the new civilian government (which hated the military’s local government structure) effectively abolished local government for the time being. The MQM was up in arms at getting “its” city government taken away from them, which further worsened its relations with the PPP.
Although the MQM, PPP and ANP are engaged in a bloody battle for control of the city (which has turned to the MQM’s advantage), the MQM governed with the PPP at the federal level and provincially in Sindh until 2011. The MQM is basically willing to work with any party nationally.
Besides all of these parties, you have a bunch of other tiny parties which have a tiny local stronghold guaranteeing them a seat or two; or, in Balochistan, a whole slew of vaguely nationalistic Baloch parties.
Results and aftermath
Turnout is estimated at around 60%, up significantly since 2008 when turnout was only 44%.
The Election Commission has declared the results for 261 of the 272 general seats. There will be a re-poll in six constituencies, two results were withheld, two were ‘terminated’ and one election has been ‘postponed’. The 70 reserved seats have, as a result, not been allocated yet. The results are:
PML-N 124 seats
PPP 31 seats
PTI 27 seats
MQM 18 seats
JUI (F) 10 seats
PML-F 5 seats
PMAP 3 seats
JI 3 seats
Others 12 seats (incl. ANP, 1 seat)
Independents 28 seats
Nawaz Sharif swept back to power for a third term in office, 14 years after having been ousted from office by Musharraf’s military coup. Third time’s the charm?
With about 124 seats so far, the PML-N will have no trouble winning an absolute majority in the National Assembly all by itself. We can expect that a lot of the 30 or so independent members will quickly defect to the PML-N, who will also be able to count on the support of some of the smaller parties. Therefore, for the third time, Nawaz Sharif will return to office as Prime Minister of Pakistan.
What is to be expected from Nawaz Sharif in the next five years? He has already been in office (twice), although that was nearly 15 years ago and before a long stint in Saudi exile. His terms were perhaps not absolutely disastrous, but he didn’t prove to be particularly competent and certainly didn’t turn out to be any less corrupt than other Pakistani politicians. The PML-N (with Sharif’s brother) have ruled Punjab for the past five years, and the PML-N’s provincial government’s record is generally well regarded.
Nawaz Sharif wants to focus on the economy and economic growth, with vague promises of reforms or more investments in infrastructure projects. It remains to be seen how much it will be able to accomplish on that front, given that the PML-N’s campaign promised the moon on that front: building a high-speed bullet train from Peshawar to Karachi, expanding the highways or building airports. As Mohammed Hanif put it in the aforementioned article from The Guardian: “he has promised motorway connections and airports to towns so small that they still don’t have a proper bus station. Poor people, who couldn’t afford a bicycle at the time of the elections, like to be promised an airport. You never know when you might need it.” A lot of Punjabi voters like Nawaz Sharif because they see him as a competent businessman who knows how to get things done, and they keep hoping that his purported ‘business-style’ or entrepreneurial spirit will translate into growth and affluence.
The Pakistani economy has performed poorly under five years of PPP governance, with relatively low economic growth, inflation (stagflation) and a whole slew of other issues including an energy crisis resulting in load shedding and blackouts. The incoming government will have to live up to high expectations in that regard. It will probably have to strike a deal with the IMF for a new loan, which will entail reforms including more efficient tax collection.
Certainly one of the keys to more robust economic growth is the security situation in the country. Inefficient and bloated bureaucracy with archaic regulations work to discourage potential foreign investors, but the worsening security situation with a war on terror or urban violence (in Karachi) doesn’t attract tons of foreign investment.
Nawaz Sharif’s tone in the campaign was fairly nationalistic and defiant of the United States. He said that the conflict in Afghanistan, which will inevitably and invariably continue to spill over the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, is “America’s war” and doesn’t concern Pakistan. He has also opposed drone strikes. As The Guardian‘s article put it, “in his five years’ rule in Punjab, Sharif’s party has had one policy about the Pakistani Taliban who have been wreaking havoc in parts of Pakistan: please go and do your business elsewhere.” In large part, they have obliged and the Taliban undoubtedly prefer Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N to the defeated PPP-led government. For starters, the Taliban didn’t invite themselves into the PML-N’s campaign this year (read: they didn’t attack them).
Nawaz Sharif wants to negotiate with the Taliban, and there is a chance that those talks will be more fruitful than the previous round of negotiations with the PPP government back in 2009. But working through American-Pakistani relations, the war on terror, Pakistan’s role in the conflict and so forth is an extremely delicate issue. For all his words, it is very probable that realpolitik will prevail over Nawaz Sharif, compelling him to drop the anti-American rhetoric and build a working relationship with the Americans. After all, the last thing any Pakistani government wants is forfeiting the millions and millions in American aid to the military and the country. Like in the 1980s with Zia, Nawaz Sharif’s dream is probably to be Islamist at home while still getting paid by the Americans.
But the civilian government has only so much power over foreign policy. In reality, most of the power over foreign policy lies with the military, who are generally given a free hand over foreign relations and military matters by the civilian government of the day. Nawaz Sharif, back in the 1990s, tried to do things a bit differently, and that was a contributing factor in Musharraf’s 1999 coup. One of Nawaz Sharif’s challenges (among the million others) will be maneuvering with the military. General Ashfaq Kayani’s term at the head of the Pakistani military will end later this year, and Nawaz Sharif will need to appoint his successor. To smoothen things out and prevent a repeat of the 1998-1999 situation, he has already said that he will simply appoint the highest-ranking military official to the post rather than handpicking his own favourite (as he had done, ironically enough, when he picked Musharraf in 1998).
Nawaz Sharif will probably try to improve relations with India. He has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his inauguration, and he has given definite indications that he wants to improve relations and increase trade with Pakistan’s traditional rival/enemy.
The PML-N’s emphatic victory is not a nationwide landslide or mandate for Nawaz Sharif. His emphatic victory was an emphatic victory in Punjab, the PML-N’s stronghold and the country’s most populous province. The PML-N thoroughly swept the Punjab. The PPP, which had done well in the Saraiki-speaking areas of southern Punjab in 2008, were trounced throughout the region. They won only 2 NA seats in the province. The PML-Q was murdered, taking only two seats in the whole country – not a big surprise as the party died with Musharraf’s regime fading off into history. Nawaz Sharif’s party won 116 of its 124 seats in the Punjab. It won about half of the popular vote in the province. Regionalism remains very salient in Pakistani politics.
Imran Khan’s party, the PTI, actually did pretty well. It didn’t win the election and 30 or so seats is perhaps not all that much, but this is a party which had never won more than one seat in the past and had little existing partisan structure to build upon. They were not expected to win (despite what one might assume from the media’s infatuation with him), so it is a very good result. The PTI will be forming the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), which really seems to love whichever party is up-and-coming at the time (MMA, ANP and now PTI). It won 17 out of 35 NA seats in KPK, accounting for about three-fifths of its seats in the whole country. The party’s very strong performance in KPK and all the Pashtun populated areas was surprising, given that they had been expected to break through in urban Punjab (and take PML-N seats in the process) rather than in KPK. However, the PTI’s Punjabi breakthrough failed to materialize – it won only 8 National Assembly seats in the Punjab and didn’t really do all that well in Punjabi cities such as Lahore (Imran Khan, standing in multiple constituencies, was apparently defeated in Lahore). Its big wave of momentum instead came from Pashtun areas. Imran Khan himself is of Pashtun descent, which helps explain his success with those voters.
The PTI nevertheless established itself as the second party in Punjab, which definitely provides it with a base for growth in the future. However, the PTI is a new party with a charismatic leader but few political roots in the country and little infrastructure. It ran on vaguely populist promises, most of which would have been quite hard to fulfill if the PTI had won. Will the party be able to survive for the next five years? It is uncertain whether the PTI or the PPP will form the official opposition, but regardless the PML-N is absolutely dominant in Islamabad and Punjab and it has little need or use for the other parties. Will the PTI manage to hold together despite these challenges?
The incumbent PPP was trounced. That wasn’t surprising, since everybody (including the PPP) was expecting it. The governing party has been worn down and depleted by five years of power. Almost everybody agreed that they had done a really poor job in government, and their record (or lack thereof) left them very unpopular with many voters. It also didn’t help that because of Taliban attacks on them, the PPP wasn’t really in a position to carry out a real campaign (unlike the PML-N) and was forced to hide rather than actively campaign.
As mentioned above, regionalism remains very real in Pakistani politics. As an example, take the composition of the four provincial legislatures after the election:
- Punjab (293/297): PML-N 214 seats, independents 42 seats, PTI 19 seats, PML-Q 7 seats, PPP 6 seats, Islamists 1 seat, others 4 seats
- Sindh (123/130): PPP 65 seats, MQM 37 seats, PML-F 7 seats, independents 5 seats, PML-N 4 seats, PTI 1 seat, others 4 seats
- KPK (97/99): PTI 35 seats, independents 13 seats, JUI (F) 13 seats, PML-N 12 seats, JI 7 seats, ANP 4 seats, PPP 2 seats, others 11 seats
- Balochistan (50/51): PMAP 10 seats, PML-N 9 seats, Baloch nationalists 9 seats, independents 8 seats, JUI (F) 6 seats, PML-Q 5 seats, others 3 seats
The PML-N won a massive majority in the Punjab’s provincial legislature. In 2008, it had won 171 seats to the PPP’s 107 seats and the PML-Q’s 83 seats. Now it almost holds a three-fourths majority (and, if a few independents join the PML-N, it will have one). The PML-N has total and absolute domination of Punjab.
The PPP resisted fairly well in Sindh, where relatively little changed. The PPP swept rural Sindh besides the Pir’s strongholds which went to PML-F, while the MQM remains in control of Karachi. The PML-N did win seats (unlike in 2008), but it remains a non-entity. Similarly, the PTI failed to make a mark. Therefore, while the PPP was murdered everywhere outside of Sindh, it still managed a respectable performance in its Sindhi strongholds.
KPK saw the most change. The ANP, which had won 48 seats in 2008 and formed the provincial government since then, was wiped out – it won only 4 seats provincially and held on to a single constituency federally. The ANP suffered the brunt of the Taliban’s violence, and its record in office was probably relatively unpopular as well – unsurprising, given that governing KPK seems like a suicidal thing to do. It has been replaced by Imran Khan’s PTI, which won 35 seats in the provincial assembly and will be forming the next provincial government. The Islamist parties had their best results in the province, but they remain very weak compared to 2002. The PML-N has a bit of a foothold in the province, which it retained; the PPP, however, was wiped out.
Balochistan, for a change, was a hot mess. The PMAP (Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party), another Pashtun nationalist party, won the most seats but there’s basically a three-way tie for control of the provincial assembly. Turnout was very low in Baloch-populated areas, but much higher in the Pashtun-populated areas. There is an ongoing separatist conflict in Balochistan, which the media and the world generally keeps silent about or doesn’t really know much about. Many Baloch nationalists have been tortured, abducted or simply “disappeared” by the military.’
As The Guardian put it: “Who needs a federation when you can have so much more fun doing things your own way.”
So, to sum it up, Pakistan held an election and a former Prime Minister returned to power – but only because he managed to clean up in Punjab while remaining quite marginal (or nonexistent) in other parts of the country. The other provinces of the country traditionally resent Punjabi dominance of politics in Pakistan, and with the Punjabi industrialist and political elite back in power at the federal level, there is a chance that if his policies are too partial in favour of Punjab, regional resentment will increase. Furthermore, his rivals – PPP and PTI – have either held or conquered their own provincial strongholds, which they can use to defy the federal government. With the 18th amendment, Pakistan’s provincial governments are more powerful than they were in the past.
Can Pakistan change for the better in the next five years? Optimism is nice, but I can’t help but be quite cynical (and pessimistic) about the whole thing. I prefer to be pleasantly surprised. Nawaz Sharif isn’t some new politician who has fired up crowds with an ambitious or novel agenda. He’s an old-timer (whose two previous governments were aborted) and who is certainly quite corrupt. Even with the best intentions, Pakistan is a tough place to govern – the country is a powder keg Besides the thousands of problems facing any problem, the executive isn’t the only source of power in the country – it faces the military, an activist judiciary, empowered provincial governments, terrorist or religious fundamentalist groups, and many quasi-mafias running around freely in places in Karachi.
Next: BC (Canada) and the Philippines. Stay tuned – apologies for delays in publishing these posts!
Legislative elections were held in Bulgaria on May 12, 2013. The 240 members of Bulgaria’s unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (Народно събрание), are elected by closed-list PR (Hare-Niemeyer method) with a 4% threshold.
Bulgaria since 1990: anti-incumbency
Bulgarian politics since the fall of communism have been marked by anti-incumbency – no governing party has ever managed to win re-election. The right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), a broad collection of parties and politicians which had opposed the communist regime, won the 1991 election and formed government with Philip Dimitrov as Prime Minister, although Dimitrov was forced to resign within a year. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the renamed communist party, won the 1994 elections and Zhan Videnov became Prime Minister. Under Videnov, Bulgaria’s economy collapsed with hyperinflation (inflation reached 1000% in 1997), and the government faced huge protests which forced Videnov to resign in February 1997. The right-wing opposition won the 1997 elections in a landslide, taking 52% of the vote against 22% for the BSP. The new Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov, came in with shock therapy and large-scale privatization, which restored the country’s economic health and began accession negotiations with the EU. But as in most post-communist states in the 1990s, privatization was marred by corruption and quickly became a way for new oligarchs to enrich themselves and gain control of the country’s economy (and politics). Kostov’s rule was characterized by endemic corruption and mismanagement.
The SDS lost the 2001 election, but they lost it to a new vaguely centre-right liberal party, the National Movement – Simeon II (NDSV), the personal vehicle of former King Simeon II (the last king, who ruled between 1943 and 1946, before being deposed). In turn, Simeon’s party lost the 2005 election to the BSP, led by Sergei Stanishev. Stanishev was defeated by Boyko Borisov’s ‘Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria’ (GERB) party, a right-wing party created by Borisov – the mayor of Sofia between 2005 and 2009 – in 2006. The NDSV, in the meantime, died off – losing all of its 53 seats. The GERB won 39.7% against 17.7% for the BSP, and by virtue of the BSP’s short-lived change in the voting system from pure PR to parallel voting, the GERB almost won a majority to itself.
GERB leader Boyko Borisov, a flamboyant former wrestler, bodyguard and police chief keen on presenting himself as a populist (when he’s a fairly standard-fare right-winger, although a corrupt one at that), became Prime Minister. His government came to power as Bulgaria was hit by the economic crisis – the country’s economy shrank by 5.5% in 2009. His government responded with stringent austerity measures, which reduced Bulgaria’s budget deficit to 0.5% (one of the smallest in the EU) thanks to major spending cuts, but further aggravated the dire poverty faced by up to two in ten Bulgarians living under the national poverty line. The country is indeed one of the poorest in the EU (alongside Romania), with the lowest average wages (€357), the lowest minimum wage and the lowest HDI. The official unemployment rate has almost doubled since 2009, reaching 12% in 2012.
Borisov and the GERB’s anti-corruption rhetoric from 2009 turned out, in the least surprising thing ever, to be a gimmick. Bulgaria was already the most corrupt state in the EU (tied, again, with Romania) and the government’s anti-corruption ‘efforts’ have not improved the case. Before even taking office, the US Congressional Quarterly (CQ) accused Borisov of being directly linked to organized crime and major mobsters in Bulgaria; in 2011, leaked American diplomatic documents accused him of money laundering for criminal groups by way of his wife, who owns a large bank. More recently, in March 2013, an investigation revealed that interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (Borisov’s right-hand man) had ordered wiretapping. Political rivals, businessmen and journalists were spied on by the state. The head of the organism charged with fighting organized crime, who also happens to be Borisov’s former campaign manager, is suspected of having received a €20,000 in 1999 in return for alerting mobsters of police interventions and having turned a blind eye to drug trafficking channels in the country.
Borisov’s tenure has also been marked by a noted degradation of media freedom and transparency in the country. Since 2006, the country’s standing the Press Freedom Index has tumbled from 35th to 87th. The government usually benefits from rather tame media coverage, a number of subservient sycophants in some media outlets, the lack of investigative reporting and rampant self-censorship.
Faced with a crisis which worsened economic deprivation, and politicians who continue to be crooks, there has been widespread popular discontent with the government and politics in general. A protest movement, which originally protested exorbitant electricity prices (electricity distribution was privatized in 2005, and is now controlled by three companies holding regional monopolies, the whole sector is notoriously corrupt), began in January 2013. With rising electricity prices, it estimated that households will soon spend 100% of their monthly income on basic necessities. In the energy debate, Borisov’s flip-flops over the fate of the Belene nuclear power plant (construction began in the 1980s, then stalled on-and-off, then was about to begin in 2012 with a Russian company, then Borisov cancelled the plant) were quite unpopular. The opposition BSP, which strongly supports the Belene nuclear power plant, managed to organize a referendum on the matter earlier this year – a large majority voted in favour of Belene, but turnout was so low (20%) that the government was allowed to throw out the result (in fact, the government had set the turnout threshold over the 60% turnout in the 2009 general election).
During the protests, seven protesters set themselves on fire, and at least three have died. Clearly, Bulgarians have been worn down by corruption, mismanagement in both the public and private sector, inefficient and useless administration, high unemployment and poverty. The protests are not only about GERB’s tenure in office, they speak to ingrained corruption and mismanagement which has been the staple of every government – left or right – since the fall of communism. Parliament is often seen as a rubber stamp, in the pockets of oligarchs and businesses who secure laws favourable to themselves.
Borisov fretted that the protests would hinder his party’s chances in this year’s election. An opportunistic politician, he tried to rebuild his populist image (to save his party). He fired his finance minister (behind the austerity policies), revoked CEZ’s (a Czech energy distributor) license and proposed to reduce electricity prices by 8%. Then, in late February, overly dramatic, he announced that he would resign because he could not serve in a government “under which the police are beating people”. He also said that he was giving the power back to the people and that he did not want more blood to be spilled – to quote Joe Biden, a bunch of malarkey. He was replaced by a technocratic (but GERB-controlled) government led by Marin Raykov, a diplomat. Borisov’s resignation was in reality a strategic move to provoke early elections, salvage his party’s standing ahead of those elections and catch the opposition by surprise.
GERB campaigned on its record of reducing the deficit and emphasizing the need for fiscal responsibility.
The main opposition is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the only relevant party in a ‘Coalition for Bulgaria’ filled with useless tiny parties. The BSP still goes through the motions of being a social democratic/left-wing party, but in reality it is fairly moderate (left-wing critics would say it is right-wing). In power, the BSP – certainly no less corrupt or more competent than the right – continued with privatizations and even created a 10% flat tax. In opposition, they have been either rather silent or uninspiring. There has been infighting between BSP leader and former Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and former President Georgi Parvanov. As a result, the party’s prime ministerial candidate was Plamen Oresharski, the former finance minister in the BSP-led government between 2005 and 2009. The party’s platform was moderately left-leaning, promising to increase the minimum wage, create 250,000 jobs in 10 years (with a ‘reindustrialization’ plan) and greater state participation in the economy. It proposed to amend the flat tax – which Stanishev’s government put in place – by exempting those earning less than the minimum wage from the income tax and create a 20% tax bracket for those earning over 10 times the minimum wage. Like other opposition parties, it sought to harness the 2013 protest movement, with ‘anti-corruption’ promises.
The governing party countered by alleging that Stanishev bought his position of leader of the PES by awarding a contract for Bulgarian identity documents to Siemens (which has connections with Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the socialist group in the EP). This, however, appears to be a fairly dubious accusation.
The traditional third party is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party which excites everybody because it defines itself as a liberal party defending ethnic minorities. In reality, the DPS is an ethnic Turkish party (Turks make up 9% of Bulgaria’s population) which is certainly the most hated party in Bulgaria. Part of the reason stems from ethnic/religious tensions, but the DPS also has an unsavoury reputation as a corrupt party which has used dirty tricks such as vote buying or “electoral tourism” (allegations that ethnic Turks voted in Bulgaria at their permanent address and then returned to Turkey to vote with their passports). Only the BPS is amenable to governing in coalition with the DPS, which was the junior partner in coalitions between 2001 and 2009, first under Simeon II and later under Stanishev.
The DPS’s founder, Ahmed Dogan, led the party until January 2013. He became famous around the world when an assassination attempt against him at the DPS congress in January was captured in video. The whole incident was actually pretty amusing, especially with bodyguards and members starting to kick and beat the assailant. While most consider that Dogan remains the real boss behind the scenes, Lyutvi Mestan is the party’s new leader.
Attack (Ataka) is the main nationalist (far-right) party, with a magnificently bellicose name. The party, founded in 2005, is led by Volen Siderov, who gained some international notoriety in 2006 by qualifying for the presidential runoff election, with 21.5% in the first round and 24% in the runoff. In parliamentary elections, however, Ataka peaked at 9% support in 2009. The party, naturally, is strongly nationalistic – it is certainly the party which hates the DPS the most of all parties, it opposes EU and NATO membership and has close relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Siderov espouses anti-Masonic conspiracy theories and often claims that international forces (which usually involve Turkey, the EU, NATO, the United States and sometimes Gypsy ‘bandits’ and Jews) are planning a genocide of Bulgarians. The party, however, has tended to emphasize its anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and anti-neoliberal agenda, which makes it one of the more economically left-wing parties in Bulgaria – certainly moreso than the BSP. Ataka claims that the IMF and World Bank’s ‘neocolonial and neoliberal’ agenda marginalize and impoverish countries. The party’s platform supports a major increase in the minimum wage, replacing the flat tax with a progressive income tax and the nationalization of electricity distribution companies.
Ataka unofficially supported Borisov’s government after the 2009 election, but relations between the two parties quickly turned sour. The party’s support had dropped significantly by 2012 (1-3%), but it managed to regain support and improve its position because the protest movement. It has been one of the few parties to benefit from the protest movement, unlike the BSP.
The Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), the main right-wing party in the 1990s, and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), a right-wing party founded by Ivan Kostov in 2004, ran a common list (Blue Coalition) in 2009, taking 7% of the vote. The coalition was broken off this year. The SDS especially is a pale shadow of its former self, and the DSB has only limited support.
Order, Law and Justice (RZS), which won 4% and 10 seats in 2009, a personalist populist outfit led by eccentric anti-corruption activist Yane Yanev. The party zealously supported the GERB government.
Bulgaria for Citizens Movement is a new party founded and controlled by Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s first European Commissioner. It is a centrist liberal party, supporting balanced budgets, ‘financial stability’ and economic liberalization.
Bulgaria has 6.9 million registered voters, when the entire population of the country is less than 7.5 million. Bulgaria’s electoral rolls are notoriously terrible, filled with Bulgarians who have been living abroad for years or voters who have since died. The government never seems to be interested in cleaning up the rolls. Bulgarian elections are also marred by serious allegations of vote selling/buying (voters selling their votes, which is illegal) or employers coercing their employees into voting for a certain party which they favour (often because it’s their own or because they hope to gain money from having that party go somewhere).
The day before the election, the police seized 350,000 illegal ballots in a printing press in Kostinbrod. Coincidentally, the owner of the printing press was a GERB municipal councillor.
Turnout was 51.33%, down almost ten points since the 2009 election (60.2%). As in other European countries which have faced similar socioeconomic upheaval and growing disillusionment with the political system, one of the main winners of popular discontent has been abstention. The results were:
GERB 30.50% (-9.21%) winning 98 seats (-19)
BSP 26.61% (+8.91%) winning 86 seats (+4)
DPS 11.29% (-3.17%) winning 33 seats (-4)
Ataka 7.30% (-2.06%) winning 23 seats (+2)
National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria 3.71% (+3.71%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Bulgaria for Citizens 3.25% (+3.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
DSB 2.92% (-3.84%) winning 0 seats (-5)
IMRO 1.89% (+1.89%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Lider 1.73% (-1.53%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RZS 1.68% (-2.45%) winning 0 seats (-10)
NDSV 1.63% (-1.38%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SDS 1.38% (see DSB) winning 0 seats (-9)
People’s Voice 1.34% (+1.34%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others (below 1%) 4.77% (+3.17%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The governing party, for the first time in post-communist Bulgaria, won a plurality of the vote. However, the GERB lost a substantial amount of support – about a third of its vote – and it now falls well short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The opposition Socialists recovered a good chunk of the support they had lost in the last election, though I don’t know whether this means that they gained votes from other parties or if they just held their 2009 support in a context of low turnout.
Only two other parties entered Parliament this year, the DPS and Ataka. A bit less than 25% of voters voted for the plethora of parties which fell below the 4% threshold. Ataka, which had been written off only months ago, managed to claw its way back because of the protest movement and its left-wing economic positions, more in tune with some of the protester’s demands than the BSP’s moderate Third Wayish platform.
Nevertheless, these results still show that there is a major disconnect between Bulgarian voters and their political leaders. None of the four parties which entered Parliament are new forces or previously marginal forces which gained support as a result of the crisis. The GERB and BSP represent Bulgarian politics-as-usual: backroom deals, corruption, mismanagement and aloofness. The DSP is an ethnic party with an ethnically-defined electorate which will never be in a position to appeal to voters outside of its niche. Ataka saved its parliamentary caucus with the protests, but it does not seem like it will ever become a more serious or dangerous force. None of the other parties – Kuneva’s liberal party, the moribund (or long-dead parties which survive as ghosts) parties like the SDS/DSB/NDSV, the plethora of various personalist populist outfits or the new far-right (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) – a party associated with cable TV station SKAT (the one which had propelled Ataka to Parliament in 2005) – managed to actually appeal a great many voters.
The election yielded an inconclusive result. GERB is the largest party and should get first shot at forming government, but it seems extremely unlikely will be able to form a government with these numbers. The DPS and Ataka have ruled out working with GERB, even if GERB has gotten so desperate to remain in power that it backtracked on its past statements and is now open to working with DPS. A GERB-BSP grand coalition is unlikely. For starters, Bulgaria isn’t Austria or Germany. Secondly, the BSP led a very anti-GERB campaign which minced no words in talking about GERB’s corruption. It led the charge against Tsvetan Tsvetanov and alleged that the GERB had been preparing to rig the election when the 350k ballots were seized. Similarly, a GERB minority is unlikely to survive given the hostility of the three other parties.
The most likely government which could be formed on these numbers is a BSP-DSP-Ataka government (probably with Ataka and/or DPS providing outside support without being in cabinet), which is a bit hard to envision (given how Ataka and DPS are worlds apart). If the BSP is unable to form a government after GERB has failed to do likewise, the President will ask one of the smaller parties, and if this proves unsuccessful there must be new elections within two months. In the meantime, the technocratic (pro-GERB) government will stay in place as a caretaker cabinet.
At this point, one of the most likely outcomes is probably a new election. Whichever government results from this mess will find it hard to govern in the long-term.
One the biggest challenges facing any new government will be the legitimacy crisis and the growing divide between citizens and their politicians. Yet, given the political parties which remain in this new National Assembly, this seems to be a pipe dream.
Next: Pakistan, British Columbia (Canada) and the Philippines. Bear with me! Apologies if not all elections are covered, but guest posts are welcomed.
General elections were held in Malaysia on May 5, 2013. All 222 seats of the lower house of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rekyat (House of Representatives) were up for reelection. The lower house’s 222 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy which operates, in theory, on the basis of the Westminster System. The monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (often referred to as ‘King’), is elected to a five-year term by the Conference of Rulers, a council made up of the traditional Malay rulers of the nine (out of 13) Malaysian states with a monarch. This makes Malaysia one of the few elective monarchies in the world. In practice, the King’s powers are largely ceremonial: he appoints the Prime Minister, dissolves the lower house, grants royal assent to bills and nominates most members of the upper house (Dewan Negara) on the advice of the Prime Minister. As in other Westminster countries, true executive power is vested in the Prime Minister and his government.
The upper house of the Parliament, the Dewan Negara (Senate) is composed of 26 members elected by the state legislatures and 44 members appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister (including four representatives which represent the three federal territories, including Kuala Lumpur). The Dewan Negara has very limited powers. Although both houses of Parliament must pass a bill before it is presented to the monarch for royal assent, the Dewan Negara cannot veto a bill and may only delay passage of the bill (by up to a year). Similarly, the The monarch cannot veto legislation, he may only ask the Parliament to reconsider bills before granting royal assent.
Malaysia is a federation, albeit a very centralized one. It is divided into thirteen states, nine of which have a traditional Malay monarch. The eleven ‘mainland’ states only have exclusive powers over land tenure, the Islamic religion and local government. The states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo have additional powers, including special powers over immigration – Malaysian citizens from the mainland require a passport to enter these two states for a protracted period of time. Each state has a state legislative assembly, whose members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies, and a Chief Minister who serves as the head of the state executive. Twelve of the thirteen states (all except Sarawak, which voted in 2011) also held state elections on May 5.
Malaysia is, theoretically, a parliamentary democracy. In practice, Malaysian politics since independence (in 1957) have been dominated by a single alliance (itself heavily dominated by a single party); in turn, this ruling alliance has used the levers of power to control politics and set the rules of the game. The Electoral Commission is widely seen as being subservient to the governing alliance, which has used gerrymandering, vote fraud, phantom voters and intimidation to maintain its power over the years. The Prime Minister and his government are all-powerful, reducing the Parliament to an echo chamber which rubber stamps the government’s bills without asking too many questions.
Race, Identity and Ethnicity: The Core of Malaysian Politics and Society
The keys to understanding Malaysian politics and society are race, ethnicity and identity.
67% of the Malaysian population are officially referred to as Bumiputra, most of them ethnic Malays. According to Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution, Malays are Muslim, speak the Malay language and “conform to Malay culture”. The native indigenous population (‘tribes’) of Sabah and Sarawak on North Borneo are also treated as bumiputra for official purposes; however, the small Orang Asli indigenous population in Malaya are not treated as bumiputra and suffer from discrimination.
The bumiputra receive preferential treatment and have benefited from racially-based affirmative action programs. Article 153 of the constitution safeguards the “special position” of the bumiputras and establishes quotas for them in the federal public service, federal education scholarships, tertiary education enrollment and federal trade and business licenses.
About 25% of the population are Chinese, who came to Malaysia in three waves. The earliest Chinese immigrants settled in the Straits (Malacca) region in the 15th and 16th centuries, but most immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries as coolies. The second wave of immigration was encouraged by Malaya’s British colonial rulers, who used the Chinese to work in tin mines and rubber plantations. While most arrived poor, the Chinese population rapidly gained prominence in trade and business (banking, insurance) to the point that the Chinese formed Malaysia’s economic and business elite around the time of independence.
7% of the population is Indian. Indians have been living in Malaysia for hundreds of years, but the largest wave of immigration came alongside the second wave of Chinese immigration when Malaya became a profitable British possession. The Indians – most of them Tamil – were imported as indentured labourers to work on rubber plantations. Perhaps not to the extent of the Chinese, Indians in Malaysia are nonetheless fairly economically powerful in the county. They are particularly over-represented in healthcare (doctors etc).
Malay society had difficulty coping with Chinese immigrants, who they viewed as a threat to their majority status, their religion and the Malay language. British colonial rule generally protected Malays, recognizing the authority of traditional rulers (Sultans) over customary law and religion (although they were generally powerless against the British authorities), and their policies purportedly favoured the Malays (public education for Malays, limited preference in the civil service). These ostensibly ‘pro-Malay’ policies, however, only benefited to a small elite and they were used by the British to protect their power rather than favour the Malays.
Nevertheless, Malay nationalism became important in the early twentieth century, in part a response to the fears bred by Chinese and Indian immigration and the perceived threat they posed to the Malay people. In 1946, the British created the Malayan Union, transforming all of Malaya (peninsular modern Malaysia) into a protectorate which reduced the sovereignty of the traditional rulers. Furthermore, the new structure wished to extend citizenship (by way of jus soli) to all Malayans, including the Chinese and Indian. The creation of the Malayan Union boosted the cause of Malay nationalism.
In the years before independence, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a Malay nationalist party founded in 1946, had become the dominant political force in Malaya. The UMNO represented a conservative and elitist brand of Malay nationalism, primarily concerned with Malayan independence (unlike some on the left who supported a Greater Indonesia), protecting the traditional Malay rulers (Sultans), promoting and upholding Malay supremacy (Ketuanan Melayu). The UMNO had opposed Britain’s formation of the quasi-colonial Malayan Union in 1946, and the UMNO’s opposition pressured the British to dissolve this short-lived scheme in 1948 to create the Federation of Malaya, which restored the powers of the traditional rulers. The UMNO’s support had also been crucial to Britain during the most violent part of the Malayan Emergency (a predominantly Chinese Communist insurgency between 1948 and 1960). The Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957.
Independence involved a “contract” between the Malays and non-Malays. Citizenship, and by extension equality under the law, was extended to all residents regardless of race/ethnicity, and the constitution prohibited discrimination on racial grounds (except for Article 153). The Malay nationalists dropped the most problematic “Malay supremacist” aspects of Ketuanan Melayu. In return, non-Malays acquiesced to Article 153 and other elements which defined the new nation as an officially multi-racial but clearly Malay-led and dominated country (Malay as the official language, Islam as the official religion). Therefore, the non-Malays agreed to alleviate the inequalities in economic power between Malays and non-Malays (the latter controlled the bulk of the economy) and recognize the Malay nature of the new state in exchange for citizenship and equality.
The UMNO formed a parochial and sectarian coalition, the Alliance, with the Malaysian Chinese Alliance (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The MCA had been founded in 1949 by conservative Chinese linked to the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT); they strongly opposed the Communist Party which was predominantly Chinese in its ethnic makeup. The MIC was founded in 1946. The UMNO, MCA and MIC found common cause in opposing British rule and supporting independence. The MCA and MIC agreed to the aforementioned “contract” between Malays and non-Malays, which they and UMNO argued was the only way to ensure racial peace in the country. At the time of independence, most non-Malays accepted the constitutional compromise. Many felt that Article 153 would only be a temporary measure, as it had been originally envisioned by the British commission which drafted the text. Besides, the MCA and MIC felt that the “contract” was a fair trade-off - jus soli citizenship was seen as a major concession by the Malays.
The Alliance (UMNO in particular) was the dominant political force in the last elections before independence, and it came to dominate the politics of the new country after independence in 1957. One of the main opposition parties was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a Malay Islamist party. The PAS was founded in 1956, the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. Although UMNO has sometimes played up its Islamic credentials, the UMNO generally adheres to what it has called Islam Hadhari (‘civilizational Islam’) which is more moderate.
Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged with peninsular Malaya to create Malaysia in 1963. Article 153′s protection for ethnic Malays were included to cover Sabah and Sarawak natives (Kadazan-Dusun, Iban etc) even if many of them were animists or Christians rather than Muslims. The merger with Singapore, which was heavily Chinese, heightened tensions in the new federation. Malays feared that they were closer and closer to becoming a minority in ‘their’ country and felt that the merger with Singapore would further worsen their existing economic disadvantage vis-a-vis the Chinese. At the same time, Malay dominance was confirmed with an education reform in 1961 which decreed that only Malay and English would be the languages of instruction in secondary schools, and although communities could maintain Chinese and Tamil primary schools, all students needed to learn Malay and conform to a “Malayan curriculum”. The entry exam for the University of Malaya would be in Malay, even if most courses at the institution were in English.
Singapore’s Chief Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, became a vocal critic of Ketuanan Melayu and promoted an idea of “Malaysian Malaysia” which was anathema to most of the UMNO but which also opposed by the MCA. Lee’s vocal opposition to Malay supremacy heightened and radicalized racial tensions and quickly led to a break in relations between the UMNO and Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP). The non-aggression pact between the two parties was broken when the UMNO ran in the 1963 elections in Singapore and when the PAP ran candidates on the mainland in the 1964 Malaysian election. In both cases, the UMNO and PAP’s attempts to encroach on the other side’s turf ended as massive failures, but the break led to a major deterioration in the situation. Eventually, Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.
In the 1969 elections, the Alliance – particularly the MCA – suffered heavily loses, winning only 45% of the vote although they retained their parliamentary supremacy. The PAS and two new predominantly Chinese parties – the liberal Gerakan and the left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP, the Malaysian branch of the Singaporean PAP) – made major gains. A Gerakan-DAP victory rally turned rowdy as the Chinese crowds taunted Malay bystanders and hurled racial epithets at them. The next day, angry Malay crowds burned over 6000 Chinese homes and businesses and killed 184 people. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended the newly-elected Parliament, leading to direct rule by the executive branch. At the same time, UMNO hardliners (ultras) who had a more racially exclusive and radical view of Malay supremacy, clamored for Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation – they viewed the ‘father of independence’ as being too soft on non-Malays. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had been in office since independence, resigned in late 1970 in favour of Tun Abdul Razak, who welcomed the UMNO ultras – such as future Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – back into the party.
The government, ruling with emergency powers, stepped up repressive measures. It strengthened the old Internal Security Act (ISA), which gave the state broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being a threat to national security for up to 60 days and gave the minister authority to detain individuals for up to two years without trial. It amended the Sedition Act, which bans and criminalizes “seditious” discourse. The Sedition Act also bans any public discourse which questions Article 153 and other “matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative” established by the constitution. The Sedition Act acts as a ‘gag law’ which prevents MPs from debating Article 153.
Tun Abdul Razak’s premiership was defined by the New Economic Policy (NEP), a racially-based affirmative action program aimed at correcting the socioeconomic disparity between the Chinese and Malays. In 1971, the bumiputra controlled only 2.4% of the economy, the NEP set a 30% target. The NEP went beyond Article 153, expanding preferential policies to the entire economy. Malays are entitled to a 7% discount on propert, regardless of their income (lower-income non-Malays receive no such discounts). There were quotas for bumiputra students in post-secondary institutions until 2002. Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange must have 30% Malay ownership; a number of profitable government-run mutual funds are available to bumiputra buyers only; most government tenders require that companies submitting tenders be bumiputra owned; and bumiputra have preferential access to imported cars. Unlike Article 153, the NEP represented direct state intervention into the economy to promote and enhance Malay privilege.
Parliament reconvened in 1971, and the Alliance was reformed as the Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) in 1973. The BN was an expanded coalition which included the liberal Chinese Gerakan and the Islamist Malay PAS, although PAS left the coalition in 1978. Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak died in 1976 and was succeeded by Hussein Onn. Hussein Onn resigned due to ill health in 1981, and he was succeeded by his Deputy Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, a prominent ‘ultra’ within UMNO.
Mahathir’s long premiership marked the cementing of Malay-UMNO hegemony and an autocratic, corrupt and centralist regime. Mahathir inherited the NEP and continued affirmative action policies. Economically, the country experienced solid economic growth in the 1980s (except 1985-1986), in part thanks to the government’s policies. It sought to protect Malaysian industry, like a nascent auto industry, through protective tariffs. At the same time, it privatized a number of state-owned companies at home – these privatizations were often murky and enriched government supporters.
Mahathir faced challenges to his leadership and to Malay hegemony in 1987. Within UMNO, Mahathir had made enemies and he was challenged by an old rival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, for the party’s leadership in 1987. Ultimately, Mahathir’s faction – styled ‘Team A’ – prevailed over Razaleigh by a hair, but the party split into two factions. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Razaleigh’s appeal of a lower court’s decision (which, by declaring UMNO an illegal organization due to some branches not being formally registered, allowed Mahathir to create a new UMNO which the old UMNO’s assets with it), the government proceeded to sack the chief justice and other judges and removed the court’s power to conduct judicial review. In the 1990 election, Razaleigh’s dissident party – supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn – did not pose a serious threat to the BN-UMNO’s power, it won only 15% and 8 seats
At the same time, the government’s decision to appoint non-Chinese speakers to administer Chinese schools provoked an outcry from the Chinese community – including the MCA and Gerakan (UMNO’s two coalition allies). Inflammatory rhetoric swelled on both sides, with UMNO radicals threatening violence and bloodshed. The government responded heavy-handedly, invoking the ISA to arrest opposition leaders.
The NEP expired in 1990. The NEP had fallen short of its 30% target, but Malay control of the country’s economy increased substantially from 2% in 197o to 20% in 1990. Supporters of the NEP credit it with correcting socioeconomic disparities, reducing poverty and increasing the wealth of Malays without negatively affecting Chinese and Indian Malaysians. However, the NEP and subsequent forms of affirmative actions have been widely criticized for having reduced non-Malays to ‘second class citizens’. Furthermore, while the NEP created a new class of Malay businessmen and millionaires, it was in good part due to cronyism. Economic benefits, critics charged, accrued only to the politically connected and widened the gap between rich and poor Malays. The government continued most of the NEP’s policies with the National Development Policy (NDP).
Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth in the late 80s and early 90s (9-10% GDP growth), which continued until the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Most of the credit for the economic growth in the 90s went to Anwar Ibrahim, a former Islamic student leader who had risen to become finance minister (in 1991) and Deputy Prime Minister (in 1993). With Anwar, the government cut corporate taxes and liberalized laws to attract foreign investment. The early 90s were also a period of political liberalization and detente in tense racial relations. The government toned down the old Ketuanan Melayu rhetoric and spoke of reconciliation and common destinies in a multi-racial country.
When the Asian financial crisis hit the country in 1997, Anwar supported the IMF’s austerity policies (spending cuts, raising interest rates). Feeling that Anwar’s policies had exacerbated the crisis, Mahathir sacked Anwar and dropped the IMF’s policies. Anwar was ambitious and started posing a threat to Mahathir’s control of UMNO. Indeed, Anwar and his supporters had started speaking out to denounce (widespread) corruption and cronyism in the ruling party. Anwar was arrested and detained under the ISA in September 1998. In April 1999, he was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption. Two months later, he was charged with sodomy and sentenced to nine years in jail. The two sentences would be served consecutively.
In 1999, an opposition coalition (Barisan Alternatif) formed by the DAP, the PAS and a new party led by Anwar’s wife won 40% of the vote against 56.5% for the BN.
Mahathir stepped down in 2003, handing over power to his anointed successor and Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi. On an appealing anti-corruption platform, the new Prime Minister won a landslide over a divided opposition in the 2004 election, winning 90% of the seats in the lower house.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was released from prison in 2004, after the sodomy verdict was partially overturned. Anwar was still banned from participating in politics for another five years, since Malaysian law bans political activity for a period of five years after the end of a sentence.
Affirmative action policies in education were replaced by “Malaysian meritocracy” in 2003. While the government argued that its new policy gave every Malaysian, regardless of race, equal access to post-secondary education, critics argued that the new ‘meritocracy’ was sham because admission to university is based on two parallel examination systems (a one-year course or a two-year course), which in practice favours bumiputra students who are disproportionately enrolled in the easier one-year program (matriculation). Continuing the trend started under Mahathir in the 1990s, the government’s rhetoric generally became more multi-racial, emphasizing Malaysian “nationhood” rather than purely Malay culture has it had in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abdullah Badawi was a fairly ineffective Prime Minister, and he faced heavy criticism from his predecessor, who remained active in the background. The opposition made historic gains in the 2008 election, winning 82 seats in the 222-seat lower house. For the first time, the BN lost its two-thirds majority which had allowed it to change the constitution. Anwar Ibrahim was still ineligible when the 2008 election was held, in March, but he returned to Parliament in August 2008 after easily winning a by-election in his old constituency, held by his wife. Anwar faced new sodomy allegations in June 2008, but the court finally found him not guilty in January 2012. Like in the first sodomy trial in 1999, Anwar has maintained his innocence and denounced the charges as being politically motivated. The international community, which holds Anwar in high regard, has been critical of the government’s alleged intervention in the trials.
Abdullah Badawi, pressured by Mahathir and other UMNO leaders, was forced out of office in April 2009 and replaced by Najib Razak, his Deputy Prime Minister who had held various portfolios since the 1990s.
Najib Razak has styled himself as a modern, progressive reformer who has sought to downplay old ethnic tensions, liberalize the economy and loosen some of the old restrictive laws.
Najib introduced wide-reaching economic reforms, aimed at attracting more foreign investment and modernizing the economy. The old minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies was lowered from 30% to 12.5%, while additional reforms loosened rules on foreign investment (allowing foreign investors to hold majority stakes in most enterprises). Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a high-income economy by 2020, seeks to boost private enterprise. The government has also implemented wide-reaching reforms to the country’s government subsidies program, either cutting subsidies or eliminating them entirely as was the case for petrol, diesel and sugar subsidies. Malaysia’s economy is growing by around 5% per year.
Najib’s government has pushed forward a fairly ambitious agenda of political transformation, aimed at dismantling repressive security laws which had allowed the BN/UMNO to maintain its hegemony in the past. In 2012, the government repealed the ISA, which had given previous governments wide powers to detain their opponents on flimsy political grounds. It has been replaced by a law which still allows detention for preventive reasons, but for a shorter period of time and on stricter grounds (subject to judicial oversight). The Banishment Act, which allowed the government to deport any non-citizens which it deemed to be a threat to the country, was repealed. The Print and Publications Act was amended so that media organizations no longer need to renew their license every year, which the government argues will make for a freer media. The Universities and University Colleges Act, which had banned students from joining political parties and engaging in political parties, has been amended to allow students to join political parties. Yet it still prevents them from engaging in partisan activities on campus. Moreover, any student can still be barred from joining any organisation that the university deems to be “unsuitable to [his] interests and well-being”. Finally, the government has announced that it will repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a “National Harmony Act”, although the contents of the new bill are still unknown.
The opposition has tended to be cautiously optimistic about these developments, but they have lamented that some of Najib’s ‘major’ reforms might be little more than cosmetic changes. For example, in July 2011, protesters who demanded electoral transparency were met with tear gas and water cannons. Furthermore, the opposition claims that UMNO itself is unreconstructed, with a strong conservative Malay base which blocks any attempts for more radical changes (such as dismantling affirmative action/NEP).
Najib leads the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the governing alliance of parochial and sectarian-based parties which has governed Malaysia since 1957 and took its current name in 1973. UMNO is, by far, the hegemonic force in the BN equation, dominating all of its junior partners and imposing its direction and agenda on the rest of the coalition.
The UMNO needs no presentation. The three other main national players in the BN are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan (Malaysian People’s Movement Party) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The first two cater to the Chinese electorate, while the later represents Indians; however, in both cases, their legitimacy and support with their intended electorate has been badly weakened by their subordination to the Malay UMNO. Furthermore, all parties have been crippled by years of infighting which have left them pretty much entirely useless. Nevertheless, the MCA remains pretty influential outside of politics – it controls Malaysia’s best-selling English daily newspaper, The Star, and also controls a major Chinese newspaper.
The BN includes nine other parties in addition to the four aforementioned parties, and all but one of them are regional parties based in Sabah or Sarawak – and once again, they mostly represent specific ethnic groups. In Sarawak, UMNO does not run candidates and the political scene is entirely dominated by various regional parties affiliated to the BN – notably Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), which has governed governed the region continuously since the party’s creation in 1973.
The opposition is a three-party coalition known as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance, PR). The PR was founded before the 2008 election, in the footsteps of a quasi-identical opposition coalition which did quite well in the 1999 election but collapsed before the 2004 election. The PR is made up of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
The PKR is Anwar Ibrahim’s party, founded in 1999 after Anwar’s expulsion from UMNO. Although the PKR’s leadership and clientele is largely Malay, it is probably one of the most multi-racial parties in the very racially polarized world of Malaysian politics. PKR largely focuses on corruption, ‘change’, social justice and democratic reform; a platform which tends to appeal to young secular and/or afffluent urban Malay voters, notably in Kuala Lumpur. Critics often deride the PKR as a family business: Anwar is the parliamentary leader; the party’s president is Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar is a PKR MP in Kuala Lumpur.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP) was founded in 1965 as the Malaysian branch of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. Whereas the PAP has shifted from socialism to conservative free-market economics, the DAP has remained a left-leaning social democratic party and a member of the Socialist International. The DAP is a predominantly Chinese party, and finds most support in Chinese constituencies (notably in Kuala Lumpur or the Chinese-plurality state of Penang); although it has a few Indian MPs and leaders. Having consistently been in opposition to UMNO since the ill-fated 1969 election, the DAP strongly opposes pro-Malay affirmative action policies (the NEP) and adheres to the 1960s idea of ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, developed by the PAP’s Lee Kuan Yew. The DAP has been accused of racism and chauvinism by the governing parties.
The PAS, as briefly described above, was founded in 1956 as the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. The PAS ostensibly seeks to establish an Islamic state or at least a state structured around Islamic religious law and traditions, but it has tended to moderate its Islamism because of its alliance with the DAP and PKR. However, unlike both of those parties, it has kept silent about affirmative action policies. Because of its alliance with the Chinese DAP and the secular PKR, some Islamic clerics and leaders – a few of which are affiliated to the BN – have been critical of the PAS, which they claim has lost touch with their Islamic values.
Both parties led relatively similar campaigns, both pledging to reduce the cost of living, invest more in social programs (such as healthcare, education, public housing) and crack down on corruption.
The government spent the few months before the election doling out the goodies: various public works projects (in marginal constituencies…), cash handouts for poorer families, pay raises for civil servants and promises of affordable housing or new highways.
The main difference between the BN and PR was affirmative action. The PR, specifically the PKR and DAP (the PAS remained silent), pledged to dismantle affirmative action policies (the NEP) which have favoured Malays and other bumiputra. The opposition, claiming that the NEP has been perverted, it has ended up favouring a select few with little trickle-down effect to other Malays and it has dulled their incentives to excel; they wish to replace the NEP by a real meritocracy, which they claim would encourage Malays to excel and leveling the playing field. The government’s official discourse, in recent years, has been less openly Malay nationalist than in the past (although many UMNO hardliners continue to talk in tones of Ketuanan Melayu). It still opposes doing away with affirmative action entirely, arguing that significant gaps between the ethnic groups still exist. At times, some UMNO leaders – including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – have lamented that some Malays have treated their privileges as a right and neglected their studies. The government has also spearheaded a massive promotional/PR campaign, 1Malaysia, stressing national unity and the country’s multi-racial identity. The opposition has said that 1Malaysia is nothing but another gimmick by the BN; keeping in line with the Malaysian tradition of politicians accusing their opponents of being Israeli lackeys and spies, Anwar said something about 1Malaysia being inspired by an Israeli campaign (One Israel was Ehud Barak’s political coalition in 1999).
BN very much ran two parallel campaigns, reflecting UMNO’s long-standing mastery of political communication. On the one hand, Najib targeted urban and secular voters by presenting himself as a modern and progressive reformer who has been boldly modernizing Malaysian politics since 2009. On the other hand, in rural Malay areas, UMNO ran a whole other campaign – one designed to scare Malay voters away from PR and reassuring its conservative and ethnonationalist grassroots that UMNO will continue to champion Malay rights. UMNO, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has campaigned alongside the Malay nationalist (many critics would say racist and extremist) Perkasa organization. In its time-honoured strategy of playing races against one another, UMNO tried to warn Chinese voters from voting for the opposition by saying that the PAS would impose Islamic law on the Chinese and that dismantling affirmative action would spark race riots like in 1969 (UMNO has often used the threat of race riots to justify the NEP and affirmative action). At the same time, a former PAS cleric now associated with the governing alliance exhorted Muslims (Malays) to vote for BN, saying – bluntly – that an opposition victory would mean “equal rights for all”.
Turnout was 84.84%, the highest turnout in decades (according to IDEA’s data). The results were:
Barisan Nasional 47.83% (-2.44%) winning 133 seats (-7)
UMNO 29.32% winning 88 seats (+9)
PBB (Sarawak) 2.10% winning 14 seats (nc)
MCA 8.14% winning 7 seats (-8)
PRS (Sarawak) 0.54% winning 6 seats (nc)
MIC 2.64% winning 4 seats (+1)
PBS (Sabah) 0.8% winning 4 seats (+1)
SPDP (Sarawak) 0.5% winning 4 seats (nc)
UPKO (Sabah) 0.6% winning 3 seats (-1)
Gerakan 1.38% winning 1 seat (-1)
SUPP (Sarawak) 1.21% winning 1 seat (-5)
PBRS (Sabah) 0.08% winning 1 seat (nc)
PPP 0.07% winning 1 seat (nc)
LDP (Sabah) winning 0 seats (-1)
Pakatan Rakyat 50.87% (+4.12%) winning 89 seats (+7)
DAP 15.71% winning 38 seats (+10)
PKR 20.39% winning 30 seats (-1)
PAS 14.77% winning 21 seats (-2)
Independents 1.75% winning 0 seats (nc)
The governing alliance, in power since Malaysian independence in 1957, was reelected to yet another term in office. It was, however, as The Economist put it rather eloquently “a tawdry victory”. Indeed, the BN was reelected and holds about 59% of the seats in the new Parliament, but it was also the BN’s worst result in its existence – even worse than the previous record low, set in the last election in 2008. In fact, the BN actually lost the popular vote to the opposition, winning only 47.8% of the vote against 50.9% for the PR.
Therefore, the government lost the election with only 48% of the vote but won nearly 60% of the seats in the Parliament; a result which reflects the extent of malapportionment and gerrymandering in Malaysia, which have given the BN a structural advantage going into any election. Constituencies boundaries are gerrymandered as to give an advantage to the governing alliance. However, the bigger issue is malapportionment – the states which favour the governing alliance are overrepresented, as are the rural Malay seats where the UMNO has strong support. For example, the most populous state in the country, Selangor (5.4 million), which also happens to be an opposition base, has 22 seats. Sarawak, which has a population of 2.4 million, elects 31 MPs. Similarly, the states of Johor (3.2 million), Sabah (3.1 million) and Perak (2.2 million) all return more MPs than Selangor despite having a substantially smaller population. These four aforementioned states also tend to be government strongholds, particularly the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The largest swings in this election came from Chinese constituencies. Whereas the opposition parties had won about 55-56% of the vote in predominantly Chinese constituencies (constituencies where both candidates are from Chinese parties) in the 2008 election, they won 64% of the vote and took all but 5 of the 45 seats in which both BN and PR candidates came from the Chinese parties. While UMNO’s vote held its popular vote from the last election and actually won 9 more seats than in the 2008 election, the Chinese parties of BN (MCA, Gerakan, SUPP) suffered the brunt of the coalition’s loses – as had already been the case in 2008 (the MCA already lost 16 seats in 2008, while Gerakan had lost 8 seats then). Similarly, the Chinese DAP was the opposition party which gained the most – it gained 10 seats and its share of the popular vote increased from 13.8% to 15.7% (the PKR’s vote increased from 18.6% to 20.4%, the PAS vote barely increased). At the state level, the PR also made sizable gains in Johor, where the Chinese vote had held up better for the government in 2008 than it had in Penang. The DAP won 4 seats in the state, up from only one in 2008. In the state legislature, the DAP won 13 seats – up from only 4 in 2008. The opposition’s campaign focused on scrapping affirmative action policies clearly appealed to the vast majority of Chinese voters. The obliteration – for the second time in a row – of the BN’s Chinese parties (MCA, Gerakan) places their mere existence into jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the result was a bit disappointing for Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition. They had really felt that they could actually win this election, and they had gone all-in to win it. Anwar even put his own political career on the line. The opposition did win the popular vote, but they only gained seven seats – and all of these gains were made by the DAP with the Chinese vote.
The two “Malay parties” of the PR – PKR and PAS – actually lost seats. The PAS suffered rather major setbacks in Kedah, where the BN/UMNO regained control of the state government which it had lost to PAS in 2008 (overall, PAS lost 7 seats in the state legislature, all to BN; it lost all but one of its six federal MPs); and in Kelantan, the PAS stronghold, where the BN (UMNO) gained 5 seats in the state legislature from the Islamist party. It definitely appears as if the UMNO’s “parallel” campaign in rural Malay areas, playing on ethnic/racial fears and stoking Malay nationalist sentiments, worked out quite well for the party – far more than the 1Malaysia/Najib-the-progressive-reformer stuff did in urban and Chinese areas.
The PR failed to make the gains it would have needed in rural Malay/bumiputra seats in peninsular Malaya and, more importantly, in Sabah and Sarawak. In the two oil-rich Borneo states, both real BN strongholds, the DAP gained urban Chinese constituencies but the PKR and PAS failed to gain the rural seats.
The PR is quite bitter over the loss of these seats, claiming that it lost marginal Malay constituencies because of the BN’s dirty tricks and its generous distribution of goodies (free food, drink, straight cash and even raffling cars; voters in Penang also got a performance of Gangnam Style from PSY himself at a BN rally!). Anwar has said that his coalition considers the election fraudulent and that the election commission failed (again). The opposition also claimed that the government brought it workers from Bangladesh to vote for them. This claim might appear a bit extraneous, but there was a big scandal in Sabah a few years ago where the government gave Malaysian ID cards to many foreigners/immigrants in return for their votes (there is currently a Royal Commission investigating the subject).
At the state level, the BN won 275 state legislators against 229 for the opposition (once again, the BN-ruled states tend to have a slightly larger state legislature; and Sarawak, a BN stronghold, did not hold state elections). The opposition (PAS) lost the state of Kedah, which it had gained from the BN in the last election. However, the opposition parties now have a stranglehold on the three states they still govern – urban Selangor (Kuala Lumpur is a federal territory enclaved within the state, but federal territories have no elected legislature), where they have 79% of the seats; Chinese-plurality Penang where they hold a three-quarters majority and the Islamist stronghold of Kelantan where the opposition still holds a 73% majority (smaller, as noted above, than in 2008). They came within two seats of winning a majority in Terengganu, which had been governed by the PAS between 1959 and 1961 and again between 1999 and 2004. The opposition also made substantial gains in Johor (+12) and Sabah (+10), although the BN is still firmly in control in both states, especially in Sabah where they still hold 80% of the seats despite losing 10 seats! The opposition lost ground, substantially, in Kedah and Kelantan, and lost one seat in Negeri Sembilan (once again, the DAP gained but the Malay PKR and PAS lost ground).
The opposition’s support is threefold: a large urban element, an ever larger Chinese element and a slightly smaller conservative Islamic element in some states. The urban middle-classes, including many urban Malays, are generally more concerned about corruption, good governance and cost of living rather than the BN’s old play on racial and religious identities. The opposition won all but two of Kuala Lumpur’s 11 MPs and it swept the extensively urbanized state of Selangor. Given that the Chinese population tends to be mostly urban, the two elements tend to go hand in hand. The opposition swept the urban Chinese vote in Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Ipoh, Malacca and Johor. There is also an element of conservative Islamic support in the opposition’s coalition. The Islamic party has tended to be quite powerful in Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu – three relatively rural Malay states. The conservative Islamic tradition in those states is perhaps due to their status under British colonial rule prior to 1946 – these states, along with Johor and tiny Perlis, formed the ‘Unfederated Malay States’ – British protectorates but British rule over these states was less direct than in the Federated Malay States (Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan).
These results could place Prime Minister Najib Razak is a difficult position, similar to how his predecessor (Badawi) was forced to resign after the BN’s loses in the 2008 election. Most UMNO hardliners never liked Najib to begin with and only halfheartedly backed his reformist and moderate agenda in the hopes that they would allow the BN to win this election. While the BN did win the election, many UMNO hardliners might turn on Najib given the loses incurred by the BN. The UMNO, including Najib, has already blamed the government’s loses on a “Chinese wave” (analysts say it was more of a “urban wave” than anything else) for the opposition. The hardliners, like in 1969, will probably look to oust Najib – perceived as too soft and moderate – and restructure the governing coalition as a defender of Malay interests. Their argument is that Najib’s reformism and moderation on racial affairs failed as the Chinese vote still went to the opposition in droves. Anyhow, the BN is now basically an exclusively Malay affair – the MCA was decimated, and the UMNO and its various Sabah/Sarawak playthings are even more hegemonic within the coalition. It can no longer seriously and legitimately claim that it is a national coalition when it has become an ethnic Malay party. There is no longer substantial Chinese acquiescence for UMNO’s policies, a role which had been played by the MCA and Gerakan in the past.
The BN won another term in office, the preordained result of every Malaysian election since independence; but the result shows that the governing coalition is really nearing the end of its hegemony. It was kept in office thanks to its time-honoured ability to play on ethnic/racial sentiments and appeal to Malay nationalism; but above all only by the simple fact that the electoral system is basically rigged in its favour because of gross malapportionment.
Malaysia is as ethnically polarized as ever, with a quasi-homogeneously Malay governing alliance and an opposition with a distinctively Chinese character. If Najib is able to hold his chair against his party’s hardliners, he might choose to continue his reformist policies; if he is replaced by somebody closer to UMNO’s Malay nationalist hardliners, then the government might prove less friendly towards ‘modernization’. At the same time, the opposition’s defeat begs the question of whether or not Anwar Ibrahim will (or can) continue to lead the opposition. The opposition might benefit from a fresher face, given how it appeals in good part to younger voters; but does it actually have such a face?
Legislative elections were held in Iceland on April 27, 2013. All 63 members of the Althing (Alþingi), Iceland’s unicameral legislature were up for reelection. The Althing is the oldest extant legislative body in the world, founded in 930. 54 seats in the Althing are ‘constituency seats’ elected in multi-member constituencies (Reykjavík North, Reykjavík South, SW, NW, NE, South) which have 9 seats except for the SW which has 11 and the NW which has 7. Voters are allowed to modify the pre-ranked list of candidates on a party list by altering the ordering or crossing out candidates which they do not like. Constituency seats are distributed to parties based on a modified version of the d’Hondt method, and parties must clear a 5% threshold nationally to qualify for seats. Nine additional seats, called ‘leveling seats’, are allocated to adjust the result to achieve some kind of proportionality at the national level (again, only parties winning over 5% nationally are eligible). The two Reykjavík constituencies and the SW have two leveling seats, the three other constituencies have only one leveling seat.
Brief primer on Icelandic politics
Iceland became a republic separate from Denmark in 1944, it had already been a sovereign state as a monarchy in a personal union with the Danish king since an Act of Union in 1918.
While Swedish, Danish and Norwegian politics have traditionally been dominated by social democratic parties, Icelandic politics since independence have been dominated by the centre-right Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, IP). The Independence Party was founded in 1929 through a merger of a liberal and conservative party. By virtue of being at the forefront of the fight for independence, the IP became the dominant party in Icelandic politics after its foundation and could be called something of a ‘natural governing party’. The IP was the largest party in every single election between 1931 and 2009, and although it did not always participate in the governing coalitions during this time period, it was present in most coalitions and often held the office of Prime Minister. Unlike right-wing parties in the other Scandinavian countries, the IP does not have the ‘bourgeois party’ label attached to it and it has been able to build a broad base of support and very strong roots in Icelandic society (10% of the population are members of the party). While most of the IP’s support stems from a predominantly urban/suburban affluent and well-educated middle-class, it has traditionally maintained a respectable base of working-class support and it has been dominant with fishermen. The IP has benefited from the strong backing of the fishing lobby, large businesses and most of the private media (for example, the popular daily newspaper Morgunblaðið).
Notwithstanding its conservative orientation, the IP has accepted the creation of a welfare state comparable to the generous Scandinavian model systems found in the other Scandinavian states. The IP often prides itself with the transformation of Iceland from a poor, isolated island nation to a modern, affluent and egalitarian state (Iceland has one of the highest HDIs and one of the most egalitarian states in the world). Under Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson (1991-2004), the IP shifted to the right with an agenda of privatization, major tax cuts (abolishing the wealth tax, cut the corporate tax to 18%) and deregulation. Oddson is credited for having spurred economic growth and created a vibrant entrepreneurial climate, but since the 2008 financial crisis his deregulation policies have been criticized for having created an unrestrained climate which led to the financial collapse. Since leaving office, Davíð Oddsson has remained a very powerful actor behind the scenes. He is currently one of two editors at the Morgunblaðið newspaper.
One of the main issues in Icelandic politics has been the European Union. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA), the Schengen agreement and cooperates with the EU on a number of policy matters. However, EU membership remains a very divisive and controversial issue in Iceland. One of the main roadblocks to EU membership is Iceland’s large fishing industry, which would be subject to tough EU quotas and regulations if the country were to join the EU. The IP is strongly pro-American and pro-NATO, but it has opposed EU membership.
Traditionally, the second largest party – consistently so between 1931 and 1999 (save for 1956 and 1978) – was the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn, PP), founded in 1916. The PP has been a junior partner in a number of IP governments (it has also governed with the centre-left, less often), most recently between 1995 and 2007, and has sometimes held the Prime Ministerial position in the IP’s stead. Described as a liberal party, the PP is a unique Scandinavian variant of liberalism – Nordic agrarianism. The PP is, at its roots, a rural farmers’ party, like the Centre parties in Sweden, Finland or Norway. In contrast to continental classical liberalism, the PP has tended to be cooler towards economic liberalization, although it was the junior partner Davíð Oddsson’s cabinets between 1995 and 2004.
The PP has traditionally been hostile towards EU membership. In 2009, it changed its position in favour of EU membership, but with so many caveats that it did not equate to much. Earlier this year, the PP once again changed its position and readopted its traditional anti-EU stance.
The Icelandic left has never achieved the level of power and political hegemony enjoyed by its sister parties in Sweden or Norway. The Icelandic left, for most of its history, was almost evenly divided between a socialist/communist party (the People’s Alliance) and a very centrist and moderate social democratic party (SDP). The left was further weakened by the emergence of small ephemeral parties, including a feminist party between 1983 and 1995 which won up to 10% of the vote at one time. Most of the left united in the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin, SDA) in 1999, initially created as an alliance of the People’s Alliance, the SDP, the Womens’ List and a SDP splitoff. The Alliance’s moderate Blairite-like platform alienated some of the more left-wing members of the former People’s Alliance who formed, that same year, the Left-Green Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð, LG or VG), which is an eco-socialist party.
The SDA is perhaps the strongest supporter of EU membership to be found in Icelandic politics, with an unambiguous and longstanding stance in support of joining the EU. The Left-Greens, however, are against EU membership and are also anti-NATO (Iceland joined NATO in 1949, a decision which had sparked major protests at the time).
The Icelandic political system was turned on its head by the 2008 financial crisis.
The financial crisis and its aftermath
In the years running up to the financial collapse in the fall of 2008, Iceland had been booming economically and its rapid economic growth and concomitant rise in household incomes earned the country the moniker of “Nordic tiger” among other names. The population embraced the IP governments’ economic and fiscal policies which had allowed for the economic boom, and foreign observers such as the IMF often praised Iceland for its robust economic growth and its entrepreneurial climate.
Like in Ireland, the crisis was brought upon by the behaviour of Icelandic banks in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The country’s three largest banks had expanded dramatically, an expansion which they financed with loans on the interbank lending market and then by deposits from foreigners (notably in the UK and the Netherlands). Icelandic households also accumulated a gigantic private debt, equivalent to 213% of disposable income. These factors led to high inflation rates, exacerbated by the Central Bank’s policies (effectively printing money on demand). The crisis unfolded when the banks became unable to refinance their debts, and they were too big that the Central Bank could not act as a lender of last reserve and guarantee the payment of the debt contracted by the banks.
Within a week in late September/early October 2008, the three largest banks were either nationalized or placed on receivership as the government – a IP-SDA coalition led by IP Prime Minister Geir Haarde – struggle to prevent a situation of national bankruptcy. The crisis took on an international aspect with the collapse of Icesave, an international savings bank operating in the UK and the Netherlands as a subsidiary of the Landsbanki. As the banking system collapsed, Iceland informed Britain that the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund did not have the funds to repay deposit guarantees to the Icesave’s foreign customers. Britain and the Netherlands demanded that the Icelandic state should at least repay the minimum deposit guarantees. In response to Iceland’s refusal to guarantee anything, London controversially invoked anti-terrorism legislation to freeze all Icelandic bank assets in the UK.
The 2008 crisis led to a rapid devaluation of the Icelandic krónur (which had been very overvalued in the run-up to the crisis), a severe economic recession (-6.6% in 2009, -4.1% in 2010), a large increase in unemployment (from 1.6% to 8%) and the explosion of the public debt (29% in 2007, 102% in 2011). Iceland received a $5.1bn bailout from the IMF and Nordic countries in November 2008 and enforced strict capital controls which remain in place.
The financial crisis led to major political changes. Citizens were incensed by the inaction of Prime Minister Geir Haarde in the run-up to the crisis and the handling of the aftermath. There were large protests – the largest since the anti-NATO riots in 1949 – against the government in January 2009. These protests, dubbed the Kitchenware Revolution, compelled Geir Haarde and his government to resign. He was replaced by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the SDA minister of social affairs and social security in the outgoing government. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir formed an interim cabinet with the SDA and the Left-Greens.
In snap elections in April 2009, for the first time in Icelandic history, the left (SDA and LG) won an absolute majority in the Althing. The IP, which lost nearly 13% of its vote compared to the 2007 election, won its worst result ever and fell into second for the first time. A new grassroots populist movement, the Citizens’ Movement (Borgarahreyfingin) won 7% and 4 seats. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s left-wing coalition (SDA and Left-Greens) was reelected.
Four years later, Iceland’s economic situation has undeniably improved significantly. While the country isn’t entirely out of the woods just yet, the economic crisis is over and there are clear signs of a healthy recovery. The economy grew by 2.9% in 2011, 1.6% in 2012 and will grow by 1.9% this year. Unemployment has fallen from a high of 8.1% in 2010 to 5% this year. The public debt, after having exploded to over 100% of GDP during the crisis, has been reduced to about 92% of the GDP and is projected to fall to 72% by 2018. Similarly, the budgetary deficit has been reduced to more healthy levels.
The left-wing government has been criticized for being too friendly to the IMF and foreign interests, not preoccupying itself enough with the country’s living conditions.
The government lost a lot of political capital with the Icesave dispute, in which it was criticized for being too accommodating with foreign countries. In November 2008, Iceland had reached a tentative understanding with the UK and the Netherlands in which it agreed to guarantee the liabilities of the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund, while the UK and the Netherlands agreed to lend the necessary funds to the Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund. Bilateral agreements were reached between the three actors in June 2009, and the first Icesave bill was passed – with amendments setting a ceiling on the repayment of the loans based on the country’s GDP - by the Althing in August 2009. However, these amendments were rejected by the British and Dutch governments, forcing Reykjavík to hastily approve a second bill to which the two foreign governments did not object to. However, for the second time in Icelandic history, the President (Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson) effectively vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it and forced a referendum on the Icesave deal in March 2010. The deal was overwhelmingly rejected by a Soviet-like margin: 98% voted against the bill, only 2% voted in favour of the government’s bill.
In December 2010, after renewed negotiations, the Althing passed a third Icesave bill which had better conditions for Iceland. Once again, however, the President refused to sign the bill and it was put to the people in April 2011. Voters rejected the deal, though by a less lopsided margin: 59.8% voted against the bill.
After the failure of Icesave 3, London and The Hague decided to break off negotiations and drag Iceland to the EFTA Court to resolve the matter. On January 28, 2013, the EFTA Court cleared Iceland of all charges. It ruled that the state was not required to pay out if its deposit-insurance scheme had no money because of a banking crisis. The court’s decision was a blow to the government, which had been keen on negotiating with the UK and the Netherlands.
The government’s popularity was also hurt by the kerfuffle surrounding the constitutional convention and the proposed new constitution. The government, arguing that the country’s constitution (an amended version of an 1874 document) was archaic and had been unable to face the 2008 crisis, led the charge for the adoption of a new constitution. In November 2010, voters elected a 25-member constitutional assembly from a roster of 522 candidates. The assembly was tasked with reviewing broad areas of the constitution and come up with a new document. However, in January 2011 the Supreme Court (dominated by IP-appointed judges) invalidated the results of the election. In response, the Althing appointed the assembly’s 25 members to an alternative constitutional council which then drafted and unanimously passed a new constitution. The new constitution includes electoral reform (one nationwide constituency, in effect abolishing rural overrepresentation), national ownership of natural resources, direct democracy (referenda on bills if 10% of the electorate demands it), freedom of information and checks and balances. In an October 2012 referendum, two-thirds of voters approved the council’s draft and also voted resoundingly in favour of other key parts of the bill (electoral reform, national ownership of national resources, direct democracy).
Notwithstanding the electorate’s support for the bill, a number of politicians – most from the opposition parties (IP, PP) but also the governing SDA – started undermining the bill for a variety of reasons. The fishing lobby, for example, is not very keen on national ownership of national resources because it wants to keep fishing grounds for owners of big vessels. These MPs banded together to postpone a vote on the bill and change the rules for the adoption of a new constitution by requiring that it is supported by two-thirds of the new parliament and a popular majority representing at least 40% of the population. This deal, technically, means that the new constitution could be approved quicker (in the past, it would have needed majority support from two successive legislatures) but, in practice, it makes it tougher for it to pass. Although the constitution’s current comatose state is largely due to the IP’s opposition and sabotage, many feel as if the left-wing government could have been more forceful and pushed the constitution through. It had the votes to do so, but rural SDA parliamentarians joined the opposition in undermining the bill.
With the formation of a government led by the resolutely pro-European SDA, Reykjavík kicked off formal negotiations with the EU and became a candidate country in June 2010. 11 out of 33 acquis chapters have already been closed, and 27 remain open. The most controversial subjects – fishing quotas and whaling – have yet to be opened. There was, initially, some support for EU membership around the time of the 2008 financial crisis when some felt that Iceland would have been better off with the euro. However, with the ongoing crisis in the EU/eurozone, the mood has turned against EU membership, undermining the government’s pro-EU agenda. Many feel that the SDA wasted precious time and energy in its attempts to get Iceland to join the EU quickly.
Opponents argue that Iceland is better off outside the European Union, insulated from the Eurozone crisis. While most voters support continuing and completing negotiations, a hefty majority oppose joining the EU (only a quarter or so of voters seem pro-EU at this point).
Parties and issues
Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir did not run for reelection. She was replaced as SDA leader by Árni Páll Árnason, a rather stale and uncharismatic former cabinet minister. Longtime Left-Green leader Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, a senior parliamentarian, stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the minister of education, science and culture. While Árnason is stale and boring, Jakobsdóttir is a pretty sharp politician whose popularity has tended to surpass that of her party.
The IP leader, like in the last election, is Bjarni Benediktsson, a fairly wealthy former businessman. Benediktsson has been compared by some local journalists to Mitt Romney, a somewhat shady businessman who was born rich and is “held hostage” by his party’s right-wing factions (in this case, the ‘Christian right’ of the IP and the low-tax/libertarian right). The IP had a wide and comfortable lead in polls until February, when the PP started surging. Prior to that point, it had up to 35-40% support in polls.
The Romney comparisons are also pretty accurate because, like Romney, Benediktsson is uninspiring to both the wider electorate and many members of his own party. Many feel that Benediktsson is too tied up to the IP’s old culture of corruption and nepotism. However, unlike Romney, those who tend to be the most queasy about him within his party are the moderates – the IP’s Europhilic moderates, alienated by the IP’s Christian conservative and libertarian right wings. He is constantly at risk of being toppled by his deputy, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, the former mayor of Reykjavík and the popular standard bearer of IP moderates. She challenged him for the party leadership in 2011 and came close to toppling him, it seems widely accepted that he would be overthrown if she feels like getting rid of him.
Indeed, on April 11, Benediktsson publicly announced that he was considering stepping down before the election. He backtracked a few days later and announced that he would stay on, as none of his leadership rivals stepped up to challenge him. This rather bizarre gamble paid off for him, since it boosted the IP’s horrible polling numbers and placed the party in a statistical tie with the PP.
The IP’s economic platform promised tax cuts and the creation of a flat tax (an unpopular stance since many feel that this would only benefit the wealthy). The IP rejects any blame for the 2008 crisis, which they say was caused by international circumstances and the worldwide banking crisis at the time.
The PP’s leader is Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (SDG), who at 37 would be the youngest Prime Minister in Iceland. He is also the wealthiest parliamentarian in the country, having inherited his father’s wealth (his father was a prominent businessman).
The PP’s ideology is not something which is set in stone, many of its critics often attack the party for changing ideologies on a regular basis. This year, the PP had a clearly populist and nationalistic campaign, keeping in line with SDG’s tough intransigent stance on the Icesave case (he opposed reimbursing the foreigners). The party’s landmark campaign promise was writing off 20% of all price-indexed household mortgages, which would be paid by taking money from ”vulture funds” (foreign creditors, claim holders). Those foreign creditors who agree to pay for this write-off would be rewarded by being allowed to move their remaining money out of the country (which they currently cannot because of capital controls).
The PP surged in polls starting in February and took a very comfortable lead over all other parties by March. However, the IP’s late surge and revelations that SDG had lied about obtaining a degree from Oxford (he attended Oxford, but never received any kind of degree) hurt the PP in the final stretch.
The past four years have seen a proliferation of new parties, oftentimes protest parties. The creation of these new parties reflect both left-wing unease and dissatisfaction with the incumbent government, judged by many on the left to be too favourable to the IMF and foreign ‘elites’; but also wider dissatisfaction with the wider political class, a lingering sentiment since the 2008 crisis. The IP and PP, the two main “old parties” from the pre-crisis political system, are still perceived as having only incompletely ‘cleaned’ themselves up since 2008. In the pre-crisis political system, the IP and the PP’s support had been maintained by corrupt clientelistic networks and inside deals.
Bright Future (Björt framtíð, BF) was founded in February 2012 by various dissident members from established parties (PP, SDA) but also Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr’s Best Party (a satirical party which won the 2010 local elections in the capital and has since turned ‘serious’). The BF is a social liberal and green party which supports EU and Eurozone membership. It also wants to diversify the economy, by creating industrial variety.
Dawn (Dögun) is a left-leaning party created in March 2012 from the merger of The Movement (created by 3 Citizens’ Movement MPs), the remnants of the Citizens’ Movement (4 seats in 2009) and the right-wing libertarian/populist Liberal Party (founded in 1998, 4 seats in 2003 and 2007, lost all seats in 2009). Dawn is a left-wing which supports abolishing indexation on consumer loans (mortgages), a cap on interest rates and investigations into responsibility for the 2008 crisis. It supports the new constitution and has a vague “let the people decide” stance on EU membership. Interestingly, the Liberal Party was a right-wing populist libertarian party, with an anti-immigrant twist; this direction does not seem to be reflected in Dawn.
Rainbow (Regnboginn) is an eco-socialist and Eurosceptic party which broke away from the Left-Greens in May 2013. It strongly opposes EU membership.
The Icelandic Pirate Party (Píratar) also gained significant support in polls, on a vaguely centre-left platform focusing on direct democracy, internet privacy and copyright reform.
The Households Party (Flokkur Heimilanna), founded on April 1 2012 by moderate IP dissidents, is a vaguely right-of-centre populist movement which wants to free Icelanders from ‘debt slavery’ but is otherwise vague on specifics. It supports lower taxes and increased banking regulation.
Further right, the Right-Greens (Hægri Grænir), founded in 2010, are a libertarian party focused on lower taxes (flat tax), smaller government (anti-bureaucracy) and adopting a new currency pegged to the US dollar. The ‘green’ stuff largely seems like a gimmick. Later in the campaign, the Right-Greens added a borderline xenophobic twist to its thing, talking about removing ‘undesirables’.
Democracy Watch (Lýðræðisvaktin) is a single-issue group founded in February 2013 to support the new constitution and oppose the IP’s attempts to stall/sabotage the bill.
Turnout was 81.4%, down from about 85% in 2009. The results were as follows, with seat changes compared to the standings at dissolution:
Independence 26.7% (+3.3%) winning 19 seats (+3)
Progressive 24.43% (+9.6%) winning 19 seats (+10)
SDA 12.85% (-16.9%) winning 9 seats (-10)
Left-Green 10.87% (-10.8%) winning 7 seats (-4)
Bright Future 8.25% (+8.25%) winning 6 seats (+4)
Pirate Party 5.1% (+5.1%) winning 3 seats (+2)
Dawn 3.1% (+3.1%) winning 0 seats (-2)
Households Party 3.02% (+3.02%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Democracy Watch 2.46% (+2.46%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Right-Greens 1.73% (+1.73%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Rainbow 1.07% (+1.07%) winning 0 seats (+2)
All others 0.42% winning 0 seats (nc)
The IP, the old dominant party which had been kicked out of power in 2009, won the election – it won the popular vote by a bit over 2 points over the PP, although parties ended up tied in the seat count because the PP raked up seats in its overrepresented rural strongholds. Considering how bad the last months have been for the IP, it was, in that context, a good result for the party. Benediktsson’s risky gamble of putting his leadership on the line immediately before the election paid off for him. He likely calculated it as to force his internal rivals to rally around him as to avoid what would have been a very bizarre switch in leadership only weeks from the election. It was, in retrospect, a smart move by a leader trying to assert his authority over his party.
Yet, the IP’s victory is far from spectacular. Sure, it improved its standing compared to 2009 – but 2009 was an historic low for the party, a catastrophic result due to ex2ceptional circumstances. Its result this year, a bit under 27%, is the party’s second worst result after 2009 (in 1987, it won 27.2%). Benediktsson’s control of the party is still quite shaky, and the IP isn’t back to its comfortable pre-crisis standings.
The main winner in the election was the PP. The old farmers’ party roared back to old heights – winning its best result since 1979 and reclaiming the second place position it had lost in 1999 (when the left kind of united). This success wasn’t preordained – before the PP surge in the first days of February, the PP had been polling at or slightly below its 2009 result. The party’s leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson ran a good campaign, even if he was roughed a bit in the last few days of the campaign with criticism of the PP’s platform and the Oxford degree scandal.
The PP’s populist and nationalistic platform struck a chord with many voters. Even if the country’s economic situation is undeniably better than in 2009, many citizens are still knee-deep (or higher!) in debt (mortgages etc) and have suffered the brunt of tax hikes and spending cuts in the past four years. The PP’s appealing promise of writing off 20% of price-indexed household mortgages by taking money from the “bad guys” (foreign creditors) was popular with middle-aged home owning voters who are sitting on negative equity and big loans. Its nationalist rhetoric – blaming foreign investors and creditors for the 2008 crisis (although the PP did admit that there should have been more state regulation) – was also popular with an electorate which had very much disliked the left-wing government’s handling of the Icesave crisis with London and The Hague. The PP promised to be the party which will fight for homeowners and the regular citizens, against those who want to let the “hedge funds” decide the country’s fate.
The main loser was, clearly, the left. Both governing left-wing parties lost heavily: the SDA collapsed to a mere 12.9%, certainly some kind of historic low for the left by some standards; the Left-Greens lost over half of their vote from the 2009 election. In part, this is a restoration of “normality” – Iceland is a fundamentally and structurally conservative right-leaning country which had no experience with purely left-wing governments prior to 2009 and the crisis. The Left-Greens in particular had done extremely (abnormally) well in 2009 (21.7%) due to non-leftist voters choosing to vote for them, either because of their reputation as a ‘clean’ and untainted party or solely out of dissatisfaction with their traditional parties (read: the IP, primarily).
But this isn’t entirely a return to “normality”. Although the Icelandic left is historically weak and marginalized by the IP/PP, it has never – in my memory – been this weak (only 24% between the two governing parties). It is undeniable that the left suffered from just having the bad luck of governing a country during a period of economic turmoil. Many Icelanders are still feeling the financial pain, and they want a government which will get them out of it. But unlike Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy – where the economy is still going down or has gone so far down that recovery is very slow, and the government obviously gets blamed for it – Iceland is no longer in that situation. The recovery from 2008 is real and probably perceptible. The economy is growing, unemployment is back down, the debt and deficits are slowly being controlled and inflation is dropping. Many observers have felt that voters in Iceland were just ungrateful on April 27: unfairly punishing a government which saved the country from economic ruin and national bankruptcy. Whether you share this view or not is subjective, but it does have some worth to it…
A rather cynical Icelandic blogger in the tabloid newspaper DV had this to say about his country:
Or as one of my colleagues put it: “America is the land of opportunities, but Iceland is the land of second opportunities.”
The small size of our population might have something to do with this. We can not afford to have people out of work, we need every able hand there is. That’s why we’re always ready to give people a second chance. We’re always willing to forgive. The Icelandic Way is such: If you mess up real bad, you just declare yourself bankrupt and get a new “kennitala” (personnummer) and then you can start all over again.
Icelandic society is like a computer game. It doesn’t matter if you lose, you just start again. You have endless “lives”. And it doesn’t matter if you’re successful or if you’re bankrupt, you will always have money. You’re always driving that fancy car, living in that fancy house. (You can see it every day on the streets of Reykjavik. People who, according to the papers, are supposed to be “bankrupt”, are all driving their black Range Rovers and wearing their fur coats to work.) If you have too much debt that you can not pay, they will just “write them off”, and then you are free to start again! And when you’re starting again and you have no money, the banks will just lend it to you. So you never have to turn in your fancy car.
Same goes for the politicians. If they mess up the economy and bankrupt the nation, they just wait four years and then they’re back in office. We are very tolerant people.
The outgoing Prime Minister said that her party had been punished because it took tough decisions. No government, especially those on the left, like raising taxes and cutting spending. Few voters like that either. The government, forced to take these tough decisions to “save” the country, was punished at the polls. Furthermore, as aforementioned, many voters – still feeling the pain – felt as if the government was too friendly to creditors and focused more on respecting the IMF’s directives.
It is also likely that the left’s vote was further hurt by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s retirement. She leaves office personally popular, and the SDA’s leader has been criticized for not including her in the party’s campaign more.
The other major winner were the whole slew of new parties/protest parties. Iceland has had some strong new parties, largely grassroots populist parties, in the past; but they have never been this strong. In 2013, they won nearly 25% of the vote among themselves. This success, as aforementioned, reflects the dissatisfaction of many voters with the established parties. The incumbent left-wing government is unpopular, particularly on the left. The IP and PP are still seen by many as having only incompletely broken their ties with the past. Many critics of the IP and PP are keen on pointing out the continued influence of old party bosses – like Davíð Oddsson – within both parties, and the interconnection of the IP and the PP’s old elites.
The most successful new parties were Bright Future and the Pirates. These parties, and many of those which failed to break the threshold, largely took votes from the left. According to professor Stefan Olafsson, the right (IP and PP) lost only 8% or so of their 2009 voters while the governing left lost between 24 and 32% of their 2009 voters. About a third of 2009 LG voters supported the new parties, about 12-14% apiece for Bright Future and the Pirates. About a quarter or so of SDA voters supported new parties, including many for parties who were below the threshold. The governing parties were unable to convince voters that they should not “waste” their votes on parties which never had a chance of crossing the threshold. If the 2009 left-wing vote had been less dispersed, they would have done much better.
The results reflected the usual urban-rural split in Icelandic politics. The IP won the two Reykjavík constituencies (23% and 27% in the north and south respectively) and the suburban/exurban Southwest (30%). The SDA, Bright Future and Pirates also had predominantly urban support. In contrast, the PP won roughly similar numbers in the three rural constituencies (NW, NE, South) with roughly 35% of the vote in each. PP did rather decently in the urban and suburban areas, though: 16% in Reykjavík and 21.5% in the SW.
President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson charged PP leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson rather than IP leader Bjarni Benediktsson to form a government after the election. All parties except the Pirates and IP recommended that the President appoint SGD to form a government rather than Benediktsson, even if the IP claimed that it should have the first shot because it won the popular vote.
The coalition option which most people are talking about is a “conservative” and traditional coalition between IP and PP, with either Benediktsson or SDG as Prime Minister or switching Prime Ministers halfway through. The PP will have a very tough time accepting an IP-PP coalition under IP leadership, given that it would send back to their traditional junior partner role under IP control. It is thus unlikely that Benediktsson would be allowed to become Prime Minister with an IP-PP government, given that the PP is in a strong position to veto this option and Benediktsson would be a very weak Prime Minister with only partial authority over his party. It is possible that the IP and PP could agree to switching Prime Ministers halfway through the four year term, but that too seems unlikely.
An IP-PP government led by Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson would be more acceptable to the PP. Both parties are Eurosceptic and are not keen on the new constitution (the IP opposes it outright, many PPers are queasy about it). However, the IP will have a tough time accepting the PP’s populist agenda – SDG has said that the mortgage debt write-offs is a non-negotiable point for the PP in coalition negotiations, and the PP doesn’t seem like one to support the IP’s current low taxes/flat tax agenda right now. Early negotiations between the IP and the PP do not seem off to a promising start, and SDG has not really indicated that governing with his IP is his first preference.
The other option at this point involves the PP forming a more centrist or centre-left coalition. It could form a coalition with the SDA and Bright Future, in which the PP could probably have the enviable role of “unifier” in the coalition. The main issues is that both SDA and BF are pretty clearly pro-EU, and could insist on continuing negotiations as a precondition for any coalition – but the PP wouldn’t have much to lose, as it could be sure that the electorate would probably reject the EU in a referendum. The other issue is that the PP might find the SDA too friendly with investors for its tastes, but who says the PP can’t tame the populism down a bit?
A more unlikely option is a coalition with the PP, Left Greens and SDA. I’m not sure if the LGs or SDAs are hot on entering another government at this point, and the PP would probably not want to govern in such a left-leaning option.
There is some talk of the IP courting the SDA and BF to form an anti-PP coalition. This still appears rather unlikely, and it could be tactical stuff coming from the IP as it tries to get into government somehow – preferably with Benediktsson as Prime Minister. But if this is actually serious, the SDA could be in a kingmaker position at this point.
Minority governments are unusual in Iceland, but there has some talk of a PP minority government receiving external support from the centre-left BF and SDA. The Pirates, the only party which has ruled out participating in government, apparently favour a PP minority – could they even provide external support for such an option?
If the PP’s SDG becomes Prime Minister, which is probably the likeliest scenario at this point, what kind of direction would this mean for Iceland?
With any IP-PP coalition, talks with the EU are probably dead for the time being, and even in a more pro-European setup with the SDA and BF, it is very unlikely that they will go anywhere.
The core of the PP’s platform in this election was economic populism and soft nationalism. Some think that this is only the PP’s latest gimmick to win votes, but SDG does seem pretty honest and genuine. The main point of the PP’s platform, which the PP is setting as a precondition for any government, is the pledge to write off 20% of household loans/mortgages. This plank worked wonders for the PP in the election, but the party will have a very tough time actually living up to its voters’ expectations on that issue. Many economists doubt the foreign creditors will accept the PP’s “blackmail”, and even if the PP somehow did manage to get them to accept this deal, economists say that the plan would be an economic disaster for the country: either the banks would get rich again, or the consumers would have government money in their pockets – and this would lead to either inflation or another housing bubble. Many voters likely backed the PP because of this key promise, if it fails to deliver on it, it could probably face bleaker days in four years time. Many voters could be badly disappointed by the PP.
A lot of observers are cynical or pessimistic about a PP government. The blogger, quoted above, had this to say about the PP: “at the moment, the biggest political party in Iceland, is the good old Farmer’s Party, Fremskridtspartiet, the former hotbed of criminal corruption, criminal provinciality and criminal stupidity. And this fact of course, really makes you want to shout.”
If Bjarni Benediktsson fails to become Prime Minister, his days at the head of the party are probably counted. He would be the only IP leader in the party’s history who did not become Prime Minister. Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, very popular both within the IP and with the broader electorate, could be plotting Benediktsson’s ouster and her accession to the party’s leadership.
Iceland may be on the road to economic recovery, but Icelandic politics have not really “recovered” from the 2008 crisis and collapse yet. Icelandic politics, despite the appearances, remains in a state of flux in which few voters trust their politicians and the established political parties. The 2009 election was an exceptional election born out of exceptional circumstances. The 2013 election is probably not a return to “normality”, but another ‘deviating’ election from the pre-crisis norm. Will Iceland ever return, however, to the pre-crisis political system? Has the crisis irremediably changed the country’s politics for good?
Presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections were held in Paraguay on April 21, 2013. The President of Paraguay is elected for a non-renewable five-year term by direct universal suffrage. Like almost all countries in Latin America, Paraguay is a presidential republic. The Congress is composed of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) and the Chamber of Senators (Cámara de Senadores). The Chamber of Deputies is made up of 80 members elected by proportional representation in each of Paraguay’s 18 departments. The Senate is made up of 45 senators elected by proportional representation in a single national constituency.
Background: Paraguay’s Unique History
Paraguay has long been one of the poorest, least developed and most isolated countries in Latin America. Since the country gained independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay has not been blessed in terms of leadership; its history has been a succession of civilian or military autocrats, corrupt short-lived nonentities, coups, unstable regimes and idiosyncratic dictators. With only a handful of exceptions, none of these leaders showed the faintest interest in major social reforms and allowed the inegalitarian status quo to endure.
Between 1813 and 1840, Paraguay was ruled by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the first in a series of peculiar dictators which have marked the country’s history. An ardent nationalist and shrewd politician, Francia sought to safeguard the young nation’s independence against its powerful Brazilian and Argentine neighbours. When other South American nations turned to the outside world for trade and economic development, Paraguay looked inwards – promoting economic self-sufficiency and shielding the country from foreign influence by nearly sealing off the country from foreign powers (nobody was allowed to leave the country, and import/export were controlled to a bare minimum). Francia was also a utopian revolutionary, who might have been described as a socialist or communist had those terms existed in the early nineteenth century. Francia loathed the Catholic Church and the white European (peninsulares) landowning elite. His extremely protectionist policies ruined exporters of tobacco and yerba maté, who tended to be white Spanish hacendados. He also banned marriages between Europeans, a policy which likely contributed to Paraguay’s current ethnic makeup: over 70% of the population is mestizo (mixed race) and a plurality of the population speaks Guaraní, an indigenous language, rather than Spanish as their first language. Francia also seized land from the Church and the landowning elites, so that the state owned most of the land in the country and distributed homesteads to individual families. On the other hand, Francia ruled as ruthless supreme dictator who had control over every aspect of social and political life in the country. Francia’s opponents were arbitrarily detained, persecuted, interned, tortured or murdered. Free speech and dissent was forbidden.
After Francia’s death in 1840, Carlos Antonio López eventually became Paraguay’s new dictator, ruling between 1841 and his death in 1862. Francia, despite being the stereotypical Orwellian Big Brother autocrat, was selfless and ruled honestly. Antonio López, however, was a despot who wanted to found a dynasty and ran Paraguay as his own personal fiefdom – he became one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country. Antonio López distrusted foreigners as well, but he loosened Francia’s nationalistic restrictions. To build up the country’s infrastructure including railroads and telegraphs, he invited European engineers, physicians and investors. At the same time, he was not as shrewd a diplomat as Francia. He went to war with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Rosas and allowed controversies and disputes with Brazil and Argentina to smolder. After his death, he was succeeded by his son Francisco Solano López, one of the most disastrous rulers in world history.
Francisco Solano López was a bloodthirsty paranoid tyrant, who silenced opposition and brutishly cracked down on anybody he suspected of opposing him (including his mother and siblings). Having been sent to Europe by his father to buy weapons, he returned with megalomaniac ambitions and with an Irish lover (Elisa Alicia Lynch). He built up the country’s military before provoking a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (all at once) in 1864-1865. Even his large military was no match for the combined strength of Brazil and Argentina, and the conflict proved disastrous for Paraguay. Nevertheless, because the conflict became a war of attrition fought on Paraguayan territory, the war lasted until 1869-1870. Solano López turned cuckoo by the end of the war, and the conflict ended only when Solano López himself was killed in the jungle in 1870 (the capital, Asunción, fell in early 1869). The conflict was a savage butchery, proportionally one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history – over half of Paraguay’s population died in the conflict, either directly through the fighting or because of disease (including cholera). Despite his disastrous leadership and the high toll of the war on the country, Solano López is nowadays revered as a national hero in Paraguay – a man who fought, to the last man (literally), for the country’s independence.
Paraguayan politics after the war and Brazilian occupation were marked by a bitter partisan divide between the conservative Colorados and the Liberals. There were few ideological differences between both, and both parties became unstable motleys of factions. The Colorados, like fellow Conservative parties in Latin America, tended to be protectionist, autocratic and clerical. The Liberals tended to support free trade, classical liberalism and some Liberals sincerely supported democracy. In Paraguay, the Colorados tended to be more closely tied to the old Solano López regime and many of its leaders had served under his government; while most Liberals had been opponents of the Lopizta regime. Any sincere desires for democracy were quickly thrown out the door, politics degenerated into factionalism, cronyism and intrigue.
The Colorados ruled between 1878 and 1904, under a succession of ineffective Presidents who often tended to be puppets for feuding factional bosses (oftentimes military officers) in the Colorado Party. Desperate for cash, the Colorados dismantled Francia’s vast state holdings and sold much of this land to foreigners or fellow Colorado politicians in large lots. Peasants were forced to vacate the land, and most of the country’s land were owned by a small elite of a hundred or so landowners. In 1904, the Liberals – heading a ragtag bunch of Colorado dissidents, idealistic reformers and opportunistic Liberals – seized power in a coup (backed by Argentina) in 1904.
The Liberals ruled between 1904 and 1936, an era marked by major political instability as successive Liberal Presidents were victims of factional conflicts with other Liberals or Colorados. Under Liberal rule, social conditions – already marginal - deteriorated further as a handful of landowners exercised feudal control over the countryside. A nationalist conflict with neighbouring Bolivia (which, like Paraguay, had already lost a war to a stronger regional power – Chile) allowed lingering social tensions to smolder in the 1930s. Bolivia, seeking an access to the Paraguay River to gain a river port, moved to invade the Gran Chaco – a sparsely populated arid desert region under nominal Paraguayan sovereignty. In 1928, the two countries came close to war but the Liberal government in Asunción backed off – much to the anger of young nationalists, eager for political regeneration and social reform.
War with Bolivia finally broke out in 1932, and the Paraguayans pushed the numerically superior Bolivians to the verge of surrender by 1933, but the Liberal President agreed to a truce which allowed the Bolivians to regroup and prolong the war until July 1935, at which point Paraguay won the war. Although Paraguay won the war, the civilian government’s utter incompetence and ineptitude at managing the conflict inflamed public opinion in the country and led to a military coup in February 1936. The revolutionaries promised social and political changes, and brought a popular nationalist and reformist officer, Rafael Franco, to power. Like similar revolutionary movements in the continent during this time period, the febrerista revolutionaries had some genuine interest in social justice, land reform or workers’ rights; but they generally lacked a clear direction and land reform was never ambitious (read: threatening to landowners and foreign interests). Furthermore, Rafael Franco soon demonstrated authoritarian tendencies which alarmed some of his younger and more idealist supporters. Franco and the febrerista regime proved short lived – the military overthrew him in August 1937. Franco’s coalition was very diverse, lacked a solid base of support and he had alienated most of his erstwhile supporters while pleasing nobody.
The Liberals were restored to power, but nationalist febrerista sentiments were not dead for that matter. In 1939, the Liberals picked General José Estigarribia, the hero of the Chaco war, as the next President. Estigarribia began a land reform project, reopened the university, balanced the budget, financed the public debt, implemented monetary reforms, drew up plans for public works projects and adopted a new constitution (in 1940) which expanded the powers of the executive. Estigarribia, however, died in airplane crash in September 1940 and he was succeeded by Higinio Moríñigo, a more conservative military officer. Moríñigo was the choice of the Liberal old guard which never liked Estigarribia, but Moríñigo – a cunning leader – outmaneuvered the eternally incompetent civilian politicians and established his own authoritarian regime, which unofficially sided with Germany during World War II.
Civil war erupted in 1947, between Moríñigo’s Colorado supporters and an unlikely coalition of Febreristas, Liberals and communists led by Franco. Moríñigo came out victorious, but only because of the Colorados and their military supporters. The Colorados, led by a hardliner, finally returned to power themselves in 1948 after “elections” and a coup to preemptively remove Moríñigo lest he had something up his sleeve. The Colorados had successfully used Moríñigo by allying to his regime for a while before dumping him and taking power for themselves, with the consent of the military.
The new Colorado President was overthrown in a coup led by the rival faction in the Colorado Party, and power shifted to the more ‘democratic’ and moderate faction. In the meantime, extreme unrest in the past two decades had taken their toll: the economy was in shambles and corruption remained widespread. The incumbent civilian President had alienated important factions of the Colorados and the military, resulting in yet another military coup in 1954. The coup was led and organized by General Alfredo Stroessner, who had been a leading Colorado commander in the 1947 civil war. The Colorados quickly endorsed Stroessner for the presidency, though they saw him as an interim placeholder until somebody closer to their tastes propped up. Yet, Stroessner would govern the country until 1989.
Stroessner was an astute leader in his own right, who was able to play the different factions of his party off against one another and maintain the support of the military. Yet, repression was a key factor in Stroessner’s longevity. He declared a state of siege which lasted, with one short exception, until 1970 in the countryside and until 1987 in the capital. Stroessner was initially in a weak position, both within the Colorado Party and with the wider population. A small guerrilla movement organized by Liberals and Febreristas festered, but Stroessner employed the state’s virtually unlimited power by giving his interior minister a free hand to brutally repress insurgency. After a halfhearted attempt at a democratic ‘opening’ in 1959 turned into chaos, Stroessner turned to the old ways.
Luckily for him, the situation gradually improved in his favour. The United States, under Johnson and Nixon, backed Stroessner (in the name of anticommunism) and he became one of Washington’s most dependable allies on the continent. The opposition was demoralized by years of defeats and oppression, and a number of Liberals chose to play along with Stroessner’s regime by becoming the legal (and loyal) ‘opposition’ force to the Colorados in an irrelevant legislature. Between 1978 and 1982, the construction of the Itaipú Dam on the Brazilian border (Brazil contributed to a short-lived economic boom in Paraguay. Nevertheless, the economic boom proved short lived and did little to alleviate the poverty faced by so many Paraguayans. Many Paraguayans were forced to emigrate, to the point where some estimated that most Paraguayans were living outside the country. Under Stroessner, there was, naturally, not the slightest interest in land reform – the regime protected the interests of oligarchic landowners, controlled the weak labour movements and granted tax exemptions to foreign investors.
In the 1980s, Stroessner faced slightly tougher opposition. Under Domingo Laíno, a former congressman, some Liberals (known as the Authentic Liberal Radical Party, PLRA) became intransigent with the government, denouncing corruption, gross human rights violations and drug trafficking. The regime came under international fire for human rights abuses – Stroessner’s Paraguay was a key participation in Operation Condor in the 1970s and Stroessner’s secret police (the pyragüés) employed barbaric methods against opponents (the leader of the Communist Party was dismembered alive with a chainsaw with Stroessner listening in on the phone). Relations with Washington soured significantly after Carter’s election in 1976 and even Reagan maintained a certain distance from Stroessner’s thuggish regime. Even within the Colorado Party, there was growing opposition to Stroessner’s government – for example, in 1974, Stroessner arrested over a thousand party officials and then purged a large part of his party after a plot on his life was uncovered and showed that Colorado officials had provided information to guerrillas.
Stroessner was finally overthrown in a bloody military coup led by General Andrés Rodríguez. One reason for the coup was that the military feared that Stroessner’s sons would succeed him: one was a cocaine addict, the other was a homosexual. Rodríguez was later elected as President, for the Colorado Party, in a special election in 1989 which was the freest election in Paraguay up to that point. Under Rodríguez’s presidency, the country moved – slowly – towards democracy if not stability. The death penalty was abolished, repressive laws repealed, imprisoned leading members of the Stroessner government and adopted a new constitution in 1992.
In 1993, Juan Carlos Wasmosy – also of the Colorado Party – won 40% of the vote against 32% for Domingo Laíno (PLRA). Wasmosy’s term turned out to be a disaster. His attempts to apply Pinochet’s Chilean economic reforms to Paraguay failed given that Paraguay’s economy was nothing like Chile’s economy. His administration was also marked by rife corruption and nepotism, as Wasmosy used his office to enrich himself and his relatives. In April 1996, Wasmosy was almost overthrown in a military coup led by General Lino Oviedo, who had always been a bit insane (to say the least).
Lino Oviedo, found innocent by an appeals court in 1997, won the Colorado Party’s presidential nomination for the 1998 elections, to which Wasmosy responded by placing Oviedo under house arrest. Only a month before the election, a court finally sentenced Oviedo to ten years in jail for his role in the 1996 election. His running mate and close ally Raúl Cubas continued the campaign in his stead and won the presidency, with 55% of the vote against 44% for Domingo Laíno. Immediately upon taking office, Cubas pardoned Oviedo, who was immediately released from jail and became the new strongman of Paraguayan politics. However, the Supreme Court didn’t like Cubas’ decision to pardon Oviedo and ordered Oviedo to be sent back to jail, but Cubas picked a fight with the court and refused to send Oviedo back to jail.
In March 1999, Vice President Luis María Argaña – an anti-Oviedo leader within the Colorados – was assassinated (probably) by Oviedo’s men, likely with Cubas’ involvement. Argaña’s assassination set off bloody riots the next day, in which snipers killed seven anti-Oviedo demonstrators. These bloody riots, known as El Marzo Paraguayo, led to Cubas’ impeachment by the lower house and the President’s resignation on March 28. He was succeeded by the President of the Senate Luis Ángel González Macchi, also known as an anti-oviedista within the Colorado Party. The loss of political power sent Oviedo into exile, in Argentina and later in Brazil.
González Macchi’s term, which lasted until the 2003 election, was as disastrous as previous administrations: an inept and incompetent government, massive and endemic corruption at the highest echelons of powers and an economic crisis. Nicanor Duarte, another Colorado politician, won the 2003 election, with 38% against 25% for the Liberal candidate. Duarte’s administration proved more successful than past administrations, as the country enjoyed solid economic growth under his presidency – although social spending remained extremely low. Nevertheless, he was relatively unpopular because of factional conflicts in his party, a conflict with the media, a number of corruption cases and a controversial (unsuccesful) attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to run for reelection.
The 2008 presidential election was a decisive election. After 60 years in power, the Colorado Party was finally defeated – by a left-wing alliance supported by the PLRA. Fernando Lugo, a Catholic bishop who had supported Liberation Theology, won 41% of the vote against 31% for Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado candidate and 22% for Lino Oviedo, who had returned from exile in 2004 and founded his own party – the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE).
Lugo had an ambitious agenda, which included land reform (most land in Paraguay is still in the hands of a select few), major social reforms and investments into health and education. While Lugo was able to accomplish a few things, including a treaty with Brazil in which Brasilia agreed to triple the amount it pays for Paraguayan electricity produced at the Itaipú dam. His government also significantly increased healthcare spending, and reformed the system to ensure free access to healthcare for the entire population. However, Lugo found himself frustrated in accomplishing his goals. His original electoral victory owed a lot to his alliance with the Liberals, who unsurprisingly had little appetite for the more leftist parts of Lugo’s agenda. Besides the PLRA, he had only a small handful of supporters in Congress.
In 2009, his popularity took a hit when it was revealed that he had fathered several illegitimate children during his time as a bishop. His presidency got bogged down in handling the fallout from that case. He took a personal hit with a cancer diagnosis in 2010.
By 2012, the Liberals had abandoned Lugo’s left-wing coalition and teamed up with the Colorados in opposition, looking for an excuse to remove Lugo from office. They found that excuse in June 2012, following a botched police operation to evict landless farmers. A few days later, on the account of “poor performance”, both houses of Congress voted quasi-unanimously to impeach Lugo. There was nothing illegal or unconstitutional in the way in which he was removed from office. However, one can easily argue that he was removed from office on flimsy grounds and the impeachment process was a farce. The debate lasted a mere two hours, and the main charge against Lugo was “poor performance” – which is hardly grounds for impeachment. Removed from office, Lugo was replaced by his ertswhile Vice President, Federico Franco, a Liberal. Lugo did not put up resistance, although his mood did go from resignation on the day of to feistiness a few days later, when he denounced a coup.
The controversial impeachment created a diplomatic crisis and threw Paraguay into a diplomatic purgatory. Brazil and Argentina, whose respective heads of state had generally been close allies of Lugo, condemned the impeachment as a ‘parliamentary coup’ and suspended Paraguay’s membership in Mercosur, the regional trade bloc. Along with other countries – including the leftist governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela but also conservative Chile and Colombia – they did not recognize the new government, making Franco a bit of a regional/international pariah.
Notwithstanding his weak legitimacy and his diplomatic isolation, Franco did manage to make the best out of the situation and proved to be a surprisingly competent President. In a country with a reputation as a safe haven for smugglers, drug traffickers and counterfeiters, Franco managed to create Paraguay’s first income tax. The country’s tax burden, 13.5% of GDP, is one of the lowest in the region and in the world, and the current taxation system is regressive with most taxes coming from consumption. The new income tax, set at 10%, only applies for incomes 120 times greater than the minimum wage; although it will progressively come down to all incomes 36 times greater than the minimum wage by 2018. Franco also granted land titles to rural squatters and bought private holdings to sell on easy terms to those without plots. A new law from September 2012 will dedicate around $40 million of revenues from the Itaipú dam to developing information technology in schools. Lugo had already started a ‘One Laptop Per Child’ scheme in schools nationwide with the help of a local NGO.
However, Franco has faced criticism – mostly from Lugo and the left – for allowing global giants Monsanto and Rio Tinto back into the country after Lugo’s government had resisted global corporations. Lugo said that Franco was merely the powerless pawn of multinationals and capital.
Candidates and Issues
The Colorado Party (officially: National Republican Association-Colorado Party, ANR-PC) candidate was Horacio Cartes, a 56-year old businessman who owns the Grupo Cartes, a large and powerful business conglomerate which includes Tabacalera del Este, Paraguay’s largest cigarette manufacturer, as well as beverage, banking, agricultural, transportation and trading interests. Cartes also owns Club Libertad, a large football club in Asunción which reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores in 2006. His father was Cessna’s representative in Paraguay and Cartes studied aeronautical engineering in the United States, where he briefly worked for Cessna in Oklahoma and Kansas.
Cartes is a controversial figure who carries a fair bit of baggage. In 1989, Cartes was imprisoned for seven months on charges of currency fraud but he was later cleared by a court. In 2000, police seized a plane carrying cocaine and marijuana on his ranch, he has defended himself saying the plane was forced to land because of mechanical problems and he had nothing to do with it. More recently, a leaked 2010 US State Department cable linked Cartes to a money laundering operation tied to drug trafficking. The cable said that his organization is suspected of laundering large quantities of US dollars generated through illegal means, including through the sale of narcotics to the US. There are also allegations that he made much of his fortune in cigarette smuggling, Paraguay having a reputation of being a old haven for smugglers. He defends himself on these counts by arguing that US investigations never turned up anything. Finally, investigative journalists recently found out that directors of a Paraguyan bank owned by Cartes had set up a ‘fake’ bank (no building or staff) in the Cook Islands in 1995.
Late in the campaign, Cartes made headlines and attracted some controversy when he called homosexuals ‘monkeys’ and said that he would shoot himself “in the balls” if his son was gay.
Cartes’ campaign focused on ‘change’ and very vague promises of fighting corruption, upgrading infrastructures, creating jobs, attracting foreign investment and business-friendly economic policies. Cartes presented himself as a businessman and political neophyte, untainted by the Colorado Party’s history and corrupt past. Indeed, he is quite the newcomer in politics: even his interest in politics is new – he voted for the first time in his life in this election – and he only joined the Colorados in 2009. Cartes’ actual platform seemed fairly devoid of substance and specifics. The Economist noted that the “Colorados’ plans seem to consist of a PowerPoint presentation listing roads, ports, airports and public transport to be built that goes far beyond what even the best-governed country could manage in just five years.”
The general gist of his platform appears to be business-friendly conservatism, which discusses the need to reform Paraguay’s bloated, indebted, corrupt and inefficient public system and huge web of public enterprises. Like the Liberals, the Colorados have said that they support a “Chilean model” for economic growth, which shows that Paraguayan politicians have yet to understand that Paraguay isn’t Chile.
The Liberal (PLRA) candidate was Efraín Alegre, a Senator and former public works minister under Lugo’s presidency. Alegre was the candidate of the Paraguay Alegre coalition, a ramshackle alliance which includes the Liberals and three smaller centre-left parties, including the Democratic Progressive Party, the party of Alegre’s running mate Rafael Filizzola.
Alegre’s platform was very similar to Cartes’: both are right-of-centre pro-business candidates, who both support reforming Paraguay’s public sector and promoting a “Chilean” model for economic growth. One of Alegre’s main proposals was to boost private investments in the public sector and private-public partnerships (although he opposed full privatizations), for example he said that he would offer concessions to the private sector to run airports, riverways and highways. The Liberal candidate also proposed to issue more debt abroad to finance infrastructure, a policy begun by Franco in January when the country organized its first bond issues in international markets.
In early February, Lino Oviedo – the insane coupist general who won 22.7% in the 2008 presidential election – died in a helicopter crash, abruptly ending his presidential candidacy. He was replaced by his nephew, Lino Oviedo Sánchez. Alegre, the underdog in the race against Cartes, was eager to make up lost ground and he negotiated a corrupt bargain with Oviedo Sánchez and his family’s party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE), which is a rather hilarious name for a corrupt nepotistic party. Lino Oviedo Sánchez, who was polling about 6-8%, dropped out of the race (although his name remained on the ballot) in early April and endorsed Alegre. In exchange, if Alegre won, he would serve as minister of defense; UNACE deputy Fabiola Oviedo, Lino Oviedo’s daughter, would be minister of women and the then-President of the Senate Jorge Oviedo Matto (no relation to the Oviedo family) would be interior minister. A fairly run-of-the-mill electoral alliance, even if it was with a corrupt shell like UNACE. There was, however, another side to this deal. A few days before the Liberal-UNACE alliance was sealed, the incumbent Liberal government bought lands which belonged to Senator Oviedo Matto’s father. The Colorados, even if they are hardly in a position to give lessons on ethics, decried a corrupt bargain and maneuvered to remove Oviedo Matto from the presidency of the Senate. Although a Colorado-led impeachment motion failed on April 11 (all but one Liberal and two Colorados voted against), Oviedo Matto was nonetheless compelled to resign on April 16 (the Colorados apparently had a sufficient majority to impeach him by then). His successor as President of the Senate, Liberal deputy speaker Alfredo Jaeggli (the rogue Liberal vote against Oviedo Matto), was accused of fraudulent land sales in 2008 when he tried to sell land he didn’t even possess to the government. The Liberals and Colorados are not only ideologically similar, they’re also ethically similar: both are corrupt.
Both the Colorados and Liberals are venal, self-interested parties largely devoid of any ideological coherence or partisan unity. Both parties have been a complex mess of factions and competing corrupt politicians for over a hundred years now, and things have hardly changed. Alegre faced a group of Liberal dissidents who disapproved of his candidacy and did their best to scuttle his candidacy. Recently, these PLRA dissidents accused Alegre of fraud dating from the time when he was public works minister; they allege that he paid 3.3 billion guaraníes (about $US 813,000) for public works which never took place, the government never recovered the money.
Late in the campaign, both the Colorado and Liberal parties were shaken up by a rather bizarre scandal involving vote buying (widespread in Paraguay). Colorado Senator Silvio Ovelar was videotaped negotiating a vote buying deal with a local Liberal cacique who ‘controls’ 200 voters. Ovelar offered 100,000 guaraníes ($US 24) for each vote for the Colorados and for every voter dissuaded from voting for the Liberals. The whole affair took an even more bizarre twist when both parties justified themselves, trying to come off as holier-than-thou whistle-blowers who bravely denounced the other side’s dirty tricks. Ovelar said that he had secretly recorded the meeting to denounce the Liberal’s vote-buying, the Liberals said that Ovelar was the guy buying votes and that they set up the camera to trap Ovelar.
The left, already weak on its own, was divided between two candidates: Mario Ferreiro and Anibal Carrillo. Ferreiro, a journalist, was the candidate of the Avanza Paíscoalition. This alliance includes the Revolutionary Febrerista Party – the remnants of the febrerista revolutionary movement from 1936 – and smaller left-wing parties. Anibal Carrillo was the candidate of the Frente Guasú, Lugo’s left-wing coalition which includes the Communists and the Partido País Solidario, whose leader (a former interior minister) is the cousin of Alegre’s running mate. Fernando Lugo was the Frente Guasú‘s top candidate for the Senate.
The Paraguayan left is very weak, especially when compared to neighboring Brazil, Uruguay or Bolivia where the left is in a dominant position. The left was massacred under Stroessner’s dictatorship, which was able to destroy both the political left and any revolutionary labour movements. Unlike Brazil, Argentina or Chile, Paraguay has no large unionized urban-working-class which is often the first base of new left-wing socialist parties in Latin America. Agriculture remains an important employer in Paraguay, while industrialization is relatively limited. Secondly, although most Paraguayans speak a native language (Guaraní) as their first language rather than Spanish, there is large historically disadvantaged and oppressed indigenous population in the country, a factor which has been a driving force between the rise of the left in Bolivia and, arguably, Peru.
Other candidates included Miguel Carrizosa of the Beloved Fatherland Party, a right-wing party founded by conservative businessman Pedro Fadul who won 21.3% of the vote in the 2003 presidential election but only a bit over 2% in 2008.
Results and aftermath
Turnout was 68.57%, up from 65.6% in the 2008 election. Provisional results, for 99.26% of precincts in the presidential race, are available on the TSJE’s website here. Certified results are still unavailable.
Horacio Cartes (ANR-Colorado) 45.80%
Efraín Alegre (PLRA) 36.94%
Mario Ferreiro (Avanza País) 5.88%
Anibal Carrillo (Frente Guasú) 3.32%
Miguel Carrizosa (PPQ) 1.13%
Lino Oviedo Sánchez (UNACE) 0.8%
Roberto Ferreira (Humanist) 0.17%
Lilian Soto (Movimiento Kuña Pyrenda) 0.16%
Eduardo “Coco” Arce (Workers’ Party) 0.12%
Ricardo Martín Almada (White Party) 0.11%
Atanasio Galeano (Free Country) 0.1%
Senate (seat counts from ABC.py)
ANR-Colorado 35.76% winning 19 seats (+4)
PLRA 24.36% winning 12 seats (-2)
Frente Guasú 9.59% winning 5 seats (+3)
Democratic Progressive Party 6.22% winning 3 seats (+2)
Avanza País 4.99% winning 2 seats (+2)
UNACE 3.77% winning 2 seats (-7)
National Encounter Party 3.37% winning 1 seat (+1)
Beloved Fatherland Party 1.94% winning 1 seat (-3)
Youth Party 1.2% winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 1%
Chamber of Deputies
ANR-Colorado 44 seats (+10)
PLRA 26 seats (-3)
UNACE 2 seats (-9)
Avanza País 2 seats (+2)
National Encounter Party 2 seats (+2)
Beloved Fatherland Party 1 seat (-3)
Frente Guasú 1 seat (nc)
Alianza Pasión Chaqueña 1 seat (+1)
Democratic Progressive Party 0 seats (-1)
to be allocated 1 seat
Horacio Cartes, the Colorado Party candidate and the favourite for most of the campaign, was elected with a comfortable majority over his closest rival, Efraín Alegre, the candidate backed by the governing Liberals. The Colorados, who had dominated Paraguayan politics since 1948, had lost the presidency in the 2008 election. But five years later, the Colorados are back in control. Obvious parallels may be drawn to the Mexican elections last year, in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which had ruled since 1929 until being kicked out in 2000 – returned to power. There are, however, differences between the two situations. The main one is that Horacio Cortes is the epitome of a political neophyte, a businessman with little known ties to old politicians in the Colorado Party. Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s priista President since 2012, was, however, a career politician when he ran for office and he is well connected to prominent old politicians in the PRI. The second difference is that the PRI changed, fairly significantly (although many would beg to differ) not only since 2000 but since the 1980s. The PRI since the 1980s has become far more of a technocratic party, with some autocratic inklings, and since 2000 one could argue that the PRI has ‘cleaned itself up’ somewhat. On the other hand, there is little proof that the Colorados have changed all that much in the past five years – everything indicates that they have retained their old ways.
The Colorados tend to start out with a structural advantage in Paraguayan elections. Even if they lost power in 2008, the party retains a huge membership base – up to a quarter of the population is said to be a member of the Colorado Party- and it has a well-oiled electoral machine. The Colorados also benefited from their opponents’ blunders. The left, as aforementioned, is very weak in Paraguay. Although Lugo was generally well regarded as President, many also judged his government to be quite inefficient. As a result, there was very little popular outrage to his impeachment by Congress in June 2012, in stark contrast to the international outrage which ensued. Secondly, while Lugo’s successor Federico Franco did accomplish a few positive things while in office, he does not leave office particularly popular. A number of corruption cases, first and foremost the dubious land deals with the UNACE’s Jorge Oviedo Matto, have cast a dark cloud over his presidency.
The alliance between the Liberals and the UNACE did not have the expected outcome. To begin with, the circumstances in which the deal was signed (land deal) hurt Alegre’s candidacy considerably. Moreover, as noted by a Liberal senator-elect, after Lino Oviedo died, the bulk of the oviedista/UNACE vote transferred, without a hitch, to the Colorados – perhaps their natural home given that Oviedo was a Colorado before going crazy.
While Liberal candidate Efrain Alegre was dogged by his party’s divisions and their public factional battles (as evidenced by the dissident Liberals accusing him of fraud, or the Colorados buying votes from a Liberal cacique), the Colorados were united behind their candidate. Despite questions over Cartes’ shady activities in the past or his controversial unscripted comments about homosexuals, he was able to convince a large number of unaligned voters with his vague promises of ‘change’, job creation and economic growth.
What can be expected from Cartes’ presidency?
Firstly, his victory means diplomatic normalization after the isolation and quasi-pariah status Paraguay was thrown into after Lugo’s impeachment last year. Brazil has said that Paraguay could be re-admitted to the Mercosur, but only on condition that the Congress ratifies Venezuela’s membership – Venezuela joined the regional trade bloc shortly after Paraguay was suspended last year, and some viewed the suspension as a trick to get Venezuela admitted (the Paraguayan Congress had been blocking its admission). Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greeted Cartes’ victory surprisingly warmly, probably because Maduro wants Paraguay to ratify his country’s admission. Under Franco, relations between chavista Venezuela and Paraguay had been strained, particularly when Franco said that Chávez’s death was a ‘miracle’. It remains to be seen if Cartes’ pro-business conservative economic policies will isolate Asunción from its neighbors, given the popularity of more left-wing economic policies throughout most of the region.
As noted above, the Colorados have been quite vague about what they intend to do once in office. We know – or maybe only assume – that they favour conservative economic policies, including more private investments in the public sector and infrastructure. At the same time, the Colorados have also been known to fancy more statist economic policies at times, including in the recent past. Foreign observers, at least those who liked Franco’s cautious and tepid reformist agenda, hope that Cartes will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by continuing his policies.
The country’s economic fortunes have fluctuated in recent years. While the economy receded by 1.2% in 2012 because of a slump in agricultural output and exports, the economy is projected to grow by 11% this year thanks to a record soy harvest (Paraguay is the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world). But growth is projected to slow to around 4.7% by 2014. Economic growth, job creation and especially poverty – in one of the region’s poorest and most unequal country where over 40% of the population lives in poverty – will be priorities for the new government. Most agree that a substantial increase in private and foreign investment will be needed to allow the country to reach 6-7% growth rates. Foreign investment already increased by 12% in 2009, and the outgoing Liberal government had allowed multinationals Rio Tinto Alcan and Monsanto to invest.
The Economist described Cartes’ victory as “back to the past”. There are good reasons to worry that Paraguay might be sliding backwards with the Colorado Party’s return to power. Cartes already has unsavoury reputation abroad because of his suspected ties to money laundering and drug trafficking, and many fear that his victory only means that Paraguay will erase the small progresses made in the past few years and return to its old image as a corrupt ‘backwards’ state providing safe haven for drug traffickers and smugglers of all kinds. Will Paraguay slide backwards with Cartes, or will the new President show at least some interest in reforming the country as needed?
Indirect presidential elections were held in Italy between April 18 and 20, 2013. The Italian President’s role is essentially symbolic, acting as the guarantor of national unity. The President, does, however, appoint the Prime Minister (who must then seek the confidence of both houses of Parliament) and has the power to call parliamentary elections. Fitting this profile, most Presidents tend to be retired politicians or respected public servants, who stand above daily partisan politics and are widely popular. The President serves a seven year term. While there are no term limits, until this year no President had run for reelection.
The President is elected indirectly by an electoral college composed of both houses of Parliament and 58 delegates from each of Italy’s regions – each region sends 3 delegates (usually two from the governing majority, and one from the regional opposition), with the exception of the Aosta Valley which has only a single delegate. This year, the electoral college was made up of 1,007 members. On the first three ballots, a presidential candidate must obtain a two-thirds majority (of all members of the electoral college, including any who are absent), in the fourth and subsequent ballots, an absolute majority (of all members of the electoral college, including any who are absent) is sufficient. Two ballots are held each day.
In 2006, Giorgio Napolitano, a former member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and a respected senior politician, was elected on the fourth ballot. Napolitano is 86 years old.
The legislative election on February 24-25 resulted in total deadlock. The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won a large majority in the Chamber of Deputies, by virtue of the electoral system’s national majority bonus, but he failed to win an absolute majority in the Senate. In Italy, a Prime Minister cannot govern unless he has the confidence of both houses of Parliament. Some had thought that Bersani might have been able to put together a short-term government by getting individual members of Beppe Grillo’s new radical anti-establishment/anti-corruption Five Star Movement (M5S) to prop him up before new elections could be held. On March 22, President Giorgio Napolitano asked Bersani to form a government. However, by this point, it was already clear that Bersani would not be able to obtain the Senate’s confidence, given that he had rejected a grand coalition with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right bloc and had been unable to win any M5S senators over to his side. On March 28, Napolitano took act of Bersani’s failure and announced that he would look for alternative solutions. In the meantime, Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has served as a technocratic non-partisan Prime Minister since Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011, stayed on as caretaker.
In this context of unbreakable deadlock, both houses of Parliament and 58 regional delegates assembled to elect a President. Giorgio Napolitano had announced that he would not stand for re-election.
In the electoral college, Bersani’s centre-left coalition had 493 seats, against 269 for Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, 163 for Grillo’s M5S, 71 seats for Mario Monti’s hapless centrist/centre-right coalition and 11 seats were held by other parties. The ‘magic number’ in the first three ballots was 672 votes, the magic number in the later ballots was 504 votes.
Prior to the first ballot, Bersani and Berlusconi agreed to support Franco Marini, a former Christian Democrat (DC) trade unionist now associated with the centre-left (he served as President of the Senate between 2006 and 2008). Theoretically, Marini should have been elected easily on the first ballot with support from the left, right and centre. However, Bersani’s decision to pick Marini and his deal with Berlusconi was yet another example of Bersani’s utter ineptitude. Marini was a poor choice to begin with. In a context where Italian voters are fed up with old politicians and ‘politics as usual’, Marini was the representative of the old politics: he is 80 years old and he has been in politics for decades. Matteo Renzi, the young mayor of Florence and Bersani’s main rival within the Democratic Party (PD), said that Marini came from the ‘last century’ of Italian politics. Left Ecology Freedom (SEL), a small left-wing party led by Nichi Vendola and the junior member of Bersani’s coalition, was also displeased by the pick. However, what made Marini toxic to so many electors were the circumstances in which he was picked. Bersani, pressured by Vendola (and common sense), had previously said that he didn’t want to form a government with Berlusconi’s scandal-plagued centre-right. However, Bersani turned around and proved that he was quite willing to work with Berlusconi behind closed doors. Many left-wingers and grillistis decried a corrupt bargain.
Grillo’s M5S held an online primary to allow their members to choose their presidential candidate. After the top two finishers (Milena Gabanelli and Gino Strada) indicated that they did not wish to run, the M5S turned to Stefano Rodotà, a former Communist and respected jurist. The SEL, which opposed Marini’s candidacy because of the corrupt bargain with Berlusconi, backed Rodotà, who has a good reputation on the left.
|Anna Maria Cancellieri||2|
The first ballot was a disaster for Bersani. Marini, who could have been elected on the first ballot with the support of the left, right and centre (Monti), fell far short of the 672 votes required to win. While votes are secret and we cannot know which left-wingers or right-wingers didn’t vote for Marini, we can presume that there were rebels on both sides – perhaps more so on the left. Many of those rebels cast blank or invalid votes, or supported other (undeclared) candidates. Sergio Chiamparino, the former PD mayor of Turin, received 41 votes, most likely from renziani members of the PD. Renzi had indicated his preference for Chiamparino.
Second and third ballots
|Candidate||Votes (2nd)||Votes (3rd)|
|Sergio De Caprio||9||7|
|Anna Maria Cancellieri||0||9|
With the failure of the Marini option and no other candidate likely to win outright on the second and third ballots, the left and right largely sat out the vote by casting blank or invalid ballots although some voted, in fairly large numbers, for other candidates: Chiamparino, former centre-left Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, Alessandra Mussolini or Romano Prodi. The M5S and SEL continued to support Stefano Rodotà.
For the fourth ballot, which could be won with a simple majority, the left – both the PD (including Renzi) and SEL – agreed to support Romano Prodi, a respected former Prime Minister and a former President of the European Commission. Berlusconi did not approve of the pick and the right announced that it would continue to sit out the vote by casting blank/invalid votes. Theoretically, Prodi could have won by taking all centre-left electors and adding a dozen or so votes, which could have come from the centre. Things did not work out that way.
|Anna Maria Cancellieri||78|
Prodi won only 395 votes, falling far short of the 504 votes which he would have needed to win. Of the 1007 members, only 732 turned out to vote on April 19 (right-wingers likely did not participate). In retrospect, it appears that Prodi’s candidacy was a ploy engineered by Bersani’s rivals within the PD – apparently led by Massimo D’Alema, the PD’s top backroom wheeler-and-dealer – to scuttle Bersani’s leadership and force him out after the disaster of the Marini candidacy (and so many other factors, like blowing a big lead in the general election). The ploy worked. Rosy Bindi (president of the PD) and Bersani resigned their leadership positions within the party. However, in the meantime, Italy still needed a President.
|Anna Maria Cancellieri||3|
While the politicians were actively negotiating amongst themselves to find a way out of the crisis they had placed themselves in, the fifth ballot on the morning of April 20 saw no resolution. The right did not participate, which meant that only 741 out of 1007 members actually showed up, and the left cast invalid or blank votes.
In the meantime, the politicians – Bersani, Berlusconi and Monti – met with Napolitano, the outgoing President, to find an exit route. They managed to convince Napolitano to come out of retirement and take the unprecedented move of accepting a second term in office.
|Sergio De Caprio||8|
President Napolitano was reelected to an historic second term with a huge majority, winning nearly three-quarters of the vote from the electoral college with his nearest rival, Rodotà, taking only 217 votes (probably almost all from M5S).
Napolitano’s reelection, out of the blue, was a sign that some things can still get accomplished in Italian politics. But above all it means that Italy is as dysfunctional as ever.
Napolitano’s reelection is for a seven year term, but few think he will serve until 2020. Instead, he is widely viewed as a temporary solution to the crisis – a patch, if you will. Napolitano’s conditions seem to have been an interim caretaker government (a grand coalition between the left and right) and delaying snap elections which should have been held in the summer (June or July) until the fall or even the spring of 2014. In the meantime, a new cabinet – political rather than technocrat this time (it seems) – would be charged with managing Italy’s catastrophic economy, a new electoral law and perhaps even constitutional reform. The PD will also need to hold primaries, probably in the fall, to choose a new leader after Bersani’s resignation. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and Bersani’s rival since Renzi lost the 2012 PD primaries to Bersani, is likely the favourite and the best thing the Italian left has for the moment. But Renzi’s centrist/liberal reformist image might not play well to some members of the PD’s left or the SEL.
On April 24, Napolitano nominated Enrico Letta, a 46-year old member of the PD, to be Prime Minister and form a coalition with the centre-left and centre-right. Napolitano said that he had picked Letta because of his youth, in contrast to the other potential nominee, Massimo D’Alema, who is an old-timer. Letta is a centrist within the PD, who comes from the PD’s Christian democratic tradition (former members of the Margherita party), but Letta had backed Bersani (who comes from the PD’s left-wing and post-communist tradition) won the PD’s leadership in 2009. His centrist standing within the party likely makes him palatable to most factions of the PD, although Renzi has expressed his displeasure at the idea of a grand coalition with Berlusconi’s right. Berlusconi apparently vetoed the idea of Renzi as Prime Minister, because he fears Renzi as his most serious rival in the future.
How will voters react to their politicians’ latest shenanigans? The Grillists will be displeased. Grillo denounced Napolitano’s reelection as a coup d’état and organized a protest in Rome. Furthermore, a grand coalition is perfect for Grillo: he has even more proof that all the traditional parties are the same and can be lumped together, while both the left and right work to discredit themselves while in government.
As of now, Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition has opened up a small lead over the left and M5S in polls, up to five points ahead now. He certainly benefited from the utter trainwreck and incompetent kerfuffle which the PD and Bersani have been since the elections. Once he reenters government, can Berlusconi continue to benefit from the political mess? That might prove tougher.
There was a regional election in Friuli-Venezia Giulia on April 21 and 22. One might have expected the left to do poorly because of the past few weeks, but they did pretty well all things considered. Indeed, the left’s presidential candidate Debora Serracchiani (a young MEP, close to Renzi) defeated right-wing incumbent Renzo Tondo (who had defeated a left-wing incumbent in 2008) with 39.39% against 39% for Tondo and 19.2% for the M5S candidate. The right did win the regional council list vote with 45.2% against 39% for the left and 13.8% for the M5S. Turnout, however, collapsed from 72% in 2008 to only 50.5% this year.
Napolitano’s reelection and Letta’s nomination is only a patch which only temporarily resolves Italy’s lingering political (and economic) crisis. Italian politics remain deadlocked and dysfunctional, and the whole thing will certainly blow up again whenever a new election is held.
Early presidential elections were held in Venezuela on April 14, 2013 following the death of incumbent President Hugo Chávez on March 5. Chávez, who had held office since 1999 and had been reelected to a fourth term in office in October 2012, was – by far – the most famous and important Venezuelan leader in decades. His controversial style, rhetoric and policies transformed his country and left a profound mark on Latin America as a whole.
Chávez had been diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 and underwent several operations in Cuba in 2011 and 2012. Although he had claimed in July 2012 that he had fully recovered from cancer, shortly after his reelection to a fourth term in office, Chávez’s cancer returned and he underwent a new operation in Cuba in December 2012. Suffering from a respiratory infection and later a lung infection which had caused respiratory failures, Chávez remained in Cuba until mid-February 2013, at which point he returned to Venezuela. Although the government claimed he had overcome his lung infection, it later admitted that he was receiving chemotherapy in Venezuela and his respiratory problems returned on March 4. Chávez died in Caracas on March 5, at the age of 58.
According to the constitution, Chávez was due to be inaugurated as President on January 10, but the inauguration was never held because Chávez was still in Cuba and he returned home only for his final days. As per Article 233 of the constitution, if the President is ‘permanently unable to serve’ prior to his inauguration, he is temporarily succeeded by the President of the National Assembly and a new election must be held within 30 days. However, while a President may be deemed ‘permanently unavailable’ for reasons other than death and resignation – such as a ‘permanent physical or mental disability’ such a disability must be certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly. The National Assembly, controlled by the chavistas, never declared him unable to serve prior to his death and a court ruled that a reelected incumbent could forego the inauguration. Therefore, when he died on March 5, he was deemed to have died after the beginning of his fourth term of office on January 10. In these circumstances, the President is temporarily succeeded by the Vice President and a new election must be held within 30 days. As a result, Chávez’s Vice President, Nicolás Maduro (who had been named to the office by Chávez in October 2012 after the election) was promptly inaugurated as interim President. The opposition claimed that Maduro’s accession was invalid because Chávez had never taken the constitutionally-mandated oath of office, hence he should have been replaced by the President of the National Assembly (in this case, Maduro’s intra-party rival, Diosdado Cabello).
There were also some divergences on the matter of new elections: the constitution states it must be held within 30 consecutive days (se procederá a una nueva elección universal, directa y secreta dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes), but some apparently argued that this only meant that a new election needed to be called within 30 days rather than actually held within 30 days. While this election was not technically held within 30 days, the argument was moot because Maduro and the regime wished to hold a new election as soon as possible.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the man, Hugo Chávez will be a tough act to follow. It is undeniable that he transformed his country and left a profound impact on his country, Latin America and even the entire world. But whether he did more good than bad is, obviously, a matter of much debate both in Venezuela and abroad. Chávez was an extremely polarizing figure. His opponents argued that he was a populist autocrat who eroded democratic institutions, stifled opposition and centralized political and economic power in his hands. His supporters still hail him as the hero of Venezuela’s poor, responsible for dramatic improvements in their standard of living and a major decline in social inequality and poverty through the investment of the country’s oil money into social programs (the so-called ‘Bolivarian missions’). They admire him for having stood up to “imperialist” elites who had controlled Latin America for decades. The reality is not as black and white: Chávez was not the hero and selfless benefactor of the downtrodden his supporters describe him as, nor was he the bloodthirsty tyrant who destroyed democracy.
My post on the October 2012 election set the context needed to understand the man, his times and his actions. From that point, anybody can decide for him or herself.
To better understand Chávez’s policies and behaviour, it is important to understand the context in which he originally came to power. Up until the 1980s, Venezuela was a political and economic model for other Latin American countries. Economically, profits from oil – the country’s top export – allowed for major state-led investment into infrastructure, natural resources and nascent social programs. The oil industry was nationalized in 1975, but governments prior to that point had already supported policies which had given the state a hefty share of profits from oil, leading to oil-induced development policies. Politically, a stable democratic systems with free elections and orderly transitions of power flourished. Two major parties, the centre-left Democratic Action (AD) and the centre-right COPEI alternated in power. The country played a major role in the regional and international arena. President Rómulo Betancourt, during his second term in power (1959-1964), sought to oppose any undemocratic regime – left or right – which had come to power by a military coup.
However, this model collapsed in the 1980s with the major fall in the price of oil which drained the country of its main source of revenue. It hardly helped, moreover, that previous oil profits had been woefully mismanaged by governments which were all too happy to spend it away. The government was forced to devalue the currency and resort to price controls, but corruption was rampant and unchecked in all echelons of power. In 1988, Carlos Andrés Pérez of the AD, who had previously served as President during the plentiful 1970s (but whose irresponsible and reckless economic policies proved disastrous and under whom corruption became ingrained), was returned to power. Pérez had campaigned on a populist and anti-”neoliberal” platform which denounced the IMF and the Washington consensus, but upon assuming power – in pure Latin American tradition – he quickly set upon doing the exact opposite of what he had promised. The poor economic outlook forced him to accept the IMF’s (in)famous structural reforms, including a liberalization of oil prices.
These neoliberal reforms came at the price of major social unrest. In 1989, a huge popular protest movement erupted in the capital (the Caracazo), a protest which was followed by a massacre in which up to 3000 may have died at the hands of the national guard. In 1992, Pérez faced two unsuccessful coup attempts, including one in February led by then-Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez and like-minded supporters in the military. Chávez’s coup attempt failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, but he gained national prominence and for many poorer Venezuelans, he became a hero for standing up to the discredited and corrupt (Pérez would be impeached in 1993 on corruption charges) regime. He was released in 1994 when Rafael Caldera, another former President elected on a fairly left-wing platform with left-wing backers, won the presidency in 1993.
Caldera, facing a major financial crisis, was forced to rescind his vow not to accept IMF help and implement more structural reforms, including privatization and a devaluation of the currency. Out of prison, Chávez used his notoriety from 1992 to build up a strong grassroots base of support from poorer Venezuelans, who had been marginalized by the regime and disillusioned with the turno pacífico style of politics between the AD and COPEI, which had become two corrupt shells by that point. The social situation was explosive, the 1990s having resulted in dramatic increases in poverty and a decline in the per capita income. Within Chávez’s “Bolivarian” movement, the view that they should seek power through electoral rather than military means won out and Chávez ran in the 1998 elections. His support increased as the campaign went along, and he won the election with 56.2% of the vote.
Having been elected on a promise to get rid of the country’s corrupt and discredited political system, he quickly set about working for a new constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1999 and drafted a constitution which was then ratified by voters in a referendum. The new constitution enshrined the rights of women and indigenous groups and established the rights of the public to education, housing, healthcare and food. Institutionally, the constitution replaced the old bicameral legislature with a single, unicameral, legislature (the National Assembly) and increased the powers of the executive.
Under the new constitution, Chávez was reelected in 2000 with 59.8% of the vote. While in his first mini-term (1999-2000), Chávez had actually led fairly moderate and ‘prudent’ fiscal policies, his policies moved sharply to the left during his second term. He started major social programs (Bolivarian Missions) which aimed at alleviating poverty in the country, but at the same time he adopted a more confrontational attitude vis-a-vis the United States, private businesses and foreign investors (especially in the oil industry and the state-owned oil monopoly, PDVSA).
An opposition movement coalesced in response to Chávez’s policies, which they decried as authoritarian and populist. The opposition coalition was predominantly formed by the country’s upper middle-classes and had the strong backing of the traditional elites: the media, the employers’ federation, the business community and the old parties with the tacit support of the Bush administration in the United States. In April 2002, Chávez’s opponent attempted to depose him in a coup led by the anti-Chávez sectors of the military, but the coup collapsed within a few days. Following the failure of the coup, Chávez’s opponents attempted to destabilize his regime through a two-month management strike at PDVSA. Chávez responded by firing striking employees, eventually succeeding in quashing the strike and placing chavistas in command of PDVSA, depriving the opposition of a key base of support.
Following the failure of the military option, the opposition tried to overthrow Chávez by using the recall mechanism embedded in the 1999 constitution. A recall referendum was held in 2004, and Chávez handily survived the recall attempt with over 70% turnout and 59% of voters against the recall. The opposition’s shenanigans in 2002 seriously damaged its credibility, giving much credence to Chávez’s claims that the opposition were the pawns of the global imperialist and “neoliberal” elites.
Chávez won a third term in office with 63% of the vote in the 2006 election, which was judged to be free and fair by international observers. In December 2007, however, he suffered his first electoral rebuke. He had proposed a series of amendments to the 1999 constitution, which included removing term limits on the President (but not any other office) but also a number of proposals aimed either at increasing executive power or, according to Chávez, implementing his socialist agenda. By a narrow margin (51% again), these changes were rejected. In 2009, however, voters approved (with 54% in favour) an amendment which removed term limits on all office holders. During his third term, Chávez clearly sought to consolidate his power, not only by changing the rules of the game to allow him another term (or terms) in office, but also by uniting his fairly fractious coalition of supporters into a single party, the PSUV.
Chávez’s main achievement will have been his ambitious social programs, styled ‘Bolivarian Missions’ by his government. These various missions – which have included local health services for poorer communities (Barrio Adentro), a literacy campaign and housing projects for the poor (Hábitat) – have been financed by Venezuela’s oil wealth. Indeed, oil is the country’s largest export (95% of export) and contributes to over half of the government’s budget. After the failed 2002 coup, Chávez moved to take full control of the country’s state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A (PDVSA). Chávez was skilled at using oil as a political and diplomatic tool. Although the United States remains Venezuela’s largest customer, about a third of Venezuelan oil is exported to the Caribbean. Chávez used oil as a diplomatic tool to build good bilateral ties with smaller Caribbean island nations and build a strong alliance with Cuba. Indeed, Venezuela provides oil to Cuba at a discounted price – in exchange for Cuban doctors or exports in the country. There are valid concerns about the country’s economic dependence on oil revenues, which makes it vulnerable to any major dips in global oil prices (as happened in 2008). Furthermore, oil production has dropped since 2002.
It is clear that Chávez’s policies successfully reduced poverty in Venezuela – from 59% of the population in 1999 to only 28% in 2008 (extreme poverty declined from 22% to just under 10% in the same period). The Gini index, which measures income inequality, declined during his presidency, indicating a trend towards greater income equality. However, critics will contend that other Latin American countries (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador etc…) reduced poverty by equally staggering margins in the same period, without resorting to chavismo‘s autocratic tendencies.
Many opponents will concede that some of Chávez’s missions have been quite successful. However, some of these programs have become mismanaged and inefficient; and perhaps corrupt and clientelistic. The number of houses built by the government have fallen short of its target, the government has struggled to achieve food sovereignty and the country remains dependent on imported foodstuffs and it faces chronic food shortages. Opponents have pointed to Chávez’s actions (including expropriations and nationalizations) against private food producers as a reason for these shortages. Furthermore, there has an increasing number of long power outages in recent months.
Some worry that these programs are not sustainable in the long term. The government has borrowed to fund a lot of these projects, in the process piling up the debt. The country’s public debt has been increasing very rapidly, from 26% of the GDP in 2008 to over 50% in 2012 (and it is projected to keep rising quickly).
Opponents of the regime are very critical of the perceived ‘hollowing out’ of the private sector – during his second term, Chávez stepped up nationalizations and expropriations, including key nationalizations of (often foreign-owned) food, steel, gold and cement companies and the expropriation large landowners (who had often owned huge tracts of idle and unproductive land).
Under his presidency, the size of the state grew enormously, and a good part of the country’s oil revenues have been placed under the President’s discretion, often to fund lavish campaign promises. PDVSA has become somewhat of an all-purpose development agency under the state’s control. The main employers federation, which has long been a base of opposition strength, has said that the President’s goal is the destruction of private enterprise. This is exaggerated, because regardless of the extent of state control in the economy, the private sector has not been hollowed out entirely and it retains dominance in some sectors, such as the media – although its political activism has largely been tamed since 2002-2004.
Chávez received extensive criticism, both at home and abroad, for his record on human rights and democracy. There is a lot of dishonesty in these arguments, both those which seek to portray him as a tyrannical monster and those who seek to paint him as a democrat who happens to go against an established norm. He is neither of those things. However, Venezuela has been dinged by several institutions – Amnesty International, the UN, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders for its record on human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms and press freedom. Reports have criticized his administration’s tendency to discriminate on political grounds; erode judicial independence and undercut journalistic independence. While the opposition remains well represented in some media outlets, the government has built up a powerful and loyal media empire – at times through seizing control of previously opposition-owned newspapers or television stations.
There is no proof, however, that Chávez rigged the polls. The 2007 (obviously!) and 2009 referendums, 2006 presidential election, 2010 legislative elections and 2012 presidential elections were accepted by almost all players as being free, if not entirely fair. Through tight control of the media and state institutions, Chávez has been able to create a political playing field which is biased towards him and works against the opposition. For example, the opposition and the PSUV ended up roughly tied in the popular vote in the 2010 legislative election, but the PSUV retained a comfortable majority thanks to gerrymandering. Opposition access to the media is tightly controlled and limited, while the government has free access to the media.
The central government has often picked bitter fights with states or municipalities controlled by the opposition (often by cutting off funding), professedly in the name of “devolving” power to “the people”.
One of Chávez’s main weaknesses in his third term was criminality. The homicide rate in Venezuela has increased at a dizzying pace since the 1990s, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate increased from 25 in 1999 to 67 in 2011, and many have been critical of Chávez’s record in reducing crime, some accusing him of sliding his feet on the issue. Drug trafficking and cross border activity with Colombia seems to be one of the main causes of the recent jump in crime in the country.
Chavismo without Chávez
After his reelection to a fourth term in office, as Chávez’s health took a turn for the worse, Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro, his foreign minister since 2006, to be Vice President – more or less officially anointing him as his chosen successor. In doing so, Chávez worked to prevent a bloody succession battle for control of chavismo after his death.
Maduro had long been said to be Chávez’s top choice, over other rivals. Maduro, aged 50, is a former bus driver and labour leader who had been at Chávez’s side since the very beginning. Maduro was a legislator between 1998 and 2006 – he even served as speaker for a year between 2005 and 2006 – before Chávez named him as foreign minister in 2006. As foreign minister, Maduro did not deviate from the diplomatic path set for him by the President, but he was relatively well regarded by observers – for example he played a major role in resolving the diplomatic crisis with Colombia in 2010.
Maduro was often described as the leader of a civilian and ideological faction within chavismo, favoured by Cuba. The other faction in chavismo is the militarist faction, whose most prominent leader is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and the incumbent President of the National Assembly since January 2012. Chávez sidelined Cabello by picking Maduro as his successor, but Cabello pledged full loyalty towards Maduro.
As interim President and Chávez’s handpicked successor, it was clear that Maduro would be the PSUV’s presidential candidate in this election. If Cabello and other high-ranking PSUV officials harboured presidential ambitions, they would need to bid their time.
The opposition in Venezuela has taken the form of a fractious and heterogeneous coalition of politicians and parties of all stripes who oppose Chávez. The opposition has been united under the umbrella of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) since 2009, which has been far more successful, competent and legitimate than the past incarnations of the opposition under Chávez. The MUD is a very heterogeneous coalition, uniting centrist reformers, more liberal right-wingers, former leftist allies of Chávez and the remnants of the old decrepit parties (AD and COPEI). The main forces in the MUD are the centre-right Primero Justicia (PJ), the more centre-left Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) and whatever remains of the two old behemoths – AD and COPEI – which is to say, not much. It also includes some more clearly left-wing oriented parties, some of which are former Chávez allies, such as the MAS and the Radical Cause (La Causa R).
The MUD’s 2012 presidential candidate was Henrique Capriles Radonski, the young and popular governor of Miranda – the country’s second most populous state located just outside Caracas. Although Capriles was defeated by a fairly wide 11-point margin in October, he ran a tough and spirited campaign against Chávez which proved to be the strongest opposition challenge to the longtime President. He finally shook off the image of the anti-Chávez opposition as a ragtag bunch of old privileged right-wing elites in cahoots with the loathed “imperialist” and “neoliberal” elites. He campaigned as a “social democrat” who promised to keep Chávez’s social programs while focusing on mismanagement, clientelism and corruption.
But despite a fairly successful performance in October, the opposition received a severe blow in the December regional elections. Likely benefiting from a wave of popular sympathy for the feeble President, the PSUV won back a number of state governorships it had lost to the opposition in the 2008 regional elections – including the most populous state in the country and longtime opposition bastion, Zulia. The silver lining for the MUD was that it held the closely disputed state of Miranda, where Capriles won reelection against the foreign minister and former Vice President, Elías Jaua. Henri Falcón, the popular governor of Lara who had split from chavismo in 2009 on the issue of presidential term limits, won reelection as an opposition candidate by a fairly solid margin against former PSUV governor Luis Reyes Reyes.
After Chávez’s death, the main question was whether or not Henrique Capriles would chose to run for president a second time. He announced his candidacy five days after Chávez’s death, and there was no question that he would be the opposition’s candidate – he was, by far, the most legitimate opposition candidate after his October 2012 presidential candidacy.
It was a short, nasty and brutish campaign on both sides.
Maduro does not appear to be a lightweight or glaringly incompetent, but it is clear that he lacks a lot of Chávez’s unique attributes – notably charisma and the ability to hold the disparate elements of the regime together. While Chávez was fairly secure in his position and never really needed to resort to electoral fraud or mass arrests/imprisonment of opponents to safeguard his power, Maduro appears far more insecure and keen on asserting his authority. Hours before Chávez died, Maduro expelled two American diplomats from Caracas, likely a warning shot fired at his PSUV rivals and foreign observers that he was the guy in charge. He also famously claimed that the CIA and the United States had poisoned Chávez and inoculated him with cancer.
Maduro’s campaign constantly invoked Chávez’s legacy – to the point where amused onlookers began counting the number of times he mentioned the late President’s name (7,401 times since his death!). Maduro tried to make up for his lack of charisma by presenting himself as the man who would best represent and defend Chávez’s legacy against the “fascists” and “imperialists” who are conspiring to destroy Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”. He gave little to no details of what his policies would be, besides parroting old chavista rhetoric. Maduro, as interim president, was forced to devalue the bolívar, the country’s currency, in order to boost exports and effectively reduce ballooning public debt, and attempt to develop a foreign exchange scheme to address Venezuela’s dollar shortage.
Maduro and the chavistas might have taken their veneration of Chávez a bit overboard. There were the plans to embalm the late leader, then Maduro launching an oversized check (for 1.8 million bolívars) up to the heavens and Hugo Chávez, representing the dividends received by CANTV, a Venezuelan telephone company which was nationalized in 2007 and finally Maduro’s fairly hilarious claim that Chávez came back from the dead reincarnated as a little bird which allegedly blessed him. After that, Maduro showed off a little bird named ‘Hugo’ at campaign rallies. To clearly attach himself to Chávez’s legacy, Maduro has almost transformed a political ideology into a secular religion – worshiping Chávez as a sort of deity.
Capriles used only kid gloves when he was up against Chávez in October, leading some of his supporters to criticize him for being too soft on Chávez and not going all-out against him. In contrast, his second campaign this year was much, much feistier and aggressive. He attacked Maduro head-on, contending that he lacks legitimacy because he was never elected and the dubious manner in which he assumed office after Chávez’s death. He attacked Maduro’s February devaluation of the bolívar, and during the campaign he aggressively countered Maduro’s ’homophobic’ slurs against Capriles (branded as a ’little princess’) and the opposition (whom he had previously referred to as ‘faggots’ before apologizing) by attacking machismo arguing for the social inclusion of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. His campaign also took a fairly nationalistic (read: anti-Cuban) tone – Capriles notably talked about scrapping the oil subsidies to Cuba, speaking to fairly widespread concern in Venezuela that the country’s close alliance (some might even say subservience) on Cuba is a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and has placed Caracas in a fairly humiliating position against Havana. The perception that Maduro is the candidate favoured by the Cuban regime is fairly widespread in opposition ranks, and it is ruffled some feathers. For example, lots of questions were asked when Venezuelan state TV broadcast footage of a public ceremony where the Cuban national anthem was played.
In this short 21-second ad, Capriles’ campaign offered an indictment of the chavista record in five short points: violence, power outages, expropriations, deficient hospitals and the lack of water:
As is characteristic of Venezuelan politics in the chavista era, the campaign was marked by a whole slew of ad hominem personal attacks and insults from both sides. Maduro described his opponent as “the little bourgeois shit”, “capricious” and the “prince of the bourgeoisie”; Capriles described Maduro as “Satan”, “bird brain”, a “liar” and even went as far as to insult Maduro’s powerful wife, Cilia Flores – the former attorney general.
The conventional wisdom prior to the election was that Maduro would win by a comfortable margin (double digits), in large part on the back of an outpouring of sympathy for the deceased president.
Venezuela uses electronic voting machines, which have been praised by a number of observers. The (pro-opposition) blog Caracas Chronicles explained how the electronic voting system works when the time comes to report the votes in a post-election posting here. To ensure the credibility of the results, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) chooses (randomly?) 54% of precincts to be audited on the spot, with electoral staff opening the boxes and hand counting the ‘vouchers’ given to each voter after he/she has voted. The audit tally must match up the CNE’s official tally and the tally from the voting machines.
By law, the CNE cannot officially report any results – even if it has them – before it deems that the trend is “irreversible”. This means that, unlike in the United States or Canada, there is no official source which reports precinct results to the minute as the stream in.
Turnout was 79.78%, down about one point since the 2012 election. The final results were proclaimed by the CNE, but the CNE’s website is still inaccessible outside of Venezuela – Wikipedia and the newspaper El Universal have published the CNE’s results.
Nicolás Maduro (PSUV and allies) 50.78%
Henrique Capriles (MUD) 48.95%
Eusebio Mendez (New Vision) 0.13%
María Bolívar (United Democratic Party for Peace and Freedom) 0.08%
Reina Sequera (Worker’s Party) 0.02%
Julio Mora (Democratic Unity Party) 0.01%
Election night was a tense and crazy affair. The opposition, at around 6 or 7 in the evening, started implying that they had probably won, which they later ‘confirmed’ through their own quick counts which showed Capriles beating Maduro. However, the CNE remained silent and planned announcements were delayed several times. In 2012, the CNE had reported its official “irreversible” results at about 10pm, and the CNE’s count in 2012 more or less matched the opposition’s own quick counts. Originally due to be announced at around 10pm again, nothing came from the CNE and Twitter went ablaze with various rumours that Capriles had actually won on the CNE’s own count and the regime was panicking and refusing to acknowledge the results. At around 11:20pm, the CNE went out and announced that Maduro had won with 50.6% of the vote.
The way the night played out and the delayed timing of the CNE’s announcement has led many to suspect that the regime tinkered with the result to allow Maduro to win (the CNE is almost entirely staffed with PSUV supporters). Capriles refused to concede the election until there was a full manual recount. The opposition claimed that they had won and said that they had proof of over two thousand incidents of irregularities. The government’s supporters countered by alleging that Capriles and the opposition had fabricated their claims of irregularities and vote rigging. Maduro also claimed that Capriles had called him and offered him a pact – some kind of corrupt bargain, likely in exchange for a concession. Capriles said that there had been no such pact.
The period after the election on April 14 has been tumultuous, marked by pro and anti-government protests, some of which turned violent; and a government which seemed a bit perplexed by the situation it had been put in and found itself hesitating about how to deal with the opposition. On Monday, there were large protests, both pro and anti-government, in Caracas and in other cities in the country. Responding to Capriles’ calls, opposition supporters took to the streets to bang their kitchen pans (a Latin American form of protest known as a cacerolazo); while students clashed with the National Guard who used tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse them. Authorities claimed that there were seven deaths, 61 injuries and 135 arrests in these protests.
Maduro and the CNE initially accepted Capriles’ request for an audit, but it seems like they later backtracked and accepted only the usual audit of 54% of precincts. Less than 24 hours after it published preliminary results, the CNE confirmed Maduro’s victory. By Tuesday, the government adopted a hard line against the opposition. It blamed the opposition for the seven deaths during protests on Monday, calling Capriles a ‘murderer’ and claiming that the opposition was preparing a coup, financed by the US. Maduro later blocked an opposition protest for Wednesday, which Capriles chose to call off to prevent any violence.
It is a bit tough to sort through the violence and identify those responsible. The situation is tense and extremely polarized, with the government and opposition trading blame for the deaths and other acts of violence. There are groups of armed thugs on both sides, although the government has full control over the military and police forces in the country. The government claimed that opposition mobs had savagely attacked outpatient health clinics (CDIs), but it was later reported by the opposition and independent sources that there had been no such attacks.
Maduro further said that he would not recognize state governors who do not recognize him as President, and the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello announced that opposition deputies would not be allowed to speak in the legislature. The opposition claimed that there was a warrant out for the arrest of Capriles (for ‘inciting violence’) and Leopoldo López (another opposition bigwig who is banned from running for office until 2014). As the government was seemingly tightening the screws and cracking down on the opposition, many opposition supporters felt that the government was laying the groundwork for an autocoup (a la Fujimori).
Because Maduro is far more insecure than Chávez ever was and because he lacks Chávez’s legitimacy and authority, there is a chance that he will crack down on the opposition like Chávez had never really done. Chávez (and vice-versa, the opposition) had used vitriolic rhetoric, but he had never really violently cracked down on the opposition through arbitrary mass arrests and detentions of opponents. Many fear that Maduro will actually take the vitriolic rhetoric to the next level and quash the opposition.
But just as it seemed that Maduro was moving to silence opposition, the CNE (certainly with the government’s blessing, clearly) announced that it would conduct a manual audit of the remaining 46% of precincts, as originally demanded by Capriles. This manual audit could take up to a month, and in the meanwhile Maduro was inaugurated on April 19 (in a ceremony interrupted by a heckler). Capriles has accepted the audit and he says that he will present ‘proof’ of electoral irregularities to the CNE.
It is very unlikely that the CNE, with Maduro already inaugurated, will somehow reverse the result and proclaim Capriles as the winner instead. Capriles and the opposition seem to have accepted this, and they prefer see the whole election and post-election shenanigans as a moral victory for themselves, which has brought the whole chavista regime to the brink. It will likely focus its efforts on the 2015 legislative elections, in the hopes of winning a majority in the National Assembly.
The government went from initially accepting Capriles’ first request for a full audit/recount, to forgetting about it and threatening to quash the opposition before going back to announce a full audit/recount. It is clear that Maduro’s very tight margin of victory has destabilized the regime, which has had a tough time deciding how it should respond: should it press on the pedals and silence the opposition, or should it tread carefully in an attempt to salvage legitimacy?
What compelled the government to backtrack on Thursday/Friday and try to strike a more conciliatory tone? Foreign pressure is probably not part of the equation – Venezuela’s Latin American partners (with a few, minor, exceptions) have recognized the result and have not posed any problems, the United States backed Capriles’ request for a recount but Caracas doesn’t pay much attention to Washington’s pronouncements. Additionally, American and foreign media attention was focused on the tragic events in Boston rather than on the situation in Venezuela after April 15.
Rather, it seems that the government was likely responding to domestic pressure. It is quite possible that the government, remembering what happened in 2002, was expecting to actually stage a coup to overthrow them. Once they realized that no such coup was forthcoming, the government (including the CNE and the Supreme Tribunal) probably realized that it had damaged its legitimacy with the evenly-divided population with its reaction to the opposition’s behaviour. For the first time in years, the chavista government had probably lost the upper hand.
Was the election rigged? Stolen? Tinkered with? It is pretty impossible to answer that question with a definite answer.
I think that we can exclude the possibility that there was massive, organized fraud and vote rigging in the election. Chávez did not rig elections, because he enjoyed genuine popular support and did not need to rig elections in order to maintain power. It is unlikely that the government would have fabricated these results, given that it was fairly confident that it would win without too much trouble. This is not really like the Mexican 1988 election – that election was pretty clearly stolen and the results largely invented by the government.
It is possible that the CNE, which is an overwhelmingly chavista institution, did some tinkering with the results before announcing them. A few elements allow us to be suspicious that there was something shady going on behind the scenes before the CNE announced the results on the evening of April 14. Immediately before the CNE publicly announced the results, it was reported that the government met with the military leadership and, later, the military and interior minister met with Capriles. This chain of events leads to suspicions that the government wanted to ensure that it had the support of the military before going public with the CNE’s results.
There were over 2,000 incidents of irregularities reported on election day, including men in PSUV jackets “helping” people cast ballots, forty election-related arrests, and a case of National Guardsmen carrying away ballot boxes before the paper audit could be done. This may indicate that there might have been localized fraud or vote rigging, especially in precincts where the opposition is very weak and the government/PSUV has the power to overwhelm any opposition scrutineers pretty easily.
The opposition claims that it won the election by a margin of about 100,000 votes (Maduro won by 273,056 votes on the CNE count). While the opposition did not release its own set of results, the opposition’s quick count is a bit more trustworthy than the usual claims made by any defeated opponent that they won when they certainly lost. The opposition had poll watchers in every single precinct in the country, and in October 2012 their ‘quick count’ numbers had mirrored the CNE’s final results. Nevertheless, while the opposition has some fairly solid claims, we should be careful before assuming that Capriles actually won and that the regime ‘stole’ the election, just on the basis of Twitter and the opposition’s own claims.
The CNE website is still inaccessible from outside Venezuela, but ES Data has released an Excel file with full results by precinct here. A few quick statistical tests does not show that there was blatant, widespread fraud. For example, in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, there was a very strong correlation between high turnout and higher support for Vladimir Putin’s party (United Russia). In Venezuela, there was absolutely no correlation between high turnout and higher support for Maduro – on the contrary, that correlation was actually negative (-0.15). This, obviously, does not constitute proof that the election was entirely clean.
Furthermore, even if the election was free (without any tinkering or vote rigging) and that Maduro won on the numerical count, one can very easily claim that the election was not actually ‘fair’. The electoral process is controlled by the government, which has full access to the airwaves and tightly controls the state apparatus including the huge oil company PDVSA. A good number of votes, like in past elections, were probably bought and some voters (like PDVSA or other state employees) coerced into voting for the PSUV candidate. In some countries – like Russia – electoral fraud is blatant and pretty crude. In Venezuela, if there is fraud it is far more sophisticated and hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubts.
At this point, regardless of the CNE’s audit, we will probably never really know whether Maduro ‘actually’ won or if the CNE/the government tinkered with the results at 10pm on April 14. Even the opposition probably knows that, and, as mentioned above, it has probably given up trying to reverse the results and claim power for itself. Capriles will not take the road of the ‘colour revolutions’ which was taken by Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia following the stolen 2003 legislative elections. He may either take the road taken by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador after the 2006 Mexican election – refuse to recognize the results and the new government’s legitimacy, proclaim himself as winner; or that taken by American politicians such as Al Gore (2000) and Richard Nixon (1960) – bow down to the results, despite lingering doubts about what actually transpired. The AMLO route is far more risky path to take.
Maduro will become President, but he faces a very difficult situation. Firstly, he will need to attend to an economy which is in fairly poor shape despite high oil prices and the revenues it procures. As aforementioned, Maduro already devalued the country’s currency in February. The nation’s public debt and deficit have increased a lot in recent years, and the government realizes that it will need to do something about it. Will Maduro continue traditional chavista economic policies or will he perhaps reverse the trend by slowing down ad hoc expropriations or by directing more capital to be re-invested in PDVSA, the oil company which is in dire need of investments to boost production and developing refining capacity. Maduro has the reputation of being more dogmatic, hailing from the ‘ideological civilian’ faction of chavismo and his close ties with Cuba; but he has given some indications that he could be a bit pragmatic. For example, he has reportedly told visiting American diplomats and politicians that he would like to improve relations with the United States.
We can legitimately ask whether or not Maduro will be able to last out his entire term, which expires in January 2019. Chávez had the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV and government apparatus, and he was the man who held the disparate factions of chavismo together. Maduro, clearly, does not have the unquestioned loyalty of the entire PSUV or the government. He comes out of the election, first of all, with his own standing within the PSUV much diminished. Maduro almost blew a 20 point lead, turning what should have been a comfortable landslide on the back of sympathy for the late Hugo Chávez into a tiny victory which clearly destabilized the whole regime. Maduro has strong and powerful rivals within the PSUV who have accepted his authority only temporarily, as long as it suits them and as long as Maduro is able to keep the government in a solid position. Even some of his current allies might turn on him later on down the road, if they feel that Maduro is no longer working out well. His Vice President, Jorge Arreaza is young and is Chávez’s son-in-law. Chávez’s brother Adán, governor of Chávez’s home state of Barinas, migth also have presidential ambitions. There are persistent rumours that Chávez’s two daughters are politically ambitious as well.
On top of these names, his most dangerous rival is probably the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who was seen as the other potential ‘crown prince’ of chavismo and is connected to the military sectors (he is a former officer). Cabello publicly claims full loyalty to the regime, but it is pretty evident that he isn’t going to efface himself just now. On election night, two of Cabello’s avalanche of tweets raised some eyebrows:
Profunda autocrítica nos obligan estos resultados, es contradictorio que sectores del Pueblo pobre voten por sus explotadores de siempre
— Diosdado Cabello R (@dcabellor) April 14, 2013
Busquemos nuestras fallas hasta debajo de las piedras pero no podemos poner en peligro a la Patria ni el legado de nuestro Comandante
— Diosdado Cabello R (@dcabellor) April 14, 2013
In the first tweet, Cabello said that these results imposed “deep self-criticism”. In his second tweet, he said that they needed to search for their “failures” without endangering the fatherland and Chávez’s legacy.
Venezuela is in a delicate situation. Maduro will have only limited room to maneuver and govern as he wishes, as rival politicians and factions within the PSUV keep him on a tight leash and might be conspiring to bring him down; while half of the population voted for his opponent, who has certainly come out stronger from the whole thing despite losing. Venezuelan politics are tenser and more polarized than they had been in years. More than ever before, chavismo - although still a formidable force with a large base of supporters and a strong machine backing it up – is no longer unshakable.
Special European parliamentary elections were held in Croatia on April 14, 2013 to elect Croatia’s 12 members of the European Parliament for the remainder of the EP’s 2009-2014 term. Croatia’s MEPs are elected in a single nationwide constituency using open list proportional representation. Croatia will formally become the 28th member state of the European Union (EU) on July 1, 2013.
Two-thirds of Croatians voted in favour of joining the European Union in a referendum in January 2012, although turnout was only 43.5%. Croatia’s accession process formally began in June 2004 when it became an official candidate country and negotiations between Zagreb and Brussels were launched in October 2005 and lasted until June 2011. Public opinion had generally been strongly supportive of EU membership, with the exception of a brief period in April 2011 after the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced Croatian war hero Ante Gotovina to 24 years in jail for war crimes/crimes against humanity in the Croatian war of independence in the early 1990s. Gotovina and fellow general Mladen Markač were later found innocent on all charges and their convictions overturned by the ICTY’s appeals panel in November 2012.
The Kukuriku, a centre-left multi-party alliance led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), won the December 2011 election defeating the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which had been in power since 2003. In the 1990s, the HDZ was a hard-right nationalist party led by Franjo Tuđman, a controversial strongman whose policies during the war years and the turbulent 90s isolated the country diplomatically. The HDZ was voted out of office in 2000, replaced by a heterogeneous reformist coalition around Prime Minister Ivica Račan (SDP) and President Stjepan Mesić (left-liberal HNS). Račan’s government, rapidly crippled by divisions between coalition members, only lasted until 2003 but under his and President Mesić’s leadership, Croatia gradually emerged from the semi-isolation of the Tuđman era and placed on the road to EU membership. The HDZ, transformed into a pro-European centre-right party under Ivo Sanader, won the 2003 elections by a decisive margin and was narrowly reelected in 2007.
While Sanader’s first term was generally successful because of a strong economy and EU negotiations, the second term proved to be a disaster from which the HDZ has yet to fully recover from. Croatia was hit particularly badly by the onset of the economic crisis in 2009-2010, which wrecked economic growth. Public opinion responded very poorly to the HDZ’s austerity policies, which included a very unpopular hike in the VAT and the introduction of a new ‘crisis’ income tax. Ivo Sanader resigned in the summer of 2009, and he was succeeded by Jadranka Kosor. Around the same time, Sanader himself and the HDZ as a whole were hit by a whole slew of particularly egregious corruption scandals. While Kosor herself was probably not directly involved and she took a hardline stance against corruption once in office, the whole thing blew up in her party’s face once prosecutors started digging and unearthing some pretty big corruption scandals – many of them involving Sanader himself. In January 2010, his ploy to reclaim the party’s leadership was foiled and in December, the Parliament voted to strip his immunity. He initially fled across the border to Austria, but he was arrested on an Interpol arrest warrant within hours. Sanader was sentenced to ten years in prison in November 2012.
Crippled by the stench of corruption and the economic crisis, Jadranka Kosor’s HDZ was handily defeated by SDP leader Zoran Milanović’s Kukuriku centre-left coalition in the 2011 elections. Although he was elected on a vaguely anti-austerity and broadly left-leaning agenda, Milanović’s government has been forced to tackle the economic crisis and the country’s large budgetary deficit – unsurprisingly, in the form of austerity measures and economic reforms which have included major public spending cuts, pension reforms, the sell of state assets (privatizations) and the liberalization of foreign investment. The country’s economy remains in a weak position: it has very low credit ratings, the GDP shrank by 2% in 2012 and it is still projected to be negative this year, unemployment is still rising exponentially (now up to 17%) and debt repayments combined with new EU contributions will frustrate the government’s objective of reducing the deficit in line with IMF recommendations. The IMF projects the country’s deficit will be 4.25% of GDP this year.
The government has also faced a few low-intensity scandals or embarrassing affairs. In November 2012, the Vice Premier and leader of the largest junior coalition party (HNS-LD) Radimir Čačić resigned after he was sentenced to 22 months in jail by a Hungarian court over a car crash he caused in 2010 resulting in the death of two people. In March 2013, the tourism minister was forced to resign after a media investigation revealed details about how his family had profited from a real estate deal in Istria.
In October 2012, the government was rattled by a bizarre affair likely orchestrated by the right-wing opposition which has since blown up in the opposition’s face. The right-wing newspaper Večernji list alleged that Interior Minister Ranko Ostojić had been illegally tapping the phones of intelligence operatives. The left-wing newspaper Jutarnji list countered with claims that the intelligence operatives were tracked because of suspected contacts with the mafia, and accused HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko and Večernji list of creating a fake scandal to discredit the government. The weird scandal backfired on the opposition – in December, Ostojić ordered an investigation into a spying scandal from Karamarko’s days as Interior Minister. Karamarko is accussed of tracking Attorney General Mladen Bajić and several journalists.
The government has become fairly unpopular, with its approval ratings down to 30% and its polling numbers down nearly ten points from its 2011 result (40%). But, thus far, the HDZ has struggled to profit from the government’s unpopularity. It remains badly tainted with the corruption scandals from its last term in office, and the stench refuses to go away. Indeed, the party itself is currently on trial for corruption. Former Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor lost the party leadership in May 2012, placing third in a leadership election won by Tomislav Karamarko, who appears more right-wing and nationalistic than recent HDZ leaders. Kosor was recently expelled from the party. The main beneficiary, instead, of the government’s declining popularity have been the Labourists (Hrvatski laburisti), a new left-wing party which won 5.1% and 6 seats in 2011. Claiming to represent the working-classes, the Labourists oppose austerity policies.
The SDP ran a common list with the left-liberal HNS-LD and the main pensioners’ party (HSU). The HDZ ran a common list with the nationalistic right-wing Croatian Party of Rights dr. Ante Starčević (HSP AS, one seat in 2011) and a smaller pensioners’ party. The Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS) and the Social Liberals (HSLS) ran a common list and the right-wing regionalistic Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB) ran with smaller allied parties. The small regionalist Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), although a governing party in the current coalition, ran its own separate list led by IDS leader and Istria County head Ivan Jakovčić.
Turnout in these EU elections was an utterly catastrophic 20.84% – certainly one of the lowest turnouts in any EU election (besides Slovakia). Very low turnout in EU elections is the norm in the newer member states in eastern Europe, where any original enthusiasm for joining the EU has certainly not translated into any interest into the EU Parliament. Besides the fact that basically nobody in Croatia or in the rest of the EU for that matter actually cares about the EU Parliament or actually knows what it does, this particular election was very low-key. The major elections will be local and county elections in May, this election was a dress rehearsal for those elections in which no party placed tons of efforts or attention.
HDZ-HSP AS-BUZ 32.86% winning 6 seats
SDP-HNS-HSU 32.07% winning 5 seats
Labourists 5.77% winning 1 seat
HSS-HSLS 3.86% winning 0 seats
Ivan Jakovčić (IDS) 3.84% winning 0 seats
HDSSB 3.01% winning 0 seats
Croatian Growth 2.55% winning 0 seats
Youth Action 1.49% winning 0 seats
Pensioners’ Party 1.48% winning 0 seats
HSP 1.39% winning 0 seats
Greens 1.16% winning 0 seats
Pirate Party 1.13% winning 0 seats
All others 9.39% winning 0 seats
The centre-right opposition coalition led by the HDZ eked out a surprise victory, taking six of the country’s 12 seats. Whereas sparse polling prior to the election had shown them trailing the governing SDP-led coalition by a fairly substantial margin and on track to win only 4 or 5 seats, it came out ahead by a whisker. At cause here is probably the low turnout. When turnout is so low, elections are even more unpredictable and even good pollsters will have lots of trouble accurately predicting the outcome – because tons of voters lie to them by saying that they will certainly vote when in fact a lot/most end up not voting. Therefore, given the low turnout it is hard to interpret this election as a significant defeat for the governing coalition – their real test will be in the local elections next month, where turnout will be much higher and the stakes fairly high as well. Nevertheless, it remains an unwelcome surprise for the government.
The HDZ’s list was likely boosted by the presence of Ruža Tomašić, the leader of the right-wing/far-right HSP AS, who was sixth on the party’s list but who won the most preference votes of any candidates on the list – she won 26.6% of all votes cast for the lists’ candidates. Tomašić is a prominent anti-corruption crusader who gained notoriety – and controversy – recently by saying that “Croatia is for Croatians” and that the “others” are just “guests”. It is unclear whether she will join her five HDZ colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP) group.
It also helps that the HDZ tends to be very good at turning out voters and motivating its electorate, something which has allowed it to outperform the SDP in close elections – such as the 2007 legislative election or the 2009 local elections.
The Labourists too will be disappointed by their performance. National polling consistently gives them about 10% of voting intentions and they had a solid chance to win two seats in this election. Their result, barely above their 2011 result percentage-wise, was disappointing for them.
As is usually the case in EU elections, a whole slew of tiny parties and third parties did very well. 29% of voters cast votes for parties or lists which did not win any seats, over 9% cast votes for lists which did not even win over 1% of the vote. In Istria, Ivan Jakovčić’s list won 44.5% of the vote in the county. The HDSSB also did quite well, polling up to 22.5% in Osijek-Baranja County.
Unsurprisingly, the first EU elections in Croatia were marked by apathy and general indifference. Surprisingly, however, the governing party which had been expected to win ended up narrowly losing – the sign of rising discontent with the young left-wing government in the midst of recession and austerity, or just a quirk from low turnout?
A presidential election was held in Montenegro on April 7, 2013. The President has largely symbolic and ceremonial powers, with true political power in the hands of the Prime Minister. The President is elected by popular vote to a five year term, renewable once.
Montenegro won independence from Serbia in 2006, following a referendum in which over 55% of voters voted in favour of separation (the threshold for independence to pass had been 55% of the votes, rather than the usual 50%+1). Since 1991, Montenegrin politics have been dominated by the figure of Milo Đukanović, the incumbent Prime Minister, who has served various stints as either Prime Minister or President. In 1989, as part of the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” in Serbia, Đukanović was one of three young communist apparatchiks, closely allied to Slobodan Milošević, who toppled the old guard and seized control of the local communist branch. Đukanović became Prime Minister in 1991, a close ally of President Momir Bulatović and Milošević. The Montenegrin leadership actively supported Serbia during the Balkan wars and partook in the armed conflict in Croatia alongside Milošević’s forces. Under Đukanović and Bulatović, the local communist party became the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).
However, with Serbia (and Montenegro)’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world in 1996-1997, Đukanović broke with Bulatović and Milošević. Ahead of the 1997 presidential election, Đukanović wrestled control of the DPS away from Bulatović and effectively purged Bulatović’s supporters from the DPS, leading Bulatović to form a new party, the Socialist People’s Party (SNP). In that year’s presidential election, Đukanović narrowly defeated Bulatović in a disputed runoff. Having squeezed Bulatović out of power, Đukanović made his mark on the country. He distanced himself from Milošević’s regime and aligned with the West, while remaining notionally loyal to the idea of Yugoslavia.
By 2001-2002, Đukanović started openly pushing for independence. The country had been an independent kingdom until it was forcibly annexed by the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918. Montenegrin national identity and its status as an ethnic group and language separate from Serbian is a touchy topic, given that a lot of Serbs consider Montenegrins as ethnic Serbs.
Đukanović resigned the presidency to become Prime Minister again in 2002. His pro-independence coalition won the 2002 legislative elections over the anti-independence moderate coalition, led by the SNS (Bulatović lost the party’s leadership in 2001 following Milošević’s ouster, and formed his own party). As Prime Minister, Đukanović emerged as a forceful advocate of Montenegrin independence, which was finally achieved in May 2006. He resigned as Prime Minister in November 2006, and was succeeded by Željko Šturanović. Two months before, Đukanović’s coalition emerged victorious in the first legislative elections held following independence.
Šturanović stepped down in 2008, ushering in Đukanović’s return to the office of Prime Minister. His government was handily reelected in 2009, winning over 50% of the vote. Đukanović has emerged as a strong proponent of European integration, and his government’s policies have largely revolved around EU membership. Montenegro became a candidate country in December 2010, and negotiations with the EU began in 2012. After the country became a candidate for EU membership, he stepped down as Prime Minister and was replaced by his close ally, finance minister Igor Lukšić. The DPS coalition was reelected with a reduced majority in October 2012, and Đukanović returned as Prime Minister.
Filip Vujanović, a member of the DPS and a close ally of Milo Đukanović, has been President since 2003. He served as Acting President after Đukanović resigned the presidency in 2002, and won his first full term in his own right in 2003 (technically, in 2002, but the 2002 presidential election was repeated twice because of a turnout rule which was finally abolished by the time of the third election in May 2003). He was reelected following independence in 2008, winning 51.9% of the vote in the first round against Andrija Mandić, the leader of the anti-independence New Serb Democracy (NOVA).
Vujanović’s candidacy for what would be a third term in office caused controversy and created friction between the DPS and its junior parter, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapić. The SDP and the opposition parties claimed that Vujanović was constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office, arguing that the constitution does not make a clear distinction between terms completed before and after independence. Former Serbian President Boris Tadić, who unsuccessfully sought a third term in office in 2012, had faced a similar issue given that the Serbian constitution limits the President to two terms, but Serbian law apparently makes a distinction between presidential terms completed prior to 2006, when Serbia was a federal unit rather than a sovereign state. The Montenegrin Constitutional Court ultimately ruled in favour of Vujanović’s candidacy, arguing that the first three years of his first term did not count because Montenegro was a federal unit of Serbia and Montenegro rather than a sovereign state.
This was the most disputed election in Montenegro in years. President Filip Vujanović, backed only by the DPS (the smaller SDP, formerly a loyal ally, boycotted the vote), faced only a single opponent - Miodrag Lekić, endorsed by the centre-right Democratic Front (DF). Miodrag Lekić is a former ambassador and served as foreign minister in the 1990s. He is backed by the Democratic Front, an opposition coalition which won 22.8% in the 2012 legislative elections. It is made up of Andrija Mandić’s right-wing New Serb Democracy (NOVA) and Nebojša Medojević’s liberal Movement for Changes (PZP). The Socialist People’s Party (SNP), which has been controlled by a pro-European majority led by Srđan Milić since 2006 (Bulatović left the SNP in 2001), endorsed Lekić as well, although it is not a member of the DF. The disparate and unwieldy opposition to the DPS has been progressively coalescing in the hope of forming a credible alternative to the DPS, which had benefited from the opposition’s divisions for years.
The campaign was rather bitter and negative. The incumbent President said that Lekić was weak on the issue of Montenegrin sovereignty and could not be counted on to defend the country’s sovereignty. The pro/anti-independence battles which played out in the 2006 referendum still divides Montenegrin politics, with many of the smaller opposition parties – including NOVA and the SNP – having opposed independence in the 2006 referendum. Vujanović, an ally of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, pledged to ‘intensify’ Montenegro’s bid to join the European Union (talks started in 2012). In contrast, the opposition largely focused their fire on corruption and abuse of power. The opposition has long criticized the ruling party as an autocratic and corrupt clique, which has monopolized political power and playing to the interests of a corrupt elite. Indeed, DPS governments are often suspected of corruption and Đukanović himself was allegedly involved in tobacco smuggling in the 1990s.
The Montenegrin economy had been performing very strongly immediately after independence, buoyed by an influx of foreign investment and the rapid expansion of sectors such as tourism. However, it too suffered from the global recession in 2009 and it has been in an economic slump again since 2012, when the country’s economy grew by only 0.2%. The country also has a fairly substantial budgetary deficit, which has forced the government to adopt unpopular measures. Earlier this year, unions demonstrated against the decision to raise the income tax on monthly salaries over 400€ by 3%.
Turnout was 63.9%.
Filip Vujanović (DPS) 51.21%
Miodrag Lekić (Ind, supported by DF and SNP) 48.79%
Both candidates claimed victory on April 7, with Vujanović claiming he won with 51.2% while Lekić claimed that he won with 50.5%. On April 8, the results published by the electoral commission were nearly identical to the DPS’ numbers. Lekić claims that his campaign has proof that the result was tampered with somewhat, claiming that about 4% of ballots were invalid and asking for a recount of the votes. He said that Vujanović declaring victory constituted a de facto coup d’état. Nonetheless, this disputed result does not seem to be the starting point for mass protests of the kinds we have come to expect following closely contested elections ending in a disputed result. After all, the presidency is fairly symbolic and it does not detain significant political powers.
What is more interesting, rather, is how close this election turned out to be. The DPS has won ever presidential and parliamentary election by huge margins in the last ten years, over a divided opposition which never managed to get its act together after Đukanović got the upper hand in Montenegrin politics. The DPS, which has grown fairly smug and overconfident of its chances with all these years in government without a credible alternative, expected this election to be yet another cakewalk for them. It wasn’t – instead, the election was very close. Could this indicate that the DPS is finally beginning to suffer the toll of over ten years in government and the aura associated with being the standard bearer of Montenegrin statehood in 2006 starting to wear off? The economic slump, a change from the boom years following independence, and the government being compelled to take unpopular measures, might have hurt the government’s standing. Is this an indication that with the opposition, more or less, showing a semblance of unity, Montenegrin politics will become more open-ended?
The map is fairly interesting. Although it is clear that the pro/anti-independence divide from 2006 is still visible and very much alive in contemporary Montenegrin politics, the contours of the 2006 referendum are not very visible on the map at this point. Traditionally, the opposition parties – which had, with the exception of the PZP and some smaller parties, openly opposed independence – had their support concentrated in the north and around the Bay of Kotor (Herceg Novi), where most of the country’s Serbian population (about 29% of the country’s population) lives. This divide is now only partially visible. Yes, Lekić won 71.9% in Plužine municipality, which is 65% Serbian; but Vujanović won 62.5% in Andrijevica, which is 62% Serbian. Lekić also performed well in central Montenegro, where ethnic Montenegrins make up a majority. Vujanović won 56.1%, the Montenegrin cultural heartland and a DPS stronghold, but Lekić narrowly won in Podgorica – the capital, Bar and Nikšić. Unsurprisingly, Vujanović won by huge margins in the municipalities with Bosniak or Albanian majorities: 72% in Ulcinj (71% Albanian), 74.8% in Plav (52% Bosniak) and 84.3% in Rožaje (84% Bosniak).
This election, despite its limited importance, might signal the beginning of a new era in Montenegrin politics – one less thoroughly dominated by the DPS.
A by-election was held in Ireland on March 27. One of this blog’s reader, EPG, posted this summary of the by-election in the comments section for another post, I have re-posted it here in a guest post for everybody to enjoy.
A legislative by-election was held in the Meath East constituency of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house, on March 27. The by-election was caused by the death of Shane McEntee, a Fine Gael TD (member of the Dáil) and the Junior Minister for Food.
Meath East is located to the north-west of Dublin. The south of the constituency is dominated by Dublin commuter towns, such as Ashbourne, Ratoath and Dunboyne. This is the heartland of an archetypical symbol of the Irish economic collapse called the “negative equity generation”: first-time house-buyers who purchased homes with large mortgage in the mid-2000s, and who now owe far more than their houses are worth. Many (probably most) are not originally from the county in which they now live, an important cultural marker in small and localistic Ireland. Meath East is more rural and settled in the northern part of the county, while the north-west end includes Kells, the largest town in northern Meath. The constituency’s somewhat bizarre, salamander-like shape is due to the exclusion of Meath’s largest town, Navan, and the inclusion of Kells, on population ratio equalisation grounds. Ironically, Meath was the home of James Tully, the Labour TD who oversaw a gerrymander that backfired in the 1970s (the Tullymander). To compound his misfortune, he then suffered shrapnel damage at the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat after Labour’s return to power in the 1980s.
The coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour has fallen sharply in popularity since their election in 2011, while the opposition parties of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have risen, as have independents and other candidates. This was probably predictable, since the government has continued most of the last (Fianna Fáil-Green) government’s policies, especially on economic issues, due to its support of the EU-ECB-IMF “troika” programme of financial support for the Irish State. This by-election was therefore considered a contest between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties. Meath East is mainly “exurban”, especially in the southern end of the constituency, but also small town and rural. This means the Labour Party was not considered a contender; their support is mainly in cities and important towns with local industry, and their current popularity is low in any case. It was enough to win one out of three seats in Meath East in 2011 under the STV proportional representation system, but it wouldn’t be enough to win an instant run-off by-election, even if they had held up their popularity. As for Sinn Féin, they did well at the by-election in Donegal South-West in 2010, which is also a rural area. But despite the despair of the negative equity generation, Meath is still a relatively prosperous part of Ireland, with big farms and many professionals who commute to jobs in Dublin. It’s a much higher-income area than Donegal, and that’s bad for Sinn Féin. Fine Gael outpolled Fianna Fáil hard in Meath East at the 2011 general election, and the big question was whether Fianna Fáil’s image-improvement since then would close enough of the gap to let them win.
Fine Gael fielded Helen McEntee, daughter of Shane McEntee, who worked on his political and ministerial teams. Family candidates are popular in Irish elections, especially by-elections, and form the “dynasties” that have provided many Taoisigh (heads of government), including the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his predecessor Brian Cowen, who both won by-elections to succeed their fathers. She primarily campaigned for a “sympathy vote” rather than seeking a mandate for a pretty unpopular government (). Labour chose Eoin Holmes, a county councillor and film producer who talked a lot about entrepreneurship. Fianna Fáil chose Thomas Byrne, the former TD who lost his seat at the 2011 epic fail but got a Senate seat as a consolation prize. Sinn Féin’s candidate was Darren O’Rourke, who works as an assistant to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, the party’s former parliamentary party leader in the Dáil (back when Gerry Adams was an MP in Northern Ireland). The Greens chose their former candidate, but they are now considered a minor party compared to the big four, with no Oireachtas representation. Independents and others included a Workers’ Party candidate and Ben Gilroy, a Direct Democracy Ireland activist who is popular among the crazy “Freeman on the Land” movement.
Helen McEntee (FG) 38.49% (-2.38%)
Thomas Byrne (FF) 32.92% (+13.31%)
Darren O’Rourke (SF) 13.02% (+4.14%)
Ben Gilroy (DDI) 6.45% (+6.45%)
Eoin Holmes (Lab) 4.57% (-16.46%)
Seán Ó Buachalla (GP) 1.74% (+0.66%)
Seamus McDonagh (WP) 1.08% (+1.08%)
Independent candidates 1.73% (-6.80%)
The huge story from this by-election has been the collapse of Labour’s vote, which was far bigger than national opinion polls would have suggested. Polls suggest that Labour has lost 6 to 10 points nationally compared to 2011. However, other stories are worth noting. Fine Gael’s vote held up much better than its partner, and much better than national polls would suggest. McEntee held onto her strong support base in the north of the constituency, as well as probably getting a sympathy vote (common for family members in Irish by-elections, though Fine Gael will deny this and claim that her success is a mandate for the party nationally). Interestingly, after 29 years when governments never won by-elections, this is the second government victory out of two by-elections in this Dáil. Labour won the first of these in late 2011, though their successful candidate left the parliamentary party about five weeks later. The last time Fine Gael won a by-election while in government was in 1975, when their candidate was a young Enda Kenny.
Fianna Fáil has recovered strongly, though they still can’t outpoll government candidates in actual elections. It seems that Fianna Fáil, not Sinn Féin, is enjoying the surge of anti-government feeling in relatively prosperous areas like Meath East (and the Dublin commuter belt more generally), though nobody would deny that Sinn Féin is the main beneficiary in deprived urban and rural areas. Among other opposition groups, Direct Democracy Ireland’s performance is striking. Small parties and independents rarely do very well at Irish by-elections. Gilroy ran a campaign strongly focussed on opposing repossessions of houses by banks, in tune with his support among the fringe, legal conspiracy theorists of the “Freeman on the Land” movement. This is at a time when the Irish government is openly discussing policies to make repossessions easier, due to the abnormally low rate compared to other countries with property price ex-bubbles like the USA, the UK or Spain. Gilroy caught a zeitgeist for what is basically a one-man party (though the Irish party registration requirements are reasonably strict, so he must have lots of supporters).
I now have details of the second and third counts, after which McEntee was elected. The second count excluded all but the top five candidates and Gilroy (DDI) won more of their transfers than any of the remaining five. This is less surprising than it may seem for a fourth-place candidate, as many independents tend to be fringe candidates themselves. They would be close to Gilroy’s anti-system and anti-party profile, which is even more anti-system than Sinn Féin. Independents in Ireland often seem to fill the “anti” role played by right-wing populists in other European countries, but with a local twist, and they have a similar support base of broadly non-left people with middling incomes. Fianna Fáil won fewest transfers, even fewer than Labour, which may suggest that the public is polarised by its recent rebirth. The third count was a run-off between McEntee (FG) and Byrne (FF). McEntee won 54.5% of the two-party vote after getting far more transfers than Byrne. A lot of SF or DDI voters must have given a higher preference to McEntee than to Byrne, their fellow opposition candidate, as McEntee’s third-count transfers (1,900) were much larger than Labour’s final vote total on the second round (1,200). Even if we assume that any remaining Labour supporters are firmly pro-coalition and sympathetic to Fine Gael, that still leaves about 800-900 of McEntee’s transfers that must have come from SF or DDI, after accounting for the usual transfer attrition. But she didn’t even need to do that well with opposition voters on these counts; she was safely ahead of Byrne from the outset. McEntee is now the youngest woman in the current Dáil.
The broader, national consequences are still unclear, though they can’t be good for Labour. Each of the opposition parties would have hoped to do better. Fianna Fáil wanted to win and Sinn Féin wanted to win votes in line with national polling (i.e. about 8% higher than in 2011). Fine Gael is glad to win and to have lost few votes, but the party was shaken by the sad death of Shane McEntee and would have preferred if this by-election had never happened.