Tokyo (Japan) 2014

Gubernatorial elections were held in Tokyo (Japan) on February 9, 2014. Tokyo Prefecture (officially designated as the Tokyo Metropolis) has a population of over 13.1 million, spread out over the 23 ‘special wards’ of the former core city of Tokyo, 26 suburban cities, one rural district and four sub-prefectures including outlying islands in the Pacific (the Izu and Ogasawara Islands). The Tokyo Metropolitan area includes only part of the Greater Tokyo metropolis, which has a population of over 35 million people spread out over many prefectures, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Tokyo is a prefecture with special powers. Unlike all other prefectures in Japan, Tokyo is administered by single-tier unitary government which combines the powers of Japanese prefectures with powers traditionally devolved to municipal governments. For example, in the 23 special wards, the metro government exercises traditionally municipal powers (waste management, water, fire prevention). Like in other prefectures, the government is built as a presidential system with a directly-elected Governor and directly-elected legislature. The Governor of Tokyo is elected to a four-year term by FPTP, although a new election takes place if the incumbent governor resigns or is forced from office: this gubernatorial election, like the last one in 2013, is a special election. The Governor is the head of the executive branch, which includes government departments and autonomous commissions. The Metropolitan Assembly is made up of 127 members elected to four-year terms, separately from the Governor, by SNTV (the last election was in 2013). The Assembly prepares and votes on legislation and decrees (the governor may also initiate legislation), sets the budget and confirms and oversees gubernatorial appointments. The Assembly, with a three-fourths majority and two-thirds quorum, may vote a motion of no confidence in the governor; in which case the governor then has ten days to dissolve the assembly or he will automatically be removed from office. If a newly-elected assembly after a gubernatorial dissolution again votes a motion of no confidence, the governor is removed from office. One third of registered voters may also initiate a recall vote against the governor, assembly (to dissolve it) and prefectural councillors, they may also initiate a popular initiative to pass or repeal an ordinance. Because of the special powers and expanded autonomy of the metro government, the Governor of Tokyo is considered as one of the most powerful politicians in Japan.

National Context

Japan’s natural governing party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Shinzō Abe, returned to power in December 2012 with a supermajority only three years after suffering a historic defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After years of a revolving-door prime ministership (six PMs came and went between 2006 and 2012, after LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi - who had held the office since 2001 – resigned in 2006), politicians’ promises invariably amounting to little and a low-growth deflationary economy, Shinzō Abe’s government has been proving to be quite a change. Although Shinzō Abe’s first term as Prime Minister (2006-2007) is widely regarded as a failure, because he preferred to engage in nationalist sabre-rattling with China, since taking office in 2012, he has been surprising observers and proving uncannily popular.

Abe came out with a bold economic agenda – “Abenomics” – to finally turn Japan’s sluggish economy around. The first two ‘arrows’ of his Abenomics policy included a fiscal stimulus (¥10.3 trillion stimulus package, mostly on infrastructure and public works, to please the LDP’s powerful vested interests in construction) and a shift in monetary policy. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan set a 2% inflation target and launched a program of quantitative easing to reach it. The initial response was quite positive, both from voters and business: consumer and investor confidence is high, the Nikkei stock exchange reached its highest level since 2008, consumer prices increased, the yen depreciated (boosting exports) and economic growth reached impressive levels of 3-4% in the first two quarters of 2013. In July 2013, the LDP (and its traditional ally, the conservative Buddhist New Komeito Party, NKP) won the upper house elections, regaining an absolute majority in the House of Councillors and winning, along with the NKP, 49% of the vote overall. The DPJ, which has been in a state of decrepitude since getting trounced in December 2012, won only 13% of the vote.

After the upper house elections, there was major anticipation for the third ‘arrow’ of Abenomics: structural reforms. The Japanese economy has been bogged down by an aging population requiring ever-higher spending on social security and pensions; protected and uncompetitive economic sectors (agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc); and a tightly regulated labour market (with chaffing rules on staff dismissal, a very high corporate tax). The reforms announced by Abe in June 2013 fell short of expectations, proposing to create deregulated and low-tax zones, allowing the sale of drugs online and creating a third category of contract workers. However, in March 2013, Japan entered negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact which would require Japan to slash its high import tariffs on farm produce and opening up other protected industries. Although there has been significant opposition within the LDP and from its vested interests in agricultural cooperatives to the TPP, the party has been moving along with it and Japanese negotiators have said that they would consider lowering tariffs. The government wishes to check the power of powerful agricultural cooperatives which kept out new farmers, reviewing an old policy on rice cultivation (the gentan policy from 1969, which limits the number of acres devoted to rice, so domestic prices are kept high to benefit farmers and cooperatives; scrapping the policy would make prices fall and compete more effectively at home) and extending the length of part-time contracts. But there has been significant resistance or reluctance to move forward with the reforms: the health ministry and pharmacists blocked the government’s promise to lift the ban on online sales of over-the-counter medicines. In cabinet, several ministers are resistant to change and others disagree among one another over the next steps of Abenomics.

Economic growth slowed to 1.9% (annualized) in the third quarter of 2013 and was low in the fourth quarter as well (1%). Small businesses have been less optimistic than big businesses about Abenomics, and inflation appears to have risen because the depreciated yen makes fuel imports more expensive. To his credit, Abe gathered up the political willpower to move ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax (loathed in Japan), from 5% to 8% (with plans to raise it to 10% in October 2015). The consumption tax hike, which is seen by the IMF and OECD to be necessary, was decided by Abe’s predecessor, the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda in December 2012 right before snap elections took place (at the time, the LDP backed the tax hike in return for a snap election); however, there was some skepticism about whether the LDP would actually do so because Abe had been sending conflicting signals. The last time Japan’s unpopular consumption tax was increased, in 1997, the economy floundered into recession (although the Asian financial crisis in 1997 was as much to blame) and LDP Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was soon ousted. The issue of increasing the consumption tax, floated by Abe’s two DPJ predecessors, badly hurt the DPJ’s popularity and led to several splits in the party. In October, Abe announced that the tax hike would go ahead, mitigated by a temporary stimulus of ¥6 trillion to offset the tax increase. However, Abe’s calls on businesses to increase employee wages to support consumption fell on deaf hears.

Abe’s plans to turn Japan’s economy around have gone hand-in-hand with a nationalist foreign policy, seeking to reassert Japanese power in the region and challenge China’s rising might (China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010). Abe has made a number of controversial statements about Japan’s past: his government includes many nationalists critical of Japan’s “apology diplomacy”; in April 2013, Abe questioned whether Japan’s wars in China and Asia from 1931 to 1945 could be defined as “aggression”; in May, a LDP boss said that Abe rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. In late December 2013, Abe became the first Prime Minister since Koizumi in 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of 14 convicted war criminals are enshrined alongside other Japanese war dead. As was to be expected, China and South Korea strongly condemned the visit and the US expressed ‘disappointment’. The LDP wants to amend the constitution’s Article 9, which outlaws war, to allow for collective self-defense; for the time being, however, the LDP seemingly lacks the parliamentary two-thirds supermajorities in both houses to amend the constitution (which would then be put to a referendum). The LDP’s junior partner, the pacifist NKP, is thought to oppose amending Article 9. Indeed, the NKP’s leader criticized Abe for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and relations between the NKP and LDP have been pretty bad.

Abe’s government ran into its first major challenge in November 2013, when the Diet passed an unpopular secrecy law which increases penalties for leaking widely defined ‘state secrets’ (presented by the LDP as necessary to strengthen national security, just as China declared a new air-defense zone in the East China Sea overlapping with Japan’s own zone). Under the new law, leaking state secrets will be punishable with ten years in jail, up from one year imprisonment. The LDP’s unpopular legislation sparked protests (orderly and very tame, in Japanese style) against the bill and a coalition of opponents including conservative groups (doctors, dentists), academics and filmmakers. LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba added to the controversy when he compared the protesters to ‘terrorists’, leading the opposition to believe that the LDP will use broadly-defined ‘terrorism’ and ‘state secrets’ to crack down on anti-nuclear protesters opposing the LDP’s plans to reopen nuclear power plants closed down after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. After the secrecy bill controversy, Abe’s approval ratings fell below 50% (to 49%) for the first time since taking office and his disapproval ratings have increased to 30-35%. Nevertheless, these are still excellent approval ratings and the LDP’s hold on power is still unchallenged.

The Tokyo governorship

Tokyo’s governorship has attracted colourful personalities. Between 1947 and 1967, the office was held by conservative politicians backed by the LDP. However, in 1967, in the wake of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (and issues related to that) and local corruption scandals, Ryokichi Minobe, backed by the Socialist Party (JSP) and Communist Party (JCP), won the governorship from the LDP-backed candidate. Serving until 1979, Minobe’s administration was interventionist, providing free medical care to the elderly and implementing anti-pollution and pro-pedestrian policies. Upon his retirement, he was succeeded by former Vice Governor Shunichi Suzuki, the candidate backed by the LDP. Suzuki held the office until 1995. In 1991, however, Suzuki was reelected as an independent after the national LDP, led by secretary-general Ichirō Ozawa, refused to endorse Suzuki’s bid for reelection. Suzuki was able to win reelection with the backing of local LDP leaders and the construction industry, which liked Suzuki’s lavish and wasteful spending on large infrastructure (one of the main issues was the construction of a huge new building for the administration in Shinjuku at the cost of over a billion dollars). When he retired, in 1995, he was succeeded by another independent, Yukio Aoshima (a former actor, novelist, screenwriter, songwriter and film director), who ran a low-key populist campaign against a candidate backed the LDP, NKP and JSP. Aoshima won in the context of great political dissatisfaction following the political scandals of the 1980s, the bad economy bred by the collapse of the speculative bubble in 1989 and the LDP’s brief fall from power in 1993. Since then, urban voters, particularly in Tokyo, have become extraordinarily fickle in their vote choice, with no loyalty for any major party and often preferring local independent candidates.

Aoshima, worn down by a poor economic situation in Tokyo and controversies surrounding his handling of homeless persons, retired in 1999. In a very open race, Shintarō Ishihara, a right-wing novelist and former LDP parliamentarian, was elected governor as an independent with 30.5% of the votes. Ishihara defeated Kunio Hatoyama, the grandson of the LDP’s founder and the brother of future DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was backed by the DPJ; Yōichi Masuzoe, an academic and TV personality running as an independent (refusing LDP support); and LDP-NKP candidate Yasushi Akashi. Ishihara held the office until his resignation in October 2012 – he was reelected in 2001 (with LDP support, winning 70%), 2007 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 51% against 30.8% for former Miyagi Prefecture governor Shirō Asano, backed the DPJ) and 2011 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 43% against 28% for former Miyazaki Prefecture governor Hideo Higashikokubaru and the rest for DPJ and JCP candidates). Ishihara, a nationalist known for his inflammatory rhetoric, remained relatively popular as governor and his policies were rather pragmatic. He cut spending and cancelled projects in his first term, but he also created a new 3% local tax on banks’ gross (rather than net) profits, supported Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics (the latter of which was successful) and implemented a groundbreaking cap-and-trade scheme in 2010. But Ishihara mostly drew attention to himself for his nationalist positions and controversial statements. Ishihara opposes Article 9 and has a history of being aggressively anti-Chinese and Korean. In the early 2000s, he drew controversy by talking of ‘foreigners’ being responsible for crimes in Tokyo and using the derogatory term sangokujin in his speech. He visited Yasukuni Shrine on the emblematic date of August 15 several times. In 2011, he said that the tsunami/earthquake which hit Japan that year was ‘divine punishment’ for Japanese people’s ‘greed’. In 2012, Ishihara sought to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands (claimed by China) from their private owners, before the DPJ government did so itself in September 2012. At one point, Ishihara controversially said that women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are “useless” and “committing a sin”. Ishihara resigned as governor in October 2012 to enter national politics as the co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a marriage of convenience between Ishihara and his nationalist colleague, Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto. The JRP became the third largest party in the House of Representatives in the December 2012, winning over 20% of the vote in Japan and Tokyo. In 2013, however, the JRP performed very poorly in the Tokyo prefectural elections (8% and 2 seats) and poorly in the upper house elections in July (12% and 8 seats).

A gubernatorial election was held in December 2012 alongside the general election. Vice Governor Naoki Inose, an author and a former adviser to Koizumi known for his economically liberal and reformist views, ran with the backing of outgoing governor Ishihara and the JRP, the LDP, the NKP and the liberal Your Party (YP). Inose promised continuity with Ishihara’s record, focusing on energy (as Vice Governor, he had led the charge to reduce electricity prices by making the metro government the main shareholder in embattled TEPCO) and social projects (proposing to build nursing homes for the elderly). Facing weak opposition, Inose was elected governor with 67.4% against 15% for his main opponent, the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations Kenji Utsunomiya, backed the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ), the JCP, small left-wing and anti-nuclear parties. Inose’s main achievement was being in office when Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics in September 2013. But in November 2013, Inose was put in the hot seat with accusations that he had received an illegal (undeclared) loan (interest and collateral-free) in cash from a hospital group during his 2012 campaign. Under pressure from the Metropolitan Assembly, Ishihara and Prime Minister Abe, Inose resigned on December 19.

The frontrunner and consistent favourite in this election was Yōichi Masuzoe. Masuzoe, who is 65, began his career as a prominent and acclaimed academic, expert and later popular TV personality. Masuzoe speaks seven languages (Japanese, English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian). In 1998, Masuzoe wrote a book about how he cared for his sick mother for several years, criticizing Japan’s system of social security and senior care. The book turned him into a go-to reference on issues of social security, welfare and social assistance – very important in a rapidly aging society like Japan. He ran for governor of Tokyo as an independent in 1999, placing third with 15.3%. With the backing of the LDP’s reformist leader Jun’ichirō Koizumi, he was elected to the upper house (the House of Councillors) in 2001, with LDP support. Like Koizumi, Masuzoe was (is?) something of a maverick, known as an honest and competent expert. He was a strong critic of Prime Minister Abe in his first (disastrous) term, but when Abe was forced to open his cabinet to his rivals in August 2007, Masuzoe became Minister of Health and Welfare. His nomination came on the heels of the LDP’s defeat in the 2007 upper house election, which owed a lot to the health ministry’s admission that it had lost pensioners’ records. His handling of the aftermath of the scandal was hardly a success, given that his ministry failed to match millions of records with their owners, leading the DPJ to demand his resignation.

Masuzoe nevertheless remained one of Japan’s most popular politicians, and in 2010 his name topped the polls on best alternative Prime Ministers. At the time, the LDP was still reeling from its 2009 defeat and had trouble adapting itself to the new job of opposition rather than governing party. In April 2010, Masuzoe left the LDP to join and take the leadership of the New Renaissance Party (NRP), a right-wing party with neoliberal and reformist positions on economic issues. The NRP and its ideological twin (YP)’s aim to become a possible centre-right counterweight to the LDP fell through; in the July 2010 upper house elections, the NRP won only one seat. Following the NRP’s defeat, Masuzoe dropped off the political radar, trying out various alliances.

Masuzoe was approached by both the LDP and DPJ as a potential candidate for the gubernatorial election. Some in the LDP were critical of Masuzoe, not having totally digested Masuzoe’s 2010 defection from the LDP. But the LDP, always looking for a winner, did see in him an electable candidate with both experience and name recognition (the requirements of the local and national LDP respectively), and ultimately supported him in return for Masuzoe resigning from the NRP. He was also backed by the NKP, some individuals in the DPJ and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), Japan’s largest trade union confederation and a traditional supporter of the DPJ. Masuzoe’s campaign focused on local social welfare issues and hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics (like the LDP, he is an avid supporter of the Olympics).

Some of Masuzoe’s old comments were exhumed during the campaign. In 1989, he told a magazine that women were unfit for politics because they menstruate and lacked the physical strength to work 24 hours a day (because obviously male politicians do work 24 hours a day!). Tokyo women on Twitter called for a ‘sex strike’ against men voting for Masuzoe.

Kenji Utsunomiya, an attorney and distant runnerup in the 2012 gubernatorial election, supported by left-wing parties – the Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ) as well as the smaller Greens Japan and the New Socialist Party. Utsunomiya had run in the 2012 election, on a left-wing platform very critical of Ishihara’s record (particularly on poverty and social issues, but also in his strong support for the Olympics and his attempt to buy the Senkaku Islands). He won only 14.6%, a very distant second place behind conservative candidate Naoki Inose. In this election, Utsunomiya took a strongly anti-Abe stance (he’s notably critical of Abe on the Article 9/militarization issue). His campaign focused on local issues as well, particularly the growing wealth gap, the lack of affordable earthquake and earthquake safety. He remained critical of the 2020 Olympics, opposing the projects to expand the National Olympic Stadium, which had served for the 1964 Olympics. Utsunomiya is strongly anti-nuclear, wishing to decommission all nuclear power plants, but he did not actually make it the core focus of his campaign.

The surprise of the campaign was the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, a 76-year old former Prime Minister. Hosokawa was one of several LDP MPs who defected from the embattled LDP in the early 1990s to form small rival opposition parties (in his case, the small Japan New Party). After the July 1993 election, in which the LDP lost its absolute majority in the lower house for the first time ever, Hosokawa became Prime Minister of a seven-party (anti-LDP) coalition government with his party, other LDP dissidents, the Socialists and the Komeito. Hosokawa’s coalition government had little ideas or visions besides shared opposition to the LDP, as evidenced by a squabble over a discussion of an increase in the consumption tax. It had accomplished little when Hosokawa was forced to resign in April 1994 after it came to light that he had accepted a 100 million yen loan from a trucking company tied to organized crime. Afterwards, Hosokawa faded from the political spotlight and retired in 1998 to take up pottery. He was approached by the DPJ to run in the gubernatorial election, and his candidacy was backed by the DPJ, the sulfurous Ichirō Ozawa’s personality cult (the People’s Life Party) and Kenji Eda’s Unity Party (born in 2013 from a split in the YP).

Above all, Hosokawa’s candidacy drew attention because he was endorsed by another political retiree, former LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi, who made his political comeback to support Hosokawa and opposed his successor Shinzō Abe’s pro-nuclear stance. Koizumi, since the Fukushima disaster, has adopted anti-nuclear positions (which do appear genuine) but is also said to hold resentment from Abe’s reintegration into the LDP of LDP rebels who had opposed Koizumi’s big postal privatization drive in 2005. Hosokawa’s campaign had a heavy focus on the nuclear issue. Masuzoe’s position on the nuclear issue seems vague (although he was clearly pro-nuclear prior to 2011); outright pro-nuclear positions are fairly rare in Japan these days, although the Abe government supports reopening a nuclear reactor or two (suspended since Fukushima). Hosokawa’s candidacy, perceived as being strong because of DPJ and Koizumi support, led to pressures from the DPJ on Utsunomiya to withdraw from the resign so as to not split the anti-nuclear vote. Utsunomiya declined and faulted Hosokawa’s campaign for obscuring local issues such as poverty.

The fourth major candidate was Toshio Tamogami, the former Chief of Staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force between March 2007 and October 2008. He was fired from his military command in 2008 after authoring an essay in which he said that Japan had been drawn into World War II by Franklin D. Roosevelt (manipulated by the communists) and Chiang Kai-Shek. In the same essay, he also asserted that the war brought prosperity to China and Korea and implied that Japanese war crimes were fabricated or at least not such a big deal. After his dismissal, he told a British journalist that, had had he been general in a nuclear-capable Japan in 1945, he would have considered using nuclear weapons against the US. Since 2008, Tamogami has been involved in far-right nationalist groups which advocate that Japan should have the right to collective self-defense and should acquire nuclear weapons. During the campaign, one of Tamogami’s supporters, Naoki Hyakuta, a member of the board of the public broadcaster NHK, declared that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 never happened (a fairly widespread view in far-right circles). Tamogami was endorsed by the obscure far-right Ishin Seito Shimpu but also benefited from the support of former governor Ishihara (who also ‘doubts’ the Nanjing Massacre occurred) – although the JRP did not officially support Tamogami.

Turnout was low, at 46.1%, due to a snow storm on February 9. It was 16.5% lower than the 2012 election (held alongside the general election, though) and down from the 58% turnout in the 2011 race (which was held on its own).

Yōichi Masuzoe (Independent/LDP-NKP) 42.86%
Kenji Utsunomiya (Independent/JCP-SDPJ-Greens-NSP) 19.93%
Morihiro Hosokawa (Independent/DPJ-PLP-UP) 19.39%
Toshio Tamogami (Independent) 12.39%
Kazuma Ieiri (Independent) 1.8%
Yoshiro Nakamatsu (Independent) 1.31%
Mac Akasaka (Smile Party) 0.31%
Others 0.78%

Ultimately, nobody proved strong enough to challenge and defeat Masuzoe, the early frontrunner whose candidacy benefited from the support of the popular central government and crossover support from some opposition DPJ supporters. Much ado about nothing for the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, despite the heavyweight backing of Koizumi. Hosokawa’s old age, his little contact with Tokyo and his nuclear/national-focused campaign all hurt him in an election which was ultimately mostly fought and decided on local issues. The anti-nuclear vote is quite strong in Tokyo, but it is not an issue which can mobilize a winning crowd in a local election.

Masuzoe’s term, which runs until 2018, will be heavily focused on the preparations for the 2020 Olympics. The LDP government will be able to count on an avid supporter of its lavish and grandiose plans for the Olympics in the metro government. Nationally, while the race was again mostly local, the victory is nevertheless another sign that popular support for the LDP and Abe is holding up fairly well over one year in. For the time being, no party is even close to challenging the LDP’s renewed monopoly on power in Japan. This election saw Koizumi’s return to the forefront of national politics with an anti-nuclear campaign which is also targeted against Abe. It is worth watching what Koizumi intends to do to pursue his anti-nuclear battle further.

Niagara Falls and Thornhill (Ontario) provincial by-elections, 2014

Provincial by-elections were held in the Ontario (Canada) ridings of Niagara Falls and Thornhill on February 13, 2014. These seats fell vacant in September and December 2013 following the resignations of their sitting MPPs, respectively from the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservatives (PC).


We last discussed Ontarian provincial politics following five provincial by-elections in early August last year, all of which were in ridings previously held by the governing (in a minority government) Liberals. The Liberals lost three of these five seats; one to the official opposition PCs and two to the Ontario New Democrats (NDP). The results were, on the whole, bad news for the governing Liberals, who got trounced in Windsor and London by the NDP. At the same time, however, the PCs did poorly: they had been expected, by the polls, to win three of the ridings on that day, but ended up winning only one (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in Toronto). The Liberals narrowly and surprisingly held Ottawa South, a riding vacated by former Premier Dalton McGuinty (2003-2013) and the NDP shocked the Tories by winning London West, a riding in which the PCs were the favourites. By failing to live up to expectations, therefore, the PCs were portrayed as net losers of the round of by-elections. Opposition leader Tim Hudak’s fiery, tough and incessant attacks on the Liberals did not connect with voters, despite voter fatigue after ten years of Liberal governments and several major scandals and policy mishaps for the Liberals. On the other hand, the NDP, the third party in the legislature but whose leader, Andrea Horwath, is the most popular of the three party leader, were the major winners of the August by-elections. They handily won a seat in Windsor, a traditionally NDP-leaning area, but also picked up London West, a seat which isn’t as friendly to the NDP. That, combined with the NDP’s high-profile victory in Kitchener-Waterloo (a seat held by the PCs) in a 2012 by-election, further boosted the NDP’s profile.

Since the August by-elections, the provincial political scene has been rather quiet or at least predictable. In September, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne dared the PCs and NDP to cause a snap election but privately confided that she had little desire to go to the polls in the fall. PC leader Tim Hudak, who has been clamoring for an election since day one, continued hounding on the government but also directed some of his fire to the NDP, who has collaborated with the Liberal government and propped it up on several occasions. Hudak accused NDP leader Andrea Horwath of propping up a corrupt and discredited government, unwilling to bring about change. However, Hudak faced trouble in PC ranks. Following the by-elections, there were local and isolated but well publicized grumbling in party ranks over Hudak’s leadership and isolated demands for a leadership review. Later, Hudak was forced to dump his finance critic, Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman amid a scandal and he removed vocal hard-right ‘maverick’ MPP Randy Hillier from the frontbench.

At the same time, there is a widespread feeling that the Liberals are running on borrowed time. Most think that the government will fall on the budget in the spring (likely in March). The PCs will vote against the budget no matter its contents, while the NDP might prove unwilling to extend the Liberals’ lease on government for the third budget in a row. One issue which is already straining relations between the Liberals and the NDP is the question of new tolls or fees to fund public transit: the Liberal government, promoting upgrades to public transit in Toronto and Hamilton, supports new tolls/taxes to raise revenue; the NDP has warned that they will stand against that. Facing attacks from Hudak in propping up the Liberals since 2012, Horwath recently came out more determined, saying that she is “seeking the job of Premier”. If the government falls on the budget, there would be a spring election, likely in April or May.

In the polls, the parties’ standings haven’t budged much since August. The PCs retain a small but fairly consistent edge over the Liberals, generally ranging from 3 to 7 points. A few pollsters, most recently Ipsos-Reid in November, have put the Liberals ahead of the PCs. The NDP has ranged between 23% and 31%, that is, either a more distant third or in serious contention for second (if not first). The latest poll, by Forum Research (Jan. 25-24), had the PCs up 3 on the Liberals (36 to 33) with the NDP at 26%.

Wynne’s decision to call the two by-elections so quickly is certainly a calculated means for her and the Liberals to test the waters (in two marginal ridings) before an election.

Niagara Falls

Map of Niagara Falls (source: Elections Canada)

Niagara Falls includes the city of Niagara Falls and the towns of Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the Lake in Niagara Regional Municipality. The riding is located at the eastern edge of the Niagara Peninsula, its eastern border being formed by the Niagara River and the international border with the United States. About 65% of the riding’s population lives in the city of Niagara Falls, which has a population of about 83,000. The riding is particularly famous for its namesake; the spectacular Niagara Falls, one of the top tourist destinations in Ontario. The Canadian ‘side’ of the falls have drawn the most tourist revenue, compared to the rather rundown American ‘side’ of the falls. The Canadian city of Niagara Falls has become notoriously kitsch, particularly the Strip-like Clifton Hill with its gaudy and ostentatious mix of wax museums, clinquant attractions and fast food chains. The quaint colonial town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara’s famous wine country and War of 1812 battlefields also draw a lot of tourists.

The seat fell vacant with the resignation of backbench Liberal MPP Kim Craitor in September 2013. Craitor, who was first elected in 2003, cited mental exhaustion and wanting to focus on his health and family upon resigning. However, he’s since indicated that he plans to run for Niagara Falls city council in the next municipal elections in October 2014; he had been in municipal politics for 13 years before entering the provincial arena.

The riding is tough to describe as a whole: it is a major urban area (as a tourist magnet) in its own right, but it is also clearly influenced by the industrial centres along the Welland Canal and St. Catharines (just next door) and Niagara forms the eastern end of a huge, sprawling urban conglomeration including Toronto and Hamilton (the Golden Horseshoe). Statistically, however, the riding sticks out by the importance of the tourism industry.

In 2001 and 2006 (and probably in 2011 as well), the riding had the highest percentage of persons employed in sales and service occupations in all of Canada’s 308 constituencies: a full 34.4% of the labour force worked in sales and service jobs. About 23% of all Canadians are employed in sales and service occupations. Further reflection of the riding’s tourism-oriented nature is found in the top industries (NAICS): in 2011, the single largest industry was accommodation and food services (15.9% of the labour force), followed by retail trade (11.5%), healthcare (9.2%) manufacturing (8.8%) and arts/entertainment/recreation (8.7%). Comparatively, across Canada, only 6.2% are employed in the accommodation and food services industry and 1.9% in arts/entertainment/recreation. Other main occupations in the riding include trades, transport and equipment operators (14.2%), business/finance/administration occupations (12.8%) and management (9.6%).

Niagara Falls (own picture)

Niagara Falls (own picture)

There are few perceptible remnants (statistically) of the area’s industrial past. Although tourism has been important to the region since the late 1800s, the hydroelectric power provided by the falls (and ‘immortalized’ by the large number of dams and electrical installations on both sides of the Niagara River, either shut down or still running) allowed for the growth of a large electro-chemical and electro-metallurgical industries in the twentieth century. Across the river, Niagara Falls (NY) was driven by similar industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, those industries in both Canada and the US shutdown with the recession, deindustrialization and foreign competition. Niagara Falls, ON has weathered deindustrialization far better than Niagara Falls, NY and transitioned into a tourism-driven tertiary economy. Factors helping the Ontarian city included the better view of the falls from Canada (although the experience at the American Falls is quite spectacular in its own right), a favourable exchange rate (at the time), Ontario’s focus on tourism, Ontario’s lower drinking age (19) and the opening of casinos on the Canadian side in the mid 90s (Seneca Niagara Casino has since tried to compete with Niagara Falls, ON’s two casinos).

Perhaps due to wages in the tourism industry, the median household income (2010) was $56,537. 53% of the riding’s population fall in the bottom half of the Canadian population (by income decile); 46.5% of Ontarians fall in those same lower five income deciles. However, the percentage of individuals classified as low income after tax was lower than the Canadian average (13.3% vs 14.9%).

The Niagara region has attracted a fairly large retiree population. The median age of the population was 45.1 (40.6 in Canada); 19.3% were aged 65 or over (14.8% in Canada) and 20% of the total income of the riding’s population comes from retirement and pensions (private retirement pensions, superannuation, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security), compared to 13.3% of the total income in all of Canada.

The Niagara Peninsula became one of the first areas in Upper Canada to be settled, by United Empire Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution in the 18th century. Most early settlers were British, but also included German Protestants. Niagara-on-the-Lake, which actually served as Upper Canada’s colonial capital between 1792 and 1797, was founded in 1781. The Niagara region was one of the main theaters of action in the War of 1812, with major battles at Queenston Heights, Fort Erie, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane. Industrial growth and the construction of the Welland Canal in the nineteenth century led to major European immigration, notably from Italy and Germany. According to the 2011 NHS, 30% of riding residents claimed English ancestry, followed by Canadian ancestry (26.2%), Scottish (19.5%), Irish (18.7%), Italian (16.3%), German (15.7%) and French (11.9%). Overall, over 50% of residents identified British Isles ancestries and ‘Canadian’ ethnicity can be taken, partly, as a descriptor for families who have lived in the region for generations. The Italian-descent population is significant in Niagara Falls (19.4%), while German ancestry is higher in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie (about 22%). The single largest religious denomination are Catholics (35.5%), followed by other Christians (11.7%), Anglicans (9.2%) and the United Church (7.3%). 23.2% have no religious affiliation.

The visible minority population is small, only 8.1% are visible minorities (the largest groups are blacks and Chinese) and another 2.4% claim Aboriginal identity.

While largely urban, Niagara Falls’ demographics have little in common with an inner city seat. A high percentage of those aged over 15 are married (57.3%), the vast majority of the housing stock is made up of single-detached houses (73.6%) and are owned (76.9%). While Niagara Falls has seen fairly strong population growth, the majority of dwellings are rather old: seven in ten were built in 1980 or before. In terms of education, 31.4% of the 15+ population have a high school diploma as their highest qualification, 48.3% have some kind of postsecondary certifications and 20.4% have no certificate, diploma or degree. 13.8% have a university degree at the bachelor level or above and 21.7% have a college education.

The provincial riding of Niagara Falls has existed since 1914 and has been aligned with the federal riding of the same name since 1999. Federally, the riding of Niagara Falls was created from Welland (Fort Erie and Niagara Falls were part of the old Welland county) and Lincoln (Niagara-on-the-Lake was part of Lincoln county) in 1952; always centered on Niagara Falls, its borders have shifted northwards (towards Niagara-on-the-Lake) or southwards (towards Fort Erie) before taking its current shape in 2003. Without any confirmation, I would imagine the provincial riding of Niagara Falls have been centered on the city itself with the north and south of the current ridings being combined with parts of Lincoln and Welland county-based seats respectively. Between 1999 and 2007, the southern half of the present riding was part of the riding of Erie-Lincoln, represented by current PC leader Tim Hudak (he currently represents Niagara West-Glanbrook).

Provincially, all three parties have held the seat: the Conservatives (1914-1919, 1923-1934, 1945-1948, 1953-1959, 1971-1975, 1995-2003), the CCF or NDP (Labour from 1919 to 1923, CCF from 1943 to 1945 and NDP from 1990 to 1995) and the Liberals (1934-1943, 1948-1953, 1959-1971, 1975-1990, 2003-2013). Federally, however, the NDP or its predecessors have never held the seat. It has been held since 2004 by Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, the current Minister of National Defence.

The Ontario NDP won the riding in the 1990 Bob Rae landslide, with a nearly 20 point majority over the Liberals. However, Bart Maves, the PC candidate, gained the seat with a 13.7% majority on the Liberals and held it with a much tighter 3.5% majority in 1999. In 2003, Liberal candidate Kim Craitor, a longtime municipal politician, defeated Maves with a 8.8% majority (46.9% to 38.1%). In 2007, the Liberals were reelected with 47.5% to the PCs’ 31.2%; in 2011, the Liberal majority fell to only 1.19% – 35.95% against 34.76% for the PCs, while the NDP, running a strong candidate, significantly improved its vote to 26.3% (it placed fourth, behind the Greens, with 9.8% in 2007).

Results of the 2011 provincial election in Niagara Falls by poll (source:

Federally, the Liberals held the seat from 1953 to 1972 – even in the Tory landslide of 1958 – and again from 1974 to 1979, 1980 to 1984 and 1993 to 2004 – but Rob Nicholson, who had first held the seat as a PC MP from 1984 to 1988 (going down to bloody defeat in 1993), regained his old seat with a 2.2% majority in the 2004 federal election. His majority has since expanded while the Liberal vote tanked; in 2011, Nicholson held his seat with a 29.8% majority and it was the NDP, with 23.5%, which placed a distant second.

In the 2011 provincial election, the Liberals drew their narrow victory from Niagara Falls and, to a lesser extent, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Liberal incumbent, a former Niagara Falls alderman, won all but a handful of polls in the city. The NDP did better in some older, historically working-class neighborhoods of the city (such as Silvertown) while doing slightly poorer in newer suburban subdivisions; in the federal election, the NDP managed to pick up a handful of polls, again largely in the Silvertown area. But just as the Liberals won nearly every poll in Niagara Falls (the city) in the last three provincial elections; the federal Tories have won most polls in the city in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. In the north, the wealthier and older Niagara-on-the-Lake is disputed between Liberals and Tories, with little NDP support (the Greens outpolled them in 2007 and 2008), with an edge to the provincial Grits in the last two provincial elections. In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP candidate was Wayne Redekop, the former mayor of Fort Erie. With a favourite son vote, he swept most of the urban polls in Fort Erie. His candidacy also created an interesting north-south dynamic: the Liberals placed third in every poll in the municipality of Fort Erie, where the match was played between the NDP and the PCs. While the NDP appears to have some solid natural support in Fort Erie and Crystal Beach, the Liberals were competitive – at both levels of government – in past elections. One constant in the electoral geography, finally, have been the very strong Tory results in the rural polls outside the riding’s three main towns.

All three major party candidates were Niagara Falls city or regional councillors. The Liberals nominated Joyce Morocco, the NDP nominated Wayne Gates and the PCs nominated Bart Maves, who has been regional councillor since 2010 after having served as MPP between 1995 and 2003. Joyce Morocco ran and lost for the federal Liberals in the 2008 election; Gates ran for the federal NDP in 2004 and 2006. Bart Maves tried to regain his old seat, without success, in the 2007 provincial election. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati endorsed the Liberal candidate. In the 2010 municipal election, in the at-large election for city council, Gates won won 10,879 votes and Morocco won 9,720. Bart Maves won 13,695 votes in a 7-candidate race for three seats on the regional council (Maves’ uncle is a city councillor in Niagara Falls). A PC website branded Wayne Gates, a former union official, as ‘radical Wayne’, leading to an hilarious Tumblr parody.

Wayne Gates (NDP) 39.44% (+13.14%)
Bart Maves (PC) 36.83% (+2%)
Joyce Morocco (Liberal) 19.39% (-16.5%)
Clarke Bitter (Green) 2.73% (+1.11%)
Tim Tredwell (Ind) 0.61% (+0.24%)
Stefanos Karatopis (Libertarian) 0.43% (-0.03%)
Troy Young (PPP) 0.29% (+0.29%)
Andrew Brannan (Freedom) 0.28%

A last minute poll by Forum Research had shown the NDP’s Wayne Gates leading the PCs 48 to 33, with the Liberals standing a distant third with only 17%. As the poll had predicted, the NDP came out victorious, although it was by a much narrower margin: a 2.61% majority over the PCs. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Niagara Falls is (yet another) significant victory for the Ontario NDP, the fourth seat they pick up after Kitchener-Waterloo (from the PCs in 2012), London West and Windsor-Tecumseh (both from the Liberals in 2013). Like the three other seats they have picked up, this is the kind of riding which the NDP need to win if they are to win the next provincial election (Niagara Falls itself has been a bellwether seat in provincial elections since 1985).

The clear losers are the Liberals, who, like in the three previous NDP gains in this legislature, suffered huge loses and slipped to a distant third. I’ll come back to what this trend means for the Liberals in my general conclusion. While the PCs performance is nowhere near as catastrophic as that of the Liberals, this isn’t a very good performance for them: they are up only 2 points from 2011 and they’re still lower than their 2003 result (38.1%).

Compared to 2011, the NDP made the largest inroads in the city of Niagara Falls, which it won by about ten points (43-33) over the PCs with the Liberals crashing 20 points to 22% (the NDP gained 18%, the PCs gained 2%). It held its ground well in Fort Erie, even making small gains and winning the municipality with a 2 point edge over the PCs; a remarkable performance given that the 2011 result for the NDP in Fort Erie owed a lot to a favourite son vote for the NDP’s local candidate. The NDP remained a distant third in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which the PCs won by 26 points (50-24) over the Liberals, with the NDP nevertheless up ten points to 22%.


Map of Thornhill (source: Elections Canada)

Thornhill is an affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding located directly north of Toronto. The riding includes parts of the municipalities of Vaughan and Markham in York Regional Municipality, and it’s named after Thornhill, the most important neighborhood which straddles the border between the two municipalities (formed by Yonge Street).

The seat became vacant on December 31, 2013 following the resignation of PC MPP and opposition finance critic Peter Shurman in an expense scandal. Shurman had received a housing allowance for a Toronto apartment (despite representing the Toronto area), because he moved his primary residence to Niagara-on-the-Lake. In September 2013, following an ‘heated exchange’, Hudak removed Shurman from his job as PC finance critic. Hudak had asked him to repay his expenses, but Shurman refused and got booted from his frontbench gig as a result In December 2013, it was further revealed that Shurman was claiming mileage from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto as an expense, Shurman was forced to resign his seat. Shurman’s scandal was something of a blow for the PCs, given his prominent frontbench role.

Thornhill is a rather special and unique riding. It is one of two ridings in Canada with a Jewish plurality – the other is the Montreal-area seat of Mount Royal (although in both ridings, all Christian denominations outnumber Jews), with 32.8% of residents being Jewish (the highest in Canada). There are no statistics on the issue, but Thornhill is said to have a large Orthodox Jewish population. 24.2% of residents checked ‘Jewish’ as their ethnic origin, making it the single largest ethnic origin reported. There is a large Eastern European, particularly Russian, population – judging by the geographic distribution of ethnic origin answers (in 2006), almost certainly Jews of Russian or Polish descent. In 2011, 12.2% claimed Russian ancestry (probably the highest in Canada) and 9.3% claimed Polish origins; overall, 24.8% of residents identified some Eastern European descent. There is also a fairly significant Iranian/Persian population (4.7%), which may include some Jews of Iranian background.

The visible minority (non-white) population is fairly significant, albeit not particularly high compared to other GTA ridings. In 2011, 36.9% of the population were visible minorities, the largest group being – by far – Chinese, who made up 12.6% of the total population. In the ethnic origin responses, Chinese was the second largest ethnicity behind Jewish (ahead of Russian), at 13.4%. The Chinese population in the riding is heavily concentrated in the portion of Markham municipality, a spillover from the heavily Chinese riding of Markham-Unionville. Other visible minority groups include South Asians (6.7%), West Asian (4.2%), Filipino (3.9%) and Korean (3.6%). The largest non-Jewish white demographic in the riding are Italians, again a spillover from the heavily Italian community of Woodbridge (in Vaughan municipality). 6.5% claimed Italian ancestry and 18.5% of residents were Catholics, the second largest religious denomination behind Judaism (no religious affiliation placed third, with 17.8%).

This diverse ethnic and religious mix means that a majority of the population (50.1%) have a language other than English as their mother tongue. Russian was actually the largest non-official language, spoken as the mother tongue of 10.6% of residents. Other main non-official languages (mother tongue) included Cantonese (4.4%), Persian/Farsi (4%) and Chinese (3.8%).

Thornhill is a very affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding. The median household income (2010) was $85,332, which likely places in the top 15-20 of all Canadian ridings. 62.5% of residents were in the top five income deciles, compared with 53.6% of residents: even more telling, the only income deciles overrepresented (against the provincial average) in Thornhill were the top three deciles: 44.9% of residents lived in the top 3 deciles (33.6% of Ontarians), including 19.4% in the top decile. No less than 41.3% of residents over 15 have a university degree at the bachelor level or above (a very high percentage, 16.6%, have a degree above the bachelor level), while low percentages have a HS diploma as their highest qualification (21.2%) or have no qualifications whatsoever (11.8%).

The largest industry in the riding (NAICS) were ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ (13.7%), followed by healthcare (10.5%), retail trade (10.4%) and manufacturing (9.1%). The main occupations, however, emphasize the white-collar nature even more: 21.1% are employed in business, finance and administration occupations; 19.3% (a very low number by Canadian standards) in sales and services; 12.8% had ‘occupations in education, law and social, community and government services’ and 12.7% were in management.

The suburban nature is highlighted by family and housing demographics (commuting information in the 2011 NHS was quite horrendous, but the average commute time was 30 minutes, against 20 minutes for all Ontario). There is a very high percentage of married individuals (58.1%), a low percentage of singles (27.9%) and a high percentage of households with children (46%). 87% of households are owned; a majority (55.3%) are single-detached houses, but there’s also a fairly significant number of new condo developments (about 27% of all households per the NHS in 2011) and some high-rise apartments (22.1%, largely along the main arteries). Thornhill is a riding which grew rapidly after the 1960s, as such, most houses (55.9%) were built between 1961 and 1990, and another 41.2% have been built since 1991. As a settled inner suburban area, growth has slowed down somewhat in the past decade, although the riding was still clearly overpopulated at the 2011 census (140,265) and did grow by +6.3% between 2006 and 2011.

The riding of Thornhill was created at the 1996 federal redistribution, from the division of the rapidly growing old suburban ridings of Markham—Whitchurch—Stouffville and York North. The provincial electoral district was created in 1999 on the lines of the federal seat. The seat has seen very closely fought between PCs and Liberals in the last four provincial election, but at the federal level, it witnessed a fairly sudden and dramatic swing from Liberals to Conservatives. The federal riding of Thornhill was solidly Liberal until 2008: the Liberals won 59% in 1997, 65% in 2000, 55% in 2004 and 53% in 2006. Even in 2006 – Harper’s first victory – the Liberals held Thornhill with a breezy 19% majority over the Tories. In 2008, however, the Conservatives, represented by British-born journalist Peter Kent (the former Minister of the Environment from 2011 to 2013), picked up the seat from incumbent Liberal (Jewish) MP Susan Kadis, with a 9.6% majority for the Tories. The Tory vote increased from 33.7% to 49% in the space of two years, while the Liberal vote fell from 53% to 39% in the same period. In 2011, Kent was reelected for a second term in a landslide, with 61% of the vote and a 37.7% majority over the Grits.

Provincially, the PCs won the seat in 1999, when it was first disputed, with a very thin majority on the Liberals (48.2% vs 47.4%), and while they lost it to the Liberals in the 2003 Grit landslide, it was by a narrow margin: 46.9% for the Liberals’ Mario Racco against 45.2% for the PC MPP Tina Molinari. The seat drew attention in the 2007 provincial election, when it was gained, countercyclically, by the PCs (who lost by a wide margin provincially). PC candidate Peter Shurman (who is Jewish) won 45.9% against 42.3% for the Liberals. In 2011, Shurman won reelection with 46.9% against 40.7% for the Liberals. Unlike the federal Grits, the provincial Liberals put up a fight in 2011: their candidate was Bernie Farber, the former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The NDP has been very weak in Thornhill (even if the Jewish Canadian community, in its working-class days, strongly supported the CCF/NDP or Communists). In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP won 9%, a result which is actually at the upper end of recent NDP showings. In the federal election, the NDP won 12%.

The sudden shift from Liberals to Conservatives has everything to do with the changing political allegiances of the Canadian Jewish community: an hitherto reliably Liberal demographic which has become a solidly Conservative demographic since 2008 (the shift is very perceptible in seats in Toronto and Montreal). Federally, the shift is often assigned to the Harper Conservatives’ strongly pro-Israeli diplomatic stances (while some Liberals have taken more pro-Palestinian positions), which resonate very well with Canadian Jews. Provincially, it is often chalked down to the issue of private/denominational schools: in 2003, the PCs supported a tax credit for parents to send their children to private/denominational schools, and it allowed the PC vote to hold up very well in Thornhill. In 2007, PC leader John Tory famously – and disastrously – proposed to extend public funding to all faith-based schools (the Ontario provincial government funds Catholic schools); while that played disastrously for the PCs in the province, it may explain why the PCs gained Thornhill – for some Jewish parents, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community, access to Jewish schools is a major issue.

At the same time, however, it may also have something to do with a wider shift: many affluent white-collar suburban voters have shifted, fairly dramatically in the long term, from Liberal to Conservatives. Jewish Canadians tend to be like many Canadian suburbanites: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Jewish voters, much like those south of the border, are very much allergic to (Christian) religious conservatism, social conservatism or more populist conservative rhetoric. The Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, associated with religious and populist conservatism, did very poorly with Jewish voters (although from poll-by-poll results, it appears the Alliance did fairly well with Orthodox Jews in Thornhill in 2000, presumably helped by a Jewish candidate). Similarly, in the 2011 provincial election, the PCs lost ground (compared to 2007) with more secular Jewish voters in urban Toronto (St. Paul’s and Eglinton-Lawrence), a reaction to Hudak’s populist and right-wing campaign which repelled affluent, urban moderates.

Results of the 2011 provincial election in Thornhill by poll (source:

The map of the 2011 provincial election portrays the riding’s electoral geography well. The PCs were very strong – over 70% of the vote in a handful of polls – in the heavily Jewish areas along Bathurst Street (Toronto’s main ‘Jewish road’ – see a map here) in the Thornhill neighborhood. There were smaller outcrops of PC support in the eastern (Markham) end of the riding, primarily in mixed-Jewish neighborhoods. On the other hand, the Liberals were strongest in non-Jewish areas: areas west of Dufferin Street (more Italian) or between Yonge Street and Bayview Avenue (less Jewish, more Chinese and Iranian). The 2007 election is much the same: the PCs clearly owed their victory to very strong numbers with Jewish voters (again, with numbers over 60-70% in the most Jewish areas) while the Grits won non-Jewish voters. From 2007 to 2011, it appears as if the PC vote in the Jewish areas stagnated while improving in then non-Jewish areas.

The 2011 federal election is a Tory sweep, with many heavily Jewish polls giving over 80% of the vote to the Conservatives. The 2008 map is very similar to the provincial maps from 2007 or 2011, while the 2006 and 2004 maps – Liberal landslides – show a Tory enclave in Thornhill, presumably an Orthodox Jewish area, with the Liberals sweeping the rest (including many Jewish areas).

The PCs nominated optometrist Gila Martow, who ran and lost for Vaughan city council in 2010. On her website, Martow’s biographical blurb includes a well-placed picture of her with Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are held in high esteem by the Canadian Jewish community. The Liberal candidate was Sandra Yeung Racco, a Vaughan city councillor and the wife of former Liberal MPP Mario Racco (2003-2007). The NDP’s sacrificial lamb was Cindy Hackelberg, the 2011 candidate.

Gila Martow (PC) 47.96% (+1.25%)
Sandra Yeung Racco (Liberal) 41.50% (+0.58%)
Cindy Hackelberg (NDP) 6.79% (-2.18%)
Teresa Pun (Green) 1.44% (-0.25%)
Gene Balfour (Libertarian) 1.06% (-0.33%)
Erin Goodwin (Freedom) 0.56% (+0.23%)
Kevin Clarke (PPP) 0.52% (+0.52%)
John Turmel (Pauper) 0.18% (+0.18%)

The PCs narrowly held Thornhill, with a margin similar to the 2011 election. As early results trickled in, the Liberals took a narrow lead over the PCs, but as it turned out it was likely the Grit-leaning non-Jewish polls reporting first. Later on, the PCs regained the lead and never gave it back. A Tory defeat in Thornhill (at the hands of the governing Liberals) would have been a serious, potentially fatal, blow to Hudak’s leadership; a victory, even if fairly narrow, allows him to breath a sigh of relief. The Liberals’ decent showing, in sharp contrast to their results in Niagara Falls, shows that the Grits are still a force to be reckoned with in the 416 (city of Toronto) and GTA/905 suburbs. The NDP’s poor result is not surprising if you take into account the propensity for Canadian by-elections to turn into two-party contests in a majority of cases, squeezing out any third party lacking a base and organization in the riding.



Overall, the main winner of these two by-elections was the NDP, which gained Niagara Falls. It was not as extraordinary a victory as Kitchener-Waterloo (2012) or London West/Windsor-Tecumseh (2013), which may or may not indicate that some of the NDP’s momentum has tapered off since then. Yet, all this is still very good news for the NDP and Andrea Horwath. Although Horwath has taken hits from both the Liberals and PCs, and has been the target of PC criticism for ‘propping up’ the Liberal government since 2011, she remains the most popular political leader in the province and for the first time in a long time, the NDP has a good chance of actually winning the next election. The NDP has been riding high in the polls in Southwestern Ontario (home to Kitchener, London and Windsor although not Niagara Falls) and their results in by-elections since 2012 indicate that the NDP are the only threat to the PCs outside of Ottawa and Toronto, even in Liberal-held ridings.

It remains to be seen, of course, if the NDP could repeat the remarkable results of the by-elections since 2012 in a general election. In a province-wide contest, the NDP would focus less heavily on specific ridings (like in by-elections), leaving some local candidates who might receive disproportionate backing from HQs in a by-election to fend for themselves. But the by-elections since 2012 have shown that the NDP are capable of regaining Dipper heartlands (Windsor-Tecumseh) and challenging the Liberals and PCs in seats where the NDP hasn’t usually been a factor in past provincial or federal elections (Kitchener, London, Niagara…): these are exactly the kind of ridings which the NDP need to win in a provincial election if they want to win government.

The NDP’s raw vote across both ridings was very, very close to the 2011 results. But the details show two very different dynamics at work: in Thornhill, a seat which will go NDP only when hell freezes over, the NDP lost 2,128 votes from their 2011 result. In Niagara Falls, where Wayne Gates won, the NDP increased their raw vote total by 2,222 – despite turnout falling by 9,960 votes since 2011. This indicates that the NDP was able to directly win voters who had backed the Grits or Tories in the last election.

The PCs had mixed results, on the whole. There is disagreement as to whether they won (by not losing any riding and by winning the most votes across the two ridings) or if they lost (by failing to regain low-hanging fruit like Niagara Falls and making very limited gains overall), I’d personally lean towards the latter. Holding Thornhill, where the PCs faced a rather serious threat from the Liberals (while still being favoured), is a good result for them insofar as it allows the PCs to breath a sigh of relief. But defeat in Niagara Falls is undeniably bad news for the PCs, which adds on to their defeats in Kitchener-Waterloo, London West and Ottawa South. Niagara Falls was low-hanging fruit for the PCs, who should have won the seat without too much trouble given their lead in province-wide polls, the swings against the Liberals and the federal Conservatives’ success in that seat in federal elections since 2004. It is also, like London West, the kind of riding which Hudak’s PCs need to win in the next election if they are to form government. Hudak, who has a remarkable inability for introspection, preferred to trumpet the meaningless statistic of ‘winning the most votes in the two ridings together’ and blame the Niagara Falls result on ‘unions’ (Hudak’s favourite boogeyman) turning out for the NDP.

The PCs saw their raw vote fall significantly in both ridings: across both, they lost over 10,300 votes. Their gains, in percentage terms, in both ridings were purely by virtue of retaining a good share of their 2011 votes than by any gains directly at another party’s expense. In a general election, the PCs may still win by just getting their 2011 voters again and little else, but they’ll most likely need to expand their base a bit by drawing voters who had backed the Liberals (or, less likely, the NDP) in 2011.

The clear loser were the Liberals – again. They lost yet another seat, after losing three seats in last summer’s five by-elections. What is especially cause for concern for the Liberals is that the disaster in Niagara Falls adds on to the disasters in Kitchener, London and Windsor in the last two years. All this seems to mean that the Liberals are quickly turning irrelevant in ridings outside of Toronto and Ottawa (in the 2013 by-elections, the Liberals held their ground – placing first or second – in the three ridings in Ottawa or Toronto; the Liberals still placed a decent second in the GTA riding of Thornhill). In a general election, the Liberals may very well face a bloodbath outside Ottawa and the 416/905: ridings outside those regions are shaping up, if by-elections are anything to go by, into PC-NDP battles with the Liberals not a factor. Some commentators have said that the Liberals could still be serious contenders for a fourth term in office because of their hold on ‘fortress Toronto’. I don’t disagree with the idea that the Liberals could still be contenders for reelection in the next general election, but I have serious doubts on the solidity of ‘fortress Toronto’. A lot of commentators rehashing that line seem to be assuming that the Liberals face no threat from either the PCs or NDP in the 416 ridings, or that they remain very competitive with the PCs in 905 suburban ridings where the NDP is weak. The latter is probably true; the Liberals will remain the main competition to the PCs in places like Vaughan, Markham, Oakville, Richmond Hill, Aurora and so forth. However, very little proves that Toronto is the impregnable Liberal ‘fortress’ some people present it as. In the 2013 by-elections, the PCs actually gained a seat from the Liberals in Toronto (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) and the Liberals held Scarborough-Guildwood by a narrow margin against serious PC and NDP threats. The NDP has a large potential base in Toronto; it did very poorly in Toronto in the 2011 provincial election, but nothing says that the next election will be just as disappointing for them. The PCs also have the potential to win seats inside Toronto. I would posit, therefore, that the Liberals aren’t particularly safe(r) in Toronto as a whole; in a general election, anything could happen.

It is unclear what impact these results have in the short term, especially as it relates to the likelihood of an early election in the spring. The NDP comes out with a big boost from these by-elections and it might be tempted to finally pull the plug on the Liberals, but from the early rhetoric from Horwath, she doesn’t seem particularly ‘trigger-happy’ and she prefers to present herself as a ‘responsible leader’ who doesn’t talk incessantly about elections. From past experience, Horwath does seem rather reluctant to take the responsibility for provoking an early election. Meanwhile, the Liberals do seem less interested than before in having an early election. In a case of acute spinning, the Liberals said that “a small percentage of people vote in by-elections” and affirm that “a general election will be a different story”. If the Liberals are reading the tea leaves, they might opt to delay an increasingly inevitable defeat at the polls by trying to stay in power for as long as possible. If Wynne was fairly bullish on election night with talk of a general election, other Liberals were on the defensive the next day and downplaying talks of an election (and rumours that the Liberals might engineer their own defeat on the budget).

On the other hand, it is worth noting that the Liberal spin about a general election being a different story is somewhat correct. By-elections are sometimes good predictors, but at best imperfect because of low turnout and the tendency for anti-incumbent votes against the government. It is interesting that the by-election results since 2013 haven’t been lining up with province-wide polling, in which the Liberals remain a fairly strong second not too far behind the PCs. Are the provincial polls all wrong? Are the by-elections showing an exaggerated swing against the Liberals because the Liberals’ supporters are not showing up? A general election will have different and unpredictable dynamics: the Liberals may turn out to be good campaigners who will find what it takes to seriously challenge Hudak and Horwath; but the Liberals may also collapse, if momentum builds around the NDP and leads to Liberal supporters abandoning the Grits for the NDP or PCs (a repeat of what happened federally in May 2011). As things stand, however, the Liberals are in a very difficult position.

Swiss Referendums 2014

Referendums on three matters were held in Switzerland on February 9, 2014. One issue was a mandatory referendum, because it modified the Swiss Constitution and the other two were popular initiatives which were placed on the ballot after they gathered 100,000 signatures from voters.

Turnout on the three votes ranged from 55% to 55.8%, a rather high level in a country where turnout in both elections and referendums is usually below 50% (or barely above).

Popular initiative “against mass immigration”

The popular initiative “against mass immigration” was presented by the right-populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in the Swiss Parliament which is well known for its nationalist and anti-immigration positions.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Switzerland isn’t quite an exclusive cocoon made up of Swiss citizens. In 2012, foreigners made up 23.3% of the Swiss population (about 1.87 million people), the highest number and percentage in the country’s recent history. About 64% of foreigners are EU and EFTA citizens (especially from neighboring Germany, Italy and France or countries such as Portugal); there are significant Serbian (6% of all foreigners), African (4.1%) and Turkish (3.9%) communities in Switzerland. Overall, 85% of foreign residents are European. Additionally, 34.7% of Swiss residents have ‘immigration background’ – including naturalized Swiss citizens and first/second generation foreigners.

Switzerland signed an Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU (which also applies to EFTA member-states) in 1999, allowing for the free movement and employment of EU and EFTA citizens in the country. Immigration of non-EU/EFTA citizens is strictly limited, with the country largely admitting only qualified professionals and other skilled workers. Swiss companies must prove that they failed to find adequate Swiss or European workforce when employing non-EU/EFTA foreigners. Asylum seekers and refugees are not covered by these regulations.

Immigration has increased significantly since 2008, with the economic crisis. Since 2007, immigration has increased by about 80,000 per year. In 2002, when the agreements on freedom of movement came into force, the Federal Council estimated that there would be about 8,000 immigrants per year – the reality has been 10 times higher. The large number of new immigrants in Switzerland created real problems in terms of housing shortages, overstretched transportation infrastructure creating traffic jams or overcrowded trains and major pressure on jobs, wages and rents.

The situation is made even more problematic by Switzerland’s longstanding tradition of relative isolationism. On the right, there has been a significant emphasis on the protection of ‘Swiss identity’ or ‘Swiss jobs’. This isn’t the first popular initiative dealing with the issue of immigration or the feeling of ‘too many immigrants’. In 1970, an initiative by the far-right National Action which wanted to limit the foreign population to 10% by canton (25% in Geneva) was narrowly rejected, with 54% against. In 1974, a very similar text pushed by the same group, which proposed to limit the country’s foreign population at 500,000, was rejected by a wide margin (65.8% no). Two similar initiatives were rejected by huge majorities in 1977. These first anti-immigration initiatives took place following the first significant surge in the foreign population (in the 1960s and early 1970s). While unsuccessful, the environment created by these initiatives pushed the Federal Council to pass stricter immigration laws which led to a sharp dip in the foreign population after 1975 and until 1990.

Beginning with another National Action proposal in 1988, the 1990s and 2000s saw another wave of anti-immigration initiatives – mostly proposed by the SVP, which at the same time saw its popular support expand significantly, becoming the single largest party in 2003. In 1996, a popular initiative “against illegal immigration” proposed by the SVP was rejected with 53.7% against. In 2000, a popular initiative proposing to limit the foreign population at 18% of the country’s population was rejected with 63.8%. In 2002, a SVP initiative seeking to strictly limit the conditions for the admission of asylum seekers was rejected by a very narrow margin – with 50.1% against. In 2009, a controversial initiative banning the construction of minarets was approved with 57.5% of the vote. In 2010, a SVP popular initiative “for the expulsion of foreign criminals”, which allows for the expulsion of foreigners convicted of serious crimes or having illegally received welfare benefits. The SVP’s initiative was approved by 52.9% of voters. The SVP unsuccessfully opposed the approval of Swiss membership in the Schengen Area (in 2005) and the extension of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons to the new EU member states in 2005 and to Romania and Bulgaria in 2009.

This popular initiative “against mass immigration” asked that Switzerland manages autonomously immigration through annual quotas and ceilings (without specifying what the levels would be). This would apply to all categories of foreigners including foreign workers and their families, asylum seekers, refugees and trans-border workers. Employers would need to give preference to Swiss nationals, and the initiative bans the ratification of international treaties contravening these regulations. This would imply the renegotiation or even full denunciation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU; the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons is one of Switzerland’s Bilateral Agreements I with the EU and the termination of one of these agreements leads to the automatic cancellation within six months of the other agreements.

The initiative committee blamed the massive increase in immigration for higher unemployment (8% with foreigners), overcrowded trains, traffic jams, rent increases, the loss of arable land, pressure on salaries, ‘foreign criminality’, asylum abuse and a large number of foreigners on welfare. ‘Uncontrolled immigration’, according to the initiative’s backers, threatens Swiss freedom, security, full employment, natural beauty and Swiss prosperity. In presenting the initiative, they stressed that it did not want to ‘freeze’ immigration or terminate bilateral agreements with the EU.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. In its official recommendation, the Federal Council argued that Switzerland is dependent on foreign labour and that immigrants contribute to the Swiss economy. Above all, however, they sought to point out that the approval of the initiative would necessarily mean a renegotiation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (which, according to the government, the EU is unwilling to undertake). A failure to renegotiate the agreement would, as aforementioned, automatically terminate all parts of the Bilateral Agreements I. Given Switzerland’s close economic and trade ties with the EU, termination of the Bilateral Agreements I would have, according to the Federal Council, serious consequences on the economy. The government recognizes immigration’s impact on housing and infrastructure, but argue that they would exist even without immigration and therefore require internal policy reforms rather than ‘administrative obstacles’ and ‘unnecessary annoyances’ entailed by the initiative.

Every major party except the SVP recommended the rejection of the initiative. However, while the Swiss Green Party at the federal level recommended a no vote, the Ticino section of the Green Party supported the yes. The SVP, as in the past, played a lot on sensationalist (but misleading) statistics – for example, a newspaper ad claiming that by 2060, there would be more foreigners than Swiss citizens – based on an exponential growth in the foreign population and a slow growth in the Swiss population. But with the same ‘projections’ playing on stats, we can also ‘project’ that the SVP will be winning 69% in 2060! The SVP also knew how to frame its argument: in a fairly moderate way, claiming that Switzerland could reject mass immigration without endangering bilateral agreements with the EU; and by playing on simple bread-and-butter issues – the nefarious effect of immigration on housing, wages, infrastructure, ‘freedom’ and unemployment (although some studies show that immigration hasn’t had a negative effect on the job market). It also played on deep-seated Eurosceptic sentiments, by using the Federal Council’s arguments on EU reprisals to appeal to opposition to ‘EU diktats’, the ‘European elites’ and a desire to ‘stand up’ to ‘EU scaremongering’ and defending Swiss sovereignty.

Do you accept the popular initiative “against mass immigration”?

Yes 50.3%
No 49.7%

Switzerland 2014 - Mass immigrationb

Early polling had the anti-immigration initiative going down to defeat, but the gap narrowed significantly in the yes’ favour in the final days. The initiative was narrowly approved with a 19,526 vote majority (0.6%). The initiative’s implications are interesting and significant. Like the minaret initiative, the Swiss vote hit a nerve in the EU and has placed the contentious issue of immigration (and limits on immigration) at the top of media attention and public opinion interest in many EU countries dealing with the same issue – France, Austria, Italy or the UK, for example. It has sparked widespread condemnation in the foreign media and many political leaders, with – in my mind – appropriate comments on xenophobic sentiments and the rise of anti-immigration opinion in Switzerland. Regardless of one’s opinion and appreciation on the Swiss vote, it would be best not to give lessons of morality. For example, I have little doubt that France could potentially approve a very similar initiative if such an issue came up in a referendum (a 2013 poll showed that about 70% of French voters felt that there were too many immigrants in France).

The initial official reaction by the EU has been negative: in a brief statement on February 9, the European Commission said that the initiative “goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland” and that it would “examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.” The French foreign minister and German finance minister both expressed concern; the issue is particularly important for France, Germany and Italy who have a large number of trans-border workers (frontaliers): citizens of those countries who either live and work in Switzerland or commute to work in Switzerland.

At the same time, the European far-right as a whole is rather giddy about the issue: Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Matteo Salvini but also Nigel Farage, the German AfD and Norway’s FrP all welcomed the result and would like similar votes in their own countries.

The Swiss Federal Council will respect the result and present legislation to implement the initiative by the end of the year, and immediately begin negotiations with the EU – the initiative gives them a three year period to renegotiate existing agreements with the EU. Many Swiss politicians and their constituents are confident that the EU will not choose confrontation and that some kind of agreement will be found between the two countries. Some feel that, in the long run, the initiative won’t change much: the cantons may gain considerable leeway in setting quotas, allowing diverse and immigrant-heavy cantons (Basel, Geneva, Zurich etc) to set large quotas; the implementing legislation may be challenged in a referendum; international law will still apply and Switzerland will need to abide by it (although the SVP fancies an initiative to make Swiss law supersede international law) and the very drawn out process for renegotiation will allow for adaptation or compromise. If the negotiations were to collapse, however, it would have major economic consequences for Switzerland and the EU: some sectors of the Swiss economy are compelled to turn to foreign labour for lack of domestic labour, many Swiss take advantage of bilateral programs with the EU (Erasmus, for example), Switzerland is closely connected to the EU economy and Swiss participation in EU projects may be jeopardized. Swiss businesses are worried, fearing an overload of administrative annoyances and starting in a disadvantageous position in EU negotiations (the EU will likely demand concessions from Switzerland in case of a compromise).

There has been significant attention paid to the geography of the vote, even in the foreign press which usually ignores electoral geography. The overall geography was not very different from past votes on foreigners/immigration-related votes in Switzerland: anti-immigration votes tended to come from German but also Italian Switzerland – and rural areas – while support for the pro-immigration position came from French Switzerland and urban areas in general. Once again, French Switzerland only gave 41.5% support to the initiative, compared with 52% in German Switzerland and 68% in Italian Switzerland. The strongest support for the initiative came from the Italian canton of Ticino, which voted yes with no less than 68.2%. Ticino, like Geneva (which voted no, with 61%), has the highest unemployment in the country (around 7%, in a country where unemployment is only 2-3%); but the main reason for the canton’s strong support for the initiative is because it has been impacted by significant labour immigration from neighboring Italy. Well-educated but unemployed Italians are willing to cross the border to accept jobs in Ticino – at higher salaries than in Italy, but at significantly lower salaries than Swiss workers. The canton of Ticino has voted against ‘free movement’ issues in the past: in 2009, 66% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to Romania and Bulgaria (38% in Switzerland as a whole); in 2005, 64% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to the 2004 EU entrants (40.6% in the country); in 2004, 62% voted against Schengen (45% in the country); and in 2000, 57% voted against the sectoral agreements with the EU which were approved by 67% of voters. This year, there was little rural-urban divide in Italian Switzerland: 66% approval in urban areas, 69.6% approval in rural towns.

Support for the initiative was also strong in German-speaking rural areas: in the rural communities, 60.7% voted in favour. The very conservative Catholic canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden approved the issue with 63.5%, the predominantly rural (and also Catholic) canton of Schwyz – which often records strong support for anti-immigration votes (it too voted against the Romania/Bulgaria extension, and was the only one to back a 2008 SVP initiative which would have subjected naturalization applications to popular votes in each town) – voted yes with 63.1%. The next highest results in support of the initiative were recorded in Glarus (59.4%), Obwalden (59.1%), Nidwalden (58.8%) and Uri (58.2%). With the exception of Glarus, which has been industrialized over 100 years ago, all the other cantons are peripheral, historically rural and and traditionally poor German Catholic cantons. The cantons of Schwyz, Uri and the half-cantons of the Unterwalden formed the original four cantons of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, were the central part of the anti-centralist and conservative Sonderbund in 1847 and have long been peripheral, isolated, patriarchal and strongly traditionalist/conservative. Glarus, which was historically Protestant and industrialized, proved more open to external influences but it has become conservative in the post-war era. These cantons have often recorded the strongest opposition on votes concerning European integration (EEC membership in 1992), UN membership (2002), immigration but also other issues (abortion, gun control).

The initiative also received strong support in rural and small town conservative areas throughout German areas, for example in the cantons of Aargau (55.2%), Thurgau (57.8%), Schaffhausen (58.1%) and Saint Gallen (55.9%). Far less rural and traditionalist than the original four cantons, these German cantons have nonetheless become – outside of their main urban centres – quite conservative. It passed by a narrow majority in Lucerne (53.3%), Solothurn (54.6%), Bern (51.1%), Grisons (50.6%) and Basel-Landschaft (50.6%). In the cantons of Bern and Lucerne, the initiative was carried exclusively by strong support in rural conservative areas: it received only 39.7% support in Lucerne and 27.7% in Bern. However, for example, in the rural districts of Entlebuch (LU) and Obersimmental-Saanen (BE), the yes won 67.4% and 66.7% respectively. The initiative was also defeated in the cities of Aarau, Baden, Winterthur and Saint Gallen.

In the canton of Grisons, a mountainous and fairly conservative canton, the rather high level of opposition to the initiative might have something to do with the importance of tourism in the canton, which is home to internationally famous high-end ski resorts and has created a fairly high demand for foreign labour (the foreign population reaches 30.6% in the Maloja district, which includes Saint-Moritz). In the Italian-speaking district of Moesa in Grisons, the yes won 71% of the vote – it also won 58% in the district of Bernina, an Italian-speaking valley. It failed in the canton’s main city (Chur) and most major resort towns, including Davos and Saint-Moritz.

The cantons of Basel-Stadt (39% yes), Zurich (47.3% yes) and Zug (49.9% yes) voted against. The first two cantons are anchored by large urban areas, which voted heavily against – in the city of Zurich itself, the yes won only 33.4%. In German Switzerland, there was a very strong rural-urban divide. In German urban areas, the yes vote received only 41% (keeping in mind that, in contrast, it took 61% in the most rural German communities); the yes vote was successful in medium-sized towns (52.9%) and isolated towns (53.9%). The cities, as in every other country, concentrate multicultural communities with more leftist views on issues such as immigration and highly-educated professionals – either wealthier suburbanites (District 7/8 in Zurich) or ‘new middle-classes’ in gentrified downtowns (Districts 4/5 in Zurich) with similar socially liberal views. In Zurich, the initiative was defeated by huge margins both in the very wealthy suburban districts (7+8, 27.7% yes) and the central gentrified areas (Districts 4/5, 21.1% yes); it carried only District 12, a lower-income/blue-collar peripheral district (52% yes). The initiative also lost by significant margins in Zurich’s very wealthy lakeside suburbs (43.9% yes in Meilen district, 46.6% in Horgen district). In Basel, a major economic centre closely connected to neighboring Germany and France (many German and French nationals commute cross-border), the initiative won only 38.7%; it was also defeated in its affluent, well-educated suburbs. The canton of Zug is the country’s wealthiest canton; as a low-tax zone, the city of Zug has become home to the headquarters of many multinational corporations. In the city of Zug itself, the initiative won 43.1% support.

French Switzerland (Suisse romande) was the only region to reject the initiative, with only 41.5% support. It won about 39% support in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel; it did slightly better in the Jura (44%) and failed only narrowly in the cantons of Fribourg (48.5%) and Valais (48.3%). In the case of the latter canton, there was a clear linguistic divide: the German-speaking eastern half of the Valais (Oberwallis) voted in favour, while all but one district in the French-speaking western half (Bas-Valais) voted against. In the canton of Fribourg, which has a substantial German minority, the German-majority district of Sense was more heavily in favour (56.7%) than French-speaking rural district, but in that canton the divide was more urban-rural: the initiative failed by a landslide in the city of Fribourg (34.3%) and its suburbs but was successful in rural areas. On the whole, French-speaking Switzerland has been the country’s most liberal region; voting in favour of European integration and choosing the more liberal option on matters such as immigration, identity, abortion or women’s rights.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a strong rural-urban divide in French Switzerland as well. In urban centres, the initiative received only 37.7% support. It won 40.6% in me

dium-sized towns, 42.2% in isolated towns and 47% in rural areas. The cities of Geneva (37.9% yes), Lausanne (32.5% yes), Neuchâtel (31.2% yes), La-Chaux-de-Fonds (39.8% yes), Delémont (32.3% yes), Porrentruy (38.7% yes), Nyon (36.2% yes), Montreux (40.7% yes) and Sion (40.4% yes) all voted heavily against. Opposition was very strong in the arc lémanique, a very affluent urban/suburban area around the Lac Léman from Geneva to Lausanne. The Geneva-Léman region is home to a large number of international organizations and attract a large number of cross-border workers from France; foreigners constitute about 40% of the population in the canton of Geneva and in Lausanne, and 34% in the district of Nyon (VD). In the affluent Geneva lakeside suburb of Collonge-Bellerive, the initiative won only 35%; support was below 40% in most affluent towns in the arc lémanique. On the other hand, support was higher in less affluent areas in the Ouest lausannois and in Geneva’s suburbs; 42.6% in the Ouest lausannois district and 49.1% in the town of Vernier, a poorer suburb outside of Geneva. That being said, plenty of historically working-class and poorer cities in French Switzerland voted heavily against: the industrial cities of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Delémont and Le Locle all voted against by substantial margins; the French-speaking valleys of the Bas-Valais are no more or less affluent than the German-speaking Oberwallis yet the former voted against while the latter voted in favour by large margins. In French Switzerland, the initiative was only successful in rural areas: the eastern ends of the canton of Vaud, the Jura bernois (in the canton of Bern) and much of the canton of Fribourg outside urban areas.

While the initiative’s victory is a major political success for the SVP, it would not have been successful without the support of voters outside of the SVP’s traditional electoral base. The SVP’s electoral base is, at most, no more than 30%; the core hardline anti-European and anti-immigration electorate in referendums is often 30-35% as well. Like the minaret or ‘foreign criminals’ referendums, this result shows that the SVP’s rhetoric against immigration appeals to a much wider crowd than that which usually votes for the SVP in federal elections. In this referendum, success would not have been possible without significant cross-over support from other parties and independents – including left-wingers. The left-wing argument in favour of this initiative is that the current levels of population growth, in good part due to foreign immigration, are unsustainable in the long-term for economic, social and environmental reasons.

There have been a lot of comments in the media that the regions which voted in favour are those with a low percentage of foreigners while those which voted against are those with a higher percentage of immigrants. This is not entirely the case. This graph (by district) comparing the % of foreigners to % yes for the initiative does show some kind of correlation between a low number of foreigners and stronger support for the initiative – only two districts with a number of foreigners above the Swiss average voted in favour; at the same time, however, many districts with a fairly large percentage of foreigners voted in favour. Based on the data in that chart, I calculated a correlation coefficient of -0.34 (negative correlation between support for the initiative and high percentage of foreigners), but the R² value is only 0.11, so it’s a very weak correlation.

Popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

Abortion rights in Switzerland have evolved gradually. From 1942 to 2002, abortion was only permitted in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy in cases of maternal life and the mother’s health; the understanding of the term ‘health’ evolved from only physical health to cover mental health. In 1977, an initiative to legalize abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks was narrowly rejected by the electorate, with 51.7% against. In 1978, a federal law which continued to classify abortion as an offense but expanding exceptions allowing for abortions (medical and social reasons, rape, fetal defects) was struck down by a wide majority (by the looks of the vote, it displeased both the pro-life and pro-choice camps). Afterwards, the practice of abortion, albeit still legally an offense and strictly curtailed by legislation, was liberalized and the practice was only rarely prosecuted. In 2002, an amendment to the Swiss penal code legalized abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks. In a June 2002 referendum, 72% of voters approved the new law and simultaneously rejected a counter-initiative, which sought to re-criminalize abortion (81.8% against). The costs of abortions are covered, since 2002, by public health insurance.

This popular initiative proposed that abortions be no longer covered by health insurance, on the grounds of lessening the financial burden on health insurance. The text allowed for exceptions, but did not define them. The initiative was supported officially by the Evangelical People’s Party (EVP) and the SVP, although two SVP cantonal sections (Jura and Vaud) called to vote against and some other SVP sections gave no voting recommendations. Certain members of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and the FDP.The Liberals backed the initiative. Besides lessening the financial burden on health insurance, the supporters of the text argued that, as a matter of conscience, nobody should be forced to finance abortions against their ethical and moral convictions. Other supporters argued that if abortions were to be self-financed or privately covered, there would be less abortions.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. It argued in favour of the existing system, which it says has proved its worth: the number of abortions in Switzerland are low by international standards and have remained stable since 2002 (and decreased with young women under 20); strong support and counseling for women; strict guidelines to ensure quality and safety and the costs of abortions have decreased significantly (it says between 600 and 1000 CHF). The savings which would be incurred by not covering abortions would be minimal: 8 billion CHF in a system worth 26 billion CHF, so only about 0.03% of the total costs of health insurance. The Federal Council also raised concerns about the undefined ‘exceptions’ in the text of the initiative, which, they argued, would lead to patchy case-by-case financing of certain abortions.

Do you accept the popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

No 69.8%
Yes 30.2%

Switzerland 2014 - Abortion

Unsurprisingly, the initiative was rejected by a very wide margin. Only a socially conservative base strongly opposed to abortion voted in favour. Outside of a socially conservative minority, abortion in Switzerland – like in many/most other Western European countries – is well accepted by the population and there is little interest in changing a system which is perceived as working well, as the Federal Council argued.

The geography of the vote was both unsurprising and surprising. Unsurprising because the very few outposts of support for the measure – only two districts and one half canton voted in favour – were rather predictable. The half-canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, a very conservative, traditionalist and rural German Catholic region, voted in favour – with 50.9%. The district of Entlebuch, an isolated rural valley in the Catholic canton of Lucern, was the only other district to vote in favour, with 50.3%. Although it failed in every other districts, there was substantial support in some more rural districts of the cantons of Schwyz (44.3% overall), Uri (45.3%), Saint-Gallen (42.4%), Obwald (41.6%) and Thurgovia (40.9%). It was in German Switzerland where the measure found the most support, 34.5% overall, especially in German rural areas (41.2%). Swiss German cities were strongly opposed, with only 27.7% support. In the city of Zurich, the yes won 21.1% and in Basel-Stadt it got 24.6%.

In contrast, there was only negligible support in French Switzerland; where only 15.7% voted in favour, with support for the text as low as 10.9% in Vaud and 13.8% in Geneva. Over 90% of voters rejected the initiative in the city of Lausanne and the neighboring (affluent) districts of Morges and Gros-de-Vaud. Even in the French Catholic canton of Jura, the yes won barely 20.3%. Italian Catholics were slightly more supportive, with support for the text standing at 32.7% in all Italian-speaking regions.

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

On the other hand, the geography was more surprising because it followed the usual rural-urban and linguistic divides more than the confessional divide, unlike in the past. In 1977, when the initiative which would have legalized abortion failed, opposition was larger overall in German cantons than French cantons (regardless of religion) but the main cleavage was religion: Catholic cantons being very strongly opposed, with Protestant cantons either more narrowly against or in favour if they were urban or French. For example: the linguistically divided but religiously homogeneous Catholic canton of Valais voted no to the 1977 initiative with 82%; opposition was over 90% in Appenzell Innerrhoden, over 75% in Uri, the Unterwalden cantons and Schwyz and over 70% in Lucerne and Fribourg. In 2002, the issue was obviously far less divisive, but it still got significant opposition in the original four cantons, Valais (46% for the yes), Appenzell Innerrhoden (less than 40% for the yes), the rural districts of Lucerne and some Catholic districts in Saint-Gallen and the Grisons. Granted, a linguistic element was at work in 2002, because the Catholic cantons of Jura and Ticino voted in favour with far higher majorities for the yes than German Catholic cantons. But in this referendum, religious differences are harder to catch: on the whole, German Catholic areas were more favourable than German Protestant areas, and it can be seen in the fairly low levels of support for the measure in the Protestant cantons of Glarus (35.8% yes) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (39.8% yes). But German Protestant rural areas still showed above-average support. The Catholic canton of the Valais had a linguistic element at work in 2002 (German districts were very strongly opposed, French districts either marginally in favour or marginally opposed), but in 2014, it appears as if the only divide in the canton (which rejected the measure with 29% – below average (!) support) was linguistic, with 20-26% support in the Bas-Valais and 43-48% support in the German Oberwallis. In the canton of Grisons, little difference is perceptible between Catholic and Protestant districts (unlike in 2002).

Federal decree on railway financing and development

Switzerland has a large, well developed and heavily used railway system operated by private companies and a state-owned company (the Swiss Federal Railways, SBB-CFF-FFS) which operates the huge majority of lines. However, on many lines, trains are crowded and companies are unable to offer additional trains at rush hours. The Federal Council and Parliament decided to invest in railway infrastructure by combining several federal and cantonal funds into a single permanent infrastructure fund; priority shall be given to investments in maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure where the demands are most pressing. 80% of the funds in the new fund will come from the existing federal spending for railway infrastructure; about 1 million CHF per year will come from new sources (cantonal funds, VAT, limiting federal tax deductions for commuting). The new law also plans for the long-term development of railway infrastructure, with infrastructure upgrades on major lines and plans to allow for more trains and more space on trains. Because the federal decree modifies the Constitution, it must be ratified by the people and cantons.

The Federal Council, both houses of Parliament and all major parties except the SVP recommended the approval of the measure.

Do you accept the federal decree?

Yes 60.2%
No 39.8%

Switzerland 2014 - RRs

The federal decree was approved by a wide majority. Only the conservative canton of Schwyz, which has long been hostile to government intervention in the economy or a strong central/federal government, rejected the measure, by a tiny margin (49.5% yes). Opposition was fairly significant in the other original cantons of 1291 and Glarus, where the measure won less than 55% support. Overall, German Switzerland was more opposed than French or Italian Switzerland, with 59% support against 69% in French Switzerland and 71% in Italian Switzerland. There was the usual urban-rural divide in all three linguistic regions: German cities voted in favour with 69% on average but rural communities in German Switzerland only barely voted in favour on the whole (51% yes); similarly, in French Switzerland, support increased linearly with the size of the town, from 61% in rural areas to 74% in urban areas. While the main reason for opposition might likely be conservatism, it is worth pointing out that the cantons which were more strongly opposed are those which will not benefit much from the new measures by 2025 (according to a map published in the Federal Council’s document on the measure); the lines which will be improved are those linking major urban areas.

Costa Rica 2014

Presidential and legislative elections were held in Costa Rica on February 2, 2014. The President is elected to a four-year term, not immediately renewable. A presidential candidate must win 40% of the vote in the first round to win, if no candidates wins over 40%, the top candidates go to a second round (on April 6 in this election). The unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) is composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation in each of the seven provinces (the number of seats allocated to each province is based on the provincial populations). Elected concurrently to the President, members of the Legislative Assembly serve four-year terms and are ineligible for immediate reelection.

In legislative elections, party lists are closed and seats are distributed proportionally using a quotient and sub-quotient method (no threshold). It is explained in further detailed here.

Background: Costa Rica’s unique democracy and the two-party system

Costa Rica stands out from the rest of Central America. Whereas in most Central American countries, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by fledgling oligarchic democracies, popular challenges to oligarchic elites and – in every country except Honduras – long and bloody civil wars which ended only in the early 1990s, Costa Rica has been a unique democratic success story. It has been the only Latin American country which has consistently been rated as a functioning democracy since 1950, it is the only Latin American country which has been rated as ‘free’ by Freedom House every year since 1973, it had the second freest press in the Americas after Jamaica in 2013 (according to Reporters Without Borders) – even freer than Canada or the US and generally ranks as one of the most democratic countries in Latin America. As a result of democratic stability, Costa Rica also ranks far ahead of its Central American neighbors (except, in some cases, Panama) on socioeconomic rankings such as the Human Development Index (HDI), poverty and literacy.

Costa Rica has long been relatively remote from the rest of Central America, sparsely populated from the outset. It never developed a large black or Indian subservient class, a wealthy landed elite or a powerful oligarchy. Coffee cultivation began on modest, family farms – creating a fairly large agrarian middle sector and urban merchant class, without creating a landless peasantry. The United Fruit (UFCO) established banana plantations on the east coast and it became the country’s main export.

After independence and until the 1940s, liberals dominated the political system, ruling in tandem with the local elites in a traditional oligarchic system. However, politics were generally quite peaceful; the 1889 election saw the peaceful transfer of power from one liberal faction to another, constitutional principles were adhered to and only a single military dictatorship (1917-1919) disturbed the political order. Some presidents were progressive, in the sense that they supported the development of public education and adopted some welfare policies. It was an imperfect democracy, still largely dominated by a small, closed circle of political elites.

In 1940, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia was elected president with the backing of the incumbent moderate liberal president, León Cortés Castro. The outgoing President had likely seen Calderón as a pliable novice politician; however, Calderón turned out to be an astute politician, who broke with the dominant ideology of classical liberalism by supporting significant welfare policies, influenced by the Catholic Church’s social teachings and Christian democracy, whereas past liberals had supported laissez-faire capitalism and been rather anticlerical. Calderón, in a bizarre alliance with the Archbishop of San José and Manuel Mora Valverde, the pragmatic leader of the Communist Party, passed a number of progressive social reforms known as the Garantías Sociales (social guarantees). These included the creation of the University of Costa Rica, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (a universal healthcare system for all residents paid for by employer and employee contributions) and the promulgation of a labour code (minimum wage, eight-hour workweek, vacations, right to strike, employee protections etc). Calderón’s policies were popular, but also aroused significant opposition from conservative politicians and the coffee/banana elites. During World War II, Calderón’s persecution of local Germans and Italians in the name of the fight against fascism were criticized.

In 1944, Calderón’s National Republican Party (PRN) allied with Manuel Mora’s communist Popular Vanguard (PVP), and the caldero-comunista alliance’s candidate was elected, defeating former President León Cortés, who had broken with his successor and led the conservative opposition. Political conflict increased, with an undeterred opposition clashing with the president and communist allies. Matters came to a head in 1948, when Calderón, backed by the Communists, ran for a second nonconsecutive term. Aligned against him were three opposition parties: the Democratic Party, the party of former President León Cortés (who died in 1946), the conservative and vehemently anticommunist Partido Unión Nacional led by Otilio Ulate Blanco and the centre-left Social Democratic Party, led by José Figueres Ferrer, an hitherto unknown figure who had denounced Calderón in a radio broadcast in 1942. The three parties united behind the conservative Otilio Ulate Blanco.

Calderón lost the election, but Calderón and the incumbent president refused to accept the new electoral commission’s certification and called on the outgoing legislature, dominated by the caldero-comunistas, to review the result. In March 1948, the legislature voted to nullify the election results on the grounds of alleged irregularities. José Figueres Ferrer assembled a diverse coalition of opponents in a Army of National Liberation; including his ragtag anti-dictatorial Caribbean Legion, conservatives, former fascist sympathizers, oligarchs and the United States. Figueres led an armed rising beginning on March 12, leading to a short civil war which ended on April 24 with the surrender of the government forces and the communists. Communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde had previously agreed to surrender in exchange for guarantees that Figueres would not seek retribution against the communists and would not repeal the garantías sociales. Within days, the communists, Calderón and the outgoing president surrendered and handed power to a transitional junta led by Figueres. He soon broke his promise to the communists and banned the PVP, dissolved the communist union and persecuted the communists. Mora and Calderón both went into exile. Around 2,000 people died in the short civil war.

A transitional junta (Junta Fundadora de la Segunda República), led by Figueres, assumed power. In May 1948, Figueres and the winner of the election, Ulate, agreed that Figueres’ junta would govern for 18 months before handing power over to Ulate. During this time, a Constituent Assembly would be elected to draft a new constitution – which remains in place to this day. Figueres’ junta did not dismantle Calderón’s progressive reforms and in fact built on them: women’s suffrage, creation of a public electricity and telecommunications company, levied a wealth tax on bank profits, nationalized the banks, eliminated racial segregation (the small Afro-Costa Rican minority had faced segregation and discriminatory policies in the past) and – most famously – abolished the military. The junta defeated, in December 1948, a first attempt by Calderón, allied with Nicaraguan dictator Antonio Somoza, to invade the country and overthrow the government. In April 1949, another rebellion, this time led by a conservative minister in the junta, was defeated.

Ulate became President in November 1949, and, while ideologically conservative, did not change Figueres’ reforms – but he did allow private banks to compete against the nationalized banks. In 1951, Figueres founded his own party, the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) and in 1953, Figueres was elected president, easily defeating Fernando Castro Cervantes, one of his erstwhile conservative colleagues in 1948. Calderonismo and the communists remained illegal; in 1955, Calderón, against with Somoza’s support, unsuccessfully attempted to invade the country and overthrow the government. Figueres increased expenditures on education and housing, increased income taxes on the wealthy and negotiated a new contract with UFCO in which the Costa Rican share of profits increased from 10% to 30%.

The ruling PLN suffered a split ahead of the 1958 elections, with Figueres’ finance minister, Jorge Rossi Chavarría creating his own party after losing the primary to Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich. In the election, the split of the liberacionista family allowed the conservative candidate, Mario Echandi Jiménez, who had the support of the calderonistas, to win the presidency on a plurality (46%) of the vote. The new president, however, had trouble implementing his agenda of small government and reductions in public spending; in the legislature, Echandi’s party, the PUN, had only 10 seats against 20 for the PLN and 11 for Calderón’s PRN. The main achievement, therefore, of Echandi’s presidency, was national reconciliation: Calderón and his supporters reintegrated the system, and calderonismo effectively became the more conservative rival of liberacionismo (or figuerismo).

In 1962, PLN candidate Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich was elected president, with 50% against 35% for Calderón and only 13.5% for former president Otilio Ulate Blanco, the oficialista (governing party) candidate. In a regional context marked by the Cuban Revolution, all three major parties – the PLN, PRN and PUN – traded accusations of being communist, the PLN’s social democratic (but anticommunist) ideology being dangerously communist for the right while the PLN played on Calderón’s former ties with the communists. Chico Orlich continued Figueres’ traditional policies: progressive social democratic domestic policies (he nationalized and redistributed unused land of the UFCO) and staunch anticommunist (pro-American) policies internationally.

Politics make strange bedfellows. In 1966, Calderón’s PRN joined forces with his former enemy Ulate’s PUN in a conservative coalition (Unificación Nacional, UN) to defeat the PLN’s candidate, Daniel Oduber. The UN’s candidate, José Joaquín Trejos Fernández, criticized the PLN’s statist and social democratic policies; advocating instead for economic liberalism. In a Cold War context, the PLN was likely hurt by the endorsement of leftist leader Enrique Obregón and communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde’s call to vote against Trejos. In a close race, the PUN candidate won with 50% against 49% for Oduber, but the PLN retained a majority in the legislature. Unlike Echandi, Trejos proved fairly successful in implementing his liberal agenda: he reduced government spending, created a sales tax and controversially granted a bauxite mining concession to ALCOA.

In 1970, former President José Figueres Ferrer, endorsed by his PLN, went up against former President Mario Echandi, nominated by the governing UN after a difficult and tortuous internal process marked by clashes between Ulate’s PUN and Calderón’s PRN. Given the domination of ex-presidents in the political system, a constitutional amendment in 1969 put a complete ban on reelection in all circumstances, but this amendment was not retroactive. Figueres was elected, with 54% against 41% for Echandi and the PLN expanded its majority in the legislature. Figueres did not intend for much controversy in his administration, but in 1972, he was accused of corruption for letting an American fraudster fleeing prosecution in the US reside in Costa Rica and refusing US demands for his extradition. Otherwise, Figueres maintained moderately social democratic policies at home (but, to the dismay of the PLN’s left, maintained the ALCOA concession) and softened the anticommunism somewhat – restrictions on leftist parties loosened, he established diplomatic relations with Moscow.

The 1974 election broke with the trend of anti-incumbency and the two-party system. The PLN remained relatively united behind its candidate, 1966 candidate Daniel Oduber, but a dissident (and left-leaning) faction led by PLN deputy (and Figueres’ rival in the 1970 PLN primaries) Rodrigo Carazo created the Partido Renovación Democrática (PRD) and ran for president himself. The right was increasingly torn apart; the UN ultimately nominated Fernando Trejos, the cousin of former president Trejos. But his own cousin, José Joaquín Trejos, endorsed Carazo while former president Echandi backed Jorge González Martén, an independent right-winger. Attempts to unite the anti-liberacionista opposition proved unsuccessful, and with that, the PLN won with a plurality of 43% against 30% for the UN, 11% for Martén and 9% for Carazo. Former communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde, who had been allowed to return home and form his own party, the Socialist Action Party, won 2% of the vote.

Oduber established diplomatic relations with other communist countries, legalized the communists, raised the banana export tax and threatened the UFCO with expropriation if they opposed the tax. The brewing conflict in Nicaragua began troubling Oduber’s administration, and would come to place major strains on the country during the full-scale civil war in Nicaragua. Politically, the PLN’s back-to-back victories in 1970 and 1974 impelled all the opposition parties, except the Marxist left, to form a common front against the PLN in 1978 – the Coalición Unidad (Unity Coalition). The coalition was made up of former presidents José Joaquín Trejos and Mario Echandi; Carazo’s PRD; Martén’s PNI; the calderonistas, now led by Calderón’s son Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (Calderón died in 1970) and a small Christian Democratic Party. Rodrigo Carazo, the PLN dissident, won the primaries with the support of the Christian democrats and Trejos, defeating a right-wing businessman backed by the calderonistas, Echandi and Martén. Calderón Fournier endorsed Carazo after his candidate was defeated in the primaries, but Martén – backed by Echandi – broke with the coalition. The PLN nominated Luis Alberto Monge, a unity candidate who had the support of the bulk of the PLN establishment of the time. Carazo won with 50.5% against 43.8% and the coalition won a plurality of seats in the legislature.

Carazo’s administration faced crisis at home and abroad. Costa Rica had become embroiled in border incidents with Nicaragua; up until 1979, San José provided support for any groups opposing Somoza’s authoritarian regime, an old enemy of Costa Rica. After Somoza was routed in 1979, Costa Rica generally sided with the US against the Sandinistas, and paid a heavy price for the conflict in Nicaragua with an influx of Nicaraguan refugees and Contra rebels ensconcing themselves in Costa Rica. Domestically, Costa Rica was hit hard by the global economic crisis of the late 1970s which caused coffee prices to fall. The government, unable to get the legislature to pass tax hikes, resorted to borrowing and the country ran up a foreign debt of $4 billion. The IMF and the government reached agreement on an assistance package, in exchange for austerity measures, liberalization of the economy (removing price controls, reducing public sector subsidies) and a devaluation of the currency. Carazo failed to comply with the IMF’s demands, leading the IMF to suspend its loan agreement and withdraw from the country.

By the time of the 1982 election, the governing coalition was highly unpopular. Calderón Fournier won the coalition’s low turnout primaries against a candidate backed by President Carazo. In the general election, however, he was no match for the PLN’s Luis Alberto Monge, who was elected in a landslide – 58.8% against 33.6% for Calderón Fournier, 3.8% for former president Echandi and 3.3% for the candidate of the communist Pueblo Unido party. In the Legislative Assembly, the PLN won 33 out of 57 seats.

Monge stabilized the country and Costa Rican democracy suffered perhaps its toughest test. He reopened negotiations with the IMF, in which San José accepted the IMF’s previous conditions plus one – the privatization of several deficit-ridden public enterprises. Compliance with the IMF’s stringent conditions placed great strains on the population and the PLN: the increase in utility prices led to protests, and the government was forced to concede a wage increase to public servants. A lot of his efforts paid off. Relations with Nicaragua worsened, as San José aligned itself with Washington, in exchange for American aid and investment in Costa Rica.

In 1983, the parties of the opposition – Calderón Fournier’s PRC, former president Trejos’ Popular Union (PUP), the Christian democrats and former president Carazo’s PRD – merged into one, creating the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC). In the 1986 elections, the PUSC backed Calderón Fournier for a second shot at the presidency. In the PLN, a new faction emerged, around Óscar Arias, which opposed the old factions and the old caudillos of the PLN – President Monge and former presidents Figueres and Oduber. Despite little establishment support in the PLN, Óscar Arias won the primaries against a figuerista candidate handily. His campaign, a plea for peace (under the campaign slogan paz para mi gente), was widely seen as a not-so-subtle criticism of President Monge’s militarist policy in the Nicaraguan conflict. Óscar Arias was elected president by a comfortable margin, 52.3% to 45.8% for the PUSC’s candidate.

A two-party system was consolidated, between a vaguely centre-left but largely moderate PLN and a social Christian PUSC, a more enthusiastic supporter of economic liberalism. In Costa Rican terms, the PUSC was closely associated with calderonismo, a term which gradually lost ideological content but is akin to European Christian democracy.

Óscar Arias initiated a peace process with his Central American neighbors, culminating in the Esquipulas accords. The Costa Rican-faciliated peace deal called on the war-torn nations to initiate a cease-fire, engage in dialogue with opposition movements, prevent the use of their territory for aggression against other state and cease aid to irregular forces. The 1987 agreement also called for free elections and democratization in all nations. In good part, it was not enough to fully end the civil wars raging, but it had a major effect in pushing forward the later peace deals which did end the civil conflicts. For his efforts in bringing peace to his regime, Óscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Domestically, however, Óscar Arias was accused of being a strong supporter of neoliberal policies: for example, he tried to privatize the electricity company, weakened the state monopoly on telecommunication and allowed for the private generation of electricity.

Arismo declined after the end of Óscar Arias’ term in office, with the acrimonious 1989 PLN primary opposing Carlos Manuel Castillo, backed by former presidents José Figueres and Daniel Oduber, and Monge’s nephew, Rolando Araya Monge. Carlos Manuel Castillo emerged victorious. The PUSC’s primaries were similarly acrimonious. Two-time presidential candidate Calderón Fournier originally declined to run again and backed a liberal businessman, Manuel Ángel Rodríguez, in his stead. However, with low polling numbers for any non-Calderón candidate, Calderón Fournier threw his hat back into the race, with the backing of the PUSC’s predominantly calderonista caucus and leadership. Calderón Fournier defeated Manuel Ángel Rodríguez in the primary by a landslide. In the 1990 general election, Calderón Fournier (PUSC) narrowly defeated the PLN candidate, 46.2% to 41.9%. Calderón Fournier’s administration continued the liberal economic policies of the last two (PLN) governments – he reduced tariff barriers, joined the GATT (WTO).

The 1993 PLN primaries were a family affair: it opposed José Maria Figueres Olsen, the son of the former president; Rolando Araya Monge, the nephew of the former president; and Margarita Penón Góngora, the wife of former president Óscar Arias. José Maria Figueres emerged as the winner. In the 1994 election, he went up against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (PUSC). After a dirty campaign, in which the PLN branded the PUSC’s candidate as a cold and distant neoliberal businessman while the PLN’s candidate was painted as an autocrat and militarist, Figueres Olsen won by a narrow margin – 49.6% to 47.7%.

Figueres Olsen continued the general shift towards liberal economic policies, ending the checking account monopoly held by state owned banks since 1948 and reformed the teachers’ pension fund, causing a long teachers strike. For the left of the PLN, Figueres Olsen and Óscar Arias’ presidencies are seen as betrayals of liberacionista values and right-wards shift in the party. The 1998 election and its outcome would increase resentment at the two-party system, increasingly stale and corrupt. In a context of an unpopular government, the PLN’s supporters nominated a relative outsider, José Miguel Corrales Bolaños, as its candidate (Corrales had already run in the PLN’s 1993 primaries, and had been noted for virulent personal attacks on Figueres Olsen) against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who came out strengthened from the 1994 election and had consolidated the liberal and calderonista wings of the PUSC. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was narrowly victorious, with 46.9% against 44.4% for Corrales. Smaller parties on the left and right managed to win seven seats in the legislature, managing to reduce the combined PLN and PUSC caucuses in the legislature to 50 out of 57 seats (the two parties had 53 out of 57 seats in the 1994 legislature). Yet, by and large, the PLN and PUSC’s dominance of the system remained unchallenged.

The fall of the two-party system and the new party system

That would change with Miguel Ángel Rodríguez’s presidency, which effectively killed the two-party system (derided by critics as ‘PLUSC’). Rodríguez strongly supported neoliberal policies which ran into a wall of significant opposition from the population. He managed to reform the pension system to open it to private participation and granted a concession to a private firm to operate the main port on the Pacific, but his attempts to privatize the telecommunications company were blocked by unions and major protests. With the outgoing president so unpopular, the PUSC’s supporters turned to an outsider in the primaries – Abel Pacheco, a populist TV personality and one-term PUSC deputy, who won 76% of the vote against Rodolfo Méndez Mata, the candidate of former president Calderón Fournier. The PLN was in no better shape than the PUSC, however: the shift towards neoliberalism had been badly taken by a good section of the party, led by the arayistas – the leftist and more traditionally socialist wing led by Rolando Araya Monge, former president Luis Alberto Monge and the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya. Rolando Araya won the PLN primaries in 2001, defeating Corrales.

The 2002 election saw the emergence of a party which would go on to fully kill the PLN-PUSC hegemony. The Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC), a centre-left anti-establishment party founded by former members of the PLN and PUSC and independent civil society activists. The PAC nominated Ottón Solís, a former cabinet minister under Óscar Arias and later one-term PLN deputy between 1994 and 1998, as its presidential candidate. In the first round of voting, Ottón Solís placed a very strong third with 26.2% against 31.1% for Araya and 38.6% for Pacheco. For the first time in the post-1948 republic, no candidate obtained 40% to win on the first round and a second round was organized two months later. In the concurrent legislative elections, the PAC won 22% and 14 seats, establishing it as a strong third party against the much weakened PLN and PUSC – the latter with 19 seats (-8 seats) and the former with 17 seats (-6 seats). The PAC wasn’t the only party to profit from the PLN and PUSC’ loses: on the right, the Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario, ML) won 9% of the vote and 6 seats in the legislative elections.

In the second round in April 2002, the populist Abel Pacheco, running a campaign heavy on personality and low on ideology, was elected in a landslide, taking 58% against 42% for Araya. The first even back-to-back defeat for the PLN threw the liberacionistas into a frenzy, while the PUSC’ victory would turn out to the equivalent of the Titanic’s stern towering out of the water before plunging under.

Pacheco’s own administration was not particularly remarkable in a positive or negative way (although he supported the US war in Iraq, despite Costa Rica lacking an army), but the PUSC was killed by major corruption scandals involving former presidents Calderón Fournier and Ángel Rodríguez. Roughly around the system, former PLN president José Maria Figueres Olsen was embroiled in a separate corruption scandal which further weakened the PLN. Former president Calderón Fournier was accused of corruption and influence peddling in a case related to the acquisition of medical equipment for the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social through a Finnish loan. In 2008, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years in jail in 2011 (the Costa Rican law apparently allows those sentenced to three years or less to escape formal imprisonment). Other members of the PUSC were also accused of having received bribes from a Finnish medical equipment firm; the Finnish loan had been speedily approved by PUSC legislators and the loan conditions effectively made sure that Finnish company would be the favourite for the bids. President Rodríguez was accused of receiving bribes in three separate cases: over $1 million from the Taiwanese government (perhaps to press Costa Rica to maintain its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan; Costa Rica eventually recognized the PR China in 2007), £1.2 million from a British reinsurance firm in exchange for a contract with the state insurance monopoly and $800,000 in bribes from Alcatel in exchange for a contract. Rodríguez was put on trial in Costa Rica in the Alcatel case, but in 2012 the lower court’s sentence was dismissed because of prosecutor misconduct. Alcatel paid $10 million in settlements to Costa Rica. Rodríguez had been named Secretary-General of the OAS in June 2004 but resigned in November 2004 to face these corruption charges. Former PLN president Figueres Olsen was also accused of receiving $900,000 from Alcatel for consultancy work after his presidency. No charges were laid.

The 2006 elections marked a realigning moment in Costa Rican politics. Firstly, the rules of the game had been altered, in 2003, by the Supreme Court’s decison to strike down the 1969 amendment and allow for presidential reelection after a two term hiatus. Former President Óscar Arias has lobbied extensively since he left office for an amendment to allow presidential reelection, but this was firmly opposed by Arias’ rivals within the PLN – the arayista faction. Luis Alberto Monge called the court’s decision a ‘judicial coup d’état’. This allowed Óscar Arias to make a long-expected comeback as the PLN’s presidential candidate in the 2006 election.

The PUSC nominated Ricardo Toledo, a close supporter of outgoing President Abel Pacheco, but the PUSC was deeply discredited by the scandals involving its two former presidents and Pacheco’s unpopular administration. Instead, the PLN’s main competition came from the PAC, and, to a much lesser extent, the Libertarian Movement (ML). The PAC nominated, for a second time, Ottón Solís while the ML nominated, for the second time, its leader Otto Guevara. One of the issues which polarized the election was the free trade agreement with the US – CAFTA. Arias and Guevara supported CAFTA, but PAC candidate Ottón Solís opposed CAFTA, arguing that it would increase poverty by displacing farmers and workers. Solís vowed to renegotiate CAFTA if he won. Otto Guevara, the candidate of the Libertarian Movement, had moderated the ML’s more radical libertarian positions and moved towards more liberal positions. For example, the ML accepted state participation in education, healthcare, infrastructure and other areas, Guevara accepted public financing for his campaign and the past calls for dismantling government subsidies were dropped. The ML shifted its focus to denunciations of corruption and political cronyism exemplified by the ‘PLUSC’ system; however, it still supported CAFTA and advocated for individual liberties.

The election was extremely close, with Arias winning by a margin barely over 1%. Arias won 42.3% of the vote against 41.1% for Solís. Otto Guevara placed third with 8.8%, matching the ML’s legislative vote from 2002. The PUSC suffered an historic collapse: Toledo placed fourth, with only 3.7% of the vote. In the legislative election, the PLN took 25 seats to the PAC’s 17; the ML held its 6 seats while the PUSC collapsed from 19 to 5 seats in the legislature.

The two-party system was dead. One element of it, the PLN, remained standing but it was not immune from severe criticism of its own corruption and complacency. The other element of it, the PUSC, was killed off. The root of the two-party system’s collapse was one of the elements behind Costa Rica’s unique democratic stability: there was little antagonism between the PLN and PUSC, who agreed to peacefully alternate in power and to share the spoils of power. Senior civil service positions were split between the two and the two parties often worked together on major issues. This had the effect of breeding significant corruption and cronyism, blurred ideological distinctions between liberacionismo and calderonismo and an ideological convergence around economic liberalism. The decay of the two-party system allowed for new political actors to emerge, many of them stemming (indirectly and partially) from the PLN and PUSC. On the left, the PAC denounced corruption and, with its economic policies, challenged the neoliberal policies adopted by PLN and PUSC governments. On the right, the ML denounced corruption (and Guevara popularized the ‘PLUSC’ barb against the party system) and was a clearer advocate for liberal policies than the PUSC (which remained too closely wedded to the ideological vagueness of calderonismo for many liberal intellectuals).

The CAFTA issue remained a contentious issue during Arias’ second term. Eventually, it was taken to a referendum in October 2007. The PAC, PUSC, small parties on the left, trade unions, social movements, the arayista wing of the PLN (Rolando Araya) and former presidents Carazo, Luis Alberto Monge and Calderón Fournier all supported a NO vote. President Arias’ administration, the PLN, the ML and the PUSC’s legislative caucus supported a YES vote. In a tight contest, the YES won, with 51.6% against 48.4% for the NO. Otherwise, Arias’ administration continued the liberal policies of the past. Costa Rica was able to escape the 2009 recession quickly, its economy grew by 5% in 2010, the highest of any Central American country except Panama.

Óscar Arias was one of the few presidents to be succeeded by the candidate of his choice. First Vice President Laura Chinchilla, endorsed by the President and arismo (Arias’ faction in the PLN), defeated the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya in a close primary battle. Araya, the nephew of former President Monge and the brother of Rolando Araya, was the arayista candidate – from the party’s left, more supportive of traditional socialism and in opposition to CAFTA (although Araya’s brother and uncle have tended to be the most vocal on those matters). Araya lost to Chinchilla, 41.6% to 55.5%. While Araya endorsed Chinchilla, Rolando Araya and the former president both endorsed PAC candidate Ottón Solís. The 2010 election held little suspense. Chinchilla won handily, with 46.9% against 25.1% for Solís and 20.9% for Guevara. Luis Fishman Zonzinski, the PUSC’s candidate after former president Calderón Fournier was forced by his trials to drop out, won only 3.9%.

In the legislative elections, the PLN won 24 seats against 11 for the PAC (a net loss for both), while the ML gained 3 (holding 9 total) and the PUSC gained one (holding 6 total). With the backing of the small Accessibility with Exclusion Party (Partido Accesibilidad sin Exclusión, PASE, a conservative party for disabled persons’ rights), National Restoration (Restauración Nacional, a small Evangelical party on the right) and Costa Rican Renovation (Renovación Costarricense, another conservative Evangelical party), the PLN has a majority in the legislature. Originally, the PAC, ML, PUSC and PASE formed an opposition bloc which held a majority in the legislature, but PASE defected to the government in a move which smacked of a corrupt bargain.

Chinchilla’s presidency has been unremarkable, but also very unpopular. A wide poll of approval ratings for Latin American leaders done by a Mexican polling firm found that Chinchilla was the most unpopular of all her Latin American colleagues, with only 12% approval. Other Costa Rican pollsters have confirmed her government’s unpopularity. On the surface, there is little which appears as cause for such deep unpopularity: the economy grew by 4-5% between 2010 and 2012, although it slowed to growth of ‘only’ 3.5% in 2013 and is projected to grow by 3.8% in 2014. A favourable investment climate for foreign investment, tourism and strong exports have helped the economy along. The country has been spared the huge increase in violence (often drug-related) which has afflicted Honduras and El Salvador (but also, at a less extreme rate, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize); there was, however, a net increase in the homicide rate from 8/100,000 in 2006 to 11.3 in 2010. But it fell to 10 in 2011 and Chinchilla’s government has generally been recognized as being successful at curbing crime and violence.

In 2010, Chinchilla faced a border dispute with Nicaragua over a small island in a lagoon region. Nicaragua justified its claim using Google Maps, but it was more serious than that: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent troops to occupy the contested island and was seen as drumming up nationalist sentiment over the remote island to shore up his reelection. Chinchilla’s handling of the affair was criticized as naive by her predecessor, Arias. The crisis calmed down and was temporarily resolved in 2011-2013.

Although the Costa Rican economy has been performing well, there is mounting concern about a growing debt and deficit. In September 2013, Moody’s put the country on negative outlook because of widening budget deficits, a rising debt burden and failure to pass fiscal legislation. The country’s deficit has increased to about 4-5% of GDP, because of rapid increase in government spending since 2008 while government revenue has not kept up, and the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has grown from 24.8% in 2008 to 36.7% in 2013. In 2012, the Supreme Court found the government’s tax plan – which included scrapping the sales tax for a higher VAT and a 15% withholding tax on new companies in the free trade zones – was unconstitutional, forcing Chinchilla to settle for a far less ambitious plan.

This has led some politicians and economists to talk of a ‘fiscal crisis’, and regardless of whether there’s a crisis or not, the government’s economic policies have failed to please its critics to either the left or right. The right claims that the crisis is due to excessive government spending and mismanagement and that increasing taxes would not resolve the matter. The left downplays the importance of the ‘fiscal crisis’, instead emphasizing the country’s rising social inequality and proposing a progressive tax reform. According to the left-wing Frente Amplio‘s 2014 manifesto, Costa Rica’s Gini index has increased from 0.358 in 1988 to to 0.518 in 2012 and, citing the World Bank, claims that Costa Rica is one of only three Latin American countries which has failed to reduce inequality or poverty in 10 years.

The government has also faced scandals. The Minister of Finance resigned in 2012 after the newspaper La Nación reported that he had not paid property taxes, the Minister of Transportation resigned over corruption in a road project and the President faced questions about her use of a private jet to fly to Peru. During her first two years in office, 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons, undermining confidence in Chinchilla’s administration.


The PLN’s nomination was ultimately uncontested.  The contest began in 2012, and originally the field included five candidates: the mayor of San José Johnny Araya; Óscar Arias’ brother and former Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Arias; former President José Maria Figueres Olsen; Antonio Álvarez Desanti and Fernando Berrocal Soto. Johnny Araya, who has been mayor of the capital since 1998, was the runaway favourite and his overwhelming advantage in the polls – including over his main rival, Rodrigo Arias – forced all his competitors out of the race by January 2013.

Although Araya hails from the PLN’s left – considered the main left-wing opposition to the PLN’s right, incarnated by arismo – his campaign did not stray much from what has been PLN policy in the past years/decades: rather bland centrism, although with some negative references to neoliberalism and language which could be interpreted as critical of Chinchilla and Arias’ administrations. Araya’s manifesto focuses on bread-and-butter issues such as job creation (especially for certain sectors), infrastructure projects, social security and education but also addresses government reforms, especially for local government. Araya talked of replacing the 13% sales tax with a higher VAT, likely set at 14-15%.

Given the unpopularity of Chinchilla’s government and the PLN brand, Araya did his best to distance himself from the unpopular government. At the outset, he even briefly toyed around with the idea of dropping the PLN’s traditional green from his campaign propaganda in favour of blue and red (colours of the flag but also the PUSC). In his campaign ads, Araya ran solely on his record as mayor of San José while not making any mention of Chinchilla or Óscar Arias. In December 2013, former President José María Figueres Olsen joined Araya’s campaign team – but former President Arias and his brother, Rodrigo,

The main party of the opposition, the PAC, had a contested primary in July 2013. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s most famous figure and three-time presidential candidate, announced that he would not run. Luis Guillermo Solís, a former secretary-general of the PLN who joined the PAC in 2008, narrowly won the primary with 35.5% against 35% for his closest rival.

The PAC’s plan highlighted three priorities: fighting corruption, promoting economic growth through a more equitable distribution of the wealth and reducing inequalities (eliminating extreme poverty). Luis Guillermo Solís considers himself a social democrat, and his manifesto reflects that orientation with its relatively moderate centre-leftist language.

To fight corruption, the PAC’s platform proposed to guarantee access to information, strengthening state institutions to make them effective and efficient in the fight against corruption and improving transparency in the hiring process for public servants. Solís’ manifesto talked of promoting economic growth through a development bank providing differentiated loans to small businesses and certain sectors (women, youth), reducing interest rates, reducing electricity rates, defending the ‘interests of national production’ with ‘effective control of free trade treaties’, promoting small businesses and cooperatives, promoting public investment in infrastructure projects generating jobs and greater competitiveness and helping the youth through training, grants and internships. Although Solís opposed CAFTA, he does not see a renegotiation of the treaty as being possible today. His proposals on reducing poverty were vaguer, but included planks such as new schools in poor areas, enforcing the minimum wage law and ensuring beneficiaries of conditional subsidies fulfill the requirements.

Solís’ more detailed platform also listed ‘ten commitments’: developing and improving transportation infrastructure, strengthening healthcare and pensions, safeguarding national agricultural production (food safety and sovereignty), guaranteeing quality academic and technical education (spending 8% of the GDP on education), ‘environmental management compatible with human development’ (stricter land use laws, environmental oversight, protecting water, cost-effective and clean public transit, exploring clean energy), promoting effective public security, promoting culture and sports, defending and respecting human rights, responsible administration of public funds (more progressive taxation, a VAT) and finally measures for women’s rights.

The Libertarian Movement (ML) nominated Otto Guevara, the party’s leader and main figure. With the party’s moderation in recent years, moving away from more radical libertarian planks, it may more accurately be described as a right-wing liberal party – it is a member of the Liberal International, whatever that means. Guevara’s manifesto talked of eliminating unnecessary regulations hindering job creation, facilitating access to financing and capital for job creators, free trade, breaking state monopolies (in certain sectors, notably allowing private electricity generation), defending property rights (‘one of the most fundamental human rights’), attracting foreign investment (using the current zonas francas) and improving infrastructure.

Economically, the ML has familiar rhetoric: controlling inflation, no new taxes (the ML’s manifesto say they ‘impoverish persons and are a confiscation of money from those who produce it’, it wants to keep taxes as low as possible) and reducing public spending (stop the growth of the public sector, eliminate privileges, ban strikes in essential services, reducing duplication, ‘tertiarize’ non-essential services). It supports replacing the current PAYGO pension system with a capitalization system. In a debate, Guevara confirmed supports a flat, 15%, corporate tax (currently progressive between 10% and 30% based on the companies’ revenues). Left-wing candidate José María Villalta correctly pointed out that his tax plan would increase taxes on small businesses.

On the whole, the ML’s philosophy of the state is that of the estado subsidiario (subsidiary state), providing the essential services and guidance and helping those who can’t help themselves (with the objective of promoting self-help). On the issue of poverty, the ML is critical of asistencialismo (which it says breeds clientelism and dependency) and proposes instead to review existing social programs to eliminate waste, and coordinating them with the private sector and NGOs/charities. The ML also emphasizes tough stances against corruption and more transparency.

In a bid to attract former PUSC supporters, the ML candidate took very socially conservative on major moral/ethical issues (moreso than the other candidates): declaring himself resolutely pro-life, opposing same-sex marriage or civil unions and against the legalization of marijuana. Guevara also stated that his party has adopted Christian principles and the social doctrine of the Church, in addition to liberalism.

The PUSC held a primary in May 2013, in which the calderonista candidate, Rodolfo Hernández emerged victorious over the liberal/social Christian candidate Rodolfo Piza, 77 to 23, but Hernández dropped out of the race in October 2013 and Piza replaced him. Hernández, in a letter to supporters explaining his withdrawal, blamed betrayals and intrigues against him in the PUSC and lamented the state of politics. If early polls placed Hernández on a strong footing against Araya, Piza never polled over 6%. His platform showed a Christian democratic orientation: humanism, ethics and morality, social development and democracy.

Of particular interest in the campaign has been the success of José María Villalta, the candidate (and sole legislator) for the main leftist party, the Frente Amplio. Since the 1948 civil war, the left – understood as the ideologically Marxist or socialist left – has always been weak, hardly polling over 3-5% of the vote (although historically the top distant rival to the PLN and the right). The left has been hurt by its illegality (until the 1970s), weak organization, infighting, numerous splits, the polarization of politics until 2002-2006, the PLN’s ideological flexibility and – after 2002 – the rise of the PAC as a viable centre-left alternative. The Frente Amplio was founded in 2004, notably by members of the former Fuerza Democrática, the main left-wing party in the 1990s. The party defines itself as socialist, progressive, patriotic, feminist, democratic, ethical and Latin American; it has cheered on the election of leftist leaders in Latin America – from the ‘radicals’ of the Chávez/Morales/Correa variety to moderates such as Lula/Tabaré Vázquez; and it is a member of the Foro de São Paolo.

Villalta’s manifesto was very critical of neoliberalism – which his party claims is responsible for the increase in inequality and the weakening of the welfare state. The platform focused on reducing inequalities and poverty, ‘saving’ and strengthening social security (the CCSS), public education, infrastructure, popular participation in governance, fighting corruption, a dignified livelihood, protecting the environment and food security and sovereignty (among others). In detail, he promised to improve workers’ rights, promote local small-medium businesses, limit increases in the cost of living, a progressive taxation system to expand the tax base and raise taxes on the wealthiest and opposing privatization. He received press abroad for his promise to renegotiate CAFTA and his opposition to any new free trade deals, a position shared with other candidates including Solís (PAC) but not Araya (PLN) or Guevara (ML). Villalta’s tax plan would increase the corporate tax rate on the biggest businesses to 35-40% (they currently stand at 30% for companies earning more than $183,000), supports a VAT (but progressive and limited at the current sales tax rate of 13%). He also proposed reducing tax deductions for companies and raise the salaries of low-level public sector employees.

Villalta has called concerns about the ‘fiscal crisis’ to be alarmist, arguing that it has been blown out of proportion by neoliberal economists.

The PLN was at the forefront of a negative campaign against Villalta (worried by his strong polling numbers), accusing him of sympathy with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega and of being a communist seeking to implement authoritarian policies. The PLN candidate, Araya, presented himself as the safe centrist option against the dangerous ‘extremes’ of Villalta (on the ‘far-left’) and Guevara (on the ‘far-right). But attacks on Villalta were not confined to the PLN: Guevara proved equally as virulent in debates against him, and private businesses (including Avon and Subway) circulated materials calling on its employees not to vote for Villalta. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s former presidential candidate and PAC candidate for the legislature, came to Villalta’s defense and said that it was wrong to attack him and brand him as a chavista. Villalta decried the ‘dirty campaigns’ as means for the PLN to distract attention from the economic crisis, but Villalta was carefgul to erase references to his more radical past. While he openly declared himself a communist in the past and praised Chávez, in the campaign he stated that his links to Chávez were limited to shared membership with the PSUV in the Foro de São Paolo and he declared himself as the heir to Manuel Mora’s moderate and pragmatic local brand of communism (comunismo a la tica).

In the 1970s, alongside Johnny Araya, Villalta was a member of the far-left revolutionary Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (whose leader was none other than Johnny and Rolando Araya’s brother).

The other candidates were disabled rights advocate Óscar Andrés López Arias for the PASE (he already ran in 2010), José Manuel Echandi Meza, the nephew of former President Mario Echandi (1958-1962), for his Partido Avance Nacional; perennial conservative candidate Walter Muñoz Céspedes for the Partido Integración Nacional; Sergio Mena Díaz for the socially liberal Partido Nueva Generación; 1998 PLN presidential candidate José Miguel Corrales Bolaños for the Partido Patria Nueva; Evangelical pastor and deputy Justo Orozco Álvarez for Renovación Costarricense; Evangelical pastor and deputy Carlos Luis Avendaño Calvo for the Partido Restauración Nacional; and Héctor Monestel Herrera for the Trotskyist Workers’ Party.


Turnout was 68.25%, down slightly from 69.12% in the 2010 election. The preliminary results reported on election night, with 89% of precincts counted, were:


Luis Guillermo Solís (PAC) 30.95%
Johnny Araya (PLN) 29.59%
José María Villalta (FA) 17.14%
Otto Guevara (ML) 11.19%
Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) 5.97%
José Miguel Corrales (PPN) 1.5%
Carlos Avendaño (PREN) 1.35%
Justo Orozco (PRC) 0.8%
Óscar López (PASE) 0.53%
Sergio Mena (PNG) 0.29%
Héctor Monestel (PT) 0.25%
José Manuel Echandi (PAN) 0.22%
Walter Muñoz (PIN) 0.22%

Legislative Assembly

PLN 25.52% (-11.64%) winning 18 seats (-6)
PAC 23.82% (+6.14%) winning 14 seats (+3)
FA 13.08% (+9.42%) winning 9 seats (+8)
PUSC 10.01% (+1.96%) winning 8 seats (+2)
ML 7.92% (-6.56%) winning 3 seats (-6)
PREN 4.11% (+2.49%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PRC 3.97% (+0.18%) winning 2 seats (+1)
PASE 3.95% (-5.22%) winning 1 seat (-3)
PPN 2.07% (+2.07%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PNG 1.25% (+1.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
ADC 1.15% (+1.15%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 3.15% (-1.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)

The Costa Rican election went somewhat unnoticed on February 2, when most media attention abroad focused on the Salvadoran election, because of El Salvador’s more confrontational ideological politics and its tumultuous political history in contrast to Costa Rica’s consensual politics in a stable democratic country. However, it was by far the most interesting of the two Central American battles on that day.

The election took place in a context of record levels of political apathy and discontent. Identification with political parties has declined to record lows, especially with younger voters; there is major dissatisfaction with the political leadership’s performance and behaviour (poor records on issues such as jobs, growth, infrastructure and inequality; corruption); and an increasingly large number of voters have become politically apathetic. Turnout was 81% in the 1994 election, and fell to a record low of 65.2% in 2006. At the outset of the campaign, few voters appeared captivated by the election and there was concern about turnout. However, the campaign proved quite heated and the closely disputed race drew voters to the polls. Turnout was down less than one point from 2010.

One of the main aspects of the collapse of the two-party system in Costa Rica is increasingly electoral volatility and an ever more fickle electorate. Party loyalty is of some, but ultimately little, value. In the last poll of the campaign, in the field from January 20 to 27, 43.9% of voters were undecided or did not intend to vote. When the campaign began late last summer, about 55% of voters were undecided. PLN candidate Johnny Araya, by pure value of name recognition, held a wide lead over his lesser-known rivals in the early polling in August-October 2013 but he still was polling only in the low 20s. In November 2013, left-wing candidate José María Villalta surged into contention as a close second (even first, in two polls) behind Araya – with right-wing candidate Otto Guevara not very far behind. Villalta’s surge was built on an anti-establishment (and anti-neoliberal) message which attacked the traditional political leadership of the country for its numerous failures. Villalta built a strong base on social media and with young voters, and became a refuge for voters fed up with the political system. But voters remained fickle. Anti-PLN voters whose top goal was to dislodge the PLN oscillated between Villalta the leftist and Guevara the ‘libertarian’; anti-communist voters whose aim was to keep Villalta ‘the communist’ from winning power, hesitated between Araya and Guevara.

However, the negative campaigns by the PLN and ML against Villalta had a clear effect on voting intentions. In a socially conservative, politically moderate country, talk of Villalta’s radicalism and fears of his ties to unpopular leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela uneased many. In this highly volatile situation, another candidate, hitherto lagging behind in the polls, gained the ‘big mo’ and surged into contention: Luis Guillermo Solís, the PAC candidate. Despite representing the country’s second largest party, Solís struggled throughout most of the campaign, suffering from low name recognition. However, Solís made a name for himself in the many debates and on social media. In the last poll (Jan 20-27), Solís placed third with 11.6% (up from 9.5% earlier in January and 4% at the start of the race) – Araya and Villalta remained first, with 17.4% and 14.4% respectively, but were on a downwards trend. Guevara, who was polling a strong third and considered a possible contender for a runoff spot until the very end, collapsed to fourth and 7.3% in the last poll. However, the huge number of undecideds made the outcome unpredictable.

The outcome was indeed rather surprising. Solís actually placed first with nearly 31% of the vote: a remarkable feat for a candidate who had been polling single digits until the final weeks and who was not considered as one of the top three candidates, and a feat which really underlines the country’s electoral volatility. Araya, the only candidate who did not move much during the campaign – because he has a solid, but small, base of about 25-30% of voters who remain loyal liberacionistas - placed second, with 29.6%, a significant blow. Villalta, the left’s favourite, saw his fickle support evaporate (somewhat) on election day and won only 17.1%. It is still a solid result for the FA, which had until then been a very minor force in Costa Rican politics, but comes out of the 2014 election with a much-expanded legislative presence and a promising future. Yet, the anti-Villalta campaign by conservative/centrist politicians and businessmen had its impact; Villalta kept a large base considering the FA’s lack of existing grassroots, but other voters likely strategically voted for Solís, a ‘safer’ (and more moderate) progressive candidate and late anti-PLN standard bearer. In fourth place, Otto Guevara and the ML had a surprisingly bad result: Guevara won only 11.2% (down from about 21% in 2010), while the ML’s legislative caucus shrank from 9 to 3 seats – falling behind the PUSC. The PUSC itself had a better run, recovering two seats in the legislature, but the PUSC isn’t any closer to regaining its spot as the PLN’s main rival.

This election is fairly historic on a number of points. For only the second time in the country’s history, a second round is required (on April 6) because no candidate won over 40% of the vote. The last time a runoff was necessary was in 2002, a watershed election which marked the first blow to bipartidismo in Costa Rica: in that election, Araya’s brother, Rolando, placed second behind the PUSC candidate but failed to get much of the PAC’s support and was trounced in the runoff by the PUSC’s Abel Pacheco. It is the first time that the first-placed candidate is not from a traditional party: that is to say, from neither the liberacionista tradition (PLN) or the calderonista tradition (PUSC). Finally, with the FA’s support, it is the left’s best result in the country’s history.

The PLN had a tough election. To begin with, it is attempting to do what no party has ever done in post-1948 Costa Rica: win a third consecutive term in office. More importantly, the PLN’s image has been hurt by President Chinchilla’s unpopular and overall unsuccessful administration – even if Araya did all he could to distance himself from her, admit that the PLN had lost its social democratic essence and promised change and a more ‘social’ orientation. Araya, who comes from a faction of the PLN which has been the arch-rival to Óscar Arias (and Chinchilla, although she is faction-less today), criticized his own party’s past record. But, in good part, his promises of change and a more responsive PLN administration failed to convince voters. He admitted as much himself on election night, when he recognized that Chinchilla’s record had hurt the PLN and said that ‘undoubtedly’, the PLN had not given ‘sufficiently clear signals’ that it wanted to make up for past failings and sought ‘responsible change’.

Araya will face a difficult runoff. Polls show that only 30% of voters want a third term for the PLN, and Araya’s result seems to mean that he likely won those three in ten but little more. Like his brother in 2002, Araya could lose the runoff by a wide margin. Solís is in a position to reap the support of voters who voted for Villalta, Guevara, Piza and other candidates in the first round. While some of those candidates’ more ideological voters might choose not to vote, many will likely opt for the candidate of ‘change’ over that of liberacionista continuity. In terms of formal alliances between the PAC and its rivals, we should probably not expect anything formal. José María Villalta, on election night, said that the runoff opposed two right-wing parties – but, significantly, he distinguished them (without explicitly saying which was which) as the ‘right who steals’ and the ‘right which doesn’t steal’. Some interpreted that as meaning that he was willing to entertain at least an informal deal with the PAC, but others took his statement as a sign of potential difficulties in any PAC-FA deal. As far as Solís is concerned, he has said that his only alliance is with Costa Rica. Neither Villalta or Guevara have signaled any clear willingness to enter into a formal alliance with the PAC (or the PLN obviously).

In an interview with the Spanish daily El País, Solís clearly laid out the reality of the situation: “now there is no other alternative than the PAC or Araya” and “it is continuity [...] versus change. It is the continuation of the current economic model versus the reactivation of the internal market. It is ethics against a party which promotes corruption.” We can expect that Solís will be hammering this simple and clear message all the way to April 6: it is change, or continuity with the unpopular PLN. Araya’s message will likely consist of continue promises for change and a better PLN, combined with a focus on him being a ‘safe choice’. On election night, the PLN candidate said that the country was not ready for experiments, improvisation or proposals without teams to go along with them. He also called on the PLN’s supporters to unite behind him, alongside those who wanted to defend the institutions (la institucionalidad), economic competitiveness and more solidarity.

Regardless of who wins, they will need to work with a very divided congress. The PLN remains the largest party in the new legislature, but it holds only 18 seats, or 31.6% of all seats. It lost 6 seats from the outgoing congress, and this year’s total is only one seat above the PLN’s historic low from 2002 (17 seats). The PAC won 14 seats, a good result but not the party’s best result (it won 17 seats in 2006). The main winner was the FA, which came out significantly strengthened: from one seat in the last congress, the left-wing party will now hold 9 seats – again, the left’s strongest presence in its history. The ML was decimated, losing 6 of its 9 seats – ending up with three seats, one of which is held by the ML’s leader Otto Guevara. The PUSC, as noted above, recovered somewhat and will now hold 8 seats. Minor parties will now hold five seats: three to the two Evangelical parties, with the PRC doubling its representation. The PASE, the venal socially conservative (anti-gay) disabled rights party, lost all but one of its seats. The Christian Democratic Alliance, a small local party from Cartago, won one seat.

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

The map of the presidential results by district (the third-level administrative division) show a clear division between urban and rural – taken at the provincial level, a coastal and inland divide. Solís won the provinces of San José, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela while Araya won the coastal provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas (on the Pacific coast) and Limón (on the Caribbean coast). In Puntarenas, the PAC placed fourth (14.1%) – the PLN (34.4%) was followed by the FA (23.1%) and ML (14.7%); likewise, in Limón, the PAC was fourth (14.9%) behind the PLN (29%), FA (22.2%) and ML (18%). Guanacaste was the PLN’s best province, giving 41% to the white and green party against 19% for the FA and 14.8% for the PAC. The PLN placed second in all inland provinces won by the PAC; its worst showing was 25.7% in Heredia, where Solís won 38.9%. A more accurate depiction of the results is painted at the more micro level of the cantons and districts.

In the inland provinces, Solís won on account of his very strong numbers in the urban areas. Taken as a whole, the PAC dominated the Valle Central (Central Valley), Costa Rica’s main urban conglomeration, which includes the capital of San José and the cities of Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia. Araya, despite having been mayor of San José between 1998 and 2013, lost the canton of San José – 29.5% to 35.2%. He did even worse in cantons surrounding San José, indicating he might have received a small boost in the capital. The Valle Central is Costa Rica’s most urban, developed and affluent region. Poverty is lower and HDI values are higher in cantons in the central valley. In the canton of Santo Domingo (Heredia), which has the highest HDI in the country, Solís won 43.4%; in the canton of Montes de Oca (San José), which has the third highest HDI in the country, Solís won 46%. On the other hand, the coastal regions of the country – more rural and agricultural – are poorer. The PLN and the PUSC have been stronger in those coastal provinces, likely because patronage networks are easier to maintain there. In those provinces, I would gather that the ML’s strong showing can be explained by it winning former PUSC voters. However, José María Villalta likely won strong support with poorer rural voters as well.

Unfortunately obscured by the Salvadoran election, Costa Rica’s election proved considerably more interesting (subjectively). Although its impact on regional politics may be lesser, the 2014 Costa Rican election will likely prove rather historic – just like 2002 and 2006.

El Salvador 2014

Presidential elections were held in El Salvador on February 2, 2014. The President of El Salvador is elected to a five-year term by the two-round system, with no possibility for consecutive reelection. El Salvador is a presidential republic in which the President is head of state and government, but the unicameral National Assembly – which, unlike in most Central American countries, is not elected at the same time as the President (it serves a three year term) – holds, in theory, considerable powers over executive appointments, lawmaking and levying taxes.

El Salvador, despite a recent past marked by tragedy, is one of the strongest democracies in Central America. It has a ‘free’ rating from Freedom House, with a free press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly and association and a generally independent judiciary. However, corruption remains a major issue in Salvadoran politics and most corrupt politicians rarely face justice. With one of the world’s highest homicide rates, El Salvador has issues with police brutality and corruption, and the violence has hurt civil society, private businesses and regular citizens.

Historical background

El Salvador’s tumultuous history has followed a path common to other countries in the region. Until the 1870s, El Salvador was highly unstable, with conflicts between Liberals and Conservative caudillos, who, in El Salvador, tended to be the local allies of more powerful overarching Liberal or Conservative strongmen in Guatemala, Nicaragua or Honduras who exercised political influence over the entire region. In the 1870s, the Salvadoran Liberals more or less won, and ushered in the República Cafetalera (coffee or coffee-growers republic). This was the heyday of oligarchic politics: politics were in the hands of the upper classes, economic – and real political power – was in the hands of a small landowning, oligarchic elite of coffee-growers. About 100 families controlled the economy and politics, although for shock purposes, this small upper class circle is often known as the ‘fourteen families’ – allegedly because one family controlled each of the country’s fourteen departments. The government promoted coffee as the monopolistic cash-crop, raised tremendous revenue through import duties on goods bought by coffee sales, developed infrastructure in support of the coffee trade, eliminated communal or individual landholding to facilitate coffee production and ensured that a large mass of impoverished and amorphous peasants provided a reservoir of labour for the plantations. The National Guard, created in 1912, served as the oligarchs’ private armies, maintaining order in the countryside. The oligarchs controlled the government indirectly or directly. Between 1913 and 1927, the presidency was held by the Meléndez-Quiñones dynasty, a powerful oligarchic family.

Two mildly reformist presidents who allowed for more political participation ruled between 1927 and 1931, but any reformism was complicated by the Great Depression and the huge drop in coffee prices it entailed. Rural poverty, nothing new, rose to previously unknown heights. The crisis led to a radicalization in the countryside, where many indigenous natives/peasants listened to radicals. One of them was Agustín Farabundo Martí, a Marxist intellectual closely associated to the Communist Party (PCS). The president, a member of the elite with reformist intentions, was unsure of how to respond – at first he used the club, but then turned softer, allowing the PCS to participate in local elections. In doing so, he aroused the oligarchs and the military, and he was overthrown in a coup in December 1931. The military, under General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, assumed power and would rule the country for five decades.

The PCS launched an armed insurgency quickly thereafter. However, the government had forewarning, and Farabundo Martí was arrested within days. The uprising, the first in nearly 100 years, nevertheless went ahead before the government – in only 72 hours – regained control over the country and unleashed a bloody wave of repression. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed by the government, most of them indigenous. La matanza continues to play a large role in Salvadoran collective memory and political discourse; the contemporary right continues to claim that it was a justified response to a communist insurgency while the left, whose leading party is named after Farabundo Martí, compares the killings to a genocide. 

The military hardly altered the socioeconomic reality of the country: economic power remained firmly in the hands of the oligarchic elite, closely tied to the military. The governments oscillated between repression and ‘guided reform’. Martínez, who ruled until 1944, was a fervently anti-communist autocrat with fascist sympathies, but he nonetheless brought stability and sided with the Allies after Pearl Harbor. Martínez, an eccentric and unpredictable gadfly, had uneasy relations with the oligarchy. A motley bunch of civilian politicians, military officers, oligarchs and businessmen who disapproved of Martínez for various reasons force him out of power in 1944. His military successors promised and went ahead with manipulated elections, which confirmed an unremarkable old-style general in office. He was in turn thrown out of office by young reformist officers in the ‘revolution of 1948′.

The new junta promised and organized new elections in 1950, but instead of handing power to a civilian government, the leading officer in the junta resigned to run for president and the junta organized its own PRI-like party to install itself in power. Nevertheless, the policies were quite markedly different: more social democratic in orientation they emphasized public works, the establishment of social security, improvements in sanitation and housing, collective bargaining and allowed for free union organization. Yet no policies threatened the elite-dominated system (no agrarian reform was even attempted) and radicals were eliminated. In 1956, the ruling military-backed party forced its opponents out of the race and its candidate won 93%. However, by the late 1950s, a decline in the export prices of coffee and cotton and the resultant drop in income and revenue exposed the weakness of the government’s reforms. Responding to the Cuban Revolution and the student activism it inspired at home, the regime abandoned all reformist pretenses and banned dissent. The elite, the middle-class and military felt the president had lost his hand, and he was overthrown in a coup in October 1960. The presence of a known Cuban sympathizer in the new junta led to a conservative coup in January 1961.

A junta officer, Colonel Juan Adalberto Rivera, won the 1962 elections. Rivera was the candidate of the new civilian-led but military-backed conservative ‘official party’, the National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliación Nacional, PCN), founded in 1961 by a faction of the reformist Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democráta Cristiano, PDC), founded before the 1961 coup. The PDC was a centrist, reformist alternative founded by urban middle-class and upper-class activists who disliked the right’s ideology of repression and hostility to any reform and the left’s Marxist principles. In the meanwhile, Rivera, who ruled until 1967, was a proponent of the post-1948 ‘guided reforms’, following developmentalist policies – infrastructure development – funded by US aid allocations. Rivera also allowed the opposition to gain a foothold in the Legislative Assembly (by changing the electoral system), in relatively free legislative elections in 1964, the PCN won 32 seats out of 52 but the PDC won 14 seats. José Napoleón Duarte, who would become the PDC’s leading figure, became mayor of San Salvador, an office he held until 1970. Rivera’s interior minister, Fidel Sánchez Hernández, won the presidency for the PDC in 1967, winning 54.4% against 21.6% for the PDC and 14.4% for the leftist PAR, denounced by the right as a communist party.

Conditions remained terrible for the majority of the population. Coffee exports thrived, but the poor suffered – in 1975, about 40% of the poor had no land at all. The 1969 ‘football war’ with Honduras aggravated matters by cutting off the economic ‘safety valve’ provided by illegal immigration of landless Salvadorans to Honduras. Those who returned after the war were unable to resume the kind of farming they had practiced in Honduras and rural employment was scarce. In 1970, a congress convened by the legislature called for major agrarian reform, including land expropriation by the government. Naturally, the PCN did nothing on the issue, and a large victory in the 1970 legislative elections reassured the government. However, the PDC seized on the matter and agrarian reform was at the core of its platform in 1972. The Roman Catholic Church joined in the chorus demanding agrarian reform; the Salvadoran church had called for education, social awareness, the organization of Christian communities in rural areas and denounced both capitalism and communism. Tensions were rising.

José Napoleón Duarte ran for the presidency in 1972, in a coalition of the PDC with two small leftist parties. He promised agrarian reform, but in a measured and moderate tone, stressing respect for private property and nonviolence. The campaign was difficult for the opposition, whose activists were harassed, assaulted or kidnapped by the authorities while the PCN-controlled election board disqualified their legislative slates in six departments. The opposition claimed it won, but on official results, the PCN’s candidate, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina, won 43.4% against 42.1% for Duarte. The PDC boycotted Molina’s formal election by the legislature (in the absence of an absolute majority).

The rest of the 1970s were marked by the opposition’s disillusion with democratic means of winning power. A month after the 1972 elections, a group of young radical officers in the army tried to seize power with Duarte’s reluctant backing, but the coup attempted flopped. Duarte was forced into exile in Venezuela. Molina and his successor, General Carlos Humberto Romero (elected 1977), used coercive means to crack down on rising opposition. In 1970, a PCS faction had established an armed movement, and parts of the radical left were turning to violent means. By the end of the decade, the whole of the PCS had made the shift towards the armed struggle, using methods including kidnappings and assassinations. In response, Molina used the Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), a rural counterinsurgency group/paramilitary trained by the US, to wage his anticommunist war. Right-wing ‘death squads’, bankrolled by the oligarchs and recruiting from active-duty or retired military, took matters into their own hands, aiming to liquidate leftist opponents. The 1977 elections, in which the moderate PDC-led opposition was crushed, confirmed that the military-oligarchy elite was in no mood to hand over power.

Young military officers overthrew General Romero in October 1979. The first junta, a mixed military-civilian affair, announced reformist policies, decreed a freeze on landholdings over 98 ha and nationalized coffee export trade. But the junta faced push-back from the conservative factions of the security apparatus. In fact, repression increased and the death squads continued their terror. The Marxist left, meanwhile, aimed to create a state of anarchy to launch a popular insurrection. Within the junta, the defense minister opposed the reformists. A new junta, including the conservative militarists but also the PDC, was formed in January 1980. Political violence, perpetrated by the left, the death squads and the security forces, increased. Ex-major Roberto d’Aubuisson, a former intelligence division chief, denounced a leading PDC activist as a communist and the activist was later assassinated. The liberal members of the PDC resigned from the junta, highlighting the divisions in the discredited party. Duarte, back from exile, joined the third junta.

Duarte’s third junta combined reforms - expropriating landholdings above 500 ha,nationalizing commercial banks and savings and loan institutions – with more repression against the insurrectionist left. The concomitant repression strengthened the militarists and the paramilitaries, frustrating actual reform on the group and aggravating the violent situation. In March 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a harsh critic of the military repression and American support for the government, was assassinated – probably on d’Aubuisson’s orders. His funeral-turned-protest became violent, with peaceful regime opponents being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral. In November 1980, a prominent reformist leftist politician was killed. In December 1980, four American churchwomen were murdered, prompting Jimmy Carter to suspend a program of limited military aid. The subsequent investigation covered-up the security forces’ role and there was no serious prosecution; but in the meantime, the Ronald Reagan administration had lost interest in the matter. That same month, the militarists in the junta ousted reformist Colonel Majano.

The Marxist forces gradually united, the mass organizations joining the armed guerrillas in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). In January 1981, the FMLN launched its first offensive, which failed to spark a popular insurrection and failed in its objectives. Nevertheless, the FMLN had established a guerrilla foothold in the country (Chalatenango Department), which was recognized as a legitimate political force by Mexico and France. The US, now under Reagan, took an active interest in the civil war. The Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979 had lent to the urgency; Carter, despite his more pro-human rights orientation, had already been providing limited military aid. Reagan’s administration increased assistance, despite congressional misgivings. Washington came to assume a larger role in the conflict and influenced Salvadoran policy-making.

The army indiscriminately killed over 100 civilians in December 1981 at El Mozote. The leftist guerrillas kidnapped and assassinated mayors and businessmen, destroyed public infrastructure and extorted businessmen.

Reagan, the US Congress and Salvadoran moderates (the PDC) agreed to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly in March 1982. The FMLN’s political wing, the FDR, boycotted the elections, citing fears for the safety of its candidates and demanded that bilateral talks between the FMLN-FDR and government be held before any elections. The election was thus fought on the right, between Duarte’s semi-conservative PDC, clearly favoured by Washington; the old PCN and a new party – the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA), founded by major Roberto d’Aubuisson, the death squad organizer described by the US ambassador as a ‘pathological killer’. ‘Major Bob’, as d’Aubuisson was known, promised ‘another ’32′ – a repeat of the slaughter of 1932. The PDC won 24 seats to ARENA’s 19 and the PCN’s 14. Álvaro Alfredo Magaña, a political independent backed by the PDC and PCN, was elected interim President by the assembly over ARENA’s opposition. The interim government achieved little except drafting the constitution still in use today; its promises for peace, democratization and human rights amounted to naught as the FMLN continued its guerrilla sabotage campaign. The military and paramilitaries continued systematic and widespread human rights violations.

In 1984, Duarte (PDC) was elected president, defeating ARENA’s Roberto d’Aubuisson. Backed by the US, Duarte won 53.6% in the second round against ARENA’s pathological killer of a candidate. Washington hoped that Duarte would implement the long-promised reformist agenda to undercut FMLN support; he did, in part, by redistributing farmland, but he failed to displace the oligarchy. At the same time, the FMLN guerrillas were highly disciplined and deeply entrenched in the zones they controlled. At the same time, the armed forces and paramilitaries/death squads continued their campaign unabated. The US was supplying, in 1983, $205 million in economic aid and $26 million in military assistance; Washington’s entanglement in support of a weak regime in San Salvador was controversial in the US. In El Salvador, US military trainers and government forces conducted search-and-destroy missions, while the FMLN made periodic raids. President Duarte’s austerity policies were unpopular, leading to protests in the capital in 1986.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency led to an economic collapse, with a 28% fall in the real per capita domestic product between 1978 and 1982 and capital flight. It also led to significant changes in the country’s economic structure: as a share of domestic product, export agriculture, the economic basis of the oligarchy, declined sharply, at the expense of commerce and services. The FMLN sabotaged export crops, extracted ‘war tax’ payments; the government’s reforms in the 1980s expropriated about a quarter of all farmland in the country. The oligarchy started drawing much more of their income from commerce and services

In a context of increasing military brutality and death squad rampages, ARENA won legislative elections in 1988 and, in March 1989, ARENA presidential candidate Alfredo Cristiani was elected with 54% of the vote. Cristiani, an athletic playboy with little experience, was originally perceived as a d’Aubuisson puppet. But Cristiani’s control of ARENA signaled a shift in the party: from an extremist and reactionary party funded by the old elite, the ARENA now diversified its support by appealing to middle-classes and the new economic elites. Cristiani’s ARENA faction adopted neoliberal economic policies, was more tolerant of democratic norms and was less closely tied to the agro-export elites. With shifting elite interests, there was greater support for negotiations with the FMLN.

In September 1989, the FMLN and Cristiani’s government met for talks in Mexico, but in November, the FMLN launched a major offensive. The FMLN’s offensive made clear that neither side could hope to win militarily. Negotiations continued at a high-level, but on the ground both sides continued the civil war – death squad brutality remained constant, the FMLN’s indiscriminate attacks, kidnappings and assassinations of civilians continued. In December 1990, what would be FMLN’s final offensive established FMLN’s strength and twisted ARENA’s arm into getting serious about talks. The peace process was pushed forward by ARENA and the FMLN’s political moderation in the face of the unlikelihood of a total military victory for one over the other; the military’s discredit after it killed 6 Jesuits in 1989; the fall of the Wall and the end of the Cold War; UN pressure and domestic demands for peace.

The Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed between the government and FMLN in January 1992. The military was to be reformed, the paramilitaries to be suppressed, a new civilian police force created and the FMLN became a political party which participated in elections. The peace deals also included commitments on human rights, justice, land reform and socioeconomic transformations. A general amnesty was voted in 1993. Over 75,000 civilians died in the Salvadoran Civil War.

ARENA, reformed as a conservative and neoliberal civilian party, dominated Salvadoran democratic politics until 2009. The party moderated quite significantly, although it still embraces d’Aubuisson as their founding father (d’Aubuisson died in 1992 without ever facing justice for his crimes). In the 1994 elections, ARENA candidate Armando Calderón Sol was elected president with 68% of the vote in the runoff against FMLN candidate Rubén Zamora, the brother of the PDC Attorney General who was killed by d’Aubuisson’s hounds in 1980. The PDC won about 17% of the vote, but would thereafter decline as a political force as politics polarized between the rather right-wing ARENA and a still markedly left-wing FMLN. President Calderón Sol continued Cristiani’s neoliberal policies, advocating for privatizations, removing trade barriers and promoting foreign investment. He presided over free elections in 1999, which saw ARENA’s Francisco Flores emerge victorious. Flores continued ARENA’s neoliberal and pro-American policies: he changed the legal currency to the US dollar, authorized the deployment of Salvadoran troops to Iraq and negotiated CAFTA with the US. Dollarization was controversial; the opposition accused Flores of moving without consulting the public and only aiming to please big business (which benefited from reduced interest rates, easier trade and integration in the global economy).

In 2004, the presidential campaign turned into a highly polarized contest between two ideologically opposed candidates. The governing ARENA’s candidate was Antonio Saca, who supported the governing party’s economic agenda and was the clear favourite of the Bush administration; the FMLN candidate was Schafik Handal, a former PCS leader, who called to renegotiate free trade agreements and building closer relations with leftist South American countries including Venezuela. The US government stated its ‘concerns’ about the impact of a FMLN victory on US-Salvadoran relations. Saca, however, won handily, with 57.7% against 35.7% for Handal. The PDC’s candidate won only 3.9% of the vote.

Saca continued the right-wing economic and foreign policies. He kept Salvadoran troops (less than 400 of them) in Iraq, maintained close ties with the US and  opposed leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela. Saca’s administration faced economic troubles; Saca somewhat broke with neoliberalism by creating a $15-20 monthly subsidy program for very poor families. The FMLN criticized the government for allegedly failing to respond adequately to increases in the cost of living and basic necessities; he has also faced criticism for political favouritism and sectarianism and corruption. Saca presided over an increase in criminality. Largely because of drug trafficking and gang wars, El Salvador is currently the second most violent country in the world – right after Honduras – with a homicide rate of 70.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

The January 2009 legislative elections, a rehearsal for the presidential elections later in the year, were won – by a hair – by the FMLN, which won 35 seats to the ARENA’s 32, with 11 seats going to the PCN, 5 for the PDC and one for the small Cambio Democrático, the successor of the small moderate leftist groups originally allied with the FMLN during the civil war. For the presidential elections in March 2009, the FMLN, more than ever confident of its chances of winning, nominated a moderate social democrat – former journalist Mauricio Funes. His running mate, however, was former guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén, considered a radical and anti-American within the FMLN. Funes campaigned on social issues, promising to reduce inequality by raising taxes on the rich and creating better social programs. He said that he would keep the US dollar, preserve El Salvador’s close ties with the US, respect property rights and fiscal discipline. His sole opponent, ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila ran a relentlessly negative campaign which sought to tie Funes to Hugo Chávez. Funes won narrowly, with 51.32% against 48.68% for Ávila. He took office as the first FMLN president – perhaps even the first leftist president – in Salvadoran history, marking a key moment in the long-term transition to democracy in the country. However, he also took office with a party suspicious of his intentions and without a majority in Congress.

Taking office in the midst of the economic crisis – the country’s economy shrank by 3% in 2009 – Funes initially adopted a series of populist stimulus measures, including a basic pension for 42,000 seniors, the creation of an education grant and direct propane gas subsidies to consumers. One aspect of his 2010-2011 Plan anticrisis was casa para todos, a project to build 25,000 houses and create over 41,000 jobs in the process. The plan’s results have been described as ‘modest’. In April 2012, Funes adopted austerity policies including spending cuts. Economic growth has been slow, hovering between 1% and 2%. In 2013, El Salvador had the slowest economic growth in Central America.

Some of Funes’ social policies have proven quite popular with voters. One of those is Ciudad Mujer, an initiative of First Lady/Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato, which are multiservice centers for women (healthcare, reproductive health, preventing violence against women, economic autonomy, education, childcare).

The homicide rate fell in 2012 and 2013 – 2013 was the least violent year since 2003 – as a result of a controversial gang truce, signed in March 2012 and which has endured since. The gang truce was brokered at arm’s length by the government, which moved some gang leaders to lower-security prisons and promised to create jobs in ‘peace zones’ in return for gangs stopping murders and extortion. The gang truce hasn’t stopped violence – extortion continues and the homicide rate remains high.

Funes has had an uneasy relationship with the FMLN and the private sector. Parts of the FMLN and many leftists criticized him for his moderate positions, modeled on Barack Obama and Brazil’s Lula, rather than Nicaragua or Venezuela, more leftist models held in high regard by a significant number of FMLN members. For example, Funes has opposed joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). In 2009, leaked cables from the US embassy reported that Funes’ aides suspected that the palace was bugged by FMLN colleagues who controlled the intelligence services. The private sector and the right have, on the contrary, found Funes too leftist for their tastes. He was notably criticized for establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba (broken off since 1962) and closing the borders with Honduras following the 2009 coup in Honduras. Despite the harsh criticism from left and right, Funes leaves office with high approval ratings, between 65% and 70%.

There were legislative and municipal elections in March 2012. In a major blow to the FMLN, the ARENA emerged with a narrow plurality of the votes and seats – it won 39.8% and 33 deputies against 36.8% and 31 deputies for the FMLN. The ARENA managed to hold its ground from 2009 despite a high-profile challenge from a moderate dissident faction, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA), led by former President Antonio Saca. GANA won 9.6% and 11 seats; it would appear the main victims of GANA’s creation were the PCN and PDC (rebranded as the National Coalition, CN and Party of Hope, PES, after courts ruled that decrees which had extended their registration after they fell below the threshold to qualify as parties in 2004 were unconstitutional). In municipal elections, the ARENA held the capital (San Salvador). The FMLN’s surprise defeat was attributed to inertia on the part of the leadership, inept management of some municipalities, local disputes and disappointment with the FMLN’s performance.

One oft-cited FMLN mishap was its battles with the Supreme Court: the Legislative Assembly renewed a third of the court’s membership, for the second time in the legislature’s term, a move which was declared unconstitutional and led to a protracted conflict with the court and the anti-government employers’ association (ANEP). Funes mediated the crisis; the new Legislative Assembly elected in 2012 was allowed to renew a third of the court’s membership.

Candidates and issues

The candidate of the opposition ARENA was Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador since 2009 (reelected with a large majority in 2012). Quijano’s platform included calls for less bureaucracy, a more efficient state apparatus, free market economics, social programs ‘without debt’, more transparency and job creation. Quijano vowed to support some of Funes’ more popular policies, such as the Ciudad Mujer, social housing and subsidies. On the issue of criminality, however, Quijano has taken a tougher line: although he initially was vague over whether or not he supported the truce, he has since come out swinging, saying that “after June 1, the party is over”. In an otherwise boring ‘debate’, Quijano came out in support of militarizing public security, including military trials for gang members.

The ARENA, however, is in disarray since losing power in 2009. It has been plagued by desertions, defectors and supporters rebelling against the party’s chafing hierarchy and criticisms that the party continues to see the world in black and white (Cold War) terms. One founding member of the party recently said that ARENA behaved as if the country was still at war. Indeed, anti-communist rhetoric continues to be one of the party’s mainstays and Quijano has presented this election as a battle between democracy (read: ARENA) and ‘socialism of the 21st century’, allegedly incarnated by the FMLN. In 2009, outgoing President Antonio Saca, whose slightly more populist measures were not backed by his party, was expelled from ARENA (allegedly for corruption) and founded his own party, Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA) with 12 dissident ARENA legislators. While the ARENA managed to win the 2012 election largely on the back of FMLN’s losses with middle-classes and independents, it has already lost its plurality in the Legislative Assembly due to defections. As of today, ARENA’s caucus is down to 28 members (it won 33 seats in 2012).

Quijano is said to have been imposed as the party’s candidate by ARENA’s powerful financiers. They had not liked the party’s 2009 candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, a former police chief. Quijano’s nomination was not a consensus choice and did little to improve ARENA’s declining health. The party’s top financiers brought in, back in May 2013, former President Francisco Flores as Quijano’s campaign manager.

The ARENA has been hurt by corruption allegations. Traditionally, corruption has been the way of doing business for Salvadoran politicians and they made sure that corruption allegations were rarely investigated and safely stashed away. However, Funes’ government presented 164 cases of alleged corruption under ARENA governments to the Attorney General and several former ARENA officials have been indicted in corruption scandals. The most damaging has been ‘Taiwangate’, a scandal directly involving former President Flores. In October 2013, Funes revealed the case without citing names; it was a GANA leader who revealed that Flores was under investigation in the US for money laundering of $10 million. Copies of documents from the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network were published in the media.

Flores is alleged to have embezzled $10 million in earthquake relief funds from Taiwan in 2001. Three checks were deposited in his name in a Bahamanian bank account; the checks, part of Taiwan’s ‘checkbook diplomacy’, were written by then-President Chen Shui-bian, currently serving a 17-year prison sentence for bribery and embezzlement. Flores was furious, calling Funes a ‘liar’ and ‘emotionally unstable’, but a ARENA leader and coffee oligarch met with FMLN candidates at his home and denounced Flores. ARENA was left reeling: was Flores still in the campaign? Quijano insisted that he was, while other party leaders said he wasn’t. On January 7, Flores appeared before a legislative commission investigating the case – and he was stunningly relaxed. He explained El Salvador’s good ties with Taiwan – El Salvador, like every Central American country besides Costa Rica, still recognizes Taiwan; and said that the amount of money involved was $15-20 million. He explained that, as President, he handed out moneybags to victims of the 2001 earthquake or anti-crime informers, and received checks from Taiwan for his discretionary use. His testimony raised many questions and President Funes said that Flores had acted ‘extra-judicially’. Quijano, for unclear reasons, stuck by Flores, who himself is said to have fled to Miami on January 14.

Quijano’s campaign, whose new éminence grise now appears to be anti-chavista Venezuelan strategist Juan José Rendón (who has worked on many campaigns in the region), said to be an expert in crisis management. However, it appears that Rendón is not actually in El Salvador; Quijano explains that Rendón doesn’t visit socialist countries, while the real reason might be that he would risk extradition to Venezuela, where he is wanted on a 2006 assault charge.

The governing FMLN nominated Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla leader during the civil war and a member of the FMLN’s leftist ‘hard line’. His running mate is the moderate Óscar Órtiz, the popular four-term mayor of Santa Tecla. The party’s platform, which it says was built with the input of over 310,000 people, is, however, fairly moderate. The FMLN manifesto focuses on ‘deepening and amplifying the changes’ begun by the government, with the major axes being job creation, social well-being, reducing the costs of living, security and environmental sustainability. It calls for more social investments, zero tolerance for corruption, tougher bank regulation and ‘an end to privileges’.

Unlike ARENA, the FMLN’s campaign was smooth, calm, disciplined and united behind the ticket of ‘Salvador and Oscar’. The FMLN, aware that the prospect of a former guerrilla leader with a past propensity for radical statements might make some moderates queasy, has reiterated that it is a moderate leftist party which respects democratic institutions and seeks economic equality, not to ‘destroy the rich’. The FMLN wants to broaden relations with Latin American partners, and it wishes to join Petrocaribe, an oil alliance between Caribbean/Central American states and Venezuela to purchase Venezuelan oil at preferential prices. President Funes supports the plan to join Petrocaribe.

Since 2006, the FMLN has developed a powerful economic base through ALBA Petróleos, a business owned by the non-profit ENEPASA and 17 municipalities (mostly governed by the FMLN), which buys oil from Venezuela at preferential prices. ALBA Petróleos has donated over $10 million to social programs and have established a plethora of services, particularly in rural areas, besides gas stations. Critics charge its leaders with money laundering and anti-competitive activities.

Like Funes in 2009, the FMLN’s campaign has sought to reach out to independent, middle-class voters by drawing professionals, businesspeople, religious leaders and even some members of the economic elites and disaffected ARENA supporters. Antonio Salaverría, a founding member of ARENA and a prominent coffee oligarch, has met with FMLN candidates and spoken of breaking ‘old paradigms’ and ending confrontations.

The FMLN hasn’t convinced everybody. The ARENA continues to claim that the FMLN supports Chávez’s ’21st century socialism’ project and it has alleged ties between FMLN leaders and arms/drug trafficking with the Colombian FARC rebels. In October 2013, U.S. Congressmen Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Albio Sires (D-NJ), members of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, accusing Sánchez Cerén of having ‘dubious democratic credentials’. Conservatives in the US have charged that some FMLN members have ties to drug traffickers and Venezuela, and warned that a FMLN victory would be dangerous for US anti-narcotics efforts in the region. However, the Obama administration has not intervened in the election (unlike the Bush administration in 2004), with the US embassy ensuring that it maintained absolute neutrality.

President Funes has said that an ARENA victory would be ‘an unprecedented institutional setback, a return to the past’ and has urged voters to avoid the return of the ‘oligarchic power’ to the country. In most countries, an outgoing president effectively endorsing his party’s candidate would not be a big deal, but in El Salvador and other Latin American countries, it is considered taboo for a term-limited president to directly intervene in his successor’s election by endorsing a candidate. ARENA accused Funes of proselytizing for the FMLN, but Funes said he never called on people to vote for the FMLN.

Former President Antonio ‘Tony’ Saca (2004-2009) is running for a second non-consecutive term in office, this time as the candidate of the UNIDAD coalition, made up of GANA, the PCN (CN) and PDC (PES). His running mate is Francisco Laínez, a former ARENA member who served as his foreign minister between 2004 and 2008. UNIDAD’s platform, promoting Saca’s “leadership, charisma and experience”, supports poverty reduction, fiscal discipline, a good climate for investment and other vague talking points. Saca’s presidency was marked by an unsuccessful ‘iron fist’ anti-gang policy; he know supports ‘no truces or bloodbaths but a comprehensive policy’. The coalition’s manifesto calls for crime prevention, citizen protection, victim support, a volunteer police force and the rehabilitation and reinsertion of criminals.

Saca has been accused of enriching himself during his presidency, moving from the middle-class to being a wealthy property owner. He was accused of, but never charged with, misappropriation of $219 million from a presidential discretionary fund. If Funes has gone after after ARENA’s corruption, he made no accusations against Saca. Funes’ administration has often relied on the legislative support of GANA and the PDC and PCN to pass key legislation, including the presidential budget.

Saca presents himself as a centrist alternative to the ‘extremes’, envisioning to make himself the kingmaker in a potential runoff between the FMLN and ARENA.


Turnout was roughly 53.9% (own calculations), down from 61.9% in the 2009 presidential election.

Salvador Sánchez Céren (FMLN) 48.93%
Norman Quijano (ARENA) 38.96%
Antonio ‘Tony’ Saca (UNIDAD) 11.44%
René Rodríguez Hurtado (PSP) 0.42%
Óscar Lemus (FPS) 0.25%

Source: Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)

El Salvador 2014

Incumbent Vice President and former FMLN guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Céren came out far ahead of his main rival, conservative candidate Norman Quijano, in the first round. Sánchez Céren has a ten point advantage over ARENA’s candidate, and came very close to winning by the first round, but both men will advance to a second round ballot in a bit over a month, on March 9.

The contest was tight for most of the campaign, with the FMLN and ARENA both leading in polls. It seems to have changed in the FMLN’s favour following the Taiwangate scandal, involving former ARENA president Francisco Flores – a close supporter of ARENA’s presidential candidate, Norman Quijano. A good number of polls taken in January 2014 showed a turnaround in the FMLN’s favour: the governing party took a clearer, decisive lead in the polls, although ARENA’s support did not collapse. Given the closely fought campaign, the first round results – and the FMLN’s ten point advantage over the ARENA – can be considered quite good for the FMLN. Quijano somewhat disingenuously claimed that the result was a success for ARENA, because it had been waging a war on two fronts: against the official FMLN candidate but also President Funes’ outgoing administration (Funes publicly attacked Quijano several times, aired TV spots promoting his administration’s record with thinly veiled appeals to vote for the FMLN/against ARENA). In reality, ARENA ran a poor and unconvincing campaign which failed to measure up to the FMLN’s stronger campaign.

The ARENA remains the most polarizing party in the country: it has a strong base of determined and loyal supporters closely attached to the party’s conservative and anti-leftist message, but it also has the largest number of equally as determined opponents and critics.

This isn’t to say that the FMLN isn’t a polarizing party: while it likely has a slightly larger pool of loyal voters than the ARENA, there are also many Salvadoran voters on the right who strongly dislike the FMLN. The FMLN has been able to expand its electoral base in recent years by moderating its rhetoric – even Salvador Sánchez Céren, a former communist guerrilla leader with a radical past and former penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, played a moderate campaign which talked of national unity (styled as working for the good of the people) and sought to allay fears of his own radicalism with his moderate, popular running mate (Óscar Órtiz). It has also appealed to a broader clientele than the original FMLN guerrilla base with social programs. Many of its supporters credit the FMLN’s social programs (providing school uniforms and shoes, and daily school meals to poor children, improvement in health care infrastructure, increased public access to affordable medicines, pensions etc) with helping them escape poverty. However, critics consider these programs to be asistencialista (alleviating inequalities and reducing extreme poverty, creating dependency and arguably clientelism) and the author of a UN official behind the local HDI report said that the FMLN administration had continued the old economic model (which he judged immoral).

The FMLN was most vulnerable on the issue of security and crime: ARENA’s Norman Quijano promises a hardline against the gangs (maras) and an end to the controversial truce negotiated between gangs with the government’s blessing, and ARENA claimed that the gangs were supporting the FMLN. The truce has been increasingly unpopular, according to polls.

Former President Antonio Saca, at the helm of a moderate centre-right coalition (UNIDAD), placed a distant third, with only 11% of the vote. Despite ARENA’s many problems, Saca was unable to break the old polarization between the traditional left and right in El Salvador. Both the FMLN and ARENA, contemporary symbols of the old battle between left and right in El Salvador, remain too deeply ingrained in Salvadoran society and politics to be turfed out right now. While it is unlikely that ARENA will dramatically implode in the near future and allow Saca’s ragtag coalition of old moderates and disgruntled conservatiFves to move in, Saca is nevertheless in a strong position as kingmaker in this election.

Saca’s voters will prove decisive to the eventual winner in the runoff to be held on March 9. Although Saca’s voters are predominantly right-wing and a majority of them can be expected to back Quijano in the runoff despite the bad blood between ARENA and the ARENA dissidents, about a quarter of Saca’s voters might vote for the FMLN candidate (according to a pre-election poll), making him the likely favourite at this point. It is unsure what attitude Saca himself will adopt before the runoff. The FMLN has openly stated that it is looking for a pact with UNIDAD, and on election night, Sánchez Céren said that Saca had called him to say that he would work with him in the runoff campaign. Saca denied having offered an electoral pact to the FMLN, and stated that the decision will be up to the three parties which make up his UNIDAD coalition (which is seemingly set to dissolve with the end of the presidential race). One GANA deputy has said that he believes that there should/will be a deal with the FMLN.

A poll on January 14 which predicted a 14-point gap in the FMLN’s favour in the first round, reported that Sánchez Céren held a 6.6 point advantage (46.2% to 39.6%) in a simulated runoff against Quijano. Another poll from that day, which predicted a 9-point advantage for the FMLN in the first round, found Quijano to be ahead – by 4.3%. Another poll, which had a smaller gap in the first round, had Quijano leading by 5 in the runoff but with the gap quickly closing in the FMLN’s favour.

An alliance between the FMLN and Saca (or his coalition’s parties/its main component party, GANA) would facilitate Sánchez Céren’s victory in the second round but would also create the bases of a legislative alliance between the FMLN and the moderate right, which would ensure a smoother passage for legislation backed by the presidency. The FMLN has said that it envisions a pact with Saca as a means of achieving ‘governability’ (governabilidad) of the country.

Quijano has a tougher job ahead of him. ARENA is seeking a vaguely defined ‘grand national accord’ (gran acuerdo nacional) with political actors and ‘sectors of the national life’. He isn’t openly seeking a pact with Saca, but Quijano is obviously seeking to attract the bulk of UNIDAD voters to his fold and says he extends ‘open arms’ to those sharing his ‘principles and values’. Secondly, ARENA’s other priority to make up lost ground is attracting non-voters; because ARENA’s raw vote dropped by about 200,000 from 2009 against only -50,000 for the FMLN, the ARENA is assuming that most of those who didn’t vote in 2014 had voted for ARENA in 2009.

ARENA has said it will be shifting to a more conciliatory, less confrontational campaign. At the same time, though, ARENA is seriously over-dramatizing the stakes of the March 9 runoff by saying that it is a crucial day which will decide the future of democracy (the old ARENA line about a FMLN victory meaning ’21st century socialism’ and authoritarianism).

Sánchez Céren topped the poll in every department except the small department of Cabañas, a conservative stronghold where Quijano won 50% to the FMLN’s 36.6%. Quijano topped the poll in the city of San Salvador, with 48.5% against Sánchez Céren’s 41.8%. However, with strong results in all of San Salvador’s surrounding municipalities (except the wealthy municipality of Antiguo Cuscatlan in La Libertad department, which Quijano won with 60.5%), the FMLN candidate carried the department of San Salvador with 47.2% against 41.5% for Quijano. In Soyapango, a poor and violent suburban municipality of San Salvador (and the country’s second largest city), Sánchez Céren won 49.5% against 38% for ARENA. In the conservative-leaning city of Santa Tecla, Sánchez Céren’s popular running mate/local mayor Óscar Órtiz could not overwhelm the conservatism of the city: Quijano won Santa Tecla with 46.5%.

Sánchez Céren was victorious by large margins in other major cities including Santa Ana (50.9%) and San Miguel (59.8%). He did well in most rural areas, a part of the country where the FMLN has become increasingly strong and displaced ARENA as the main party.

The presidential runoff ballot on March 9 will probably be tighter than the first round, but FMLN candidate Sánchez Céren is likely the early favourite. As such, his likely victory would mark another stage in the Salvadoran democratic consolidation: the election of a former guerrilla leader (on the opposing side in the civil war) to the presidency and a second consecutive defeat in a presidential election for ARENA, which ruled for 20 years between 1989 and 2009.

Election Preview: Thailand 2014

Map of Thailand (source: ezilon)

There might – or might not – be an election in Thailand on February 2, 2014. The House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร) has 500 seats, 375 of which are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies with the remaining 125 elected by parallel party-list proportional representation in eight regional constituencies. Voters have two votes, and the results of the direct vote in constituencies has no impact on the distribution of the remainder of the seats. The House sits for a maximum of four years, but the King has the prerogative to dissolve the House before the end of its term. The House is the lower house in the bicameral National Assembly (รัฐสภา), which consists of the House and the Senate.

The Senate (วุฒิสภา) is entirely non-partisan and serves for a fixed six-year term. 77 members are elected directly to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces and special administrative district (Bangkok), the remaining 73 seats are appointed by a commission made up of the president of the Constitutional Court, the chairs of the Election Commission and State Audit Commission, and one judge from the Supreme Court of Justice and the Supreme Administrative Court. The commission selects senators from the academic sector, the public sector, the private sector, the professional sector and ‘others’.

The House has exclusive powers as the primary legislative chamber (only House members may initiate legislation – legislation initiated by individual members must be backed by 20 MPs) and holds the government to account by electing the Prime Minister (appointed by the King) and removing the Prime Minister and ministers from office. Legislation must be passed by both houses, with the Senate considering the bill after the House as passed it. If the Senate amends or vetoes a bill, a joint committee will submit a new bill to both houses, both of which must approve it or it it withheld. The House may reconsider withheld legislation after a lapse of 180 days (or immediately, if it is a money bill), and if it passes it with an absolute majority of its members, it is deemed to have been passed by the National Assembly. When the National Assembly passes legislation, it is sent to the King for Royal Assent within 20 days. If Royal Assent is not granted, the National Assembly must re-deliberate the bill. If it reaffirms it with a two-thirds majority in both houses, the bill will effectively be granted Royal Assent even if the King still opposes it.

That is the theory of it all. In practice, Thailand is a flawed democracy. While it is a constitutional monarchy, the King is ‘enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated’ (Section 8 of the Constitution) and retains power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the appointment of the Privy Council and assent to legislation. Strict lèse-majesté laws are enforced; in Thai political culture, the monarchy and the person of the King is revered and any accusation of lèse-majesté leveled against a politician is very serious. The worst insult one politician can make to another is to call him a republican!

Democratic institutions and basic democratic rights are subject to change at a moment’s notice. Since 1932, there have been over ten military coups in Thailand, the most recent one in 2006. Since 1932, Thailand has gone through seventeen different constitutions or charters – running the gamut from military authoritarianism, absolute monarchy, constitutional democratic monarchy or limited democracy. Freedom House ranks Thailand as ‘partly free’ and the press as ‘not free’.

Nowadays, when elections do go ahead, they are considered free and fair. Nevertheless, the democratic system is undermined by the lingering threat of military intervention to forcibly remove elected governments and widespread corruption. Thailand ranked 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Many political parties are personalist shells, founded and led by one man or a powerful political family, promising populist policies. Smaller parties tend to be corrupt, venal and directionless outfits led by provincial bosses who rake in their provinces’ seats, and seek to use their power in the House as king-makers. They may side with either major party, even if the two major parties hate one another.

Lèse-majesté laws limit the freedom of expression, as they are used to target anybody critical of the monarchy or even the government. Access to some websites is banned in Thailand. The constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on religious belief, but the monarch must be Buddhist and Buddhism may often be treated as a de facto state religion. Muslim minorities in southern Thailand face some discrimination and have been locked in a bloody conflict with the central government for years. Muslim insurgents limit Buddhist monks and teachers’ freedom of movement. A combination of martial law and emergency rule remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces, and the governments have indiscriminately detained suspected insurgents and sympathizers and there are credible reports of torture and human rights violations.

Since 2005, political debate has been poisoned by the polarization of Thai politics and society around the controversial figure of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006 (his sister, Yingluck, has been Prime Minister since 2011). The unending deadlock and polarization is at the roots of the current political crisis.

If February 2′s elections will be uneventful and bring about no resolution to the crisis, this post focuses on the history of Thai military intervention in politics since 1932 and the roots of the polarization of contemporary Thai politics.

Thai military intervention in politics

The June 1932 coup is often cited as the beginning of the Thai (then Siamese) military’s intervention into politics. In 1932, a group of young army officers and Western-educated civil servants grouped in the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) seized power in a bloodless coup which abolished the ages-old absolute monarchy and created a constitutional monarchy. The coup leaders, known as the “promoters”, were representatives of a new, young generation of Western-educated elites who had grown to find the Siamese absolute monarchy and the conservative aristocracy which surrounded the king to be archaic. Indeed, while Siamese monarchs since the 1860s had modernized and ‘Westernized’ the country as a calculated means of escaping Western colonization, they by and large remained opposed to democracy and the aristocrats had blocked moves to adopt a constitution.

The new ruling class soon found itself divided into four factions: a conservative civilian faction led by Phraya Manopakorn Nititada (Phraya Mano), who became Prime Minister; an old-line senior military group led by Phraya Phahon, whose followers joined the coup to oppose cuts in military appropriations during the Depression; a junior military faction led by Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) and a civilian reformist faction led by Pridi Phanomyong, a talented French-educated lawyer who supported economic reforms. It did not take long for the divisions to lead to a crisis. In March 1933, Pridi’s plans for economic reforms – favouring state intervention, progressive taxation, welfare and redistribution of wealth – were rejected by the elites and nobility, and in June 1933, Phraya Mano was overthrown in another bloodless coup led by Phraya Phahon.

A monarchist reaction failed in October 1933, when a counter-coup attempt led by Prince Boworadet was unsuccessful. The coup attempt, however, strained relations between King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the government, eventually leading to his abdication in 1935. King Prajadhipok claimed the government was undemocratic and failed to respect individual freedoms. He was succeeded by young Prince Ananda Mahidol, who was at school in Switzerland and did not return to Thailand until 1945.

The Khana Ratsadon and Prime Minister Phahon’s government continued to be torn by divisions between Pridi, recalled from exile, and Phibun’s military faction, which increased military expenditures while defense minister after 1934. When Phahon resigned in 1938, Phibun succeeded him – although Pridi became finance minister. Phibun’s regime marked a nationalist and authoritarian period, during which Siam became known as Thailand (land of the free) and the government ran a demagogic campaign against the Chinese commercial class. The regime promoted Western cultural norms and customs, but in foreign policy it revived irredentist claims against France in Cambodia and Laos and cultivated close ties with Japan to counter the French. Phibun was a dictator, who used imported European propaganda tools to promote his regime’s Thai nationalist agenda and create a cult of personality around him, while cracking down on opposition and downplaying monarchist symbols.

During World War II, Phibun sided with the Japanese to avenge the loss of territory to the French in 1893 and 1904. Following the Franco-Thai War (1940-1941), Japan mediated by ceding three Cambodian provinces to Thailand. Phibun basked in glory, but on December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand and, within hours, Thailand gave in and allowed Japan to pass through the country to invade Burma and Malaya. In January 1942, Phibun declared war on the US and Britain.

Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, a conservative aristocrat, refused to deliver the notice to the State Department and organized, with Pridi inside Thailand, a Free Thai resistance movement. In 1944, Japanese arrogance and Allied bombing crippled the economy and made the war and Phibun quite unpopular. The new government, led by Khuang Aphaiwong and infiltrated by the Free Thai, played a precarious game of remaining friendly with Japan while evacuating British territories in Malaya which Japan had allowed Thailand to occupy. By the end of the war, Thailand repudiated its alliance with Japan. While Britain held Thailand responsible and wanted to treat it as a defeated enemy, the US – hostile to British and French colonialism – supported the new government.

Khuang led a fractious civilian government which included Seni and Pridi, who was now regent for the absentee monarch. In September 1945, Seni became Prime Minister and restored the name Siam. Seni, who joined the newly founded monarchist and conservative Democrat Party, developed a personal animosity towards Pridi, whose party won the first partisan elections in 1946. Seni was forced out of office by Pridi in January 1946, the victim of rising discontent over inflation, reparation payments to the British and territorial concessions to the French (France’s precondition for Siam to join the UN). In March 1946, Pridi himself took office. Seeking to entrench a civilian parliamentary democracy, Pridi’s cabinet drafted a constitution - promulgated in May 1946 – which created a bicameral legislature composed of a directly-elected lower house and an upper house elected by the lower house.

In June 1946, King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who had returned to Siam in December 1945, was found dead at the palace, in circumstances which remain mysterious and sensitive to this day. Three palace officials were later arrested and eventually executed (in 1955), although even the current king has since said that they were not guilty. A commonly-accepted alternative version is that the monarch accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistol, but other theories still swirl. Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, the deceased monarch’s brother, became King as Rama IX. Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the US, went to Thailand for the first time in 1945 and returned to Switzerland to complete his studies, only returning to Bangkok in 1951.

In the immediate aftermath, Seni and the Democrats began a vicious smear campaign against Pridi, claiming that he had been behind the king’s death. The accusations compelled Pridi to resign on grounds of ill health in August 1946. The civilian government, headed by a rear-admiral close to Pridi, was plagued by divisions in the civilian leadership, corruption and an increasingly bold military.

In November 1947, a coup group led by Lt. General Phin Choonhavan and backed by Phibun seized power. The ‘coup group’ had the support of the palace, Seni, the Democrats and up-and-coming military officers such as police chief Phao Sriyanond, Colonel Sarit Dhanarajata, Lt. Colonel Praphas Charusathien and Phin’s son Captain Chatichai Choonhavan. The military, itself divided, would rule under various rulers until 1973. Khuang became Prime Minister with the coup group’s blessing, while the military and the palace agreed on a constitutional charter which increased royal powers.

In April 1948, the coup group pressed Khuang to resign and Phibun returned as Prime Minister. Phibun had briefly been held and tried as a war criminal, but the trial ended quickly and allowed the former leader to rebuild his popularity. Phibun’s new regime played on nationalist sentiments, renamed (for good) the country as Thailand while Phibun recycled himself from a pro-Japanese fascist admirer into an anti-communist well perceived by Washington. Thailand participated in the Korean War, Phao Sriyanond’s ruthless police was financed by the CIA, Thailand backed the French against communist rebels in Indochina and Bangkok gradually became Washington’s loyal ally in tumultuous Southeast Asia.

In 1949, Phibun called on Seni and the Democrats to help draft a new constitution. The 1949 constitution restored most of the monarch’s powers which he had lost in 1932.

Phibun’s rule ushered in stability, but in his first years in power, he faced several failed coup attempts – by Phibun’s army rivals in October 1948, a plot sponsored by the exiled Pridi in 1949 and one by naval officers in 1951. The 1951 revolt was put down by the army and the air force, increasing the military’s power against the civilian Democrat/palace axis and Phibun himself. Increasingly powerful military men such as Phao, Phin and Sarit disliked the 1949 constitution, which granted important powers to the monarch or a Senate made up of palace appointees. In November 1951, the coup group staged the so-called ‘silent coup’, pressuring Phibun into cancelling the 1949 constitution in favour of the 1932 constitution, under which the palace was far less powerful. A revised constitution was promulgated in February 1952, abolishing the Senate in favour of a unicameral National Assembly (half of which was appointed, and filled with military men).

The 1951 coup strengthened the military’s place in the government, which now rested on a triumvirate made up of Phibun, Phao and Phin. The government continued instrumentalizing anti-Chinese sentiments (now disguised as anticommunism) and it remained a strong US ally. In 1954, Thailand was a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Bangkok – SEATO’s HQ – offered the use of its military bases to SEATO and the US. Economically, the government broke with a long tradition of liberal laissez-faire by intervening in the economy, setting a restrictive export tax on rice in a bid to discourage rice exports, nurture nascent industries and selling rice stocks on the domestic market at low prices to hold down the cost of living.

In 1955, Phibun allowed for a façade of democracy, loosening press censorship, allowing some public debate, allowing parties to register and halting the anti-Chinese campaign. In February 1957, the ruling party, controlled by Phao and Phibun, won the elections (although it suffered important loses), which Sarit and student protesters denounced as rigged. In response, Phibun appointed a new government, which shelved the democratic reforms. Sarit’s influence grew – he was now commander-in-chief of the army, and in September 1957, Sarit – with the King’s support – deposed Phibun and Phao in a bloodless coup. Sarit, on grounds of ill health, did not form a government himself, allowing SEATO secretary-general Pote Sarasin and then Thanom Kittikachorn to rule and supervise a free election in December 1957. In October 1958, Sarit – with his deputy Thanom’s support – staged another coup, this time installing himself as Prime Minister.

Sarit, who ruled until his death in December 1963, was part of a new generation not influenced by Western political ideologies. Instead, Sarit and his ally Thanom were traditionalists whose creed was order, hierarchy and religion. Under Sarit, the monarchy regained a much larger public role, with Sarit arranging for Bhumibol to attend ceremonies, champion development projects and raising the monarchy’s stature to that of high reverence. At the same time, however, heavy American presence in Asia with the Vietnam War made Western culture, hitherto reserved to an elite, accessible to the bulk of society. The 1960s saw the modernization and full westernization of Thailand, shaking traditional rural family units and leading to massive urban growth. However, economic growth did not trickle down to everybody. The impoverished regions of the north and northeastern Thailand (Isan) remained poor, and were subjected to military harassment and bureaucratic corruption.

Sarit’s regime proved exceptionally harsh, outlawing parties, jailing opponents, dissolving Parliament and centralizing powers. However, Sarit’s government also brought stability and economic growth. Although the military remained in charge, a la Pinochet, Sarit brought in liberal technocrats and allowed for foreign direct investment.

Upon Sarit’s death, his ally Thanom succeeded him in office, and continued Sarit’s foreign and domestic policies. The notable departure from Sarit’s policies was Thanom’s relatively more liberal stance on democratic reforms. A 1968 constitution restored a directly-elected House, created a royally-appointed Senate and parties were legalized; however, the constitution shored up Thanom’s powers by confirming repressive legislation and maintaining martial law (imposed in 1958). Thanom’s party won relatively open elections in 1969.

The government remained heavily involved in supporting the US against communist rebels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, permitting US troops and aircraft to use Thai bases as launching-pads for attacks into Cambodia and Vietnam and sending a division of Thai troops to South Vietnam. Thailand was worried by Washington signaling that it was considering drawing down its presence in the region. Bangkok faced regional unrest: in the south from ethnically Chinese communist guerrillas and Muslim insurgents, in the north and northeast from peasants and communist rebels backed by the Pathet Lao, North Vietnam and China.

In November 1971, Thanom executed a coup against his own government, centralizing power in a triumvirate composed of himself, his son and his brother-in-law/deputy Praphas Charusathien. The new regime dissolved Parliament, cabinet, abrogated the constitution and declared martial law.

As the regime became increasingly corrupt and the economy declined, even harsh repression failed to quell rising popular discontent in universities, the countryside and middle-classes but also with civilian politicians and the palace. In October 1973, a new wave of protests spearheaded by students rallied hundreds of thousands in Bangkok. Initially, the army responded with force, firing on the demonstrators, but the palace – and the king himself – used the protests to move against Thanom. On October 14, the king arranged for Thanom’s removal and the safe passage of the triumvirate to foreign exile. Law professor Sanya Dharmasakti, a conservative sympathetic to the students’ demands, was appointed Prime Minister.

Sanya appointed a committee, which produced a constitution in 1974 and led to general elections in January 1975. In a context of disenchantment with the new civilian democratic government, which was extremely cautious in its decisions so as to not alienate the military, the general elections saw only 47% turnout and a very divided electorate. Seni Pramoj’s Democrat Party won 72 seats out of 269, followed by the right-wing Social Justice Party (a party which was backed by the military brass, including commander-in-chief Kris Sivara, and led by former Thanom-Praphas ally Thawit Klinprathum) with 45, the pro-military Thai Nation Party (led by Chatichai Choonhavan, the son of former army commander Phin Choonhavan) with 28 and Kukrit Pramoj’s centrist Social Action Party with 18 seats. Seni formed a government, which lasted 27 days, and was followed by a more centrist cabinet led by Kukrit Pramoj, which governed until the April 1976 elections.

The new democracy disappointed many of the more radical student leaders of 1973, but the new democratic system allowed voices which had until then been silenced by state repression to speak out and air their grievances. The 1973-1976 era saw an increase in peasant mobilization in northern and northeastern Thailand, demanding government intervention to improve their conditions. The economic growth under military rule had widened the gap between urban and rural areas, with urban areas becoming increasingly richer at a quicker pace while incomes in rural areas increased at a much slower rate. Phibun’s old rice premium, now the main source of government revenue, imposed low incomes and limited access to credit for poor farmers. The 1970s also witnessed an increase in the domestic communist insurgency, and nationalist sentiment hostile towards the US’ large role and military presence in Thailand. However, the victory of communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975 was of far greater concern for Bangkok’s conservative elites. The government sought to improve ties with the new communist governments and China (Thailand recognized the PR China in 1975), but it also became increasingly anticommunist at home, targeting radicalized students who were labelled as foreign communist plants. In 1975 and 1976, political violence in the form of clashes between leftist students and workers and rightist paramilitaries (openly supported by the police) increased.

The April 1976 elections saw the right strengthened: Seni’s Democrats gained 42 seats, winning 114 seats, while the Thai Nation Party – led by Chatichai Choonhavan’s brother-in-law Pramarn Adireksarn and campaigning on the slogan of ‘right kill left’ – won 56 seats. Seni returned as Prime Minister, with Pramarn as Deputy Prime Minister. Pramarn and the deputy interior minister, Samak Sundaravej, both supported a coup or at least harsh repression of student protesters and Pramarn’s clique had contacts in the military and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC, the body in charge of ‘national security’ – killing opponents). Pramarn and Samak, over Seni’s head, arranged for Thanom to return, ostensibly as a Buddhist monk without political motives. Seni tried to resign but was blocked, while students protested at Thammasat University against Thanom’s return. Conservative newspapers published a photo of student demonstrators re-enacting the hanging of two student protesters by police the previous month. The photo, which was later found to have been altered, showed one of the students as being made up to resemble the Crown Prince, a grave act of lèse majesté. Pramarn, who had plotted Thanom’s return to provoke and then kill the students, used the photo as a pretext. Police and paramilitaries (backed by the police, ISOC and parts of the palace) attacked Thammasat University and brutally lynched, tortured, murdered or burned students. Independent sources claimed over 100 were killed, the government’s numbers cited 46 while Samak, who became Prime Minister in 2008, said “only one” student had died – and only “by accident”!

Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, the head of the military and defence minister, led a coup which blocked Pramarn’s extremist faction from seizing power. Thanin Kraivichien, an ultraconservative judge, became Prime Minister. Thanin’s government was extremely repressive – censorship of the press, tight control of the unions, purges of the civil service and education, banned all parties, dissolved Parliament and confiscated blacklisted books. The October 1976 massacre strengthened the Communist Party of Thailand’s (CPT) insurgency, expanding their fighting force to 6,000-8,000. Thanin’s policies alienated even the military, which was already unhappy with Thanin’s relative independence from the military. In October 1977, Sangad removed Thanin in a coup and General Kriangsak Chomanand became Prime Minister. 

Kriangsak’s military regime was more liberal, promulgating a constitution in 1978 which allowed for a directly-elected lower house and promised a transition to civilian rule by 1983. The military remained in power, but it allowed for relatively free elections and the resumption of parliamentary politics. In 1979, the centrist Social Action Party emerged as the largest party in legislative elections, albeit with only 82 out of 301 seats.

Kriangsak courted moderate union leaders, raised the minimum wage in Bangkok, allowed limited press freedom and amnestied some dissidents from 1976. The communist insurgency died down during Kriangsak’s rule. The 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (ruled by the Khmer Rouge) divided the CPT, and drew Thailand – which joined the US and China in supporting the KR against Vietnam – closer to China, which stopped supporting the Thai Communists. Kriangsak offered amnesty to those communists who surrendered themselves.

However, rising inflation, corruption and a 1980 increase in oil/gas/electricity prices led to mounting discontent and student protests in 1980. The military moved in, leading Kriangsak to resign in favour of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the army commander and defence minister. Prem formed a largely civilian cabinet, enlisted the support of the Social Action Party, the Thai Nation Party and the Democrats and could count on the palace’s support. In April 1981, rogue military officers attempted to seize power, managing to capture Bangkok, force Prem and the monarchs to flee town but they relented when they realized that the King was behind Prem. The coup attempt did, however, weaken Prem’s power. Beset by economic problems, Prem’s government faced student and workers protests and farmers demanding higher rice prices. From the military, General Arthit Kamlangek, a deputy commander of a military region who had put down the April 1981 coup, enjoyed a rapid rise to top, becoming commander-in-chief of the army in October 1982. Arthit never attempted to seize power himself, but he proved a thorn in the side for the government, controlling the military and being publicly critical of some of Prem’s policy decisions.

In April 1983, Prem faced a major issue with the expiration of the 1978 constitution’s transitory clauses which would expire on April 21, after which point the Senate would lose a good deal of power, military and civil servants would no longer be able to sit in government and the structure of electoral constituencies would change. Prem was unable to have Parliament adopt an amendment to make the transitory clauses permanent, so he called an election for April 18. He patched together a three-party cabinet with the Democrats and Social Action Party.

In 1985, Prem faced another coup attempt, plotted by the same who had been behind the 1981 coup. It lasted ten hours before it was crushed. Prem also reined in the outspoken Arthit, openly lobbying through the parties for an extension of his term to 1987. The government announced Arthit would be retired on schedule, in September 1986, and in May 1986, the government dismissed Arthit from his military post, a first. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a Prem loyalist, became commander-in-chief of the army.

General elections held in 1988 saw the Thai Nation Party, led by retired military officer Chatichai Choonhavan, win the most seats – 87 to the Social Action Party’s 54 and the Democrats’ 48. Prem retired and Chatichai Choonhavan became Prime Minister. It seemed as if Thailand was moving back towards parliamentary politics, with the military – under Chavalit – being increasingly reticent towards direct intervention in the form of coups. However, in February 1991, Chatichai, accused of corruption, was toppled in a coup led by Generals Sunthorn Kongsompong and Suchinda Kraprayoon (the new commander-in-chief since 1990). They formed a National Peace Keeping Council, which drafted a 1991 constitution increasing the military’s powers.

The new junta appointed Anand Panyarachun, a respected businessman well regarded by the business community and the palace, as Prime Minister. Anand’s largely technocratic cabinet implemented economic reforms, aimed at restructuring the taxation system (introducing a VAT) and liberalizing the economy to allow for private investment, simplifying business creation and removing some barriers. However, Anand chose not to challenge the junta on any contentious, effectively turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

An election in March 1992 was closely contested. The pro-junta Justice Party, led by Narong Wongwan (suspected by the US of being involved in drug trafficking) won 79 seats, followed by the Thai Nation Party (74) and Chavalit’s new populist party, the New Aspiration Party (72). The Democrats took 44, while the Palang Dharma Party, a Buddhist-influenced party led by retired General Chamlong Srimuang, a devout Buddhist and former governor of Bangkok (elected with Arthit’s support in 1985). The results allowed junta commander Suchinda to become Prime Minister.

Suchinda’s appointment as Prime Minister led to major protests on May 17-20, 1992. The government initially responded with force and violence was escalating. On May 20, the King met with Suchina and Chamlong, the protest leader, and demanded that they end their confrontation. The televised footage of the two politicians bowing to the monarch made a powerful impression, and Suchinda resigned on May 24.

Democracy was restored, and Thailand became a functional constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary regime once more. In general elections in September 1992, the Democrat Party, led by Chuan Leekpai, won 79 seats and narrowly defeated Chamlong’s Palang Dharma Party, which took 47 seats. Former Prime Minister Chatichai’s National Development Party, which rallied various politicians from old outfits including Chatichai’s former Thai Nation Party, the junta’s old Justice Party, won 60 seats. The Thai Nation Party, now led by the pro-junta and pro-May crackdown Banharn Silpa-archa, won 77 seats and the New Aspiration Party won 51. Chuan Leekpai formed a government with the Palang Dharma and one small party, leading a fairly competent administration until 1995, when he fell on a corruption scandal.

This led to new elections in July 1995. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 92 seats against 86 for Chuan’s Democrat Party. New Aspiration won 57, the National Development Party won 53 and Palang Dharma, divided over the participation in government and devoid of its founder (he handed the party over to a businessmen and political newcomer, Thaksin Shinawatra), took only 23. Banharn, a notoriously corrupt provincial strongman, became Prime Minister in a seven-party coalition including Thaksin as Deputy Prime Minister. However, Thaksin pulled the party out of the coalition in August 1996, leading to early elections in September 1996. Chavalit’s New Aspiration Party won 125 seats, two more than Chuan’s Democrat Party. Banharn’s party lost 53 seats, winning only 39, while the Palang Dharma Party collapsed entirely, winning only one seat.

Chavalit became Prime Minister in a coalition with the Thai Nation Party and four smaller parties. Chavalit would soon face the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand. Since 1985, the Thai economy had been growing rapidly, at an average rate of 9% per year and inflation was kept low, but Thailand contracted a huge foreign debt and an economic bubble grew. In May 1997, the Thai baht was hit by speculative attacks, but Chavalit and the central bank insisted on protecting the bank by spending billions of the country’s international reserves to do so. In July, Chavalit finally allowed the baht (hitherto pegged to the US dollar) to float. The decision triggered the Asian financial crisis, and Chavalit resigned in November 1997.

Chaun Leekpai returned as Prime Minister, heading a difficult seven-party coalition. Chuan brought in IMF-prescribed austerity measures, which led critics to charge that the Democrats protected financial institutions and foreign investors. A new, democratic constitution was approved in 1997.

The January 2001 was one of Thailand’s most significant elections. Chuan’s Democrat Party faced telecommunications magnate Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRT). The TRT had been founded in 1998, built on a populist platform appealing to indebted farmers and rural communities. In the 2001 election, the TRT criticized Chuan’s government for its economic policies, and it campaigned against old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. Thaksin’s TRT won 41% of the votes and 248 seats.

The roots of the current crisis: Thaksin and the 2006 coup

Thaksin has become the polarizing figure at the heart of Thai politics since 2001. He has masses of passionate supporters, but almost equally as large crowds of bitter opponents. Economically, Thakin’s government implemented social policies which have been successful at reducing poverty and income inequalities, particularly in Thaksin’s political base in northeastern Thailand (Isan), the country’s poorest region. His economic policies, branded ‘Thaksinomics’ had nothing especially radical to them and could very well be seen as Keynesian economic stimulus polices. They included, among others, village-financed microcredit development funds, low-interest agricultural loans, direct injections of cash into development funds and the One Tambon One Product local entrepreneurship program. Thaksin also created a proto-universal healthcare system, providing access to public hospitals for the cheap fee of 30 baht (less than US$1) per visit. Considering his policies as left-wing, however, would be quite misleading. At the same time, Thaksin continued Chuan’s privatization agenda, actively supported new free trade agreements and restructured government departments using characteristically ‘conservative’ language about ‘efficiency’, ‘results’ and ‘red tape’. Bangkok also backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although it withdrew its troops in 2004 after two soldiers died.

Thaksin’s policies were very popular with poor voters in rural Isan, but the middle-classes and elites in Bangkok and southern Thailand strongly disliked Thaksin, decrying him as a corrupt, demagogic and authoritarian populist. The 2005 election signaled something which has not changed since: in a head-to-head election, Thaksin’s supporters have a clear numerical advantage over the opposition. The TRT was reelected in an historic landslide, with about 56% of the vote and 375 seats to the Democrat Party’s paltry 16% and 96 seats. The TRT won all but 10 seats in Isan, all but 6 seats in the north and even took 32 of the 37 seats in Bangkok. Only southern Thailand, the old Democrat stronghold, resisted: the Democrats won 52 of the 54 seats.

Thaksin faced serious accusations of corruption before, during and after his term in office. In office, some of his infrastructure and economic policies were criticized for benefiting his family’s companies. In January 2006, the sale of his family’s share in Shin Corporation (a leading telecom company) to an investment firm owned by the Singapore government raised controversy, because Thaksin and his wife’s families gained about $1.88 billion in the transaction and did not have to pay capital gains tax following Thai law.

After the January 2005 election, a conflict with Sondi Limthongkul, a media mogul who had formerly backed Thaskin, escalated. The roots the split between the two means appears to be Thaksin’s decision to fire the president of a state-owned bank who had forgiven Sondhi’s debts. Sondhi broke with Thaksin and became a fiery opponent of the government, claiming that Thaksin was limiting freedom of the press. While it is true that Thaksin’s business dealings were suspect to say the least, that he had innumerable conflicts of interest (a la Berlusconi) and that he was showing signs of authoritarianism, a lot of Sondhi’s other claims were silly (see below).

Sondhi organized the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), along with Thaksin’s early political colleague Chamlong Srimuang. The PAD, or yellow shirts, were mostly drawn from Bangkok’s upper and middle class elites, but also attracted civil servants opposed to privatization, civil society activists, hardline monarchists and some factions of the military. The PAD seized on deep-seated reverence for the monarchy and the monarch himself, accusing – often on flimsy or absurd grounds – Thaksin of disrespecting the king, overstepping his powers as Prime Minister and trampling on religion and the monarchy. For example, in 2005, Sondhi accused Thaksin of usurping royal powers by presiding over a religious ceremony at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and in 2006 he accused Thaksin of masterminding the vandalism of the Phra Phrom Erawan Shrine. In March 2006, Sondhi alleged that Thaksin, along with 1970s student leaders and former members of the banned Communist Party, had been plotting (in Finland, of all places) to overthrow the monarchy and establish a communist state. These wild theories – the so-called Finland Plot – were unfounded and probably invented, but they played into the yellows’ claims that Thaksin had insulted the monarchy and was trampling on the monarchy. Some members of the King’s Privy Council expressed their disapproval of Sondhi and the PAD using the monarchy and the King to further their own political aims, but that didn’t stop the yellows from using slogans such as ‘fight for the King’ or ‘return power to the King’.

In early 2006, yellow protests were matched by large pro-Thaksin (red) rallies. Thaksin, in a bid to defuse the situation or divert attention, called a snap election for April 2006, which he was fairly certain to win. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, along with Banharn’s Thai Nation Party and another small party, boycotted the election. Thaksin’s TRT won 61% of the vote and 460 seats, but 38% of voters used the ‘abstain’ option on ballots to reject the TRT. The ‘abstain’ option swept Bangkok and southern Thailand, leaving the TRT short of the 20% support requirement in 40 unopposed constituencies in those regions. The PAD and the Democrat Party petitioned to have the results declared invalid because of a change in the design of polling stations (voters now had their backs to the public, rather than facing the public, in the booths). The election did nothing to calm the situation, which only worsened. Thaksin proposed a reconciliation commission and said he would step down as Prime Minister when the Parliament reconvened, but the opposition would have none of it. In May 2006, the Constitutional Court declared the April election invalid and ordered a new election for October 15.

In the background, the military began plotting a coup in the summer. On September 19, while Thaksin was at the UN in New York, the military overthrew the government and arrested senior cabinet ministers. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin took power, established a junta – the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), suspended the constitution and dissolved the Parliament, cabinet and Constitutional Court. The CDR accused Thaksin of corruption, nepotism, dividing society, interfering in independent agencies and insulting the King. The CDR reiterated several times that it sought to restore democracy within a year. The coup and junta had the support of former Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was now the President of the Privy Council.

In October 2006, the junta promulgated an interim constitution which centralized power in a powerful executive branch headed by a Prime Minister appointed by the junta and the junta itself. The legislature would be made up entirely of junta appointees, and a committee would draft a permanent constitution. Retired General Surayud Chulanont, who led the governmnent crackdown on protesters in May 1992, was named Prime Minister. The new government kept some of Thaksin’s popular policies – the 30 baht universal health care program was made completely free – but some other programs and policies were cancelled, including rice subsidies, the One Laptop Per Child program, the telecom excise tax and an asset capitalization program. The government was unable to stem an economic slowdown and its economic record was poor with deficits and capital controls to reverse an appreciation of the baht. The military-backed government continued to impose strict censorship of the media and internet and arrested dissidents and junta opponents. The Council for National Security, the successor of the initial junta (CDR) retained significant power and influence, although there were rumours of strained ties between Surayud and the CNS in 2007.

Meanwhile, Thaksin was now in exile, first settling in London. In December 2006, his diplomatic passport was revoked and a junta-appointed committee later froze his assets. In January 2007, Thaksin and later his wife were charged in a corruption case. In May 2007, the Constitutional Tribunal banned the TRT party (and two smaller parties) for ‘conspiring to gain administrative power by illegal means’.

A committee directly and indirectly appointed by the CNS drafted a constitution. Under the new constitution, the legislature remained bicameral, with the directly-elected lower house (House of Representatives) being made up (initially) of 480 members, 400 of which were elected in constituencies (originally multi-member) and the remainder by party-list proportional representation (parallel system). The Senate, non-partisan but entirely directly-elected for the first time under the 1997 constitution, retained 76 directly-elected but non-partisan seats while the other 74 were to be appointed by a committee. The Prime Minister may serve no more than two consecutive terms. The new constitution also made it easier for the Prime Minister and ministers to be removed from office by the House.

The constitution was criticized on a number of fronts: the fairly extensive powers granted to the King, an article granting amnesty to the leaders of the 2006 coup, excessive powers granted to bureaucrats and technocrats leading to fears of a ‘bureaucratic state’. The Thaksinites opposed the constitution, but the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva considered it an improvement on the 1997 constitution and supported it. For the first time, the constitution was to be approved by the electorate in a referendum. However, the junta banned parties from campaigning in favour or against the draft and made criticism of the draft a criminal act – but at the same time, the CNS and the military heavily campaigned in favour of the draft. Under those constitutions, the draft was approved with 57.8% on a turnout of 42.2%. The constitution received over 90% support in six provinces in southern Thailand, but it was rejected by 24 provinces in the north and northeast of the country – the Thaksin bastions.

Thaksinism without Thaksin and the unending cycle

New elections were held in December 2007. The dissolved TRT was reincarnated as the People’s Power Party (Phak Palang Prachachon, PPP), led by seasoned politician and political chameleon Samak Sundaravej, who had presided over the October 1976 massacre. The PPP and Abhisit’s Democrats tied in the proportional vote, but the PPP won 199 FPTP seats to the Democrat Party’s 132, for an overall total of 233 and 165 respectively. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 37 seats and a new party, Pheua Phaendin, formed by TRT defectors, won 24. Samak’s PPP formed a coalition government with the Thai Nation Party, Pheua Phaendin and three smaller parties (the Neutral Democratic Party, the Pracharaj Party and the Chart Pattana Party) – venal parties which sold themselves to the highest bidder. Samak became Prime Minister, beginning the process of ‘Thaksinism without Thaksin’.

Samak was seen by the anti-Thaksin as a proxy for Thaksin. The deposed Prime Minister returned to Thailand in February 2008, although charges against him were not dropped and Thaksin later returned to Britain in August 2008. The new political dispensation led to the recreation of the PAD (yellow shirts), still led by Sondhi. The PAD said their concerns were prompted by the government’s moves to amend the 2007 constitution (notably to remove an article necessitating the dissolution of a political party if one of their leaders was convicted for vote buying; the PAD and anti-Thaksinites in general claim that Thaksin won through vote buying) and the government dismissing members of the judiciary and law enforcement investigating Thaksin. The PAD organized major rallies and protests in Bangkok, paralyzing the city; they laid siege to Government House and in late November, PAD protesters seized and occupied Suvarnabhumi International Airport for about a week.

Samak’s government faced other challenges besides the PAD. In July, the Constitutional Court ruled that the foreign minister and the cabinet as a whole had violated the constitution by failing to ask for parliamentary approval for an agreement with Cambodia, in which the foreign minister agreed to support Cambodia’s bid to seek World Heritage status for the Preah Vihear temple. The site of the temple has been the subject of a long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has come to further poison political debate in Thailand as the yellows used nationalist and anti-Cambodian rhetoric to drum up opposition to Thaksin. The PAD considered that the government was violating Thai territorial sovereignty, and tensions began to flare between Thailand and Cambodia. As the PAD called on Samak to resign, the situation deteriorated further as the PAD stepped up its protests.

Pro-Thaksin protesters began organizing themselves as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or ‘red shirts’. The UDD was made up of pro-Thaksin activists, often drawn from Thaksin’s strongholds in Isan, which heavily criticized the ‘elites’ and the ‘aristocratic’ political system. One target of UDD ire was Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council, who they claimed was the mastermind of the 2006 coup. The UDD’s attacks on Prem and the political elites led to their opponents, the PAD, branding them as anti-monarchist and republican – an extremely serious accusation in Thailand.

As the UDD began clashing with the PAD, Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on September 2 2008. On September 9, the Constitutional Court found that Samak had hosted two cooking shows on TV while he was Prime Minister (it is illegal to be under employment of another person under the constitution) and therefore terminated his premiership. The PPP vowed to renominate Samak, but ultimately they successfully nominated Somchai Wongsawat – Thaksin’s brother-in-law – as Prime Minister. The PAD continued its protests: the sit-in and siege of Government House continued and in October, the PAD laid siege to Parliament, led to violent clashes with police.

In December 2008, the Constitutional Court order the dissolution of the PPP, the Thai Nation Party and the Neutral Democratic Party on vote buying charges. Under the law, non-executive MPs of the parties could remain in Parliament by switching parties within a limited amount of time, but executive MPs were disqualified and lost their political rights. The PPP decried a judicial coup, and began reorganizing as the Pheu Thai Party (PT). While the PT tried to reorganize a coalition around itself and the PPP’s five ex-partners; within days, the Democrats won the backing the five ex-PPP partners and a PPP splinter around corrupt provincial boss Newin Chidchob (who founded the Bhumjaithai Party, BJT). General Anupong Paochinda, the Commander in Chief of the Army, allegedly coerced Newin’s MPs into backing Abhisit.

Abhisit, a young, polished Oxford-educated politician with an elitist reputation, became Prime Minister. Abhisit had opposed the 2006 coup but cautiously supported the 2007 constitution, and as opposition leader he had personally opposed the PAD’s tactics but many Democrat MPs supported the PAD’s aims and tactics very openly. The PAD, although lacking formal ties to the Democrat Party, cried victory; but just as they did, the UDD organized against Abhisit in March 2009, after Thaksin claimed via video broadcast that Prem was behind the 2006 coup and that Privy Council members, including former junta-appointed Prime Minister Surayud had conspired to make Abhisit PM. The UDD called for a revolution to overthrow the amatayathipatai (government by elites, bureaucrats and nobles), again using language which made them appear very much anti-monarchist in the eyes of the yellows. The UDD protests grew in size and intensity in April 2009. There were violent protests at an ASEAN summit in Pattaya, at the interior ministry in Bangkok and the capital’s main arteries. Abhisit briefly declared a state of emergency; UDD rioters and law enforcement both used violence, resulting in over 100 injuries and a handful of deaths on the UDD side. By the end of April 2009, the UDD wave of protests had died off.

Abhisit’s government also had to tackle the economic crisis, which put Thailand in recession (-2.3%) in 2009, although by the fourth quarter of 2009, Thailand was recording solid growth and the economy expanded by 7.8% in 2010. Abhisit’s economic policies, certainly in a bid to build popular support and cut into Thaksin’s base, consisted of generous public spending and social spending schemes. Bangkok faced trouble with Cambodia, after Abhisit appointed a fiery anti-Cambodian ex-PAD leader as foreign minister. Large-scale fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops in April 2009, with intermittent clashes in 2011, led to about 20 deaths on both sides. In November 2009, Thailand withdrew its ambassador from Cambodia (which retaliated by doing likewise with its ambassador in Bangkok) after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, now living in Dubai, as a special adviser to his government. The crisis was not resolved until August 2010, when Thaksin resigned his Cambodian gig. In the meantime, in February, the Thai Supreme Court ordered the seizure of part of his assets (46 billion bahts) and the other 30 billion baht remained frozen.

The UDD protests began anew in March 2010, shortly after the Supreme Court’s verdict in Thaksin’s asset seizure case. Protests on March 14 were said to be the largest in Thai history, with another large – and peaceful – march on March 20. Imitating their PAD rivals, the reds occupied intersections, commercial districts and political institutions in Bangkok. On April 10, however, the military opened fire on UDD protesters, killing 24 people. As in the past, the situation remained extremely polarized with intransigent actors on both sides, which hated one another – the UDD demanded new elections and Abhisit’s resignations, while Abhisit and his fiery Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban refused to resign and considered the protesters to be ‘terrorists’ or pawns ‘bought’ by Thaksin’s camarilla. Abhisit, however, did relieve Suthep of his ‘security’ responsibilities and replaced him with army commander General Anupong.

UDD demonstrations, radicalized, continued throughout April but were met by pro-government protests (or neutral protests by those tired of the UDD’s disruption of the city). Uncontrollable elements in the UDD set off bombs and grenades, while the military threatened to use force to dislodge the UDD. On May 14, the army moved in to surround the UDD’s main camp in Bangkok, beginning a bloody crackdown which ended with about 85 deaths by May 22. The military’s bloody crackdown effectively killed the UDD protests, although smaller protests emerged in 2010 and 2011 (with PAD counter-protests in 2011).

Abhisit finally called an election for July 2011. Under new electoral laws introduced by the Abhisit government, increasing the number of seats in the House to 500 – with 375 elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and 125 elected by party-list PR – changes designed to favour the Democrats, who had narrowly won the list vote in 2007 but lost the constituency vote heavily to Thaksin’s party. The Thaksinite party, Pheu Thai (For Thais, PT), was led by a young political novice with a famous last name – Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister and a businesswoman. Although Yingluck was an inexperienced political outsider, she proved a much stronger campaigner than Abhisit. Despite Abhisit’s populist and interventionist economic policies – which dismayed the more radical, elitist and anti-democratic elements in the PAD – he was still associated with the elite and was hurt by his own elitist image. In contrast, Yingluck – backed by her brother and a good team of advisers and consultants, played on her good looks, charisma and smooth talk. She remained positive and consensual, preaching reconciliation and amnesty (ostensibly for both sides) and promising goodies such as free tablet PCs for school students and raising the minimum wage to 300 baht/day. Abhisit’s Democrats tried, without any luck, to use negative scare tactics against the PT, saying that a PT victory would mean ‘mob rule’.

The current crisis

Party winning the most direct seats by province, 2011 (own map)

Yingluck’s PT won a landslide victory, larger than the PPP’s victory in 2007. On the list vote, which was tied up in 2007, the PT won 48.4% against 35.2% for the Democrats, leaving only crumbs for the small parties. In the direct seats, the PT won 204 seats to the Democrat Party’s 115 seats. Overall, the PT won an absolute majority on its own, with 265 out of 500 seats (53% of seats) against 159 for the Democrats (31.8% of seats). Newin’s BJT party won 34 seats – 29 of which were constituency seats, reflecting the party’s personalist nature. The Chartthaipattana (CTP), the successor to the dissolved Thai Nation (Chart Thai) party won 19 seats, 15 of which were constituency seats (mostly from Banharn’s province). Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, another populist outfit led by corrupt political chameleons, won took 7 seats; Chonburi Province’s political boss Sontaya Kunplome (a cabinet minister under Thaksin) won 7 seats (6 constituency seats, all from Chonburi); brothel king Chuwit Kamolvisit’s Rak Thailand outfit won 4 seats; 2006 coup leader General Sonthi’s Muslim-based Matubhum Party won 2 seats and three smaller parties won one seat each. Once again, the political map showed a clear polarization between the Thaksinite strongholds and the Democrats’ fiefdoms. The PT won no direct seats in southern Thailand, where almost every single seat when to the Democrats. In contrast, the PT swept the huge majority of seats in Isan and northern Thailand; the Democrats managed to win a number of provinces in the north (bordering Myanmar/Burma), an ethnically Karen region. The Democrats won the most seats in Bangkok, but the PT was dominant in Bangkok’s poorer suburbs, many of which have a large Isan migrant population.

Polarization continued under Yingluck, although there were no major anti-government protests by the yellows in 2011 or 2012. Yingluck has been praised by her supporters for her handling of the 2011 floods in Thailand and her management of the economy; her yellow rivals have derided her administration – for example, poking fun at Yingluck’s poor command of English (despite holding a Masters from Kentucky State University). They widely consider Yingluck to be her brother’s puppet, and they insist that Thaksin runs Thailand through video conferences from Dubai. Indeed, Yingluck’s government explored every avenue to allow her brother to return: in December 2011, he was allegedly granted a Thai passport (until then, he had been using Nicaraguan and Montenegrin passports). He has been said to exert power on her cabinet appointments and sent much ‘advice’ to ministers and MPs.

The Thai economy was badly hurt by the mass floods in 2011. 815 people died, hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged and the floods were said to have been the fourth costliest natural disaster with damages estimated at $45.7 billion. In 2011, the Thai economy grew by only 0.1%, badly hurting Thailand’s rice crops. Yingluck toured the flood areas and offered moral support, but government’s response has been criticized as tardy and ineffective.

One of Yingluck’s landmark economic policy was a subsidy for rice farmers, under which the government buys rice directly from farmers at twice the market price. As a result, the government began stockpiling unknown amounts of rice The populist measure was designed to help poor rice farmers in Isan and central Thailand – fiercely loyal constituencies for the PT; on the other hand, private rice exporters, who support the opposition, were hurt by the policy. Overall, Yingluck’s rice subsidies have been considered rather unsuccessful: the government’s theories and assumptions (that its policies would force up international rice prices) failed to play out and Thailand’s rivals – India and Vietnam – have overtaken it as top rice exporters. The policy costs Bangkok about $15 billion, and there have been concerns of corruption, mismanagement and rumours that criminals have illegally imported cheap grain from Cambodia and Myanmar in a bid to profit from the government’s largess. Yingluck has refused to back down from her landmark policy.

The economy grew by 6.5% in 2012 but growth slowed to 3.1% in 2013. Government debt levels, which stood at 37% in 2008 and 42% in 2011, have increased to 47% in 2013 and is projected to hit 53.5% in 2018.

Her promises of ‘national reconciliation’ quickly amounted to nothing. She formed a House committee on reconciliation, with a built-in PT majority although it was chaired by 2006 coupist general Sonthi. Sonthi’s committee proposed a blanket amnesty for all involved in violence since 2006 and to drop all charges against Thaksin. The latter proposal incensed the Democrat Party. The government often acted as it was going through all this with the intention of saving Thaksin, a behaviour which hurt the government’s standing and proved fruitless. Thaksin’s legal standing hasn’t changed since 2011: he still lives in exile, the Thai courts still want his head. The amnesty and reconciliation proposals have been at the heart of the current political crisis.

The opposition has fought tooth-and-nail against the government’s amnesty proposals. Abhisit insisted that Yingluck’s only interest was her brother. In May 2012, a first attempt to pass an amnesty bill aroused enormous hostility inside and outside of Parliament, even in PT ranks, and the government was compelled to back down. The army even had to step in to deny that it was considering a coup. In November 2012, around 10,000 protesters organized by the implacably anti-government Pitak Siam of retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit marched in Bangkok. A draft bill pushed forward by a PT MP and former UDD activist passed a first reading in August 2013 and a committee approved a revised bill in October. The new bill was a blanket amnesty for the period 2004-2013, including corruption charges against Thaksin and murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep. The bill was passed by the House on November 1.

The bill incensed both the opposition yellows and the pro-government reds. The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, decried the bill because it dropped charges against Thaksin. The reds said the bill led those behind the killings and military crackdown of 2010 off the hook. The bill also drops over 25,000 graft cases, many of them involving senior politicians. To appease the opposition and reds, Yingluck sent the bill to the Senate, which unanimously rejected it within days. Despite the Senate’s decision, growing protests in Bangkok – led by the yellows – did not die off. On November 20, the Constitutional Court rejected a proposed constitutional amendment which would have made the Senate entirely elected rather than partially appointed. The government was infuriated, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction and that it was acting in a politically motivated fashion. While the government let the issue slide, but protests swelled.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and senior Democrat politician Suthep Thaugsuban resigned to take the leadership of the protest movement, along with other Democrat MPs. By late November, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets. In Bangkok, protesters seized several ministries. The government invoked special security laws (as is usual in Thai protests) but authorities did not use force against protesters. The movement was organized around the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep. Protests began turning more violent in early December, with a few deaths and many injuries in clashes between PDRC protesters and police or between reds and yellows. Calm returned, briefly, to allow for the celebration of the ailing King’s birthday on December 5. But after that brief pause, protests returned.

On December 9, Yingluck dissolved the House and called for general elections on February 2, 2014. Yingluck’s called the opposition’s bluff, daring them to measure their strength against the PT in an election. The PT was certainly confident that it would win another majority in a new election – just like the Thaksinites have won every election since 2001, despite their opponents’ best efforts. Abhisit, Suthep and the Democrats announced on December 21 that they would boycott the election. Abhisit said that “Thai politics is at a failed stage” and that “people have lost their faith in the democratic system”.

The PDRC and the Democrats know that they would lose an election; instead, Suthep has called on Yingluck to resign for the formation of an unelected (likely technocratic or aristocratic) ‘people’s council’ to reform electoral laws and the constitution before elections can be held. Many of the yellow protesters feel that Thai democracy has failed, citing ‘vote buying’ by Thaksin’s ilk which has corrupted the system. There is little evidence, however, that any of the Thaksinite election victories were rigged or systematically ‘bought’. In many ways, the yellows seem unable to cope with the fact that they represent a perennial minority of public opinion and that the majority of the population continues to support Thaksin’s parties. If democracy has broken down, it is also the fault of the opposition and the Democrats, who have been unable to expand their base or challenge Thaksin’s policies in a way which recognizes the very real support he has in parts of Thailand. Suthep effectively wants the old elites – hostile to Thaksin and his poor supporters – to run the country.

The opposition protesters in Bangkok are, as in the past, drawn from the middle-classes, upper-classes, ultramonarchist circles or bused in from the Democrat strongholds of southern Thailand. They regard the reds as rabble bought off by Thaksin’s wealth. Many pro-yellow commentators or individuals often use disparaging language to refer to Thaksin’s supporters in Isan. Because the dialect they speak (Isan), is a spin-off of Lao written in Thai script, some comment that they should “go back to Laos”.

In boycotting the election, the opposition was widely seen by outsiders as begging for the military to take matters into their own hands, as in 2006. The government, for all its faults, seemed – on paper – willing to negotiate a delay of the election date (which remains scheduled, as of now, for February 2, but nobody knows what will happen between now and then), but Suthep showed no willingness to negotiate. He is hardly concealing the fact that he would prefer that the army does what it knows best and remove Yingluck’s government from office. On December 27, the army commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha did not rule out the possibility of a coup. Alternatively, the Democrats have pressured the anti-corruption office into charging PT executives and MPs (over 300 of them), including Yingluck, for voting to make the Senate fully elected. If charged, they could be disqualified from political office.

Protests have continued in January 2014. They have largely remained peaceful, but hundreds have been injured in clashes with police. On January 13, the PDRC protesters stepped up their protests, promising to shutdown Bangkok. There have been small-scale, isolated bomb blasts at yellow rallies, without the police being able to catch the perpetrators. A few days ago, Yingluck’s government declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and its surroundings. The decree gives the government wide-ranging powers, going from a curfew (which will be difficult to implement) to censorship of the press.

It is up in the air whether there will be an election on February 2. The election commission wants to delay the election, but feels it lacks the power to do so. The state of emergency adds to the uncertainty and raises questions about the feasibility of organizing a poll under such circumstances. The opposition has prevent candidates from registering in 28 constituencies, meaning that even if there is an election, it will probably lack the quorum (475 members) to convene. For the time being, Thailand remains in legal limbo. Murmurs of a civil war (in the case of a coup, some reds have been talking of retreating to Isan and the north and fight the coup from there) or even the breakup of the country are likely exaggerated. The army has been surprisingly remote. It likely knows that a coup would only have minority support, and the long-term outcome of the 2006 coup (the election of a Thaksinite government in 2007) likely cools them off.

Thai politics remain hopelessly polarized, with little resolution in sight for the short term. The elections on February 2 will resolve nothing. Hopefully this post provided a thorough background to the current crisis and Thailand’s political history.

Bangladesh 2014

Happy New Year 2014!

Legislative elections were held in Bangladesh on January 5, 2014. 300 members of the Jatiyo Sangshad (জাতীয় সংসদ), Bangladesh’s unicameral legislature, were up for reelection. The 300 directly-elected members are elected to serve five-year terms in single-member constituencies by FPTP. An additional 50 seats reserved for women.


At the Partition of India in 1947, the predominantly Muslim eastern half of the old Bengal Province became part of the new Muslim state of Pakistan. The eastern wing of the new state, which held a majority of the country’s population, was separated from the western half by over 1,600km of Indian territory. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, and the Muslim League promoted the ‘two nations theory’ which downplayed ethnolinguistic divisions by emphasizing the political unity of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.

However, if East Pakistan was largely Muslim (with an Hindu majority), it was populated by the Bengali people who spoke Bengali. West Pakistan, particularly the Punjabis, came to become the dominant force in the new Pakistani state, even if they had only a minority of the population (but most of the economic power). Urdu – the lingua franca of Indian Muslims – was declared the sole official language and Pakistan became a centralized state with weak democratic institutions and a powerful and politicized military. The western wing of Pakistan dominated in politics, the economy, the military and the civil service; most government funding was directed towards West Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan and the central government’s policies alienated the Bengali population of East Pakistan. Organized in 1949 under the Awami League, they demanded a confederal structure in which a weak federal government would only control defense and foreign affairs while the constituent states held considerable powers.

In 1952, Bengali students protested in Dhaka against the imposition of Urdu as Pakistan’s sole official language. The police opened fire on the crowd and a number of students were killed. The Bengali language movement, as it became known, catalysed the expression of Bengali nationalism. In 1954, the United Front – a Bengali regionalist coalition including the Awami League – won the provincial elections in East Pakistan, but the components of the United Front fought one another for control of the provincial government, undermining their efficiency. In 1956, Pakistan’s first constitution – which took nine years to write – created, on paper, a very centralized federal state (in which West Pakistan’s four provinces were merged into a single province following the One Unit scheme) and a national legislature in which each ‘wing’ held an equal number of seats (instead of rep-by-pop which would give most seats to East Pakistan). The constitution was never actually put into practice: in 1957, President Iskander Mirza (a Bengali) dismissed the Prime Minister, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy (who was from East Pakistan); in 1958, Mirza imposed martial law and suspended democratic government in the provinces; a few weeks later, Mirza himself was overthrown in a military coup and General Ayub Khan became President.

Ayub’s military regime promulgated a new constitution in 1962 which established a presidential republic and made few concessions to Bengalis. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had advocated for the east’s ‘liberation’ as early as 1956, became leader of the Awami League after Suhrawardy’s death in 1963. Mujib announced a six-point programme which demanded a confederal state, a weak central government controlling only foreign affairs and defense, rep-by-pop and universal suffrage, and provincial powers over taxation, currency, foreign exchange and power to raise a militia. Mujib was arrested in 1968. His six-point programme widened the gap between east and west and aggravated an already unstable situation which led to Ayub’s resignation and replacement by General Yahya Khan in 1969. Yahya prepared for the first nationwide democratic elections in 1970, in which East Pakistan received a majority of the legislature’s 300 seats. However, Yahya and West Pakistan’s appearance of indifference to the plight of the Bengali after a massive cyclone in November 1970 which killed 250,000 caused a great deal of animosity.

Mujib’s Awami League won the December 1970 elections, winning 160 of East Pakistan’s 162 seats but winning no seats in West Pakistan. Yahya refused to hand over power, and ordered a military crackdown on Bengali nationalism, beginning a brutal war for Bengali independence and a humanitarian crisis in which thousands and thousands of civilians were massacred. The Pakistani military and their local allies, mostly Islamists, began a campaign of terror – widely described as a genocide – in which perhaps over a million civilians were killed, raped or displaced. Bengalis also murdered many non-Bengali minorities. If the Pakistanis held back the East Pakistani rebels until December 1971, a rapid Indian military intervention soundly defeated the Pakistanis in a matter of 12 days. Pakistan surrendered on December 16, 1971.

Sheikh Mujib became President (later Prime Minister) of Bangladesh upon his return home in March 1972, after he was released from prison in Pakistan. The 1972 constitution proclaimed the principles of nationalism, socialism, secularism, and democracy; but in the following years, Mujib paid lip service to those – especially democracy. Mujib returned to a country scarred by civil war and on the verge of a massive humanitarian crisis, and his policies and style did little to improve the situation. Although Mujib pardoned some suspected war criminals and became less of a secularist, he surrounded himself with ‘freedom fighters’ from the war and shunned the old Pakistani civil servants and Bengali military officers who had not joined the ‘freedom fighters’. His nationalization Bangladeshi manufacturing and trading strangled entrepreneurship in its infancy, while enforcement of Bengali as the sole official language as a replacement for English increased the country’s isolation. In 1974, over a million people died during a famine partly caused by government policies. In 1975, Mujib amended the constitution to make himself President and establish a single-party state. Mujib, all but two members of his family and most of his staff were assassinated by junior army officers.

Following the de-facto military coup, the assassins chose Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, a conservative member of the Awami League to serve as President. The new government was recognized by Pakistan and relations with India, strong under Mujib, deteriorated. In September 1975, the new President promulgated an indemnity act which granted immunity to Mujib’s assassins. Mujib’s loyalist in the army overthrow Mostaq in a coup in November, but days later a counter-coup by a leftist but anti-Indian party overthrew the Mujib loyalists. General Ziaur Rahman, a military officer and a rival of the slain Mujib, became the second in command of the new regime as deputy chief martial law administrator – but it was not long before Zia overshadowed the figurehead president.

In April 1977, Zia officially became president and moved to restore order by banning political parties, censoring the media, imposing martial law and using the army to arrest dissident and army mutineers. On the other hand, Zia restored order and stability after an highly unstable interregnum. He preached the ‘politics of hope’, encouraging Bangladeshis to work harder and produce more; unlike Mujib he did not discriminate against those who had not fully participated in the liberation struggle. Zia’s economic policies, somewhat successful, aimed to increase grain production and integrate rural development.

Zia’s regime moved the country in a new direction, away from Mujib’s secular Bengali nationalism towards Bangladeshi nationalism, which gave emphasis to Islam and amended the constitution removing references to secularism and socialism, replacing them with references to religion and ‘absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah’. Zia lifted the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party which had opposed independence and had committed war crimes during the liberation war. Diplomatically, Zia moved away from Mujib’s close ties to India and the Soviet Union, improving relations with nations such as Pakistan, China or Saudi Arabia which had opposed the country’s independence but also with the US and Western Europe.

By 1978, Zia moved to give his regime a civilian and non-military appearance, by naming a cabinet largely made up of civilians, later rescinding the ban on political parties and promising a democratic transition to an elected legislature. Zia’s party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), won 207 out of 300 seats in the 1979 elections, against only 54 for the Awami League, which was now led by Sheikh Hasina – Mujib’s eldest daughter and one of only two family members who were not assassinated in 1975.

Zia was assassinated in May 1981 by disgruntled officers, led by Major General Abul Manzoor, who had been passed over for a promotion in Dhaka and instead handed an inferior command in Chittagong. However, Zia’s Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, remained loyal and Manzoor was arrested. Power transferred to Zia’s Vice President, Abdus Sattar, who was confirmed in a 1981 presidential election. But after less than a year in office, Ershad took power in a bloodless coup. Although Ershad, for the time being, gave the presidency to a non-entity, he imposed martial law, suspended the constitution and prohibited all political activity. Ershad officially became President in December 1983. Ershad cited rampant corruption and infighting in the ruling BNP as justifications for his coup; in reality, the military distrusted Sattar, a civilian, and Sattar irked them by attempting to curtail their power and hinting that their role was not to rule the country.

Ershad’s authoritarian regime summarily cracked down on dissent, but at the same time undertook some important reforms. A land reform granted rights to tenants for the first time in the country’s history, the government denationalized state-owned enterprises, the economy was liberalized granting a larger role to the private sector and foreign investment. Meanwhile, civilian opposition – divided between Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and the BNP, led by Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia – picked up steam, prompting Ershad to give his regime a more civilian tint and make cautious moves towards liberalization, rejected by both the BNP and the Awami League as martial law remained in place. Ershad, undeterred, roared ahead and got his plans ratified in a sham referendum in 1985.

Legislative elections were organized in 1986. Ershad’s relaxations of martial law (and the release of political leaders such as Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from house arrest) proved enough for the Awami League to partake in the process, although the BNP and its allies boycotted the poll. In a vote marred by extensive fraud in Ershad’s favour, Ershad’s party, the Jatiya Party, won 153 seats to the Awami League’s 76 and 10 for the Jamaat-e-Islami. Ershad proceeded to resign his army command post, join the Jatiya Party and run for president in an October 1986 presidential election which was boycotted by all opposition parties. Hasina and Khaleda Zia, among others, were placed under house arrest. A month or so later, Ershad withdrew martial law. But he soon declared a state of emergency following new opposition protests in 1987.

Ershad’s moves to consolidate his civilian-military regime’s hold on power at the local (district) level unleashed a storm which managed to unite the Awami League, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami into a common anti-government front which led massive protests in 1987 and 1988. Violence and general strikes complicated the organization of local elections in February 1988. The opposition boycotted early legislative elections held in April 1988, resulting in Jatiya Party landslide. However, the opposition was not subdued and Ershad’s hold on power – so solid for years – quickly faltered as he lost the backing of key foreign allies and the military commanders. In December 1990, he stepped down and allowed a caretaker government to organize elections for February 1991.

Since 1991, Bangladesh has been an unstable and imperfect democracy marked by an enduring clash between Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda Zia’s BNP, with Ershad’s Jatiya Party switching its allegiance between the two major parties. Elections are generally free and fair, although political leadership remains in the hands of a closed, affluent elite or within a single family – both major parties can be more effectively described as personalist/family machines than actual ideological parties. If there are policy differences between the parties, they mostly lie in the two parties’ historical traditions: the Awami League has tended to be secular and nominally left-wing, while the BNP has given more support to political Islam and is seen as being on the right. Despite the relative lack of policy differences, there is deep personal animosity – even hatred – between the two women at the heart of the country’s politics since 1991. There is no end in sight to the family vendetta disguised as multiparty politics. Khaleda Zia’s heir apparent is her son, Tarique Rahman, who has been accused of laundering millions during his mother’s second term (2001-2006) and now lives in exile in the UK. More recently, Hasina’s party has tried to make something out of Sajeeb Wazed, Hasina’s son

Democracy is seriously undermined by corruption, weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency and political polarization breeding intermittent violence. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, placing 136th out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. There is widespread impunity with regards to corruption, and when the law is applied by the government it is done in a patchy and biased manner often aimed more at targeting political opponents. If the government allows for a relatively free press, journalists often face threats and attacks from party activists, organized crime or Islamists. Courts are politicized, inefficient and corrupt; prisons are overcrowded and conditions very poor; security forces often use excessive force with little to no legal consequence.

The extent of impunity and the close ties between politics and corrupt businessmen was shown in April 2013, with the collapse of an eight-story commercial building in the Greater Dhaka which killed, officially, 1,129 people and injured another 2,000. Although inspectors had found cracks in the building the day before, garment workers – many of them women and children – were forced to return to work the following day. The building, as it turned out, was a member of the ruling Awami League. The disaster led to widespread international criticism. The garment industry form the bulk of Bangladesh’s export, making it a lucrative sector. Wages are low, working conditions are horrible, child labour widespread, accountability limited (many factory owners are MPs) and the articulation of workers’ grievances is curtailed by limits on unionization and government harassment of labour rights organizations.

Khaleda Zia won the 1991 elections, a close race against the Awami League. On roughly the same percentage of the vote, the BNP won 140 seats to the Awami League’s 88. Ershad’s Jatiya Party won 35 seats while the Jamaat-e-Islami took 15. The opposition boycotted the February 1996 elections; the Awami League had been demanding the formation of a caretaker government to supervise the election, a demand refused by the BNP. If the BNP won the February 1996 election, political turmoil escalated to the point that it was forced to amend the constitution to allow for a caretaker government to supervise new elections in June 1996.

Hasina’s Awami League won these new elections, winning 146 seats to the BNP’s 116 and the Jatiya Party’s 32. The Jatiya Party, led from prison by Ershad, temporarily gave its support to Hasina’s government. The 2001 elections, supervised by a caretaker government, were closely fought with both the BNP and Awami League winning 40% or so of the vote, but Khaleda’s BNP returned with a large majority – 193 seats to Awami League’s 62. Ershad’s party, along with two Islamist groups (including the Jamaat-e-Islami), both sided with the BNP and won 14 and 17 seats respectively.

Khaleda’s extremely corrupt government oversaw economic growth and some mildly successful measures aimed at educating young girls and distributing food to the poor. As Khaleda stepped down in October 2006 to make way for the constitutionally-mandated caretaker government, the country fell into a political crisis which would last until 2008. The Awami League organized rioting on the eve of the handover of power, questioning the neutrality of the Chief Justice due to become head of the caretaker government. As the BNP and Awami League rejected other potential justices to lead the caretaker government, President Iajuddin Ahmed became head of the caretaker government himself and set out to organize elections for January 2007. However, the Awami League withdrew from the 2007 elections at the last minute, effectively cancelling them.

The President, with military support, declared a state of emergency but remained committed to organizing free and fair elections with a credible voters’ register and independent electoral commission. The state of emergency suspended some basic constitutional rights including the freedom of movement, assembly, and speech. The caretaker government filed corruption charges against Hasina, Khaleda and Khaleda’s two sons (both high-ups in the BNP). The government tried to push Khaleda to go into exile in Saudi Arabia but she was later arrested in September 2007; Hasina was originally banned from returning to Dhaka until May 2007, but she too was arrested in July 2007. While there’s absolutely no doubt that both women are personally corrupt, the arrests were seen – including by the international community – as politically-motivated and a move by the military-backed government to sideline the two major politicians. Both women were later released, allowing for the elections to go ahead on December 29, 2008. The BNP and Awami League’s refusal to play along with the military forced the military to admit defeat – it had failed in its goal of riding the country of its two key political leaders.

Hasina’s Awami League, in coalition with Ershad’s Jatiya Party, formed a Grand Alliance which obtained a huge majority in the Parliament: the Awami League won 49% and 230 out of 300 seats, and the Jatiya Party won another 27 seats (another 5 seats went to three small parties in the Grand Alliance). Khaleda’s Four Party Alliance, led by the BNP allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami and a dissident faction of the Jatiya Party, won only 33 seats. The BNP itself won 33% and 30 seats, the Jamaat-e-Islami was left with only two seats, down from 17 in 2001. Ershad was rumoured to become President, but he did not.

Hasina has faced a tumultuous term, still plagued by the same issues which have undermined democracy for the past two decades. Her government moved to undo two key constitutional amendments passed by Zia and Ershad’s regimes which had abandoned secularism and legitimized the 1975-1979 martial law. The country’s highest courts struck down the fifth and seventh amendments, which legitimized decrees passed under martial law during Zia and Ershad’s regimes, effectively declaring the two military regimes to be null and void. In June 2011, Parliament passed the fifteenth amendment, which restored the 1972 constitution’s original principles of secularism, democracy, Bengali nationalism and socialism all the while keeping intact the rights of faith-based parties and still defining Islam as the state religion. Some complained that Hasina abandoned the principles of secularism by keeping those two key clauses in place.

Hasina’s government has actively promoted the legacy of her father, Sheikh Mujib, creating something of a cult of personality. In January 2010, the government oversaw the execution of five participants in Mujib’s 1975 assassination; the previous year, the Supreme Court had confirmed the death penalty for five of the accused after a 13-year long trial which had been blocked, between 2001 and 2006, by Khaleda Zia’s BNP government.

As it had promised in 2008, the Awami League created a domestic tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed during the liberation war. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), which is a domestic court despite its name, was formed in 2009 to prosecute suspected war criminals – albeit targeting only anti-independence East Pakistani collaborators, rather than those who had fought in the regular (West) Pakistani military. By 2012, nine members – including prominent leaders – of the Jamaat-e-Islami and two from the BNP had been indicted. The ICT was supported by most Bangladeshis as overdue justice for past crimes, but its failure to meet international standards, lack of fairness and transparency and allegations of government interference to obtain a quick verdict was criticized by international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and foreign governments. In 2012, The Economist published contents of leaked emails and Skype calls between the head judge and a Brussels-based Bangladeshi attorney, suggesting that the government was seeking a quick verdict and that the judge was being influenced by the attorney, who had no legal standing in the ICT.

In 2013, the trials and first sentences divided the country, leading to mass protests and outbreaks of violence. In February 2013, the ICT sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader known as the ‘butcher of Mirpur’, to life imprisonment on five of six counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Economist said that he had been sentenced on “flimsy evidence”, including the testimony of a girl who was 13 at the time and hiding under a bed at the time. Nevertheless, the relatively lax sentence outraged Bangladeshis, who took to the streets of Dhaka to demand the death penalty for Mollah. The Awami League backed the protests, with the Prime Minister speaking out in favour of the death penalty. Even the opposition BNP, which has traditionally defended Jamaat, didn’t want to miss out on a chance to partake in a popular protests and belatedly welcomed the protests. In September, the Supreme Court reversed the verdict, sentencing Mollah to death by hanging. Mollah was hanged on December 12.

In late February, the ICT sentenced another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, to death by hanging. Jamaat activists rioted, attacking the Hindu minority, looting their properties and burning their homes and temples. Jamaat claimed that the trials were politically motivated and that it was the target of a witch-hunt by the government (which is quite possible), a claim echoed by the intransigent BNP. Violent protests and strikes organized by Jamaat with the BNP’s support led to several deaths in March. In early May, up to 50 people were by police forces breaking up a protest organized by Hefajat-e-Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist organization which demanded an anti-blasphemy law, ending the country’s pro-women development policies, banning on public mixing of the sexes and banning ‘shameless behaviour’.

In August 2013, the High Court ruled that Jamaat-e-Islami was ‘unfit’ to contest elections citing planks in the party’s charter which were unconstitutional. The election commission later cancelled Jamaat’s registration. The government welcomed the decision, which it had been unwilling to take itself, fearing a violent response and opposition from countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Relations between the government and the BNP opposition have been as horrible as ever. The BNP, intransigent as ever, accused the government of condoning murders of BNP activists, setting up a biased war crimes tribunal and intimidating BNP supporters. While the BNP’s behaviour, allowing its thugs to run wild during protests, have not helped, some of its accusations do hold up. The government has been continuing the usual family vendettas against the BNP, laying charges on Khaleda and issuing an arrest warrant for her exiled son (and heir presumptive) Tarique Rahman in 2011, abducting a BNP politician and arresting over 30 opposition figures including MPs on trumped-up arson charges. The government has been going after Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank which gives microcredits to the poor. Hasina accused Yunus of ‘sucking blood from the poor’, most believe that the government is trying to grab control of Grameen and settle scores with Yunus, who had the temerity of briefly creating his own political party in 2007. According to Human Rights Watch, over 150 people were killed between February and August 2013 and almost 300 have died in political violence in 2013.

The Awami League’s support has been slipping. In the summer of 2013, the BNP won mayoral elections in most cities, including in industrial Gazipur, said to be one of the League’s safest seats. There is nothing extremely surprising in this: no government since 1991 has won reelection in a contested election, as voters inevitably turn angry on the government and MPs who treat their constituencies as cash registers.

A point of contention between the opposition and the government has been the fifteenth amendment, which also removed the requirement for a neutral caretaker government to supervise the elections. Reversing roles from 1996, the BNP threatened the government that it would boycott the elections unless a caretaker government was appointed, the government showed no great desire to compromise. In October, the BNP-led opposition, which includes 17 other parties (it is known as the 18 Party Alliance) called a general strike (hartal). Two days before the strike, the two women talked on the phone for 36 minutes, in an attempt by Hasina to get Khaleda to call off the strike. Instead of agreeing to anything, a transcript has shown that the two women bickered and quarreled the entire time – arguing over whether or not Khaleda’s phone was dead, if a dead phone could ring, about Khaleda cutting a birthday cake and fighting over past incidents (Mujib’s assassination, a 2004 grenade attack on Hasina, the other side’s propensity for violence and murders). The strike went ahead and 13 were killed. The BNP continued its violent protests, crippling transportation and the economy. Jamaat, fighting for its very survival, resorted to murdering its opponents.

Election and results

The BNP-led 18 Party Alliance boycotted the election. This was slightly surprising, given that many believed that the BNP had been bluffing, given that it was said that the BNP was eager to contest the election and that it was confident of victory. Khaleda Zia was placed under house arrest on December 29. Even Ershad’s Jatiya Party, which had remained in cabinet until now, pulled out of the election in early December. The government had promised Ershad’s party 60 seats as a reward for taking part in the sham election, but when he opted to withdraw, Ershad was led away from his home by security forces. Ershad, currently detained in an hospital, might now be exiled. Ershad has threatened to commit suicide if the government ‘plays tricks’ with him.

Turnout was apparently 22%, although the New York Times cited an official number of 39.8%. 154 out of 300 seats were not contested, so about 52% of voters could not cast a ballot.

Awami League winning 231 seats (104 elected, 127 acclaimed)
Jatiya Party winning 33 seats (13 elected, 20 acclaimed)
Workers’ Party winning 6 seats (4 elected, 2 acclaimed)
Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal winning 5 seats (2 elected, 3 acclaimed)
JP-Manju winning 1 seat (1 acclaimed)
Bangladesh Nationalist Front winning 1 seat (1 elected)
Bangladesh Tarikat Federation winning 1 seat (1 elected)
Independents winning 14 seats (14 elected)
Repoll ordered in 8 seats

In an election marred by protests and violence right up to election day, the governing Awami League ‘won’, handily retaining its two-thirds majority in the Parliament in which the main opposition party, the BNP, will have no seats. 22-24 people were killed on election day, and seven people died the next day, making it the most violent election in Bangladesh’s history. The police further exacerbated tensions by continuing to arrest opposition leaders.

This election, naturally, does not solve anything. While the government claims that it won legitimately, and that the opposition made a mistake in choosing not participate, the opposition has decried the election as a farce. BNP leader Khaleda Zia claims that she is ready to discuss, but only after the government releases the BNP’s senior leaders from jail. The government has stated that it will only negotiate once the violence ends (‘terrorist activities’), saying that the opposition is doing nothing but killing innocents. Hasina said that democracy was now “tainted by the blood of innocent people and soaked by the tears of burned people” and said that she had ordered the army to “curb any post-poll terrorism and violence with iron hands.”

The United States, United Kingdom and Canada have voiced concerns over the polls. In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that the “the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people” and encouraged the government and opposition to engage in dialogue so as to hold new credible elections as soon as possible. Washington said it wants the government “to provide political space to all citizens to freely express their political views” and the opposition to “use such space peacefully and responsibly.” The UK’s Senior Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi said it was ‘disappointing’ that over half of voters could not express their will at the ballot box and ‘deplored’ violence and intimidation. Canadian foreign minister John Baird reiterated comments made by the US, UK and the EU, urging all parties to reach an agreement to allow ‘truly participatory’ new elections. India, which has been on very good ties with Hasina’s government, ran a different note. In a statement, India said that the elections were a ‘constitutional requirement’ and part of the ‘internal and constitutional process’. It condemned the violence but did not voice any concerns about the electoral process or the election’s outcome.

The situation bears similarities to the first 1996 election, which the opposition Awami League boycotted after Khaleda’s BNP government refused to set-up a caretaker government to run the elections. Turnout was only 21%, political turmoil escalated and the parties agreed to holding credible elections in June 1996 which were won by the Awami League. The US ambassador in Dhaka has said he is hopeful that the parties will be able to reach a similar agreement to hold new elections, like in 1996. This election isn’t the end of this story; far from it, it’s only the beginning to a saga whose resolution is still open-ended.

Don’t miss the first parts of my Guide to the 2014 South African election!

What’s hot in 2014

As 2013 closes, this is a chance to look at which elections might be most exciting and interesting in 2014. As in past years, there will be some snap elections which we will not have seen coming, some elections which will not happen, and other elections which will turn out to be less important or interesting than originally assumed. In the next twelve months, you can expect almost every single one of these elections to be covered in some level of detail on this blog.

North America

CA Canada: At the federal level, attention will be focused on the groundwork for the 2015 federal election now that the three major parties are set (barring any major surprises) in their leadership. Particularly, will Justin Trudeau’s Liberal hold their momentum? Will 2014 prove as difficult as 2013 for Harper’s Conservative government? Will Thomas Mulcair’s NDP regain lost support and place itself as a major contender for what might be a three-way race for first in 2013? Provincially, September or October 2014 will see an election in New Brunswick, in which the Liberal opposition is the runaway favourite. The NDP, weak in NB provincial politics, will be a factor to watch as they’re currently neck-and-neck with Premier David Alward’s unpopular Conservative government. Of more interest, however, are what appears to be likely early elections in Quebec and Ontario – two provinces with minority government. In Quebec, Premier Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois (PQ) government opted not to call a snap election for December 2013, but most believe that it will go to the polls sometime in early 2014. The government’s controversial Quebec Charter of Values will be a major issue in the election. The PQ will be hoping to win a majority government, but they are trailing or statistically tied with the Liberal opposition in polls. In Ontario, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is expected to face the voters in an early election, perhaps in the spring of 2014. In power for ten years, the provincial Liberal government is hit by major scandals, voter fatigue and a struggling economy; but Wynne is more popular than her discredited predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, and is still polling relatively well – although the Tories, led by Tim Hudak, are leading in the polls. Hudak is a poor leader and has faced internal challenges (albeit isolated) to his leadership in 2013, following poor Tory showings in five by-elections in August 2013 (in which the Liberals lost three seats). Municipal elections in Ontario on October 27 will be followed if only for the race in Toronto.

US United States: Will the 2014 midterm elections be as bloody for President Barack Obama and the Democrats as Obama’s first midterms, in 2010, were? One year after taking office for a second term, Obama’s approval rating is down to the low 40s, after a tough year marred by the NSA surveillance scandal, mini-scandals, a botched Obamacare rollout and other issues. On the other hand, the Republicans are hardly more popular, being held responsible (by a plurality, but by no means all) for the 2013 government shutdown and the deadlock in Congress; additionally, a recovering economy may help Obama. In congressional elections, Republican control of the House does not appear to be in any danger, thanks in part to gerrymandering. Republicans need to gain six seats to win control of the Senate, this is not out of reach but still probably an uphill battle. If retiring Democrats in ‘red states’ such as South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana open the door to likely Republican gains; the GOP would still need another three victories and no loses – among Democratic-held seats, Arkansas is the most vulnerable while Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska and Michigan may also fall – but appear, for now, more difficult. But some Democrats are confident that they stand a chance against the GOP in Kentucky and Georgia, although gaining seats in GOP-leaning states in midterms will be tough. Gubernatorial races will feature interesting contests as well, especially with the freshmen of the ‘class of 2010′ facing reelection. Some first-term Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine appear very weak, but others in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico are far more solid. Republicans will hope to gain Arkansas and Illinois.

Central and South America

SV El Salvador: February 2 will see the first round of a presidential election to succeed one-term President Mauricio Funes (ineligible for consecutive reelection). It is shaping up to be a very close race between Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the governing left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), with former President Antonio Saca of the centre-right GANA/Unidad coalition, an ARENA splinter, holding the keys to victory in the runoff for either men. While the FMLN is the least unpopular party, the runoff on March 9 will be closely disputed. President Funes, a moderate leftist, is relatively popular but El Salvador struggles with an extremely high homicide rate (one of the highest in the world) and a sluggish economy. ARENA defeated the FMLN in midterm legislative elections in 2012.

PA Panama: Interesting presidential elections are brewing in Panama, scheduled for early May. Right-wing President Ricardo Martinelli is relatively unpopular as he leaves office, with a mixed record and an administration in disarray. Martinelli, a wealthy businessman, is nevertheless keen on retaining a stake in politics after he leaves. José Domingo, the candidate of Martinelli’s party, Democratic Change, is a relative unknown seen as pliable and pro-Martinelli; he is currently barely ahead. Martinelli, however, would likely be extremely displeased if Juan Carlos Navarro, the leader and candidate of the main opposition party, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) wins – he is a close second in polls – because Navarro and Martinelli are sworn enemies. Complicating matters is the candidacy of Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally of the President who has since turned on him and is running for president as the candidate of the old vaguely centrist Panameñista (or Arnulfista) Party. Varela, who has used the vice presidential office to criticize Martinelli, is in third place.

CO Colombia: President Juan Manuel Santos, first elected in 2010, will run for a second term in presidential elections scheduled for May 25, after congressional elections on March 9. When Santos was first elected in 2010, he was seen (not entirely correctly) as the favourite of then-President Álvaro Uribe, a conservative known for his hardline security policy in the long-lasting civil conflict against the FARC rebels. In office, however, Santos broke with his predecessor by adopting a far more moderate position on security – opening negotiations with the FARC in 2012, with have stalled numerous times. Santos is the favourite, but his main rival will be Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate of the right-wing uribista Uribe Centro Democrático. Santos currently holds a large lead in polls, but many are undecided and Santos remains far below 50% of voting intentions.

BR Brazil: The presidential and legislative in Brazil on October 5 will be closely followed. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT) is the favourite. While she has been a relatively strong president who has stepped out of her predecessor’s, Lula, shadow and taken a slightly tougher stance against corruption in her own party, she has faced difficulties with a weaker economy than in previous years, divisions in the governing alliance and corruption scandals or trials hitting her coalition or the PT. Dilma remains personally popular, and her moderate economic and fiscal policies have made her popular with more right-leaning voters as well. However, the government and the entire political elite was shaken by unprecedented massive protests in June 2013, which initially were protests against public transit fare hikes but which quickly became catch-all expressions of urban discontent with the inefficient provision of social services, deficiencies in infrastructure, political corruption and heavy government spending (overspending) for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Dilma’s popularity was hit, but she recovered since, as she took the initiative in proposing reforms and new policies responding to protesters’ demands (but not all of them). The Mais Médicos program, designed to attract doctors to peripheral and interior municipalities, has been cited as a major factor in her popularity’s recovery. Dilma, in the absence of solid opposition, remains the early favourite for October 2014. The centre-right PSDB’s candidate, Minas Gerais senator Aécio Neves, was once hailed as the party’s great hope for 2014 but his senatorial term has been uninspiring and Neves has low support in polls. Eduardo Campos, the governor of Pernambuco and the leader of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), a former PT ally, is a strong contender on paper but 2014 may be too early for him. Marina Silva, the 2010 Green candidate who broke with the Green Party in 2011, was unable to have her new movement registered, forcing her to join the PSB and she will not be running.

Also worth following: presidential and congressional elections in Costa Rica (Feb. 2), Bolivia (late 2014) and Uruguay (Oct. 26 and Nov. 30).


EU European Union (Parliament): European elections will be held in all 28 member states of the EU between May 22 and 25. While turnout is low in most countries and many voters do not really understand the purposes of the election, EU elections are often interesting (and, for some countries, significant) tests of public opinion for European governments – given that voters, despite innumerable efforts to the contrary, still vote largely based on the national political situation and their party system. These elections are made more interesting given that the new Parliament will elect the EU Commission president based on recommendations from the European Council, itself taking into account the results of the election. The pan-European parties have or will nominate presidential candidates, some parties – like the European Greens – choosing to involve voters in the process through open primaries. The hope is that voters in the member states will take pan-European parties’ candidates into account when voting, but that seems rather unlikely.

If I will be closely following the elections it is because they are tests of public opinion in 28 countries, even if low turnout, proportional voting systems and the propensity for midterm ‘middle finger voting’ in EU elections makes them less than entirely reliable and ‘accurate’. Since the 2009 EU elections, many countries have since elected new governments (Portugal, Spain, France, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Denmark, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta) – many of these governments – especially in the Iberian Peninsula, France, the UK, Ireland and Denmark – are now quite unpopular. Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic have seen huge changes in the party system since 2009, with Greek politics seemingly fundamentally realigned because of the economic crisis and Italy having seen a new party (Grillo’s M5S) rise in 2013. Each country will be worth watching, but some of the more interesting countries would probably be Spain, France, the UK, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Greece (obviously!).

BE Belgium: Federal and regional elections will be held along with the EU elections in Belgium on May 25. Belgian politics have become famously unstable and polarized; after the June 2010 elections, a governing coalition was only formed in December 2011 and after a major constitutional reform which devolves powers to regions/communities, splits the contentious district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and turns the Senate into an unelected assembly of regional parliaments. Francophone Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, at the helm of a coalition made up of the French/Walloon and Dutch/Flemish Socialist, Liberal and Catholic parties, has held the country together but little has changed politically – deadlock ahoy? In Wallonia, the historically dominant Socialists retain their usual sizeable lead over the liberal Reformist Movement (MR), which will be hurt in Francophone Brussels by the scission of the Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophones (FDF), a federalist and French-speakers’ lobby group which was a component of the MR until 2011. In Flanders, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a Flemish nationalist party which became the largest party in Flanders and the whole of Belgium in 2010, becoming the main reason behind the 500+ day political deadlock. The N-VA continues to lead Flemish polls, with slightly increased support from 2010, and will likely re-emerge as the largest party in Flanders in the federal (and regional) elections. What this will mean for the government and the formation of a new one, only time will tell.

_scotland Scotland: A much-awaited and talked-about referendum on Scottish independence on September 18. While some thought that First Minister Alex Salmond would seek to hold a referendum which would include an option for full devolution short of independence (devo-max), Scottish voters will finally be asked a straight yes-no question – Should Scotland be an independent country? The current polling suggests that the no option retains plurality support and records double-digit leads over the yes in most polls. The yes option is stuck in the high 20s or low 30s. The real campaign, however, has not yet started and it’s possible that voting intentions may change as interest picks up and the campaigns kick off in earnest. Expect significant debate on issues such as an independent Scotland’s economic strength and viability, whether Scotland would remain a member of the EU and NATO without needing to re-apply in the case of independence and relations with the rest of the UK especially as it concerns currency or defense.

SE Sweden: Swedish elections are scheduled to be held on September 14. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right coalition, led by his Moderate Party, will be hoping to win a third term in office, first elected in 2006. Voter fatigue, however, has set in. Reinfeldt is not particularly unpopular and his government’s record fairly decent by most accounts (but never devoid of controversy, naturally), but the right is criticized for lacking ideas for the future. The Social Democratic-led left-wing opposition, hampered by a poor campaign in 2010, have recovered some lost support under Stefan Löfvén’s surprisingly strong leadership of the party since 2012. The centre-right coalition is weakened by its two smallest parties, the Centre and Christian Democrats, hovering at or below the 4% threshold – if one or both of them fail to win seats in Parliament, it will be a bad blow to the right’s chances of winning reelection. The left may be hurt by concerns over the inclusion of the Left Party in a centre-left cabinet. However, the right began as underdogs in 2010 but won reelection (with a minority), meaning that this race shouldn’t be called early. On the far-right, the performance of the Sweden Democrats, which won their first seats in 2010, will be worth following. From 5.7% in 2010, they have increased their support in polls to 9%.

HU Hungary: Elections will be held in Hungary by June 30. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conservative government, which has a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, has drawn widespread criticism – including from the EU – for a series of new laws and a new constitution which critics claim undermine judicial independence, freedom of the press, the independence of the central bank and the data protection office. For example, through a new media law the government intends to tighten regulation and control of most media sources, subjecting it to a regulatory body whose members are all nominated by the Parliament (and thus, the ruling party), all with the aim of strengthening domestic media sources which are mostly owned by allies of the ruling party. Although these trends are concerning, Hungary is not a ‘rogue state’ or authoritarian pariah. Viktor Orbán is likely to win reelection, although seemingly with a somewhat reduced majority. The main opposition party, the Socialists (MSZP) remain largely discredited and have suffered from several splits, as such they are hardly on a better footing than in 2010. Two former MSZP Prime Ministers will be competing with their own parties: Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009, whose closed-door admission that he had been lying to Hungarians began the MSZP’s slow descent to hell) is leading the Democratic Coalition (DK) and Gordon Bajnai (2009-2010) is leading Together 2014.

FR France: Municipal elections will precede the EU elections in France, on March 23 and 30. These are the first nationwide political ‘test’ for President François Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist (PS) government. Many are expecting a vote sanction against the government, and the right (UMP) and far-right (FN) will be hoping to benefit from an anti-government ‘middle finger’ vote. However, if municipal elections in the past have clearly obeyed to national political mood swings (1977, 1983, 2008), the fact remains that municipal elections still follow different dynamics: many residents like their incumbent mayor regardless of partisan affiliation, many voters still claim to vote primarily based on local rather than national issues, candidate personality and strength matters a great deal and politics in small towns (less than 1,000 inhabitants) use a different electoral system and are almost always completely non-partisan and fully dependent on local factors. However, voters in the larger cities do tend to be less closely attached to ‘their’ mayors and they are the ones who often decide the national implications of the results. Yet, despite the government’s record high unpopularity, the PS remains favoured to hold Paris and Lyon and it even fancies its chances in France’s other major city – Marseille – where the performance of the far-right FN will be determinant. The UMP and its allies would like major cities such as Angers, Amiens, Metz, Reims, Strasbourg or Saint-Étienne to switch sides. The far-right’s performance will be closely followed; in 2008 the FN was at record lows, but now it stands at record highs as it might top the poll in the EU elections. The far-right has a tougher time in municipal elections, because of the difficulty of fielding complete lists in all towns, but it has done well in past local elections – most remarkably 1995, when it won Toulon (to lose it in a landslide in 2001). They will heavily target far-right hotspots including Marine Le Pen’s adopted homebase of Hénin-Beaumont, while in other towns their qualification for the runoff in three-way runoffs (triangulaires) may have unintended consequences, good and bad, for both the left and right. Expect thorough posts on these elections, and the EU elections in France, as they come up.

Catalonia: The Catalan government intends to hold a two-question referendum on the autonomous community’s political future on November 9. Voters, according to questions recently announced by the Catalan government, will be asked if they want Catalonia to be a ‘state’ and, if so, if they want this state to be independent. Unlike in Scotland, where the referendum will go ahead following a precedent-setting agreement between the Scottish government and the UK government, there is no such agreement in Spain. The Catalan government, led by the increasingly nationalist-separatist centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) and backed by the left-wing separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), has been locked in a war of words and thinly-veiled threats with the Spanish government, led by the conservative and anti-nationalist Popular Party (PP). Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, backed by the main opposition party in Spain, the Socialists (PSOE), considers the referendum to be illegal and vows it will not go ahead. If Spain did allow the vote to go ahead, it would mark an historic (and dangerous, in Madrid’s eyes) precedent which might be used by nationalists in the Basque Country and other ‘peripheral nationalist’ communities to seek independence. If it did go ahead, furthermore, polling indicates that – unlike in Scotland – a majority of Catalan voters would vote yes on both questions and open up a constitutional crisis of gigantic proportions. As such, don’t expect this referendum to go ahead legally, but the issue is on the table and a referendum is now a matter of political debate. Where will this take Catalonia and Spain?

Also worth following: local elections in Greece (May 18), England and Northern Ireland (May 22), presidential elections in Macedonia, Slovakia (March), Lithuania (May) and Romania (November), and legislative elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Oct. 5) and Moldova (by November).

Asia and Oceania

TR Turkey: There will be local elections on March 30 followed by the first direct presidential elections in August. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled the country since 2002, benefiting from the absence of a viable alternative to the AKP. The Turkish economy has done well under AKP government, and the country has gained a more prominent rule in regional and European politics. However, Erdoğan has faced criticism for his authoritarian style, and his government’s socially conservative and Islamist policies have flown in the face of the country’s old secular elite and the military. In June 2013, the government faced unexpectedly large popular protests, which began in late May as a local protest in Istanbul over the government’s redevelopment of a popular park, but which quickly became a large-scale protest against the government’s authoritarianism and restriction of civil liberties and basic freedoms. The government cracked down on the protests, leading to charges of police brutality. Only days ago, in December, the sons of three cabinet ministers along with other public officials were arrested in a bribery investigation. Erdoğan, who seems to see sinister conspiracies all around him, responded by sacking top police chiefs. The three ministers whose sons were arrested, including the interior and economic ministers, resigned on December 25, very critical of Erdoğan. These two events mark a turning point for the AKP, the first significant setbacks for the increasingly powerful ruling party. This makes the local elections open ended. Erdoğan will likely run for president as he may not run for a fourth term as Prime Minister in 2015 due to party by-laws, and Erdoğan’s goal is to transform Turkey in a presidential rather than parliamentary republic. The elections will test whether the opposition, a rag-tag and uninspiring bunch, have been able to benefit from the protests or the corruption arrests.

IQ Iraq: Legislative elections are scheduled to be held in Iraq on April 30. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, will be seeking a third term – an attempt by his opponents to pass a law banning him from running for a third term was overturned. Maliki, a politician from the Iraqi Shi’a majority, has been accused of seeking to consolidate his power at the expense of the Sunni majority, the dominant political elite under Saddam Hussein. In December 2011, the Iraqi security forces issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a senior Sunni politician, on charges that he was running a death squad. Although he fled to Turkey, he was sentenced to death in absentia. In December 2012, a raid on the home of Sunni finance minister Rufi al-Issawi kicked off large Sunni anti-government protests. The insurgency and sectarian violence worsened in 2013, which was the bloodiest year since 2008 with about 8,500 deaths according to independent estimates. Maliki’s Shi’a State of Law coalition won provincial elections held in April 2013, although with slightly less seats than in 2009. Iraqi politics remain very sectarian; within the Shi’a majority, Maliki’s coalition faces competition from Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement, and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

IN India: The largest democracy in the world will hold massive general elections sometime during the spring. The Congress-led alliance (UPA) has governed the country since 2004, and while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is generally appreciated but ineffectual, the Congress finds itself in a difficult position ahead of the 2014 elections. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, which began in 2011, has undermined the government and galvanized the public’s interest in the issue. Economic growth is low, inflation is low and joblessness is high. Investors often charge that economic growth is being hampered by the government’s reluctance or inability to reform the economy and allow for more foreign direct investment. Indeed, the government’s reformist attempts have often been held down by the INC’s venal allies who often have little interest in economic reform and far more interest in protecting their turf. The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi and her lacklustre son Rahul Gandhi, offers little in the way of inspiring policy. The favourite to succeed the Congress would be Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate of a right-wing alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Modi’s economic record in Gujarat is rather good (but critics point out poverty and human development remain huge issues), but he has a nasty past in fuelling ethnic violence in Gujarat and his promotion of an often chauvinistic and exclusive brand of Hindu nationalism. Modi, however, has tried to soften his image and has strong backing from the business community; and he’s a strong campaigner popular with his own party. The BJP was handed a major boost in state elections whose results were announced on December 8: the BJP defeated incumbent INC governments in Rajasthan and Delhi, easily held Madhya Pradesh and held back an INC offensive in Chhattisgarh. In Delhi, the elections resulted in a hung parliament, with a new anti-corruption movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, winning 28 seats to the BJP’s 32 and Congress’ disastrous 8. However, a BJP government torn apart by corruption and infighting in the southern state of Karnataka badly lost reelection to a surging Congress.

Indian federal politics, however, remain a complex game of ever-evolving state-by-state alliances. Some states have their own party systems, in which the BJP and/or Congress are both weak. There are regionalist parties, parties with a defined regional base and national parties without a presence in some states. The BJP recently lost the backing of the Janata Dal (United), a party led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Some polls, notoriously flawed and unreliable in a country like India, have suggested that parties outside the two main alliances may hold a plurality of seats between themselves, forcing both main alliances to buy the support of the smaller parties.


 Afghanistan: Presidential elections are due to be held in Afghanistan on April 5, and President Hamid Karzai – who has been in power since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001 – is ineligible for reelection. The three major candidates appear to be Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Qayyum Karzai. Abdullah, a former foreign minister and close friend of the late Northern Alliance rebel leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, lost the 2009 presidential election to Karzai, officially taking 30.6% in the first round, marred by serious allegations of large-scale fraud and vote rigging in Karzai’s favour. Since then, he has been the main opponent of the outgoing president. Ashraf Ghani, an economist and academic who lived in exile in the west for decades before returning to Afghanistan to serve as finance minister from 2002 to 2004. Ghani ran in the 2009 election and was perceived as being the most pro-US candidate; he received only 2.9%. Qayyum Karzai is one of President Karzai’s brothers, who, like his siblings, is a controversial businessman-politician embroiled in several corruption scandals.

TH Thailand: To counter a rising protest movement, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the House and called for elections on February 2. The protests, which began in November, are the latest in a series of protests in Thailand’s famously polarized politics. This time, the protesters are the ‘yellow shirts’ – conservative (often proto-fascist) monarchists drawn from the country’s elites and often counting on the tacit support of Thailand’s politicized military. They oppose Yingluck, a political newcomer who is the sister of exiled and deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – a business magnate whose social policies made him the hero of northeastern Thailand’s impoverished masses but whose corruption, authoritarianism and populism made him the sworn enemy of the yellow shirts. The military overthrew him in a 2006 coup which defines Thai politics to this day. Yellow shirts protested a pro-Thaksin elected government in 2008, pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ protested against a militarily-sanctioned opposition government in 2010. Yingluck called the election to catch the yellows, supported by the Democrat Party – the main conservative opposition force – unprepared and call their bluff. The opposition and yellows, knowing that they would not win an election anymore than in 2011 or 2007, will boycott the election. But don’t read this as a sign that the yellows are conceding victory. Their leader, who is also a senior Democrat politician, Suthep Thaugsuban, wants an unelected governing council to replace Yingluck as a transitional measure. Unofficially, the yellows are banking on a military coup. On December 27, a military commander did not rule out a coup. This could follow a cycle similar to that in April 2006: Thaksin called for elections, the opposition boycotted them, polarization and political violence deepened and the military intervened in September 2006.

ID Indonesia: Another heavily populated Asian democracy, Indonesia, holds legislative elections on April 9 followed by presidential elections on July 9 (with a possible runoff in September). President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in office since 2004, may not run for reelection. Since 2004, SBY, as he is referred to, has presided over a period of rapid economic growth which made Indonesia a booming country. However, the last year has been tougher for his administration, as the economy slowed down (from 6.2% to 5.3% GDP growth) and the administration faced questions over its inability to upgrade infrastructure, reform inefficient bureaucracy, tackle widespread corruption and ill-managed decentralization. The President’s party, the Democratic Party, is heavily trailing in the polls and does not seem to have a clear presidential frontrunner of its own. The April legislative elections will determine who is able to run in July, because candidates need to be backed by a party or a coalition thereof which won over 20% of the vote. For the moment, the two main candidates for the presidency are Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo. Prabowo is a former special forces commander and the son-in-law of former President Suharto, Indonesia’s authoritarian strongman between 1967 and 1998. He is alleged to have played a role in the disappearance of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s. Prabowo, who heads a small party, Gerindra, which won only 4.5% in the 2009 legislative elections, is a populist and lashes out at the political ‘elites’ and corruption. He is currently trailing in polls, however, to Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta since September 2012. A relatively young politician at 52, Jokowi – as he’s known – is untied to the old political Suharto-era leadership and he has a record as an efficient and transparent administration, as mayor and since 2012 as governor (he defeated Fauzi Bowo, the incumbent governor backed by the president’s party). Jokowi, who would be backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – one of the three main parties - isn’t confirmed as a candidate, as he will need to face down a potential challenge from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first President who served between 2001 and 2004. Leaving a mediocre impression, she lost reelection to SBY in 2004 and lost the 2009 election as well.

NZ New Zealand: Voters in New Zealand will go to the polls near the end of 2014, likely in November. Prime Minister John Key’s conservative National Party remain far ahead of the main opposition, the Labour Party. Key has performed, by most accounts, generally well since winning reelection in 2011 – the economy is strong, there are no crippling scandals attached to the government and Labour has struggled in opposition. However, he has faced a few problems: he was personally criticized for allowing illegal spying by the intelligence services on Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload. The government’s mixed ownership model, a plan to partially privatize (49%) of four state-owned energy companies and sell off part of the government’s share in Air New Zealand (from 74% to 51%), has been rather controversial. In December, the government suffered a setback on mixed ownership when 67% of voters voted against the model in a citizens-initiated referendum. Labour has picked itself up, a bit, from a disastrous showing in 2011 – its worst result since the 1920s – but it struggled through one leader before finally choosing a new one, David Cunliffe, in September 2013. The National Party leads Labour by about ten points, and remains high in the polls (mid-40s). However, Key may have trouble finding allies for a new government after the election: both of his junior partners may lose their sole seats, and a Labour-Green coalition may hold a majority of seats, especially if Winston Peters’ populist NZ First fails to return to Parliament (it is consistently polling under 5%, but it was underestimated in 2011).

Also worth following: Australian state elections in Southern Australia (March 15), Tasmania (before June), and Victoria (Nov. 29), legislative elections in Bangladesh (Jan. 5) and Lebanon (by October).


ZA South Africa: The fifth democratic elections since the fall of apartheid, the 2014 South African elections (likely in April) mark the twentieth anniversary of multi-racial democracy in the country and they are, symbolically, the first election in which the ‘born free’ generation – children born after 1994 – will be eligible to vote. These elections will probably be the country’s most exciting elections since 1994. President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC), the dominant party since 1994, remains the favourite and will almost certainly win another absolute majority. However, the ANC finds itself seriously weakened by corruption, failures at service delivery, incompetent or inefficient administration and deficient infrastructure and social services. President Zuma himself is in hot water with a continuing scandal over taxpayer-funded upgrades at his Nkandla homestead, upgrades which included – among other lavish expenses for personal use – a swimming pool. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) made gains in the 2011 local government elections and will likely make gains in 2014 as well, but the DA still remains perceived as too much of a white party for its own good, despite attempts to promote new (and generally talented) black leaders. The ANC faces a new challenge from two new parties expected to draw black voters from the ANC. Mamphela Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist (she was the life partner of Black Conciousness leader Steve Biko, killed by the apartheid regime) and one-time Managing Director at the World Bank, created a new party – Agang – in February 2013, which has been criticized for being extremely vague as to its policies. A more serious threat will be Julius Malema’s new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party; Malema is a former ANC Youth League leader known for his fiery, nationalist and left-wing populist rhetoric which have won him unsympathetic comparisons to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. EFF directly challenges the ANC for hitherto reliably ANC voters in poor black townships and rural areas.

I hope to write a massive guide to South African history and politics before the election.

Also worth following: presidential and/or general elections in Algeria (April), Mozambique (Oct. 15) and Namibia (November), legislative elections in Botswana (by October), constituent assembly elections in Libya (February) and constitutional referendum in Egypt (Jan. 14-15).

Which elections are you most excited for in 2014?

2013′s Top 10

As in the past three years, I wrap up 2013 with a subjective reflection on the 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. In 2010, the United States and the United Kingdom topped the list; in 2011, Egypt and Canada topped the list while in 2012 Greece and Egypt ranked first and second.

These rankings are all subjective and there many different criterion for establishing these rankings. As with my past rankings, my primary benchmark was determining to what an extent any election could/would have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, the broader region. I do not feel that an election is necessarily significant merely because an incumbent party or individual was tossed out of office, given that there is no shortage of such elections which turn out to be merely anti-incumbent mood swings which ultimately have only a limited long-term or even short-term impact on the country. Similarly, it is easy to label many elections as “realigning elections” at the spur of the moment, but real realigning elections – in my opinion – remain rare occurrences. Most elections which we call realigning elections turn out to be deviating elections down the road – as the next Canadian and Irish elections may show.

Of course, not all elections (especially in the short time frame of 12 months) – far from it – can be said to have changed a country, therefore my secondary criteria was how ‘interesting’ any given election turned out to be. An election whose outcome was decided months in advance and whose actual results were only of limited interest to a foreign casual observer were not ‘interesting’, but elections – even if not all that significant – which were closely fought or whose results turned out to be surprising can count as ‘interesting’. However, being ‘interesting’ is not enough for any given election to be included in this ranking.

I give priority to national elections, but sub-national elections and by-electionsf were taken into consideration.

Once again, establishing this subjective top 10 ranking was quite difficult. There were a lot of elections for which a very strong case could be made that they deserved inclusion on this list. This ranking is subjective, it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluations on the importance of each election. I welcome debate, disagreements and alternative rankings. Your votes in my poll and your individual comments were taken into consideration and helped me establish some of the rankings.

1. Italy ItalyPerhaps my last post, summarizing 2013 in Italian politics, might have been a major give-away as to my choice for the gold medal in 2013. I am unsure of whether the February 24-25 legislative election in Italy should be called a realigning election, but I am confident that it will nonetheless mark the beginning of a realigning period in Italian politics. The election saw the fall of a traditionally stable left-right party system which had prevailed in Italy, with some exceptions but without any significant external opposition from the centre or far-left, since 1994 and the rise of the ‘Second Republic’ era in Italian politics. Given that this left-right system, widespread outside of Italy, also masked a political system polarized around one man – Silvio Berlusconi, this change is clearly significant.

A new force, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, became the single largest party and the third largest bloc in the new Italian Parliament. Even if Grillo may turn out to be a flash in the pan and ultimately have little long-term impact on Italian politics, the Grillo phenomenon will leave its mark on Italy’s political history and is also of importance in a broader European context. Grillo’s dramatic emergence, coming out of relative obscurity (politically speaking) and rising to nearly 25% of the vote in the space of a year, represented a protest vote against Italy’s corrupt, incompetent, inefficient and gerontocratic political elites (la casta), economic recession, austerity policies and a demand for major political change. Corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, austerity, recession and outdated and aging political leadership isn’t common to Italy, and those are issues which form part of the appeal for populist parties, on the left and right, in other countries in Europe and around the world. However, Grillo does stand out in his style and political communication/marketing from other populist parties, which in Europe are often on the far-right. Grillo communicated his message using a time-honoured form (personal charisma) but also through much newer means – the internet and social media. Grillo continues to lead his party from outside the ‘parasitical’ Parliament, from his blog, and the M5S – which until recently strictly banned its members from communicating through television – has made very heavy use of new(er) technologies – the internet and social media – to mobilize supporters, organize political rallies, decide on policy matters (to a certain extent, it must be emphasized that Grillo is not a shining example of direct democracy), reach out to potential sympathizers and voters, and rile up emotions. Given Grillo’s boycott of television and his lower presence in traditional media (newspapers), his political power in 2013 was entirely the result of his ability to combine traditional, personal forms of political appeal/power (charisma/charismatic legitimacy) with new forms of appeal.

At the same time, 2013 likely signals the beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi, the business tycoon who has been ‘the issue’ in Italian politics since 1994. Although Berlusconi did better than anyone expected in the election, coming so close to actually winning (which few would have imagined a few months before the election), the aftermath of the election likely signal that Berlusconi’s time as the central icon of Italian politics is drawing to a close. In August, the man who prided himself on being drawn to court so often but never having been found definitely guilty in any case, was finally sentenced to a prison sentence and banned from public office. Although Berlusconi will not go to jail and only serve one year of community service, his sentencing – a first – is a watershed in Italian politics. In November, Berlusconi was expelled from the Senate under a law which will ban from holding any public office for the next six years – ending a parliamentary career which began nearly 20 years ago. While Berlusconi will certainly remain a significant force in Italian politics in the coming years, he will be forced to do so from outside the halls of Parliament or any public office. Given that Berlusconi had established himself as the lider maximo of the Italian right since 1994, crushing all potential rivals and overly ambitious ‘anointed successors’ (the latest one, Gianfranco Fini, saw his political career and dreams of leading a post-Berlusconi refoundation of the Italian right ended in the election), his two setbacks in 2013 are very significant. Berlusconi is neither invincible nor eternal, and his gradual withdrawal from the forefront of politics in Italy will mean a certain realignment, especially on the right. This is something which some of Berlusconi’s hitherto most loyal allies have begun realizing this year. Angelino Alfano, a dauphin of the old leader, broke with Berlusconi in November. Although Alfano has been careful not to fall into Fini’s trap and break all bonds with Berlusconi (his mentor), he is young enough to realize that his own career will probably outlive Berlusconi and that there is a world beyond the old Berlusconian dominance of the right. It remains to be seen if Alfano will be another Gianfranco Fini, or if he will be able to be the one leading the post-Berlusconi transformation of a right which remains largely dependent on Berlusconi.

2013 also signals a generational shift in Italian politics, the rise of a new political elite. Sure, an 88-year old president was re-elected in extremis, and Berlusconi (77) is not going away overnight. But a new generation is reaching the apex of power: Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister, is only 46 years old. Matteo Renzi, the new leader of the main centre-left party, the PD, is only 38. Renzi has built his career by denouncing the old elites, vowing to ‘scrap’ them and end the immobility, inefficiency, corruption and incompetence associated with these old elites. The Grillo phenomenon elected over 100 new parliamentarians, almost all of them political novices with little to no experience and drawn from various age groups and social categories. Visceral and bitter opposition to the old political class (la casta) was at the core of Grillo’s radical anti-establishment appeal.

In short, 2013 was an extremely consequential and likely historic year for Italy. The next election will be even more exciting and determinant, but 2013 has clearly begun the realignment process and set the scene for an historic showdown, under a new electoral law with a new generation of leaders, in the next election.

2. Iran IranIn a very close second behind Italy, Iran’s presidential election (in June) was very significant. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, emerged as the surprise (landslide) winner of an election which most people expected would be won by a conservative loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The actual significance of Rouhani’s election may be a matter of debate. The Iranian president has relatively little power and is expected to respect the primacy of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the one with the hard power as the man behind the armed forces, the political institutions, the judiciary and the ultimate ‘gatekeeper’ controlling access to politics. Still, the President has significant soft power, stature as Iran’s public face to the world, and actual influence/direct power over economic and domestic policies.

Rouhani’s first moves in office have been welcomed by Western countries, and signal a break from the international ostracism which marked the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). From a rhetorical point of view, Rouhani has spoken in support of women’s rights, less censorship, greater press freedoms and improving Iran’s relation with the world – particularly the United States. In late November 2013, Iranian negotiators reached an interim agreement with international partners (European, American, Chinese, Russian) on Iran’s nuclear program after long talks in Geneva, which will freeze key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief. Although Israel, Democrats and Republican lawmakers in the US Congress, pro-Israel lobbies in the US and Canada have expressed scepticism or outright opposition to the plan, it remains a tentative step forward in peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. The deal does remain an interim solution preluding more definite negotiations, and the US will not be dropping sanctions any time soon – but the White House opposes any new sanctions, as many in Congress are demanding, as a threat to Iran if no agreement is reached in the six-month window. Regardless of what comes through, Rouhani’s early moves represent a break from the Ahmadinejad, and a much more constructive engagement with the international community. Tehran is pressed to reach an agreement by the weight of international, US-led sanctions on Iran which have had a severe impact on the economy.

Earlier, in September, Rouhani and Barack Obama talked on the phone, the highest level of engagement between the two countries since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Rouhani and Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, have both made active use of English Twitter accounts to publicize Tehran’s diplomatic policies or the president’s more ‘modern’ appeal to younger Iranians (pictures of him jogging without his cleric robes, re-tweeting a YouTube video mash-up for his 100 days).

There are some who argue that the significance of this election is being overstated. Beyond the rhetoric, the Iranian press is not significantly freer than in the past and opponents of the regime are still being arrested and executed by authorities. Rouhani does not have absolute control over the direction of Iranian politics, especially on foreign policy and nuclear issues, and conservatives hostile to an agreement still hold significant power (if not control) in Iranian institutions, including the military and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). These institutions previously thwarted reformist President Mohammed Khatami’s agenda and destroyed the reformist movement after 2003-2004. Conservatives opposed to Rouhani’s moderate policies, for example, demonstrated with anti-American slogans in Tehran after Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama. Rouhani should not be considered as a reformist or ‘liberal’ who is willing to scrap Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program, which is an issue of consensus across the Iranian political leadership, and there are certain aspects of the (civilian) nuclear program on which Tehran will not compromise. Finally, a few observers believed in June that Rouhani was handpicked by Ali Khamenei to be a ‘moderate’ leader who would improve Iran’s international reputation, break some of the crippling sanctions and give the outward appearance of moderation and reform all the while securing Khamenei’s power and not challenging the clerical primacy in politics (which Ahmadinejad had challenged after 2009, leading to his isolation by the Supreme Leader).

However, while keeping these considerations in mind, we should not be overly cynical and dismissive of the Iranian election’s consequences. This is an election which may have major regional consequences, a rare outcome of any election. Even if we are more dismissive, this election, from a domestic standpoint, marks a break with the Ahmadinejad era, associated with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation, sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei. Rouhani, who promised democratization, international engagement and economic recovery, was able to appeal to a wide base of disgruntled and disillusioned reformists, moderate conservatives and depoliticized Iranians welcoming change and a way out of the Ahmadinejad impasse. Weighing these two viewpoints, I chose to place Iran second, behind Italy – whose significance, while perhaps less important to the wider region, is not as debatable.

3. Venezuela VenezuelaThe death of Venezuela’s emblematic president, Hugo Chávez, on March 5 led to an early presidential election in April, only a few months after Chávez was reelected to another term in office by a comfortable margin in October 2012. The significance of Chávez’s death needs not be underlined any further; the man, for better or worse, had a huge impact on Venezuela and Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century and his death opened a political void and era of uncertainty in Venezuelan but also Latin American politics. Can chavismo function with Chávez? The April 2013 election was to answer that question.

Chávez’s anointed successor and Vice President (but only since October 2012), Nicolás Maduro, was the one who would carry the chavista burden in the election. Maduro was expected to win by a wide margin on the back of a sympathy vote for Chávez, but instead he ended up winning (or ‘winning’, some say) by only 1.8%. Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in 2012 and again in the early election, won about 49% of the vote, has managed to shake off the opposition’s association with the discredited and loathed ‘neoliberal’, ‘imperialist’ and coupist figures of the past and present himself as a young, modern and reformist figure who is not entirely dismissive of Chávez’s mixed legacy. Maduro, despite campaigning quasi-entirely on Chávez’s legacy (transforming chavismo into a secular religion), was unable to catch on to any sympathy votes for Chávez. The election led to serious concerns of fraud and violent protests by pro and anti-government activists leading to nine deaths, but Capriles finally backed down and grudgingly accepted his official ‘defeat’. Capriles backing down and acquiescing to the government’s results and audit process was criticized by some opposition members. At the same time, Maduro’s narrow victory made him vulnerable to rivals within his own party, led by Diosdado Cabello.

Maduro, understanding that he lacked Chávez’s legitimacy, has since moved to cement his power and establish his own legitimacy within his own party and with the wider electorate. The media continues to be tightly controlled by the state, the National Assembly has granted Maduro special decree powers and the government is leading an ‘economic war’ with the occupation and confiscation of private businesses, confiscation of consumer goods (recently TVs and electro-domestic appliances), 50-70% price discounts, new regulations on rent in shopping centres, state control of imports. These policies are part of the government’s attempts to control galloping inflation (54% in November), although these measures are widely seen as attacks on the consequences rather than causes of inflation, and as a means by the government to blame business owners and private companies for the country’s growing economic woes (rather than take responsibility for their own actions). These radical populist policies have reinforced, for the time being, Maduro’s standing. In early December, the governing party won the municipal elections by a larger margin than in April, building a 6.5-point majority over the opposition coalition. However, the opposition retained control of many of the largest cities, including the Metropolitan District of Caracas.

However, for many the government’s policies will be successful only in the short-term, as they will lead to shortages and will ultimately have no effect on inflation which is largely the result of the government’s economic mismanagement and falls in oil revenue/production rather than the ‘parasitical bourgeoisie’ and private sector ‘usury’. An op-ed in El País aptly called the municipal elections a Pyrrhic victory for Maduro. Indeed, they only confirm that Venezuela after Chávez is more unpredictable than ever. The electorate is closely divided and extremely polarized, the rhetoric and political climate is bitter and dialogue effectively impossible. As in the past, the government has moved to squeeze opposition-controlled municipalities of the bulk of their powers, setting up ‘parallel’ governments run by loyalists or transferring their responsibilities to the central government. The opposition remains focused on the 2015 legislative elections, in which it hopes to benefit from a bad economy to gain control of the National Assembly, and impeach Maduro in 2016.

All in all, Chávez’s death and the contested April presidential elections have opened a new era in Venezuelan politics: chavismo without Chávez; with a fragile and insecure government resorting to populist ‘economic war’ policies to legitimize itself; a strong and determined opposition but with its own challenges in a difficult environment; a competitive and polarized electoral process; and great uncertainty as to what the future holds. These new dynamics may weaken Venezuela’s influence in the regional context, with Cuba itself moving in an opposite direction than Caracas (with limited liberalization of their highly-controlled economy) and an opportunity for erstwhile ‘junior chavistas‘ such as Rafael Correa or Evo Morales to gain greater influence over regional geopolitics. Correa, strengthened by a landslide re-election in early 2013, has already given indications that he fancies himself as Chávez’s regional successor.

4. Germany Germany: I certainly had a tough time placing this election somewhere. On the one hand, Germany is clearly one of the most important countries in Europe and German politics have a major impact on the EU and European politics – especially in the current situation. But on the other hand, this election was, in the end, rather uneventful and will little significance either for the direction of the EU/European politics or Germany itself. In this vein, Germany 2013 is similar to the 2012 US election. I had placed the American election third – important country, but an election with little change to the status quo. Granted, unlike US 2012, the German election wasn’t entirely status quo pro ante: Angela Merkel remains as Chancellor, but in a coalition with the Social Democrats rather than the liberal Free Democrats. Domestically, this will likely mean a slightly more leftist direction on social policies: the Grand Coalition agreement with the SPD includes agreement on a €8.5 legal minimum wage beginning in 2015, full equality of same-sex civil unions, a gender quota for certain leadership posts – all SPD promises, but on the other hand, the SPD has agreed to drop its demands for higher taxes on high-incomes, restrictions in CEO salaries and they will agree to a general toll for the highways.

However, I still foresee relatively little change to the status quo. This election would have been highly significant if it had brought major changes in Germany’s policies on the Eurocrisis and European economic management, but of course there will be none of that. The SPD is in little position, after a weak result, to demand much concessions from Merkel who was the only winner of the election with 41.5% of the vote, up nearly 8% on the 2009 election. Angela Merkel, furthermore, has shown herself to be a very strong and smart politician in the past years: pragmatic, fence-sitting, a propensity for policy U-turns to adapt to the public opinion and above all a proven ability to steam-roll her coalition partners. Merkel’s triumph, noted as one of the few victories by an incumbent head of government in the EU in the past few years, is not insignificant – but is the reelection of an incumbent with a good economic record (or one perceived as good) all that surprising or significant?

The liberal FDP, so strong after the 2009 election, failed to achieve anything in a black-yellow coalition with Merkel. They paid the heavy price for failing to leave their mark on Merkel’s second term, and they were crushed. With 4.8% of the vote, down nearly 10 points, they are now shut out of the Bundestag. That’s one of the most significant and important events of this election. For the first time since the creation of the Federal Republic, the FDP will have no seats in the lower house. This might lead to a significant realignment of German politics, with the disappearance of the liberal third party which had played such an important role in German politics since 1949. However, I would still shy away from sensationalism. Nothing proves that the FDP is gone for good, especially given that a Grand Coalition might alienate some right-wing voters from the CDU, sending them off to the FDP, as it happened between 2005 and 2009. However, the second significant aspect of this election is the rise of a new party, the eurosceptic AfD party, which won 4.7% and nearly qualified for seats in the Bundestag. In the long-term, the potential emergence of an eurosceptic party hostile to the euro in a country seen as the driving force between the EU might be significant. But the AfD’s room for growth appears limited.

5. Chile Chile (and second round): This ranking might surprise many, and it will either prove to be either hopelessly foolish and naive or incredibly foretelling (likely the former). This election, clearly, isn’t on the list because it was particularly interesting. Former President Michelle Bachelet won a second non-consecutive term in office in an election marked by low turnout and very little suspense as to the outcome of the presidential ballot (which she won with over 62% in the second round). If you wanted suspense or excitement, this wasn’t the election to follow. However, I am willing to stick my head out here and hail this election as significant in the long-term. In a way, it might be similar to Mexico’s election last year (which I ranked fifth) – not particularly interesting at the time, not a surprising result by any stretch of the imagination but an election which may have long-term significance even if we might not have expected it at the time.

I would argue that the 2013 election (rather than 2009-2010) might signal the final end of ‘transition era’ politics in Chile. It was, granted, the victory of a former president whose presidency while successful was of little long-term impact, and she was supported by a coalition largely made up of old parties at the core of the transition era politics. However, the context in which she returned and the form in which she returned is what is significant. The past three years in Chile have been marked by some of the largest protests since the democratic transition itself, organized by social movements – students at the forefront – independent from and rather distrustful of the established traditional coalitions of the right and centre-left. These protests, especially the massive student movement, symbolized a popular challenge to the neoliberal economic consensus which had prevailed since the Pinochet dictatorship and continued throughout 23 years of democratic politics by both centre-left and centre-right governments. Economic growth, as outgoing president Sebastián Piñera learned the hard way since 2010, is no longer sufficient for an electorate which is increasingly concerned by major social inequalities and inefficient and sub-par education or pensions. This is the first major popular challenge to the economic consensus which allowed Chile to become one of Latin America’s most successful economies but which came at the price of huge inequalities and deep problems in education, healthcare or pensions.

The candidates responded to this challenge, and the tone of the campaign and candidates’ platform was quite stunningly different from that of past years. Most candidates demanded a constituent assembly to write a new constitution to replace the one adopted by Pinochet in 1980. Some candidates proposed the re-nationalization of copper, the reawakening of a sensitive issue in Chile. All but one candidate supported free post-secondary education and significant educational reforms, another break with the economic model of the past decades which had promoted a free-market educational system and allowed it to run wild. Bachelet might not have taken the most radical stances and her platform supported reforms at a gradual, incremental pace rather than revolutionary break; but she still advocated for free education, a substantial tax reform and a new constitution (while short on details as to how she would bring it about). Bachelet will find implementing her promises difficult, given the nature of the Chilean political system. But as I said in my conclusions on the runoff - even if she’s not able to accomplish most of it, there are new ideas and views ingrained in the political debate which will be tough to root out.

Within both old coalitions, there are clear changes. On the centre-left, the old Concertación coalition, which ruled from 199o t0 2010 but which became associated, at the end, with inaction and a dearth of ideas, repackaged itself as the Nueva Mayoría – an expanded coalition, markedly more left-leaning, which now includes the Communist Party (one of the major winners of 2013) and smaller left-wing parties. The Christian Democrats, once the driving force in the Concertación, is still the largest party in the heterogeneous coalition but the perceived leftist shift of the coalition and the loss of a few longtime Christian Democratic leaders in Congress shook up the party, which fears it may have lost its predominance over the centre-left. The right suffered an historic defeat, leaving it four years to lick its wounds and rebuild after a bloody defeat. It nominated an old-timer associated at least a bit with the Pinochet regime, but after her defeat there is rising pressure on the right from younger generations to rebuild. The power of the right’s two parties is being challenged, and there is rising incentive for generational change and renewal – breaking from ’1988 politics’ and Pinochet’s legacy.

The 2013 elections in Chile also signal the beginnings of a generational change. Four student leaders – including the ‘face’ of the 2011 protests, Communist Camila Vallejo – were elected to Congress while older names in Chilean politics were defeated.

Even the low turnout was significant in itself, in the first presidential election with voluntary voting and automatic registration. It shows deep-seated dissatisfaction, apathy, disillusionment and scepticism about democratic institutions’ ability to affect real change, 23 years after the triumph of democracy. The new politicians will need to face this challenge head-on. Chile, despite an uneventful election, might finally end the transition era of politics once and far all, inaugurating a new political system – far more unpredictable.

6. CZ Czech RepublicThe Czech Republic saw two important elections this year: the first direct presidential elections in January, and early legislative elections in October. Both elections may prove to have significant consequences on the country’s political system. The direct presidential election and its victor, Miloš Zeman, strengthens the presidency in a theoretically parliamentary republic. Zeman, for example, intervened directly in the political crisis which led to the early elections by naming a close ally as caretaker Prime Minister (who failed to receive the legislature’s confidence) and fermented factional warfare within the largest party, the Social Democrats. The legislative elections saw the political system which had been in place since the late 1990s completely destroyed. The Civic Democrats, hitherto the main right-wing party, were obliterated as a result of a struggling economy, unpopular austerity but above all corruption – culminating in a crazy corruption scandal involving the then-Prime Minister, his chief of staff-mistress, military intelligence, his ex-wife and illegal surveillance.

The decrepitude of the political system, badly undermined by countless corruption scandals and the incompetence of governments, has created a public receptive to populist parties, mostly on the right, proclaiming the need to clean up the political system and bring new leadership (often businessmen) into politics. The last legislative elections in 2010 had foreshadowed this year’s election, with the two main parties of the centre-left and centre-right each doing extremely poorly, with a new anti-corruption party (which turned out to be extremely corrupt) doing very well. This year, the Social Democrats placed first but with barely 20.5%, even lower than in 2010. The Civic Democrats placed fifth with barely 7.7% of the vote, and they were surpassed by a new right-wing populist party and their former junior coalition partner, the more liberal TOP 09. Populist parties did very well; ANO 2011, a new party led by businessman Andrej Babiš placed second with 18.7% and will play a key role in the next government, likely to be led by the Social Democrats. Úsvit, a new populist party (keen on direct democracy) led by Czech-Japanese businessman/senator Tomio Okamura won 7%. Together, these two right-leaning populist forces, both new creations, won 25.5%. Another populist force, albeit much different, older and more traditional. the largely unreformed Communists won 15% and third place, although it was not their best result.

The Czech elections reflected, far and above anything else, voters’ deep-seated dissatisfaction (and outright anger) with with the political system. For the time being, Czech politics are in a state of flux and uncertainty. It is very unclear whether the two traditional parties will reemerge as the leading forces, whether the new populists like ANO will entrench themselves or prove flash in the pans, whether Babiš will become the Czech Berlusconi as some have predicted and which role the president will play in Czech politics in the future? In short, it’s unclear whether this election will be a realigning or deviating election, and whether it will have long-term significance for Czech politics.

7. Australia AustraliaAustralia, like Germany, is another important country but I have a tough time seeing the 2013 Australian election as hugely significant. An incumbent government was defeated, and Tony Abbott’s new Liberal-National Coalition government represents a clear shift to the right on issues such as climate change, energy, immigration/asylum seekers, fiscal policy and same-sex marriage. However, the election was more Labor’s defeat than the Coalition’s victory. It’s already clear that Labor isn’t dead and that this is only a temporary and usual defeat for them, and they may be back as early as the next election if Abbott’s extremely short honeymoon is any indication.

What makes this election interesting is the events which preceded it. Since Labor won power in 2007, it had four official leadership spills, two of which saw the sitting Prime Minister removed from office. In March 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had assumed power in June 2010 following a leadership spill which toppled then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, thought she was strengthened and laid the leadership question to rest after she was reelected unopposed at a leadership spill. Rudd, her eternal rival who had lost a leadership spill in February 2012, had been forced to withdraw from the contest in March citing insufficient caucus support. Gillard could now focus on the federal elections in the fall. However, only a few months later, at the end of June, Gillard was toppled by Rudd in a leadership spill. Rudd became Prime Minister and Labor’s leader in a tough campaign against Abbott’s Coalition. It was the endless succession of internecine warfare in Labor ranks, and Labor’s cut-throat leadership culture, which undermined the Labor government(s) and allowed the Coalition to win. Indeed, Labor lost reelection despite a good economy and a policy record which, if not devoid of controversy, was still not particularly disastrous and subjectively decent or good. Labor might have learned its lesson: its new process for selecting and removing leaders is more transparent, democratic and reduces the power of factional power-brokers and the smoke-filled backrooms.

Also notable in this election was a clear shift to the right by both parties on the immigration/asylum seekers issue. Feeling the Coalition’s pressure and the unpopularity of their own relatively liberal immigration policies, one of Rudd’s first policy decisions in 2013 was the ‘PNG solution’ – a return to the offshore processing system for asylum seekers introduced by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet in 2001 and dismantled in large part by Rudd’s first government in 2007. Under Rudd’s PNG solution, asylum seekers would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, and that no asylum seeker would be resettled in Australia. Tony Abbott’s work in opposition and electoral campaign focused on ‘stopping the boats’, including through use of the military. Labor’s controversial U-turn on asylum seekers, which began under Gillard, is symbolic of a general shift to the right on immigration policies (or government rhetoric on the issue) in many western countries.

8. Israel IsraelIsraeli politics are undoubtedly of great importance to the Middle East, but Israel’s election in early 2013 provided very little change to the status-quo. Instead, they confirmed the complexity and diversity of Israeli society and politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has little enthusiasm for negotiations with Palestinians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or with Iran over the Iranian nuclear program, remained in office although in a coalition which now excludes religious parties (which had been in all cabinets since the 1977 realignment) and is a bit more centrist with the inclusion of two new centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. Netanyahu’s party, the Likud – allied with right-winger Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – came out weakened, losing 11 seats and nearly 10% of the vote from the two parties’ combined share of the vote in 2009.

What was significant about these elections was that they were focused on economic/social issues rather than security or Palestine, and that there was no shift to the right despite the foreign media’s portrayal of Israelis as increasingly nationalistic, religious and anti-Palestinian. The main winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a new secular centrist party led by former journalist Yeir Lapid (it placed second with 19 seats), whose campaign was focused on the middle-classes and their domestic economic grievances rather than old issues of peace or the conflict. His performance showed that many Israeli voters outside the settlements are more interested by kitchen table issues – like voters around the world – than by peace and the conflict (where their stances, on the whole, lean towards the middle ground). On the right, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which took a tough stance on the conflict, did well but not as well as expected – with 12 seats and fourth place. Bennett did not become a game-changing phenomenon, although his later coalition alliance with Lapid and his desire to transcend his party’s traditional religious Zionist and settler base is of some long-term significance.

In the end, it was just another election. Lapid is probably the latest in a succession of centrist leaders whose party emerges dramatically in one election but collapses in the next one. Lapid’s party has already dropped to about 10 seats in the poll, and many of their voters are disappointed with the party’s performance and Lapid in the thankless finance portfolio. Another centrist party which was very successful at one point, Kadima, basically died out in this election. Yesh Atid will probably go the same way. There was no shift to the right, and as we stand, there is none on the horizon. The Labour Party is still in trouble, with poor and unstable leadership and difficulty to appeal to voters. Netanyahu and his fractious party is not very popular but he remains in charge in absence of a single viable alternative. Israeli policy in the region was not altered as a result of the election.

9.  British Columbia (Canada)I hesitate to include sub-national elections on these lists because they almost never have a broader regional impact and often only limited nationwide impact (especially in Canada where federal and provincial politics are more disconnected than in other federal countries). However, I made a spot for the British Columbia election on this list because it definitely fits the secondary ‘interesting’ criteria. The opposition New Democrats (BC NDP) were widely expected to win the election – they led in all polls, almost all by a comfortable margin and often with over 10% leads. Yet, the governing Liberals, in power since 2001, won reelection with a similar majority to 2009 and the BC NDP actually did worse than in 2009.

The election was made interesting by the Liberals’ totally unexpected victory, and the pollsters’ utter failure – a year after a similar failure at calling the 2012 Albertan election. It came as additional reminder that the science of polling, undoubtedly so advanced in this day and age, is not without flaws and faces challenges – both old (predicting turnout and the demographic composition of the electorate) and new (voters without landlines, the rise of online pollsters). I chose to include the BC election on this list after having decided not to include the Albertan election on last year’s list because I feel it was a more remarkable turn-around. The Albertan election was fought between two parties on the right, with ideology important but less central. The BC election was a traditional left-right contest.

If there is one conclusion I might tentatively draw from this election is that negative campaigning works. The BC NDP ran a positive and policy wonk campaign, the BC Liberals ran a negative campaign going on the offensive against the NDP and catching voters’ attention with short, straight talking points and one-liner jabs at the NDP. Although voters insist that negative campaigning sickens them and that they don’t want it, the reality is that negative campaigning does work. Scandals, failures, policy mishaps, talking points and quick jabs stick; thought-provoking wordiness, intricate detailing of policies and ‘staying positive’ don’t work as much and fail to catch voters’ attention in a changing world marked by voters with shorter attention spans for politics and less sympathy for politicians.

10. United-Kingdom Eastleigh by-election (United Kingdom)I usually do not include by-elections, but a reader convinced to make an exception and include the February by-election in Eastleigh, in the UK. The Liberal Democrats held the seat, but with a much reduced vote share (-14.4%) and majority (4.3%). The UKIP, a rising force, placed second with 27.8% – its highest result in any parliamentary constituency, and the closest it has come to winning any seat. The Conservatives placed a disastrous third, and their vote fell by 14%.

Eastleigh was a particularly important by-election. On the one hand, it saved the LibDems as an election winning party, despite the party’s image being badly tarnished and support seriously eroded since it entered a coalition government with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010. The LibDems, who held the seat in question since 1997 and are a powerful force in local politics, faced a tough campaign but through a well-targeted campaign on local issues with a local candidate they won a victory, although given that they lost so many votes it was very much a Pyrrhic victory. Still, a victory on local issues and on the back of the local party’s strength on the ground gives hope to the LibDems that they might be able to save more seats than expected in 2015, given that they hold many seats like Eastleigh where the Tories are their main rivals and that the LibDems have held up better in local elections where the party has a strong footing (with MPs etc).

On the other hand, it was a large victory for UKIP – replicated in local elections in England in May which saw UKIP gain 139 councillors and place third with over 20% in the estimated local vote share. UKIP has done similarly well in other by-elections since 2010, often placing ahead of the Tories and/or LibDems, and the party generally polls 10-12% in polls today. Although it remains to be seen if UKIP can hold its momentum until 2015 (it has already fallen from a stint of polling in the high teens) and, even if it does, whether it can break through with the FPTP system or if it ends up like the Alliance in 1983; UKIP’s rise might bring about a four-party system (even if not a four-party Parliament) and UKIP, even if it does not win any/many seats in 2015, will have a major influence on the results in many seats if it is able to win over 20% of the vote in many constituencies. This makes the 2015 election rather open-ended. Although Labour remains the natural alternative to Cameron’s unpopular government and will probably win the next election, its leader Ed Miliband isn’t particularly popular himself and still faces doubts as to his leadership capacities. In Eastleigh, Labour fell flat on its face, unable to win back anti-Tory tactical voters from the LibDems and a bad start in its bid to increase Labour support in southern England.

I will make honourable mentions for Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. These elections were important for each of their countries, they had interesting results, brought in new governments (Kenya, Pakistan) which may prove important, strengthened an eternal opposition (Malaysia), strengthened nascent democracy (Nepal) or confirmed an old regime (Zimbabwe). However, I did not feel that any of these elections met the criteria I listed at the beginning.

2013 was an interesting year in politics and elections, with no shortage of exciting elections or interesting results to analyze. However, making this list, I felt that while many elections were not insignificant and many important countries held major elections, few of 2013′s elections will probably have a long-term impact on the country or the region, either in the form of political realignment or a significant shift in policy. Of course, not every year is going to filled with such elections – after all, most elections end up being fairly insignificant in the broader scheme of things. Only the Italian and Iranian elections seem likely to have a long-term impact; the German election may have some consequences on the makeup of the political system; the Venezuelan, Chilean and Czech elections might begin a new political era in each of these countries but their long-term consequences remain a matter of debate and very much uncertain.

I wish to reiterate that this ranking, only for fun and analysis purposes, is subjective and influenced by my opinions, views, interests and biases. I’m not certain of my own rankings, and if I re-did it in, say, two weeks, I would probably reorder, drop a few and add a few! I am curious to hear of any readers’ alternative rankings, their comments or views on this list.

Thank you for another excellent year. Stay tuned, before we welcome 2014, for a summary of what’s hot in 2014!

Italy and Italian politics in 2013

2013 was another momentous year in politics and elections around the world, and my usual Top 10 post reviewing the year’s ten most significant election while offer a retrospective on the political and electoral year which passed. If there is one country, however, where 2013 has proven to be an exceptionally consequential and memorable year as far as politics are concerned, that would need to be Italy. At this time last year, it was clear that 2013 would be a memorable year in Italian politics. But, in true Italian style, what has transpired politically in Italy in the past twelve months has been incredible and obviously of deep consequence for the future of Italian politics.

It all began with legislative elections on February 24-25. The expectation prior to the vote was that the centre-left coalition by Pier Luigi Bersani, the colourless leader of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD) – Italy’s largest centre-left party – would be able to form a relatively stable government, probably with the added support of a centrist/centre-right coalition led by Mario Monti, the economist and former EU Commissioner who was serving as Italy’s technocratic Prime Minister for a year. Things, however, didn’t quite play out that way. Silvio Berlusconi, the histrionic business magnate at the centre of Italian politics since 1994, did better than anybody expected, coming within 0.3% of winning the election (in the lower house). To make matters even worse, the Five Star Movement (MoVimento Cinque Stelle, M5S), a virulently anti-establishment party led by charismatic (demagogic?) comedian Beppe Grillo, won 25.6% of the vote and became the single largest party. Because of Italy’s notoriously horrible electoral law, Bersani’s coalition won an absolute majority in the lower house – the Chamber of Deputies – by virtue of having won the most votes nationally and being entitled to a majority bonus granting the largest coalition an absolute majority. But since the Senate has such bonuses apply only regionally, Bersani’s coalition fell short of an absolute majority in the upper house – with 123 seats to Berlusconi’s 117 and Grillo’s 54.

Italy is a parliamentary republic with ‘perfect bicameralism’, which means that a government needs the confidence of both houses to remain in power. Therefore, it became clear that Bersani wouldn’t be able to form government (with the confidence of the Senate) lest he either swallowed the left’s entire raison-d’etre since 1994 by forming a coalition with Berlusconi or convincing parts of Grillo’s ragtag and inexperienced caucus of allying with him in a short-term minority government. Bersani was principled enough to choose the latter option, desperately trying to convince the Grillists to back him in a stopgap coalition committed to constitutional, electoral and political reform.

By March, however, it had become clear that Bersani had failed. Beppe Grillo, the fiery and demagogic comedian who leads the very theatrical M5S from his blog rather than Parliament, is an uncompromising foe of the entire Italian political system, institutions and politicians – they’re all rotten to the bone, he insists. Grillo and his éminence grise Gianroberto Casaleggio also understand that agreeing to collaboration with an old timer like Bersani and the traditional parties would be suicidal for a new and fragile movement whose support lies heavily on Grillo’s populist rhetoric against a corrupt political elite (it’s often hard to take issue with what he rants on, given the legendary corruption, incompetence and vanity of the Italian political elite). Therefore, Grillo effectively blocked his 109 deputies and 54 senators from giving in to the temptation of siding with Bersani.

In April, to complicate matters further, parliamentarians and regional delegates were called to elect the President – a largely ceremonial role, but one of significance in the government formation process. Bersani, who had up until that point done the best he could in a nightmarish situation, did like the Italian left usually does – shoot itself in the foot. Bersani reached an agreement with Berlusconi and the centre on a common candidate for the first ballot, on April 18 – Franco Marini, an 80-year old former Christian democratic trade unionist. The deal with Berlusconi, which seemed to be reneging all of the PD’s campaign and post-electoral behaviour, incensed many on the left and within the PD. Left Ecology Freedom (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, SEL), a small ecosocialist leftist party led by Nichi Vendola and Bersani’s junior ally in February, broke with the PD and backed Stefano Rodotà, a respected former jurist and Communist nominated by Grillo’s M5S. Within the PD itself, Bersani’s strongest rival, the young and centrist mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, who had been defeated by Bersani in a 2012 primary for the prime ministerial candidacy, decried Marini’s pick.

Marini fell far short of the 672 votes required to win on the first ballot, largely due to defections on the left from Renzi’s supporters. After two more inconclusive ballots, the PD (including Renzi) and the SEL agreed to support Romano Prodi, a respected former centre-left Prime Minister. Prodi only required an absolute rather than two-thirds majority to win by this point, but he won only 395 votes – short of the 504 needed to win. It is largely believed that Prodi’s nomination was part of a dirty ploy engineered by Massimo D’Alema, a former Prime Minister and a leading factional leader on the PD’s left (who had backed Bersani in 2009 and 2012). D’Alema comes from the party’s ‘left’ (former members of the Italian Communist Party), like Bersani, but in reality he is a centrist who has long been willing to compromise with Berlusconi and the centrist parties (with disastrous consequences for the party). Renzi might also have been behind the Prodi ploy. In any event, the trick worked, and Bersani resigned the leadership.

On April 20, the leading politicians from all parties (except the M5S) agreed on an unprecedented last-ditch exit route from the crisis. The incumbent President, 88-year old Giorgio Napolitano, who was due to retire as all of his predecessors had done after one term, agreed to run for reelection as a solution to the crisis. Napolitano was reelected on the sixth ballot with a huge majority.

Palazzo Chigi, the seat and residence of the Prime Minister (own picture)

Palazzo Chigi, the seat and residence of the Prime Minister (own picture)

Napolitano’s condition in exchange for agreeing to serve a second term was the formation of a grand coalition government between the left and right. On April 24, Napolitano nominated Enrico Letta, a relatively youthful (47) politician from the PD’s centrist (ex-Christian Democrat, DC) wing but a former Bersani ally. Letta formed a government backed by his own PD, Berlusconi’s PdL, Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (Scelta Civica, SC) and independents. On April 28, he was sworn in with his ministers. Angelino Alfano, still seen as Berlusconi’s dauphin, became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and the PdL had four other ministers (Infrastructure and Transports; Health; Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Constitutional Reforms). The PD was well represented, but like with the PdL few – if any – leading party figures joined the cabinet. Major portfolios went to fairly independent personalities – the former EU Commissioner and Radical politician Emma Bonino as foreign minister, the director general of the Bank of Italy Fabrizio Saccomanni as finance minister, Monti’s former interior minister Annamaria Cancellieri as justice minister and Mario Mauro, a PdL dissident who joined Monti’s party, as defense minister.

On the right, the Lega Nord – Berlusconi’s ally in the elections – went into opposition, as did the SEL. The most vocal opposition came from the M5S, with Grillo as fiery as ever in opposition to Letta’s government. Grillo denounced the creation of the government as a coup d’état and kept calling Parliament a degenerate institution.

Berlusconi had little commitment to Letta’s cabinet from the get-go, being largely preoccupied with his own political and personal interests. He understood that he was holding Letta’s government by the balls; as long as the government served his interests, he would grudgingly tolerate it (but wanting to have the cake and eat it, criticize it at the same time) but if the government started being inconvenient, Berlusconi would start huffing and puffing. Even the PD had little deep commitment to Letta’s government. Renzi was hardly enamoured by Letta’s government, and most of the party was busily preparing for the leadership elections in which Renzi was the runaway favourite. In June, even the mild-mannered and gentlemanly Monti threatened to pull his (weak) party out of the coalition unless it became bolder and more unified.

Letta’s objective, for the time being, was largely restoring investor and foreign confidence in Italy and managing the economy – mired in recession for months on end. On this front, he was relatively successfully, although vulnerable to Berlusconi’s huffing and puffing. Italy has been badly hurt by the economic recession, the result of a variety of structural and political factors among which is years of economic mismanagement by Berlusconi’s governments.

After the emergency austerity measures adopted by Monti’s technocratic government between 2011 and 2012, Italian policy-makers have tried to reorient economic and fiscal policies in a ‘pro-growth’ and ‘pro-jobs’ direction. The public’s mood, with the economy in recession since the fourth quarter of 2011 and unemployment at 12.5% in October 2013, is obviously quite testy and tired of austerity policies. The economic crisis also created a new wave of deep-seated anger at the political elites (la casta), described by populists with Grillo – often with good reason – as parasites of no use who leech on hardworking taxpayers to serve their narrow personal interests. Monti’s reformist government began taking on vested interests and lobbies in ‘closed’ economic sectors (pharmacists, taxies), Grillo’s campaign focused much of its fire and vitriol on ‘parasitical’ politicians (all rotten, he insisted). Even Berlusconi, the political chameleon he is, was able – with some success – to recycle populist rhetoric aimed at politicians and judges.

The government promised to cut employers’ welfare contributions, tax breaks for energy-saving home improvements, expand a guarantee fund for small and medium enterprises and it said it would consider benefits for families and children. Once in office, the government sped up payments of €40 billion in public administration debts, approved tax incentives for employers to employ young workers and began working on a privatization program. For some, Letta’s government has been insufficiently bold in tackling vested interests and promoting competition, largely because both the PdL and PD are tied to special interests and have little interest in disturbing that.

Berlusconi’s main interest as far as economics went was to get the IMU, an unpopular property tax introduced by Monti (with PdL support), scrapped as he had flamboyantly promised in the election. Letta’s government gave in, knowing that Berlusconi would bring down the government if he didn’t. The IMU on primary residences will be abolished.

The government faced its first major test in May-July. In late May, a police operation unceremoniously arrested Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of an exiled Kazakh political dissident (who lives in the UK) and her six-year old daughter. 72 hours later, the Italian authorities handed them over to Kazakh government, who had a plane waiting in Rome to take her to face an uncertain fate in Kazakhstan. Alfano, as interior minister, denied knowledge of the operation. His denial might have been more plausible if Berlusconi didn’t entertain a close and friendly relation with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev and if Italy’s main oil firm (ENI) didn’t have a 17% stake in a Kazakh oil field. On May 28, the Kazakh ambassador had apparently met with Alfano’s chief of staff at the interior ministry to demand Alma Shalabayeva’s arrest and deportation.

The Kazakh expulsion created a political firestorm in Rome which threatened to bring down the government. Berlusconi and his party made it clear that the government would fall if Alfano got into any sort of trouble. The M5S and SEL, along with renziani PD parliamentarians demanded Alfano’s resignation. In July, the M5S and SEL senatorial caucuses tabled a motion of no-confidence in the interior minister, which was rejected by the Senate a few days later. Berlusconi’s threats paid off – the PD, minus a few renziani senators who excused themselves, joined the PdL, SC and minor right-wing groups in voting against the M5S-SEL motion.

Alfano ultimately got a slap on the wrist. Letta was hardly any tougher on other politicians who got caught up in nasty business. Roberto Calderoli, a Lega Nord senator (and one of the vice presidents of the Senate), said that Congolese-born integration minister Cécile Kyenge made him think of an orangutan. Calderoli, who has a knack for comments of the kind, defended himself saying that he intended no racism and only said it because ‘he loves animals’ (and apparently sees animals in all cabinet ministers!); many called on him to resign, but the government seemingly let the matter slide away without a ruckus, although Calderoli may face charges. Annamaria Cancellieri, the non-partisan justice minister, was accused in November 2013 of intervening on the correctional services office to release the daughter of Salvatore Ligresti, a corrupt entrepreneur who is a friend of the minister. The government reiterated its confidence in Cancellieri, and the governing parties all voted against a M5S no-confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies.

In the meantime, attention turned to Berlusconi’s judicial travails. Il cavaliere‘s innumerable run-ins with the law is nothing new; the business magnate has been indicted on charges of tax fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, false accounting, violation of antitrust laws, libel, defamation and under-age prostitution. However, until August 2013, Berlusconi had never been convicted of anything – he was acquitted, cases dragged on exceeding the statute of limitations, he saved his own skin by aptly passing amnesty laws or he changed the law to legalize the alleged offences. The French newspaper Le Monde has an excellent infographic detailing Berlusconi’s various cases.

Il cavaliere‘s luck with the Italian judicial process, often derided for its lengthiness, ran out this year. In October 2012, an appeals court in Milan confirmed a lower court judgement in late 2012 which had found Berlusconi guilty in the ‘Mediaset’ case, where he and his media giant company (Mediaset; the haven of badly-dubbed Extreme Makeover Home Edition reruns) were accused of tax evasion and tax fraud for illicit trade (and false accounting) of movie rights between Mediaset and secret fictive foreign companies in tax havens. The appeals court sentenced him to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. Berlusconi appealed the case to the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appeals court. Much to Berlusconi’s chagrin, the Court of Cassation proved exceptionally quick at issuing a decision on the case – on August 1. The court confirmed the lower courts’ verdict, with a four year prison sentence but asked the Milanese appeals court to review the length of the ban from public office. A 2006 amnesty law, ironically voted by the left to reduce prison overcrowding, automatically reduced Berlusconi’s jail sentence to one year and since he is over 70 and not a repeat offender, he will not serve any jail time: he was given a choice between house arrest or community service, opting for the former.

On June 24, a penal court in Milan had found Berlusconi guilty of child prostitution and abuse of power in the world-famous Rubygate case, where Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, who was a minor at the time (in 2010) and abusing his powers to have her released from police detention in 2010 (on the pretext that she was Hosni Mubarak’s niece). The court sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban from public office, but he will appeal the decision.

Berlusconi is still involved in three other ongoing cases. A trial on the bribery of a centre-left senator in 2006 to topple Prodi’s government will open next year; in March 2013, he was sentenced to a year in jail in the ‘Unipol’ case (confidential wiretaps by Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, on conversations between a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and a centre-left politician); the Constitutional Court is set to rule on a defamation case concerning Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate (famous for his corruption-busting work during the 1990s Mani Pulite operations) and the former leader of the Italia dei Valori (IdV) party. Berlusconi, in 2008, had accused Di Pietro of obtaining his degree only with the complicity of the secret services. In 2010, a court in Viterbo acquitted Berlusconi because parliamentary immunity bans any prosecution against words spoken in the exercise of a parliamentary mandate; however, a higher court overturned the decision in 2012.

The Legge Severino, adopted in December 2012 by the Monti government with the support of all major parties (including the PdL), bans any politician convicted to over two years’ imprisonment from holding or running for public office for six years. This law superseded the October 2013 judgement of the Milanese appeals court, which has shortened Berlusconi’s ban from public office to two years. With the prospect of Berlusconi being expelled by the Senate (but his colleagues would need to vote on the matter first), Italian politics for all of August and September were largely dominated by Berlusconi’s fate.

Undeterred, Berlusconi and his camarilla argued that he was the target of a political witch-hunt – in which the culprits were the same as in the past: left-wing ‘red’ judges. In a country where decades of Red Scare rhetoric by the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) have created a right-wing base receptive to anticommunism and allegations of communist plots against a tireless defender of Italy, Berlusconi still appeals to a large number of Italians (but, we shouldn’t fall into the usual trap of deriding the bulk of Italian voters as ‘dumb’ – the Berlusconian right won less than 30% in 2013). In his usual theatrical (and often comedic) style, Berlusconi complained that he was unable to sleep, that he had lost 11kg, that he was psychologically tormented and that his children felt like Jews under Hitler.

Berlusconi’s supporters pleaded that their leader be granted agilità politica (‘political freedom’). President Napolitano and Prime Minister Letta were faced with the hot potato issue of pardoning Berlusconi. While Letta knew that he was taking a political risk in holding firm, he – and the PD – also knew that doing so would be political suicide for the centre-left. Berlusconi challenged the Legge Severino, arguing that it was not retroactive (and, by extension, he couldn’t be expelled by the law since his crimes were committed before 2012) and is challenging the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.

Politically undeterred, Berlusconi simultaneously announced that the PdL, the party which he had founded in 2008, would be folding and that Forza Italia, his original party when he entered politics in 1994, would return. Rome, Milan and some other Italian cities were plastered with posters of Berlusconi rallies reading ancora in campo per l’Italia (‘still in the field for Italy’); while planes with ‘Forza Italia Forza Silvio’ banners flew over beaches during Ferragosto, Italy’s second most popular holiday in which the swelteringly hot cities are emptied by Italians heading to the beach.

Some of Berlusconi’s closest supporters began floating the possibility of a dynastic succession, in the person of Marina Berlusconi, the cavaliere‘s eldest daughter  and chairman of her father’s Fininvest holding firm. She showed little interest, and the dynastic implications annoyed some politicians in Berlusconi’s party.

Hitherto united in public, the PdL/Forza Italia began showing public cracks in September 2013. While a Senate committee, in which the PD and M5S held a majority of the seats, began debating Berlusconi’s expulsion (decadenza in Italian, because Italian is such an awesome language) under the Legge Severino, Berlusconi started huffing and puffing again. On September 28, Berlusconi ordered his cabinet ministers to resign from Letta’s cabinet. The pretext was the government’s decision to raise the VAT (IVA) by 1%, but nearly everybody saw through that – the real reason was that Berlusconi was threatening to pull the plug on Letta (and plunge Italy into another political crisis) over his judicial travails and Napolitano/Letta’s unwillingness to pardon him or delay the expulsion debate. Feeling that Berlusconi might be bluffing, Letta asked for a confidence vote on October 2.

Berlusconi had been breathing fire in the run-up to the vote, threatening to vote against the government. However, on October 2 in the Senate, Berlusconi gave a speech critical of the government but one which ended by announcing he would vote confidence (fiducia), such a astonishing twist that many initially taught he misspoke (the word for distrust or no confidence is one letter away, sfiducia). The PdL joined the PD, SC, Union of the Centre (UDC) and minor government allies in voting for Letta, who won the Senate’s confidence easily 235 to 70 (M5S, SEL, Lega).

Was Berlusconi bluffing all along? It appears he twisted and turned in agonizing indecision, facing an extremely rare internal revolt. Indeed, all but one of the PdL ministers – who obeyed Berlusconi’s original order – shortly thereafter said it was perhaps a bad decision. One of them was Alfano, who led the doves (colombes) in the PdL – moderates (ex-DC and ex-Socialists) and ministers who placed political stability over Berlusconi’s personal interests. The doves faced the hawks (falchi) and loyalists (lealisti), hardline supporters of Berlusconi who came from the party’s right-wing liberals (Giancarlo Galan, Daniele Capezzone), hard-right (Daniela Santanchè) or camarilla (Raffaele Fitto, Mara Carfagna, Renata Polverini). The hawks-loyalists lost, the doves won and Berlusconi, to save face at the last minute, went with them. It was a shocking twist from Alfano, a Sicilian Christian democrat who had been a subservient justice minister between 2008 and 2011 (passing laws to save his boss from prosecution) and been groomed as Berlusconi’s loyal successor and political ‘son’ (despite Berlusconi publicly insulting him).

On October 4, the Senate committee voted to recommend Berlusconi’s expulsion, sending the matter to the Senate as a whole. The PdL demanded that the vote be held with a secret ballot, a prospect which worried Berlusconi’s opponents – given that it would probably mean that he would try to secretly bribe centre-left lawmakers as he had in the past, but there was also a rumour that the M5S would like a secret vote to secretly vote against Berlusconi’s expulsion to reinforce their ‘plague on both your houses’ rhetoric. On October 30, the rules committee asked for a public vote.

Still undeterred, Berlusconi pressed on with the transformation of the PdL into Forza Italia. On November 16, Berlusconi dissolved the PdL into a new Forza Italia. However, one day prior, the ‘doves’ led by Angelino Alfano announced that they would not dissolve into Forza Italia and formed their own party, the New Centre-Right (Nuovo Centrodestra, NCD). The NCD includes all five centre-right ministers in the Letta government, the former Lombardian regional president Roberto Formigoni and his allies, members of the Catholic lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, former members of the DC who joined the centre-right from various post-DC Christian democratic parties (Carlo Giovannardi, in the UDC until 2008), former members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Renato Schifani – the former President of the Senate and architect of an unconstitutional immunity law in 2004 and the incumbent regional president of Calabria Giuseppe Scopelliti.

All in all, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reduced to the hawks, loyalists and ‘mediators’ (moderates such as Renato Brunetta, supporters of party unity) – has 67 deputies and 60 deputies, against 29 and 31 respectively for the NCD.

Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Italian Senate in Rome (own picture)

Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Italian Senate in Rome (own picture)

On November 26, as the government was preparing to pass the 2014 budget, Forza Italia withdrew its support from the government and, the next day, voted against the budget which nevertheless passed the Senate 162 to 115, with the NCD’s support. That same day, the Senate finally voted on Berlusconi’s decadenza under the Legge Severino by public ballot. Berlusconi’s supporters, symbolically dressed in black in the Senate or rallied in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence, desperately tried to delay the vote or have it held by secret ballot. Berlusconi warned the PD and M5S senators from voting against him, so that they were not later “ashamed in front of their children”, he also insisted on a re-trial, claiming new evidence and witnesses. All to no avail, as the Senate voted 192 to 113 to expel Berlusconi from their ranks. The PD, M5S, SEL, SC, UDC and two small centre-left groups voted in favour, while Forza Italia, the Lega Nord, the NCD and a centre-right autonomist group voted against. The NCD in doing so signaled that their split was not as much against Berlusconi himself as against Berlusconi’s political strategy, which makes the Alfano dissidence different from Gianfranco Fini’s very public split with his former ally in 2010. Indeed, Alfano said that he was still Berlusconian – but “in a different way”.

To top off a year of shocking twists and turns, the Constitutional Court ruled, on December 4, that two key parts of the electoral law were unconstitutional. The Italian electoral law (known as the Legge Calderoli, or unofficially the legge porcellum - piglet law – or porcata literally ‘shit’, as described by its own sponsor, Roberto Calderoli) was passed by Berlusconi’s government in 2005 in an unsuccessful attempt to save the right in the 2006 elections. The law, whose effects we witnessed in the February election, guarantee an absolute majority in the Chamber to whichever coalition wins the most votes nationally by granting them 340 seats (55%), even if said coalition wins only 29% as in 2013! In the Senate, however, the majority bonus is applied regionally (but three regions have no majority bonus) so there is no guarantee that the winning coalition will have an absolute majority in the Senate. This means that the winning coalition either lacks a majority in the Senate (2013), has so tenuous of a majority that it makes it vulnerable to any dissent within the often-fractious coalitions (2006) or the majority is strong but still vulnerable to large blocs of dissent within the coalition (in a landslide election like 2008).

The Constitutional Court declared that the majority bonuses in both houses were unconstitutional and also ruled against the closed party lists, which prevent voters from indicating preferences for candidates on a party list. A new electoral law was already one of the government’s priorities, along with constitutional reform (to end with ‘perfect bicameralism’ and reduce the Senate’s powers); it will now need to actually deliver on a new electoral law. This will hardly be a cakewalk given that there is no agreement on what form the new system should take, and it is obvious that the parties will likely engage in horsetrading and concessions amongst themselves before agreeing on constitutional and electoral reform. It is likely that the new electoral system will include a large number of seats won in single-member districts. Many, like Matteo Renzi (but not Alfano), like a French electoral system, with two round voting and the propensity to create a two-party (or two-coalition?) system. However, in the absence of a political agreement, the most likely option might be a return to the Mattarellum in place between 1993 and 2005, in which 75% of members of both houses were elected by FPTP in single-member districts and the remaining 25% by forms of proportional representation, either compensatory or party-list votes. The system had led to backroom deals, horsetrading, small parties selling themselves to the highest bidder (and holding great power) and corrupt abuses of the obscure clauses of the law (decoy lists in 2001 to work around the party-list PR rules).

What are voters thinking?

The short answer: nobody knows, and politicians are in no hurry to find out. In national polls, the centre-right coalition (PdL/FI+Lega Nord+allies+NCD) have generally held small leads, confusingly ranging from statistically insignificant/tied to narrow but significant (4-6 pts) depending on the pollster (who, it must be pointed out, generally are terrible). The right opened up a narrow but significant lead from April to June-July, at which point the left closed the gap and it has, on the whole, been more or less tied between the right and left since.

Within the coalitions, the PD has improved on its February result (25%) and now stands at 28-29% while Forza Italia, hurt by the NCD split, stands where the PdL stood in February – or a bit below (19-21%). The Lega Nord is stable at low levels of support (4-5%), the SEL peaked at nearly 6% (3% in February) between May and September but has since fallen to 3.5%.

A grand coalition between left and right should have been a godsend for the M5S, but it hasn’t really been so. A new party in Parliament, with a caucus heavily made up of first-time, inexperienced novice politicians drawn from different social horizons and drawing on different political traditions and ideologies, it has had a tough time adapting to Parliament – especially how their leadership and many of the parliamentarians themselves consider the Parliament to be a corrupt and illegitimate institution which should, in a perfect world, be abolished and replaced by internet-based direct democracy. Despite the commitment to direct democracy and political revolution, the M5S isn’t a shining example of internal democracy. Beppe Grillo is an autocratic leader, who is rather intolerant of any dissent or criticism, and doesn’t hesitate to insult any critics – internal or external, politicians or journalists – with crude ad hominem attacks. Grillo just recently allowed his followers to go on TV, which he had until then boycotted. His angry followers often enthusiastically join Grillo’s countless attacks on his ‘enemies’ launched from his blogs.

Two deputies and five senators have been expelled or voluntarily left the M5S caucus. In April, senator Marino Mastrangeli was expelled by members (in an internet vote) for having appeared on TV shows. In June, senator Adele Gambaro, who had held Grillo responsible for the M5S’ poor results in local elections, was expelled from the caucus after an internet vote. Gambaro, Mastrangeli and two other dissident M5S senators voted in favour of Letta’s cabinet in the Senate on October 2. Still, considering how diverse and inexperienced the M5S caucuses are, losing so few parliamentarians is a big feat. I compared the M5S to the Canadian Progressive Party from the 1920s in February, and while I still argue that the two parties share some similar traits (some of Grillo’s ideas remind me of the Ginger Group), the difference so far is that the M5S has been far more cohesive than the Progressives. The reason might be that the Progressives lacked a Beppe Grillo, a rabble-rousing populist politician who is also able to hold his crowd together.

In polls, the M5S saw their support fall from 25-30% in the immediate aftermath of the election to 15-17% in July and since then back up to 20-23%. Basically, while some February voters are reconsidering their vote and may not vote for Grillo again, he remains a hugely influential player.

The centre, which won 10.6% in February (Chamber of Deputies), has collapsed. Mario Monti lost control of his own party, the hastily-assembled and fractious SC, ended his short-lived political career in October and resigned from the SC. The SC has broken up, divided between liberals and Catholics. The liberals have taken control of the party, which led the Catholic/Christian democratic wing to split off and join forces with the Christian democratic party, the UDC. The SC group has 26 deputies and 8 senators left, down from 47 and 21 at the outset. The Catholics and UDC have formed their own group, Per l’Italia, with 20 deputies and 12 senators. In the polls, the SC has sunk from 8% in February to 1-2%, and the UDC has been stuck at 1.8%, what it won in the election.

There were local elections in late May (earlier or later in two regions), the most significant race for mayor being in Rome. The centre-left won 19 out of 21 major cities, with an independent list winning one and the M5S only winning one city (Ragusa). The centre-right was defeated in Rome but also other historically right-wing places: Brescia, Treviso or Viterbo. In Rome, incumbent mayor Gianni Alemanno, a former neo-fascist who won a surprise victory in a traditionally left-leaning city (but one with a long history of high support for neo-fascist/post-fascist parties) in 2008, was defeated. His term had been marred by some patronage scandals and policy mishaps, and he was handily defeated by Ignazio Marino (PD), a centre-left senator and esteemed transplant surgeon. Marino won 42.6% against 30.3% for Alemanno in the first round, with the M5S candidate polling only 12.4% (Grillo had won 27% in Rome in February). In the second round, Marino won 63.9%. The centre-right – Lega included – usually did poorly, even in their northern and Sicilian bases. They lost cities such as Viterbo in the Lazio (which elected its first leftist mayor, the incumbent right-wing mayor winning only 37.1% in the runoff), Catania in Sicily (a former centre-left mayor returned by the first round) and Messina (where the PdL was out by the first round, with only 18.5%, and a narrow victory for a pacifist, environmentalist and anti-mafia activist against the PD in the runoff). In Treviso, held by the Lega Nord since 1994, the centre-left defeated Lega Nord candidate Giancarlo Gentilini, a two-term mayor between 1994 and 2003 known for his provocative xenophobic and homophobic stances. The left won 42.6% in the first round against 34.8% for Gentilini, and won with 55.5% in the runoff.

The M5S did very poorly compared to its showing a few short months earlier, winning less than 10% in most cities and winning, at most, 15% of the vote. The party’s only success was in Ragusa, where the Grillo candidate placed second behind the PD in the first round, with 15.6%, and went on to win with 69.4% in the runoff.

A regional election was held in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in April, one day after Napolitano’s reelection. Debora Serracchiani, a young PD MEP close to Renzi, narrowly defeated the centre-right incumbent, Renzo Tondo, with 39.4% against 39% in the presidential vote. The M5S won 19.2% when it had won 27% in February. In May, the special (French-speaking) autonomous region of the Aosta Valley held a regional election. Although Aostan politics form their own little world separate from Italian politics, there is some overlap. The M5S, which had still won 18.5% in February won only 6.5% while the PdL lost all four seats it held and won only 4.2%.

The Trentino-Alto Adige region is its own unique world as well, because of the German-speaking majority in Alto Adige/Südtirol/South Tyrol and the strength of the autonomist centre-left, a regional election was held on October 27. The election in Alto Adige/Südtirol was interesting in its own right but of little relevance to Italy: the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), the catch-all German party which has dominated the province since 1948, finally lost its 65-year old absolute majority on the provincial council, winning an all-time low of 45.7% of the vote. The main winners were the German right, in the form of Die Freiheitlichen (often described as a local variant of the FPÖ and separatist) who won 17.9% but also the Süd-Tiroler Freiheit (separatists demanding reunification with Austria) which increased its support from 5% to 7%. The Greens, one of the few (only?) pan-linguistic parties in the province, increased their support to 8.7%. The PD won 6.7%, roughly holding its ground, but the Italian right lost heavily – an alliance between Lega Nord and Forza Italia (competing as Forza Alto Adige) won only 2.5% and 1 seat, down from 10.4% in 2008. The M5S eked out one seat. In the Trentino province, the centre-left coalition led by Ugo Rossi from the Trentino Tyrolean Autonomist Party (PATT) won handily, taking 58.1% of the direct presidential vote against 19.3% for Diego Mosna, an independent businessman backed by centrists, liberals, centre-right and centre-left dissidents. Running separately, it was a massive disaster for Forza Italia/Forza Trentino, which won 4.3% in the presidential vote and 4.4% in the list vote, losing all 5 seats won by the PdL in 2008. They were surpassed by the Lega Nord, which won 6.6%, but also the M5S – whose 5.7% were still a far cry from the 21% it had won in February.

A special regional election was held in Basilicata, a region in southern Italy, on November 17-18 after the PD president resigned following a corruption bust which saw members of his government and the leader of the opposition arrested for embezzlement. The PD candidate easily held the regional presidency, which has been held by the centre-left since 1995 (often in alliance with the centre), winning 59.6% of the presidential vote. SC senator Salvatore Di Maggio, in coalition with the PdL and UDC, won only 19.4% while the M5S won 13.2% (24.3% in February). In the list vote, the PdL suffered sharp loses, losing five seats and winning only 12.3% of the vote (19.4% in 2010) although the PD also lost ground, from 27.1% to 24.8%.

Why are Italian voters handing the left large victories at the local level, but are still torn between the left and right nationally? Similarly, if the M5S is holding up relatively well from the general election, why are they being trounced in local elections? The most likely answer for the first question is that the centre-right is heavily dependent on Berlusconi, for better or for worse. Berlusconi is the right’s most famous, charismatic and likely popular leader and remains the glue which may hold a very fractious coalition together, although younger leaders such as Alfano or the Lega Nord mayor of Verona Flavio Tosi are knocking at the door. Berlusconi has little interest in local/regional elections and campaigned little for ‘his’ candidates in this year’s local elections. A similar explanation goes for Grillo, who is by far the M5S’ most charismatic and notable leader. His movement, however, still lacks grassroots at the local level and most of its candidates are no-namers who struggle to make an impact if Grillo is not playing an active role in their campaign.

PD leadership

The PD held a much-awaited leadership election on December 8, capping off a fascinating year in Italian politics.

The obvious favourite was Matteo Renzi, the 38-year old reformist mayor of Florence, who had lost the 2012 prime ministerial primaries to Bersani. After the near-loss in February and Bersani’s disastrous handling of the presidential election, the PD elite and rank-and-file began reconsidering Renzi, who had cemented himself as Bersani’s heir apparent and strongest public critic.

Matteo Renzi, unlike Bersani, comes from the Christian democratic tradition – while too young to have been in the First Republic’s DC, he began his political career in the centre-left Italian People’s Party (PPI), one of the DC’s successor and joined the PD from the Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy. Renzi made in name in politics, as president of the province of Florence between 2005 and 2009 and as mayor of Florence since 2009, as a ‘scrapper’ (rottamatore) who took on the political elites (within his own party) and reducing waste, mismanagement and the size of the local public administrations. Despite being only in his first time as mayor and fairly new to politics, like Barack Obama (to whom he is often compared, alongside Tony Blair), he has made a name for himself largely by being a competent municipal administrator and his populist/anti-establishment persona which is popular in Italy.

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall (own picture)

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall (own picture)

In 2010, Renzi made a name for himself nationally by launching a reformist anti-elite movement within the PD (rottamazione senza incentivi) alongside two other young leaders, MEP Debora Serracchiani and Pippo Civati – who are more left-wing than the centrist Renzi. In November 2012, he ran against Bersani and SEL leader Nichi Vendola (and two minor candidates) for the prime ministerial candidacy of the centre-left, PD-led coalition in the 2013 elections. Renzi won 35.5% in the first round, about 10 points behind Bersani, and only won 39.1% in the runoff against Bersani, who received the backing of Nichi Vendola. Renzi was popular with some PD members, but his anti-establishment/anti-elite creed and his reformist ‘Third Way’ policy proposals challenging the centre-left’s traditional values worried some left-wing voters. As did, among others, a December 2010 meeting with Berlusconi and Berlusconi commenting that Renzi was adopting his ideas under the PD’s banner. Bersani, the establishment pick and more orthodox, was the safe bet at that time.

Ideologically, Renzi is on the party’s right and challenges the traditional ‘dogma’ of the centre-left (which is nevertheless very moderate in practice). In 2012, Renzi proposed tax cuts for employees, a €100 increase in employees’ net salary paid for by a 15% cut in the costs of public administration, financial support and credit for SMEs, labour market flexibility (flexicurity) along the Scandinavian/Danish model, financial incentives for foreign investors, cracking down on tax evasion and civil unions for homosexual couples. A ‘straight-talker’, he also took strong stances against corruption – abolishing public subsidies to parties (abolished recently by Letta, responding to a M5S demand), reducing the number of parliamentarians, greater accountability of public officials to their constituent (he favours a French electoral system) and constitutional reform to reduce the Senate’s powers. He is often compared to (and accepts such comparisons himself) to Tony Blair and his New Labour.

A good article by Spain’s El País newspaper emphasizes Renzi’s frankness, ‘what you see is what you get’ style – noting his public criticisms of the PD’s old guard, a public admission by Renzi himself that he doesn’t have an excellent relation with the unions, stinging criticism of Italy’s inefficient or mismanaged bureaucracy and a burning desire to promote entrepreneurship. Asked about his age, Renzi points out that ‘only in Italy is 38 still young’.

He justifies his identification with the centre-left by saying that he’s a centre-leftist who “wants to do things”, and not one of those who don’t act and limit themselves to theories and internecine factional warfare. He promotes his record as mayor as his definition of ‘left-wing’ – environmentalist policies (limiting new buildings and preserving green spaces), gender parity in his administration (which now has more women than men), investments in new technologies, privatization of the public transit company, cutting the costs of public administration and promoting culture (late-night opening hours for museums).

He is very critical of the old centre-left leadership for their ‘obsession’ with Berlusconi, saying that his objective is to get him to retire rather than send him to jail (that should be up to the courts, he says) and opposing him by doing the reforms which he (and the centre-left) failed to do. Although both he and Letta shared Christian democratic roots, both men have been on separate sides of recent factional battles (Letta was pro-Bersani) and Renzi is fairly critical of Letta’s government – not openly opposed to it, but less supportive than the outgoing PD leadership. Renzi has little interest in having Letta stay on for longer than is necessary, and can be expected to pressure Letta into doing what he promised to do but hasn’t done (yet) – tax cuts for working classes, fighting corruption and la casta and political reform.

The PD’s members chose between four candidates in a preliminary vote in early November, with the top three moving on to the open primary on December 8. The open primary was free for PD members and non-members needed to contribute €2 to be able to vote. Besides Renzi, two other candidates qualified for the open primary: Gianni Cuperlo and Pippo Civati.

Cuperlo, the oldest of the candidates (52), comes from the other tradition represented in the PD. He was the last national secretary of the Italian Communist Youth Federation between 1988 and 1990 and joined the post-communist/social democratic Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) and Democrats of the Left (DS). He has member a member of the Chamber of Deputies since 2006. Cuperlo was very much the ‘establishment’ or ‘old guard’ candidate, endorsed by the party’s so-called ‘left’ or ‘centre’ – mostly made up, like Bersani or D’Alema – of former Communists. That being said, considering the PD’s establishment to be particularly left-wing despite their opposition to Renzi’s heterodox views is erroneous. In reality, they remain moderate, inoffensive centre-leftists – as Prime Minister, D’Alema governed as a centrist, and Bersani’s 2013 had nothing radical or markedly leftist to it.

Pippo Civati, 38 like Renzi, also comes from the party’s left, but representative of a newer generation opposed to the old guard (and sharing some of Renzi’s criticisms of the old guard) and with some liberal positions on economic issues. Civati, elected to the Chamber of Deputies only in February, stood out by emphasizing the need for a more left-wing oriented party, with close ties to Vendola’s SEL and openly supportive of an alliance with the M5S. Civati represented the PD in the ill-fated negotiations with the M5S, supported the M5S’ presidential candidate Stefano Rodotà and opposed the Letta government.

Renzi was supported by his own core backers (renziani) and most of the liberal and Christian democratic factions of the party. As in 2012, he was supported by Walter Veltroni, the PD’s inaugural leader and 2008 PM candidate, who despite coming from the PCI is considered to be an ‘American liberal’ in the party and supports a big-tent party like the US Democrats. This year, Renzi was joined by ‘Areadem’, a centrist faction led by former PD leader Dario Franceschini (2009), who was defeated for the leadership by Bersani in 2009 but later joined forces with Bersani in 2010, breaking with Veltroni and the Christian democrats (I Popolari). Some supporters of Prime Minister Letta also backed Renzi.

Cuperlo was supported by the traditional social democratic old guard of the party, made up of Bersani and D’Alema’s supporters (Cuperlo himself is a dalemiani) but also the so-called ‘Young Turks’, a faction of younger members (whose most famous name is Stefano Fassina) on the economic left of the party.

Civati, a minor leader in the PD’s factional games, had little institutional or factional support. He was backed, among other names, by Laura Puppato, a new senator and environmentalist from Veneto, who had run in the 2012 primaries.

According to YouTrend, the Bersaniani, Areadem and renziani are the three largest factions in the Parliament, and about 35% of the PD’s parliamentarians were considered to be bersaniani.

In the vote for PD members, Renzi won only 45.34% against 39.44% for Cuperlo and 9.43% for Civati (another candidate, who was eliminated, won 5.8%). On December 8, 2.8 million voters turned out to vote in the open primaries – down from 3.1 million in the centre-left primaries in 2012 (first round) and also from the 2009 PD primaries in which 3.1 million had participated. The PD won 8.6 million votes in February.

Matteo Renzi 67.55%
Gianni Cuperlo 18.21%
Pippo Civati 14.24%

Results of the PD members vote and open primary (own map)

Results of the PD members vote and open primary (own map)

Without much suspense or surprise, Renzi handily won the open primaries against his two lesser-known opponents. While the members’ vote in November showed that a significant section of the PD’s rank-and-file membership was still fairly sceptical of Renzi, when the vote was opened to non-member sympathizers, Renzi won by a predictably massive margin. His support clearly broke through traditional factional strengths, and traditional ‘centrist’ or ‘rightist’ support within the PD. After the near-defeat of February 2013 (which was basically a defeat), the hot mess of April 2013, the humiliation of allying with the Berlusconian right in a grand coalition and the unpopularity of such an unnatural alliance of necessity with the PD’s rank-and-file, there was certainly widespread desire within the PD for a new leader, regardless of his ideological purity, who would give the PD some pride and shake up the political system.

Renzi is expected to take a more critical stance vis-a-vis the Letta government, although it seems unlikely that he would precipitate its collapse in the short term.

Geographically, Renzi won every region and – according to YouTrend - all but one province, losing only the inland Sicilian province of Enna to Cuperlo. Generally, Renzi’s lowest results came from southern Italy, including Sicily and much of Sardinia, while his best results – fairly naturally – came from his native Tuscany, although he was also strong throughout much of northern Italy. Renzi won 78.5% in Tuscany, and 79.6% in his province of Florence. His worst results were in Sardinia (56.4%), Basilicata (57.2%) and Calabria (57.8%). Southern Italian centre-left voters could be expected, I guess, to be more favourable to the establishment pick.

Unnoticed by most, the Lega Nord held a leadership election on December 7. The historic leader of the party, Umberto Bossi, had been forced to resign from his leadership positions in April 2012 following a crazy scandal in which Bossi and his ‘magic circle’ were accused of embezzling the party’s public financing funds and using the money to pay Bossi’s son. The scandal badly hurt the party, which suffered major loses in the February election, and led to Bossi’s replacement by his rival and one-time deputy, Roberto Maroni. Although the Lega still allied (reluctantly and in return for juicy concessions) with Berlusconi in the last election, Maroni and his followers have tended to be far less supportive of the Lega’s traditional ties to the centre-right (Bossi strongly supported the alliance with Berlusconi in the last few years). The leadership battle opposed Umberto Bossi to Matteo Salvini, a MEP. Salvini was supported by Maroni.

Salvini won in a landslide, 81.7% to Bossi’s mere 18.3%. The Łiga Vèneta, the Lega Nord’s branch in Veneto – the party’s second strongest region alongside Lombardy (where the national leadership is drawn from), is controlled by Flavio Tosi, the ambitious mayor of Verona and an ally of Maroni/Salvini’s line against Bossi, although more traditionally conservative. Tosi interpreted the Lega/LV’s poor result in February as the result of the alliance with the PdL. Salvini’s election signals a return to fundamentals for the Lega Nord: more independence from the centre-right, hardened ‘Padanian’ nationalism/separatism, strong anti-immigration stances and Euroscepticism (Salvini once decried the euro as a crime against humanity).

2013 will undoubtedly have been a significant year for Italian politics, which will have major repercussions on the future of Italian politics in the coming months and years.

Merry Christmas to all readers!


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