Monthly Archives: December 2013

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).

Europe

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.

AF

 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).

Africa

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?

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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!

Chile 2013

Presidential runoff elections were held in Chile on December 15, 2013. The first round, along with congressional elections for all members of the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) and half of the Senate (Senado) were held on November 17. The President is elected to a four-year term, with no possibility for consecutive reelection, by a two round system.

Last month, I wrote up a detailed guide to Chilean politics and an overview of the first round and congressional elections from all angles. I would recommend at least skimming through it (if you haven’t read it already) to get a good idea of Chilean politics and what I’m talking about, since this post will be far more concise and less explanatory.

In the first round, former President Michelle Bachelet, in office between 2006 and 2010, came out far ahead of a very packed field with 46.69% of the vote. Her second round rival, cabinet minister Evelyn Matthei, the candidate of the governing right-wing coalition, won only 25% of the vote. Bachelet was the candidate of the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), a centre-left coalition made up of the old Concertación coalition (composed of Bachelet’s Socialist Party, or PS, the Christian Democrats, or PDC/DC, and the smaller Party for Democracy and the Radical Social Democratic Party, PRSD) expanded to small left-wing parties and the old (but, since 1989, weak and marginalized) Communist Party (PCCh).

Bachelet left office in 2010 with sky-high approval ratings and maintained high levels of popularity in Chile while she worked as head of UN Women in the past four years. During the campaign, her popularity levels fell some to more reasonable levels, given the heat of campaigning and waves of criticism on the vagueness of her policies or the content of said policies. Yet, she was still the runaway favourite. She crushed opponents in a Nueva Mayoría primary in June, and sailed her way through the campaign, doing her best to stay above the fray and let the divided right publicize their troubles (the candidate who won their primaries dropped out for health reasons, and the most right-wing party in the coalition, the Independent Democratic Union or UDI, imposed Matthei as the right’s candidate despite the opposition of many in the centre-right National Renewal, or RN, party). She was left relatively unscathed by the rise of two independent contenders: Franco Parisi, a TV economist perceived as being on the centre-right, and former PS deputy Marco Enríquez-Ominami (MEO) who ran for a second time after taking 20% in the 2009 election. MEO finished a distant third with a respectable 11% and Parisi placed fourth with a more disappointing 10%.

There were clear contrasts, as far as platforms go, between Bachelet and Matthei. Bachelet’s platform was one of the most left-wing in Chilean history since the restoration of democracy in 1989-1990, a reaction to the rise of social movements (particularly student protests) critical of the neoliberal consensus created by military dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and continued by Concertación governments (1990-2010).

The neoliberal economic model promoted by Pinochet and his famous ‘Chicago Boys’ in the first half of his regime made Chile an ‘economic model to follow’ for other Latin American states because of high growth, macroeconomic stability and orthodox fiscal policies. However, social movements – the student movement at the forefront – argue that the neoliberal model’s much-trumpeted success is an illusion masking very high levels of income inequality (the seventeenth most unequal country in the world according to the Gini index) and major problems in education, pensions, healthcare and the tax code. While the giant student protests which began in 2011 and have continued to this day, although much smaller in size, were mostly highlighting problems in the country’s education system (municipal control of schools, high levels of student debt for post-secondary education, profiteering in private post-secondary education, the proliferation of private education at all levels), they were also criticizing other aspects of the economic model which had until then been widely accepted by both the Concertación and the right.

Bachelet, accused of not responding adequately to a student movement early in her first term, presented a rather left-wing platform. Her main promises included education reform (free education, including at the post-sec level), tax reform to raise $8.2 million (cutting income taxes, raising corporate taxes, eliminating a Pinochet-era tax fund (FUT) allowing businesses to not pay taxes immediately on their profits) and adopting a new constitution – Chile’s current constitution, albeit reformed significantly, was written by Pinochet’s regime in 1980 and still has ‘authoritarian enclaves’. She also proposed a pension reform to complement the private capitalization system pension funds (AFPs) with a public pension fund, decriminalizing abortion in certain cases (currently illegal under all circumstances) and legalizing same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, Matthei proposed a much more conservative platform. Indeed, she stood out from a largely reformist – and I dare say left-leaning field – by her stances on some major issues. Matthei opposed free post-secondary education (an OECD report warned against free higher education since it’d be regressive, offering state funding to poor and rich students alike) and instead proposed more access to grants and loans – basically the stance of President Sebastián Piñera’s administration (which equalized interest rates on state-guaranteed private bank loans at 2%, previously only students at traditional universities received 2% interest loans from the government). Every other candidate besides her supported free post-sec education. Matthei opposed Bachelet’s stances on taxes and pensions, criticizing Bachelet’s plan to abolish the FUT (it would stifle investment, she says) and create a public AFP (Matthei said the AFP’s problems are due to low employee contributions). She stood out from nearly every other candidate by opposing a new constitution, she settled at proposing cosmetic constitutional reforms. Finally, Matthei, who hails from a very socially conservative party (the UDI), opposed legalizing abortion or same-sex marriage. During the runoff campaign, Matthei even pledged that her government would adhere “to a path in which nothing contradicts the teachings of the Bible”.

The two candidates attracted media coverage around the world because of their unique personal trajectories: both were childhood friends because both of their fathers were air force generals at the time of the 1973 coup. The directions which their lives took following the coup reflect how the 1973 coup painfully divided families and friends. Matthei’s father, General Fernando Matthei, went on to serve as commander of the Chilean air force between 1978 and 1991 and a member of Pinochet’s military junta. Matthei herself worked in the private sector in Chile during the dictatorship, and also worked for the government body which supervises the private pension funds (AFP). Bachelet’s father had been named to head the food distribution office under Allende and effectively supported Allende’s democratically-elected government, which led to his arrest, detention and torture at the Air Force Academy. He died as a result of torture in March 1974, Bachelet herself (along with her mother) were later arrested and tortured in detention centres by the intelligence services. Bachelet lived in exile in Australia and East Germany and only returned to Chile in 1979.

Bachelet did not win on the first round, but there was no doubt that she’d win in the second round. The month-long or so campaign between the two rounds was therefore largely subdued, of little interest to voters – over half of which hadn’t turned out to vote in the first round anyway – and largely marked by the right continuing to air its dirty laundry in public.

Bachelet picked up a few endorsements between the two rounds. One presidential candidate, Alfredo Sfeir, the colourful Green candidate who won 2.4%, directly endorsed her but apparently his party, the PEV, was not entirely pleased by this. Independent candidate Franco Parisi said right after the first round that he would not vote in the runoff, but congratulated Bachelet on her near-certain victory and took another jab at Matthei, who he said was a “very, very bad person” – the two candidates had traded punches in the first round campaign, after Matthei had revealed that Parisi and his brother owed thousands to employees in a private high school which they owned. On December 13, Parisi tweeted that Matthei “hurts Chile” and that, in the “current electoral scenario” he trusted that Bachelet was the best for Chile. Parisi’s campaign manager went further and publicly endorsed Bachelet.

Third-placed candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami said that Bachelet had already won, and did not endorse any candidate. MEO said he would cast a blank ballot and mark his ballot ‘AC’, an independent campaign (Marca Tu Voto) calling for a constituent assembly and backed by left-wing politicians including Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric and Guido Girardi.

On the left, Bachelet gained the official backing of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest trade union which is led since 2012 by Bárbara Figueroa, a Communist. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reiterated his support for Bachelet during a visit to Santiago where he met with Bachelet, Figueroa and Camila Vallejo, a former student leader and deputy-elect for the Communist Party.

As was widely expected, former student leader and deputy-elect Giorgio Jackson, who won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies as an independent backed by the Nueva Mayoría, and his party – Revolución Democrática – endorsed Bachelet, after not officially backing any candidate in the first round. Two other student leaders (both Communists) who were elected to Congress on November 17, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, had, alongside the Communists, already backed Bachelet in the first round but Vallejo stepped up her involvement in Bachelet’s campaign after the first round. Vallejo, who in 2012 had said in an interview to El País that she would never campaign for or endorse Bachelet, eventually came around to supporting Bachelet after the PCCh’s leadership endorsed Bachelet in the Nueva Mayoría primaries in June. The fourth student leader to win a seat on November 17, Gabriel Boric, elected in Magallanes for the Izquierda Autónoma, did not endorse Bachelet. Boric represents a large strand of the student movement distrustful of the old Concertación and critical of leaders such as Vallejo for their ties to national parties such as the PCCh.

Ex-RN senator Antonio Horvath, who had taken his distances with the right and the president due to his opposition to the controversial hydroelectric dam project HidroAysén and had served as an adviser on Franco Parisi’s platform team, effectively endorsed Bachelet by noting his “greater congruence” with Bachelet’s platform. Horvath’s support was a key strategic victory for the Nueva Mayoría, which needs the support of independents and right-wingers to obtain congressional super-majorities needed for changes in education, the electoral system and so forth.

Meanwhile, on the right, Matthei’s campaign, which stood little chance from the get-go, limped to the finish line. With Matthei standing no chance, right-wing leaders feuded amongst themselves on who was to be held responsible for the electoral disaster (unpopular President Sebastián Piñera, the government, Matthei herself, the UDI or the party leaderships?) and some even began aligning the cards for the 2017 presidential election.

Lame-duck President Piñera, on bad terms with both the UDI and his own party (RN) and fed up with the right’s squabbles, has proceeded to finish his term as an independent statesman. His decision to close a luxury prison where ten military officers sentenced for human rights violations under Pinochet were being held unnerved some on the right (particularly in the UDI), where a number of members and prominent leaders still hold Pinochet in high regard. On the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s 1973 coup which overthrew Salvador Allende’s left-wing government, Piñera criticized “passive accomplices who knew and did nothing or did not want to know”, a thinly-veiled jab at members of his own coalition, members of whom served in government under Pinochet. Many believe that Piñera might be seeking to return to the presidency in 2017.

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians aired their opinions on the right’s electoral disaster. RN senator-elect Manuel José Ossandón, a moderate/liberal on the right, caused quite a stir when he had tough words for Piñera and the government, saying he’d never work or vote for Piñera again and added that Piñera’s government, while decent on policy (‘6.5/10’) was horribly incompetent on political management (‘1/10’) because he “despised politicians” (Piñera is a wealthy businessman first and foremost, and his cabinet had a large number of corporate leaders and businessmen, which always displeased the old guard in the UDI and RN). Ossandón, who joined Matthei’s campaign team alongside some other younger liberal leaders (such as deputy-elect Felipe Kast), was criticized for his comments by the presidential palace.

Matthei was perceived as the winner of the last TV debate on December 11, in which Bachelet was once again seen as being vague and evasive about her platform.

Most attention about the second round was focused, it seems, on the only major uncertainty: the level of turnout. Prior to 2012, Chile had compulsory voting (but registration was voluntary and manual), an electoral reform made voting voluntary and registration automatic. The result was quite drastic: turnout fell to 43% in the 2012 municipal elections and in the first round, only 6.7 million voted – or 49.3%. Automatic registration had swelled the size of the electorate from 8.2 million in 2009 to 13.5 million this year. In the past, not bothering to register to vote had been the way to express dissatisfaction with a political system largely viewed as stale, immobile and very conservative; now the new way of expressing such rejection of the system is not voting. In the 2010 election, for example, while turnout was 86.9%, VAP turnout was only 59.1%. VAP turnout, 86.3% in 1989, declined consistently in every election since the restoration of democracy.

Given that the second round’s stakes were even lower than in the first round/congressional elections, turnout was expected to fall and politicians debated amongst themselves what should be done to address the new problem. All politicians urged voters to go out and vote.

To little effect, because turnout fell anew to only 41.96%. 5,695,764 votes were cast, down from 6,699,011 in the first round and 7,203,371 in the second round ballot in 2010. For most voters, the second round held no suspense whatsoever and the campaign interested relatively few voters. Christmas shopping and the holiday season seemed higher on many voters’ minds in the last weeks of the runoff campaign. Furthermore, hot weather (over 30 degrees celsisus) demotivated a lot of voters from turning out, preferring to stay home to avoid the heat or head to the beach.

Communist deputy-elect Karol Cariola noted on Twitter that, from the 58% abstention, one must subtract 1.5 million voters: 9% are Chileans living abroad who do not have voting rights, and 7% who are dead. In 2012, the new electoral register was found to include thousands of desaparecidos (persons forcibly ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime) and even former President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide on the day of the coup in September 1973. Although the electoral service (Servel) has cleaned up the most egregious issues, there are still many desaparecidos and deceased on the register.

The results were:

Michelle Bachelet (Nueva Mayoría-PS) 62.16%
Evelyn Matthei (Alianza-UDI) 37.83%

As expected, Bachelet won the second round in a landslide, taking over 62% of the vote to her rival’s paltry 38%. This is the worst defeat for the Chilean right in a runoff election, of which there have been four since 2000 and which, until this year, all turned out relatively closely fought. Matthei’s defeat came as no surprise – her own team and supporters certainly had no illusions and were preparing for defeat. But only 38% of the vote seems to have come as a bad surprise for the right. Carlos Larraín, the president of the RN, said that they had been hoping for at least 40% of the vote (and Bachelet’s people were concerned about her going over 40%).

Matthei never stood a realistic chance at any point during the campaign. She was ‘imposed’ by the UDI as the right-wing Alianza‘s candidate in circumstances which annoyed the RN and many moderate right-wingers, who find the UDI’s control over the Alliance to be quite tiresome. She led, on the whole, a poor campaign whose markedly conservative orientation proved to be out of touch with an electorate which increasingly challenges the idea of the estado subsidiario (subsidiary state/limited government) espoused by Pinochet’s regime, the 1980 constitution and the post-Pinochet Chilean right. For example, a majority of voters backed free education, a new constitution and tax reform. Her platform was largely uninspiring, proposing very little major changes. On this front, Matthei holds a share of responsibility in her defeat.

Matthei’s campaign spokeswoman, RN senator Lily Pérez, blamed the lack of unity behind the right’s candidate, without naming names criticizing the ‘selfishness’ and ‘personalisms’ of some right-wing politicians. Pérez added that if everyone had ‘spontaneously’ joined the campaign from day one without needing to be called upon or dragged out, Matthei would have stood a chance. This viewed was shared by Matthei’s father, retired general Fernando Matthei who said his daughter was often ‘alone’ during the campaign, but also by many members of Matthei’s campaign team. The former UDI mayor of Santiago and defeated congressional candidate Pablo Zalaquett criticized people “who had gone on vacation” – like Andrés Allamand, a former RN defense minister defeated in the primaries and snubbed for the presidential nomination over Matthei, and Ossandón.

The outgoing government and the party leaderships on the right also hold their share of responsibility. Sebastián Piñera’s presidency saw strong economic growth, low unemployment and the country’s continued strong performance on economic and trade indicators. How he managed to become so unpopular perplexes the Chilean right. However, Piñera was unable to respond satisfactorily to the students’ demands and likely underestimated the popularity of the student movement’s ideas and demands. His political style was criticized by both the opposition and factions of his own governing coalition. Piñera’s cabinet, as noted above, was largely made up of businessmen or former corporate leaders; Piñera himself is a wealthy businessman who was compelled to sell his shares in several companies before becoming president (notably LAN Chile, the country’s main airline). The numerous conflicts of interest involving cabinet minister and the president’s aloof style reinforced images that Piñera and his government were disconnected from the concerns of middle-class Chileans and too closely tied to big business.

Some in the Matthei campaign also fault Piñera for his behaviour during the campaign. His decision to close the luxury prison for Pinochet henchmen, his statement on ‘passive accomplices’ or his comment that Matthei was ‘wrong’ to vote yes in the 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet (Piñera voted no) have been cited as some of the Matthei campaign’s criticisms of Piñera, who did little to support Matthei.

Andrés Allamand was critical of the ‘enormous disinterest’ his coalition had shown to the ‘ideological debates in the society’, citing issues such as the new constitution, taxes and the future of private education.

UDI senator Hernán Larraín, who recently said that the government obviously had a responsibility in the defeat, commented that Piñera’s government had no major policy achievements, lacked empathy with the people and failed to properly coordinate with the parties and parliamentarians of the right-wing alliance. That is, in my eyes, a fair assessment of the government’s responsibility.

However, the UDI and RN’s leaders are eager to shirk away from considering their own responsibilities. Ossandón reiterated that the first responsibility ‘clearly’ belongs to the government. Blaming it all on Piñera, an easy target given that nobody likes him, is unfair. UDI deputy José Antonio Kast was fairer when he recognized that the parties were responsible, although he still held the government as more responsible for the right’s defeat. UDI senator Juan Antonio Coloma was also rather fair in his appraisals – citing the lack of unity behind Matthei, a poorly planned and managed campaign, mistakes in policy strategies from the government but also ‘mistakes and weaknesses from parties’.

The UDI and RN both did a bad job at or utterly failed at imposing their agenda, promoting an agenda to voters, creating strong leaders, putting forth a competitive presidential candidate and preparing for the possibility of a Bachelet return (which was absolutely not surprising when it happened). Many feel that the presidents of the UDI and RN should step down, like the presidents of the four Concertación parties had done in 2009 or 2010 after their lacklustre candidate’s defeat.

Only the low turnout casts a cloud over Bachelet’s victory and raises questions about her legitimacy, given that she only won the backing of a minority of the electorate. Indeed, Bachelet won less votes than in 2006, when she won 53.5% (3.7 million, only 3.4 million votes in 2013). Few politicians will openly question the legitimacy of her mandate because of low turnout, as that would effectively question the legitimacy of all deputies, mayors, local/regional councillors and half of senators.

A few on the right have questioned Bachelet’s legitimacy as a result of the low turnout. Pinochetista UDI senator-elect Iván Moreira questioned how much legitimacy Bachelet’s government had given how few people voted (only 26% of registered voters effectively voted for the president-elect). Jovino Novoa, a founding member of the UDI and a senator since 1998, argued that the low turnout indicated that voters didn’t want the major reforms proposed by Bachelet. Moreira’s comment was perhaps fair to a certain extent, but he conveniently forget that his election to the Senate on November 17 is hardly more ‘legitimate’ given the low turnout. Others, however, have perhaps understood that Bachelet wouldn’t be the only one with a legitimacy problem. Andrés Allamand said that the rules of the game were as they were, and Bachelet’s victory was therefore ‘unobjectionable’ and warned against undermining that with dishonest arguments.

The left, naturally, was quick to defend Bachelet’s legitimacy. PS senator-elect Rabindranath Quinteros said that ‘losers always tried to justify their defeats by any means’, PDC senator Ximena Rincón said that Barack Obama had been elected with the votes of 40% of the citizens and ‘nobody doubts his leadership’ while Camila Vallejo tweeted that Bachelet was elected by the majority of the population which decided to vote and that she had the legitimacy and mandate to fulfil the Nueva Mayoría’s platform.

The low turnout has sent a lot of politicians into a frenzy, leaving them wondering how best to deal with the fact that over 50% of voters chose, in local (in 2012), presidential and congressional elections, not to vote. Beyond the flaws in turnout numbers due to issues on the electoral register or the circumstances of this election, the very low turnout reflects deep-seated dissatisfaction and apathy towards the Chilean political system, some 24 years after the restoration of democracy.

The social movements which erupted during Piñera’s presidency did not mobilize citizens to take a more active role in politics, on the contrary, they might have reinforced scepticism about government and democratic institutions’ ability to affect real change. This is hardly surprising, given that most of the protests were critical of the government and the Concertación, both of which were taken by surprise by the scope of the protests and their popularity.

This was particularly true of the student movement; notwithstanding Vallejo and Cariola’s integration into Bachelet’s coalition, which owes more to their pragmatism and endorsement of institutional politics stemming from their Communist ties. The newly-elected independent deputy and former student leader Gabriel Boric remains distrustful of the established parties, and the new student leadership is very much anti-system. The new president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh), Melissa Supúlveda, is an anarchist who did not even vote in the election because she believes the possibilities for political transformation are not in Congress. Vallejo’s decision to take her demands to Congress by way of the Nueva Mayoría was criticized by many more radical students, some of whom went as far as branding her a ‘traitor’ for allying with the old parties.

The panicky responses of the political leadership to the low turnout might surprise those European or North American readers, who are relatively used to voluntary voting and low(er) turnout, but Latin America – by and large – still is a continent of compulsory voting, although in some cases it is not enforced and almost never matches Australian levels. Chile has always had compulsory voting prior to 2012.

Many on the left are publicly calling for a return to compulsory voting – among others, former president Ricardo Lagos (PPD), PDC leader and senator Ignacio Walker and Camila Vallejo. Walker said he had always supported compulsory voting, because he wants a highly engaged electorate and because of a ‘republican conception of democracy with rights and responsibilities’. Vallejo supports compulsory voting and automatic registration, but with voluntary de-registration. She says that abstention is a structural issue which cannot be resolved overnight, and argues that low turnout should act as an impetus for encouraging greater citizen participation in democracy and a democratic system more closely linked to social movements.

On the right, however, most oppose returning to compulsory voting. Andrés Chadwick, the Minister of the Interior, warned against seeing abstention as a catastrophic thing. Rather, he contended that low turnout was also a sign of citizens ‘exercising their freedom’. On a similar note, the president of the UDI, Patricio Melero, saw low turnout as a sign of a mature country, which had little passion to support or oppose something at the polls. RN senator Alberto Espina opined that it was up to politicians to motivate citizens to vote and convey the importance and value of electoral participation.

Gabriel Boric, however, took issue with both sides’ attitude to the issue. He supports the new system, saying that abstention is legitimate and is a response to a feeling of not being represented by either coalition. He criticized the Nueva Mayoría for not seeming to care about abstention and the right for caring only about abstention, in a bid, he said, to ‘symbolically delegitimize the election hiding behind abstention, with no self-criticism’.

Geography

Results of the second round by comuna (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

Matthei won only 15 of Chile’s 346 comunas, nevertheless five more than a month ago when she had won a plurality in only ten of them. At the regional level, Bachelet won every region by large margins, falling under 60% in only three of them – Tarapacá (her worst region with 56.8%), the Metropolitan Region of Santiago (59%) and Araucanía (58.7%).

Tarapacá, in northern Chile, and Araucanía, in south-central Chile, are both traditionally right-leaning and conservative regions. Tarapacá, an historically working-class region thanks to saltpeter and copper, was favoured by the military regime’s commercial policies (Iquique became a free port) and the right has done well in the region since 1988 – Piñera won over 60% there in 2010. As in the first round, Matthei won two impoverished Andean communities with an indigenous majority – Colchane (65.6%) and Camiña (63.9%), but her third best showing came from the largest city in the region, the old coastal industrial centre of Iquique, where she won 45.4%.

La Araucanía, a poor agricultural region with the country’s highest indigenous Mapuche population (and resulting conflicts over resources), is solidly conservative – it was the only region which Bachelet lost in the 2006 runoff and the strongest region for the yes in 1988, with 54%. She topped the poll, however, in only one town in the region – the affluent lakeside adventure tourism resort of Pucón, where she took 54.9%.

In the Metropolitan Region, the right has a very solid base in Santiago’s leafy hilly upper-class suburbs. Her best result came from Chile’s most affluent municipality, Vitacura, where she won 82% of the vote. In Lo Barnechea, centered around a nouveau riche suburb, she won 78%. In Las Condes, the largest city in western Santiago and one of the wealthiest in the country, Matthei took 75.5%. Matthei also won 59% in Providencia and 53% in La Reina, other wealthy towns which she had won in November as well. From the first round, Matthei picked up Colina (51.2%), a rapidly growing well-off exurban area to the north of Greater Santiago.

Unsurprisingly in a class-stratified country like Chile, voting patterns in the Santiago region are closely tied to wealth. Bachelet did very well in the Greater Santiago’s poorest towns, winning 75.7% in La Pintana, 75.5% in Lo Espejo, 73.4% in Pedro Aguirre Cerda, 72.3% in Cerro Navia and 72.2% in San Ramón. However, Bachelet also performed strongly in more middle-class or socially mixed areas such as La Florida (62.1%), Macul (61.3%) Maipú (62.1%), Quilicura (64.7%) or Santiago itself (57.2%).

In Valparaíso region, Matthei won 39.1% overall. In the first round, she had won only the affluent coastal tourist resort of Zapallar, which she held with 53.4%. However, in the runoff, she picked up Concón (51.6%), Algarrobo (51.2%) and Santo Domingo (50.3%) – three important resort towns, all three rather wealthy. Matthei came within a hair of winning Viña del Mar, one of Chile’s most famous tourist resorts. She won 49.4%. In the more industrial cities of Valparaíso and Quintero, however, Bachelet took over 60%.

In the Biobío region, Matthei won in Pinto (50.5%), which seems to be touristy as well. In the southernmost region, Magallanes, if Bachelet won 69.3% of the vote, Matthei nevertheless won three very sparsely populated comunas: Timaukel, by one vote (42 votes to 41), Cabo de Hornos (61% – this is the only one of the three where over 100 votes were cast, although with 461 valid votes this isn’t any metropolis) and Antártica (71.4%, but with only 15 votes to 6). The few who vote in the latter two settlements are likely military, civilian defense or aviation personnel (maybe some Antarctic scientists).

Bachelet’s best region was Coquimbo, a Concertación (PDC) stronghold, where she managed no less than 70.5%. She won 69.6% in the left-wing mining region of Atacama up north, 67.7% in Maule, 66.3% in Aysén and 66.2% in O’Higgins. The latter three are located south of Santiago, with Maule and O’Higgins being poor and predominantly rural regions in the Central Valley while remote Aysén is located in Patagonia. Aysén was rocked by two major protests during Piñera’s presidency – protests against the controversial HidroAysén dam project and 2012 protests against the high costs of living and centralization. Iván Fuentes, a fisherman who led the latter protests, was elected to Congress as a Nueva Mayoría candidate in November.

Surprisingly, Bachelet only won 63.3% in Antofagasta, where she had been weak in the first round (39.7%) and Parisi very strong (second with 21.7%). Antofagasta, a major mining region and old left-wing hotbed, had previously been one of the Concertación’s best regions – Bachelet won 61.2% there in 2006. Perhaps her anemic performance in the runoff has something to do with Parisi, with some of his voters moving to Matthei?

Conclusion

The hard part starts now for Bachelet (or, more accurately, in March 2014 when she takes office). Her victory was never in doubt given the wide array of factors touched upon in this post and the previous one, what is in doubt, however, is her ability to really implement the ambitious structural reforms she ran on. Actually doing what one was elected to do is a hard task in any democracy, but it is even harder in Chile, which has a notoriously conservative system which is averse to major changes. Pinochet made sure that his legacy would be hard to undo once he left office. The binomial electoral system, in use to this day, effectively guarantees a two-party/coalition system with the minority (almost always the right) being often overrepresented in Congress. The 1980 constitution sets higher majorities for changes to legislation in certain areas, including education, the armed forces, mining, local and regional government or the electoral system. These higher quorums guarantee a veto over major legislative changes to the minority caucus and make compromise the rule of the game. If you take into consideration that the two coalitions are far from homogeneous, with the old Concertación including the centrist and traditionally cautiously conservative Christian Democrats (PDC) alongside centre-left but historically moderate and pragmatic Socialists (PS) and two smaller parties, this makes compromise and consensus key to decision-making in Chile.

As a reminder, in the congressional elections, the Nueva Mayoría won 67 out of 120 seats (55.8%) in the Chamber of Deputies and 21 out of 38 seats in the Senate (55.3%). The right won 49 seats and 16 seats respectively, with independents/others taking 4 seats in the Chamber and one in the Senate. Since then, one RN senator, Antonio Horvath (Aysén), quit the RN to sit as an independent and join forces with the other independent senator, Magallanes’ Carlos Bianchi, in a regionalist alliance (Democracia Regional). This leaves the right with only 15 senators.

Within the Nueva Mayoría, the PDC remained the largest party with 22 deputies and 6 senators, followed by the PS and PPD each with 15 deputies and 6 senators. Of considerable importance was that the Communists, who adroitly negotiated their presence in the Nueva Mayoría, doubled their representation in the Chamber from 3 to 6 deputies, leaving them with as many deputies as the PRSD (and with the likes of Vallejo and Cariola, they’ll likely have a media presence disproportionate to their actual parliamentary weight). Within the new governing majority, there are four independent deputies (two backed by the PS, one each by the PDC and Izquierda Ciudadana) and two independent senators (one backed by the PDC, one backed by the PRSD).

The new government will be able to pass a tax reform and changes on abortion or marriage legislation with a simple 50+1 majority. However, education reform will require a four-sevenths majority – 69 deputies and 22 senators; amending certain parts of the constitution (and, in all likelihood, an electoral reform) requires a three-fifths majority – 72 and 23 seats; and amending key parts of the constitution will require a two-thirds majority – 80 and 26 seats.

Bachelet was vague about how she intended to adopt a new constitution, not ruling out a constituent assembly (demanded by many on the left and many defeated candidates in the first round) but not endorsing it as the only option she is willing to consider. The constitution makes no provision for scrapping it in favour of a new document, the President’s ability to go to the people in a referendum is tightly constrained by the constitution and there is the threat of the right taking the issue to court.

The PCCh will decide on December 21 whether or not they will participate in Bachelet’s cabinet, and all expect the party’s central committee to follow president Guillermo Teillier in voting in favour of cabinet participation. This is a momentous event: the Communists have only been in cabinets twice in their history (and both times it ended very badly for them), under Radical President Gabriel González Videla between 1946 and 1947 before the President and the right passed a law banning the party, and under Salvador Allende, which ended abruptly with the September 11, 1973 military coup. The PCCh had played a major role in Radical-led Popular Front governments beginning in 1938, but after 1989 the Communists isolated themselves outside of the Concertación and were punished by the binomial system. Since 2009, the PCCh has gradually integrated the centre-left coalition and proved very adept at negotiating candidacies for the congressional elections and influencing the Nueva Mayoría’s platform. The Communists openly boasted that they had been well taken into account when the platform was formulated, at the annoyance of the PDC, which was a bit sidelined after its candidate in the primaries, Claudio Orrego, placed a disastrous third with 9%.

The PDC, a centrist party with a long history of anti-communism (especially in the 1960s and 1970s), is at the very least a bit queasy at the prospect of Communists in government and unsettled at the perceived ‘leftization’ of the coalition. Some conservatives in the PDC stand at odds with their colleagues, for example, on the issue of abortion. The PDC came out weakened of the primaries and there was some public agitation with the place of the Communists (it was a mutual feeling, given that Vallejo said that working with the PDC made her stomach a bit sick). The results of November 17 was generally not well received by the PDC, which mourned the surprise defeat of one of its leading senators, Soledad Alvear and the purported weakening of the old PDC-PS axis which had ruled the Concertación in the past. Alvear was defeated by Carlos Montes, a Socialist critical of this PDC-PS axis.

Gutenberg Martínez, a former PDC deputy and party president (and the husband of Soledad Alvear), said that he felt that the inclusion of the Communists in the government would be a ‘mistake’, because of concerns over the Communists’ stances on human rights and Cuba. Martínez was rebuked by members of his own party and Bachelet herself, who reminded him that she would decide the makeup of her cabinet.

The reality is that the PDC is a divided party, between discontents who are the most uneasy with the leftist shift of the coalition and the PCCh’s role in the coalition and those less concerned by those issues. Chilean journalists seem to be of split opinion on whether or not Bachelet’s victory is ultimately good news or bad news for the PDC.

The party faces something of an existential question in the new government: does it ‘give in’ to the rising ‘progressive bloc’ within the new majority or do they maintain a centrist attitude, at the cost of dividing the new government?

Bachelet will therefore not only have to deal with the necessity of forging alliances with independents and/or the right on some reforms, but working out disagreements and differences within her own coalition. Independent leftist deputy-elect Gabriel Boric aptly noted on Twitter that Bachelet’s government has a “mathematical majority, but not a political [majority]” in Congress and that “internal contradictions are very deep”. The Communists and some in the PDC have tried to downplay such differences, insisting that the relations between both parties are good.

The Communists, with deep ties to many social movements and unions, will face the challenge of keeping those ties strong while they ‘institutionalize’ themselves as a governing party, which they haven’t been since 1973. The Communists say they want to be in cabinet to ensure that the platform’s promises are fulfilled; they also wish to maintain strong ties to social movements. Student leaders, especially Vallejo and Cariola, face the same challenge. How will they deal with the reality of congressional politics, compromises, watered-down legislation and unfulfilled grandiose election promises? Vallejo says that she wants to address student demands from within Congress but also by keeping ‘a feet in the street’; she has underlined several times the importance of continued social mobilization and participation to the democratic process. Her views largely reflects the traditional attitude of the Communists, who generally wish to be reliable but critical supporters of the government.

Will Vallejo and the Communists succeed in doing so, or ill they become part of “the system” – turning into acclimated parliamentarians – or will they be able to stick to their ideals, even if it is at the cost of breaking with the coalition to which they owe their victories? As such, the Communists’ influence over the new government may be both a blessing and a curse for the party.

For all the talk about Bachelet and the Nueva Mayoría’s shift to the left, it must be emphasized that Bachelet and her coalition are no radicals. Bachelet is certainly no Evo Morales, Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Correa or even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – she’s a known quantity, a long-time politician with a reputation for pragmatism and consensus and ultimately the candidate of an established coalition of moderate parties. The private sector and businessmen, by and large, do not apprehend her presidency. In fact, Bachelet has good relations with several leading entrepreneurs, among them the Palestinian businessman and ‘leader’ of the Arab community Alberto Kassis, a pinochetista business magnate who has been on very friendly terms with Bachelet since her first time.

Bachelet’s platform, despite a far more progressive orientation than previous Concertación campaigns, still largely stuck to a gradualist and incremental calendar for reforms. That explains, for example, why a lot of the current student leadership or what I call the ‘True Leftist’ left was so critical of Bachelet’s platform.

The right, as touched on above, is probably at its lowest ebb since the restoration of democracy. The political system still confers it significant power to influence or block Bachelet’s major reforms, but the next four years will undoubtedly be a tough period of reconstruction for the right. On the one hand, a rising faction of younger, moderate and liberal-leaning politicians are advocating for generational change and the creation of a ‘new right’. In the RN, senator-elect Manuel José Ossandón has presidential ambitions for 2017, as does Andrés Allamand. RN senator Francisco Chahuán also advocates for a generational change within the rightist coalition, wishing to continue the promotion of younger leaders that began during the presidential campaign.

Related to this is a rising number of younger moderate right-wingers advocating for greater plurality within the alliance, perhaps with the creation of a third, more liberal, party within the right-wing coalition. Evolución Politica (Evópoli), a new liberal reformist movement founded by deputy-elect Felipe Kast and former culture minister Luciano Cruz-Coke, is increasingly cited as a movement which could drive this recreation, pluralist expansion or ‘liberal turn’ of the right. Following Horvath’s exit from RN on December 19, two high-ranking members left the RN on December 20. One of them, Hernán Larraín Matte, the son of a prominent UDI senator and a bit of a ‘rising star’ left to join Evópoli. Two cabinet ministers – culture minister Roberto Ampuero and transport minister Pedro Pablo Errázuriz – both recently announced that they were joining Evópoli. This liberal shift, however, will not be accepted by all. The more conservative factions of the UDI and RN will certainly show resistance. Just recently, the UDI countered Evópoli’s new recruits by announcing that it too had signed up two sitting cabinet ministers. UDI senator Iván Moreira, certainly one of the right’s more conservative figures, talked of ‘change’ and ‘finding a new right’ but said it was not an issue of recreating the right but tuning it to citizens’ concerns.

As a backdrop, there is much talk of Piñera already preparing for a comeback in 2017. El Dínamo cited the outgoing president as one of the ‘winners’ of Bachelet’s election. If the right goes to dark places, one argument goes, Piñera might be an attractive option in 2017. However, it is also highly possible that the UDI and RN will continue to blame Piñera for their defeat. Two potential RN presidential contenders, Ossandón and Allamand, both oppose a Piñera comeback.

Everything indicates that Chile might finally be at the cusp of breaking with the transition era. Yes, with a former president coming back for a second non-consecutive term as president (which nobody had successfully managed to do since Carlos Ibáñez in 1952) at the helm of a coalition led by old parties. But Bachelet returns with a platform which indicates at least a written commitment to major reforms touching some key aspects of the economic and political model inherited from Pinochet. She returns with a coalition, which is certainly largely an old one repackaged, but which is nevertheless expanded to the Communists (who might join their first government since Allende) and features a less predominant PDC – and that’s still a bit significant. If she is able to accomplish most of what she has promised, her second term in office will have been greatly significant and definitely mark a break with the transition era politics (without marking a radical or revolutionary break). 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. After all, it is easy to view Bachelet and her coalition’s shift to the left as a direct response to the wave of protests, historic in their own right, which shook Chile in the past three years.

On the right, there is rising incentive for generational change and renewal, perhaps even a recreation along more liberal and centrist lines, less closely tied to Pinochet’s legacy and ‘1988 politics’. New leaders wish to take leadership of the right, and sideline the old guard of the UDI and RN.

These elections will also have seen the beginning of a generational shift in the political leadership. The elections of Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric are all very significant; as are the defeats of some old names such as Soledad Alvear (PDC), Camilo Escalona (PS), Hosaín Sabag (PDC) or Pablo Zalaquett (UDI). Even Iván Fuentes’ victory in Aysén might not be a generational shift per se, but he is also symbolic of ‘rebels’ joining the ranks of the political system. Once again, this isn’t a radical or revolutionary break, and the new young deputies might grow into old politicians and institutionalize themselves, but it is nonetheless still significant.

Perhaps an uneventful election, but one which offers at least possibility for interesting and important changes in Chile.

Please comment below or tweet your views on 2013’s most important elections.

Canadian by-elections 2013

Four federal by-elections were held in Canada on November 25, 2013 in the ridings of Bourassa (Quebec), Brandon—Souris (Manitoba), Provencher (Manitoba) and Toronto Centre (Ontario). These seats, two of which were held by the Liberal Party and the other two by the governing Conservative Party, had fallen vacant over the summer.

Context

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority government is in its third year – and the Conservatives have been in power for seven years now, first winning a minority mandate in January 2006. Three years in, the Tories are struggling in the polls and facing a rejuvenated and re-energized opposition, both from the official opposition New Democrats (NDP) and the third-placed Liberals.

Harper’s remarkable ability to survive two minority governments and win a third term as a majority government has been due, in part, to his ‘teflon’ qualities – almost all of what was thrown at him by the opposition, the media, the economy or what have you have largely failed to stick. For example, Harper’s second minority government was brought down in March 2011 by a motion which found his government to be in contempt of Parliament, becoming the first Canadian and Commonwealth government to be found in contempt of Parliament. And yet, despite all that, Harper led the Conservatives to a huge victory on May 2, 2011 – winning a majority government, and relegating the Liberals – Canada’s so-called ‘natural governing party’ – into third place behind the centre-left NDP.

The other part in the Harper winning equation has been his political and strategic acuity, which allowed him to outmaneuver the hapless Liberals on countless occasions since defeating Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2006. The complacent and arrogant Liberals seriously underestimated their opponent’s political acumen and his sharp strategical mind, and it led them into the ditch. Harper has centralized power and decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), keeping a tight leash on Conservative ministers and MPs and ensuring that the government is kept ‘on message’ at all times. The extremely strict party discipline and deference to authority which characterizes Canadian governance and parliamentary politics predates Harper, but Harper has brought it to new heights. The Conservatives successfully targeted key demographics which had been reliably Liberal in the 1990s – visible minorities, upwardly mobile new Canadians and middle-classes and well-off middle-class suburbanites.

Now, it appears that Harper’s teflon qualities are beginning to wear off. This has been most evident in the Senate scandal which has rocked Canadian politics throughout 2013.

Members of the Canadian Senate, a relatively weak upper house, are appointed by the Prime Minister (officially, by the Governor General on his ‘advice’) and may serve until they reach the age of 75. The unelected nature of the Senate, the unequal representation of provinces (based neither on the equal representation of all constituent units or rep-by-pop) and its perceived uselessness has led to numerous calls for reform. Stephen Harper and the modern Tories were strongly influenced by the strong demands for Senate reform in Western Canada, commonly expressed as ‘Triple E’ (elected, equal, effective). Upon taking office, Harper set out to reform the Senate, tabling legislation to limit Senators to eight-year terms and allowing for the direct election of Senators in each province (Alberta already holds non-binding ‘Senate nominee’ elections, but the Prime Minister is under no obligation to appoint the winner(s), although Harper has done so). However, both bills and other attempts at reform died. Seeing the difficulty of short-term Senate reform, Harper, who had let sixteen vacancies go unfilled since taking office, appointed sixteen new Senators in January 2009. Overall, Harper has appointed no less than 59 senators – all Conservatives – since 2009. Critics have accused Harper, a longstanding supporter of Senate reform, of hypocrisy.

Beginning in late 2012, four senators – three Conservatives appointed by Harper and one Liberal – were investigated for expense claims (housing and travel) for which they were not eligible. Conservative Senators Mike Duffy (PEI) and Pamela Wallin (Saskatchewan) both claimed primary residences in the province they represented, allowing them to claim living expenses while they work in Ottawa, while both still had Ontario health cards. Wallin claimed a total of C$369,593 in expenses in 2011-2012, including C$163,216 in ‘other travel’. Duffy claimed a total of C$298,310 in the same period. A third Tory senator, Patrick Brazeau, also faced questions over his expenses but what attracted the focus on him was his arrest in February for domestic and sexual assault and is awaiting trial.

In May 2013, it was revealed that Harper’s chief of staff, chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had written Duffy a personal cheque for C$90,172 to cover his fraudulent expense claims. Wright was forced to resign his position, and Harper tried to distance himself from his former chief of staff and the three embattled Tory senators he had appointed. Harper denied that he or anyone in the PMO had knowledge of Wright’s cheque, but subsequent revelations that senior members of the PMO were in on the details cast serious doubts on Harper’s honesty. Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were removed from the Conservative caucus and sat as independents.

As Parliament reconvened and the Tories continued to struggle under the weight of the Senate kerfuffle, Harper was determined to suspend the three senators in a bid to put the affair behind him. However, the three senators, who have been accused but not charged, mounted a spirited defense in which they were joined by some Liberal and Conservative colleagues, who protested the government “driving roughshod over due process and the presumption of innocence” (to quote Tory Senator Hugh Segal). Finally, the Senate did vote to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau without pay until the end of the session on November 5.

Harper is a shrewd political strategist who has been able to weather many storms in the past. He more or less maneuvered his way out of the 2008-2009 coalition crisis, two prorogations in controversial circumstances, criticism of major cost overruns in the acquisition of F-35 fighter planes, a scandal involving illegal Tory robocalls during the last federal election, harsh domestic and international criticism of Canada’s environmental and natural resources policies and ethics scandals involving cabinet ministers. However, Harper’s handling of the Senate scandal was not nearly as successful. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair led strong offensives against the government on the scandal during Question Periods in the House of Commons. During the Senate suspension debate, Duffy used the opportunity to throw more mud at the government – his lawyers claimed the PMO had pushed him into accepting the cheque or that the Conservative Party had paid all of his legal fees relating to the scandal. According to documents released by RCMP investigators, Wright may be charged for bribery, fraud and breach of trust and that Harper might have known more than he admits (an email from Wright said that the PM knew ‘in broad terms’ of the transaction). The RCMP report also claimed that the PMO had arranged to alter a Senate subcommittee report critical of Duffy.

Harper has tried to get a reboot after a tough start to 2013 by announcing a major cabinet shuffle in July, and a new Throne Speech to open a new session of Parliament in October. His shuffle, unsurprisingly, drew relatively little interest outside political circles given that most of the key portfolios – finance, foreign affairs, natural resources and the President of the Treasury Board – didn’t change hands and some of the more important changes (at justice, national defence, citizenship and immigration) were not really indicative of major changes. Some up-and-coming Conservative MPs, such as Chris Alexander (Citizenship and Immigration), Shelly Glover (Canadian Heritage), Kellie Leitch (Labour), entered cabinet with some significant portfolios.

The Throne Speech in October reiterated the Conservative government’s traditional agenda of small government, low taxes, balanced budgets, private sector job creation, expanding free trade and tough stances on crime. However, an early sign that the Conservatives are looking ahead to the 2015 election, the speech included several popular measures and ‘goodies’ targeting consumers – reducing roaming costs on networks within Canada or requiring television channels to be unbundled.

The Tories are also moving forward on Senate reform, asking the Supreme Court whether it can act alone and/or how much provincial consultation would be needed to (a) set term limits, (b) consultative elections on the appointment of Senators and (c) abolishing the Senate. The Tories’ preferred options remains term limits and elections, while the NDP is vocal about its wish to see the Senate abolished. However, in the Throne Speech, the government stated that “The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish” and at least one Tory junior minister (Maxime Bernier) has floated the idea of a referendum on Senate reform. The federal government, backed by Alberta and Saskatchewan, argue that the Senate can be abolished using the traditional 7/50 amending formula (consent of Parliament and two-thirds of provinces representing 50% of the population) although all other provinces and a lot of legal experts say that abolition of the Senate would require unanimous consent of all provinces. Most think that the Supreme Court will rule that abolition requires unanimous consent (meaning that it would be impossible in reality) and that consultative elections would require the 7/50 rule; Harper is unwilling to open the Pandora’s box of constitutional politics, meaning that he will need to choose between Senate reform through constitutional negotiations or letting the issue slide, perhaps to use it to run against the provinces and the courts in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Tories are facing stronger opposition. In April 2013, Liberal members and ‘supporters’ (non-paying sympathizers who could vote in the leadership contest) elected Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984), as Liberal leader, replacing Ontario MP Bob Rae, who had been serving as interim leader since the Grits were obliterated into third place in May 2011. Justin Trudeau, elected in a marginal Montreal-area riding in 2008 and reelected in 2011 despite the NDP’s Orange Crush landslide in Quebec that year, is young (41), photogenic, quite charismatic, at ease in the media and has a famous name. Trudeau had originally declined to run (when Rae was widely anticipated to run for the permanent leadership) but, as Rae did not run, Trudeau reconsidered and threw his hat into the race. Trudeau, by far the strongest and most well-known of the contenders, won handily with 80% of the ‘points’ and 78.8% of the votes.

Since then, the Liberals have led the Tories and NDP in almost all polls. The size of the Liberal lead has varied, peaking after his election in April and dropping somewhat afterwards. Unlike what many had predicted, Trudeau’s honeymoon has prolonged itself – the Liberal lead grew in September and October, while the Tories have foundered – falling below the traditional Tory ‘floor’ of 30%.

Trudeau’s appeal is largely built on his personality and message.

Canadians, outside of the 40% of Tory supporters or floating sympathizers, have never really warmed to Harper (whose approval ratings have always been mediocre) although many respect him as a ‘strong leader’ and view him as most capable on economic issues (the government’s self-proclaimed priority). The Canadian economy is doing relatively well (with natural resource-rich provinces such as Saskatchewan or Alberta leading the way), although growth is projected to slow to 1.5% in 2013 as a result of public spending cuts, restrained foreign demand, the persistent strength of the Canadian dollar, ongoing competitiveness challenges and government policies to curb and reverse record high levels of household debt. Economic recovery in the US and high commodity prices should continue to help the economy. The economy remains one of Harper’s main strengths going into an election campaign, although he is not unassailable on the issue. After seven years in power (and nine by 2015), the mishandled Senate debacle and other scandals/issues, voter fatigue is definitely settling in.

There are also signs that Harper is facing push-back from Tory backbenchers for his ultra-centralist, hegemonic, PMO rule style of governance. Again, while both the Liberals and NDP have whipped caucuses in which backbenchers are told to tow the party line or else, the Tory government has taken it to another level. Government news releases are now signed as ‘the Harper Government’ rather than ‘the Government of Canada’, the PMO and the Privy Council Office vet their content, ministers are tightly controlled and backbenchers generally irrelevant and forgettable cogs. In October 2012, a Tory backbencher introduced a private members’ motion to form a committee to review the meaning of life (reopening the abortion debate), despite Harper’s objection to having the touchy issue reopened (Harper wants to keep a tight lid on social conservative issues like these, to kill the old ‘Tory secret agenda’ ideas). It was voted down 203 to 91, but 86 Tory MPs – including 10 members of cabinet – voted in favour. Just this month, Michael Chong, a Conservative backbencher, introduced a much-discussed ‘reform bill’ which would formalize a caucus’ ability to call for a leadership review and remove leaders’ power to deny nomination to candidates by not signing their nomination papers.

Similarly, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who won the NDP leadership in March 2012 following the death of iconic NDP leader Jack Layton in August 2011, has seen his star fade and popularity decline. He is a capable politician and a strong performer in the House, but the Mulcair NDP has been somewhat stale and unappealing. Mulcair has been working hard to finally shake off the NDP’s image as a leftist third party, by transforming the NDP into a moderate, pragmatic and vaguely centre-left party – a transformation which actually began with Layton (whose 2011 platform was more Tony Blair than anything socialist). For example, while Mulcair supports a cap-and-trade system and drew flack for his comments on Canada facing a ‘Dutch disease’ because of the Albertan oil sands industry, he opposes any changes to personal income tax levels (so no ‘wealth tax’) and only proposes raising corporate tax levels to pre-Harper levels (22%) and cutting business subsidies (notably to the oil and gas sector).

In this context, Trudeau – who presents a fresh face and a vague but appealing message (‘hope and change’, ‘hard work’, ‘middle-classes’) – is seen as a refreshing alternative. Even his admission that he smoked pot, even after becoming an MP, failed to make a lasting mark on the Liberals. Despite Mulcair’s stronger performances in QP, Trudeau’s Grits are still seen as the anti-Harper Trudeau’s main Achilles heel, however, is that his appeal remains quite fragile. He has been criticized countless times for being an empty suit who lacks coherent policies behind pablum like ‘real priorities’. In fact, his policies appear a rather vague mix-mash of things designed to please both the left (legalizing marijuana, opposition to Northern Gateway pipeline, musings about a carbon tax) and the right (support for the Keystone XL pipeline, pro-free trade) all couched in vague language about helping the middle-classes. To add to this, Trudeau still has a knack for rookie gaffes which may come back to haunt him. Most recently, in early November, Trudeau said he ‘admired’ China’s administration because of their environmental policies (while Trudeau was not explicit and may have phrased it awkwardly, it was widely read as ‘Trudeau admires authoritarian China’). He said this at an event for ‘ladies’ whose promotional poster was widely ridiculed because it looked like some Justin Bieber meet-and-greet event and invited ‘ladies’ to “really get to know the future PM” and asked “who are your real life heroes?” or “what is your favourite virtue?” (seriously).

Bourassa, QC

Map of Bourassa (source: Elections Canada)

Bourassa is located in northeastern Montreal, including the entirety of the borough of Montréal-Nord and parts of the boroughs of Ahuntsic (Sault-au-Recollet) and Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles (part of Rivière-des-Prairies).

The seat became vacant in June following the resignation of Liberal MP Denis Coderre to run for mayor of Montreal in last month’s municipal elections (he won). Coderre, a prominent Quebec Liberal MP, had represented the riding since 1997 and served in cabinets under Prime Ministers Chrétien and Martin.

Bourassa is a lower-income multicultural suburban riding. In 2011, 40.2% of the population were visible minorities, and the largest visible minority groups were blacks (21% of the population), Arab (8.9%) and Latin American (6.1%) populations. Bourassa has a large Haitian population – 17.5% claimed Haitian ancestry (the highest in the country), 11% were born in Haiti (29.8% of immigrants were Haitian-born) and 8.6% said Creole was their mother tongue. This demographic makeup explains why Bourassa is still predominantly Francophone (51.4% as a mother tongue, 58.9% speak French most often at home) and largely Catholic (61.8%).

On the note of religion, Quebec is very much a secular province and religious practice is very low. But there’s still a strong secular Christian/Catholic tradition lingering in most of the province, meaning that the percentage of those who pick ‘no religious affiliation’ is very low (except in the more bobo parts of Montreal) compared to Anglo parts of Canada (except perhaps the Atlantic), so only 8.2% of Bourassa’s residents claimed no religious affiliation on the NHS in 2011.

Nevertheless, this should not obscure the fact that Bourassa also has, by Canadian standards, large Arab and Latin American populations as well as a significant Italian community. Most Arabs come from North Africa or Lebanon, countries with a significant Francophone influence. Muslims, at 12.7%, form the second largest religious group after Catholics and 7.3% claimed Arab as their mother tongue. Most Latin Americans are of Peruvian, Salvadoran or Mexican origin and Spanish was the mother tongue of 6.7% of the riding’s population. Finally, Bourassa has a large Italian population, albeit smaller than in neighboring Saint-Léonard or Rivière-des-Prairies, the Italian heartlands of Montreal. Still, 14.3% claimed Italian ancestry and around 9% said Italian was their mother tongue. The Italian population is spread out throughout most of the riding, but largest in the small part of Rivière-des-Prairies included in the riding.

The riding is largely poor – in 2006, it ranked as one of the poorest ridings in all of Canada and it was undoubtedly the same in 2011. The 2010 median household income was $36,981 and 30.4% of all persons were considered low income after tax. Another indicator of the riding’s deprivation is that only 60% of income came from employment earnings while 26.8% came from government transfers.

Low income is also reflected in education, work and housing. 32.2% of the 15+ population had no certificate/diploma/degree of any kind and 24.6% only had a high school diploma – and if 43.2% had post-sec qualifications, most of these were apprenticeship/trades (14.8%) or CEGEP/college diplomas (13.1%), only 10.9% had a university diploma. The leading occupations in 2011 were sales and services (27.8% of the labour force), business/finance/administration (15.4%) and trades/transport (12.9%). The riding’s main industries (NAICS) are retail trade (14.5%), healthcare and social services (13.9%) and manufacturing (13%). In 2011, 69% of households were rented and 60% of them were apartments with fewer than five floors.

Montréal-Nord has a fairly grim reputation in Montreal (as always, certainly undeserved in good part) as a poor, dangerous high-crime neighborhood. It does have something like the third highest crime rate of the island, and crime and violence – gang, drug or prostitution related – is high in parts of the borough, especially in the eastern end close to highway 25. In August 2008, protests following the death of an Honduran teenager at the hands of the police turned into riots (vandalism, cars burned, looting).

The riding of Bourassa was created in 1966 and first contested in 1968, and although the boundaries have shifted eastwards or westwards since then, it has always been centered on Montréal-Nord, an independent municipality until amalgamation. Since 1968, the Liberals lost the riding only twice – to the Progressive Conservatives (PC) in Brian Mulroney’s 1988 Quebec landslide and to the Bloc Québécois (BQ) in the 1993 election. That year, Bloc candidate Osvaldo Nunez, a Chilean immigrant who fled the Pinochet coup in 1973, won the seat by 95 votes (0.12%) over Liberal candidate Denis Coderre, 42% to 41.9%. The PC incumbent, who had won 43.4% in 1988, won 12%. In 1997, a much less favourable year for the Bloc in Quebec, Coderre defeated Nunez in a rematch – and it wasn’t even close: Coderre won the seat by 19.7%, with 52.2% to the Bloc’s 32.5%. Thereafter, he was reelected by comfortable margins – a huge 34% in 2000, more modest margins of 12% (2004), 11% (2006) and 24% (2008) in the subsequent elections. In 2008, Coderre had won 49.8% against 25.4% for the Bloc and 13.6% for the Tories. In 2011, Coderre held his seat with an 8.6% majority over the NDP, with 40.9% against 32.3% for the NDP, 16.1% for the Bloc and 8.8% for the Conservatives.

With redistribution, the new (post-2015) riding will expand westwards to take in the rest of Sault-au-Recollet but lost all Rivière-des-Prairies; this reduces the Liberal majority in 2011 to 6.1%.

Poll-by-poll results of the 2011 federal election in Bourassa (source: election-atlas.ca)

The parties lack well-defined ‘strongholds’ in the riding, although there are some general patterns – broken by the NDP’s Orange Crush in 2011. The Liberals, since the 1990s, have tended to perform best in areas of Montréal-Nord with a large(r) Haitian or Arab population or in Rivière-des-Prairies, and its strong Italian presence. In 2006, for example, the Liberals won over 60% in a series of polls in Rivière-des-Prairies, where the Conservatives also did relatively well – second ahead of the Bloc in a few polls. The Bloc, prior to 2011, did better in polls with a smaller immigrant population. As in the rest of Montreal/Quebec, the 2011 NDP Orange Crush was at its strongest with Francophone ex-BQ voters and the NDP did not do as well with immigrants and minorities, who remained Liberals – although the NDP still won higher numbers with them than the Bloc had in the past. Therefore, the NDP’s support in 2011 bears some similarities to the Bloc’s pre-2011 support, although naturally the correlation isn’t perfect.

The Liberals and the NDP both had contested nomination meetings. The Liberals nominated Emmanuel Dubourg, an Haitian-born who served as provincial Liberal MNA for the provincial riding of Viau (which borders Bourassa, but does not include any parts thereof) between 2007 and his resignation in August 2013. When Dubourg resigned from the National Assembly, he received (legally) a severance pay of $100,000. That sparked some controversy, especially as some felt that he had resigned early before the provincial government passed a law which will abolish severance pays for MNAs resigning for no official reason. Dubourg and the federal Liberals consider the case closed and he has no intention of relinquishing his retirement bonus. The NDP made noise about having a “star candidate” – but as often happens with parties trumpeting a mystery star candidate, it turned out that said star candidate wasn’t a start candidate. The NDP nominated this ‘star candidate’, Stéphane Moraille, an Haitian lawyer and singer in Bran Van 3000, a Juno Award-winning (in 1998) band.

The Bloc nominated Daniel Duranleau, a former school trustee. There was some speculation at the outset about whether the Bloc’s leader, Daniel Paillé, who has no seat in the House, would throw his hat into the ring but unsurprisingly he did not run – as that would have been suicidal. The Conservatives nominated Rida Mahmoud, an engineer from Côte-d’Ivoire.

The Green Party, which is for all intents and purposes dead in Quebec besides managing to run no-namers in elections, was excited by its original candidate, Georges Laraque. Laraque, who is of Haitian ancestry, was a NHL hockey player between 1997 and his retirement in 2010; he finished his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens. He became deputy leader of the Green Party in 2010, but he didn’t even run in the 2011 federal election and the Greens performed, unsurprisingly, disastrously in Quebec in 2011. Laraque polled up to 12% in October, entirely on the star factor and his ties with the Haitian community which likely won him the backing of a few (probably usually Liberal) Haitian voters. However, he quit as candidate and Green deputy leader on October 17 after it was revealed he was charged on five counts of fraud. His unethical business practices were already public and police had raided his home in January 2013, raising major questions as to why Green leader Elizabeth May thought running Laraque would end up being beneficial for the Greens. It seemed, however, that May was desperately looking for another ‘beach-head’ in her micro-targeting strategy (after the successful results in last year’s Victoria and Calgary by-elections) and was ready to bankrupt her very thinly spread party in the process. When Laraque dropped out, despite May reaffirming her ‘faith in his innocence’, the Greens went with one Danny Polifroni, who ran for the provincial Greens in 2012.

Forum Research polled the riding five times, including four times with the names of the candidates themselves. The Liberals saw their support fall from 56% on November 5 to 43% on November 22, while the NDP’s numbers rose from 18% in October to 31% in the final poll in late November. The Bloc, which got 26% in the May poll, was pegged at 15-17% for the campaign (except one poll on November 14 which had them at 20%). Green support collapsed to 2% after Laraque dropped out.

Turnout was only 26.2%, down from 55.1% in 2011.

Emmanuel Dubourg (Liberal) 48.12% (+7.21%)
Stéphane Moraille (NDP) 31.44% (-0.84%)
Daniel Duranleau (Bloc Québécois) 13.02% (-3.04%)
Rida Mahmoud (Conservative) 4.65% (-4.17%)
Danny Polifroni (Green) 2.01% (+0.4%)
Serge Lavoie (Rhinoceros) 0.76%

Unsurprisingly, the Liberals held the seat with a comfortable majority, with a 16.7% majority, significantly larger than Coderre’s small 8.6% majority over the NDP in May 2011. The seat has a strong and old Liberal tradition, which both predates Coderre and goes beyond a simple personal vote for Coderre. Like Coderre before him, Dubourg had strong roots in the Haitian community, probably far more so than somebody like Moraille who is not a politician. This factor, combined with the continuing popularity of the Trudeau Liberal brand – which has given signs of being even stronger in immigrant-heavy ridings such as this one, where immigrant voters might harbour positive opinions of the Trudeau last name because, in part, of Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism policy. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have led the polls in Quebec since he became leader, but Trudeau is the most polarizing politician in Quebec according to a recent poll, which found his favourables/unfavourables split 44-32 – against 60/10 for Mulcair and 67% unfavourables for Harper.

That being said, the NDP vote held up quite well considering that the NDP’s popularity in Quebec has fallen significantly since the Orange Crush, when the NDP won 43% of the vote in the province. According to 308.com’s latest polling average (November), the NDP’s support stood at 25% in Quebec, trailing the Liberals by 11 points (36%, up from 32% last month). That might be due, in part, to the natural propensity in most by-elections to squeeze minor parties out and coalesce the vote around two parties. After Laraque dropped out, Moraille presented the race as a two-way contest. Political winds change direction very quickly in Quebec (witness the evolution of voting intentions during the 2011 campaign), but for the time being, the NDP, while its support has been eroded as of late with the Liberal upsurge, shouldn’t be counted out.

For one, the Dippers are in a much stronger position than the Bloc, which has failed to recover from the drubbing it received in 2011 because of the Orange Crush (23% of the vote). Because its leader, the rather low-key Daniel Paillé, lacks a seat in the House and the Bloc lacks official party status (4 MPs) it receives low media coverage. Add to that that the PQ provincial government is unpopular, that support for independence is low and that the last time the Bloc got significant media attention was when one of its MPs, Maria Mourani, was expelled from the party from opposing the PQ’s new and controversial Quebec Charter of Values. However, to be fairer, the Bloc likely didn’t put put much of its meager resources into the race.

Similarly, the Conservative vote consistently drops, often rather significantly, in those by-elections in which the Tories have no chance of winning and therefore don’t put any effort into them.

Without Laraque, in a riding which is demographically unfavourable to the Greens to begin with, the Greens did poorly, although they increased their percentage share of the vote by a few decimals.

Turnout was very low, so any conclusions we can draw from this by-election should be taken with a grain of salt. There were 19,675 less valid votes in 2013 than in 2011. All parties, even the Liberals, saw their actual raw vote fall from 2011 – the Liberals lost 6,725, the NDP lost 6,504, the Bloc lost 3,718, the Tories lost 2,502 and the Greens lost 245. More than anything else, in such circumstances, each party likely held their core voters who vote in every election and direct gains/loses from party to party were likely limited.

Brandon—Souris, MB

Map of Brandon-Souris (source: Elections Canada)

Brandon—Souris is located in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, centered around the city of Brandon. The city, the second largest in the province, has a population of about 56,000 (with 64,200 in the wider metro area), making it – by miles – the largest town in the constituency, which is otherwise made up of small towns with only a few thousand inhabitants, Prairie farmland and a few Native reserves.

The seat became vacant with the resignation of Conservative backbench MP Merv Tweed resigned at the end of August. Tweed was first elected in 2004.

Brandon-Souris is a largely white and Protestant riding, but given that 72% of the riding’s population lives in the Brandon metro I would object to the descriptor ‘rural’ for this riding. It is more rural, obviously, than many ridings in Canada – in 2011, 9.6% were employed in agriculture/forestry which places it significantly above the Canadian average in terms of population employed in agriculture. However, the main industries in Brandon-Souris are healthcare (14.3%) and retail trade (11.4%), with agriculture in third followed down the list by public administration (9.4%) and manufacturing (8%). Brandon has a regional health centre, contributing the strong presence of healthcare and social assistance in the riding; it also has a university (Brandon University) meaning that education is also rather big (7.4% in 2011). The leading occupations in 2011 were sales/services (22% of the labour force), trades/transport/equipment operators (15.1%), management (13.8%) and education/law/social, community and government services (13.5%).

The median household income, $57,055, not particularly high, but poverty is rather low – 14.8% were low income after tax in 2011. Low income but comparatively low poverty is common for a ‘rural/small town’ areas. One reason being that houses are fairly cheap, the median value of dwellings in 2011 was $189,875 against $280,552 for the entire country. Seven in ten households are owned (72% to be exact), most of them were built before the 1980s and the huge majority of them are single-detached houses.

Another typical characteristic of ridings such as Brandon-Souris is the relatively low level of education – despite the presence of a (small) university campus. 24% have no certifications and 29.5% only have their high school diploma. 46.6% do have post-secondary qualifications, largely from college (17.9%) or university (13.7%).

6.8% of the population are visible minorities, the leading communities being Latin Americans and Chinese. Another 9.8% claim ‘aboriginal identity’ – including 5.6% of Native Americans and 4.1% Métis. The non-white population is largest in the city of Brandon, where ‘only’ 77% are white.

Of more political relevance is the ethnic/ancestral makeup of the riding. Southwestern Manitoba, where the land was the best, attracted well-off ‘elite’ English settlers from Ontario or the British Isles beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, who gradually came to outnumbers the Natives and Métis. These Ontarian-English farmers and businessmen came to form the political and economic elite of the province, which more or less retained power at the provincial level until the election of Ed Schreyer’s NDP government in 1969. Several Manitoba Premiers, including famous names such as Thomas Greenway, Rodmond Roblin or John Bracken, had immigrated from Ontario. The result of this interesting history is that the Brandon area, in contrast with other parts of the Canadian Prairies which attracted very diverse immigration from Eastern Europe, the Russian Empire or Germany, has a more English/Scottish population. English and Scottish were the two leading ethnic origins declared in 2011, with 35.9% and 29.9% of the population respectively. Germans came in fifth – behind Canadian and Irish – with 16.7% – while a total of 17.5% declaring various Eastern European origins, mostly Ukrainian, Polish or Russian.

English was the mother tongue of 85% of residents in 2011. German was a very far second, with 4.4%, although the proportion of German speakers rises to over 20% in some rural municipalities outside Brandon.

Religiously, the riding is heavily Protestant – in 2011, the various Protestant and non-Catholic Christian denominations accounted for 50.1% of the population, undoubtedly ranking the riding near the top in terms of Protestants. Catholics made up only 16.6% of the population, and 31.4% claimed no religious affiliation (you will notice the irony of a conservative small town riding in Manitoba having a much larger share of irreligious identifiers than a urban riding in Montreal!).

English-Ontarian voters, at the provincial level, historically split their allegiances between the Conservatives, Liberals and Progressives and strongly resisted the NDP. Agrarian socialism carried no appeal to southwestern Manitoba’s prosperous English farmers and agrarian politics in Manitoba were steeped in Ontarian rural liberalism, extremely moderate if compared to the ‘group government’ and proto-socialist ideas of Albertan and Saskatchewan agrarianism. The Brandon-Souris area, provincially and federally, has a strong Conservative tradition. Provincially, the PCs have represented the rural ridings with almost no interruption since at least 1958, but the NDP has usually held Brandon East, the poorer part of the city.

Federally, Brandon-Souris was created in 1952 from the merger of the separate ridings of Brandon and Souris, which more or less represented the north and south halves of the current riding respectively. Since the riding’s creations, the Conservatives lost the seat only once – to the Liberals in the 1993, largely because the right-wing vote was split between Reform and the PCs, allowing the Grits to win with only 33%.

Before the 1950s, the Liberals had represented the area a few times. Clifford Sifton, Wilfrid Laurier’s Minister of the Interior between 1896 and 1905 who is most famous for promoting European immigration to Western Canada at the turn of the last century, held the seat of Brandon between 1896 and 1911. Robert Forke, the moderate and liberal leader of the Progressive Party, represented Brandon between 1921 and 1930, although he was returned as a Liberal-Progressive in 1926 and joined the federal Liberal cabinet that same year.

Brandon-Souris sticks out from other ‘rural’ ridings in Western Canada by never having elected a Reform/Alliance MP. In 1997, it was Brandon mayor Rick Borotsik, a Progressive Conservative, who won the seat with a thin 1.7% margin over the Reform Party. Borotsik, something of a Red Tory and critic of the Reform Party, was reelected in 2000 with a 5.5% majority over the Alliance. In both elections, the Liberals placed a paltry third with only 18% of the vote – Borotsik certainly ate into the Liberal potential a lot.

Borotsik only reluctantly joined the united Conservative Party in 2003 and backed Belinda Stronach over Harper for the leadership of the new party. He did not seek reelection in 2004, allowing Merv Tweed, a provincial PC MLA, to easily win the seat for the Tories with 51.7% against 24.2% for the Liberals and 19.2% for the NDP. Tweed was reelected with huge majorities in the next three elections – 34% in 2006, 39% in 2008 and 2011. The Liberal vote has consistently declined since 2004, from 18% in 2006 to only 5.4% in 2011; while the NDP has become the strongest rival to the Tories with 25% in 2011 (against 63.7% for Tweed). In 2008, the Greens placed a strong third with 15.8% of the vote, probably because their candidate spent $37,583 – much more than either the Grits or the Dippers, and only slightly less than the Tories themselves. In 2011, however, he spent only $10,000 or so and the Green vote fell to 5.7% (still ahead of the Liberals).

With redistribution, the boundaries shift slightly southwards – losing the northern parts of the riding to Dauphin—Swan River—Neepawa – but expanding eastwards a bit. The impact on the 2011 results is negligible.

Poll-by-poll results of the 2011 federal election in Brandon-Souris (source: election-atlas.ca)

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have tended to do far better in rural and small town polls than in Brandon itself, although the size of their margin in the last elections has lessened the divide somewhat. Indeed, in 2011, the NDP won only 12 regular polls to the Tories’ 167 – all of them were in Brandon except for the Dakota Native reserves (Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation). The Tories won upwards of 70%, even over 80%, in most rural and small town polls outside the Brandon metro. In areas closer to Brandon, the Tory vote fell under 70% and stood at 40-60% in most of Brandon. In detail, the Conservatives did best in the suburban neighborhoods of Brandon, particularly the newer subdivisions and the more affluent western half of the city. The NDP and the Greens have tended to do best in downtown Brandon, near the university and in the poorer eastern half. In 2011, the NDP’s strongest results came from the downtown core while in 2008, the Greens had won the poll covering the university as well as downtown, with the NDP doing better in some poorer neighborhoods in eastern Brandon.

In 1997, the PCs won Brandon (where Borotsik was mayor), doing particularly well in western Brandon, and some small towns and rural polls while the Reform Party generally won the rural polls.

The Conservative nomination process rose quite a ruckus. Chris Kennedy, a former aide to outgoing MP Merv Tweed, was considered the favourite for the nomination until he was mysteriously disqualified or failed to hand in his nomination papers on time, depending on who you believe. The Conservative Party says that Kennedy’s nomination papers arrived in Ottawa one day after they were due, something confirmed by a tracking of the Purolator package from Brandon to Ottawa, which shows that it left Brandon on the afternoon of Sept. 11 (the day it was due in Ottawa) and arrived in Ottawa the next day. Kennedy, on the other hand, says he delivered the package on Sept. 10 for a next-day delivery to Ottawa (he might be correct, but that would mean that Purolator in Brandon sat on the package for a day) and swears that he had attached the $1,000 deposit cheque to his papers (the Tory HQ had originally told him he had not stapled the cheque to his papers). With Kennedy out and another contender dropping out, the Tories nominated (now former) Arthur-Virden PC MLA Larry Maguire by acclamation. Regardless of what went down, the shenanigans – well publicized by the media and Kennedy’s recriminations – hurt the local Tories, with reports of memberships being returned and a right-wing editorialist in the local newspaper was visibly peeved at the whole issue.

In contrast, the Liberals handled their nomination process far better and attracted a strong candidate. Rolf Dinsdale, a media executive and the son of former PC MP Walter Dinsdale (who held the seat between 1951 and 1982) won the nomination. The NDP nominated Labour Council president Cory Szczepanski, the Greens nominated greenhouse owner David Neufeld and the Libertarians ran Frank Godon, a former US Marine and briefly candidate for the Liberal nomination before dropping out.

Brandon-Souris was the most competitive of the four ridings with by-elections, according to polling by Forum Research – who were in the field five times between October and November. The Liberals led the Tories by 4 points, 40 to 36, in a first poll in October. The Liberal lead grew in each poll thereafter. On November 22, the Liberals led by 14 – 50 to 36 – and on November 24, the last poll out, the Liberals led by a phenomenal 29 points, or 59 to 30. NDP and Green support in the polls was halved over the course of the campaign, from 12% to 6% and 5% respectively.

Turnout was 44.8%, down from 57.5% in 2011.

Larry Maguire (Conservative) 44.16% (-19.57%)
Rolf Dinsdale (Liberal) 42.75% (+37.59%)
Cory Szczepanski (NDP) 7.22% (-17.96%)
David Neufeld (Green) 4.88% (-0.85%)
Frank Godon (Libertarian) 0.98%

In a major surprise – and yet another black eye for Canadian polling – the Tories managed to narrowly hold the seat, with a 1.4% majority over the Liberals. The Grit defeat will disappoint Liberals who had been keeping tabs on this race, and could be interpreted as a Grit ‘underperformance’ given polling expectations. However, Trudeau seems to have done a good job of managing expectations, and the idea that the Grit defeat here was a bad result for them has not been widespread (although I don’t follow the media blabber’s much).

Forum Research, which is not a bad pollster in general (although as a new-ish company, its track record is limited), totally bombed on this one – the Liberals up 29 points (!), in reality they lost by 1. The most likely explanation would probably be the obligatory comment on the difficulty of polling by-elections, which compound the natural difficulty of accurately polling a single riding with about 62,000 registered voters and a usual turnout of 35-36k in normal elections. Related to this is the impact of low turnout; only 27.7k voters turned out in the by-election and it’s no secret that low turnout can create weird results (although this result is not particularly weird, disregarding expectations built on polling) and lead even the best pollsters astray. Speculating further, pollsters might have some trouble accurately polling outside large built-up urban areas, in a riding which, while more urban than actually agricultural/rural, still has a significant share of voters in small towns and rural areas. Finally, some kind of shy Tory/shy government support effect might have played a role; the Tories as incumbents have underpolled in the last two federal elections (but the incumbent Liberals underpolled in 2006) and Forum also underpolled the Tories in Provencher (see later).

The Winnipeg Free Press attributed the Liberal defeat to a series of tactical errors: having a Tory mayor run for the Liberal nomination for the illusion of having a contested nomination (instead of letting him run as an independent), having Trudeau not campaign more heavily outside Brandon and Trudeau opting to spend the final weekend campaigning in the Liberal strongholds in Quebec and Ontario instead of this marginal riding.

Nevertheless, the Liberals’ defeat should not obscure the fact that this was nevertheless an excellent result for them. They won 42.8% of the vote, the highest vote share for the party since its creation (the last time it was this high was in a two-way by-election contest in 1951 in the riding of Brandon) and despite low turnout this is the highest raw vote for the Liberals since 1993, when turnout was 69%.

The Liberal vote was likely inflated some by the two-way nature of this particular by-election, which once again saw the natural propensity for third parties to be squeezed in by-elections. In a general election, I would certainly expect the NDP to do much better – at the very least, 12 or 13% like they won in the 1990s and 2000 (horrible years for the federal NDP). In this by-election with two high profile candidates for the Tories and the Grits, they found themselves squeezed and likely didn’t invest much resources into this riding either. Therefore, the Liberals likely ate into the Dippers’ vote, while other NDP voters from 2011 likely did not turn out. The NDP in Manitoba was also hurt by the provincial NDP government’s unpopularity; the long-time NDP government is trailing in the polls provincially after a decision to raise the sales tax to pay for flood mitigation.

The Conservatives won by 389 votes. The Tories lost over 10,000 votes from the last election, when they had won 22.3k votes – this year, they won only 12.2k votes. The Liberals, on the other hand, increased their raw vote by a significant amount – despite, again, turnout over 10 points lower than in 2011. In the annus horribilis 2011, the Grits won only 1,882 votes in Brandon-Souris whereas this year they took 11,816 – which is, as noted above, the highest raw vote for the Grits since 1993. On the other hand, the NDP lost 6,849 votes; the Greens lost 663 votes and overall 7,521 less votes were cast in 2013. Unlike in Bourassa, where no party gained in raw votes and likely only held its reliable voters from 2011, in Brandon-Souris, the Liberals made sizable gains (+9,934 votes) despite turnout falling by 7.5k. Poll-by-poll results would allow more detailed analysis, but it would appear as if the Liberal gains came from both the NDP and the Tories – which is, needless to say, excellent news for the Grits if they’re able to repeat such gains across Canada. Many Tory and/or Dipper voters must have stayed home as well (possibly more Tories stayed home, as often happens with demotivated and demobilized soft government supporters in by-elections/midterms, further compounded perhaps by the Tory nomination shenanigans).

The Liberal result is even more impressive if you remember how low the Liberals have sunk in Western Canada, outside of a few ‘Indian reserves’ holdouts in Winnipeg, Ralph Goodale’s personal stomping ground (Wascana) and Greater Vancouver. In 2008 and 2011, the Liberals polled single digits in most Western ridings outside urban areas (and even in some urban areas), making the NDP the strongest rivals to the Tories. Under Dion and Ignatieff, the Liberal brand in the west – already damaged by Trudeau and not durably improved by Chrétien/Martin, had become closely associated with eastern ‘elitism’ – Dion as the egghead from Quebec, Ignatieff as the vilified Harvard academic who was “just visiting” and “didn’t come back for you” – but also fairly left-leaning policies which were out of touch with Western Canada: Dion’s green shift (carbon tax) platform in 2008, and even a fairly centre-left platform from Ignatieff despite Ignatieff being closer to the party’s right. Stephen Harper’s Tories, more strongly rooted in Western Canadian conservatism of the Reform/Alliance variety than the PCs ever were (especially post-Diefenbaker), have therefore been an extremely attractive option in the region. While some Western Canadians may feel that Harper hasn’t fulfilled all he said he would or addressed the region’s old grievances fully, it is still clear that under Harper, Western Canada is stronger than it ever was under past Liberal and even PC (Mulroney) governments.

Therefore, if the Liberals are this competitive against the Tories, it is certainly excellent news for the Grits and cause of major concern for the Tories. It does not seem as if Justin Trudeau is, as of today, suffering from his late father’s deep unpopularity in Western Canada. In fact, since Trudeau won the leadership, polling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (with small samples and large margins of error) have shown the Liberals performing surprisingly well.

Provencher, MB

Map of Provencher (source: Elections Canada)

Provencher is located in southeastern Manitoba. Unlike Brandon—Souris, where over 70% of the population lives in one metro area, only 13.7% of Provencher’s population lives in the largest community in the riding, Steinbach. Geographically, the bulk of the population is concentrated in small communities in the Prairies, while the eastern and northern halves of the riding (extending to the border with Ontario), which are in the barren Canadian Shield, are sparsely populated because the land is unsuitable for agriculture.

The seat became vacant in July 2013 following the retirement of Conservative MP Vic Toews, who had held the seat since 2000. A former provincial cabinet minister under the Manitoba PC government in the 1990s, Toews became the senior Manitoba minister in the Harper government serving as Minister of Justice (2006-2007), President of the Treasury Board (2007-2010) and Minister of Public Safety (2010-2013). Toews gained a reputation as a strong proponent of the government’s law-and-order agenda, spearheading legislative efforts to toughen detention laws for gun crimes and youth offenders and, in his last position, a very controversial bill which would have expanded law enforcement agencies’ power to monitor and track digital communications. The bill, “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”, would have allowed authorities to demand access to subscriber information from ISPs and telephone providers without a warrant. There was major public opposition to the bill, and Toews became a lightning rod for criticism after saying people “either stand with us or with the child pornographers” while a Twitter account (run by a Liberal staffer) leaked details of Toews’ divorce details. The legislation was withdrawn in February 2013, and the whole episode badly hurt Toews’ credibility and reputation as cabinet minister. Younger Manitoba MPs such as Shelly Glover (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages since July 2013) and Candice Bergen (Minister of State (Social Development) since July 2013) have replaced him as the leading Tory MPs from the province in the Harper cabinet.

Provencher is a largely white riding. Visible minorities make up only 2.3% of the population but 12.3% claimed Aboriginal identity, including 9.4% with official Métis identity. The relatively large Métis population – nearly 10,000 people – is a remnant of the riding’s early settlement and history. When Manitoba joined Confederation in 1871, the province’s small population was largely Francophone and Métis. Immigration, first from Ontario or the British Isles, significantly altered the ethnic makeup of the province and had significant consequences for the province’s history. Although the Francophone and Métis presence in Manitoba has been significantly reduced since the nineteenth century, their presence is still perceptible. Provencher has the second highest Francophone population in the province outside of St. Boniface in Winnipeg (the historical centre of the Franco-Manitoban population), with 9.9% speaking French as their mother tongue and 5.4% still speaking French most often at home. French ancestry was the third most commonly reported ethnic origin in 2011, with 19.9%. Canadian, the second largest ethnic origin with 25.6%, may also include persons of French ancestry as the term ‘Canadian’ is heavily used by Francophones in Quebec and some other provinces to describe their ethnic origin.

The French history of the riding is perceptible in the toponyms of towns and villages: Ste. Anne, St-Pierre-Jolys, Saint Malo, Lorette, De Salaberry Rural Municipality or Montcalm Regional Municipality. These areas also have the largest Francophone populations: in St-Pierre-Jolys, French was the mother tongue of 47% of the population in 2011 and over 35% spoke French as their mother tongue in De Salaberry and Montcalm RMs.

Provencher, however, has an even stronger German influence. In the late nineteenth century, German-speaking Mennonites fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia settled in southeastern Manitoba, in the so-called ‘Mennonite Reserve’. There were later waves of Mennonite immigration from Prussia or Russia in the early twentieth century, in the 1920s after the Bolshevik victory and in the late 1940s following World War II. Some more conservative Mennonites emigrated to Mexico or Paraguay in the early twentieth century, a reaction to new provincial legislation which abolished instruction in languages other than English in schools. German Lutherans and Catholics also settled in the region. As far as Provencher is concerned, however, the Mennonite presence has been larger. In 2011, 35.8% of residents identified their religion as ‘other Christian’, a category including Mennonite. Roman Catholics made up 23.6%, 19.5% claimed no religious affiliation and only 6.3% identified with the United Church of Canada and 4.8% as Lutheran.

The family structure reflects the strong Mennonite presence. 60.8% of the population over 15 were married in 2011, one of the highest rates of all 308 ridings. 82.4% of the 27,440 census families that year were married couples, and only 9.1% of census families were lone-parent families. In 2006, Provencher had the lowest percentage of lone-parent families.

German was the largest ancestry declared in 2011, with no less than 35.7%. Some Mennonites began identifying as Dutch to escape association with Germany during World War I, so there is a sizeable share claiming Dutch origins (8.9%). There are also significant Ukrainian (13.8%), Russian (10.1%) and Belgian (2.5%) communities. In contrast to Brandon-Souris, a fairly WASP riding, only 28.8% of the population claimed English, Scottish, Irish or other British Isles ancestry.

Once again, the German influence can be seen in place names: Steinbach, the largest city in the riding, Hanover RM, Hochstadt, Kleefeld, Friedensfeld or Grunthal. The German Mennonite population is highest in Hanover RM (51.7% German ancestry, 72.7% other Christian) and Steinbach (51.7% German ancestry, 56.7% other Christian) but also in Franklin RM, Morris RM, La Broquerie RM and Niverville. 17.3% of residents in 2011 identified German as their mother tongue and 7.5% still spoke German most often at home.

Like in Brandon-Souris, only 9% of the labour force are employed in agriculture and related industries the riding; the main industries being construction (11.3%), manufacturing (10.1%) and healthcare (9.8%). The leading occupations in 2011 were trades/transport (22.3%), sales and services (18.3%), business/finance/administration (14.3%) and management (11.9%). The median household income was $63,156 and 15% were low income after tax in 2010. As is the case in most ‘rural’ ridings, education levels are rather low. In 2011, 29% had no certifications of any kind and 28.9% only had a high school diploma. Of the 42% with post-sec qualifications, most came from colleges or trades/apprenticeship schools as only 10.8% of the population in 2011 had a university degree at the bachelor level or above.

Provencher has existed as a riding under that name since 1871, and it has always included parts of southeast Manitoba – at the least, the areas south of Steinbach and east of the Red River. George Étienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald’s Quebec ally, was acclaimed in the riding in 1872 following his defeat in Montreal. Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader of the Red River and North-West rebellions, was elected thrice – in a 1873 by-election following Cartier’s death, the 1874 federal election and in a 1874 by-election following his own expulsion from the House. However, Riel was living in exile in the US at the time and never sat, and was finally unseated and declared an outlaw in 1875. Between 1878 and 1904, the riding was represented by Francophone Conservative MPs. The Liberals gained the seat in 1904 and held it until 1957, with two Francophone Liberals serving between 1921 and 1957. In the 1917 conscription election, Provencher was one of two ridings east of Ontario which elected a Laurier Liberal (anti-conscription) member, given the riding’s large anti-conscription/anti-war French and German populations (although Mennonites still largely kept outside of politics). In the following decades, the large Francophone/Métis and German Mennonite population made the seat a Liberal stronghold. Social Credit had a foothold with French and German voters, and won 29.7% in 1957. The Francophones’ political domination of the riding decreased in the 1950s, as German Mennonite immigrants became more politically active.

The PCs gained the riding in Diefenbaker’s first victory in 1957, and, with the exception of the Trudeaumania election of 1968, would hold it until 1993. German Mennonite, small-c conservatives to begin with, became a reliable Tory constituency as the Tories slowly transformed from the party of the central Canadian WASP elite to a broad-based party appealing to conservative voters in rural Western Canada. Jake Epp, a Mennonite, held the seat for the PCs between 1972 and his retirement in 1993. Liberal support in the riding declined, and the Grits placed third behind the NDP in 1979, 1980 and 1984.

The Liberals regained the seat in 1993, with 44% against 36.8% for Reform and 10.3% for the PCs. Liberal MP David Iftody, a socially conservative Catholic, won reelection with a 5% majority over Reform in 1997 (40 to 35.1). In 2000, however, Alliance star candidate Vic Toews, a Paraguayan-born Mennonite, defeated Iftody with a 17 point majority (52.8% vs 35.6%). Toews was reelected with even larger majorities in the last four elections. In 2011, Toews won 70.6% of the vote against 17.9% for the NDP, a 53 point majority. As in other Western Canadian ridings, Liberal support in the constituency collapsed over the course of the last four elections: a consistent drop from 24.9% in 2004 to 6.7% in 2011. The NDP placed second ahead of the Grits in 2008 and 2011.

Results of the 2011 federal election in Provencher (source: election-atlas.ca)

In the 2011 election, Vic Toews won all but one polls – the Roseau River Reserve, where the NDP won 58%. The Conservatives did best in the German Mennonite areas, where they won over 80% of the vote (and even over 90% in a few polls) in almost every single poll – and the few polls where they didn’t, they still won well over 70%. The German Mennonite areas post astounding results for the Tories, both provincially and federally. Francophone areas have shifted to the Tories since the late 1990s, and Toews also won every Francophone poll in 2008 and 2011, although by smaller margins than the German polls. For example, he won in the 50s or high 40s in polls in Lorette, Ste. Anne and St-Pierre-Jolys.

In the 1997 and 2000 federal elections, a fairly clear split is visible between the Francophone areas – which voted Liberal by large margins – and the German areas – which voted Reform/Alliance by large margins as well. The Liberals also did well in the remote town of Pinawa in the Canadian Shield, which was home to a nuclear research facility which was decommissioned beginning in 1998. Even in 2004, the Liberals still won a handful of polls in Franco-Manitoban towns such as Ste. Anne, St-Pierre-Jolys, Lorette or Saint-Malo; while Toews was already scoring over 80% in the Mennonite Reserve (Steinbach/Hanover). In 2008 and 2011, a lot of Liberal voters in these towns shifted over to the NDP. In 2011, the NDP managed decent second place showings in most of these towns, especially in Ste. Anne and Lorette, where the Dippers took over 30% in most polls.

The socially conservative right-wing Christian Heritage Party won 1.3% in 2011 and 3.2% in 2008; they did quite well in the Mennonite Reserve areas in 2008, placing distant seconds or thirds behind the Tories but ahead of the Grits and/or Dippers.

The riding was the least interesting of the four by-elections. The Conservatives nominated Ted Falk, a Mennonite credit union president from Steinbach. The Liberals nominated their 2011 candidate, retired public servant Terry Hayward. The NDP candidate was Natalie Courcelles Beaudry, the Greens ran Janine Gibson.

Forum Research showed the Tories leading the field by reduced but comfortable margins in their four polls between October and November, but the Tory advantage dropped from 27% in their first poll in mid-October to only 11 points in their final poll on November 22. The Conservatives fell from 56% to 48%, while the Liberals increased from 29% to 37%.

Turnout was only 33.9%. Unlike in Brandon-Souris, where turnout dropped by about 13 points, turnout in Provencher collapsed by 27.9%. In Brandon-Souris, only 7,521 less votes were cast in 2013 than in 2011, but in Provencher, there were 17,021 less votes.

Ted Falk (Conservative) 58.20% (-12.40%)
Terry Hayward (Liberal) 29.94% (+23.23%)
Natalie Courcelles Beaudry (NDP) 8.22% (-9.67%)
Janine Gibson (Green) 3.64% (+0.69%)

Unsurprisingly, the Tories held the seat without any trouble. Like in Brandon-Souris, however, the Tories underpolled significantly in Forum’s polls – an 11 point lead in the final poll, while they ended up winning by no less than 28 points. My observations and speculation as to why the polls fumbled these two Manitoba by-elections so badly while doing a slightly better job at predicting the two other (urban) by-elections likely apply in this case as well.

Again, as in Brandon-Souris, the Tories’ victory shouldn’t hide the fact that the Liberals performed very well – their best % share since 2000 and their highest raw vote since 2004 (despite much lower turnout than in 2004). The Liberals gained 4,066 votes from their meagre harvest in 2011 – despite turnout dropping by over 17,000 votes. The Conservatives were the main losers, naturally, with 14,774 less votes than in May 2011. The NDP also lost 5,208 votes from their 2011 result. It would certainly appear as if a lot of the Liberal gains came directly at the expense of the Tories and the NDP, like in Brandon-Souris but unlike in the two other by-elections. It is worth repeating that it is a rather spectacular performance for the Liberals, who had been obliterated in this (and similar) ridings in the last two elections and who didn’t even a prominent star candidate like they did in Brandon-Souris.

Toronto Centre, ON

Map of Toronto Centre (source: Elections Canada)

Toronto Centre covers the heart of downtown Toronto, including neighborhoods such as Cabbagetown, St. James Town, Regent Park, Church and Wellesley, the Garden District, the eastern portion of the University of Toronto (UofT) and the affluent ‘enclave’ of Rosedale.

The riding became vacant following the resignation of Liberal MP Bob Rae, the former interim leader of the Liberal Party (2011-2013) and NDP Premier of Ontario (1990-1995), on July 31, 2013. Rae entered politics for the NDP in the late 1970s, as a federal NDP MP between 1978 and 1982 before switching to provincial politics to become the leader of the Ontario NDP. Rae’s NDP supported Liberal Premier David Peterson’s minority government between 1985 and 1987 and became Leader of the Opposition following the 1987 provincial election, when the Tories dropped to third place. Rae’s NDP won a surprise majority government in the 1990 election, making Rae the first – and, to date, only – NDP Premier of Ontario. His premiership remains negatively perceived, a result of the government’s inexperience, a major recession and backtracking on several policies such as public auto insurance. His austerity policies to tackle the recession (the Social Contract) caused huge strains with organized labour, historic allies of the CCF/NDP. The ONDP was crushed by Mike Harris’ PCs in the 1995 election, and Rae retired from politics. Howard Hampton, a left-wing rival of Rae who was critical of some Rae policies, replaced him as NDP leader and dissociated the NDP from the Rae years. Rae returned to politics for the federal Liberal Party, running for the party leadership at the 2006 convention, ending third on the third ballot. He was elected to the House from Toronto Centre in a 2008 by-election and reelected in 2008 and 2011. As a leading Liberal MP, Rae gained a reputation as a competent and intelligent member and was selected as interim Liberal leader in May 2011 following the election defeat. Originally, the interim leader was barred from running for the leadership in 2013, but as Rae turned out to be a strong leader who placed the Liberals as leading opponents of the government after Layton’s death and before Mulcair’s election, there was widespread speculation that the rules would be changed and Rae would run. In a surprise turn, he declined to run and resigned a few months after Trudeau’s victory to become a First Nations negotiator.

Toronto Centre is a diverse riding, with marked contrasts. It includes both poor immigrant neighbourhoods with high-rise apartment and social housing, gentrified professional middle-class neighbourhoods, Toronto’s gay village but also Rosedale, one of the wealthiest neigbourhoods in all of Canada.

Taken as a whole, the riding stands out on a number of census measures, reflecting its cosmopolitan, downtown nature. It has a high percentage of working-age adults, with relatively few children or seniors – in 2011, 91% of the population was aged 15 or over, one of the highest in Canada, while the median age (37.8) was fairly low, indicating a large presence of younger adults. Most residents were actually single and never married (45.3%) while only 29.2% were married and not separated, some of the highest and lowest numbers in the country. Households in the riding, on average, have few children (the average number of children per census family was 0.8) and a majority (62% in 2011) were actually one-person households. However, immigrant-heavy lower income neighborhoods and Rosedale both have a higher proportion of children; for example, in low income Regent Park only 78% of the population was older than 15.

Toronto Centre is a diverse, multicultural riding – 40.8% of residents in 2011 identified as visible minorities, which is high by Canadian standards but many GTA ridings have much higher numbers. The leading visible minority groups were South Asians (9% of the population), Chinese (8.3%), black (7.7%) and Filipino (4.6%). While the wealthy enclave of Rosedale remains very much a ‘white English’ neighbourhood, poorer areas have huge non-white populations – 81.4% in Regent Park or 73.4% in St. James Town, to name only two.

The largest ethnic origin declared in 2011 was English, but with only 19.8% of the population. Other major ancestries included Irish (15.2%), Scottish (14.8%), Canadian (13.3%), Chinese (9.3%), German (7.3%), French (7.3%) and East Indian (5.2%). Similarly, while English was the mother tongue for 59.9% of residents, 34.5% said their mother tongue was a non-official language – the leading such languages being Chinese/Mandarin/Cantonese, Bengali, Tagalog and Spanish.

Unsurprisingly for this kind of riding, 34% in 2011 had no religious affiliation – the middle-class professional areas showing the highest rates, while affluent Rosedale and some of the immigrant areas had lower levels.

Toronto Centre is one of the most educated ridings in Canada, with 50% holding a university degree at the bachelor’s level or above and only 8.9% without any certifications of any kind. As a nice indicator of the kind of riding we’re dealing with, Toronto Centre has some of the highest percentages across Canada’s 308 ridings of degrees in social and behavioural sciences and law (13.5% of the 15+ population), humanities (6.8%) and visual and performing arts, and communications technologies (6.1%) There is a significant percentage of business, management and public admin degrees (17.3%) but comparatively few in architecture or engineering (7.5%).

On a similar note, occupations in social science/education/government service (15.5%) or in art/culture/recreation and sports (8.5%) were overrepresented compared to both the provincial and federal averages. Business/finance jobs, the second largest occupational category following sales and services (which were underrepresented compared to Ontario or Canada), employed 19.2% of the labour force and 14.3% had management occupations. The major industries, according to the NAICS categories, are professional, scientific and technical services (15.9%); finance and insurance (11.6%); healthcare (8.9%) and educational services (8.5%). Retail trade, which employs 11.3% of Canadian workers, in contrast employed only 7.8% of residents in this riding.

Individuals by income decile in Toronto Centre, Ontario and Toronto CMA (2011 NHS)

Individuals by income decile in Toronto Centre, Ontario and Toronto CMA (2011 NHS)

The riding’s major contrasts are best seen when looking at income. Although it is a well educated, fairly young, highly mobile and cosmopolitan riding, there are significant pockets of deprivation contrasting with wealthy enclaves. The median household income of $49,773 in 2010 was significantly below the Canadian level ($61,072) and Toronto CMA level ($70,365). On the other hand, the average household income – $95,451 – was slightly above the Toronto CMA and significantly higher than the Canadian average household income ($79,102). The prevalence of low income, 26.4%, was over ten points higher than the Canadian average. In poor neighbourhoods, up to 50% of residents may fall under the low income cutoff rate while in Rosedale, that proportion drops to low single digits.

There are there major wealth gaps in Toronto Centre. According to the 2011 NHS, 20% of individuals were in the bottom decile while an almost identical number were in the top decile – that makes 40% of the population living at the extreme ends of the income scale. The graph to the left clearly shows the income disparities in the riding compared to the province and the Toronto CMA.

In economic, social and political terms, Bloor Street forms a sharp boundary between the ‘north’ and ‘south’ of the riding. North of Bloor, the neighbourhoods of Rosedale, Moore Park and Yorkville are all very affluent (Rosedale, it is worth repeating, is one of the wealthiest places in all of Canada) with leafy, secluded residential streets with single-detached homes and sprawling lawns. Yorkville, a more central neighborhood, is a high-end shopping district with some of the most expensive real estate (condos) in Toronto.

South of Bloor offers a wide mix of neighborhoods. Regent Park, St. James Town, Trefann Court and parts of Moss Park are low-income neighborhoods, with large immigrant (visible minority) populations and a significant share of the population living in poverty. These areas have historically been low-income, originally home to Irish or ‘ethnic white’ working-class immigrants, and today home to immigrants from Asia, Africa or the Caribbean. Regent Park has a large South Asian (Bengali) population while St. James Town, the most densely populated area in Canada, has a large Filipino population. Housing largely consists of older high-rise apartment towers or social housing projects.

Other parts of the riding, along Yonge Street near Ryerson University, UofT and further south towards the waterfront, are bustling commercial, business or retail downtown areas. Church and Wellesley, in the centre of the riding, is known as Toronto’s gay village.

Cabbagetown, formerly an Irish working-class neighborhood, has been at the forefront of gentrification since the 1970. Rowhouses have been refurbished and have attracted well-off and highly educated professionals – lawyers, doctors, journalists – but also artists, musicians, academics and social workers. Corktown has been gentrifying in the past decade or so.

The riding was historically something of a Conservative stronghold, as much of Toronto was prior to World War II and mass immigration. The riding of Rosedale, an elongated riding similar to the present-day seat, was created in 1933. The Tories represented predecessor seats for the bulk of the period since Confederation, and held Rosedale between 1935 and 1949, when the Liberals gained the seat and held it by narrow margins until Diefenbaker’s victories in 1957 and 1958. Liberal candidate Donald S. Macdonald went on to hold the seat between 1962 and 1978, serving in cabinet under Trudeau and famously chairing a Royal Commission which recommended a free trade agreement with the US. David Crombie, an urban reformist who served as mayor of Toronto between 1974 and 1978, gained the seat for the PCs in 1978 and held it until 1988. While the Tories held the seat by a hair in 1988, the Liberals, with Bill Graham, won the seat in 1993 with a 28% margin over the PCs. Graham, who later served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2004) and Minister of National Defence (2004-2006), was reelected with large majorities four times. The NDP became the Liberals’ main (distant) rival in the riding after 2004 (they also placed second in 1997), winning around 24% in 2004 and 2006 against over 50% for the Liberals.

Graham, who briefly served as Liberal interim leader after 2006, stepped down in 2008, allowing Bob Rae to win the seat in a by-election with a 46-point majority over the NDP (who won only 14%). In 2008, he was reelected with 53.5% against 18% for the Tories and 15% for the NDP. The Greens performed well in both the earlier by-election and the October 2008 general election, taking 13% and 12% respectively.

The 2011 election was the closest race since 1988, as the Liberals suffered heavy loses largely at the NDP’s expense. Rae was reelected, but with a much thinner (but nevertheless fairly comfortable) 10.8% majority, taking 41% to the NDP’s 30.2%. The Conservatives won 22.6%, their best result in years. However, the Conservatives are now rather weak in the riding. The Harper Tories, too closely tied to the Western right-populist tradition of the Reform/Alliance and perceived as socially conservative, are a poor fit for this riding, even in the affluent areas which should normally provide a solid base for the Tories. The quip about the Liberals’ 2011 voters being “too smart to vote Tory, too rich to vote NDP” holds some weight in Toronto Centre, and other similar ‘urban core’ ridings.

The Liberals’ much-reduced majority made for a very interesting map in the 2011 election. In their previous landslides in the 1990s and 2000s, the Liberals had won almost every single poll, north or south of Bloor, masking the differences between the northern and southern halves of the riding. Indeed, one of the main reasons behind the Liberals’ strength in this riding since the 1990s has been their ability, unmatched by the Tories or NDP, to ‘bridge’ the two halves of the riding and win substantial support both in affluent polls and in the high-rise, multiethnic neighbourhoods. The 2011 election did not break that pattern, but the Liberals suffered loses to the Tories in the affluent polls and to the NDP in the yuppie/artsy downtown polls and the low-income immigrant areas.

Results of the 2011 federal election in Toronto Centre (source: election-atlas.ca)

In 2011, the NDP won slightly more polls than the Liberals (125 regular polls vs. 108, 22 for the Tories). However, they did not win any poll north of Bloor – in fact, the NDP only placed second (ahead of the Tories) in one poll north of Bloor, a small poll covering high-rise apartments. In the most affluent parts of Rosedale and Moore Park, the NDP won less than 10% of the vote. On the other hand, the NDP were very strong south of Bloor. The Dippers won low-income immigrant areas such as Regent Park, St. James Town and Trefann Court; but also the areas around Ryerson University, the socioeconomically diverse Garden District and Moss Park, housing coops near the waterfront and the trendy cosmopolitan Church and Wellesley area. The Liberals had done well in all of these areas prior to 2011, in fact Regent Park had usually been one of the Liberals’ strongest neighbourhoods, with over 60% (if not 70%) support in years such as 2006 and 2008. There were large swings to the NDP in Regent Park, but also in most areas south of Bloor, including in more middle-class parts of neighbourhoods such as Moss Park, where the Greens had done very well in 2008.

North of Bloor, the Conservatives won the wealthiest parts of Rosedale, Moore Park but also the high-end downtown Yorkville area. In between the two, the Liberals’ best results came from Cabbagetown, a place where the line “too smart to vote Tory, too rich to vote NDP” might really apply; the NDP doesn’t do all that well there – in 2008, they placed behind the Greens in most polls – and the Conservatives are very weak. The Liberals did well in the Old Town, a bustling downtown area where most votes are probably cast in new condo developments. That area is also one of the few places south of Bloor where the Conservatives do decently well, often placing second behind the Liberals.

The 2011 maps show a clear contrast between north and south, and explain why the Liberals have the upper hand. The NDP, in 2011, was able to record major swings south of Bloor, but it failed to make any inroads in the riding’s affluent northern end. The Conservatives’ hopes of actually winning the seat are even lesser, given that the bulk of votes are cast south of Bloor, where the Conservatives place third in almost every single poll. The Liberals, in contrast, placed first or second in just about every poll in 2011, regardless of location, and effectively did just as well in affluent homeowner areas of Rosedale and Moore Park than in poor(er) renters areas south of Bloor.

Toronto Centre was the most closely watched race, even though it wasn’t the closest battle. It received so much attention from the media because of its location (by-elections in Toronto tend to draw far more media coverage, at least in English Canada, than by-elections in some far-off rural place nobody knows about) and because the Liberals and NDP both recruited high-profile candidates. Both Trudeau and Mulcair invested significant political capital in the riding: for Trudeau, holding the highly mediatized riding was a must, while for the NDP, winning a seat from the Liberals would be a huge boost. However, the NDP likely understood that winning the seat as it stands was an uphill battle given the NDP’s challenges mentioned above. Instead, the NDP was more realistically aiming for a strong result in preparation for 2015. The 2015 federal election will be fought on entirely new boundaries across Canada, in 338 ridings instead of 308. Toronto Centre, which saw significant population growth (with condos and whatnot) since 2003, was overpopulated with over 130,000 residents in 2011.

The final report of the boundary commission shrank the riding of Toronto Centre, removing everything north of Bloor (and also the area around UofT) and the waterfront area. Rosedale and the other areas north of Bloor were merged with the northern half of the neighbouring riding of Trinity-Spadina to create the seat of University-Rosedale. The University-Rosedale riding, the two-thirds of which come from NDP MP Olivia Chow’s riding of Trinity-Spadina, has a solid NDP notional majority of 12.3% (43.2% vs. 30.9% for the Liberals). The new Toronto Centre is still notionally Liberal, but with a small 3.1% majority. Therefore, it’s understandable why the Dippers wanted to hit the ground running with a strong campaign, even if ultimately unsuccessful, in the old riding before the 2015 election. A solid run would provide the NDP with solid footing for the next federal election.

% vote for the NDP by poll in Toronto Centre, 2011 federal election (source: election-atlas.ca)

The Liberals nominated Chrystia Freeland, a journalist who worked for the Financial Times and later The Globe and Mail. Freeland moved to Toronto in the summer of 2013, having previously lived in New York City. She published a book on income inequality, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, in October 2012. The NDP nominated Linda McQuaiq, a former journalist, columnist and writer. As a columnist (often for the Toronto Star) and a writer, McQuaiq has focused on issues such as universal social programs, ‘big oil’, progressive taxation and income inequality. Indeed, like her Liberal rival, McQuaiq published a book on income inequality, The Trouble with Billionaires, in 2010.

The Tories nominated corporate lawyer Geoff Pollock and the Greens nominated John Deverell, another journalist. Seven other candidates also ran, including John Turmel, who ran in his 79th election.

The battle between Freeland and McQuaig was rather bloody. McQuaiq accused her rival of not seeing inequality as a problem in her book (referring to it as part of the ‘creative destruction of capitalism’), although Freeland insists she does see it as a problem – but mostly because of the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle-class. Freeland’s rhetoric in the campaign mostly focused on the middle-class, an issue at the forefront of Trudeau’s pitch and a major problem in Toronto, where researchers have pointed to the ‘disappearing’ middle-class and the polarization of the city between rich and poor – a gap very much visible in Toronto Centre, which might have one of the highest Gini indexes in all of Canada. Freeland said that McQuaiq and the Dippers subscribe to the ‘outdated’ “simple take-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor” solution. In her book, McQuaig advocated for steep marginal tax rate increases of 60% for those earning about $500,000 a year and 70% for those earning $2.5 million. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair having ruled out income tax increases, McQuaig was forced to fall in line with NDP policy. Freeland said she opposes the income tax hikes backed by her rival but also the corporate tax increases which form part of NDP policy, arguing that taxation is part of the middle-class ‘squeeze’ and that corporate tax increases would hurt Canada’s competitiveness in the global economy. She is critical, however, of new tax credits introduced by the Conservative government, which many feel offer tax breaks for the wealthy.

The two candidates and their campaigns threw mud at one another and tried to play on wedge issues. Freeland was attacked for spending too much time outside Canada and only moving back to the country this summer; the NDP also said she admired Margaret Thatcher and she drew flack for referring to Sarah Palin as a ‘feminist hero’ in a newspaper column once. The NDP tried to capitalize on potential unease about Trudeau with left-wing progressive voters by drawing attention to Trudeau’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline and criticizing Freeland for campaigning with Liberal MP John McKay, one of the few Grit MPs to vote against same-sex marriage. The Liberals, on the other hand, drew attention to a column by McQuaig praising Hugo Chávez (and a photo of her shaking hands with Chávez) or to her former opulent home in suburban Oakville.

Forum Research confirmed the Liberals were the favourites, although the NDP made inroads as the campaign progressed. In June, before candidates were known, Forum found the NDP in third with 20%, against 49% for the Grits and 25% for the Tories. However, in October, Forum showed the Liberals leading the NDP by 15 (45-30), a lead which narrowed to 8 in the last poll on November 24, which had the Liberals up 47-39 to the NDP. While the Liberals and NDP increased their standings, the Tories and the Greens saw their support decline over the course of the campaign.

Turnout was 38.2%, down 24.7% from 62.9% in 2011.

Chrystia Freeland (Liberal) 49.38% (+8.37%)
Linda McQuaig (NDP) 36.30% (+6.09%)
Geoff Pollock (Conservative) 8.63% (-14.01%)
John Deverell (Green) 2.97% (-2.05%)
Dorian Baxter (PC) 1.3%
Judi Falardeau (Libertarian) 0.68% (+0.18%)
Kevin Clarke (Ind) 0.24%
John Turmel (Ind) 0.16%
Leslie Bory (Ind) 0.15%
Michael Nicula (Online) 0.12%
Bahman Yazdanfar (Ind) 0.07% (-0.12%)

The Liberals held Toronto Centre with an expanded majority of 12.8% (up from 10.8% in 2011). Both the Liberals and the NDP made gains, however – as far as percentages of the vote are concerned. The Liberals won 49.4%, up about 8.4% from 2011, while the NDP expanded their share of the vote by about 6 points, winning 36% – which is certainly their best result since I don’t know when. In contrast, the Tories were very much squeezed by the extremely polarized contest and depressed turnout, and their vote share dropped to only 8.6%, an horrible result. While the Tories have been on a downwards trend compared to the 1980s, the Tories have always been able to maintain a decent vote (their lowest being 12% in another by-election, in 2008), even during the days of the divided right when the PCs nevertheless polled between 21% (1993, with an incumbent) and 17% (2000). It is of course worth remembering that this is not unusual for by-elections: they tend to turn into two-way races far more than general elections (when a favourable national trend for the party may lift the local candidate up, even if the local candidate’s campaign is weak) and the Tories have a record of ignoring by-elections which they know are unwinnable (to focus their resources on defending seats or attacking winnable seats).

Winning was always an uphill battle for the NDP given the current make-up of the seat. However, they ran a strong campaign and won a good result, which kind of makes up for the terrible results in Manitoba and the flat result in Quebec. The NDP, perhaps with McQuaig as their candidate, will stand a good chance of winning the redistributed riding of Toronto Centre in 2015. PunditsGuide.ca tweeted that her rough calculations on election night still gave the Grits an edge in the redistributed riding, with 48% to the NDP’s 43% – up from 39.6% and 36.5% on the 2011 notional results. According to these same rough numbers, the Liberals also made substantial gains in the portion of the new University-Rosedale in the current riding, from 45% in 2011 to 59% in the by-election (the Tory vote collapsed from 35.8% to about 19%, tied with the NDP).

It is important to temper the talk of “Liberal gains” or “NDP gains” or stuff about the NDP or Liberal building on/solidifying their 2011 vote. In reality, neither the Liberals or NDP made substantial gains when it came to raw votes: the Liberal vote fell by 5,638 ballots and the NDP shed 4,178 votes. Of course, the Conservatives were much heavier – they lost 9,600 votes compared to the 2011 election (the Greens also lost substantially, polling a full 1,762 votes less than in 2011). While there were likely voters who turned out in both 2011 and 2013 who switched their votes from one party to another (for example, there were likely some 2011 Conservative voters in Rosedale who voted Liberal; the Liberals apparently swept Rosedale, like in pre-2011 elections), the more likely explanation of the results overall is that the Liberals and NDP did the best job at retaining their votes from 2011 while the Tories and Greens did a terrible job at it.

Conclusion

By-elections remain by-elections: trying to draw nationwide conclusions from them will always remain a complicated, futile and often silly exercise. By-elections have different dynamics than general elections: the local ‘can’t win here’ parties are squeezed in more polarized races and poll less than they would in a general election, turnout is in almost all cases down rather significantly from the last general election (and in almost all cases the turnout in the next general election is higher than in the by-election) and some races may be more affected by local factors and candidate notoriety/strength than in general elections. That being said, it’s obviously not impossible or completely useless to draw some conclusions from the results. And, at the very least, by-elections offer an often reasonably accurate snapshot of what certain people in certain parts are thinking.

cdnby2

The table above shows the results expressed in raw votes rather than percentages, which is arguably just as important to look at than raw percentages in a by-election scenario.

The Liberals are the clear winners of these four by-elections: they made gains, in percentage terms, in all four riding; they held their two seats; they made major gains in two hitherto Conservative citadels where the Liberal brand had been dead in the last two elections (at least) and they increased their raw vote across all four ridings by 1,637 votes despite turnout being much lower than in 2011 (-65,499 votes). Of course, the Liberals fell short of winning what had been looking to be a likely gain (Brandon-Souris) and underperformed the polls in Provencher. In Bourassa and Toronto Centre, while the Liberals expanded their majority and their share of the vote, they lost votes from 2011 and their share of the vote was – while higher than in the annus horribilis 2011 – still on the lower end of historical Liberal results in those seats since 1993 (the same wasn’t true, of course, for the two MB seats where the Liberal result was the best in years if not decades). Still, those are fairly minor issues. The Liberals had the best retention of any party in Bourassa and Toronto Centre and they directly gained at the Tories and Dippers’ expense in Manitoba. These elections confirm that, for the time being, Trudeau’s Liberals are being seen as the strongest alternative to Harper’s Conservatives for 2015. That may change, especially in a fickle country like Canada. Trudeau is still showing clear signs of weakness when it comes to being coherent with policy and a knack for saying or doing boneheaded things. On election night in Toronto, he somewhat disgracefully attempted to claim Jack Layton’s mantle by presenting the Liberals as those showing that ‘hope is stronger than fear, that positive politics can and should win out over negative’ and saying that the NDP is now a negative, divisive party and no longer Layton’s hopeful and optimistic party. In the heat of a gruelling federal election campaign – one which is shaping up to be close to a three-way toss-up – Trudeau’s really going to need to step up his game against two strong opponents.

The NDP, on balance, were net losers of the by-elections. Their major bright spot was Toronto Centre, where their strong and high-profile candidate won a solid 36% of the vote and held about three-quarters of the NDP’s 2011 votes. That places them on solid footing for 2015 in the new riding, and might be interpreted as a sign that the progressive base in downtown Toronto isn’t all that enamoured by Trudeau. Their result in Bourassa wasn’t too shabby either, although they only retained 47% of their 2011 ballots. Still, it does show that the NDP is still in the game in Quebec, where its ability to defend its 2011 Orange Crush results might be make-or-break for the party come 2015. In Manitoba, however, the NDP was crushed – squeezed by Lib-Con battles, worn down by the unpopularity of the provincial Dipper government and hurt by low turnout.

The main losers were the Conservatives, who had a bad night. The only bright spot proved to be the surprise hold in Brandon-Souris, a relief for many Tories and salvation from a near-death experience in a Tory stronghold. They also overperformed their polling numbers in Provencher. On the whole, however, there are few silver linings for the Tories in these numbers. They ignored Bourassa and Toronto Centre, so understandably they were crushed, but even the size of their shellacking they got in those seats was surprising. Unlike in past by-elections, the Conservatives were not able to go on the offensive in any of these by-elections, a strategy which had worked for them in by-elections under the 39th and 40th Parliaments (seat gains in Quebec, Ontario). In the two Manitoba ridings, despite Tory holds, the Conservatives lost over 10,000 votes in each and their share of the vote fell drastically from 2011. The Liberals proved to be a threat to the Tory hold on hitherto solid Tory citadels in the Prairies, and if that’s repeated across Western Canada in 2015 that is very bad news for the Tories (who are already facing some trouble in Ontario, the other part of the winning formula from 2011).

As mentioned in the introduction, the Tories are perhaps at their lowest ebb since 2006. Harper’s teflon is wearing off and there is rising unease within Tory ranks about PMO centralism in his governance. Although Harper insisted over the summer that he will be a candidate in 2015, but an informed comment piece by John Ivision in the National Post on December 4 indicated that there is speculation that Harper may actually resign after returning from an Israel-Mid East trip pushed up to early 2014. In the past few days, there have been cracks in the Conservative cabinet. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Employment Minister and potential leadership contender Jason Kenney confronted one another over Toronto’s embattled right-wing mayor Rob Ford, with Flaherty offering an angry response (“shut the fuck up”) to Kenney’s call on Ford to resign – and it apparently almost got physical. Ivision commented on simmering divisions between cabinet ministers.

The Bloc Québécois was unlucky that the first post-2011 by-election in which it had a chance to prove itself was held in a Liberal stronghold where the Bloc has been increasingly weak. With a poor candidate adding to the Bloc’s troubles across the province, they had a poor showing. Bloc leader Daniel Paillé stood down as leader of the party on December 16 for health reasons (he has epilepsy); but it’s also perhaps partly because he knew that the Bloc is increasingly going nowhere. The party has a tiny caucus, an anonymous leadership, low coverage in the media and little interest from the public. They will have a tough time recruiting a leader who feels that they can take the Bloc somewhere in 2015, and be able to successfully challenge the NDP and the Liberals for the attention and support of Quebec Francophone voters.

The Greens had a poor run as well, losing votes in every riding and increasing their vote share in only a single seat (and not by much). Elizabeth May’s ill-advised decision to promote Laraque in Bourassa in a futile attempt to give the Greens a beachhead in a province where the party is dead fell flat on its face and may have hurt the financially cash-strapped party a lot. In other ridings, the Greens had little-known candidates and the national party did not target any of those seats. In Toronto Centre, the Greens, who have potential in the riding, found themselves squeezed even more by the high-profile Liberal-NDP contest. There, the Greens’ vote suffered the most – falling 2.1% and retaining only 37% of their 2011 ballots (compared to 60-70% in the 3 other seats). Elizabeth May’s micro-targeting/beachhead strategy yielded positive results in 2011 (the first Green MP, May herself) and 2012 (strong results in Victoria and Calgary by-elections), but on the other hand that strategy will not increase the Green vote in ridings not targeted – in 2011, the Greens’ support nationally fell and the Greens have done poorly in by-elections where they weren’t campaigning hard.

The table confirms my observations on the by-election dynamics which create two-way battles and squeeze third parties out. The Tories retained the most votes – 55% and 47% respectively – in the two seats where they were competitive while in the two other ridings they held only 25% and 24% of their 2011 ballots. The NDP similarly held 47% and 75% of its votes in those seats where they were strong seconds in 2011 but held only 23% and 26% in the two Manitoba seats where they were not competitive and squeezed by the Grits.

These by-elections ultimately yielded a status-quo result. But they also confirmed that the 2015 federal election is looking to be one of the most exciting in recent history, especially if it does turn out to be a three-way race for first and second.

Nepal 2013

Map of Nepal (source: ezilon)

Elections to a second constituent assembly were held in Nepal on November 19, 2013. The Constituent Assembly will be made up of 601 members, of which 575 are directly elected through a parallel system and the remaining 26 being nominated by the Council of Ministers. 240 members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and 335 nationally by party-list proportional representation, seemingly with no threshold. Because this is a parallel system, the PR seats are distributed without taking into account the seats won by the parties in single-member constituencies.

Nepal is the world’s second youngest republic, having been proclaimed as the ‘Democratic Federal Republic of Nepal’ on May 28, 2008. There was exceptionally broad consensus between political actors on the proclamation of a republic and some basic republican tenets, to rid Nepal of the discredited and widely loathed monarchy. However, there has been little actual consensus when it came to more contentious issues surrounding the constitution of the new republic. Therefore, the constituent assembly elected in April 2008 was unable to agree on a permanent constitution within two years (May 28, 2010) and the constituent assembly unilaterally and unconstitutionally voted extend its term by one year, a decision invalidated by the Supreme Court a year later. The constituent assembly ignored that decision and repeatedly extended its term, but it failed to agree on a constitutional by the final deadline of May 27, 2012. The constituent assembly was dissolved and elections were due to be held last year (November 2012), but they were indefinitely postponed and ended up taking place only a year later.

Background

Nepal became a unified monarchy in 1768, ruled by the Shah dynasty – a Chhetri (the warrior/ruler caste in Nepali Hinduism) group which came from the Gorkha principality in the Himalayas. The Shah dynasty united the various monarchies in present-day Nepal (and parts of present-day India) under one crown, but they soon found themselves debilitated by a power vacuum which led to an era of instability and aristocratic infighting which lasted until 1846. That year, a military commander established the Rana dynasty, which held the hereditary office of Prime Minister and kept the Shah monarchs as prisoners in their palace until 1951. Rana rule brought stability and basic modernization, but at the expense of political or economic development. The Rana’s parallel monarchy finally fell in 1951, the result of growing political activity (notably by Nepali exiles in India) and the loss of their two major foreign allies – British India and non-communist China. In 1951, the last Rana Prime Minister resigned and the Shah monarch returned to power.

Between 1951 and 1959, Nepal experimented with a “limping democracy” in which the King, Tribhuvan (1911-1955), was unwilling to concede power to a new generation of politicians. In 1946, Nepali exiles in India, heavily influenced by political developments in India at the time, formed what became the Nepali Congress (NC), a democratic socialist party whose original goal was overthrowing the Rana dynasty and establishing a multiparty democracy. During this period, under an interim constitution, the king perennially postponed elections and regularly dismissed uncooperative Prime Ministers, attempting to find a government which would do what he wanted behind the democratic façade. King Mahendra (1955-1972) finally organized free elections in 1959 (but drew up his own constitution beforehand, to ensure the new government would be weak), which were handily won by the NC, allowing its longtime leader, Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala (who had led the brief anti-Rana revolutionary struggle), to become Prime Minister. Koirala’s government tried to reform the system, with some success (among others, it abolished the birta tax-free land tenure system which had allowed the government to distribute land as a reward to its backers). However, the reforms troubled the king – who didn’t believe in democracy – and in December 1960, he dismissed Koirala and restored an absolute monarchy.

In 1962, King Mahendra imposed a four-tiered party-less panchayat system which, in practice, vested all relevant powers in the person of the king and his delegates at the local level. The partisan opposition, forced to go underground, was divided: the Nepali Congress split on which attitude to adopt towards the panchayat system, while the fractious Communist Party of Nepal began splitting a thousand different ways.

Under the panchayat system, the monarchy heavily favoured one ethnicity (the Indo-Nepalese Pahari people, specifically the upper caste Chhetri and Bahun/Brahman), one religion (Hinduism was the state religion), one set of values and one language (the Nepali language, which evolved from the Pahari-Gorkhali language) at the expense of lower castes and other ethnic groups in Nepal’s extremely diverse society. The Pahari people fled to the Nepalese hills several hundred years ago, in the wake of the Muslim invasions of northern India, and came to settle throughout Nepal, although primarily in the Hill region in central Nepal. Their language and religion, although conditioned and altered by the Nepalese environment, betray their northern Indian origins. However, the term Pahari is not widely used in Nepal because the Paharis generally are known by their individual caste names. The Chhetri and Bahun have long dominated the political system, civil service and the military in Nepal. The Newar people, a group of mixed Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicity historically concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley, were sometimes favoured (to a much lesser extent) by the monarchy although their language (Nepal Bhasa) was discriminated against. Lower castes, other Indo-Nepalese peoples (including more recent immigrants from northern India) and Tibeto-Nepalese groups were excluded from power.

King Mahendra died in 1972 and was succeeded by King Birendra, slightly more modern in his political outlook although still quite allergic to multiparty democracy. He made minor tweaks to the panchayat system, but it was clear that he fully intended to let the system endure and concurrently took steps to step up the elites’ control of the system to prevent entryism from the underground parties. In 1979, King Birendra organized a referendum on the panchayat system, which received 55% support. Shortly thereafter, the king allowed for direct elections to the national assembly or National Panchayat. The first elections, in 1981, were still entirely partyless and the bulk of the opposition NC and communists boycotted the polls – nevertheless, candidates backed by the king lost heavily. The reformed panchayat system became increasingly factional in the 1980s.

Nepal is landlocked between two hugely influential and powerful regional hegemons: India and China, and both countries have had a major influence on domestic Nepalese politics. Under Rana rule, Kathmandu’s foreign policy aimed at maintaining friendly relations with both the British (in India) and the Chinese; the fall of British India in 1947 and the communist victory in China in 1949 contributed heavily to the fall of Rana rule in Nepal in 1951. The newly independent Indian state opposed Rana rule and backed the democratic experiment in Nepal, and briefly backed anti-monarchist NC rebels after the palace coup in 1960. However, after a war with China in 1962, India saw that it would be better off with a friendly government in Kathmandu than by supporting insurrections in Nepal. Relations with ‘red’ China were normalized in the late 1950s and early 1960s, inaugurating a new era of ‘equal friendship’ with both regional powers.

However, India has traditionally been the more powerful and influential country in Nepal, both because of ethnic and geographic (southern Nepal’s Terai plains regions morphs into northern India, whereas Nepal and China are separated by the high peaks of the Himalayas) reasons. Relations between India and Nepal have gone through ups and downs, marked by persistent Nepalese fears of their southern giant’s hegemonic goals and India’s desire to have their word to say in Nepalese politics, diplomacy and economy. Beginning in 1950s, India and Nepal signed a number of treaties which granted Nepal trade and transit rights in India. In 1989, relations sank to a low point after Nepal signed a weapons deal with China, prompting India to impose a virtual trade siege on Nepal. The trade siege had a crippling effect on the economy, and added to rising opposition to the panchayat system.

Mass demonstrations in February and March 1990 forced King Birendra to concede landmark constitutional reforms – appointing the NC’s moderate leader K.P. Bhattarai as Prime Minister, freeing political prisoners and drafting a new constitution in November 1990. The new constitution created a multiparty constitutional monarchy, with the Prime Minister – appointed by the King – responsible to a lower house. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal to be a multiethnic and multilingual country, granting human rights to all citizens and banning discrimination on racial, ethnic, tribal, caste etc grounds. There were high hopes that the new constitutional monarchy would reduce the power of the Chhetri/Bahun ruling elite and allowed previously marginalized groups to gain political representation and influence.

In the May 1991 elections, the NC won an absolute majority with 110 seats (but only 37.8% of the vote) while the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML) placed second with 28% and 69 seats. Two monarchists won only four seats, less than smaller communist parties and a regionally-based party. Girija Prasad Koirala, the brother of former Prime Minister BP Koirala, became Prime Minister. Despite the high hopes for multiparty democracy, a number of factors collided to make the second experiment in multiparty democracy disappointing, to say the least. In the 1994 elections, the CPN (UML) won the most seats – 88 to NC’s 83 – while the monarchists also made solid gains, winning 20 seats. The divided Parliament led to a quick succession of unstable minority governments formed by the CPN (UML), NC and monarchists. In 1999, the NC regained an absolute majority with 111 seats against 71 for the CPN (UML) and 11 for the monarchists.

Although the 1989 crisis with India was quickly settled, economic problems – such as high inflation and substantial foreign debt – worsened and limited governments’ ability to address economic development and poverty. Furthermore, relatively little changed when it came to the makeup of political leadership and the civil service: most of the new political leadership were largely drawn from the Bahun and Chhetri groups, who retained control of the military and government jobs; Nepal remained a unitary state and the grievances of ethnic-linguistic minorities were not addressed adequately. Combined with corruption, extreme poverty and quasi-feudal conditions in a lot of the countryside, the climate was rife for an armed revolt. An hardline communist Maoist faction launched a bloody “people’s war” in rural Nepal in February 1996. The Maoists claimed to be fighting for political and social liberation – overthrowing the monarchy, the ‘feudal forces’ and liberating the landless peasants, ethnic minorities and so forth in a “people’s state” (which opponents claimed meant an authoritarian communist regime). The Maoist insurgency was, however, of relatively little concern to the central government and the king before 2000; the Maoists were in no position to threaten Kathmandu.

One of the most bizarre episodes in Nepalese and perhaps world history unfolded in June 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra, the son of King Birendra, went on a shooting rampage in the royal palace, killing nine members of the royal family including the king and the queen. Exactly why Dipendra went nuts and turned into a mass murderer that night in June remains a matter of some discussion and controversy – a forbidden marriage, undiagnosed psychosis or a plot by Prince Gyanendra. After killing nine relatives, Dipendra shot himself, but he only died whilst in a coma three days later. That meant that, as the heir to the throne, Dipendra nevertheless became King until he died on June 4 – so, briefly, a mass murderer in a permanent vegetative state was King of Nepal. Upon his death, Prince Gyanendra, Dipendra’s uncle and the late monarch’s brother, ascended to the throne. Gyanendra had been critical of his late brother’s democratic reforms and had very little interest in constitutional politics.

Gyanendra, with disastrous results, got directly involved in politics. In October 2002, citing the NC government’s failure to hold elections, he dismissed the Prime Minister and ruled directly for a few days. Between 2002 and 2005, he appointed and later dismissed three Prime Ministers in a row for failing to hold elections and not bringing the Maoists to round table negotiations. By 2001, the insurrection had turned into a civil war, with the Maoists effectively controlling two-thirds of the country. Gyanendra called in the Nepalese army to take charge of the conflict in 2002, and the military received funding, weapons and training from the US, EU and India. The Maoists resorted to brutal tactics in the areas of the countryside which they controlled: extortion, murder, kidnappings, threats against alleged “oppressors of the people”, use of child soldiers and so forth. The army showed little concern for human rights itself, with allegations of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes and torture.

In February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the Prime Minister and ruled directly – this time for an extended period of time. Gyanendra’s decision to run the conflict himself went about as well as you’d expect. Civil liberties and political rights were curtailed even further, as the monarch unleashed a wave of repression against union activists, journalists, politicians and human rights activists. Foreign military aid more or less dried up. The political parties got their act together, with the NC, CPN (UML) and other small parties forming a seven party alliance and in November 2005, the parties and the Maoists agreed to work together to restore democracy. In September, the Maoists had declared a three-month ceasefire. In January 2006, the Maoists ended the ceasefire and launched coordinated attacks in the Kathmandu Valley, striking at the heart of the government’s power. The political parties continued mass demonstrations, culminating in organized general strikes and protests in early April 2006. The Maoists refrained from violence and played a key role in mobilizing and directing protesters. As the strikes proved to be wildly successful, the king was unable to respond and in late April announced that he would relinquish absolute powers – which was rejected as insufficient by the parties and the Maoists, who feared that it would only mean a return to the pre-2005 state of things. Gyanendra was forced to give in, reconvening Parliament, appointing NC leader GP Koirala as Prime Minister.

In May 2006, the new government stripped the king of all of his powers – making him liable to taxation, prosecution and nationalizing his properties; giving cabinet full control over the military; declaring Nepal a secular control and dropping references to the king in the national anthem. In November 2006, the Maoists and the government signed a peace agreement. The Maoist army would lay down their weapons and put in temporary cantonments under UN monitoring, while the Nepalese army would be confined to their barracks.

An interim constitution was promulgated in January 2007, providing for the election of a constituent assembly – originally scheduled for the summer of 2007 – and guaranteeing human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms, recognizing “multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious and multicultural characteristics”, defining Nepal as a secular and “federal, democratic republican state”. However, hopes for a peaceful and rapid transition were dashed in early January.

The Madhesi people in the southern Terai plains (a densely populated agricultural region bordering India) organized violent strikes and demonstrations to protest the original lack of commitment to federalism and minority rights in the draft constitution. The Madhesi people denote a group of Indo-Aryan groups who immigrated from northern India in the more recent past (19th-20th century) and settled in the Terai region (the term madhesh being used interchangeably to refer to the Terai). The Madhesh usually speak Indo-Aryan languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi which are widely spoken in the northern Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; although they may also speak Nepali or Tharu, the language of the Tharu people – an indigenous people who likely lived in the Terai before northern Indians arrived in present-day Nepal (as such, they strongly reject being counted as Madhesi). The Madhesis have long faced discrimination from the central government in Kathmandu, which has generally tended to perceive them as potentially dangerous foreign (Indian) agents and as thus had trouble acquiring Nepali citizenship until 2006.

Relations between the Maoists and the parties (and also within the parties) proved delicate, prompting delays in the organization of the elections to a constituent assembly. The Maoists were said to be worried about surveys showing them in third behind the NC and CPN (UML), and threatened to take up arms again if their demands were not fulfilled – while they never did so and violence dropped, their youth wing (YCL) often acted like thugs. They demand the immediate proclamation of a republic and a fully proportional election system, and between September and December 2007, they withdrew their members from the interim cabinet.

Elections were finally held in April 2008. The Maoists, or CPN (M), won 30% of the vote and 229 seats (including members nominated later), becoming the largest party although hardly by a landslide. The Nepali Congress won about 21% and 115 seats while the CPN (UML) won 20% and 108 seats. The conservative and originally monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RJP) was crushed, winning only 2.5% and 8 seats. They were defeated Madhesi parties: three Madhesh parties forming a common front won a total of 11% and 84 seats, with 54 of them going to the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJF). Small communist or right-wing parties took the rest of the seats.

The Constituent Assembly quickly voted to abolish the monarchy, with the only opposition coming from the four members of the hardline monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal. That would be, however, the only time in the course of the CA when everybody got along. Negotiations between the Maoists, NC and CPN (UML) – with the Madhesi parties destabilizing matters further by injecting demands for federalism. The NC and CPN (UML) opposed the Maoists’ demand that they hold both the presidency and the prime ministership, largely because both old parties were worried that the Maoists were still plotting to establish a single-party communist state. In June, the NC, CPN (UML) and the Madhesi parties formed an alliance to elect the president and vice-president, with the presidency going to Ram Baran Yadav of the Nepali Congress. In August, however, the CPN (UML) and the Madhesi parties switched sides, and they backed Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, as Prime Minister.

The impossible constitution

In any event, Prachanda – the fierce Maoist rebel leader – didn’t create a single-party communist state. The Maoists continued to scare people away with talk of a “people’s republic” and their youth wing continued to act as violent thugs, but in government Prachanda was actually rather moderate and pragmatic.

Things went smoothly enough, with a reasonably competent government which began redistributing some money to the poor. There was and remains little hope for justice for the thousands of victims of the civil war. Relations with the other parties, however, remained extremely fragile and unstable and the Maoist government came to clash with the military in May 2009. The Maoists were demanding that the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, integrate 19,000 Maoist fighters into a new Nepalese army. General Katawal, a ‘devotee’ of King Gyanendra who never hid his hatred for the Maoists, refused. He had previously refused to curtail a military recruitment drive despite the UN’s objections and had already clashed with the Maoists when their government refused to extend the service of eight brigadier-generals.

General Katawal’s decision to disobey Prachanda’s orders was backed by the NC and CPN (UML) – even if the latter were junior partners in the Maoist-led cabinet (according to The Economist, they “joined the government but always seemed in a hurry to leave”). India, alarmed by the Maoists’ rapprochement with China (despite Beijing having previously had no interest in the Maoist rebellion), quietly backed the general as well. Thus, when Prachanda sacked Katawal, President Yadav refused and Prachanda resigned on May 4, 2009. While the Maoists argued that the military’s disobedience amounted to an illegitimate military dictatorship, the NC and CPN (UML) were united in their suspicion that the Maoists were the ones who wanted a dictatorship themselves. Prachanda, did, however, propose to join a government of national unity if Katawal was sacked; President Yadav refused.

CPN (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal became Prime Minister, in an unstable and makeshift minority alliance with the Nepali Congress. The Marxist-Leninist name of the CPN (UML) is very much a misnomer; the CPN (UML) has been a moderate and pragmatic party since 1991, when it acquiesced to a constitutional monarchy while more radical communists like the Maoists demanded a republic. The CPN (UML) describes its ideology as “People’s Multi-Party Democracy”, which their website rather amusingly describes as a “creative application of Marxism and Leninism in the Nepalese condition” and which appears to be a way of saying social democratic/liberal democracy couched in silly Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. Indeed, somebody well read in Nepalese politics once described them to me as a social democratic party while The Economist has called them both a ‘mainstream leftist’ and ‘centrist’ party.

The Nepali Congress are a member of the Socialist International, but in practice they’re an even more moderate liberal party (their website speaks of “development that would integrate the beneficial aspects of economic liberalization and globalization with upliftment of the most needy”) whose history has been defined by the often unsuccessful struggle for pluralist democracy rather than by any socialist policies. The NC has tended to be seen as a pro-Indian party, given the conditions of their creation and the party’s usually good relations with India throughout its history. The CPN (UML) has tended to be slightly less pro-Indian, while the Maoists have historically been anti-Indian and nationalist. In office, however, Prachanda’s government did not rescind the longstanding trade and transit agreements with India, despite the Maoists having floated that idea in the past.

The Maoists boycotted the Parliament (blocking any progress on the constitution, which required consensus or a two-thirds majority of all members on each article to be adopted) and mounted frequent mass protests, which turned violent in some cases. Facing such a stalemate, Prime Minister Nepal resigned in May 2010, but the Maoists blocked 16 separate attempts to elect a new Prime Minister (the votes opposed Prachanda to NC leader Ram Chandra Poudel). Finally, in February 2011, with a little over 100 days to go until the deadline for the CA to adopt a constitution expired, the Maoists surprised everybody by rejoining government, even allowing CPN (UML) leader Jhala Nath Khanal to serve as Prime Minister.

In the meantime, the deadline for adopting a constitution had passed on May 28, 2010 and the CA hadn’t come close to adopting a constitution by that point. From that point forward, Nepal moved into legal limbo given that the 2007 interim constitution under which Nepal is governed under in the meantime, had no provisions to deal with the possibility that the CA would not be able to meet the constitutional deadline. The CA repeatedly extended its mandate, a move of very dubious constitutionality. In August 2011, the government was forced to resign and replaced by a Maoist-led government with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.

At the root of the failure to agree on the constitution is a debate on the federal nature of the new Nepalese republic. There is broad agreement between the major parties (and the Madhesh) that the new state should be a federal republic, as declared in the interim constitution, but there are significant disagreements on the form, extent or nature of federalism. Little of the public debate and attention on federalism has been on issues such as the devolution of powers or the responsibilities of the federal states.

One of the proposed federal maps of Nepal (source: linguae)

What has captivated attention and sparked debates have been the number of states, their boundaries and, symbolically, their names. Unlike other federal states such as the United States, Canada or Brazil, Nepal is attempting to create a federal structure from scratch and without any preexisting constituent units. Nepal’s current administrative divisions are just that – administrative – and they do not reflect the geography or the ethnic makeup of the country. For example, the current administrative divisions vertically divide the country from north to south, whereas geography has divided the country horizontally with the southern Terai (low-lying) region, the central Hill region and the mountains/Himalayas in the north. Unsurprisingly, the ethnic map in part reflects the geography of the country – with the Madhesh in the Terai, or Tibeto-Nepalese groups in the Himalayas, for example.

Historically marginalized and discriminated lower castes and ethnic minorities see federalism as a key step in the peacemaking process and a way to redress hundreds of years of discrimination at the hands of the Chhetri and Bahun upper-caste Hindu groups. The Chhetri and Bahun, understandably, have been very lukewarm (at best) on the issue of federalism. Publicly, they argue that federalism would threaten national unity, Nepalese sovereignty and predict it will sow communal divisions and lead to violence. Their detractors claim that they were unwilling to give up the significant power which they still hold by devolving powers to constituent units.

Ethnic minorities, particularly the Madhesis, favour what is widely being called ‘ethnic federalism’, where the federal states would have a ‘designated’ ethnic identity (similar to the USSR/Russia’s ethnic republics) and would be named after said ethnic identity. The Madhesis, contentiously, want a single Madhesh state in the eastern Terai along the Indian border. Other ethnic groups, under proposed maps, would also have ‘their’ federal state named after them – for example, the state around Kathmandu might be called Newa, after the Newar people who have historically inhabited the Kathmandu Valley. However, like with Russia’s ethnic republics, in very few of the proposed ‘ethnic’ federal entities would the dominant ethnic group also make up an absolute majority of the population. In the Kathmandu Valley, for example, the Newar no longer make up close to an absolute majority. Some ethnic minorities – notably the Limbu, a group in far-eastern Nepal who speak a Tibeto-Burman language, or the Madhesis have demanded ‘prime rights’ – that means, superior rights for a certain ethnicity over others in a given state, which would perhaps amount to minority rule for a ‘privileged’ minority group in a given state at the expense of other minorities. However, the demands for ‘prime rights’ seem to have been quietly dropped.

The Madhesh’s close ties with India have further complicated debates over ethnic federalism. In 2011, four Madhesi political leaders met with senior Indian politicians in New Delhi, sparking new concerns in Kathmandu that the Madhesh’s loyalty to Nepal was suspicious and that India had expansionist designs over the Terai. India has favoured federalism, particularly as it comes to a Madhesi state in the Terai, largely, it seems, as a means of defusing the Maoists’ power.

The Maoists have backed the demands for ‘ethnic federalism’. Support for federalism and devolution of powers to sub-national units is not a characteristically Maoist or dogmatic communist position, yet the Maoists have included demands for federalism since their original 1996 manifesto and became more vocal on the issue after 2007. The Maoists’ support for ethnic federalism has largely been a means for them of harnessing support from lower caste groups and ethnic minorities, which partly explains why the Maoists won the 2008 election. Nevertheless, the political leadership of the Maoists – like that of the other national parties – remains largely Chhetri and Bahun.

The CPN (UML) and NC both oppose ‘ethnic federalism’, although they claim to agree with the wider principle of federalism. The Maoists have often accused these two old parties of representing the ‘elites’ (read: Chhetri and Bahun) and of being unwilling to relinquish their power and back a federal system that could threaten their dominance.

The impasse over federalism, along with debates over the institutions of the central government (the Maoists favouring a presidential republic, which critics say would allow Prachanda to seize full power as President; the CPN (UML) wants a ceremonial presidency with a directly-elected PM while the Congress advocated for a parliamentary system), meant that there was no constitution when the music stopped on May 27, 2012. A few days earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that another extension of the CA’s term would be unconstitutional.

The NC and CPN (UML), which had been asking for elections, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. However, when the music did stop after midnight on May 27, the Maoists called their bluff and announced that there would be elections to a second CA – but that, until then, Maoist PM Baburam Bhattarai would remain Prime Minister. The NC and CPN (UML) did a back flip and refused to endorse elections for November, because they didn’t want (and trust) the Maoist-led government to supervise the elections in November 2012. Therefore, November came and went without elections. There were rumours that President Yadav, an opponent of the Maoists, had sounded out the military and India about overthrowing the government. The Maoists and their opponents reached an agreement in March 2013, under which the independent Chief Justice, Khil Raj Regmi, would serve as caretaker Prime Minister until elections were held in November 2013. Behind the scenes, an uneasy grand coalition-type alliance between the Maoists and their rivals have been handling matters.

Results

I can’t find turnout details, although it appears to have been quite high. High turnout came despite the boycott and violence of a hardline Maoist group which split from the Maoist party (officially the UCPN (M)) and launched a few isolated attacks during the campaign. The preliminary results for the 575 (out of 601) elected seats are (% vote from the PR list vote):

Nepali Congress 25.55% winning 196 seats (105 FPTP, 91 PR)
CPN (UML) 23.66% winning 175 seats (91 FPTP, 84 PR)
UCPN (Maoist) 15.21% winning 80 seats (26 FPTP, 54 PR)
Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal 6.66% winning 24 seats (24 PR)
MJF-Loktantrik 2.91% winning 14 seats (4 FPTP, 10 PR)
Rastriya Prajatantra Party 2.75% winning 13 seats (3 FPTP, 10 PR)
MJF-Nepal 2.26% winning 10 seats (2 FPTP, 8 PR)
Tarai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party 1.19% winning 11 seats (4 FPTP, 7 PR)
Sadbhavana Party 1.41% winning 6 seats (1 FPTP, 5 PR)
CPN (Marxist-Leninist) 1.38% winning 5 seats (5 PR)
Federal Socialist Party 1.28% winning 5 seats (5 PR)
All others 15.02% winning 36 seats (4 FPTP, 32 PR)

Surprisingly, the Maoists were the big losers of the second CA election, placing third with only 80 seats in the new CA, whereas they had won 229 seats (220 of them elected) in the last election. The NC and CPN (UML), the two most important ‘traditional’ parties which had been the major political parties during the constitutional monarchy (1991-2005), reemerged as the most important actors in Nepalese politics. The Congress won 196 seats, up from 115 in the last CA while the CPN (UML) bagged 175 seats, up from 108 in the 2008 election. The other surprise of the vote came the RPP Nepal, a conservative monarchist led by King Gyanendra’s ally and former home minister Kamal Thapa. The RPP Nepal is the only major party which still supports the monarchy and also wants to make Hinduism the state religion again. It had won only 1% and 4 seats in 2008, placing behind the conservative but less pro-monarchy (it is now republican) Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) from which it had split in 2005, today it won 6.7% and 24 seats.

The Madhesi parties, which by the looks of it were extensively divided (more so than in 2008), were the other major losers. The four major Madhesi parties won 41 seats, and it appears 7 of the other seats went to Madhesi parties as well. In 2008, the Madhesi parties had won 84 seats, with the MJF (Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, which seems to have exploded) taking 54 of them.

These results took everybody by surprise, even those, it seems, who had been expecting the Maoists to do poorly. It is somewhat surprising because it appears as if the general impression a year ago, when the elections should have been held, was that the Maoists were expected to win and the NC and CPN (UML)’s hostility to 2012 elections was interpreted by most as a sign that they were unwilling to face voters. The Maoists might have been punished for their behaviour in the last CA, and their inability – shared, to be honest, with all the other parties – to agree on a constitution. The Maoists have also faced criticism from all sides since 2008. They were outmaneuvered, it appears, by the traditional parties. Some voters also felt that the Maoists had started enjoying the spoils and luxuries of power a bit too much (Prachanda was accused of leading a lavish lifestyle since 2008), and their shift towards pragmatic and moderate positions – supporting multiparty democracy, dropping the old anti-Indian nationalist stuff and conceding that only 1,450 of their former fighters be integrated in the new military. It is possible that they may have lost quite a few of their supporters to the ‘active boycott’ which was organized (but unsuccessfully) by some hardline Maoist dissidents. Finally, federalism certainly played a major role in this election (and the foreign media, naturally, failed to pick up on it). Could it be that ethnic federalism has far more opponents than supporters, even if ‘minorities’ (non-Chhetri/Bahun) make up a majority of the population? Or at the very least, the emotional debates on the fairly symbolic details of ‘ethnic federalism’ may have served to mobilize voters, primarily from the dominant Hindu groups, in favour of the NC and CPN (UML).

The United Nations mission in Nepal has a map of the FPTP results, in PDF format. I won’t pretend to know anything which could explain the patterns, since they appear to be fairly random – except for the Maoists holding a few seats in rural areas, and the Madhesi parties winning in the Terai (although the NC and CPN (UML) also did well there).

The Maoists panicked at the election results, with Prachanda claiming that the election had been massively rigged – despite former President Jimmy Carter and other international observers declaring that there was no sign of major fraud or vote rigging. On November 21, the Maoists – joined by a few other sour grapes Madhesi parties – threatened to boycott the CA if the counting process was not halted immediately, a silly request which the election commission naturally refused. Under pressure and sensitive to international public opinion, the Maoists have since backtracked, first reiterating their commitment to the peace process and recently saying that they would sit in the CA if the other parties wanted them there (= agreed to work with them). The Maoists’ behaviour after their first electoral defeat is a real test of their actual belief and commitment to competitive multiparty democratic politics.

The next government will likely be formed by the NC and the CPN (UML), who share lots of common ground – in their hostility towards ethnic federalism, their relatively good ties with India, their suspicions of the Maoists’ true intent and a similar view on the form of the new state. However, there has been some conflict between the NC and CPN (UML) in the past few days over the fate of the presidency. The NC, which holds the presidency, argues that the interim constitution states the presidential term will only expire with the promulgation of a new constitution. However, the CPN (UML) is demanding that there be presidential elections. Basically, the CPN (UML), which is nearly as large as the Congress, wants the top two offices in the country (President and PM) split between the two parties in a power-sharing agreement. The NC seems to be holding its line, but they will probably work out some deal.

As in the past, all politicians have been promising that they would write a constitution quickly, but their track record on that front hasn’t been great. The large majority for the anti-federalist parties – NC and CPN (UML) – will likely facilitate agreement on geographically-based constituent units and very centralized federalism with no ethnic references. Together, the Congress and the CPN (UML) hold 371 of the 575 seats distributed to date, about 15 seats short of a two-thirds majority which would allow the CA to function even without the Maoists and the Madhesi parties, and allow for a majority on constitutional articles. The monarchist RPP Nepal has already said that it is open to compromises, even on their two key positions (the monarchy and Hindu nature of the state). The Madhesi parties, however, have announced that they would take to the streets if their demands were not met. But after such a poor showing in their Terai strongholds, the Madhesi parties are in a much weaker bargaining position.

Will Nepal finally be able to adopt a permanent republican constitution, ending nearly six years of constitutional deadlock? Breaking the constitutional deadlock might finally allow politicians to pay attention to the host of other issues facing the world’s second youngest republic, which is the third poorest country in Asia (a low HDI of 0.463).

Honduras 2013

Map of Honduras (source: ezilon)

General elections were held in Honduras on November 24, 2013. All elective offices in the country were renewed on the same day: the President, all 128 members of the unicameral Congress (Congreso), the country’s 20 members of the Central American Parliament and all 298 municipal governments (corporaciones municipales).

The President, the country’s head of state and government, is elected to a single non-renewable four-year term by FPTP with no runoff. Unlike in some countries which ban consecutive terms, no former President may ever run for the presidency after the completion of his term. Congressmen are elected by proportional representation in the country’s 18 departments. As is the case in a lot of Latin American countries, despite constitutional division of powers between the three branches of government, the executive branch has come to dominate the two other branches as well, leaving the presidency as the most important office in the country and Congress largely ineffective and subservient.

Background

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, with the four lowest HDI (0.632), the third lowest GDP per capita ($4,7000) and one of the most unequal countries in the world (57.7 Gini index, 9th in the world). About 60% of the population live in poverty. Honduras is also exceptionally violent: in 2012, it had the highest homicide rate per 100,000 at 91.6 – in comparison, Mexico, often depicted as an exceptionally violent “failed state” had a homicide rate of 23.7.

Poverty, huge inequalities, a weak economy (historically dependent on bananas), a history of violence and tumultuous relations with its neighbors and the US have been both causes and effects of the weakness of the Honduran state and the difficulty of creating a stable democracy. In the nineteenth century, Central American politics were marked by clashes between Liberals and Conservatives, whose differences were more often than not the result of warring caudillos than any major ideological differences (not to say that they didn’t exist). Honduran politics from independence until the 1900s saw a succession of Liberal and Conservative presidents, many of whom were imposed by the governments of neighboring nation, oftentimes either Nicaragua or Guatemala.

To this day, Honduras has undergone the least transition of all the Central American republics: until this year, Honduras was pretty much a two-party system dominated by the two parties which have dominated since independence: the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal) and the National Party (Partido Nacional). Unlike El Salvador, Guatemala or Nicaragua, Honduras did not suffer from brutal civil wars between the 1970s and 1990s.

Honduras is something of the quintessential ‘banana republic’ in Central America. At the turn of the twentieth century, American-owned fruit companies – most notably United Fruit (now Chiquita Brands) and Standard Fruit (now Dole Foods) – came to acquire significant economic, social but also political power in Honduras. Successive Honduran governments granted extremely concessions and advantages to American fruit companies, who intervened in the various intrigues of Honduran politics over the years to remove presidents which damaged their interests or had favoured their competitors. The United States began taking an active role in Central American politics, aimed at ensuring political stability (reducing coups, wars between the neighboring countries) and protecting their economic interests. This system created a triangular alliance between a local elite (unlike in other Latin American countries, the colonial elite controlled politics but their accumulation of wealth was less impressive), foreign capital and the military. Prior to 1922, the military was largely used a political tool by civilian politicians and their parties to assert power, suppress opposition and serve political-electoral roles.

National Party strongman Tiburcio Carías Andino, who served as President between 1933 and 1949, promoted the improvement of the military (hitherto a fairly ragtag force used as a political instrument) and led policies favouring the foreign banana companies. He cracked down on political opposition and opposed strikes and demands for better wages and working conditions in the plantations. The 1950s, however, began a turbulent period marked by growing activism, aborted attempts at reform and an expanded political role for the military. In October 1954, Liberal reformist candidate Ramón Villeda Morales won the presidential election, but the Nationals blocked the confirmation of his election in Congress and in the Supreme Court (since Villeda Morales lacked an absolute majority, it was up to Congress to choose a president). As the outgoing National president fled the country to Miami, his Vice President assumed power and formed a ‘national government’. By 1956, this ‘national government’ had collapsed as the President sought to replace the existing parties with his own and cracked down on the Liberals. In October 1956, the military overthrew him.

The 1956 coup marked a watershed moment in Honduran history, as it was the first time the military was acting on its own as an institution rather than as instrument of a political party or of an individual leader. This was the culmination of the professionalization of the military which had begun, with American support (most officers received American training), under President Tiburcio Carías Andino. The military had become the only chance for upwards mobility for middle and lower classes, rather than than an elite institution for the sons of the elite. Therefore, the military took a more independent stance from the political elite; officers and recruits took immense pride in the military’s honour and dignity and came to look down on civilian politicians.

Ramón Villeda Morales won the 1957 election and his new Liberal administration undertook several major efforts to improve and modernize Honduran life. With IMF and World Bank funds, he began work on a road from the capital to the Caribbean coast, created a national public education system and passed a new labour code. His program of agrarian reform, however, worried landowners and foreign capital. Talks of expropriating uncultivated land owned by American banana companies concerned Washington, and Villeda Morales was forced to back down and temper his agrarian reform projects after the Kennedy administration intervened. Villeda Morales was certainly not a Castro (he broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961) and not even a Jacobo Arbenz, so the Kennedy administration and the US government had little incentive to remove him. However, when he created a ‘Civil Guard’ independent from the military and under direct presidential control, the military – heretofore loyal – became increasingly restless. To make matters worse, the Liberals chose Modesto Rodas Alvarado, a partisan and ideologically left-leaning figure hostile to the military (he wanted to abolish the military, like Costa Rica), as their 1963 presidential candidate. Before the election could be held (in which the Liberals were the favourites), the military stepped in and seized power. The United States opposed the coup, and the Kennedy White House cut off military aid and denied recognition to the new military regime. In 1964, however, the Johnson administration recognized the regime and reopened the tap for military aid.

The military would rule Honduras from 1963 to 1982, with the exception of a brief stint of civilian democracy between 1971 and 1972. Oswaldo López Arellano, the most prominent commander of the 1963 coup, became the longest-serving military ruler this period, serving as President between 1963 and 1971 and again between 1972 and 1975. Backed by the National Party, the military turned back their predecessor’s agrarian reform and cracked down on leftist opposition. Increasingly tough living conditions for poor rural families and peasants, with the decline of small-scale subsistence farming and the rising number of landless labourers, further increased rural activism – already rather high in Honduras, which had suffered a major general strike in banana plantations back in 1954.

In June-July 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a very brief (and futile) conflict, although one made memorable because it has come to be known as the ‘Soccer War’. The real cause of the conflict was a border dispute and an influx of undocumented Salvdoran immigrants which became the scapegoats for Honduran economic woes and rising unrest. The detonator was an elimination round between both nations in late June 1969 during the qualifications for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. After a Honduran win on home ground, the second game, played in San Salvador, turned violent and anti-Salvadoran violence broke out as a result in Honduras. After El Salvador won a play-off game 3-2 in extra time, Honduras broke diplomatic relations and war broke out in July. Fighting lasted only six days, achieving nothing except loses on both sides and the collapse of the nascent Central American Common Market.

Civilian government returned briefly following a democratic election in 1971, won by the Nationals who had previously agreed to share power with the Liberals. The Nationals, however, had lost the Liberals’ support by mid-1972, and the military reclaimed power in December 1972. Although led by López Arellano, the experience of the Soccer War and the widespread civilian support for the national war effort, had pushed the military towards more socially reformist views. Therefore, the new military government instituted a far-reaching agrarian reform program. In 1975, López Arellano was forced to step down by fellow officers after revelations that he had received over a million dollar in bribes from United Brands (ex-United Fruits) in return for repealing an export tax on bananas. A more conservative wing of the military took over and slowed progress on agrarian reform.

Partly bowing to American pressure, the military regime allowed for a return to civilian rule, free elections and a new constitution. The Liberals won congressional elections in 1980 and their candidate, Roberto Suazo Córdova, won presidential elections held that following year. The 1982 constitution, still in place today, included several clauses to limit military power and prevent military officers from becoming president. However, in the early years, the military remained a very powerful force in Honduran politics.

Honduras was trying to set up a civilian democracy at a time when Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were all in the midst of bloody decades-long civil wars, which took a broader dimension in the 1970s and 1980s with the Cold War and Soviet/Cuban support for leftist guerrilla movements. Tegucigalpa sought to maintain neutrality in the face of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran conflicts, but the Liberal government soon came to find the Nicaraguan Sandinistas as a subversive force which threatened Honduras. Until 1984, the military held incredible power in Suazo Córdova’s government, under the leadership of army commander General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez. Álvarez was a pro-American and anti-communist hardliner who publicly declared that the country would “fight to the death” against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Honduras became awash with American military aid and ‘assistance’ in the early 1980s, with military aid increasing from $3 million to $31 million between 1980 and 1982. The US began to use Honduras as a crucial launching pad for Contra attacks against Nicaragua. General Álvarez was given a blank check by the president to carry out a smaller-scale domestic ‘dirty war’ against the weak left-wing guerrilla groups in Honduras, which were funded by the Nicaraguan government. Human rights groups and a former military intelligence chief who disliked Álvarez claimed that the military had organized death squads to carry out extralegal murders of leftist opponents; most today agree that the military was responsible for gross violations of human rights in the 1980s.

Álvarez was removed from command of the armed forces by rival nationalistic and isolationist officers, incensed at his decision to allow the US military to train Salvadoran troops in Honduras and Álvarez’s move to centralize power and decision-making in the military. With Álvarez out of the picture, the Honduran government distanced itself from the US military and intelligence services, albeit remaining very much pro-American. President Suazo Córdova, very much effaced before 1984, began to fancy himself as a caudillo and tried to intervene in the nomination of his successor, sparking a political crisis with Congress which was resolved by the intervention of the military as an arbiter between both parties. In 1985, José Azcona, a Liberal opponent of the outgoing president, was elected to the presidency.

Azcona distanced himself further from the American military and claimed he would do what was necessary to remove the Contras from Honduran territory. However, Honduras remained very much enmeshed in the Nicaraguan conflict, with Sandinista incursions in Honduran territory to root out the Contras and occasional clashes with Honduran troops. With the end of the Cold War and the Central American civil wars, American interest in Honduras briefly dissipated and military aid from the US fell.

Honduras stands out from its neighbours in that it never faced a bloody civil war during the Cold War. Leftist groups never gained much following in Honduras. Analysts have tried to explain the lack of a civil conflict in Honduras by the conservative nature of Honduran society, inconducive to a revolutionary uprising. Others argued that the society is characterized by a network of interlocking interest groups and political organizations that have reconciled conflicts that could have turned violent. The Honduran upper class has not been particularly cohesive and more liberal sectors proved willing participate in an open dialogue and form alliances with other sectors or classes

The Nationals, led by Rafael Leonardo Callejas, won the presidency in 1989. Callejas’ administration led neoliberal structural adjustment policies prescribed by the IMF which led to a wave of social protests and rising poverty. The austerity policies were continued by successive Liberal and National governments. The Liberals, led by Carlos Roberto Reina, returned to power in 1994 and struggled to deal with a weak economy and a military which resisted presidential efforts to crack down on military collusion with drug lords and investigate human rights abuses. A much-feared military security force was disbanded and a civilian national police force was created, with little result in the fight against narcotrafficking and only minor improvements in their human rights record. Another conservative Liberal, Carlos Flores, succeeded Reina in 1998. The country was left crippled with Hurricane Mitch in the fall of 1998, which claimed the lives of over 14,000 Hondurans and cost over $3 billion in damages.

Ricardo Maduro, an American-educated technocrat, won the presidency for the Nationals in 2001. Maduro pursued pro-business conservative economic policies, notably adhering to CAFTA, a free trade agreement between the US, the Dominican Republic and Central American countries. His economic policies were seen as relatively successful, even if poverty remained intact at high levels.

Manuel Zelaya, a Liberal, narrowly won the 2005 presidential election and took office in January 2006. By the summer of 2009, Zelaya had taken a sharp turn to the left, distancing the country from Washington and building close relations Chávez’s Venezuela and other left-wing nations in Latin America. In October 2008, for example, Honduras joined ALBA – the leftist organization which includes Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua (Ecuador and four small Caribbean islands have since joined). Zelaya’s leftist policies met with strong opposition from the conservative elites, including from the right-wing of the Liberal Party.

In June 2009, Zelaya declared his intentions to hold a referendum asking voters if a binding referendum to call a constituent assembly should be held in the November 2009 elections. Behind the legalese and rhetoric, most agreed that a constituent assembly would likely bring up the issue of presidential reelection, strictly prohibited by the current constitution and something of a sacrosanct value in Honduras like in other Latin American countries (such as Mexico). Congress banned Zelaya’s proposed referendum, a prohibition which Zelaya conveniently ignored and proceeded to dismiss the military Chief of Staff, who had opposed Zelaya’s plans. The Supreme Court stepped in to invalidate Zelaya’s dismissal of the military commander, and the following day it indicted Zelaya on charges of treason, abuse of authority and usurpation of authority. On June 28, the day the vote was to be held, the military arrested Zelaya and exiled him to Costa Rica. The Congress, on fairly flimsy constitutional grounds, deposed Zelaya and named Roberto Micheletti, the Liberal President of Congress who had opposed Zelaya, as interim president until the end of the legal term in January 2010.

The new government said that it was only deposing a president who had violated the constitution and defended the legality of the process, although some later said that sending Zelaya out of the country was a mistake. Zelaya, his supporters and the vast majority of the international community – the US included – decried Zelaya’s ouster as a coup d’état. In early July, the OAS suspended Honduras. Among the major nations, only Israel immediately recognized Micheletti’s government; all other countries withheld recognition from the new government.

The military was accused of serious human rights abuses during the coup and its aftermath, with numerous reports of arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force, indiscriminate murders, beatings and sexual violence. The de facto government restricted civil and political liberties, imposing arbitrary curfews, violently suppressing pro-Zelaya rallies, threatening journalists and media outlets and severely restricting freedom of assembly. Micheletti had given free rein to the military to act without regard for human rights and civil liberties.

Elections held in late November 2009 were won by the National Party’s candidate, Porfirio Lobo, by a wide margin – 56.6% to 38% for Liberal candidate Elvin Santos, Zelaya’s former Vice President who had broken with him. Lobo’s margin was the largest margin of victory for any party in any election since the restoration of democracy. Turnout was only about 50%, after Zelaya – who had since September 2009 taken refuge at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa – called on supporters to boycott the poll. The few foreign observers judged the poll to be free and fair. The strongest supporters of Zelaya’s government – Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil or Argentina – continued to refuse to recognize the election. However, the US, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Canada, Japan and most of the EU ultimately recognized the election and restored normal diplomatic relations. Some nations such as Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and Brazil which had earlier withheld recognition from the newly-elected government eventually recognized Lobo’s government. In 2011, the OAS readmitted Honduras, with only Ecuador voting against.

Before taking office in January 2011, Lobo agreed to Zelaya’s safe passage to the Dominican Republic. In May 2011, Lobo and Zelaya signed an agreement which allowed the deposed president to return to Honduras as corruption charges against him were dropped. However, the government gave no support to an independent Truth Commission which found the 2009 coup to be illegal, and in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled against the prosecution of six generals charged with overthrowing and exiling Zelaya.

Lobo’s presidency has largely been assessed to have been unsuccessful if not a complete disaster. His largest failure has been security: as mentioned in the introduction, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world (91.6/100,000 people) as the country as become the latest transit point for illegal drugs from South America to North America, after increasing law enforcement and US DEA squeezed drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico. Drug trafficking has been a major issue in Honduras since the 1980s, when the various armed groups in Honduran territory were often involved with narcotrafficking. The Central American civil wars of the 1980s in which the Reagan administration provided the Honduran military with millions in aid also brought an influx of American weapons which have now found their way into the hands of drug cartels. Nowadays, Mexican drug cartels have teamed up with local cartels to fight for control of the smuggling operations. The result has been rapidly increasing bloodshed and indiscriminate homicides throughout the country, especially in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula’s poor barrios but also in middle-class neighborhoods (Micheletti’s 21-year old daughter was the target of an attempted kidnapping in November). The US has poured huge amounts of money in police and military aid to Honduras, and the US uses Soto Cano airbase as a launchpad for its war on drugs operations across Central America. There has been no shortage of criticism about the US’ involvement in Honduras, allegedly turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights abuses and rising authoritarianism in the Honduran government.

It hasn’t helped matters at all that Honduras’ national police force, only created in 1998, proved not only to be totally inadequate to deal with the narcotraffickers but also to be totally infiltrated by the drug cartels themselves. The police have also been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and illegal searches. Lobo created a military police in August 2012, giving the military the upper hand in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking.

Corruption is a major issue in Honduras, which is one of the most corrupt countries in the Americas and ranked 133rd out of 174 in the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption is nothing new in Honduras, and the system has been perpetuated by the fact that both the Liberals and Nationals are patron-client networks, which have sought power for sake of patronage and used power for private benefit and created a deeply ingrained system of nepotism and political patronage. All in full impunity, because the judicial system is woefully inefficient and highly politicized. Over 80% of crimes go unreported, and only 4% of reported crimes are investigated by the police. The official human rights and citizens’ ombudsman offices are weak and often highly partisan.

Journalists, protesters, social movements and minority groups have faced unrelenting persecution and harassment from authorities or well-connected business moguls. Miguel Facussé, a businessman often described as the most powerful man in Honduras, has used his own private security forces to harass critical journalists, activists and lawyers. In September 2012, a prominent human rights lawyer who was due to testify to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about abuses committed by the landowners in a land conflict in the Bajo Aguán region; Facussé, who owns much of the land in question, has been linked to the murder. Indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans and the LGBT community continue to face discrimination and police brutality.

In May 2012, President Lobo, under American pressure, issued a decree to purge the police forces by mandating that each officer pass lie detector tests, a psychological test, a drug test, and a review of their personal financial situation. In November 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the decrees as unconstitutional; the month before that, it had also ruled that Lobo’s plans to build privately-owned/run ‘charter model cities’ (which he claimed would be like Singapore or Hong Kong) to be unconstitutional. The National-dominated Congress responded by illegally sacking four out of fifteen justices. The Congress also passed a number of laws which would consolidate its power at the expense of voters and the judiciary (such as the power to remove any official from office with a two-thirds vote).

The economy has fared little better, with post-recession growth since 2010 being slower (3.6%) than it had been in 2006-2008 (5.7%). The government has run a large deficit, failed to renew a deal with the IMF and the public debt has increased from 25% in 2009 to 40% in 2013 (and is projected to hit 67% in 2018). Under Lobo’s presidency, unlike under Zelaya, income inequality has increased by 12% – with the Gini index value increasing from 50 in 2009 to over 57 today. Zelaya’s social policies, including a 98% real increase in the minimum wage, had successfully reducing inequality, but such gains have been reversed. Between 2006 and 2009, the poorest 90% saw their income increase faster than those the richest 10% (+9% vs +1.3%); since 2010, the richest 10% saw their income increase by 6.9% while incomes for the poorest 90% fell by 6.5%. Poverty rates, which had fallen from 64% in 2005 to 58.8% in 2009, have increased to 66.5% in 2012. Social spending decreased significantly after 2010, after Zelaya’s administration had increased social spending by over 27%. Finally, the share of the unemployed and underemployed has increased from 35.6% in 2008 to 57.7% in 2012.

Candidates

The National Party and the Liberal Party have dominated Honduran electoral politics for over a hundred years. As noted above, there are few ideological differences between both parties – both parties are patronage networks, competing for power and personal gain rather than any ideological competition. The conservative National Party has tended to be more pro-military in its history than the Liberals, whose leaders often found themselves in opposition to military regimes or military-backed National administrations. The Liberals have exhibited greater internal divisions than the Nationals; one should not, however, over-exaggerate the presence of leftist and rightist factions in the Liberal Party, given that most splits owe more to traditional caudillo politics and personality than anything else.

Juan Orlando Hernández

The Nationals nominated, after a contentious primary, Juan Orlando Hernández ‘JOH’, the President of the Congress and one of the most powerful politicians in Honduras. As the head of the Congress, JOH played a key role in passing key pieces of legislation (the military police, the privately-run ‘model cities’ or the removal of justices). In November 2012, JOH nicely gamed the National Party presidential primaries, which he officially won with 45.4% against 38.8% for his main rival, Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez. JOH created two fake candidates (two sisters) and effectively bought off another candidate, giving him four officials at each polling station – thereby allowing his team to control the official report which each polling station sent. Álvarez claimed that he had won the nomination, decried fraud and asked for a recount. When the courts denied his requests, JOH placated Álvarez by appointing him a ‘presidential designate’ (some sort of vice president).

JOH ran a militarist campaign, advocating a hardline military solution to the spiral of gang and drug-related violence. He most famously talked of ‘a soldier on every corner’ and doing ‘whatever it takes’ (voy a hacer lo que tenga que hacer) to counter insecurity. In concrete terms, that means expanding the military police further and giving the military full control over management of the security crisis. That prospect has alarmed many, who worry it is a step backwards for both democracy and human rights. His other policies included expanded the Bono 10.000 conditional cash transfer program to 80,000 more poor families, creating 80,000 jobs, full-scale implementing a home renovation program (Vida Mejor) for poor families (his YouTube channel includes some episodes, it reminds me of Extreme Makeover Home Edition) and some credit card program (La Cachureca) to provide cardholders with discounts on restaurants, pharmacies, clinics or telephones. The YouTube ad for the program tells us that we can sign up for this free credit card by calling a toll-free number – sounds more like some bank ad or a shady scam than a political campaign!

The Liberal candidate was Mauricio Villeda, a colourless lawyer and the son of former reformist President Ramón Villeda Morales. Villeda, who is seen as being on the Liberal Party’s right, won the Liberal primaries over Yani Rosenthal, the son of a wealthy businessman and powerful Liberal boss, who was seen as being on the left. Yani had been appointed to a powerful position in Zelaya’s cabinet despite inexperience, but the Rosenthal family broke with Zelaya and used their media empire to criticize Zelaya. Villeda was backed by former President Carlos Flores, who is the owner of La Tribuna newspaper and the nephew of infamous businessman Miguel Facussé.

A rather dry and uncharismatic attorney, Villeda’s main advantage was his moderation and his ostensible honesty. His campaign focused mostly on ‘values’ – fighting corruption and upholding the separation of powers; as a Roman Catholic and Opus Dei member, he also voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage even if no major candidate supported it.

Xiomara Castro, the wife of deposed former President Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, ran as the candidate of the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party, Libre – a play on the Spanish word for ‘free’). Libre was founded in 2011 in continuation of the pro-Zelaya and anti-coup Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP), whose activists faced harassment and violence from authorities throughout Lobo’s presidency. Xiomara is widely viewed as a proxy for her husband, who is ineligible for the presidency, given that she had next to no political activities before the coup. Mel Zelaya has appeared at her side for most of her campaign, reinforcing views that a Xiomara presidency would be a puppet for Mel. As the first genuinely leftist party with mass appeal in Honduras, Libre has attracted the support of various groups – labour organizers, indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans, LGBT groups and feminists – who have traditionally been excluded from politics. On the other hand, many were quick to point out that Libre was largely the project of Mel Zelaya’s former left-wing elite of the Liberal Party. It isn’t like Mel Zelaya is a son of the soil who rose up to join the ranks of the political elite – he is the son of a wealthy businessman and a well-off cattle rancher/landowner – and he had a long background in Liberal ranks before winning the presidency in 2005. Zelaya’s presidential term was not a shining example of probity and clean/efficient government, and Zelaya’s family is said to have profited nicely from his presidency.

Xiomara’s rhetoric was comparatively moderate – certainly not the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist fire-breathing stuff from Chávez and the Venezuelan left, although she publicly attacked neoliberalism. She promised to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, which would guarantee minority rights and citizen participation although she said she wouldn’t touch presidential reelection. She also advocated for more social programs and raising the minimum wage. On the matter of security, her approach – community, civilian policing – was diametrically opposed to Juan Orlando’s tough militarist stance. Understandably given that Libre’s activists have been harassed (and 18 killed between June 2012 and October 2013 – although 11 nacionales were also killed in this period), the party also emphasized respect for human rights as a major priority.

In a further disturbance to the two-party system, Salvador Nasralla, a sports journalist and TV host, ran a strong campaign as a fourth candidate. Nasralla founded the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) in 2011, and ran a centre-right populist campaign which lashed out at the major parties – especially the nacionales – for being extremely corrupt, although he seems to have had few proposals of his own. Nasralla was the target of a smear campaign about his supposed homosexuality, but he responded to those claims by making homophobic comments of his own.

There were four other candidates in the race. Three of them – the Christian Democrats’ Orle Solís, the Innovation and Unity Party’s Jorge Aguilar Paredes and Democratic Unification’s Andrés Pavón – came from old fringe parties which have been marginalized by the two-party system. All three parties collaborated with Lobo’s government, receiving plum jobs in his cabinet or public institutions and invariably turning out to be corrupt, incompetent or both. Andrés Pavón, who was backed by the old left-wing UD and a new personal machine (FAPER), supported Zelaya during the 2009 coup but later broke with Zelaya. However, Pavón denounced ‘collusion’ between Nasralla and Xiomara, called Nasralla a clown and said Nasralla had ‘platonic love’ for JOH given Nasralla’s unrelenting attacks on the National Party candidate. This, combined with Pavón’s kind words for Juan Orlando led Nasralla and others to claim that he was a National plant.

The other candidate was former military commander Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who was dismissed by Zelaya before the coup and was a strong supporter of the coup. He ran the already arch-corrupt state-owned telephone company, Hondutel, into the ground as CEO under Lobo’s presidency; he founded the far-right Honduran Patriotic Alliance with other ex-military types. The party drew some attention by running Billy Joya, a former CIA-trained death squad commander, for Congress.

Results

Turnout was about 61%, up from 49.9% in 2009 – despite widespread disillusionment with the democratic process, the mobilization of Zelaya’s supporters, who boycotted the polls in 2009, likely explains this major increase in voter turnout. Results were:

President (98.61% reporting)
Juan Orlando Hernández (National) 36.8%
Xiomara Castro (Libre) 28.79%
Mauricio Villeda (Liberal) 20.27%
Salvador Nasralla (PAC) 13.53%
Romeo Vásquez (APH) 0.2%
Orle Solís (PDC) 0.17%
Jorge Aguilar (PINU) 0.14%
Andrés Pavón (UD-FAPER) 0.1%

National Congress
National Party 48 seats (-23)
Libre 39 seats (+39)
Liberal Party 25 seats (-20)
Anti Corruption Party 13 seats (+13)
PINU 1 seat (-2)
PDC 1 seat (-3)
UD 1 seat (-3)

PARLACEN
National Party 6 seats
Libre 5 seats
Liberal Party 3 seats
Anti Corruption Party 2 seats
APH 1 seat
PINU 1 seat
PDC 1 seat
UD 1 seat

Juan Orlando Hernández is the next President of Honduras. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the National Party’s candidate won about 37% of the vote against 28.8% for Xiomara, winning by a margin of 246,295 votes as of now. His victory, however, is clouded by serious suspicions of fraud or irregularities, more likely than not in his party’s favour. Xiomara has refused to recognize Juan Orlando’s victory, and intends to contest the result in court if a full manual recount of all votes is not completed by December 6. While Liberal candidate Mauricio Villeda congratulated JOH on his victory, effectively conceding; PAC candidate Salvador Nasralla joined Xiomara in denouncing fraud – on election night, Nasralla announced via Twitter that their numbers were not matching up with the TSE’s numbers.

Already before the election, a poll had shown that about 60% of Hondurans said the election would be fraudulent and Libre’s leaders publicly expressed skepticism about the impartiality of the TSE and whether they would be ‘victorious’ if they ‘won’. To be sure, all major presidential candidates – even the military fruitcake Romeo Vásquez – proclaimed before the vote that they were confident of victory because they had ‘thousands’ (if not millions) of supporters and that any other result would be unacceptable and proof of fraud. However, Xiomara and others might have a strong case which goes beyond sour grapes. Three US Democrat Congressmen wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry before the vote warning of possible fraud and decrying the militarization of society. Their letter said that the National Party dominated the TSE (which conducted the election) and the military (which brought ballot boxes to the polling stations), and mentioned the widespread suspicions of major fraud in the National Party’s primaries (administered by the TSE) last year.

There is also fairly solid evidence that there was some tampering with the results by the TSE. As in many Latin American countries (notably Mexico), the TSE re-transmitted results through a web-based interfaced (Siede) as they received the manual counts from the polling stations (actas); although unlike in Mexico or the US/Canada, they didn’t update them by-the-minute and came it at a staggered pace, with the first report covering 24% of precincts. However, many observers noted re-transcription mistakes or discrepancies between the scanned tally sheets and the database input, although this may just have been human error or computer glitches. The TSE corrected many of these mistakes, but it appears as if some remain. A parallel, independent scrutiny of the actas which has reviewed 96.9% of them, reports that Juan Orlando has 36.6% for JOH against 28.8% for Xiomara (blank/invalid votes excluded). There were additional reports of fraud, vote buying and the buying of scrutineers by the National Party.

The TSE has agreed to recount the votes as indicated on tally sheets, rather than a full manual recount of the ballots as Libre had been demanding. Libre claimed that it had found a 82,301 vote overrun for the National Party in comparing their tally sheets to TSE results, and a 55,720 vote undercount for them. This should correct any remaining discrepancies, but of course this won’t change anything if the votes were erroneously recorded or gamed in the manual tallies.

However, there is no certainty that this election was stolen or that Xiomara would have won if there had been no irregularities. The US, Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia, Italy, the UK, Chile, Japan and even Sandinista Nicaragua have recognized the results of the election. The OAS and EU observer missions cited some concerns, but generally were satisfied with the election. The EU observer report were generally pleased with the transparency of the voting process, the TSE’s re-transmission of results, the freedom with which candidates were able to campaign (notwithstanding the murder of several activists and candidates from Libre, the Nationals and other parties) and the TSE’s transparent and generally nonpartisan behaviour; however, the EU mission cited concerns with the voter register, the opacity of campaign finance, the inequality of resources and media access between parties (with the Nationals having more money, ads and presence in radio/TV/newspapers), gaps in the electoral law and some delays or inefficiency in some TSE actions. Some 30% of names in the voter register were dead or had emigrated and the EU observers said they had received “credible accusations, invariably involving the National Party and the Liberal Party” of fraudulent registrations. The report mentioned that a random sample of campaign materials in the streets disproportionately favoured the Nationals, who had 64% of the posters against 15% for Libre and 5% to the Liberals. Similarly, while the EU mission said that all candidates had access to the media, it also found that the Nationals and Liberals had greater visibility in paid advertisement in the media, lamented the lack of “critical and investigative journalism”, widespread self-censorship and conflicts of interest between media firms/journalists and parties. Additionally, the report found that the TSE “took a passive approach both to complaints it received during the campaign period.”

The EU mission said that election day unfolded calmly and the three major parties had observers in almost all polling stations. However, it noted that some accreditations had been traded or bought, with observers from minor parties (UD, PDC, FAPER) effectively representing the National Party – but “because of the balancing presence of other parties and in view of the general respect of procedures and principles, these trends did not have any impact on voting or counting processes in the polling stations observed by the EU EOM.” Finally, the EU mission said that tally sheets “forms were successfully scanned and transmitted” and “the TSE communicated clearly to the public and political parties alike.” Libre claimed that the TSE concealed the results from 20% of precincts due to ‘anomalies’; the EU mission said that when these 20% “did not comply with the minimum standards previously agreed with political parties”, the TSE met with political parties to ask for opinions on how to proceed.

Nevertheless, the EU’s report lost some credibility when an Austrian observer denounced the report, citing “countless inconsistencies” and that, during the re-transmission of results that there was no possibility to find where the tallies were being sent. The Austrian observer further claimed that a majority of his colleagues agreed with him, but were overruled by team leaders.

Regardless, however, JOH is the next president – fairly or unfairly – and Libre will live with that, although it remains to be seen whether Zelaya will ‘let it slide’ and unofficially accept the outcome or if the party will take to the streets in large protests (there have already been protests). Even thought it lost, Libre is certainly here to stay and it – along with Nasralla’s ragtag PAC – have accomplished something quite incredible: they have successfully broken the duopoly which dominated Honduran politics since the restoration of democracy in 1981 and even before that in the past 100 years.

The Liberals suffered most heavily from this defeat for the two-party system. The Liberals were severely weakened by the 2009 coup and the split in Liberal ranks which ensued, the Liberals had done very poorly in the 2009 election. The creation of Libre, which attracted somewhere between 40 to 55% of Liberal supporters or members, was another major blow to the old party. In this election, despite an ‘honest candidate’ who was generally well-regarded by most (although he generated little enthusiasm), the Liberals won only 20.3% of the vote and third place, and will hold only 25 out of 128 seats in Congress, down from an already paltry 45 seats in 2009. Villeda, in the end, generated little enthusiasm or interest in the race, and his anti-corruption/’values’ stance was likely cancelled out by Nasralla’s appeal (it is, of course, worth remembering that even if Villeda was clean, there’s nothing clean about the Liberal Party) while Xiomara certainly drew on many voters who had voted for her husband (as the Liberal candidate) in 2005 or Liberal in other elections.

The National Party won the election, but it too was hit hard by the collapse of the party system. Its winning presidential candidate only won 37% of the vote, whereas past National candidates in the two-party system had always won over 40% of the vote. In Congress, the Nationals, albeit the largest caucus, will hold only 48 seats (37.5% of seats), down from 71 and a comfortable absolute majority in the last Congress (which had enabled the Nationals to ram through controversial legislation and move against the constitutional separation of powers). Nasralla, who is said to have attracted a lot of conservative voters, likely was the biggest draw on the National Party.

Geography

Honduras 2013

 

As has historically been the case, the National Party performed best in the rural and mountainous departments of southern, inland Honduras. Juan Orlando won over 50% of the vote in Intibucá, Lempira and came close in Copán (over 47%) – all of these departments are in the interior highlands, a poorer and less developed region traditionally economically dependent on mining, livestock or subsistence agriculture. Juan Orlando is also from Lempira department, an old National stronghold where he won 58.6%, his best result in the country.

Juan Orlando was also victorious in Francisco Morazán department, the second most populous in the country and home to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital tucked in the valleys. He won 35% in the department against 26% for Xiomara and 23.7% for Villeda. The results in the ‘Distrito Central’ – that is Tegucigalpa and its suburbs – were similar, with 34.4% for JOH against 26.7% for Xiomara. The National Party’s mayoral candidate won by a much larger margin: 47.5% against 20.8% for Libre.

Results were more contrasted along the coast (Caribbean lowlands), the most exploited region with banana plantations, the industrial centre of San Pedro Sula and Honduras’ largest harbour at Puerto Cortés. The region had traditionally leaned to the Liberals, but the Liberals didn’t do disproportionately better in the coastal departments – it appears as if the towns which the Liberals won throughout the country are largely rural communities, probably with some kind of Liberal tradition due to Liberal bosses. The Liberal candidate did, however, win the Islas de la Bahía department, the least populated department in the country composed of culturally distinct islands off the coast of Honduras (including the tourist resort of Roatán). Both the Bay Islands and La Mosquitia (Gracias a Dios department) form distinct subcultures, because of a long history of English influence – the disputed islands were British until 1861 – and the presence of the Garífuna minority (Black Caribs who were deported by the British to Roatán). Xiomara won Colón, Gracias a Dios and Olancho (where her husband is a rancher and hails from) departments – all in eastern Honduras. Gracias a Dios – La Mosquitia – is an extremely remote and isolated backwater region, with no road connections to the rest of Honduras and consisting largely of swamps and wilderness.

Salvador Nasralla did very well in Cortés department, the most populated department with the cities of San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortés. He placed first with 34.4% of the vote, and JOH placed third with only 22.8%. Nasralla took 36% of the vote in San Pedro Sula and the PAC won the most votes and seats in the congressional races in the department. In SPS, the PAC only narrowly lost the mayoral race to the Nationals (26.6% to 27.3%) and the Liberal incumbent was sent off to fourth place. However, Nasralla appears to be from Tegucigalpa, so this can’t be a favourite son vote. This article in La Prensa suggests he won because of mismanagement by past governments in the area.

Furthermore, Nasralla’s vote was unequally divided between the regions: he won 18% in Atlántida, 15% in Comayagua and 14% in Yoro (doing best in places bordering Cortés department), 14% in Francisco Morazán; but won single digits – even low single digits and below 1% in Lempira and La Mosquitia (!) – in a lot of the other departments. Was his appeal primarily urban? That seems to be the case from my brief perusal of the results.

Conclusions

Juan Orlando Hernández inherits a very bleak situation – the highest homicide rate in the world, an extremely corrupt state apparatus, precarious finances (the country can barely pay its public employees) and worsening inequalities between rich and poor. Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Juan Orlando will only have a minority in Congress. This means that the Nationals will likely lead to seek alliances with other parties, the Liberals – purged of their leftist elements – being the most likely candidates. However, there’s little tradition of partisan cooperation in Honduras and past National-Liberal governments have ended with the president just favouring his own party and alienating the other party. Besides, the Liberals are entering a difficult period of rebuilding, and forming a government with JOH might not be their top priority or even an advisable path – unless they’re up for sale and the Nationals offer them a good price. Libre will certainly oppose JOH every step along the way; Nasralla’s PAC, which might collapse into irrelevance, is also very critical of JOH and on better terms with Libre, with whom they share a revulsion of the old party system and accusations of corruption against the two old parties.

This election will have marked the death of the two-party system which had ruled Honduras since independence in the 19th century (exaggerating a bit for shock value), the rise of the first genuinely leftist party with mass support and signs of increasing popular dissatisfaction with the political system and their politicians.

JOH is, furthermore, hardly an inspiring leader. His militarist campaign and talk of “doing whatever needs to be done” is hardly reassuring given the military’s longstanding disrespect for human rights and democracy, and the ingrained corruption in the judiciary and law enforcement. His own personality and background – a Machiavellian political operator, who used his position as head of Congress to ram through legislation and ramp up congressional prerogatives at the expense of checks and balances, and who likely rigged his presidential nomination last year – is hardly inspiring either (add to that the fact that his nickname is ‘Juan Robando’ (roughly Juan the thief), and the rumours that he has links to drug cartels). Past Honduran presidents have invariably failed in one way or another – Lobo was basically a disaster, Zelaya was removed from office because he was stubborn and obstinate in pushing through his initiatives despite lacking congressional support, and presidents before that did nothing to check poverty or corruption. I’d be surprised if JOH turned out to be any better.