Browsing articles in "Elections"
Aug 9, 2013

Who’s the Boss

Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice President, Gladys Gutiérres (from El País).

Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice President, Gladys Gutiérrez (from El País).

This week, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice rejected the contestation filed by former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and the opposition alliance Democratic Unity Table (MUD) reporting irregularities in the April 14 extraordinary presidential election. In the voice of its President, Gladys Gutiérrez, the Court mentioned that the complainers did not explain in detail the circumstances of the irregularities, for which they should present clear, precise, and complete evidence so their complaint can be processed.

The opposition argued that the irregularities were sufficient to repeat the election (Capriles said that more than half the votes were altered, for which the whole exercise should be annulled and repeated, while MUD assessed that as only 15% of the votes were rigged only a partial repetition was necessary). After the denial of the Court to process their complaint, Capriles informed he will present his case to international organizations, namely the Inter American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) and the Organization of American States (OAS), to defend his position. Whatever the decision of any of those bodies is, it is unlikely that they will have any consequence. Previously, the IAHRC has pronounced sentences against decisions of the Venezuelan government trying to thwart the opposition and secure its power beyond the executive branch. In those occasions the administration said those sentences were not obligatory and, in 2011, then President Hugo Chávez removed his country from the IAHRC. With these stories, there is little chance that Capriles and the opposition have any opportunity of getting close to reviewing the presidential election.

Not only that, but contesting the election in its immediate aftermath could cost Capriles a jail sentence for vilifying an electoral process that was carried out according to the Constitution and other laws and for instigating his supporters to go out to the streets and denounce the electoral fraud. Although this has not yet happened, some anonymous sources quoted in some independent Venezuelan newspapers point out that the way in which the Supreme Court phrased its resolution, and comments made by President Maduro labeling Capriles as a public agitator, suggest that the government has the board set to legally act against the opposition leader.

Maybe none of the above was completely unexpected or new. It is not difficult to see that years back, when it was not united, and now, when there is a clear leader who got very close to the official candidate in the presidential poll, the opposition has not had an easy time in Venezuela. That has been clear since 1999. Instead, the government’s message seems to be a reiteration of its power. Apparently, it is telling the opposition in particular, and all Venezuelans in general, that in spite of the popularity shown by Capriles and MUD in the October 2012 and April 2013 elections, the government still has the power to rule in the country, meaning it can dismiss sentences from international organizations and make national courts play in its favor. Maduro, Chávez’s heir, is the president, and Capriles is a citizen subject to the authority of a non-democratic state. What Capriles and MUD were able to make of this message will be seen in the December 08 election results.

Aug 4, 2013

Election Aftermath Questions

Presidential Candidate Tsvingirai, who obtained the second place in the election (from Le Monde).

Presidential Candidate Morgan Tsvingirai, who obtained the second place in the election (from Le Monde).

Yesterday, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that Robert Mugabe won another 5-year term as President (he has been in office since 1980, then as Prime Minister) with 61% of the vote, and that his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) obtained 158 of the 210 available seats in Parliament, gaining he two-thirds majority required to make changes to the country’s major laws. In second place were former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), with 34% of the Presidential tally for him.

As soon as the official results were announced, or event earlier, reports from foreign and domestic observers criticized the election. The European Union, the U.K., the U.S., France, and other local independent observers said that the final vote count did not reflect the will of the people and that there had been many irregularities during Election Day, that millions of voters were disenfranchised by not finding their names on voters’ lists, that underage people were brought from rural areas to vote for Mugabe, and that potential opposition voters in remote regions were harassed by pro-ZANU-PF militias. To the eyes of the world and to those of many Zambians, the election is simply illegitimate and a farce. Tsvingirai explained he will use all legal resources to contest the official result. A notable exception was the African Union, whose head of mission, former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo, assured that the election took place under conditions of freedom and that citizens were able to express their will.

There are two major sources of uncertainty in this electoral process. First, there is the question of violence. The immediate aftermath of Election Day and of the announcement of the official results, in spite of the dissatisfaction with them, has been of a relative peace and calm. This is in contrast with the 2008 contest, in which Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in a first vote but without the sufficient margin, thus requiring a runoff. Amid 200 deaths, Tsvangirai dropped from the race arguing he wanted to stop blood from running. However, the relative peace and calm situation so far could drastically change within hours. Nobody wants violence, but nobody can control the expected despair of another five years with Mugabe in office.

The second source of uncertainty emerges from the fact that Mugabe is 89 years old. For some time there have been rumors that his trips to Singapore for routine or not grave medical check-ups (such as something dealing with his eyes) are shades covering his cancer treatment. And some memory lapses have been taken as proof that presidential duties are well beyond his current capacities. In any case, undoubtedly he is old, and the fact that five more years of him are required prompts thoughts on what will happen if he dies in office or if he becomes unable to continue with his tasks. Surely there must be some line of succession described in the Constitution, or some “anointed one” by Mugabe. But the question is if he will be able to keep some degree of order in the country by keeping opposition political forces close to a post-Mugabe administration, by constructing legitimate institutions and giving the first steps towards building a state, or by preventing political chiefs from fleeting with any of the remaining “state resources” left.

The margin of action of Mugabe’s successor will be largely determined by the existing peace or disorder at the time the transition begins to take place. The exact moment and conditions of such transition are unknown, but for sure the following question will be asked: state or democracy first? Mugabe has worked for more than the last twenty years to finish off with both of them, and the time is coming close for Zimbabweans to ask what their priority will be in reconstructing them, or how they will deal with both challenges at the same time.

Jul 29, 2013

Enemies of the Revolution

Venezuelan Housing MInister Ricardo Molina, who was recorded on video threatening to fire the employees of his Ministry if they did not support President Nicolás Maduro (from Correo del Orinoco).

Venezuelan Housing MInister Ricardo Molina, who was recorded on video threatening to fire the employees of his Ministry if they did not support President Nicolás Maduro (from Correo del Orinoco).

This week-end the Spanish newspaper El País published a story on a 27-year old official at the Venezuelan Housing and Habitat Ministry, Fernando Bello, who was detained all day long and later released at night without any charges being presented. During those hours, however, investigations were made against Bello because he uploaded a video in YouTube showing Minister Ricardo Molina threatening his employees not to speak badly of Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, their administrations, or their policies because if they (the employees) supported “fascist” parties they would be fired from their jobs, disregarding labor rights if necessary. The video was recorded in the aftermath of the April 14 election, when there were some doubts about who had won the contest and what the reaction of the loser would be. After the video was publicized in the national press, Minister Molina commented that he was misunderstood, and that no one in the Ministry should feel being harassed.

Molina’s behavior recorded in video is an example of a now relatively old trend in Venezuelan politics: haranguing the opposition in public. There are several reports that since Hugo Chávez first came to power in 1999 this kind of attitude weas already present throughout the several levels of the public administration. Arguably, the differences now are that such belligerent expressions against the opponents to Chavismo receive greater exposure thanks to the internet (in favor and against those who make them), and that, according to the most recent presidential poll, it is half the electors who fall under what Maduro insists in calling “fascists”.

Indeed, in several occasions the President has used his Twitter account to rally his supporters against the opposition. In such moments, Maduro has warned that Henrique Capriles (rarely, if not never, mentioned by name) and his followers are preparing a strike against Chávez and his so-called revolutionary legacy, calling the citizens to be ready to defend it by whatever means necessary. One of the clearest examples of this was also during the uncertain hours of the April 14 presidential election, when some deaths happened in the midst of post-electoral protests; Maduro blamed Capriles for any violent incident. Further, Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello have denounced assassination attempts against the former, again making responsible the opposition for any harm that would come to the leaders of Venezuela’s United Socialist Party.

The trend of those verbal attacks against the opposition suggests an answer to the question of how the heirs to Chávez would handle the existence of a real opposition to their Bolivarian project. What has been shown so far is that there seems to be little change in their discourse when compared to five or seven years ago, when such opposition was null or powerless. This could be surprising or not. It could be because it could imply that the institutional inertia of previous years has prevented the current leaders of Venezuela from adapting their attitudes to a new political environment. It could not be surprising because it is one of the trademarks of Chavismo, and moving away from it could bring about uncertain results.

In either case, the core point remains: the current administration has not found a new way to meet the real opposition it now faces. The question, then, is the following: what will Maduro and the followers of Chávez do if and when they realize that their haranguing strategy does not work out anymore? Will they provide some legitimacy to the opposition? Will they simply accept their defeat? Or will they recur to stronger and more authoritarian forms of control? As the calendar for the December local polls moves on some answers may begin to emerge.

Jul 16, 2013

Transition to Democracy and the Electoral System

Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile (from El País).

Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile (from El País).

Last week Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and the parties represented in Congress presented separate projects to reform the so-called binominal electoral system. When commenting on his initiative, President Piñera said that the current electoral system had “completed its cycle”. Some analysts have argued that legislators and party members have finally realized that the current electoral system has contributed to diminish their legitimacy as a reliable political actor, thus endangering their chances for future electoral success. In both cases, the need for reform is clear.

Chile’s current electoral system is called binominal because each of the electoral districts produces two legislators. These are elected under the principle of closed list majority system. Each party or coalition presents two candidates for each district. If a party obtains more than two-thirds of the valid votes, it will get the two seats of the district. If a party obtains less than two-thirds of the valid votes, it will get one of the seats and the other will go to the second most-voted party. There are 60 districts for the Chamber of Deputies and 19 for the Senate.

This electoral system was designed at the instruction of General Augusto Pinochet. After seizing power by means of a coup against socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, in 1988 Pinochet organized a referendum asking if he should stay in power for another eight years. When he lost he faced the challenge of designing a political system that would prevent socialists in particular and the left in general, from returning to power. For such purpose the outgoing administration placed a set of safety pins granting that the new democratic government could not make any major decision without the approval of the military, including, for instance, substantial powers to the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another of such instruments was the electoral system, rewarding mainstream parties and coalitions (after years of severe harassing it was expected that few people would dare to vote for leftist groups).

In his reform, President Piñera suggests reducing the number of districts for deputies and senators, maintaining the same number of legislators in total but increasing the number of seats available for each district, hence augmenting inter-party competition and eliminating the binominal system. On the contrary, the parties’ project proposes to increase the number of deputies from 120 to 150, introduce a proportional representation system, and maintaining the binominal system in the Senate but increasing the number of Senators in 10, hence offering more opportunities for small parties to exist.

It is under the context of an institutionally-hampered democracy that Piñera´s comment on the electoral system “completing its cycle” must be read. It could be speculated what Piñera exactly meant by that. Somewhat cynical interpretations include that the right is finally willing to accept an obstacle-free contest against the left, that there is no doubt that the left has moderated and there are no risks for the return of an Allende-style socialism, or that the country is at last ready for a full democracy. In any case, the goal of both reform proposals seems to be aimed at fighting the institutional stiffness of having just two large coalitions alternating in power at the national level: the right and the center-left. At the same time, its greatest strength might be that, intentionally or not, it could be responding to claims for more accountability from Chileans. Student protests in 2011 and the lack of enthusiasm for the recent municipal elections show that the current Chilean democratic institutions are losing appeal for citizens. In addition to the reasons each party or political actor might have to push for the reforms, discussing new ways to improve citizen representation in legislative bodies is a step forward in completing the transition to a democratic rule.

Jul 9, 2013

Egypt and Democracy

A confrontation between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups in Cairo (from the Daily Telegraph).

A confrontation between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups in Cairo (from the Daily Telegraph).

The demonstration demanding the call for anticipated Presidential elections in Egypt turned into the military detaining President Mohamed Morsi and other members of his Islamic Brotherhood party; Supreme Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mansour Adly being sworn in as interim President, promising to hold elections soon without offering any timeline; the Islamist-dominated Upper House of Parliament being shut down; and over 50 people being killed so far in clashes between Islamists, secularists, and other political groups. What emerged as an attempt to use institutions to defend democracy is going each time deeper into violence.

There are at least two frameworks to try to understand what has happened and what could happen. One of the most referenced is that of a coup: backed by the popular dissatisfaction with Morsi, the military decided to remove him from power. This clearly echoes the protests that occurred in the Tahrir Square in February 2011, when also using protests as a social thermometer the Army removed Hosni Mubarak from office. The major difference between both situations is that in the latter case the problem was a dictator who did not want to leave power, while in the former situation there is a democratically elected President who, in an unfortunate combination of insufficient personal political abilities and a tremendously complicated environment, did very little of what was expected from him.

Another path to understanding the crisis en Egypt is a chronic lack of institutions to process political conflict. During Mubarak’s rule, whenever dissent appeared repression was the most frequent government response. In the democratic times of the Morsi administration, all voices were expected to have a saying in political processes. But Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters, deemed as an obstacle for democracy due to the uncertainty of their commitment to liberal rights and to the lack of progress shown by Morsi in improving the life quality in Egypt, are being marginalized from the existing institutions in spite of having won the elections. Unsurprisingly, they are fighting back. The problem, then, is that Morsi and other political actors, both during and in these few days after his administration, have failed in making something else of the zero-sum game currently being played in Egypt.

Both points of view on the current Egyptian crisis, a coup and a chronic lack of institutions to process political conflict, are awful first steps towards the construction of a democratic regime. Now the coup came faster (after a couple of days of protests) than in February 2011, when it took two weeks for the military to intervene. And the group that is being kept apart from power is the one that won the largest share of votes in the elections. Next to the pressing everyday concerns, such as fighting street crimes and unemployment and improving the economy, Egyptian authorities must urgently direct efforts at building institutions to process dissent and to grant a voice to the different points of view in the national political spectrum. Other courses of action could bring about order and economic improvement in Egypt, but not democracy neither peace.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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