Browsing articles in "Elections"
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.

Jul 5, 2013

Fear and Elections

This Sunday Mexico will hold local elections in fourteen states, where governors, legislatures, and municipal authorities will be elected. One of the ghosts present in the contest, which was spoken of on this blog before, is that of apathy. Another one, which has increased its visibility in the last days, is that of fear and drug trafficking.

Yesterday, an independent Mexican newspaper made a recap of the violent acts against candidates in this electoral cycle; twenty attacks have taken place, including one murder, one direct almost-fatal attack (the candidate was not killed, but relatives and security personnel were), kidnappings, and violent threats (succeeding in some cases in stopping candidates from continuing their campaigns). All these victims have been candidates at the municipal level. This provides an opportunity for the perpetrators of attacks: it is at this level of government where chronic state weaknesses are the most evident, lacking sufficient security or prosecutorial capacities. If a crime takes place at the local level, investigations and judicial processing will be troublesome.

It is such absence of a strong state that brings the phantom of fear and drug trafficking to the electoral contest. Without being able to discern beyond any reasonable doubt whether or not a crime against a candidate was committed by the regional narco leader, the “easiest” thing to think is that it was. There are at least two reasons to believe so. First, crimes against candidates have taken place in states and communities not completely alienated from drug-related violence. Second, there is evidence that narcos have previously committed crimes against candidates, mostly when they are unable to extort them to be blind about their illegal activities or to cooperate with them. Furthermore, without knowing for sure that those crimes were committed by drug-related groups, it is possible that some political groups decide to attack their adversaries and disguise the attack as if it were executed by the narco. Again, without an adequate prosecutorial system, it is not possible to know exactly who is behind them and if the narco is succeeding in imposing its authority over some electoral races.

On the one hand, notwithstanding the institutional opportunities that allow crimes against candidates to take place neither their strong media nor social impact, it cannot be ascertained that narcos or violence in general are taking over the organization of local elections in Mexico. Compare the estimated number of attacked candidates, twenty, to the number of municipalities of the state of Oaxaca, five hundred, in each of which there are several positions to be filled. On the other hand, the relatively small magnitude of the problem does not mean that it should be neglected or diminished. Attacking candidates is a form of challenging the democratic institutions of the Mexican state. One way to defend them is by going out to vote; but fear, mostly in violent environments, can be very strong. On Sunday we will know which side of the equation took the upper hand.

Jun 30, 2013

Primaries in the South

Candidate Michelle Bachelet casting her vote in today's Chilean Presidential primary elections (from European Pressphoto Agency).

Candidate Michelle Bachelet casting her vote in today’s Chilean Presidential primary elections (from European Pressphoto Agency).

Today Chile is holding primary presidential elections. There are two large coalitions seeking to define their candidates. On the right side, trying to maintain in power, there is the Alliance for Chile, with Andrés Allamand, backed by the National Renovation Party, and Pablo Longueira, from the National Independent Union. According to a poll published this week, Allamand is more likely to win, although the final result could depend on the number of voters. On the left side, there is the coalition New Majority, with ex President Michelle Bachelet, supported by the Socialist, Democracy, Communist, Wide Social Movement, and Citizen Left Parties, competing against Christian Democracy’s Claudio Orrego, the independent Andrés Velasco, and the Radical Party’s José Antonio Gómez. According to that and other polls, Bachelet is expected to receive at least 75% of the vote in this ballot.

It is still too soon to suggest who could win the election in December this year, or to assess what the most important issues of the campaign will be. However, there are two major concerns coming from previous electoral contests, which in a way are present still today, and that could continue to exist for the presidential contest.

The first of them is the new electoral law, whose first large event was the October 2012 municipal elections, in which for the first time voting was voluntary and new voter registration rules were implemented. The Chilean Electoral Service (Servel) and the new electoral legislation were very criticized in the aftermath of the municipal elections because of a 60% abstention, many unsolved suspicions of vote rigging, and the lack of adequate training for polling station workers in using the new voters lists, which could have been the cause of inconsistencies between the number of votes counted and the number of ballots used. In the case of today’s primary elections, which are celebrated for the fist time thanks to the new electoral law, the greatest fears were that the problems from last fall would persist and, in particular, that polling stations would not be set on time. In fact, some reports were mentioned about delays in the opening of polling stations. With more than six months after working for the first time within the new framework, and little less than six months to go for the big test of the Presidential election, Servel has the challenge to guarantee a fully efficient and reliable management of the contests.

The second concern is related to the participation in the elections, most notably of the youth. Having today a 60% abstention rate, just as in October last year, would be a blow for Chilean politics and politicians. When questioned about her perspectives for electoral participation, candidate Michelle Bachelet avoided giving a direct answer, just encouraging people who want a change in Chile to vote. During her administration between 2006 and 2010 she faced many protests from students, which contributed to a reduction in her popularity. The continuation of these demonstrations in her successor’s government, along with the current problems in Brazil or Turkey, further signal the disenchantment of youth with politics.

Whereas problems related to the implementation of the new electoral law are expected to be solved by familiarizing electoral officers with the new regulations, the exposure of youth to politicians will not necessarily convince them that they are the best people to solve the problems of the country. After today’s voting, Chilean candidates, as practically elsewhere in the democratic world, have six months to convince voters to trust them.

Jun 28, 2013

Year One

Anti-Morsi protestors in Egypt (from The Guardian)

Anti-Morsi protestors in Egypt (from The Guardian).

On June 30 it will be one year since Mohamed Morsi’s election as President of Egypt. Marking the occasion, an opposition group, largely composed by young people, said they were going to march in the streets of Cairo protesting against what they call Morsi’s incapacity to bring about the expected changes after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, including jobs, full democracy, security, and economic growth. Trying to calm down the population, Morsi addressed Egyptians in a televised speech, accepting he had had some failures during this time in office, while at the same time implying that some demonstrations and groups of the secular opposition (Morsi belongs to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) threatened to destabilize the country. Now, more people are angered at him, and it seems that two of the chants that will be heard on the June 30 demonstration will be to topple down the President and a call for anticipated elections.

For the Egyptian opposition, Morsi’s apologies for not meeting their political expectations and his promises to include them in discussion tables to reform the constitution are not sufficient. They want visible changes now, maybe not radical, but evident, or to oust the man that has had one year to do the job but has very little, if anything, according to them. This dead point in the political interactions (the opposition wanting the President to step down, and the President promising to repress protests of the opposition) has led to some commentators both in the press and in the streets to evaluate Egypt’s transition from an authoritarian rule as failing or already failed.

A problem in assessing a democracy as failed or failing is that one cannot be sure until it actually fails, situation that is usually measured by violence, irrelevance and lack of power of elected officials, and the inability to enforce law or the establishment of an authoritarian regime. It can be easily said that there is violence in Egypt, that elected officials do not have all the necessary resources to implement their decisions, and that there area problems to enforce laws because, among other things, some people deem them illegitimate. But these issues are not per se indicators of a failing democracy, but of a larger problem: there is no accepted and legitimate system to make decisions and process conflicts around power. That is the issue with which democratizations deal.

Dissatisfaction with democratization processes is common. On the one hand, people have high expectations because they have urgent needs (for money, jobs, food), but the democratic deliberative process is lengthy to learn and to institutionalize and, once it is in practice, it is slow in producing policies. On the other hand, Morsi’s comments towards a potential attempt to destabilize the country might be an exaggeration, but his background reasoning is correct: ousting him out of power and the following elections could increase the confrontations among the several political groups in Egypt, leading to a power vacuum. However, in this apparently growing disappointment with democracy there is at least one encouraging aspect: protestors are calling for anticipated elections, signaling a respect to democratic institutions. So far it is the President as an individual (not as an office or democracy as a goal) that brings about questioning.

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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