Browsing articles in "Governance"
Dec 1, 2013

Mobilization vs. Corruption in Thailand

Protestors in Bangkok against Prime Minister (from BBC).

Protestors in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (from BBC).

For one week anti-government protests have been taking place in Thailand. Demonstrators, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, former Deputy Prime Minister, seek to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of power. She is the sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by the military in 2006 under accusations of corruption. Now, mobilizations began because the PM attempted to pass a law that would allow her brother, currently in self-imposed exile in Dubai, to return to Thailand without facing any kind of trial. The lower chamber of Parliament initially approved the legislation, but the Senate rejected it; in spite of this, people continued in the streets. Thaugsuban accuses the PM of being nothing more than a puppet of her brother, and that with their corruption the siblings have made a lot of damage to the country, for which it is imperative that they leave.

Notwithstanding perceptions of corruption, the Shinawatra siblings have maintained support in Thailand. Thaksin was elected by a landslide in 2001, and re-elected five years later. During his second term he faced serious challenges, including judicial corruption accusations and assassination attempts. It has been suggested that behind this opposition to Thaksin and his ousting in 2006 was the economic elite of the country, who despise what they call his populist policies of, for example, maintaining a very high (yet expensive, inefficient, and export-damaging) rice subsidy. At the same time, he was the source of controversy for allegedly allowing the use of death squads in the fight against drug trafficking and for failing to neutralize a small insurgency in the south of the country. A large portion of anti-government protests in 2010 demanded Thaksin’s return from exile to Thailand and that he resumed his political career. In such occasion, the government decided to use the force against the protestors, causing many injuries and deaths. This fueled support for Thaksin’s sister Yingluck electoral campaign, who became Prime Minister in 2011.

Yingluck has insisted she will not yield to protests. Now, demonstrators demand anticipated elections. She has refused saying the country is in such a state of upheaval that there are no conditions to go to the polls. And, possibly learning the lessons from 2006 and 2010, she has refused to use the force: as they sacked her brother out of power, the military could not have a firm commitment to defend her either, and using the security forces could only bring about more violence and opposition against her. Furthermore, in an interview Yingluck spoke of defending Thai democracy, mentioning institutions should prevail over force. She might or might not believe this, but this statement suggests she is aware that Thais support democracy and are not willing to stand corruption, abuses of security forces, or the imposition of a ruler by some sort of mediator. For the time being, caution has been her strategy.

In spite of the opposition she generates, the most valuable asset of Yingluck, in fact, could be her expressed defense of democracy. Although the accusations of corruption against her and her brother cannot be simply dismissed, she cleanly won the election in 2011, accepted the defeat in the Senate of the law granting amnesty to her brother, and has not made any evident move to damage the media that sides with the protestors. In contrast, the protests leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has spoken the idea that a non-elected council should appoint the immediate successor of Shinawatra, and has made it clear that he is willing to go as far as it is necessary to fight the Shinawatra corruption. It is unclear what his role would be in such a non-elected council neither on the successor government (for each case: would he help to pick its members?, would he be a member?). Anyhow, he seems to be much more risk prone than the PM.

Protestors want Shinawatra out. But it is not clear what they want instead, neither that the process of Yingluck leaving power would be very democratic. Furthermore, the siblings receive support from some sectors of the population, mainly the most impoverished. Yet mobilizations are becoming increasingly violent, up to the point that today there was their first fatal victim. Ousting rulers does not necessarily contribute to maintain or to strengthen democracy: they are very disruptive events, extra-institutional, and their outcome is very uncertain. Instead, enhancing accountability mechanisms, which was in part what originated protests this time, helps to improve the institutional environment for a democracy. Reforms keeping this in mind could contribute to calm down the current instability in Thailand.


Nov 28, 2013

Political Order in Egypt

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Earlier this week, the Egyptian President Adly Mansour signed a bill regulating public protests. The government has explained that its goal is to prevent violence and disorder in public gatherings. On the contrary, opposition groups and civil society organizations have severely criticized the law because, in their view, it imposes major limits to the rights of assembly and protest, obstructing even more the construction of democracy in Egypt. Not surprisingly, clashes between protestors and security forces have continued, if not increased, after the new legislation became effective, completely failing its official purpose.

Since October, some organizations had warned against preliminary drafts of this law, making some recommendations to eliminate what they considered were its most worrying precepts. In spite of these preventive measures, the final version of the document includes many aspects that constitute obstacles to the right of demonstration. Concerns have two sources. On the one hand, there are the limits it imposes. For instance, organizers of a demonstration are required to inform the government three days in advance the realization of any public activity (if it is for electoral purposes, the meeting must be informed of one day in advance). Their briefing must include purpose, slogans, time and address of the meeting and, if a march will take place, its route. However, a permit for the protest will be denied if the government considers that there are not sufficient guarantees that the event will take place in a peaceful manner. Infamously, the new legislation also prohibits electoral marches of more than ten people. With all these elements, civil society organizations complain their right of manifestation is seriously compromised.

Failing to comply with those regulations brings about high fines. However, there are quicker penalties. The second source of concern about the new law is that the state can use the force if the regulations are not respected. Indeed, the police is authorized to use batons, tear gas, water cannons and, if they consider necessary, cartridge bullets, which if shot from a short distance can be lethal. These powers are not new. However, the law mentions that police can use those tactics when and if protests are not peaceful, without defining that term nor explaining how such an assessment will be made. Furthermore, there are no provisions regarding the investigation and prosecution of eventual abuses committed by the police.

Civil society organizations disregard this law. Its first challenge came the day after it was promulgated, when protestors organized a meeting in front of the upper legislative chamber, without any notice, to protest against a law allowing civilians to be trialed in military courts. Expectedly, there were violent clashes against the police. The leader of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher, says that the injustice of the new law will provoke protests against it, trusting that it will eventually be repealed, as other unpopular laws have, such as that which gave ousted President Morsi de facto legislative powers and the capacity to overrule judiciary decisions. Another organization, Kefaya (Enough), suggests that the legislation on protests is a clear example that the new government has not understood that the relationship between citizens and the state cannot be the same as during Mubarak’s rule, with the state adopting a paternalist attitude by deciding what is appropriate and not for society.

The new law on protests shows that Egypt has not yet found a legitimate mechanism by which to solve power conflicts. Protests, an essential component of the policy cycle in democratic regimes, are seen as a threat by the government. Hence, authorities’ logic would dictate, some limits are put to them. On the other hand, citizens, dissatisfied with the performance of politicians and with the capacity of formal institutions to process their interests and demands, recur to protests to express themselves and to try to have a saying in political processes. While the regulation of protests to prevent them from affecting “public peace” might be a sensible objective, the limitation of the handiest form of participation is a major blow for Egyptians. Imposing obstacles to protests and not improving other channels of participation blocks the political rights of citizens and hinders democratic change in Egypt.

Nov 24, 2013

Honduras: Back on Track?

Honduran presidential candidate Castro in campaign (from SDP).

Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro in campaign (from SDP).

Today Honduras is celebrating general elections. It is the second time Hondurans go to the polls after the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya. Later that year, a contest was held, and Porfirio Lobo won the presidency, apparently restoring democratic procedures in the country. However, since then Honduras has suffered an increase in violence, next to the continuing problems of poverty and inequality in wealth distribution. In addition, for many Lobo’s administration was illegitimate. Now that he is about to complete his term and that the electoral process is being carried out as scheduled, an opportunity could emerge to definitely bring political order back to the country.

President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power in 2009 by the military when he insisted on having a referendum that would have allowed him to run for reelection. The Army had the support of Congress and the Supreme Court, all which declared the illegality of the referendum. Yet, Zelaya garnered the support of the international community, even to the degree of Honduras’ membership in the Organization of American States being suspended until the crisis was solved. Months later, elections took place under an environment of criticism. Some local and foreign observers thought that the exercise was a way to legitimize the coup against Zelaya, whose possibilities of being reinstated in office waned as Porfirio Lobo took office. On the other hand, the military and the interim President, Roberto Micheletti, considered their intervention was necessary to ensure the protection of the constitution, and kept their promise to remain in power just the time necessary to get everything ready for new elections (Micheletti was president for five months).

The most evident reasons for arguing that today’s electoral exercise will contribute to restore democratic order in Honduras is that elections are being carried out according to the schedule, and that no political actor is even close to suggest retorting again to non-democratic means to solve conflicts around power. However, there is an element of uncertainty in the emergence of this opportunity, found in the relatively new plurality of the ballot.

There are three main candidates competing for the election (there are nine of them in total). First, Juan Hernández, from the rightist National Party, proposing to increase the tasks of the Army in combating organized crime (incumbent Lobo also belongs to this party). Second, Mauricio Villeda, from the also conservative Liberal Party, campaigning under the banner of an intense fight against corruption and the promotion of the private sector as solutions to poverty in the country (ousted Zelaya was a member of this party). These candidates represent the two parties that have shared power for the last decades, effectively reducing the spaces available for other political groups. Respectively, surveys project they will obtain 28% and 14% of the vote.

The third candidate is an outsider. She is Xiomara Castro, wife of ousted Zelaya, from the leftist Liberty and Re-founding Party. This is a party created during Lobo’s administration. She proposes to elect a Constitutional Assembly, reduce the presence of military, and re-found the republic combining capitalist and welfare-state elements. Surveys project she will get 27% of the vote.

The uncertain prospects of elections contributing to finishing with the crisis in Honduras is not found on the individual traits of each candidate, but on the real possibility that an outsider, Castro, can end with the nationalist-liberal equilibrium of the Honduran political system. In addition, the Church, with substantive power in Honduras, has attacked Castro’s party because, with the support if receives from the homosexual and feminist communities, is in favor of measures to protect their rights. Will these actors yield power to the wife of ousted Zelaya? Furthermore, the small distance in the preference of the vote between the two top candidates, Castro and Hernández, pushes to think of a potentially problematic post-election scenario. The difference between the first and second places will very likely be less than 1% of the vote. This small margin increases the need to count every single vote and to take the strictest measures to prevent any kind of fraud.

Of course, an alternative scenario is that, notwithstanding the victor in the election, results are reliable and uncontested. This is the only outcome that can contribute to strengthen democracy in Honduras and to end with the crisis that began in 2009. In turn, this depends on the behavior of actors and their sympathizers. Their reliance on the electoral process to regain whatever losses they might have had will be a key factor in regaining political order in Honduras.

Nov 21, 2013

Chilean Elections: Wrapping-up the transition to democracy

Michelle Bachelet (L) and Matthei (R), the two contenders in the runoff presidential election in Chile (from BBC).

Michelle Bachelet (L) and Evelyn Matthei (R), the two contenders in the runoff presidential election in Chile (from BBC).

Chile held general elections last Sunday. Leftist candidate and President from 2006 to 2010, Michelle Bachelet, got the largest share of the vote, 47%, but will have to face a runoff on December 15. Then, she will face Evelyn Matthei, candidate from the right and former Labor Minister, who received 25% of the tally. Although Bachelet’s votes are almost as twice as those of Matthei, a runoff was not a possibility seriously considered by her team. Anyhow, her New Majority, joining Socialists, Christian-Democrats, and Communists, will have the majorities in both legislative chambers, actually increasing its current presence. What is the political scenario surrounding the runoff contest?

First, the possibility that Matthei actually wins must be acknowledged, although this is quite unlikely to happen. In her favor she has being the official candidate and that the third and fourth places in the presidential race got 10% of the vote, less than half of what she got. Assuming she is able to move their supporters for her cause (something also very improbable, as these candidates are independent, leaning towards the left), she would noticeably increase her constituency. However, there are heavy factors that play against her. First, the popularity of incumbent Sebastián Piñera is low; despite a relative successful economic performance, many Chileans are aware that their country has the worst wealth disparity scores among the OECD members. Second, it could be argued that she does not have such a solid base of support within her own party, given that she was the third option for being a candidate of the right (the winner of the primaries stepped down adducing depression, while his replacement refused to participate in a renewed primary election).

Even if she wins, Matthei would have a hard time interacting with the Congress, which would be controlled by New Majority. Its members have garnered the confidence of voters campaigning under the same banners of Bachelet. The left has promoted two goals in ths campaign. First, to reduce economic inequality. Bachelet and the left intend to introduce a major reform to the public finances, giving more weight to corporate taxes and alleviating the tax load on individuals. With this, New Majority expects to increase the state revenues and allocate more funds available for, among other things, funding the public education system, even at the university level. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that have affected incumbent Sebastián Piñera’s popularity: his decision in 2011 to increase college fees provoked massive protests throughout the country. Even more, four of the leaders of these mobilizations have been elected to Congress, signaling the relevance of the finance and education reforms for the constituency of the left and the parties’ directives (however, these student leaders belong to radical parties, for which their backing to Bachelet’s projects on these topics are not necessarily granted).

The second major goal of the left is to wrap-up Chile’s transition to democracy by removing the underpinnings left by Pinochet and the military when they retired from public life. Bachelet and New Majority are for a new Constitution, replacing that of 1980, written under the authoritarian rule (which, since the political openings of the 1990’s, has undergone some changes). On the contrary, Matthei proposes deeper constitutional reforms, not an entirely new document. In particular, the new constitution defended by Bachelet and her alliance colleagues would grant new rights and guarantees for Chileans, including abortion, same-sex marriage, no discrimination, political participation, and access to water and housing, none of which were considered by the military in 1980. Furthermore, the left would want a new equilibrium of powers giving new capacities to the Congress, increasing civilian control over the military, and reviewing center-region relations.

If Michelle Bachelet wins on December 15, which is the most probable thing to happen, she and her New Majority will undertake the task of reforming the state by removing the reminders of the authoritarian legacy and replacing them with new institutions protecting the rights of a plural society. It might still be too early to ask whether or not they will succeed, or what obstacles they could face (although the left controls Congress, it cannot simply ignore the opposition). However, the expected vote of most Chileans for Bachelet indicates that they are willing to leave behind a past of repression and leave no question that the country is a democracy.

Nov 17, 2013

The Maldives’ Second Try

Yameen (from the BBC).

 Abdulla Yameen, the new President of the Maldives (from the BBC).

Today, the winner of the second multiparty elections in the Maldives (an archipelago to the west of India, with a population of about 330,000 people, overwhelmingly Islamic), Abdulla Yameen, will be sworn as President. For some students of transitions from authoritarian regimes, the second electoral process is central in assessing the progress of the democratization process. If a turnover of the party in power takes places, or if not, if the contest is qualified as free and fair, then it is acknowledged that opposition is allowed to have a voice in the public discourse and that there are spaces open for contestation. Under this light, it can be thought that democratization is advancing in the Maldives. However, although not necessarily dismissing such statement, a revision of the weeks leading to Yameen’s election illustrate the need to pay attention not only to the outcome of the election, but the circumstances in which it was carried out.

After thirty years of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule, President Mohamed Nasheed was elected in 2008. In the midst of protests from the police and the military in reaction to his attempt to have the top criminal judge arrested under charges of being bought off by Gayoom,  he left power in 2012 in a situation he called a coup. Mohamed Waheed, the Vice President, took over the government. Following the expected calendar, elections were called for in September 07, 2013. His popularity remained high, as surveys projected Nasheed as the winner of the election. He got 45% of the vote, and in second place with 25% of the tally came Abdula Yameen, half brother of former dictator Gayoom and who would eventually be elected. As no one received the absolute majority of the vote, the electoral law provided for a runoff between the two top contenders.

It was then that the electoral struggle began in the Maldives. After complaints of irregularities pressed by the third place in the race, businessman Gasim Ibrahim (namely that votes had been casted on behalf of dead people or ineligible voters; observers did not share this view), the Supreme Court first suspended the runoff and then annulled the results of the original election. So, the contest was rescheduled for October 19. However, on the eve of this fresh exercise, it was cancelled: just one of the candidates, Ibrahim, complied with the requisite of all participants approving the electoral registry. Notably, it was the police that prevented electoral material from being distributed. Hence, a third attempt to carry out the election was planned for November 9.

In the meantime, President Waheed was receiving major criticism for his handling of the situation. Himself a candidate, he was forced to step down from the race. At the same time, he expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the election set for October 19. In the end, he reacted to the mounting pressure and stopped pursuing his goal by leaving the ballot. Furthermore, citizens began protesting calling for politicians to end this turmoil, as instability was affecting the Maldivian economy, heavily dependent on tourism.

The November 9 election occurred as planned. But, as in the first attempt, there was no candidate obtaining more than 50% of the vote: Nasheed was the first place with 47% of the vote, again this result being short of the required absolute majority. The original election plan stated that if a runoff was necessary it would have to be carried out on the next day, on the 10th, as President Waheed’s term expired on the 11th. However, just hours before polls opened, the Supreme Court decided that the second phase could not take place immediately after, but should be delayed until the 16th. The reason for this is unclear, but it seems related to pressure from Yameen, who asked for more time to campaign. Rather reluctantly, President Waheed requested for an extension of his tenure for one more week. Himself and the Court received widespread criticism within and outside the country for this unexpected move.

Finally, the election took place on the 16th. Somewhat surprisingly, although Yameen had constantly been in second place in the previous attempted elections, he won the runoff with 51.3% of the vote. Ex President Nasheed accepted his defeat.

After the original election was held, it took more than two months and four tries to elect the new president. This turmoil could cast doubt on the stability of the Maldivian democratic institutions, as electoral processes can be interfered with and, even, stopped. At the same time, it can be alleged that, with the possible exception of the last deferral of the contest, interruptions in the electoral process always took place because regulations had not been attended, and they counted with the approval of the Supreme Court. Further, there are no indications that the incumbent president was trying to hold on to power or that he was rigging the ballot.

Maldivians must take their time to sit down and discuss what went wrong in this occasion. Was the time frame too short, so that electoral disputes had to be solved as soon as possible without adequate deliberation by the Supreme Court? Was the fact that it was the country’s second election that arouse suspicions leading everyone to check on and complain about everyone else, obstructing the smoothness of the process? Or was it that the intention to be fully respectful of the law ended up making the process stiff? Were there institutions other than electoral regulations that played against governance in the country? The Maldives second election did end with an elected president, and democratization can be said to have taken root. But there are many issues pending for the country’s third election, scheduled for 2018.

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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