Browsing articles in "Governance"
Dec 12, 2013

Divided Rule

A polling station in Venezuela during last Sunday's municipal elections (from BBC).

A polling station in Venezuela during last Sunday’s municipal elections (from BBC).

Venezuela held municipal elections last Sunday. The ruling Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) got 49% of the votes, accounting for 263 local victories, while the largest opposition alliance, the Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) obtained 43% of the ballot and won 74 mayoralties. What do these results mean for each of the contending parties? What are the prospects for democracy in Venezuela?

A first issue to address is who, if anyone, really won on Sunday. The government has been quick to say that the tally represents citizens’ endorsement of its project. In a way, of course, this is true. But the opposition won in the largest urban areas of the country, including Caracas and the capital of one of its stronghold states, Miranda. The PSUV received its largest support from the rural parts of Venezuela, where the bulk of the population resides. Intentionally or not, President Nicolás Maduro has divided the country into two blocks: the urban opposition and the rural pro-government.

Since last year’s presidential election, Chavismo has faced a new challenge: the emergence of a united opposition. In contrast to the first years of Hugo Chávez’s rule more than a decade ago, in which, except for the PSUV, the party system was very volatile, Henrique Capriles and his MUD have managed to remain a constant presence in the electoral ballot. Not only that, but they have been a close competitor to the PSUV. In spite of aggressive campaign methods from part of the government, including celebrating the Hugo Chávez day on Election Day or accusing the business urban elites of intentionally causing product scarcity and raising prices, it is a notable achievement that there is a relatively small difference (or not so large, compared to previous elections in which the closest competitor to the official party was 20 or 30 percent points below it) in the share of votes between the PSUV and the MUD in this electoral contest.

The challenge posed to Chavismo by the MUD is double-faced. First, how to prevent the party and its leader from attracting voters and consolidating as the head of the opposition. Second, how to prevent them from really posing an electoral threat to the PSUV. For the time being, the government failed in the first part of the challenge, but has succeeded on the second. On the one hand, it can be argued that the party system has stabilized in Venezuela. Although it might be too soon to affirm so after a little more than one year after Capriles and the MUD made their breakthrough appearance, three electoral processes have gone by, and in each of them they had done reasonably well (again, in comparison to the fleeting presence of previous opposition parties), obtaining a rough average of 45% of the votes. Further electoral iterations would be needed to confirm this. On the other hand, the stabilization of the party system seems to have a very strong geographical and socioeconomic component, as noted above. The bases of each party are more or less split and fixed throughout the Venezuelan society. The extent to which the PSUV can increase its appeal among the elite businessmen, targeted as “enemies” of the national economy, or to which the MUD can increase its appeal to the poor and rural classes, who benefit the most from Maduro’s policies, is still an open question. Given the constant numbers of the last three elections, it appears that the parties have failed in crossing the boundaries of their core electorate, thus reaching.

This apparently fixed division of forces in Venezuela is not necessarily damaging for democracy. Although one group will remain a minority at the national level, it still has a notable presence and voice there and, perhaps more importantly, obtains electoral victories at the local level. It is here, though, that concerns appear, as the government has made some reforms to remove capacities from these administrations. For instance, in Caracas, one of the strongholds of MUD, the mayor was stripped of most of his responsibilities, which were transferred to an officer appointed by the central government. In spite of MUD winning elections, their elected candidates are not able to make substantive decisions in many cases. With this situation in mind, democracy is being distorted: the PSUV is transforming its electoral majority into political hegemony.

Dec 5, 2013

Protests and democracy in Ukraine

Demonstrations in Lviv, Ukraine, against President Ynukovych's decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (from CNN).

Demonstrations in Lviv, Ukraine, against President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (from CNN).

This week thousands of people have been on the streets of Kiev, Lviv and other large cities in Ukraine to protest against the government. First, it was because President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), which would be a major step in the process of Ukraine’s integration into the organization. Demonstrators argued that the President had yielded to Russian pressure preventing Ukraine to strengthen its ties with the EU, instead of listening to citizens’ claims of becoming closer to the West. As the government neglected these arguments and used the force against mobilizations, Ukrainians now demand the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov. However, the government won a no-confidence vote in parliament and protests continue.

It has been widely acknowledged that the current demonstrations echo those of 2004, the so-called Orange Revolution. Back then, citizens protested against a fraud in the presidential elections managed by incumbent Leonid Kuchma. After a long campaign of marches, sit-ins, pressure from the international community, and intense negotiations between the President and the opposition leaders (mostly Viktor Yushchenko, the most popular candidate) the Court declared that the election should be repeated. In the end, Yushchenko became President. The comparison between the Orange Revolution and the present mobilizations comes from the fact that in both cases citizens demand their will to be respected (in 2004, who they wanted to be President; now, the desire to join the EU), as opposed to the government acting according only to what its top figures decide.

The comparison is correct because in both cases protestors want their interests to be taken into account in government decisions. At the same time, it is compelling that, almost ten years after the Orange Revolution took place and apparently succeeded, citizens are out on the streets for a similar reason in the broad sense. The fact that the 2004 protests put pressure on the Courts to decide that the because of the evidence of fraud the election had to be annulled, that the opposition candidate won, and that the incumbent respected these events would suggest a strengthening of democracy in Ukraine. Citizens had a specific demand, the judicial system made a decision, the separation of powers was maintained, and a power transition took place. Even more, when it was his own turn to run for reelection, Yushchenko lost to his opponent in 2004, current incumbent Yanukovych, because of discontent for his policies. Democratic institutions seemed to be working. Is it that democracy has now failed in Ukraine?

Not exactly. In 2004, mobilizations were for electoral reasons: votes were stolen. Now, mobilizations are for representation reasons: the government, whose democratic origin is not called into question, is not acting as an agent of citizens’ interests. These are two related, but different, aspects of democracy. In fact, representation institutions, such as parliaments or parties, are going through similar crises in other countries, many of them with clearer democratic credentials. There are frequent complaints that citizens do not feel attracted to any of their country’s mainstream parties, or that they feel utilized by governors, who only approach to them during the time of electoral campaigns. If this relatively common failure of democratic institutions is paired with Ukraine’s young democracy, this country’s problems should not appear as too worrisome. It is only natural that Ukrainians want their voices to be taken into account in the policy process, and new patterns of interaction between governors and citizens, in which no part can act by itself, must be stabilized.

A more serious concern is that the Orange Revolution is assessed as a successful and somewhat inexpensive mechanism of political action because of its possible negative effects in democracy. In 2004, protests had the support of the international community, there were no casualties of any kind, and citizens got what they were fighting for. But now, there is not a unanimous support throughout Ukraine for joining the EU (what is more, the re-run of the election in 2004 also made it clear that not everyone supported the opponent Yushckenko): the east of the country has usually been clearly pro-Russian, and the western part tends to lean to the EU. As well, using the streets to defend interests might not always be a very good idea: these are disruptive events, costly to the economy, and whose outcome depends on a large number of factors (sometimes including chance) which are not easy to put together again.

This, of course, does not imply that citizens should not go out to protest if they feel their interests are being affected in any way. On the contrary, protests represent an alternative of participation to the usually rigid electoral calendars. But the expectation of protests and the way in which they are carried out could also play against democracy. Big topics should not always be decided by protests. National, inclusive, and open debates cannot be replaced by large crowds on the streets. Although the concerns of demonstrators are legitimate, they are not necessarily truly representative of the interests of all citizens. Even more, there is the risk of repression and threats to physical integrity, which are not always worth taking. These mechanisms of participation could be useful to defend protestors’ interests, but, if not carried out with caution or if too much is expected of them, they could have pernicious effects for Ukraine’s young democracy.

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.

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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