Browsing articles in "Governance"
Oct 6, 2013

Senate in Ireland

Propaganda on the "Yes" and "No" sides during the Senate abolishment referendum campaign in Ireland (from Irish Times).

Propaganda on the “Yes” and “No” sides during the Senate abolishment referendum campaign in Ireland (from The Irish Times).

On Friday, Ireland had a referendum to decide two things: to eliminate the Senate and to create a Court of Civil Appeal. The rationale behind the first proposition was that the Senate is not democratic (its members are not popularly elected), it is not very useful (it cannot reject legislation approved by the Lower Chamber, but just delay its approval for a maximum of three months), and that its elimination would help to produce savings in a time of economic austerity (it is estimated that its annual cost is 20 million euros). The second proposition would place the new court just below the Supreme Court; it would hear most of the cases currently under the authority of the Supreme Court, which could challenge the decisions of the new organism if the subject is of general interest or if it considers that further discussion is needed. With a low participation of 39%, the abolition of the Senate was rejected by 51.7% of voters, and the creation of the new Court was approved by 65.2% of them.

The part related to the Court created the less controversy. The objective in creating it was to reduce the workload and bottleneck, implying inefficiency, of the Supreme Court. During the campaigns there were not many doubts that this part of the referendum would be approved, except for two facts: the Court is estimated to cost 3 million euros a year (clashing with a central element of the Senate abolition reform: reduce public expenditure), and voters’ lack of interest in the subject. Notwithstanding these concerns, the proposition was approved.

The part concerning the Senate had a higher profile; its defeat was a punch for Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government, who introduced and sponsored the initiative. However, the extent of the damage is quite uncertain. On the one hand, the strongest arguments of the “yes” side were the cost and undemocratic nature of the Senate. On the other hand, the “no” side questioned if saving 20 million euros would have any substantive effect in a budget easily surpassing the billion mark. In addition, there were some fears that the Senate abolition proposal was in fact a campaign for the PM to exercise power more freely, as with only one chamber legislative scrutiny over the executive would diminish. Furthermore, the PM was seen as not very interested or confident about the motives of his proposition after he refused to participate in a televised debate with the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin.

In sum, the “no” side argued that the “yes” side had rather weak arguments to propose the elimination of the Senate. For such a reason, the opposition has tried to interpret the Senate abolition results (paired with the low turnout) as a sign of political apathy derived from an anti-government sentiment: its lack of energy in defending its own initiatives generates mistrust. This would be a rather forced interpretation; the opposition, Fianna Fail party, was sacked out of government by Kenny in the midst of an economic crisis. In other words, Fianna Fail is doing what opposition parties do: criticizing the government for not doing the things it should do. Additionally, the “no” victory was not clear-cut: it was by a margin of less than 3%, a wide number of undecided voters changed polls predictions that the “yes” would win, and the vote was regionally divided, with “no” receiving more support in the urban areas.

Notwithstanding the party politics implications, the referendum represents a popular ssessment of the state of Irish institutions. Although the Senate abolition proposal was defeated, there are a number of voices pointing out that its current design is not correct; the suggestion is to reform it. Exactly how remains an open question. Giving it more powers or popularly electing its members are two ideas. In the end, the decentralization of power to allow more voices to participate in public debates emerges as a goal in Ireland.

Oct 4, 2013

Opportunistic Violence?

"Anarchists" attacking policemen in Mexico City during the Tlatelolco Massacre commemoration (from El Universal).

“Anarchists” attacking policemen in Mexico City during the Tlatelolco Massacre commemoration (from El Universal).

This week Mexico commemorated the 45th anniversay of the Tlatelolco massacre. In 1968, two weeks before the inauguration of the Olympic Games, a large group of students held a rally in the Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City. As part of a series of protests that had been ongoing for some months, the students demanded openings in the PRI’s authoritarian system, including the liberation of political prisoners and their participation in political processes. At some point during the meeting, soldiers and tanks entered the plaza and began shooting against the students. It is still uncertain exactly what happened: there is no agreed number of deaths (possibly around 300), disappeared, or detained, or the exact narrative and causes of the events (there are claims that the Army was “provoked” by shock groups infiltrated into the multitude or that the Army began shooting without warning; there are explanations saying the President orchestrated the whole plan, or that it was an unexpected incident). In any case, the October 2nd massacre is largely held to be the peak of the authoritarian PRI regime due to its message: the government can repress citizens by force, killing if necessary.

Every year, students march in the streets of Mexico City to commemorate the massacre. Over time, participants of the original student movement and other analysts have criticized that the commemoration has lost its original meaning: there are little or no reflections on the consequences of the killing, on what can be learned from it, or on how youth can contribute to strengthen democracy. Instead, the occasion is used to chant slogans against the government, to take a day off from school, and to commit some looting on the stores and businesses along the route of the march.

On this week’s protest a group of so-called anarchists also participated. These “anarchists” had also taken part in previous October 2nd demonstrations. However, now their presence was clearer and more open. Plus, they have become a constant presence in other demonstrations in Mexico City: those during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s inauguration (December 1st), during his first State of the Union address (September 1st), and during the summer protests of teachers against the education law reform.

The main characteristic of these “anarchists” is their violence. Due to their polarized nature, the protests in which they participate very frequently involve some kind of confrontations, usually against the police. However, in contrast with these “normal” clashes, “anarchists” attack policemen with Molotov cocktails and other hand-made explosives yelling death threats to them, throw stones and any other material available, destroy public property, do not care if reporters or by-passers are hurt by them, completely empty stores, and have their faces covered. After some detentions and the following investigations, authorities have identified “Anarchist Manuals”, including instructions on how to make bombs, what clothes to wear, and how to behave in the protest.

Hence, “anarchists” are clearly separate from other groups participating in the protests. But, for the time being, very little else is known about their organization and goals, if any. Nobody knows how they obtain their financing and how they plan their actions or who they claim to represent. Furthermore, without suggesting there is a link between those events, it is noticeable that very similar violent actions have occurred in other places in Latin America, such as during the recent peasant protests in Colombia. In any case, these groups contribute to distract attention from the core of the protests in which they appear and to strengthen the image of a repressive state. Who could obtain a benefit from this is a question that remains open.

Oct 3, 2013


Senator Silvio Berlusconi get ready to express his support to Enrico Letta's government (from The Guardian).

Senator Silvio Berlusconi gets ready to express his support and that of his party to Enrico Letta’s government (from The Guardian).

Throughout the course of this week, Italy went from the normal complications of its everyday politics, to a vote of confidence whose uncertain result risked finishing with Enrico Letta’s government, and back to political stability translated in an overnight better performance of the stock exchange, lower interest rates and an increase in the country’s debt bonds. At the center of this U-turn was former Prime Minister and now Senator Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right party People of Freedom (PdL).

First, Berlusconi asked five of his party’s members of Letta’s cabinet to resign in opposition to a propose tax increase. In practical terms, this meant that PdL, the second-most represented party in the Senate, would stop supporting Letta’s government, bringing about political uncertainty to Italy. Without Berlusconi and the PdL, would Letta be able to garner the support of the minority parties? What concessions would he have to make? Even if he got it, would such support be sufficient to keep him in power? Would Berlusconi try to take over Letta? In the midst of these questions, the Prime Minister did not take the ministers’ resignations.

Surprisingly for Berlusconi, some figures within his party decided to say no to their leader and back Letta. Even more, the threat of a PdL split appeared. With it, not only Letta’s future as PM remained uncertain, but Berlusconi’s position would be substantially weakened. It was not so clear who would side with the PdL “rebels” and hence would back the government, and who would stay with the party’s leader; if PdL members fled, the party’s strength for being the largest opposition group in both legislative chambers could be severely compromised. Again surprisingly, in a speech just before a vote of confidence on Letta’s government, Berlusconi said his party, “not without internal strife”, had decided to support Letta.

The U-turn made by Berlusconi has been qualified by most as humiliating for him. From being the most powerful man in Italy, with a media complex at his disposal to try to create support around practically any cause he was defending, he stopped being able to control the members of his own party and had to take back his rejection of the government. Some say that this was Berlusconi’s political funeral, as his legitimacy as a leader has been substantially diminished. Furthermore, his farewell from Italian politics could be sealed with the vote that will take place tomorrow in the Senate deciding whether or not to strip Berlusconi off his legislative immunity allowing the enactment of his prison sentence and the continuation of other judicial process against him.

The events in Italy this week very possibly will have as their most relevant consequence the ousting of Silvio Berlusconi, the strong man in his country for over twenty years, from politics. A question emerges: how will he be replaced? Will another strong man appear? Would he (or she) continue with the extravagant style that characterized Berlusconi? Or will institutions consolidate, preventing that any person can have the same influence on Italy’s future (either because of his policy decisions or because of the link made between his personal fortunes and those of the country) as Berlusconi did? Will PM resignations end and political stability install itself? Before answering those questions, it must be made clear first that Berlusconi has actually left politics. For the time being this seems to be the case, but it is difficult to know for sure with him.

Sep 29, 2013

From Dawn till Dusk?

A supporter of New Dawn protests against the detentions of some of the party's most important figures. The sign reads " (from The Guardian).

A supporter of New Dawn protests against the detentions of some of the party’s most important figures. The sign reads “Listen chief, and listen again, you have ridiculed the system one more time – Golden Dawn of the Greeks” (from The Guardian).

This week-end the Greek government orchestrated a series of actions against the far-right party Golden Dawn, including raids to its national and regional headquarters, and the detention of its leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, its spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, three of its eighteen representatives in Congress and other thirteen members under charges of forming a criminal organization. The crackdown comes a week after an anti-fascist rap singer, Pavlos Fyssas, was stabbed to death following an argument at a bar over a soccer match. Allegedly, the attackers wore black t-shirts that Golden Dawn supporters use, for which the crime was quickly and easily linked to the party, although it denied any such relationship. In any case, concerns rose again about what that radical and xenophobe party really stands for.

It has been widely noticed that the seizure of the party’s assets and leaders is the biggest crackdown of a party since the return of democracy to Greece in the mid 1970’s. Two questions emerge in relation to this: why did the government do it and what its consequences could be.

When the party’s members were detained, they were presented with evidence on the criminal activities of the party. However, ever since 2012, when it entered mainstream politics by winning representation in Parliament and becoming the third most important political force in the country, the party has been characterized by its weak respect for order and rule of law, being linked with a number of violent episodes and having a clearly aggressive discourse directed against foreigners. But it had not been associated before with a death, as now is the case. Apparently, out of tolerance for the freedom of expression granted to all political actors in a democracy, the government did not undertake any visible or publicized action against New Dawn. Nonetheless, a death meant the party and its supporters crossed the red line, and authorities could not remain idle.

New Dawn, in spite of its relatively small size (18 out of 300 legislators, barely above 5% of the total) is the third political force, behind the ruling New Democracy (ND) – Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) alliance, and the Coalition of the Radical Left – Unitary Social Front (SYRIZA), which constitutes the official opposition (another group, the Independent Greeks, also has 18 seats). Furthermore, New Dawn’s popularity growth over the previous two years, evident from not passing the minimum vote threshold in 2011 to winning 18 seats in Parliament, is associated with the rejection to the government’s austerity deals with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to counter the economic crisis. Hence, crashing New Dawn is not just crashing a violent political group, but also crashing an unquestionable adversary of Antonis Samaras’ administration. For its supporters, who already have had some rallies to demand the freedom of the detainees, acting against New Dawn martyrizes its members and contributes to increase its popularity.

In addition, although not necessarily defending the party, some voices have asked about the legality of the government’s actions against New Dawn. In particular, if it was legal to detain its legislators in spite of them still having parliamentary immunity. Plus, the question remains open on whether the party will be officially declared shut down, and under what legal precept could such decision could be made. What is more, now there are vacant seats in congress, which could increase in number if investigations continue. It is still unclear what will happen to those places. Prime Minister Samaras wants to prevent a special election; although his ND-PASOK alliance has an advantage of more than 80 seats over SYRIZA, it would be too risky to call for an election that would increase the size of the opposition. Finally, the two previous electoral races proved to be incendiary for the Greek electorate; Samaras’ administration would not want to go through such a test before the public opinion.

The issue here is how to contain a popular party whose commitment to democracy and the rule of law is questionable. Twentieth-century European history shows that such parties do pose a serious risk not only for democracy, but also for peace. As long as the remedy is not worse than the ailment, for which New Democracy’s popularity and in the stability of any Greek government could be seen as indicators, possibly it is worth trying it.


Sep 27, 2013

Ruling by Cliché

One of the commonly seen long lines in a grocery store in Venezuela due to product shortages (from El País).

One of the commonly seen long lines in a grocery store in Venezuela due to product shortages (from El País).

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro was scheduled to participate in the U.N. General Assembly in New York City this week after an official visit to China. Days before, he claimed the U.S. government had denied visas for part of his team as well as the landing permit for his aircraft. The Department of State explained that, as he would be travelling not in his official plane, but in a Cuban one, a special diplomatic clearance procedure was required; in the end, all visas and the permit were approved (the reason he was not using his presidential airplane is that it had a malfunction in one of its wings, in spite of having been in the workshop of Airbus in France for five months). Finally, on the eve of his departure to NYC, Maduro commented that he had decided to cancel the trip because he came to know about the possibility of violent provocations due to his presence in the U.S. and threats against his physical security.

This is not the first time that Maduro cites security threats against himself or the country. During the summer, the official press publicized the detention of a group of people near the border with Colombia who were labeled as being a menace to the country. Intentionally or not, the announcement was made at a time when domestic and international press began detailing the hardships of Venezuelans due to the nation-wide shortage of the most basic products, including toilet paper and diverse food items, largely derived from delays in the internal production due to insufficient foreign currency, necessary to pay suppliers abroad.

Now, the threats Maduro mentioned in relation to his presence in NYC more or less coincided with the implementation of some measures to counter shortages. These include lowering of barriers to the import of essential goods, the emission of dollar oil bonds to be exchanged for food, and the reconsideration of the controlled foreign currency exchange system to reduce the large gap between the official and black market rates, which would lead to yet another devaluation of the bolivar. At the same time, the government reiterated its discourse of being attacked by greedy businessmen and a corrupted press, who wanted to prevent the country from consolidating its own economic system.

Knowing what we know about the functioning of authoritarian regimes (or semi-authoritarian; the precise classification for Venezuela can be debated) it is not quite surprising what Maduro has been doing. By motivating the sensation of the country being at risk and the belief that the crisis is instigated by its enemies, the state becomes the only actor capable of defending the citizens from emerging dangers. This was the cliché during Hugo Chávez’s presidency (mostly during his later years), and now it is during that of his successor, Maduro, who inherited the same style of making politics.

However, the environment is not the same for Maduro than it was for Chávez during most of his tenure. Now, there is a much better organized opposition, headed by Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles, which has had very successful electoral results. Hence, the question is whether or not Venezuelans will continue buying the official discourse now that there is an alternative to it. As noted by most analysts discussing the situation in Venezuela, shortages will not end unless the whole production and monetary system are changed, of which there are doubts will happen as it is one of the pillars of Chavismo. At the same time, such a way of making politics does is not ready to deal with an opposition, rapidly labeling the emergence of any such group as a state enemy. Voters will go to the polls on December 08 to renew the municipal administrations. It is then when we will know what portion of Venezuelans still buys the “enemy of the state” discourse and what portion of the Venezuelans prefers to vote for an alternative to shortages.

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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