Elected prime ministerial government in Kiribati

This post was inspired by JD’s comment on a recent post, which said that “There is an executive type (which to my knowledge has only ever existed in Israel, from 1996 to 2002), which allows the assembly to remove both the *elected* chief executive and his cabinet, by majority vote, which automatically triggers an election – elected prime-ministerial.” However, this is not the case. There is one country that not only uses this form of government, and has done so since independence: the small Pacific island of Kiribati.

Under the Kiribati Constitution, the office of Beretiteni (President) is directly elected, using first-past-the-post. The President appoints ministers from the unicameral legislature (elected using the two-round system), which does not require parliamentary approval. Not unusually for the Pacific Islands, the Attorney-General has a specifically defined role in the Constitution, and I believe holds a legislative seat automatically because of his office.

However, section 2 of article 33 states 

(2) The Beretitenti shall cease to be Beretitenti-

(a) if he resigns his office, by notice in writing addressed to the Speaker; 

(b) if a motion of no confidence in the Beretitenti or the Government is supported in the Maneaba ni Maungatabu by the votes of a majority of all the members of the Maneaba; 

(c) if, in respect of any matter before the Maneaba, the Beretitenti notifies the Speaker that a vote on that matter raises an issue of confidence, and in a subsequent vote on that matter it is rejected by a majority of all the members of the Maneaba;

 (d) if he ceases to be a member of the Maneaba otherwise than by reason of a dissolution of the Maneaba

If, under the provisions of 2a, the Beretiteni is removed from office, the Council of State (a body consisting of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, the Speaker of the legislature, and the Chief Justice) takes office. 

This is where article 78 kicks in.
78. (1) The Maneaba ni Maungatabu (legislature) shall stand dissolved- 

(a) if a motion of no confidence in the Beretitenti or the Government is supported in the Maneaba by the votes of a majority of all the members of the Maneaba; or

(b) if, in respect of any matter before the Maneaba, the Beretitenti notifies the Speaker that a vote on that matter raises an issue of confidence, and in a subsequent vote on that matter it is rejected by a majority of all the members of the Maneaba. 

As I read it, this would rule out a change in government as a result of a no-confidence vote, as such a vote would automatically dissolve the legislature.

Following a general election, a ballot for Beretiteni is automatically scheduled. The Constitution stipulates that

The Maneaba (legislature) shall after the election of the Speaker nominate, from among members of the Maneaba, not less than 3 nor more than 4 candidates for election as Beretitenti, and no other person may be a candidate

Ordinary legislation is used to govern this election. As far as I can tell, the Borda count was used up to 2002, with voters being allowed to number only four candidates. However, in 2002, the legislation was amended (due to Borda being “complicated” and easy to manipulate)  to have a rather unusual variant of the two-round system. In the first round, the two candidates with the most votes are declared nominated for the Presidency, while in the second round all other candidates are voted on; the top two of these are also declared nominated.

Kiribati is unusually stable for a Pacific Island country. Since independence in 1979, there have been only five Beretitenis (excluding leaders of the Council of State who took an interim role in government) compared to eleven Prime Ministers of Vanuatu since 1980 and eight Prime Ministers of Fiji since 1983.

It also has a party system, though it is fairly weak. The Elections Ordinance makes no mention of political parties (except in a section prohibiting advertising from parties in a perimeter around the polling station); however, election results suggest that a substantial number of MPs are affiliated with political parties, as are Presidential candidates. What is confusing about the parties is that the literature I have read suggests that they nominated multiple candidates for the Presidency, which seems like very odd behaviour for a political party.

The first President to lose the confidence of the legislature was Ieremia Tabai. He was re-elected as President in 1982, but without a legislative majority aligned to him. By making a minor bill a matter of confidence, he was able to dissolve the legislature, with opposition MPs apparently going along unsure of the consequences. The result was Tabai’s re-election, and a much more compliant legislature.

Tabai’s successors, Teato Teannaki, was removed by a vote of no-confidence, and did not run in the 1994 election. His successor, Teburoto Tito, lasted longer, winning three elections, but a poor result by his party in the legislative elections of 2002 meant that his narrow 2003 victory was swiftly followed by a no-confidence vote. In the elections held later in 2003, the Pillars of Truth party won 16 out of 41 seats, to 14 for the Protect the Maneaba. The remaining seats were won by candidates not affiliated to one of the parties. The following Presidential elections saw Pillars of Truth candidate Anote Tong win, narrowly.

Tong was elected two more times, serving his full term both times. His Pillars of Truth party was the largest party in both elections, though without a majority. However, the fairly fluid party system meant that he was able to avoid no-confidence votes.

At the last election, Tong was term-limited (only three terms are allowed), and he was replaced by Taneti Maamau. He is a member of the Tobwaan Kiribati Party. I am not sure how the legislative seats were distributed; the Inter-Parliamentary Union site gives this group 19 seats to 26 for Pillars of Truth; however, this figure looks like it redistributed independents to the two parties. Either way, the figure suggests that Maamau does not have especially strong support in the legislature.

So, where does this odd constitutional arrangement come from? Well, in preparation for independence, the colonial governor of Kiribati arranged a Constitutional Convention, comprised of 165 members from different parts of the county which he appointed, in order to design a more appropriate constitution. While this was met with protest within certain circles of the British colonial administration, most of the decisions of the convention were adapted in the constitution.

The goal of having an elected President appears to have been to create a figure above parochial local politics, a worthy aim, especially in the Pacific. No-confidence votes leading to elections also might give MPs pause for thought, and lead them to consider negotiation before toppling the President. While I am unsure to what extent Kiribati’s constitutional model has led to its relative stability, it is certainly worth a look for other Pacific states.

Note: Information for this post was sourced from the second volume of Nohlen’s Elections in Asia and the Pacific as well as Atoll Politics: The Republic  of Kiribati edited by Howard Van Trease and Politics in Kiribati edited by Taomati Iuta.

Brazil: Early elections instead?

Further regarding the impeachment and possible removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff…

There is now a constitutional amendment being proposed by some senators that would result in an early election for president and vice president in October this year, rather than having the current VP take over in event of removal of the incumbent president.

In principle, I don’t like procedures that allow a VP to assume office following impeachment (resignation, death, etc.)–even less when it is common for the VP to be from a coalition partner (or former one, in current Brazilian case.) In fact, I’d say don’t even have a VP; I prefer early elections, although I can imagine that option creating some perverse incentives of its own. However, altering the constitution in the midst of an impeachment process doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The proposal is to have early presidential/VP elections this October. The sponsors have not decided whether this would be for would be for two years (the remainder of the current term) or a full four-year new term. If the latter, Brazil would go back to non concurrent elections, which would be an especially bad idea.

The possibility of early elections is already raised by the Brazilian constitution, however, although only in the unlikely event that the offices of both the president and the vice president are vacant:

Article 81. In the event of vacancy of the offices of President and Vice-President of the republic, elections shall be held ninety days after the occurrence of the last vacancy.

Paragraph 1. If the vacancy occurs during the last two years of the President’s term of office, the National Congress shall hold elections for both of ces thirty days after the last vacancy, as established by law.

Paragraph 2. In any of the cases, those elected shall complete the term of office of their predecessors.

Note that if this provision were ever in force, the president would be elected for only the remainder of the current term, thus restoring concurrent elections at the next election. However, the proposed constitutional amendment evidently could end up calling for four year terms, starting in 2016, whereas congress is elected every four years, with the next one being 2018.

I have no idea if the amendment stands any chance of passage. It takes just 3/5 votes of both chambers to amend the constitution. Ratification by states or voters is not required.

There is yet another way an early election could be called: by the Superior Electoral Court. In a separate (as far as I know) case, there is an investigation into election irregularities from the 2014 reelection of Rousseff.

Via Inter-Press Services:

If the 2014 elections outcome is challenged, new elections will be held. But experts believe that this ruling will not come until 2017, and in that case it would be Congress that would elect the new president and vice president who would complete the current term until 2018.

I find it quite extraordinary that the electoral tribunal could invalidate an election halfway–or even later–through the elected incumbent’s term.

The Brazilian impeachment (constitutional provisions)

As almost anyone who would read this blog surely knows, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff on 17 April. The case now moves to the Senate, which could try and remove her if it concurs with the charges.

The impeachment process in Brazil is similar to that of the USA, but differs in very important detail. First it takes a two-thirds vote in the first chamber, unlike the US where the House of Representatives impeaches (brings formal charges) against the President by majority. In both countries, it takes two thirds of the second chamber (senate) to convict and remove.

The key provisions of the Brazilian constitution are from Article 51:

It is exclusively the competence of the Chamber of Deputies… to authorize, by two-thirds of its members, legal proceeding to be initiated against the President and the Vice-President of the Republic …

And Article 52:

It is exclusively the competence of the Federal Senate… to effect the legal proceeding and trial of the president and vice-president of the republic for crime of malversation…
[…]
Sole paragraph. in the cases provided for in items i and ii, the chief Justice of the supreme federal court shall act as president and the sentence, which may only be issued by two-thirds of the votes of the federal senate, shall be limited to the loss of of ce with disquali cation to hold any public of ce for a period of eight years, without prejudice to other applicable judicial sanctions.

Another nontrivial different from US procedure is that the president of Brazil can be suspended from office upon impeachment, even before the Senate trial has begun. The conditions for impeachment and trial are further laid out in the section of the constitution concerned with executive authority.

Article 85:

Those acts of the president of the republic which attempt on the federal Constitution and especially on the following, are crimes of malversation:
I – the existence of the Union;
ii – the free exercise of the legislative power, the Judicial power, the public Prosecution and the constitutional Powers of the units of the Federation;
III – the exercise of political, individual and social rights; IV – the internal security of the country;
V – probity in the administration;
VI – the budgetary law;
vii – compliance with the laws and with court decisions.
Sole paragraph. These crimes shall be de ned in a special law, which shall establish the rules of procedure and trial.

I have not seen the law referenced in that “sole paragraph”, so I do not know what further conditions or elaborations may be stated therein. I also have not seen the bill of impeachment itself, so I do not know if it cites on of the above causes. However, the reporting on the impeachment generally emphasizes charges over manipulation of accounts. More specifically (in Portuguese) that she did not respect the law of fiscal responsibility.

Article 86:

If charges against the president of the republic are accepted by two- thirds of the chamber of deputies, he shall be submitted to trial before the supreme federal court for common criminal offenses or before the federal senate for crimes of malversation.
Paragraph 1. The President shall be suspended from his functions:
[…]
ii – in the event of crimes of malversation, after the proceeding is instituted by the federal senate.

I welcome discussion from those following the case closely regarding the process, and evaluations of the charges themselves.

Myanmar: from Assembly-Independent to Parliamentary?

Myanmar’s new President, Htin Kyaw, was sworn in at the end of last month, a milestone in the country’s gradual transition period. This is the first transfer of power under the current regime, coming after elections handed the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) majorities in both houses of parliament in November of last year.

Of course, it remains to be seen how successful this changeover will be, and how far democratisation will go. Under the current Constitution, written by the Junta, the military retains a great deal of power, retaining responsibility for appointing a number of ministers (home, defence, border affairs) as well as one-quarter of each house of parliament as well as in the regional assemblies. As a result of the military-backed USD Party’s poor showing in November, this means the military appointees currently form Parliament’s biggest opposition group.

In the media, however, a different restriction on the NLD’s ambitions seems to have gained somewhat more publicity: the strict requirement that the President not only must be a natural-born citizen, but must have no direct relatives with foreign nationalities either. This provision has widely been seen as specifically targeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the longstanding leader of the NLD, whose two sons have UK citizenship, legally preventing her from becoming President. This has often been portrayed as a big obstacle to Kyi’s assumption of the country’s leadership, and Kyi herself gave a similar impression by seeking, for a while, to change the country’s constitution so that she would be allowed to become president – something the military were always going to veto, and even launch a coup if the NLD simply ignored the constitution.

However, there is one very significant detail here: Myanmar’s President, though very much the country’s chief executive and in possession of ample constitutional power, is not elected directlyInstead, the President is elected by a joint sitting of both houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (parliament)[1]. The President then serves a fixed five-year term, without being removable by Parliament other than by an impeachment process requiring supermajorities for removal[2]. This makes this a case of assembly-independent, a system whereby the (chief) executive is elected by the legislature but not subsequently responsible to it.

This makes another option – nominating a loyal ally to the presidency instead as a proxy and leading the government from the cabinet – much more feasible than if the President were elected directly, as is far more common in newly-democratised countries and, indeed, in the world: assembly-independent is very rare these days. Such a President would not only be apt to claim a democratic mandate to himself, but his selection as candidate might also be more dictated by questions of electability than by the question of future loyalty to the party (i.e. presidentialisation).

With NLD holding a majority in parliament, it can select someone to the presidency with an eye towards their functioning in the office itself, i.e. with an eye towards loyalty towards the party in the future. Htin Kyaw, the party’s ultimate nominee, fits the bill, being known as “a party loyalist with strong personal ties to Suu Kyi”. The setup still presents a (principal-agent) problem, to be sure, but probably a lesser one than under presidentialism, which might have seriously complicated things for the party.

After the presidential inauguration, Htin Kyaw appointed his ministers, with Suu Kyi as Foreign Affairs and President’s Office minister. There is officially no ‘prime minister’, but Kyaw also made Suu Kyi ‘State Counsellor’ after the NLD passed an act creating that position as the President’s chief advisor – ignoring protests from the military. The position is a ministerial one, so is only responsible to the President. But could that change at some point in the future through a gradual process establishing responsibility to parliament? As I mentioned, assembly-independent regimes have not been too common over the years, especially in recent times – so I don’t know what kind of precedents there are. But a common speculation (it even appears in this blog’s mission statement) is that had the Philadelphia Convention endowed the US with a presidency elected by Congress, the US government could have become parliamentary through the same evolution that established cabinet responsibility in the UK.

Could this happen in Myanmar? Unless the NLD persists – and succeeds – in demanding a repeal of the provisions excluding Suu Kyi from the presidency, it seems likely the current setup, with Suu Kyi effectively leading the government as State Counsellor, will continue until she retires. If, in the coming years, there is no major conflict with the President, I think it likely that she will find this works well enough. The longer this goes on, the more a convention will develop putting the State Counsellor at the centre of power instead of the President – this, I would think, is the first step. Whether the process will then continue probably depends more on Suu Kyi’s successor.

In any case, Myanmar should certainly be interesting to watch in the coming years.


[1] By plurality from three nominations: one by each house’s elected members and one made by the military’s representatives.

[2] Either detail would disqualify this as parliamentarism, but the supermajority requirement does so more definitively.

Don’t forget: Iceland is semi-presidential

Many comparative politics works lump the Icelandic system in with the “parliamentary” democracies.* Today we are reminded of why that is incorrect.

As part of the fallout from the “Panama Papers”, the Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, requested that the president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, dissolve parliament and call early elections. The president refused the request.

Now, one could argue that this act alone does not prove the system is not “parliamentary”, because some presidents in strictly parliamentary systems might be able to refuse a dissolution request under some circumstances. But the event does show that the Icelandic president does take politically consequential actions, and on top of the direct election of the post, this surely qualifies the system as “semi-presidential” in practice as well as in formal rules. That is, rather than being purely ceremonial and accepting “advice” from the head of government, a president who is an agent of the electorate has exercised discretion.

The prime minister subsequently resigned.

_____

* That is, those works that don’t just ignore it.

‘Seat Product Model’–audio version

The audio-slides version of Li and Shugart (2016) is now available!

As previously announced, the publication details and abstract are as follows:

The Seat Product Model of the effective number of parties: A case for applied political science

Yuhui Li, Matthew S. Shugart

Electoral Studies 41, March 2016, pp. 23–34.

Abstract

This paper extends Taagepera’s (2007) Seat Product Model and shows that the effective number of seat-wining parties and vote winning parties can both be predicted with institutional variables alone, namely district magnitude, assembly size, and upper-tier seat share. The expected coefficients are remarkably stable across different samples. Including the further information of ethnic diversity in the models hardly improves the estimate of the effective number of parties, and thus the institutions-only models are preferable on the grounds of parsimony and the applicability to electoral-system design or “engineering”.

Australia’s impending double dissolution

The latest news from Australia:

Electoral reform abolishing Group Voting Tickets and establishing partially optional preferential voting ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line was passed in both houses last week, and barring an unlikely High Court decision to the contrary, it will go into effect at the next election. Now that the electoral system is no longer an obstacle (and perhaps due to the electoral reform, which aroused the ire of most Senate crossbenchers), Prime Minister Turnbull has all but called the expected double dissolution election, threatening to do so if controversial industrial relations bills do not pass the Senate at the next session, scheduled to start on April 19th.

A double dissolution is the deadlock-breaking mechanism provided by Australia’s Constitution. Though half the Senate is usually elected alongside elections to the House of Representatives, the Senate has a fixed six-year term. This can only be shortened by a double dissolution election where all seats of both houses are up for election. A double dissolution can only be brought about by the government when triggered by a disagreement between the houses, as spelled out by section 57 of the Constitution; if the disagreement with regards to a bill continues after the double dissolution election, those bills can be put to a joint sitting of the houses, where the government is likely to prevail due to the houses’ relative numbers.

Although section 57 gives the government the power to threaten to dissolve the Senate if it does not pass its legislation, there are various factors that complicate this procedure, making it rather cumbersome for the government. There is, of course, also the risk of losing the election. The procedure has only ever been used six times, and the last double dissolution election took place in 1987.