Inside the coup

“Less than 24 hours after the coup, Matichon Online had an account of events leading up to what is probably the most publicly staged coup in history.”

My favorite part:

Mr Chaikasem [Nitisiri of the caretaker government] said:” We won’t resign”.

Gen Prayuth then declared: “If that’s the case, the Election Commission need not talk about the polls and the Senate need not talk about Section 7.”

He then stood up and spoke in a loud voice: “I’m sorry. I have to seize the ruling power.”

It was 4.32pm.

At that point some of the attendees still thought he was joking.

They changed their minds when the general walked to the exit and turned back to tell them in a stern voice: “You all stay here. Don’t go anywhere.”

Egyptian coup threat–and a proposal for a presidential-election method

Following a weekend of remarkable protests against President Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s armed forces have made an ominous declaration:

Wasting more time will mean more division and conflict, which is what the armed forces warned of and of which it continues to warn.

In the statement, the army gives the civilian leadership 48 hours to “fulfill the people’s demands” or else it will offer a political “roadmap”. Despite stating that the military “will not become involved in politics or administration”, the statement sure seems like a coup threat.

The failures of Egypt’s transition from the Mubarak era to something different, whether democracy or whatever, have roots in areas I am not intellectually competent to address. It is certainly a deeper problem than bad institutional design and sequencing. However, Egypt is quite the textbook example of bad institutional design and sequencing. First a few reminders on the sequencing, then some thoughts on an institutional design that might be too late for Egypt, but potentially helpful in some future case of transition from dictatorship.

Egypt has an elected presidency but a non-functioning legislature. The specific occasion for the current protests is the first anniversary of Morsi’s assuming executive power. The legislature’s first chamber was dissolved following a judicial decree that the electoral system was unconstitutional; the electoral system itself was indeed poorly designed. Let’s just say that this crisis of civilian authority is not exactly a surprise, given this track record. ((And there were warning signs even earlier, given the unusually low turnout in a transitional referendum.)) I am not aware of any successful transition to democracy in which there was an elected presidency in the absence of an elected legislature–the advice of at least one US political scientist that Egypt should set exactly such a precedent notwithstanding. ((I am not sure of the current status of the second chamber of the national legislature. Even if it functions, the absence of a first chamber is itself symptomatic of a dearth of checks on the presidency.))

But the president has a popular mandate, so what’s wrong? Well, not much of a mandate. Egypt, like many presidential (and semi-presidential) countries, elects its presidency by two-round majority. In more institutionalized settings, this might be a perfectly fine rule. But in transitional settings, it often may not be. The top-two rule, by requiring a second round if there is non consensus in the initial vote, ensures that the winner will have a majority of votes cast, and thus in principle prevents an “extremist” from winning. However, the achilles heel of this election method is the first round. What if the top two finishers in a crowded field are both “extreme” in some sense? For instance, one heads an ideological movement that was not the prime mover of the anti-dictatorial protest, while the other was a holdover from the dictatorship itself? What if these top two did not even represent half the votes cast in the first round? As I said at the time, the Egyptian first-round result was “Not promising.

In fact, a more moderate/liberal candidate finished a close third, and was thus eliminated. He might have been a Condorcet winner, meaning the candidate who would beat any other in one-on-one competition, but of course, he never got the opportunity to show if he was. There were other relatively liberal candidates in the race as well, which of course is the problem: they split the vote, whereas the Islamists (Morsi) and old-regime forces (runner up Ahmed Shafiq) were more unified.

This leads me to my modest proposal. To guard against divisions in an unsettled political field during a transitional process, why not take a page from the old Uruguayan system of presidential election? In Uruguay, it used to be the case that the presidency was chosen by essentially an open-list PR system. A party or alliance could have several candidates, and the winner was the candidate with the most individual votes within the party/alliance with the most collective votes. I am not suggesting this system exactly: I think either a majority-opposed president or a candidate with the most personal votes who nonetheless loses (because he was not in the biggest party/alliance) is a potentially dangerous idea in cases of poorly defined political lines–such as Egypt currently. Rather, I am proposing such a system for the first round only. The eventual winner would still require a majority.

Here is how it would work: candidates would have the option of declaring alliances with other candidates, once registration of contenders was complete. If one of the candidates won an absolute majority, the race would be over, and the alliance declarations would not come into play. However, in the event no candidate won a majority of votes, the runoff pairings would not necessarily be the top two candidates. Instead, they would be the leading candidates from each of the two largest alliances.

Of course, there is no guarantee that candidates representing a potential bloc of moderate voters, such as Egypt’s liberals, would agree to set aside their egos or policy disagreements and declare an alliance. But such a rule would give them the option, and at least provide the more moderate forces a chance of avoiding a catastrophic coordination failure. Such failure is inherent in a first round that is more SNTV (multiple candidates from a bloc or proto-bloc, but only candidate votes matter in setting the top two) to one that is more open-list (pooling of allied candidates’ votes being the first criterion in setting the runoff pairing).

One might argue that it would be better to use ranked-choice ballots, such as the alternative vote (a form of “instant” runoff). Or not to have a presidency at all. These might be good arguments. But actual transitional cases often have a presidency, and in practice never have ranked-choice ballots. I offer this modest proposal as a more palatable one–or so I think it could be–that addresses the basic problem.

It is too late to save Egypt from a major political crisis, and it is in any case a lot to ask of a presidential-election method to save a country from crisis. But at least the rules chosen should stay out of the way, and the top-two majority-runoff rule did at least fail to do no harm.

Iran’s presidential election

Is there any authoritarian regime that has such competitive executive elections as Iran’s? Has there ever been? Authoritarian regimes are not my specialty, but I suspect the answer to both questions just might be no (at least if by “ever” we exclude the liberal but pre-democratic regimes of the 19th century). While I do not claim to have insights into the Iranian leadership, the regular elections for that country’s president are striking in their featuring many less-than-dominant winners and, at least apparently, in frequently not having a pre-identified “official” candidate.

These patterns are evident in the most recent election, in which Hassan Rouhani was elected president with barely over 50% of the vote. Usually in authoritarian regimes that hold elections, the winner gains an officially proclaimed large majority–more like 70%-90%–and there can be no mistaking well before election day which candidate is the one sanctioned by the current leadership. Iran seems to be the exception.

Now we know from the 2009 experience that, when push comes to shove, the regime insiders have no compunction about ensuring their favored candidate is proclaimed the winner, and in suppressing opposition-led protests, filling up the jails and even the morgues if necessary to enforce their will. That is, after all, why it is an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. But it is an unusual breed of authoritarianism, 2009’s events notwithstanding.

An article by Farideh Farhi and Saideh Lotfian in Foreign Affairs states the point succinctly in its title: Why Rouhani won–and why Khamenei let him.” Farhi and Loftian make the following observation: “the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis.” The point is that Rouhani is sufficiently an insider to the revolutionary elite as to be non-threatening, yet sufficiently “reformist” at least in his public appeal to win over the sort of voter who went for Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Mousavi, of course, remains under house arrest since the demonstrations attempting to overturn the official verdict against him in the previous election. While candidates other than Rouhani might have been closer to the preferences of the more conservative sectors of the elite, it was perhaps better for these sectors to permit a broadly supported less-conservative candidate to win rather than risk a repeat of 2009. If this interpretation is correct, then elections matter. ((And so do post-election protests, at least once the immediate events being protested–in this case, the second term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–are over.))

I often argue we can learn a lot about a country by just looking at its election results. Of course, I am usually referring to democracies. Can we do the same even when the country in question is not a democracy? This graph points out some potentially significant trends in the internal competition within Iran’s narrow, mostly conservative, revolutionary elite.

Click the image to open a larger version.

Taking the official statistics at face value, ((With the possible–likely?–exception of 2009, I do not think this is too much of a stretch.)) the graph shows the winning and runner-up candidates’ vote percentages in every election since 1985. ((I could not find 1981, when Ali Khamenei began his first term as president, two years after the revolution. It is possible that he was unopposed. Khamenei is now the Supreme Leader.)) It shows the first round and the decisive round; these are the same in every election but the sixth one, in 2005, which is the only time a runoff was required. Elections in which an incumbent was running (and elected–at least officially–to a second term, are circled in red. Mohammad Khatami, in 2001 (the fifth election) is the only incumbent to be credited with a substantial uptick in votes (from 69.6% to 78.3%), while Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has by far the biggest decline in a reelection bid (from 96.1% to 64%).

Among the noteworthy things are the general downward trend in the winner’s share during this time, focusing here on the decisive round. Of course, the one election that looks especially aberrant is the one that produced the presidency of the now-outgoing incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That election saw a clear lack of coordination on the part of the elites, with five candidates obtaining from 13% to 21% of the votes, and the eventual winner having finished second in the first round (note how the “winning candidate, first round” line drops below that of the runner-up). Ahmadinejad, whose tenure would be marked by several conflicts with the Supreme Leader, was clearly an accidental president.

In some respects, the 2005 election might have been at least as big a challenge to the regime insiders as 2009 would prove to be: they had no clear favorite, and almost got stuck with Rafsanjani again. (I assume here that the 30 percentage-point decline in the latter’s vote from his first to second election is an indicator of his having fallen seriously out of favor with the clerical establishment, although he has remained in various key posts ever since.) They could even have found themselves stuck with Mehdi Karroubi, one of the other reformist leaders under house arrest since 2009. ((Why did the Supreme Leader and regime insiders stick with Ahmadinejad in the crisis of 2009 if he was an “accidental” president, the product of a crisis of leadership coordination four years earlier? I suspect it is for the reason I posited at the time: an authoritarian regime typically can’t see the defeat of an incumbent president and still remain authoritarian. I suspect it also is not feasible to deny an authoritarian president a chance to run for a second term when he is eligible under the rules of the regime, and when all previous presidents have served two consecutive terms. To deny him a second term might have produced its own crisis within the regime. Of course, we will never actually know.))

The other thing that jumps out in the graph is that while the second candidate’s share has tended to trend upward over most of this sequence, it trended significantly downward in 2013. This of course shows the lack of coordination on a conservative alternative to Rouhani. In their article, Farhi and Loftian suggest that if the conservatives had managed to coordinate on a single candidate, they might have at least forced the race into a runoff. That may be so; while Rouhani did win (just) over 50%, it is possible that with a single dominant candidate for the more-conservative forces in the race, Rouhani might not have made it to 50%. Besides, we can certainly take the precise vote share with some grains of salt. Had there been a conservative push to coordinate on one candidate, it could have turned into a polarizing race. Had there been a runoff, there surely would have been a polarizing race–perhaps worse than 2009. It would not surprise me if some of Khamenei’s inner circle simply decided to assure Rouhani won the votes–whether cast by actual voters or by electoral alchemists–to push him over the 50% threshold and thereby prevent a runoff, given Rouhani’s broadly acceptable profile.

Whether my specific interpretations are correct–I know next-to-nothing about Iranian clerical politics, after all!–the picture given by the graph is one of a declining ability of the revolutionary leadership to locate a single candidate who can unite the regime’s factions sufficiently to produce the large margins that are more typical of electoral authoritarian regimes. An authoritarian leader endorsed by barely half the electorate is unusual. When situated in the context of the other, quite different, electoral challenges indicated by the results of the 2005 and 2009 elections, Rouhani’s narrow clearance of the majority mark may signal a gradual unravelling of the revolutionary coalition. Of course, whether that results in eventual democratization or some sort of bigger crackdown, or rebellion, is impossible to say.

Data are from Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Iranian Interior Ministry as its source.

Malaysia general election 2013

Malaysia goes to the polls on 5 May. The lower houses of the federation and 12 of the 13 states are up for grabs. There is no real question about whether Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, will win, but there is a large question about whether that will show in the allocation of seats.


Malaysia has an electoral gerrymander that would have drawn a blush to the cheeks of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who ruled Queensland long after his party had ceased attracting anything like a majority of votes. At the 2008 national election, Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote but took just 82 seats in the 222-seat parliament. The government held the rural seat of Putrajaya with just 6008 votes while the opposition needed 112,000 votes to take the urban seat of Kapar, in Selangor state.

Analysis by Bersih, the Malaysian corruption and election watchdog, has found that the gerry-mander means it is feasible for the ruling coalition to achieve a simple majority in parliament with as little as 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.

The really interesting things to watch will be the extent that Anwar’s predicted majority will be allowed to show in the results, and the extent to which the security forces will allow him to take office.

Response on Syria and Turkey

In response to my planting on Syria and Turkey, I received the following message from Professor Kürsad Turan of the Department of International Relations, Gazi University, Ankara, Turkey.

With Professor Turan’s permission, I am posting it here.
I am an assistant professor at Gazi University, Ankara – Turkey, working on ethnicity and the Middle East. Mike from Central American Politics passed your question on “A cross-border comparison of political institutions and communal conflict” along to me for comment and I thought I may be able to clarify some things.

I have read both articles you mentioned. It is true that both countries have very diverse populations, but they are nor necessarily paralel to each other. Alawites in Syria are as similar as it is claimed to Alevis in Turkey. Religiously speaking Alevis in Turkey represent a mixture of the Shiites and former Turkish religions, with more emphasis on the latter. As a result, they do not necessarily match well with Syrian Alawites. It is true that there is a double standard when it comes to places of worship, but it seems to me that it mainly stems from the Sunni religious establishment’s unwillingness to share the resources given to religious bureaucracy (I may be wrong on that one, it is an interpretation of what we have been hearing from both sides before the elections).

When it comes to keeping Syrian refugees away from the general population I can say with certainty that it has nothing to do with ethnic identities of both countries because that is not a concern here in Turkey. There are three reasons for that choice. Prior to and after the Gulf War (1991) Turkey experienced two large waves of Kurdish refugees from Northern Iraq and very few of these refugees returned to Iraq until now. This posed to types of problems. First, economically they increased the pressure in a region where the economy was bad (due to underdevelopment) to begin with and had become even worse following the war. Second, it is believed that at least some of them were either connected to PKK (Kurdish separatist terrorist organizaton focused on Turkey, but with members from Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey), or facilitated the movements of the organization accross the border, creating a security threat. There is also a practical reason for the refugee camps. When the refugees are kept in camps instead of being mixed in the general population they occupy the headlines and are considered a global problem that at least the UN needs to contribute to its solution. Otherwise they become Turkey’s problem that should be dealt with Turkey’s resources.

Regarding the ethnic coalition in Syria, it is true that it relies on minority groups that do not want to be ruled by a Sunni majority, however, it would be somewhat of an exaggeration to include Kurds in that group because Kurdish groups often demanded some form of autonomy and have been regularly repressed by the regime.

The relative calm in larger cities can be attributed to the development of a middle class over the past decade, but it can also be argued that authoritarian regimes focus more heavily on large cities that have a larger potential to become a source of opposition movements.

I think the Yugoslav analogy is only wishfull thinking by Israel because a broken-up Syria does not benefit anybody, including the parts that will come out of it, other than Israel. For Israel, even though Syria is not and cannot become a military threat in the near future, they are capable of posing an indirect threat by supporting various terrorist organizations and through their diminished influence over Lebanon. It should also be taken into consideration that in a Sunni dominated Syria one of the main groups will be Muslim Brotherhood, which is more radical than their chapters in Egypt and Jordan.

I agree that the study would be an interesting one, but I do not think these countries did not have a similar enough exerience in the past to justify such a comparison. I think it may be more interesting to compare Iraq and Syria considering they were ruled by the same party (or at least ideology) for a long time, ethnically diverse, and ruled by a minority group. On the other hand, they differ on the sect that rules the country, their level of natural resources, and their neighbors (Iran and Israel). Hope this was helpful.


Kür?ad Turan Asst. Prof. Department of International Relations Gazi University Ankara – TURKEY

The Syrian difference

In a brief and informative piece published eons ago in the current context (9 March), Bassam Haddad offers some comparisons between and among Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Since its appearance, the article’s suggestions that large-scale rebellion would not happen in Syria, and that whatever unrest might occur would likely center on the north, look less prescient. Nonetheless, the arguments as to why a collapse of the regime remains unlikely still seem about right.

Quick summary of main points: Civil society is far less organized than it had been in Egypt for a decade or more, “Tunisia’s state, regime, and government did not overlap nearly as much as those of Syria do,” and “state-society relationships in Syria are much thicker than those of Libya, where detachment at the top has reached delusional levels.”

Egyptians greet first “democratic” vote with a yawn

Is Egypt’s revolution, if it ever was one, now officially over?

The results of Saturday’s referendum on amendments to the constitution–seen as a first step towards competitive elections later this year–suggest less than great excitement.

According to Ahram, the turnout was around 41%. Yes, forty one.

Of those who bothered to show up, 77.2% said yes to the amendments.

I wondered how this compared to other referenda on either a new constitution, or amendments to the pre-existing authoritarian one, in past transitions to democracy.

The following is probably missing some key cases. I put it together by perusing my volumes of the Nohlen, et al., data handbooks on Latin America and Africa, as well as some sources on Eastern Europe.*

    Country, Year, Turnout,Yes
    Chile, 1989, 93.9, 91.3
    Ecuador, 1978, 60.2, 58.1
    Malawi, 1993, 97.7, 64.7
    Mali, 1992, 98.2, 99.0
    Uruguay, 1980, 78.6, 42.1

What this means going forward, I do not know. Various reports said the pro-democracy forces were divided over whether the reforms went far enough to be worthy of a yes vote. However, I did not hear anything about an organized boycott. Yet the yes vote was fairly strong out of those who voted, while the turnout shockingly weak for a country supposedly in the process of a mass-instigated transition to democracy.

* I did not find any in Eastern Europe that took place prior to democratic elections. However, Poland’s referendum on its constitution in 1993 had a turnout on par with Egypt’s: 42.9. The yes vote was 53.5. Poland was already democratic by this point, having been governed under the interim Little Constitution.

Election order in emerging democracies

Marc Lynch:

I’m uneasy about the proposed Egyptian election schedule — I would prefer to see elections to a caretaker President first, then Constitutional reforms and finally Parliamentary elections — but I’m encouraged by the continuing forward momentum.

This seems like an odd preference to me. I can’t think of a single case anywhere in which there was a “caretaker” president elected as the first stage of a transition to elected government. In fact, I do not know if there could be such a thing as an elected president who was a mere caretaker. As soon as a president is elected, he is democratically legitimated, for better or worse. And constrained by what, if there is not yet a new constitutional framework–or even a legislature–in place?

It seems far better to elect a constituent assembly, which would also serve as an interim legislature, first. Or, as in some transitions, for the provisional (and thus still authoritarian) government to promulgate a new constitution (preferably with as wide a consultative process as possible), followed by legislative and, depending on the constitutional form, presidential elections. But electing only a president before a democratic constitution is in place seems suboptimal to me, as well as rare (if not unprecedented).

Libyan rebels call for airstrikes

This item, near the end of an Al Jazeera article on the pro-Gaddafi offensive against the rebel-held city of Marsa El Brega, surprised me:

Meanwhile, the rebel National Libyan Council in east Libya called for UN-backed air strikes on foreign mercenaries used by Gaddafi against his own people.

Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the council based in Benghazi, told a news conference that Gaddafi was using “African mercenaries in Libyan cities” which amounted to an invasion of the oil producing North African nation.

“We call for specific attacks on strongholds of these mercenaries,” he said, but added: “The presence of any foreign forces on Libyan soil is strongly opposed. There is a big difference between this and strategic air strikes.”

Such a request would go a step or more beyond the previously requested imposition of a “no-fly zone.” However, even the latter operation would entail airstrikes and complex logistics, implying the operational distinction is not as great as it at first seems. Tactically, it would be a much bigger intervention, however. It would go beyond merely denying Gaddafi the means to use loyal air forces and entail destruction of fighting assets, and, obviously, significant casualties.

So my question for readers: is armed intervention (of what ever form) a good idea?

This is well beyond my field of specialization. But, for what it may be worth, part of me suspects the US and allies will end up intervening anyway. This regime and its maniacal leader are not going quietly, and there is a serious risk of a “failed state” situation. Such a result on the northern shores of the Mediterranean is, without exaggeration, a serious threat (shipping lanes, refugee flows, potential terrorism, etc.) that Europe and the US can’t abide. So is it better to intervene sooner than later?

Of course, there is another side of me that says foreign intervention can only make a bad situation worse.

I don’t know, but I am sure glad I don’t have to make the decision.

We’re all going to live together again

Al Jazeera* quotes a message it received from someone in Britain, commenting on a pro-Sharia demonstration outside the Libyan embassy:

We call them the nutters, because that’s what they are. We are Libyans. we are Muslims… but these people don’t want democracy or freedom. What do they want, dictatorship? We always lived together – Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews. And we’re all going to live together again.

It’s a nice sentiment. I do not know about Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but there was indeed a Jewish community in Libya. It was one of the oldest communities in the world. However, virtually all of them fled following pogroms in 1945 and 1948. Gaddafi was a shoolboy at that time. All but a tiny number of those Jews who remained after Libyan independence in 1951 were gone after another round of pogroms following the Six Day War. This was, of course, during the reign of the king whose flag now flies over the “liberated” parts of Libya.

While liberation of Libya from one of the worst tyrants of our time will be a good thing, it will not mean the return to a time of inter-communal harmony, which in any case is largely mythical.

For recent updates on Jewish communities that still exist in the Arab world, the always excellent Point of No Return is highly recommended.

* At its live blog on Libya, Feb. 25, 7:14 p.m. entry.