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.