Zambia Constitutional amendments

Last week, Zambia enacted a package of amendments to the constitution that has been years in the making.

Among the amendments are a number of significant changes to the presidency. In the last decade, two early presidential elections (2008 and 2015) were instigated by the incumbent’s death. In the wake of the cost and difficulty of organising these elections, there were calls for the institution of a vice-presidency elected as the president’s running mate and replacing the vice president on a permanent basis. This change was included in the amendments, replacing the previous position of vice president which was appointed by the President and only substituted him on an interim basis.

Another change was to the president’s dissolution power. Under the previous provisions, the President was able to call an early general election at any time, which would include both presidential and legislative elections. The new provisions stipulates that such a dissolution can only be effected “if the Executive cannot effectively govern the Republic due to the failure of the National Assembly to objectively and reasonably carry out its legislative function”, and must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which determines whether or not that is the case. This seems to me as rather ill-advised; whether or not parliament fulfils its role ‘objectively’ or ‘reasonably’, and whether or not the President is able to ‘govern effectively’, are fundamentally political questions, and getting the courts involved in that could seriously undermine their neutrality and independence.

Additionally, in response to widespread calls for such a change, the electoral system for president has been changed from plurality to two-round majority. The original draft presented to parliament several years ago also envisioned the adoption of Mixed-Member Proportional for legislative elections, but this was removed from the bill by the National Assembly.

Lastly, in what seems to be a growing trend in new or heavily-amended constitutions, the amendments introduce federalism (seeing as they include lists dividing up competences among national, provincial and local government which are entrenched along with the rest of the constitution), but call it a system of ‘devolved’ governance.

Ukraine deal

The deal signed earlier today in Ukraine calls for a return to the constitution instituted after the Orange Revolution protests (but later reversed). Those provisions significantly weakened the presidency–mainly by giving the president essentially no discretion in the choice of a prime minister, who was defined as the candidate of the legislative majority. On the other hand, the president under that constitution still retained control over key ministries, such as interior and defense, as well as a veto requiring two thirds to override. So the protesters are right to be skeptical, even if this is a big concession by President Yanukovych.

The agreement also mentions reforms to electoral laws, but does not clearly address the electoral system itself, which is obviously critical inasmuch as it determines how votes are translated into seats in empowering the very legislative majority that would appoint the PM. And, as I noted before, the current system is highly disproportional and personalistic, and these features allowed the pro-Yanukovych bloc to win a majority, counting pro-Yanukovych “independents” (bearing no party label), despite the president’s Party of Regions having barely a quarter of the votes. Of course, with the renewed mobilization of the opposition, it is less clear who would benefit from the current system’s disproportionality, but the opposition would seem to have a clear interest in a return to the party-list system used in 2006 and 2007. And that system’s proportionality would presumably offer the pro-Yanukovych forces a hedge against possible voter retributions whenever the new legislative election is held.

The agreement also only specifically refers to early presidential elections.

Obviously a situation still in flux.

More on American columnists discovering comparative politics

At Think Progress, Ian Millhiser offers another in the recent series of examples of American columnists noticing comparative politics. This is good!

Millhiser suggests we look to Chile’s current presidential democracy for models of how to prevent government shutdowns. As he notes, correctly, Chile’s president has exclusive power under the country’s constitution to propose legislation in areas relating to finance and budget, along with “urgency” provisions and restrictions on congressional authority to change executive proposals.

In other words, a presidential (separation-of-powers) model does not necessarily have to leave the executive dependent on legislative initiative to pass a budget or other financial matters.

While the recognition of other models is good, I am afraid I have to stop short of advocating the Chilean solution. If I decried the possible “Latin Americanization” of US presidentialism during the previous administration, I hardly can advocate it now.

Italian presidential selection and PD split

The Italian electoral college (made up of members of parliament and regional representatives) selected Giorgio Napolitano for a second term in the “mostly ceremonial” post of president.

Via presseurop.eu (and originally from Corriera della Sera):

Napolitano was elected on April 20 with the votes of the Democratic Party (PD), Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and Mario Monti’s Civic Choice. Despite having earlier ruled out the possibility of a second term, Napolitano changed his mind after Franco Marini and Romano Prodi failed to get elected due to a dramatic split in the PD that prompted its head, Pier Luigi Bersani, and the party’s entire leadership to resign.

One of the faculties that makes the Italian presidency potentially more than ceremonial is the authority to dissolve parliament when a government can’t be formed. (This power does not exist in the final phase of a president’s term, but becomes active again once Napolitano starts his second term today.)

Does this mean a grand coalition (i.e. a Berlusconi-backed government)? Or will there be a new elections (leading to who knows what?)?

Latvia’s president wants more power

The Hurriyet Daily News reports that Latvian President Valdis Zatlers has called for a constitutional amendment permitting him to dissolve Parliament without the public’s consent at referendum. According to the article, he also has called for direct presidential elections.

Further, he has asked for the power to unilaterally dismiss the chief budget and central bank officers. Zalter’s stated reason for this is to ‘depoliticize’ these appointments.

There is no mention of any proposed change to presidential survivability. Will the dissolution of Parliament also trigger a presidential election, for example?

As is no surprise to F&V readers, the net effect of the above would be the diminution of arguably wise constraints on executive power.

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Image of Latvian Saiemaa added by MSS

Afghanistan: Amnesty bill and party-formation updates

About two months ago, I posed the question, will Karzai veto the Jihadis’ amnesty bill? It was a reference to a bill to provide a sweeping amnesty to former fighters in Afghanistan’s decades of fighting, passed by a congress largely dominated by former fighters themselves. President Hamid Karzai opposed the amnesty, as did international aid organizations. With his office having the constitutional authority to veto legislation, it seemed unlikely that the legislators’ act would be the final word. (A veto takes two thirds to override, although my reading of the constitution is that the override vote takes place only in the lower house, notwithstanding the bicameral nature of the Afghanistani congress.)

Indeed, congress did not have the final word. But that is not to say that Karzai vetoed the bill. Instead, he recommended amendments to some provisions, and congress passed a new bill that incorporated his suggestions–or some of then; details are sketchy in the several sources I consulted. Deep within an LA Times story, it is noted:

[Karzai’s] office managed to add the provision about an individual’s right to file charges, amending what was virtually a blanket amnesty.

Separation of powers at work.

In previous discussions, I have noted how unrepresentative the Afghan congress is, given that it was elected in a purely candidate-based system (single nontransferable vote), with no party labels, and with a very high rate of wasted votes. A recent item in The Economist picks up on the theme of the party-less legislative process, and notes that parties are now forming from within the congress.

IN THE 18 months since it was elected, Afghanistan’s first democratic legislature has been in a peculiar limbo: it is a parliament without parties. Candidates were not allowed to declare party affiliations on the ballot paper. The result has been a chaotic parliament of individuals, often elected on the promise of patronage and by virtue of ethnic affiliation. The parliament has criticised the increasingly isolated president, Hamid Karzai. But its positive achievements have been few.

Now change is stirring. Several alliances with sketchy political platforms are being mooted. The first of these, the National Unity Front, was unveiled in March by a group of parliamentarians and members of the government. It proposes various constitutional reforms, including electing provincial governors directly and creating a new post of prime minister in order to curb the power of the president. The Front denies wanting to be an opposition party, promising to work alongside the government in pursuit of “national unity”. [read full article]

Both of these developments represent advances for the constitutional and legislative processes in that war-torn country.

The Ukrainian crisis: Regional dimensions

Inevitably, the crisis over President Yushchenko’s decree dissolving parliament is generating political conflict at the regional level. Itar-Tass reports:

The Odessa Regional Council, the first in Ukraine since the beginning of the political crisis, will discuss at its next meeting a vote of no confidence to Governor Ivan Plachkov, who started in the Odessa Region preparations for new parliamentary elections.

All of the oblast governors signed a statement supporting the President’s decree–not surprisingly, as under Ukraine’s centralized political structure, the governors are appointed by the President.* The councils, on the other hand, are elected. Odessa is among the regions where Prime Minister Yanukovych has his base, having won almost two thirds of the vote there in the final round of the election in which Yushchekno was elected president.

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* In both area and population, Ukraine is one of the largest countries in the world to be both a unitary state and a democracy. (And yes, Ukraine is a democracy, albeit a troubled one at this juncture.)