Brazil: President ousted by Senate

As expected, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been ousted by a vote of the Senate following her impeachment trial.

Not much time for blogging right now (as has been the case for a while–obviously), but a few quick observations follow.

I said at the time that she needed to lose her reelection bid; it was quite close. While some folks are looking at this and saying it shows why Brazil should have adopted a parliamentary system, I actually think presidentialism serves Brazil pretty well. I admit it is harder (again) to make that case this year.

Another way of stating my point is that the PT was quite good for Brazil for 12 years. The PT needed presidentialism to make it into power. And, no, I know I am not supposed to evaluate a regime type based on who wins (although I liked presidentialism here better as soon as Obama won!). But I really think parliamentartism in Brazil would be an ugly mess; the PT is one of the few major parties that is at all programmatic. And it probably would have been consigned to permanent opposition under a parliamentary regime, with shifting coalitions based on particularism and cronyism and not much on policy responsibility.

In any case, actual parliamentarism was never really on the table in the period following military rule, as far as I know. Back in the 1980s when the current constitution was drafted, what was called the “parliamentary” option actually was semi-presidential. And that might not be such a bad option for Brazil, but given the nature of the party system, it would still likely lean pretty strongly presidential, more-or-less regardless of the formal powers.

Of all the news stories I pulled up in searching on this, I noticed that most of them said that the Brazilian Senate had “impeached” the president today. As I understand that term, no, she was impeached already by the Chamber. The term means to bring charges, after all. Today she was convicted and removed.

And, no, it is not a “coup”. This follows the constitutional procedures. Whether the charges are “valid” or not is a separate question; the constitutional bodies with the responsibility in such cases said they were.

Some have said it is a bad precedent. The main precedent is it’s really bad to fail to retain even one third of the legislators’ backing, even if you have a “fixed” term.



Austria’s presidency

Today Austrians voted in the runoff for their presidency. Latest reports suggest it is going to be a very close result. The candidates are Norbert Hofer from the populist/nationalist (“far right”) Freedom Party and Alexander Van der Bellen, of the Green Party although running as an independent.

The notion of a second round with a nationalist and a green as the two candidates is remarkable. I am sure there is no other runoff pairing like it in the annals of presidential elections.

That the establishment parties are in trouble is not news. In 2013 the Social Democrat and center-right People’s Party barely combined for half the votes and formed a not-so-grand coalition. In the first round of this year’s presidential election, on 24 April, their candidates could not even combine for a quarter of the votes! In fact, the Social Democrat got 11.3% and the People’s Party candidate managed 11.1%. Hofer led with 35.1%, and Van der Bellen trailed well behind at 21.3%–still nearly doubling what either of the establishment parties could manage. (An independent candidate finished third, with 18.9%.)

The BBC item (first link) says that Austria’s presidency “is a largely ceremonial post”. An earlier version followed up that statement by noting that the president can dismiss the government, and that Hofer has promised to do so if elected. One might question whether a president who can, on his or her political initiative, dismiss a government that has the confidence of parties controlling a majority of parliamentary seats, is “ceremonial”; in any case, the current version of the BBC story adds instead that:

a victory for Mr Hofer could be the springboard for Freedom Party success in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2018.

Yes indeed. Even weak presidencies, when elected, can have this effect (Samuels and Shugart, 2010). The first round already led to a leadership crisis within the coalition, as the Social Democratic leader and premier (Chancellor), Werner Faymann, resigned.

The Austrian presidency actually has quite significant constitutional powers. In fact, it would be a “president parliamentary” system, according to formal powers. This is the hybrid in which the popularly elected president does indeed have powers to dismiss a government. Presidents have not actually deployed these powers in the past, owing to the “establishment” consensus that the system should operate in a fundamentally parliamentary manner. However, a president from outside this consensus could certainly be expected to attempt to deploy the powers.

And, oh by the way, among the powers of initiative that the Austrian presidency has is the right to dissolve parliament. So that election “scheduled for 2018” may be coming a bit sooner.

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.

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.

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.

Congressional seat for presidential runner-up

A package of political reforms is wending its way through the Colombian congress (yes, again). Among the provisions is one that would grant an automatic seat in the Senate to the runner-up in the presidential election.

I am aware of one other country that has (had?) such a provision: Nicaragua under its 1987 constitution. Are there others that readers are aware of?

The appeal of this sort of measure might stem from “parliamentary envy”: In parliamentary systems, it is almost guaranteed that the prime ministerial candidates of the main losing parties (as well as the leaders of other parties) will have seats in the legislature. On the other hand, what if a defeated party replaces its leader, as is actually quite common in parliamentary systems?* The new leader typically also has a seat in parliament, but under the “defeated presidential candidate” provision, a change in leadership would not change who represents the party as its “opposition leader”. This seems less than helpful to establishing “opposition guarantees” (the name of the constitutional amendment bill in Colombia).

Basically, it seems to me that members of an elected legislative body should have to win seats themselves (via whatever candidate-selection processes and electoral system apply to the body), rather than be given one via the outcome of the executive election. That is, the measure strikes me as a poor substitute for strengthening parties such that the opposition to the president has a platform in the legislature. Of course, Colombia has tried various such measures since its major constitutional process of 1991 (and earlier). And they keep coming up short.

The Colombian bill goes one step farther: the running mate of the runner-up would get a seat in the House of Representatives. Because, after all, there are few things more valuable to national discourse than defeated vice-presidential candidates.

* Very recent example: the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties resigned their positions (though will remain MPs) immediately after the British election.