Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Coming Monarchy?

Azerbaijan's Milli Mejlis approved the proposed referendum to remove presidential term limits. The vote was 100 in favor, 7 opposed, 1 abstention, and 2 absences. The public vote is tentatively scheduled for March 18, 2009. Opponents of Ilham Aliyev have characterized this maneuver as an attempt to institutionalize the Aliyev family's brand of dynastic succession and scuttle any possibility of democratization. This decision, coupled with the threat of increased restrictions on foreign media broadcasts, and lack of a cohesive opposition with charismatic leadership, does not bode well for the future of competitive politics in Azerbaijan.

UPDATE (December 31, 2008): The National Television and Radio Council announced that it will bar foreign broadcasts on Azerbaijan's airwaves as of January 1, 2009. You may read reports and reactions from the BBC, RFE/RL, Voice of America, and the US State Department through the links. Russia's entertainment-oriented Europa Plus radio station also faces the ban, but makes no obvious mention of it on the website. The inclusion of Europa Plus shows the "multi vector" foreign policy approach at work; American, British, and Russian concerns are to be taken off the air. These broadcasts are not equivalent in content, however.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Election Rule Tinkering in Tajikistan?

IFES reports that a modest proposal for election reform has been prepared for consideration by the Majlisi Oli. The recommended rule changes address party representation on electoral commissions and election observation. Governing parties in many post-Soviet states have effectively managed the balloting process in their favor by controlling the institutions that administer elections and adjudicate disputes.

Unfortunately, guaranteeing wider representation on election commissions does not prevent fraud. For example, as an observer in Ukraine's 2004 presidential election, I witnessed an unbalanced electoral commission admit questionable ballots favoring Viktor Yanukovych while denying analogous ballots favoring Viktor Yushchenko. The commission included members representing minor candidates from the first round of balloting who were "covert" supporters of Yanukovych. Membership rules allowed politicians to load commissions in their favor by sponsoring or co-opting minor candidates. Expanding committee membership can facilitate other forms of manipulation and fraud as political actors adapt to the rules and their incentives. However, improving representation on electoral commissions is an important step forward.

Election Rules vs. Parliamentary Regulations

Ukraine's politicians have regularly explored election rule reform to enhance their outcomes at the polls and increase their policy-making authority. The first post-Soviet election featured 450 constituencies, with winners selected via a modified majority runoff system and negative ballots. Voters would cross out the names of candidates that they opposed; candidates could only win a seat with a majority of positive votes. Because many districts did not produce clear winners, multiple by-elections were held and many constituencies went unrepresented. Election rule reform prior to the 1998 parliamentary election instituted a mixed electoral system, with 225 seats filled in constituencies using a plurality rule, and 225 seats filled through a national-level party list with a 4% threshold.

While conducting research in Kyiv in 1999, I spoke with one of the authors of the law instituting mixed election rules. He believed that the rules were more democratic, functioned better than the previous system, and would provide benefits to his political party (Rukh). This combination of normative and strategic motivations has influenced other reform efforts.

Prior to the 2002 elections, opposition politicians attempted to institute a fully proportional system in place of the mixed electoral system (as well as attempting to modify the mixed system). Although bills passed through the Verkhovna Rada, President Leonid Kuchma vetoed them. President Kuchma's position on PR changed after the 2002 election, and he packaged election rule change with a constitutional reform bill to co-opt legislators from the Communist Party and Socialist Party. Closed-list PR with a 3% threshold has been used in the last two parliamentary elections, held in 2006 and 2007.

With recent talk of another pre-term election, several election rule reform proposals have been floating around Kyiv. One proposal would have the party gaining the plurality in the PR vote earn minimally 226 seats (to guarantee a majority). A variant on this proposal would feature two rounds of competition (with the top two parties competing for a majority in a second round).

Since election rules have not produced a clear and stable majority, politicians have turned to other devices. Unlike other reform efforts that featured at least a normative veneer, the most recent proposal is designed solely for short-term strategic gains. Nazar Boyko reports in Obkom that politicians from the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko have targeted parliamentary regulations as mechanism to gain advantages.

Boyko notes: "В зарегистрированном проекте постановления Андрей Портнов, не мудрствуя лукаво, предлагает упразднить норму регламента, которая предполагает необходимость личных подписей народных депутатов при создании коалиции. Бютовец считает, что уже самих списков членов депутатских фракций, которые формируют коалицию, будет вполне достаточно. ...Также Андрей Портнов не прочь пересмотреть порядок приостановления деятельности коалиции. Сейчас существование коалиции прекращается в случае, если происходит уменьшение численного состава коалиции к количеству народных депутатов, меньшему, чем определено Конституцией Украины. Портнов решил перекроить на свой лад: деятельность коалиции прекращается в случае выхода из состава коалиции депутатской фракции, вследствие чего количество депутатов в депутатских фракциях, сформировавших коалицию, стало меньшим, чем определено Конституцией."

The recent coalition breakdown was due, in part, to the narrow majority of seats claimed by its two participants (Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense) and the weakness of Ukrainian parties. Because parties have few tools to ensure deputy loyalty, deputies can defect from the leadership's preferences with limited consequences. The proposed change to parliamentary regulations would allow a coalition to form without obtaining the signatures of all members. Rather, the coalition would require that at the time of its formation, the participating factions have at least 226 members. Under this rule, a coalition could break down, but formally continue to exist with a small minority of deputies supporting it.

This proposal, like many other efforts at institutional reform in Ukraine, focuses on the short-term goals of its sponsors. While this proposal would strengthen the current coalition's position, it could generate a crisis of legitimacy if the coalition loses support among deputies. Moreover, this institutional reform sets an uncomfortable precedent by formalizing a "majority" coalition but precluding standard mechanisms to remove under-performing governments. Expect to see more proposals like this one down the line.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Reform in Kazakhstan?

Several post-Soviet countries have recently adopted proportional representation (PR) electoral systems for their national legislatures. While PR is traditionally associated with multiparty politics, results in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia have produced one-party dominant parliaments. In addition to national closed-list PR, all three countries feature high thresholds, registration challenges for opposition parties, and unbalanced media coverage favoring dominant politicians and their allied parties.

Kazakhstan's last election results were the most egregiously one-sided: only Nur-Otan gained seats in parliament. These results created a problem of perception, as Kazakhstan aspired to have a term chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the time of the election. Despite concerns about its democratic credentials, Kazakhstan was granted the position in 2010. However, the OSCE expected Kazakhstan's government to make institutional reforms. Eurasianet reports that several election rule changes are being discussed, including a modified threshold (retaining 7%, but admitting a second party if only one wins), and lowering the signature requirement for parties (currently, Kazakhstan has the most restrictive registration rules in the region, requiring 50,000 signatures for parties - roughly 1 out of every 306 Kazakh citizens).

The Eurasianet article notes that the proposed changes have been criticized by major opposition parties. Indeed, the proposed changes are minor, and would likely produce ersatz pluralism. Previous elections have generated multiparty parliaments, but parliamentary support of the president has not been in question since 1995.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Observing the Observers

Governments in many post-Soviet states have accused international election observation missions of unfair practices, double-standards, and excessively negative reports. By contrast, participants in some missions have argued that international and domestic pressure sometimes leads to improperly flattering assessments.

Monday's New York Times profiled problems with election observation in post-Soviet states. The most pointed criticism was directed at missions dispatched by the Commonwealth of Independent States. While CIS standards seem to be low to non-existent (CIS observers do not seem to have witnessed an election that, from their perspective, fails to meet international standards), all organizations could improve the quality of election observation missions.

As Thomas Carothers and others noted in the Journal of Democracy over a decade ago, many international observation teams are inadequately trained, lack relevant language skills, and focus too much attention on election day activities. The need to quickly issue reports the day after balloting precludes careful analysis of the data collected in the field. On a related note, the organizations conducting missions do not seem to make the raw data and observer commentaries collected in polling sites publicly available, undermining transparency and confidence in the summary reports. All observer organizations, not only the CIS, could benefit from improvements in their methods of observing elections.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Looking Forward to 2009

Several post-Soviet states should hold elections in 2009.

Moldova is due for parliamentary elections in the spring, and politicians are already preparing for balloting. President Vladimir Voronin recently rejected an EU recommendation to lower the relatively high 6% electoral threshold. This barrier has enhanced the proportion of wasted votes (23.5% in 1998, 17.8% in 2001, and 14.7% in 2005) and has prevented some parties with reasonable levels of electoral support from gaining seats (e.g., Democratic Party of Moldova in 2001). The threshold has also enhanced disproportionality in seat allocation, benefiting the Party of Communists which took 55% of the seats with 46% of the vote in 2005. While rejecting efforts to lower the threshold, Voronin's Party of Communists has proposed a law requiring candidates to be vetted by security services prior to gaining ballot access. This effort, coupled with the possible closure of an independent TV station, does not augur well for improvements in the quality of elections.

On the heels of its parliamentary election and referendum on the Ignalina power plant in 2008, Lithuania should hold a presidential contest in late spring 2009. While some sources characterized the parliamentary election as having an anti-EU flavor, this interpretation was challenged by a Lithuanian blogger and political observer. The referendum on extending the life of the Ignalina plant implied that Lithuanians might challenge EU rulings, but it failed. The election produced a highly fragmented parliament (with the effective number of electoral parties index at nearly 9). Homeland Union was the "winner," but it garnered only 45 seats, or 26% of the Seimas. The coalition government, confirmed on December 9, 2008, leans center-right and includes: Homeland Union (PM, plus finance, foreign affairs, economy, social security/labor, agriculture, and defense portfolios), Liberal Movement (Justice, Transport and Communications, Education and Science), Liberal Center Party (Health and Interior), and National Resurrection Party (Environment and Culture). With the previous presidential election in 2004 following the impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas, the upcoming election should be highly contested.

The biggest question mark on the 2009 election calendar is Ukraine. After President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree to dissolve parliament and hold early elections in December 2008, a new coalition seems to have taken hold. While an agreement among the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense, and the Bloc of Volodymyr Lytvyn was signed on December 16, the power struggle is far from over. President Yushchenko is exploring the expulsion of deputies from his party who supported the coalition. An early parliamentary election is not out of the question. The presidential election, due five years after the remarkable 2004 election, may take place in late 2009 or early 2010.

A Third Term for Ilham Aliyev?

The New Azerbaijan Party has proposed that the Milli Mejlis approve a referendum to lift the two-term limit for the president. Referendums have been used in many post-Soviet states to extend presidential terms, or to allow presidents to stand for office when their terms expire (e.g., Belarus in 2004, Kyrgyzstan in 1994, Kazakhstan in 1995, Tajikistan in 1999 and 2003, Turkmenistan in 1994, and Uzbekistan in 1995 and 2002).

Update on Turkmenistan's Parliamentary Elections, 2008

Reported turnout returned to its typically high level in 2008. The 2004 parliamentary election yielded an unusually low 77% turnout, but officials indicated that turnout was 94% in 2008. To put these results in context, no other "election" in Turkmenistan since Soviet collapse yielded less than 98% reported turnout. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, ethnic Uzbeks planned to boycott the polls due to a lack of Uzbek candidates contesting seats.

RFE/RL discusses official and unofficial reactions to the election process. Certified results should be announced next week.

Monday, December 15, 2008

E-stonia Moves Forward on Mobile Voting

The Riigikogu recently approved legislation to permit voting by mobile phones in the 2011 parliamentary election. News reports indicate that citizens will use electronic identification to verify their identities. However, voting outside of polling places raises the possibility of several forms of fraud: citizens could be pressured to cast votes in a particular way or to allow another person to cast their ballot.

Turkmenistan's Parliamentary Elections, 2008

After constitutional reform in the fall that included the addition of 75 parliamentary seats (expanding the Mejlis from 50 to 125 seats), Turkmenistan held parliamentary elections on Sunday, December 14, 2008. Turkmenistan retained its majority-runoff system (see the election law (in Russian) for full details). The OSCE did not send a full observation mission but dispatched an expert team and produced a needs assessment report.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission unsurprisingly concluded that the elections complied with democratic norms. Other sources were more skeptical (see additional news items below). The official Turkmenistan news agency published the CIS report; an excerpt (in Russian) follows:

Миссия наблюдателей от Содружества независимых государств считает, что выборы депутатов Меджлиса Туркменистана, состоявшиеся 14 декабря 2008 года, проведены в соответствии с действующим в государстве избирательным законодательством и общепризнанными нормами проведения демократических выборов; признает прошедшие парламентские выборы свободными и открытыми; констатирует, что выборы явились важным фактором дальнейшей демократизации общественной жизни Туркменистана, еще более укрепили основы государственного суверенитета и демократические устои страны, стали отражением стабильного поступательного социально-экономического развития государства.

News stories on Turkmenistan's 2008 parliamentary election:
Agence France Presse
Turkmenistan - The Golden Age (official Turkmenistan news agency)