Saturday, January 31, 2009

More Protests

Citizens in Georgia and Russia have recently taken to the streets to challenge sitting governments. In Georgia, the opposition to President Mikheil Saakashvili has renewed its efforts to oust him from the presidency and hold new elections for the executive and legislative branches. The participation of Nino Burjanadze, a respected politician and erstwhile ally of Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution, increases the clout of anti-government actors. Strong opposition leadership, along with the repercussions of the financial crisis and the brief war with Russia in August 2008, could facilitate mobilization efforts. If critical government institutions, such as the security services, are reticent to support Saakashvili, the opposition could make progress on its demands. However, people are notoriously difficult to mobilize.

In Russia, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations about the government's response to the economic crisis were held on Saturday in several cities. Anti-government protesters called for the ouster of Prime Minister Putin; pro-government protesters expressed support for the government's efforts to combat the economic crisis. Unlike the opposition in Georgia, Russia's opposition does not appear to have a unified, charismatic leadership. Moreover, the main government institutions and media continue to support the president and prime minister. Mobilization is undermined by government repression and limited access to the national media. However, economic crisis could be used as a pretense to hold early elections, providing an opportunity for the prime minister to return to the presidency (with extended term limits). For various interpretations of the events in Russia, see: BBC, Lenta.ru, RIA Novosti, RFE/RL, and the New York Times.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Other Elections in Russia

After holding national-level elections for parliament in late 2007 and president in early 2008, no major contests are officially on the horizon in Russia. Nevertheless, 2009 has already featured interesting voting opportunities.

The death of the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch, Alexey II, prompted an election of his successor. Similar to the election of the Roman Catholic Pope, the voting procedure involves a limited selectorate primarily consisting of high-ranking Church officials (in this case, the 702-member Local Council that includes "bishops, priests, monks, and laymen"). In contrast to papal elections, the election featured a campaign that turned negative. In addition, the Local Council cast secret ballots with journalists present (only the deliberations were closed). Three candidates contested the position (although one withdrew before the final vote), and Metropolitan Kirill won 508 votes (72%). While elections of religious figures provide limited opportunities for analysis, especially because most of the data are not publicly available, some interesting work has been done (e.g., Colomer and McLean (1998), an article that applies social choice theory to early papal elections).

Some of Russia's regions are also holding local elections, including Kostroma and Bryansk. Svobodanews.ru has posted interesting commentary.

Sources for the Patriarch elections:
Moscow Times
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Reuters
RIA Novosti

Photo courtesy of Reuters, Alexander Natruskin, January 25, 2009.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Potential Election Law Reforms in Russia

Vladislav Surkov, the first deputy chief of the presidential administration, announced yesterday that proposals to modify party registration and parliamentary election rules will be forwarded to the Duma. If the reforms move forward as outlined, signature requirements for party registration will be lowered roughly in half (to 100,000-120,000) with a final target of 30,000-35,000 (no timetable was set for the final reduction). In addition, the electoral threshold will be modified. While the 7% threshold will remain, parties receiving over 5% of the vote will receive token representation in parliament.

These potential reforms are similar to recent changes proposed in Kazakhstan; minor tinkering that may expand competition, but only on the margins.

Thanks to Johnson's Russia List for the story.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Opening Salvos

The major players in Kyiv are officially setting their sights on the upcoming presidential election. President Yushchenko has proposed a January 17, 2010 election date, a position supported by Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. Yuliya Tymoshenko's parliamentary party has proposed an earlier election date, December 27, 2009. President Yushchenko is looking for the next plenary session scheduled for next week to resolve the timing of the presidential election; Tymoshenko's party plans to propose changes to the legislation on presidential elections.

These exchanges are the opening salvos in the presidential race. The timing could affect turnout, with BYuT's proposed date falling before the major winter holidays and the president's proposed date falling just after them (Старый Новый год will be on January 13, 2010). But, this debate is minor compared to the battles yet to come.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Two Updates

Several news sources are reporting that the People's Party, the main party in Latvia's coalition government, supports the idea of early elections (see, for example, the CBS News adaptation of the AP wire story, and the Baltic Times). A new election date has not yet been set, however.

Whereas the timing and outcome of Latvia's (potential) early election are unknown, Azerbaijan's referendum increasingly looks like a foregone conclusion. Azerireport cites an interview in Bizim Yol in which a Ministry of Education official reportedly notes that a new textbook on the constitution includes changes that have not yet been approved by the March 2009 referendum. If confirmed, this report suggests that Azerbaijan's government is dispensing with the pretense of a competitive vote this spring.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kazakhstan's Election Law Change

Kazakhstan's upper house (Senate) approved changes to the Law on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan and Law on Political Parties (discussed in a previous post. Also see today's press releases by the Khabar News Agency and Associated Press). The main modifications include a provision to allocate seats to at least two political parties, even if only one passes the 7% threshold, and a reduction in the total number of signatures required for party registration to 40,000 (from 50,000) and a minimum of 600 in each region. Opposition politicians have advocated for a lower threshold (3%) and better representation on electoral commissions.

The primary audience for these reforms is external. By making changes that President Nazarbayev promised in the summer, Kazakhstan demonstrates that it is eager to claim the chairmanship of the OSCE and is willing to make modest institutional changes to mollify critics. Once signed by President Nazarbayev, these changes will have a limited effect on politics in Kazakhstan. The most likely outcome is for a second pro-government party to gain a modest number of seats in the next parliamentary election.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Financial Crisis and Elections?

A potential consequence of the worldwide financial crisis is early elections, as economic pressure undermines public confidence in sitting governments. In the post-Soviet region, several governments have been hit hard, but it is in Latvia where pressure for early elections has increased. Earlier today, a protest calling for new elections turned violent in Riga. The BBC reported that 10,000 people participated in the initial, peaceful protest, the largest political demonstration since Latvia regained independence. Also see the Baltic Times and Chas (in Russian) for coverage. Photo: Reuters/Ints Kalnins (Latvia)

UPDATE (1/14/09): The New York Times reports that President Valdis Zatlers may call a referendum on dissolving parliament and holding early elections.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

While last year's trends in the post-Soviet region were not solely negative, the year featured few bright spots for proponents of free and fair elections as the primary path to policy-making power. The use of electoral mechanisms to institutionalize authoritarian rule advanced in several post-Soviet states in 2008, and is likely to continue in 2009.
  • All three states in the South Caucasus held elections of dubious quality (Presidential elections took place in Georgia (January 2008), Armenia (February 2008), and Azerbaijan (October 2008). Georgia held a parliamentary election in May 2008 and a placed two referendum questions on the ballot during the January presidential election). In Azerbaijan, major opposition parties boycotted the presidential election and did not stage post-election protests. Next year's referendum to eliminate term limits will create conditions for a "hereditary dictatorship" (as a commenter on a previous post designated it).
  • Central Asia's electoral calendar was relatively quiet in 2008, save for the one-party "contest" in Turkmenistan (December 2008). Proposals for election rule tinkering in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan will not fundamentally alter the environment for political competition if/when they are enacted in 2009.
  • Three European post-Soviet states held elections in 2008. Russia's March presidential election and Belarus' September parliamentary election provided little drama. Next door, Lithuania's October parliamentary election and referendum were hotly contested. Several political maneuvers set the stage for decreased competition in the region. Last week, the proposal to extend presidential term limits in Russia moved forward as the Federation Council approved the bill following its endorsement by regional legislatures. On December 30, 2008, President Medvedev signed the bill which also extended the term of parliamentary deputies from four to five years. The regime's success in co-opting Nikita Belykh, the former leader of the defunct Union of Right Forces and (former) regime critic, underscores the lack of political space for the opposition in contemporary Russia. Moldova's rejection of a reduction in the electoral threshold, and addition of a vetting requirement for candidates via security services, undermines open contestation. While Ukraine has not yet moved away from competitive electoral politics, chaotic political machinations in the capital city, including the threat of an early parliamentary election and inability of the government to respond to financial, energy, and infrastructure crises, test the limits of the public's patience for democratic politics.