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Afghanistan's second election: not exactly democratic consolidation

Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of "two turnover test" that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of "democratic consolidation".
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States' own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the "two turnover test" means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.

Anti-reform actors hover over Indonesia’s coming elections

Indonesia’s democracy is being increasingly tested by the triple challenges of anti-reform actors, a high-level political malaise and popular disenchantment with the electoral process.

Prabowo Subianto accepts the Great Indonesia Movement Party nomination for the 2014 presidential election (Photo: Wikipedia).

One indicator of this has been an increasing tendency by the Indonesian military (TNI) to reassert itself into the political debate. Indonesia is heading into legislative elections in April and presidential elections in July on the back of poor performance by the country’s politicians, turning off voters in droves. Against this backdrop, one of Indonesia’s most senior army generals has raised the spectre of the army’s return to involvement in politics.

Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, has criticised Indonesia’s democracy as ‘empty’ and said that popular will expressed through elections is not always right. As a panacea, Nurmantyo has called for a reassertion of the nationalist ideology of Pancasila (five principles), which underpinned Suharto’s three decades as military-backed president.

Nurmantyo’s comments, made to a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally in October, reflect an increasing confidence by TNI hard-liners in challenging restrictions on military contact with politics. It was this hard-line faction of the TNI that helped end Indonesia’s military reform process around the time that President Yudhoyono began his second term as president.

Yudhoyono’s second term has been widely viewed as, at best, lack-lustre, and his Democratic Party-led government has been plagued by a series of corruption scandals. With other political parties fairing little better and ‘money politics’ dominating local electoral contests, popular support for Indonesia’s democratic process is in decline.

A series of surveys have shown that Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral participation rate may slump to below half. There is even an appetite among many voters for a return to ‘strong’ leadership, with a preference for candidates with a military background.

In a political environment in which one of the two front-runners for the presidency is former military hard-liner Lieutenant General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, Nurmantyo’s breaking of over a decade of military silence on domestic politics signals a potential alternative to Indonesia’s democratic path.

Prabowo’s popularity is behind Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the presidential polls. But Jokowi, himself a populist, does not yet have the backing of a major political party that is required for presidential nomination. Political support — if it comes — will be from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has also demonstrated pro-military leanings at times.

Democracy in developing states tends to be vulnerable to reversal, particularly where the military remains primarily focused on internal rather than external threats. While Indonesia’s electoral system will very likely be retained, the potential for it to be restricted in ways that render voting more or less meaningless, as under Suharto, cannot be ruled out.

Nurmantyo’s controversial address to the PP was explained away, unconvincingly, by a senior politician as not contravening a ban on military personnel being involved in politics as it focused on the state ideology of Pancasila. The PP itself was founded by the TNI in 1959, soon after the military became directly involved in domestic politics.

Initially a civilian front for the military, the PP quickly degenerated into an organisation of thugs and criminals who often undertook dirty work on behalf of the Suharto regime. It has more recently been involved in violent turf wars with other gangs and remains associated with particular factions within the TNI.

Nurmantyo’s comments are not just the ravings of a military extremist, as he has been viewed as a rising star in the Indonesian army. His hard-line views saw him recently passed over for the position of army commander, but with a more conservative president in office following the July elections it is possible that Nurmantyo’s military career could again rise.

Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation. Set against growing voter apathy, generals such as Nurmantyo are well positioned to push Indonesia even further away from its recent path of reform.

Jokowi is a populist and has not enunciated a clear policy position. He may not be as pro-military as Prabowo, but his views on the military and the nature of democracy are largely unknown. If he was put forward by PDI-P — which is not looking hopeful at this stage — he would be required to follow PDI-P policy, such as it is, which is ‘preservation of national unity’ above all, which in turn is code for a greater role for the TNI.

The likelihood of Indonesia further entrenching its democratic credentials will require a win by a convincingly reform-oriented presidential candidate. Scanning of Indonesia’s political field just months away from the elections, however, holds out limited hope.

Myanmar: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the United National Development Party (UNDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the UNDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Burma backgrounder: it is not a democracy (yet)

Just having Burma’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.

But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar's still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.

There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.

But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.

So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.

Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.

The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a "Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy", enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.

Suu Kyi’s Australian -- and international -- campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.

Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.

But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.

Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the USDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.

To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.

This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.

Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.

So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions "constitutional reform" or "change", she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.

Cambodian election: Hun Sen losing his tight grip on power

The only surprise in Cambodia’s elections over the weekend was that the victory for Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party was reduced to a comfortable rather than an overwhelming majority. For a "democracy" in which the ruling party and the state machine are, in effect, as one and there are widespread allegations of electoral fraud, the CPP’s reduced majority was a slap in the face to Hun Sen (pictured, after voting) and his strong-man style of government.

The CPP lost 29 seats to end up with a majority of just eight, for a total of 68 of the Cambodian Parliament's 123 seats. This means the CPP no longer has the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution.

Egypt leader's power play shows how messy revolutions can be

If it was intended as an act of sneaky rat cunning -- first get elected and then seize total power -- Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi's edicts last Thursday which have thrown the country into turmoil were both painfully transparent as well as being a high-risk gamble.

 Exempting presidential decrees from judicial review fundamentally challenges the idea of separation of powers, which is critical to democratic functioning, is on the face of it an anti-democratic act. However, Egypt's judiciary remains that which was appointed by previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and there was real concern that it could, with the stroke of a pen, roll back the revolution.

The judiciary's hobbling of Egypt's parliament showed it is certainly not averse to wielding its power in overtly political ways.

Timor-Leste's 'business as usual' government

When Timor-Leste's new Cabinet was announced, there was a flurry of critical comment within Timor-Leste, about both the size and composition of the ministry. Some critics were unhappy that an expanded ministry would cost more and potentially lead to more corruption while others railed against Timor-Leste becoming an ‘oligarchy’ rather than a democracy.
The positive aspect of this commentary is that is shows that Timor-Leste is a plural political society expressing a range of political views. It is also important to note that while some of the commentary reflected partisan political positions, much of it also reflected a genuine concern over the size and capacity of the government.
The new ministry, with 17 ministers, is not especially large by any standard and is much smaller than many of other countries. The criticism therefore reflects on the inclusion of vice-ministers and secretaries of state, who exercise quasi-ministerial functions.

Democratic Consolidation in Timor-Leste

The results of the parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste on Saturday have resulted in two outcomes, the first of which is a major boost in the vote for CNRT, the party of prime minister Xanana Gusmao, from 24 per cent to 36 per cent of the total vote. The second and more important outcome has been the consolidation of the democratic process in Timor-Leste just ten years after achieving independence.
After changing government in 2007, the people of Timor-Leste have again voted strategically, to focus their vote on the major parties, with CNRT taking much of the vote away from the many smaller parties which tended to reflect personalities rather than policies or party positions.
CNRT will probably form government with one or possible two coalition partners. Of the 21 parties that contested the poll, 17 now appear to have missed the cut-off threshold of three per cent, leaving just four, possibly five, represented in the parliament.

Timor-Leste: 10 years of independence

On Sunday 20 May, East Timor will celebrate ten years of independence. As a nation born from the ashes of destruction, its first decade has been marked by problems and set-backs. Many in East Timor, not least its outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, lament a lack of development since independence. Ramos-Horta notes that the international community has spent billions of dollars in East Timor, yet most East Timorese remain amongst the world’s poorest people. But a little over a year ago, Ramos-Horta said that the country had never been better. The question is, in part, whether the metaphorical glass is half empty or half full. It is also, in part, whether the speaker – in this case Ramos-Horta – had a political score to settle. In early 2011, Ramos-Horta was still firmly in Gusmao’s political tent. A year later, he is an ex-president outside that tent. Many East Timorese have also been disappointed with independence.

Consolidating Democracy

As Timor-Leste moves towards marking the 10th anniversary of its independence and completing the third round of its national elections, the question arises as to whether it has consolidated its democracy. The assumption is that consolidating democracy is a necessary step towards ending internal conflict and regularising the affairs of the state. But, the second question is, when one talks about consolidating democracy, what they mean by the term? Having three sets of elections at regular intervals is certainly a good sign of democratic consolidation in Timor-Leste. Yet elections alone do not comprise democracy. Indonesia had regular elections between 1977 and 1997 under its New Order government, yet it was very far from being a democratic state at that time. It is not enough to have the formal procedure of democracy; one also requires the substance, if the term is to have meaning.

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