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Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

datePosted on 12:00, January 19th, 2018 by Pablo

12 weeks after the election the Green Party’s 14th ranked candidate in 2017 opts out of politics and joins a morning television program. Shortly after the election it is discovered that one of their new MPs fudged her credentials as a human rights lawyer. Another successful newcomer has a more established social media presence than the business experience she claims to have. The former co-leader was ousted after volunteering (at whose behest is still a mystery) that she committed benefit and electoral fraud when younger.

The first three people replaced seasoned politicians such as Kennedy Graham, who capably handled his MP responsibilities (Mojo Mathers, an eloquent champion of the disabled, just missed out entering parliament at number 9 on the list, having been leapfrogged by neophytes at numbers 7 and 8). Two of the three new candidates mentioned above come from well-to-do Auckland backgrounds (which is a stretch from the traditional Greens grassroots) and share with the third (another Aucklander) a complete lack of political experience other than undergraduate degrees and campaigning for office. The unsuccessful list candidate-turned-TV-bubblehead recently is quoted as saying that her single greatest moment was to be invited onto a TV dancing show rather that being selected as a candidate for a party that she once said she felt “passionate” about.

Let me clear that I am sure that the ACT Party attracts weirdos and self-aggrandized liars in droves, and that even the two major parties and NZ First could well have people with inflated resumes and/or dubious backgrounds on their MP rosters. But I expect more from the Greens because they are supposed to be the truth that speaks to power in parliament and the idealists who hold parliamentary cynics in check as well as keep Labour honest from the Left side of the table. So I am a bit disappointed by how things played out in the run up and aftermath of the election.

Beyond the fact that all the list shake ups in 2017 managed to do is lose the Greens votes when compared to the previous elections (11 percent and 14 seats in 2011, 10.70 percent and 14 seats in 2014 to 6.3 percent and 8 seats in 2017), they also resulted in the Greens being the third-party step-child in the Labour-NZ First led government coalition. The distribution of cabinet seats is evidence of that (no Green minsters in a 20 member Cabinet). The Greens may claim that the 2017 list was the “strongest ever” but if so the strength being measured did not translate into votes or political power. In fact, one can argue that their strength, such at it is, lies in the first six names on the list, with what followed being a mix of opportunistic shoulder tapping for newcomers and insult to steadfast old-timers.

Renovation and rejuvenation are always part of any Party’s reproductive process, but in this instance what resulted was a political still birth.

Given what I outlined in the first paragraph, I think that to some degree this is due to poor candidate vetting and selection processes within the Greens. In 2017 the operative campaign logic appeared to be about style over substance and the seemingly naive belief that everything a candidate claimed to be true about themselves was in fact true. This is dangerous because not only do political opponents have the means to verify candidate claims in a hostile manner (as was seen in the case of the human rights lawyer), but it leaves the Party exposed to ridicule and marginalisation should candidates with doctored or inflated resumes be shown to be inept or incompetent in fulfilling roles assigned to them because of their supposed expertise.

Again, this is of no consequence when we talk about blowhard parties like ACT. Nor do I wish to be mean to the people in question (I simply think they needed to spend more time honing their political skills by working for the party and/or in public policy-related fields). But the Greens worked hard for two decades to be taken seriously on the national stage and it would be a pity if they squander the gains made by allowing unqualified candidates/MPs to champion their cause without proper due diligence having been done on their backgrounds. Because at the rate they are going (losing more than four percentage points compared to the previous two elections), the Greens risk following the path of the Maori Party into political oblivion.

A walking Tui ad?

datePosted on 06:57, October 20th, 2017 by Pablo

The election turned out OK as far as I am concerned. My decision to support Labour after years of supporting the Greens seems to have paid off as they are now leading the new government. The Greens were punished for their shift from red to blue at their core and for bringing in neophytes onto their list, but not too much (although I still have serious reservations about their ideological direction and one of their new MPs). Save for ACT the various useless parties disappeared. And the Nats got what they deserved, which was the boot, even if it took that old dog Winston to apply his toe to their posteriors. As for NZ First, time will only tell if they are the fly in the ointment or the straw that stirs the drink.

When it comes to how the new government will be organized, I am very curious to see who will be appointed Minister of Defense. Ron Mark is a likely candidate, and I have no problem with him in that role in spite of his otherwise reactionary views (apologies if the list of Ministers is out and someone else is the new MoD). With the exception of Phil Goff he will be the most informed person to assume that portfolio in the last 18 years, which is good because the NZDF have some major decisions to make when it comes to upgrading and configuring the force.  There are issues of equipment purchases, recruitment and retention, foreign alliance commitments and the overall thrust of NZDF operations that need immediate addressing. He has been critical of the lack of strategic vision on the part of NZDF and MoD leaders, so my hope is that he will push for an overhaul in the strategic thinking underpinning NZDF operations that goes beyond the periodic exercises known as Defense White Papers. And he will have to address the problem of drug abuse within the NZDF, which has been kept largely under wraps but which is large enough to run the real risk of jeopardizing operational security and/or getting someone killed.

However, when it comes to intelligence matters and the general subject of security, I have concerns about the ability of the new government to impose its will on the intelligence community and Police as well as avoid so-called “bureaucratic capture:” the situation where the lack of experience in a subject field by new overseers or managers allows career bureaucrats to shape the former’s views of the subject in ways that serve the entrenched interests of the latter. I do not see anyone in the top tiers of Labour, the Greens or NZFirst who display particular fluency in matters of intelligence and security, and when it comes to direct political oversight of the NZ intelligence community, the lack of expertise is dire.

Or let me put it in this way:

From watermelons to algae.

datePosted on 07:26, September 6th, 2017 by Pablo

For the first time since 2002 I will not be giving my party vote to the Green Party. Nor will I give my electorate vote (in Helensville) to its candidate. The rush to privilege personality over substance, to put pretty young (mostly female) faces high on the party list in spite of remarkable lack of qualifications by most of those so anointed (the exception amongst the high placed newcomers being Golriz Ghahraman, who I have respect for even though she also has little practical political experience), coupled with the abandonment of any class oriented (particularly brown working class) policy focus in favor of winning over the millennial metrosexual hipster vote, has diminished the Greens in my eyes. They all seem nice enough as individuals, but being congenial does not suffice to staff an effective political vehicle.

My disenchantment with the Greens occurred before Metiria Turei pulled the short-sighted stunt about her past record of welfare (and voting) fraud, which if clever as a politically opportunistic tactic, was incredibly foolish in light of the inevitable reaction from her opponents and the corporate media. In doing so she may have raised awareness of the plight of those needing public benefit support, but she also set back the cause of welfare reform by opening herself and every other struggling parent to charges of being prone to fraud and abuse of taxpayer-funded benefits. As an experienced politician she should have known better.

With the current line up the Greens have finished the move from Red to Blue at their core and in so doing have diminished their electoral appeal in my estimation. I recognize that I am not part of their targeted demographic and am in fact more of the demographic from which the expelled Kennedy Graham and David Clendon come from, but if the Greens wanted to expand their voter base one would have thought that they would maintain their appeal to traditional “watermelon” voters while actively recruiting the blue-green millennial vote. Instead, they appear to have decided to abandon a traditionally loyal (but shrinking due to age) group of voters in pursuit of another potentially larger but less committed one. In fact, it as if the party list selection is aimed at young urbanites under the age of 35 who prefer image and style over experience and substance. Besides being an insult to the intellect of younger voters, the stratagem also appears to have backfired, at least if recent polls are to be believed.

So goodbye to Greens it is for me. But what to do next? The Right side of the electoral ledger (including Winston First) is a non-starter, the Opportunities Party is a vanity project (albeit with the random ponderable idea), the Maori Party is, well, narrowly focused, and entities like the Internet and Mana parties are full of unsavory critters or marginal types that are best shunned rather than encouraged (I say this in spite of my affection for the likes of John Minto and Sue Bradford, but they cannot carry the can of representation all by themselves). So the options for a disgruntled Green voter are limited…

….To not voting or voting for Labour. I have thought about not voting but that would be the first time I did so in my entire adult life. Plus, the political scientist that I live with takes a very dim view of people shirking their civic responsibilities in a democracy, so I have maintaining domestic harmony to consider. Given the damage another National government can do, it therefore would be irresponsible for me to not contribute to their ouster.

Hence I am left with Labour. But therein lies the rub: Labour has stolen a page out of the Greens book and gone with a so-called youth movement in its candidate selection, including of its leadership. It too is all about a campaign based on sunshine, smiley faces and chocolates in every box. In terms of practicable politics, both Labour and the Greens campaign like debutantes at their first school ball–all hope and illusion, seemingly unaware of the practical (and often dark) realities of what happens when they come to that sort of party.

The good news is that electoral campaigns are nothing more than political icing. The cake in politics is found in the policy platform that a party has underlying it. It is where new ideas find their way into policy proposals and moves to change laws, statutes and regulations. And that is where I feel comfortable voting for Labour this year. Because, beyond the long-overdue commitment to fully legalise abortion, Labour’s policy playbook has many good ideas well worth considering. Most importantly, unlike the Greens their core policy proposals are both doable and targeted at more than their electoral base. Unlike the diminished appeal of the political equivalent of blue algae surface blooming in a stagnating electoral pond of its own making, Labour appears, for the first time in years and in spite of its campaign strategy plagiarism of the Greens, to actually have commonweal alternatives to offer that are more than the usual “National lite” policies of the last decade.

So my party vote this year goes to Labour. Perhaps I will return to the Green fold in years to come, but not now. I am undecided about the electorate vote other than to state that I would rather run rusty metal slivers under my fingernails than vote for the Green or National candidates. Perhaps the Legalize Cannabis Aotearoa crowd will run a candidate in Helensville, in which case I can vote for someone who at least admits to being high rather than someone who is riding on a cloud of flattery and sycophancy that is more divorced from the realities of practicing politics than anyone in the thrall of reefer madness.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Key exits right (on time).

datePosted on 16:17, December 5th, 2016 by Pablo

So, John Key decided to resign rather than lead his government into an election for a fourth term. Some amongst the opposition are gloating and speculating about the reason why. As someone who did not appreciate the US Right gloating over Drumpf’s election, I would simply say to my Lefty friends that there is such a thing as decorum, and that the best thing to do now is to be gracious and plan for a hard run at winning the 2017 election.

Let’s be honest. John Key is a formidable politician. When it comes to the Opposition, he came, he saw, he kicked a** and took names, then quit while he was on top. His timing is impeccable. He never lost an election and his party never lost a general election while he was leader. He saw off Helen Clark, then dispensed with Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliff and Andrew Little. In fact, at times it seemed like he was just slapping the Opposition Leader around like a cat plays with mice. Nothing burst his matey aura and kiwi-style “aw shucks,” charisma–not inappropriate touching of women, not his his radio lechery and vulgarity, not his ineptitude when it coms to responding to natural and man-made disasters, not influence peddling by his cabinet, not his going to watch high school baseball games in the US instead of attending the funerals of NZ soldiers killed in action in an (some would say futile) Afghan conflict that he sent them to, not selling off state assets, not negotiating trade agreements against the popular will. The guy is the ultimate Teflon John.

For that reason his resignation is a huge gift to the Opposition, as National would have won easily had he stuck around. Now the issue is whether this was a long-planned move, in which case National will have a succession strategy in place, or whether it was a sudden move forced by something like a serious illness in the family. If it is the latter, then the Nats have no strategy in place and the knives will come out amongst the various factions vying for the leadership. Just think of it: Collins versus Bennet versus Joyce versus English versus Bridges versus Coleman versus Brownlee versus assorted lesser lights and hangers-on. It will be epic, but Labour needs to just let them fight it out while it develops a sound policy platform for all Kiwis (capital gains tax, infrastructure development, immigration policy, etc.).

If this is a planned move and a succession strategy and electoral agenda is already in place, then Labour and its potential allies are behind the eight ball. Whoever is chosen as next National Party Leader will want to make a positive policy impact in an election year, and with National controlling the purse strings while in government until then, it is clear that it will use the advantages of incumbency to the fullest. It is therefore imperative that Labour and other opposition parties anticipate and develop a counter-proposal to whatever is going to be offered. That is a big task.

Gloating about Key’s departure just shows a lack of class, just like going hysterical about Michael Wood’s win in the Mt. Roskill by-election is reading waaaay too much into it. The general election next year is still for National to lose, and quite frankly from what I have seen of Labour recently, it is not as if it is positioning itself as a fresh alternative with a raft of innovative policy ideas. That is why it is time to get cracking on the latter.

Not so sure what the Greens intend to do, but if the announcement of their new candidate in Auckland is any indication, they are regressing rather than progressing. Time to re-assess my party vote.

It is said that the Mana and Maori parties are in talks to merge. Cue Tui ad here.

Winston First is already bleating about sinister reasons behind the PM’s departure. I say who the **** cares? He will be gone by the time the s**t hits the fan if it in fact does, so the best course is to offer viable prescriptions for a better future rather than assign blame. But then again, that is what Winston does.

I do not much like the Mr. Key or his government. His “attack the messenger” tactics of smearing decent and honest people grates on me because among his targets are people I know, including friends of mine. His politics are retrograde and money changers are about profits rather than average people, so his was a government destined to reward the upper crust rather than the plebes. But I know a good politician when I see one, and John Key was a very, very good politician.

So lets thank him, however forcedly, for his service, recognise his domination of the political landscape while in office and concentrate on making sure that his would be heirs never get close to Level 9 of the Beehive.

PS: Key says that there is no scandal and that everyone’s health is fine. So his decision to suddenly leave was deliberate and yet done as a surprise. He has, in effect, shafted his own caucus. Some think that doing so before Xmas leaves Labour in disarray. I would argue that Labour is no worse for the timing of his announcement and instead has more time to get its election campaign platform together. For whatever reason, it is National that was the target of Key’s move. Either the lure of a lucrative Blair-type post-politics career was to too much to resist, or perhaps he just got sick and tired of his National fellow travellers.

It might be the pain medication talking, as I have spent the last few days off work with tooth “issues” (googling “home dentistry” and popping pain medication like candy), but it seems like our current round of infighting in parliament occurred only because the PM was out of the country.

Like the plot of a bad teenage movie, the parents are going to be out of town and the kids have some high-jinks planned while they are away.

One can imagine John Key giving his parliamentary spawn one of those “looks” that parents give to their kids before he hopped on his plane and jetted out of NZ.

But as the plane departs into the sky one can also imagine the kids slowly turning to each other before breaking into wild grins and running around, like dogs off their leashes, free to get into whatever mischief their little heart’s desire.

Of course parents often leave one child in charge, bearing the responsibility of making sure the house does not burn down, no one kills anyone else and to prevent the squabbling that occurs when enough childlike egos congregate in one place, without any parental oversight, to achieve critical mass which descends into the inevitable ruckus where parents are then forced to wade into.

But, like the plots of the afore mentioned movies, the ability of the one responsible voice to keep calm in a sea of chaos, is but a momentary note before dark clouds gather and the whole tea party goes over the cliff.

So what are we to make of the current flap between Winston Peters, the Maori Party and National; the Kermandec issue and the MPI scandal?

First and foremost it’s very clear that Winston has taken the opportunity to flex his political muscles and remind the government who will be calling the shots in 2017 if National does not make a clean sweep of the polls. It might not have been deliberately timed to coincide with Key being away but it sure looks like it.

And while the government and the Maori Party have good reason to be miffed they have played into Winstons hands by publicly firing back at him. Winston gets to bank some more credibility with the NZ First faithful by sticking it to the Nats and “those bloody Maori” while giving all and sundry a taste of what will happen if Winston is kingmaker in next year.

Meanwhile Bill English, hereby designated as “the responsible one”, rapidly shoved Nick Smith aside as what seemed like a done deal on the Kermadec  Marine Sanctuary turned to custard and Smith proved about as useful as a chocolate fireguard on the negotiating front over fishing rights for Iwi.

Now again it might be the meds twisting my perception but my reading of the Governments logic behind the situation was this: “Maori and the Maori Party wont deal with us on the fishing rights issue and don’t agree with it so we won’t bother consulting them and just keep on trying to run this through”.

If this is the case can someone please explain what exactly were they thinking? Were they just simply unaware of this being a potential minefield of an issue or were they expecting Maori to just simply go along with this and say nothing.

In many ways it was a delicate issue from the get go with definite winners and losers no matter how it was played out and in effect, as others have pointed out, may be foreshore and seabed of this government.

Add to this Andrew Little suddenly deciding to pull Labour support for the sanctuary, and in the process giving Chris Finlayson and backhanded compliment by calling him a talented Treaty Negotiations Minister when queried about what Labour would do if they became government (which translates into “they got themselves into it, they can get themselves out of it”) and you have a right royal muck up with National now caught between its own supporters, the Maori Party and other opposition parties and with no easy solution to fix this.

And if that was not enough we have the MPI scandal just coming to a boil with phrases like “industry capture” being thrown around and NZ First making further political hay by calling for a commission of inquiry as well as other parties swinging the bat at the government piñata.

Based on a leaked report there now seems to be enough ammo to fire off more than a few shots at government, MPI and the fishing industry (including Maori owned fisheries) to make headlines well into 2017 (although I fully expect the government to throw MPI under the bus much like the CERCO prison scandal except that Nathan Guy won’t get corn holed as badly as Sam Lotu Liga was).

None of these issues are directly related but in my medication clouded mind they seem to have some linkage simply because it’s either fishing rights, fishing, Maori or the Treaty as the common thread between them all.

What is clear is that John Key will have a mess to clean up when he gets back (if he can).

Politics has made monsters of us all!

datePosted on 11:36, September 8th, 2016 by E.A.

Its a rant, no denying it.

I tried, I really tried.

Firstly I ignored all the reports coming out of Dunedin in the wake of Winstonfest 2016 that it will turn into a cat fight between Ron Mark (long serving but foul mouthed NZ First 2IC) and political mercenary Shane Jones over who will succeed Winston when he finally steps down (whenever that actually is) in one of the more interesting cases of “get your hands off my man!) We have seen in a while.

I turned the other cheek to Colin Craig’s sleazy behaviors being exposed in the press. If his chances of being an MP were slim to none before they are effectively nil now as it looks like his fellow party members (Christine; she of the extravagant spending while a civil servant, Rankin) are more than willing to publicly twist the knives in his back; also the man writes love notes with about as much passion and enthusiasm as a politically conservative Christian businessman running for office, oh wait…

But it got harder after John (I for one welcome our new reptilian overlords) Key blamed kiwi workers being lazy and drug addled as the reason for National having the immigration policies it does. Key (no pun intended) point: importing low skill workers under the guise of student and other visas allows employers to drive down wages and places anyone not willing to work for the same pay and conditions in employment limbo*. This is the equivalent to shooting someone in the foot and then complaining that they can’t walk.

By Wednesday it was getting much more difficult to tune out the noise when the government announced that it was spending 24 million dollars on housing in Auckland when the average house price was now “one meellion dollars” (which as many commentators gleefully pointed out) meant that there would be just another 24 houses up for grabs; Winston Peters decided that hypocrisy was the better part of valor (by taking someone’s money and then accusing them of being a front for the National Party); the Auditor General cleared the Niue hotel deal (but did admit that their hands were tied and their range of investigation limited); the Chiefs found themselves unable to say sorry to the one person they really needed to say sorry to (showing how much our sporting culture remains a bastion of macho BS); the blather about Helen Clark at the UN continued despite it being made clear she is not the preferred candidate (get over it, she is not going to be Sec Gen); Andrew Little called for Nick Smith to resign (about as useful as firing the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg) and our beloved PM now saying NZ and OZ are still BFF’s (despite OZ deporting back all those its deems no longer BFF and treating kiwis living there like second class citizens). I had to laugh though when the Stuff article reporting this had to include an explanation of what a BFF was.

But what finally sent me over the top was watching parliament go into melt down over the housing situation with question time being cancelled and the government fumbling the ball as the process was hijacked by the opposition. Of course it’s not one of those overseas style parliamentary melt downs like they have in Taiwan or the Philippines with legislators throwing chairs, starting bonfires in the middle of the chamber or fist fighting in the aisles (although I would have tuned into parliament TV if such things were scheduled) but just some filibustering which will peter out sooner or later.

The reason why this particular event, in a week of hard core political gibberish sent me over the top was that it perfectly encapsulates the reason why we are in the situation in the first place.

The Housing Hernia continues to grow and the chances of all this shouting and filibustering (or for that matter any wet-paper bills) actually producing a solution are zero. We have been there and we have passed the point where this process is manageable by some quick fixes or legislative tweaks and we are now heading into territory marked more by backbiting, squabbling, lots of weasel words and no actual action on the matters at hand.

You would almost think that campaigning for the 2017 election had started but this is really just a small hint of what the 2017 election will be like. If you thought that vapid hot topics and political push button issues were going to have our politicians shouting, parading and grandstanding like no tomorrow now then you ain’t seen nothing yet!

And this is the state we are in today: political ineptitude and inaction; corruption and tabloid sleaze; empty political gestures over any genuine action; political infighting; low quality political journalism as a substitute for discourse (I get the irony of writing that) and issues which need genuine attention not more political verbiage.

The summation of the situation came to me last week, as I and several co-workers were in a taxi crawling out of Auckland’s CBD towards the airport, knowing that we had given ourselves over an hour to get to the airport but still not sure if we would make it, by the taxi driver who summed up Auckland’s transport problems in one succinct sentence.

“Auckland’s roads were built when Auckland had about 800,000 people living in it, today its about 1.4 million people and by 2020 it’s expected to have 2.2 million people but all attempts to fix the roads or improve transportation have been blocked or failed.”

Even if those numbers are out somewhat the metaphor remains painfully correct and applicable to NZ at large.

In areas like immigration, housing, the environment and all the rest we are now in a state where what we had is no longer able to cope with what we have got and the people responsible for sorting these problems out (those we elect to run this country for us) remain either unwilling (in the case of National clearly captured by those who are making coin of our current misfortune) or unable (in the case of Labour being too busy sucking up to potential voters and their mortgages to ever rock the boat) or putting their own personal gain over the general welfare of the country (Winston, Peter Dunne and the rest of the gumboots) to do anything about it.

So with that in mind I am no longer able to refrain from comment (I really wanted to keep on with research on Asia for upcoming posts and not get sidetracked). I assume that this week is a combination of moon, tide, weather, biorhythms, the stock market and all sorts of other factors which have produced the political crapfest this week has been so far, and its only Thursday!

And it’s the tone of events which is the most ugly, like other countries the problems are piling up and those supposed to be in charge are turning out to be incompetent middle managers at best and corrupt clowns at worst (I favor the latter).

All of this points to the 2017 election being a real watershed election as these issues won’t go away between now and then and will surely continue to worsen while the clowns continue to bicker over ticket prices to the circus while the tent burns.

I won’t play the doom scenario card too much but we live in interesting times to say the least and calls for action continue to grow. Our current political model is not working very well but will we get any viable alternatives?

Come campaign time I expect all of these little hot potatoes to remain hot and a lot of promises to be made to fix them to an electorate which will be in an ugly mood and in no mind to hear political and economic catamites parading around shouting dogma as solutions to rising waters. Dirty politics will be front and center and media manipulation will be all over the place.

The outcome? Polarization and a parliament less and less able to address the issues (under a minority Green/Labour government with Winston staying neutral) or worse Winston backing our dear leader Key followed by further economic shenanigans from his minions for another three years (imagine the housing hernia in three years time!) or the unthinkable and a Green/NZ First/Labour hate triangle of rivalries and poison looks until its inevitable implosion.

But we kiwi voters are not blameless in this, we tolerate this state of affairs and we continue to vote for the same ugly faces, their ugly messages and their ugly acts. We are as stained and muddled as those filthy beasts in Parliament. Politics has made monsters of us all!

*- The fact that Barry Soper in the Herald felt that such a position had some merit shows how pernicious such BS attitudes are as well as highlighting how out of touch Soper is to the reality of situation (but then I never really liked his reporting anyway).

Constitutional Coups.

datePosted on 16:28, September 4th, 2016 by Pablo

When people think about coups d’etat, they tend to think about armed interruptions of the constitutional order, usually perpetrated by the military against an elected government. Such was the case with the abortive coup staged by elements of the Turkish military against the government of Recep Erdogan last July. Note that I do not say “democratically” elected governments, as usurpations of the constitutional order can also happen in electoral authoritarian regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 (only to be followed by a “full” coup against the subsequently elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013).

The traditional origins of such forms of regime change, known as golpes de estado in Spanish, do in fact hark back to military interventions against civilian governments, and that remains its most common form. But another form of coup has emerged, minus the bloodshed and state of emergency so often associated with military-led coups (I say military-led because it is very seldom the case that the armed forces act alone when moving against the government of the day). Rather than an interruption and suspension of the institutional process by military means, it is a usurpation from within the institutional order by constitutional means. Rather than bullets fired by soldiers it is ballots cast by politicians that overturn the will of the people prior to scheduled elections. The insurrectionists belong to and work within the political system. This is what is now known as a constitutional coup. In order to understand this new form of “golpismo” we need to consider two background factors.

First, liberal democracy comes in two forms: presidential and parliamentary systems. Although they are a possibility in parliamentary systems (such as having the government dissolved by the Governor General, as occurred in Pakistan in 1953 and Australia in 1975), constitutional coups most often happen in presidential systems. By their very nature parliamentary systems have built-in insurance against constitutional coups because there are established means to remove a government, specifically via votes of no-confidence followed by snap elections. The rules governing both the vote and the election may vary from country to country, and there may be a ruckus surrounding such events, but they are an integral part of parliamentary democracy and, some might argue, a much finer tuned aspect of democratic governance than that allowed by its alternative.

Presidential systems provide no such mechanism for the removal of governments prior to their end of term. By definition, any such move constitutes an institutional crisis as the system is based on a separation of executive power from legislative authority. In parliamentary systems the executive (in the form of cabinet) continues to act as a parliamentary faction, to include ministers discharging responsibilities as members of parliament. In presidential systems that is not the case and executive authority can often be confronted by or exercised against legislative majorities (as is currently the case in the US). No matter what the majority in the legislature may wish, it cannot simply call for a vote of no-confidence in the government of the day. In fact, it has no legal basis to do so.

When the legislative and executive branches in presidential systems are locked in impasses or stalemates over any number of potential issues, the resolution mechanism boils down to supermajorities in the former and veto powers in the latter. Ideally, in bicameral legislatures the resolution sequence is usually this: the president introduces or supports a bill submitted for approval by the legislature. The opposition obtains a supermajority against the bill in the lower house, which is vetoed by the president, which is then upheld or overturned by a supermajority in the upper house. In unicameral legislatures the sequence is either one and done or a second legislative supermajority vote is taken after a veto in order to ratify or overturn the veto. Neither of these resolution paths provide a mechanism for the removal of the executive.

This process is cumbersome but offers the benefit of providing space for compromise between the executive and legislature as a bill winds its way through the ratification process. But what about removal of an elected government before its term is up? That is where the second key backdrop factor comes into play: disloyal opposition.

Long term KP readers will recall my earlier writing on this subject.  But for those who are not, here is a nutshell refresher on what constitutes loyal and disloyal opposition in a democracy (there is no point in using those terms in authoritarian regimes).

Loyal oppositions are those that, having been defeated in elections or confronted by an opposing party in executive office (remember, the problem is unique to presidential systems), abide by the rules of the political game and wait for the next electoral opportunity to gain executive power. During the meantime they work as much as possible to find areas of compromise so that the machinery of governance can continue to serve the public good (or at least be seen as doing so). Even if token, concessions are exchanged so that consensus on issues of policy can be achieved. Only in the most egregious case of executive misconduct, usually involving criminality or gross negligence, does a loyal opposition begin to contemplate the unthinkable, which comes in the form of impeachment (that is, forcing the resignation of the executive under pressure from the legislature backed by the authority of law enforced by state security agents).

Disloyal oppositions are those that refuse to accept the outcome of elections and/or the legitimacy of a particular government and use their political influence and power to bring down that government by any means short of force. This includes being deliberately obstructionist when it comes to passing legislation, flaunting rules governing acceptable political discourse, manipulating or colluding with media to plant false accusations against incumbents, refusing to authorise budgets and confirm executive appointments, and generally acting in every possible way to stymie government policy initiatives, make it impossible for the executive branch to function effectively within the tripartite, separation of powers framework of constitutional government, and to promote discontent with and distrust of the government and its political supporters.

The classic modern instance of a disloyal opposition was the Christian Democratic led opposition to Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Chile from 1970-73. The result of that disloyalty is well known. But not all disloyal opposition need result in full fledged military coups. Instead, they can veer down the path of the constitutional coup. Consider the case of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-99. In late 1998 the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two counts of perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice. The charges related to his accounts of the affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewisky, the salacious details of which were vividly spelt out by Independent Counsel Ken Starr (Starr has recently been forced to resign from his position as president and chancellor of Baylor University for his role in covering up sexual assaults on females by football players). Mr. Starr was appointed by the Speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, he of the three marriages and many affairs (including with subordinates).

In 1999 the Republican controlled Senate held a trial and voted on the charges. Needing a two thirds (67 seat) majority for the impeachment to succeed and with 55 Senators on the Republican side, the impeachment vote failed when 50 voted in favour on the obstruction charge and 45 voted in favour on the perjury charge. Clinton remained in office, albeit significantly hamstrung by his near-miss.

The issue here is that the impeachment was over a private sexual affair, not an act of public malfeasance . It was led by people who themselves had similar skeletons in their closets and who did so in part just to weaken the president even if their efforts to impeach him failed (given media coverage of the story). More specifically, it was not about gross incompetence, criminal behaviour, military mismanagement, or even lying to Congress about any matter of policy. Instead, it was about the president receiving fellatio from and using a cigar as a sex toy on Ms. Lewinsky during trysts in the Oval Office, then trying to cover it up. It is doubtful that the founding fathers, in Article Two (Section Four) of the Constitution, had this in mind when they wrote that impeachment was to be used only in exceptional circumstances involving “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”

That is a slippery slope. And nowhere is the bottom of that slope more evident than in the recent impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.

Brazil has history with impeachment. In 1992 then president Fernando Collor de Mello resigned after Congress voted in favour of his impeachment on charges of bribery and misappropriation of funds. Similar charges of “budgetary mismanagement” were brought against Ms. Rousseff in 2016 by a Congress dominated by the center-right PMDB, Brazil’s largest party, which has the most seats in Congress (66) and is the one to which her vice president Michel Temer belongs (the coalitional aspects of Brazilian politics are too complex to get into here but suffice it to say that Rousseff was trying to keep her friends and allies close and her enemies closer. That did not work out as planned). By the time the first reports of fiscal irregularities surfaced in 2015, the PMDB-led majority in Congress had gone full-blown disloyal in a context of economic stagnation and assorted crises (Zika, lack of Olympic preparations) and were itching to find a reason to remove Rousseff (who was not anywhere as popular as her Workers Party predecessor Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva). The investigation into financial wrongdoing gave them their window of opportunity.

The charges against Rousseff stemmed from “Operation Car Wash” (Operacao Lava Jato) into bribery and corruption involving the state oil monopoly Petrobras, assorted construction firms, politicians, bureaucrats and financial entities. Without going into the details, let’s just say three things: First, corruption is a way of life in Brazil, not just an aspect of how the economic and political elite behave (hence the phrase fazer jeito, or ” a way of doing things” on the sly). Of those legislators demanding her impeachment and who voted against her at the Senate trial, over a dozen are being investigated or have been charged with corruption themselves, including now-president Temer. Included among the luminaries who voted to oust her is a former Army officer who was involved in her torture when she was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in the early 1970s, and who said during the proceedings that it would have been best that she were killed while in custody.

Secondly, creative accounting by Brazilian governments is a time-honoured tradition that crosses party lines. Most reputable political and financial analysts agree that not only was Ms. Rousseff not personally involved or benefitted by dodgy Treasury figures, but that in the scheme of things the book fiddling done by her government was not criminal but in fact par for the course in Brazil. Unfortunately for her, Article 85 of the Brazilian constitution and the Fiscal Responsibility Law specifically prohibit mismanagement and disregard for the federal budget. This was the seldom used rope that Congress hung her with.

Thirdly, no impeachment in Brazil can occur without the tacit assent of the armed forces. Of all the sordid aspects of Rousseff’s impeachment, this is the most sobering one. 30 odd years after they returned to the barracks, Brazil’s military still sees forced removal of elected presidents as a viable option–so long as it does not involve them directly.

This is why what happened in Brazil a week or so ago was a constitutional coup. Impeachment is the weapon of choice for the constitutional coup plotters, but their intentions are disloyal and their objectives sinister at heart. Their motivations have nothing to do with honesty and transparency in government or defending democracy. Instead, they are about playing the system for tactically opportunistic partisan gain.

Brazil is not the only Latin American country to have suffered a constitutional coup. In 2012 Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was impeached and removed from office, ostensibly because of his mishandling of a land occupation that ended in violence. He was given two hours to prepare his defense, and was replaced by his Vice President, who sided with the legislative opposition against him. Subsequent publication of US embassy cables by Wikileaks revealed that as early as 2009 opposition leaders had begun to discuss using impeachment as a way of ousting Lugo from office (Lugo was elected in 2008). They eventually succeeded.

There is a problem with this strategy: more than one side can play that game, and learning curves may teach that rather than the exception, the use of impeachment in pursuit of a constitutional coup can become the new norm. That in turn can spur a contagion effect, whereby politicians in other democracies with presidential systems see merit in pursuing similar courses of action. Worse yet, repeated recourse to constitutional coups as partisan weapons can lead to outright military intervention, at which point the return to the traditional form of coup trumps any constitutional niceties.

One should take this into account when pondering the activities of political actors in presidential-system liberal democracies, be they big and small. Because in a world where military-led coups are considered particularly thuggish and therefore distasteful, the constitutional coup is the genteel authoritarian’s game.

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