Saturday, April 15, 2017

A new political system in Armenia

Armenia held parliamentary elections on April 2, the first to be held after a series of substantial constitutional and electoral system changes largely implemented after a 2015 referendum. The changes, which were controversial owing to the disputed referendum, changed Armenia's system of government from a system of semi-presidentialism to a parliamentary system, and changed the electoral system from a mixed-member majoritarian system to an equally unique system of party-list proportional representation.

The electoral system

Armenia's experience of democracy before Soviet rule shortly after World War 1 was very much limited, and as a result it was in a similar place to much of post-Soviet Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990: left with the difficult business of building from scratch a system of democratic and constitutional government.

Many post-Soviet countries, along with various other democratising or reforming nations around that time, introduced mixed-member electoral systems. Armenia's 1995 election law provided for a 190-member legislature, with 150 members elected through a two-round system (though candidates only had to secure 25% of the votes to win in the first round). The remaining forty seats were elected through a closed-list proportional representation system, making a mixed-member majoritarian system with a remarkably low share of party-list seats.

For post-Soviet countries with new and weak political parties, independents were relatively successful in the district tier elections. In Russia's first democratic election (in 1993) independents won 48% of the district vote: similar results were, and still are, in the Ukraine.

In the district tier for Armenia at the 1995 election, independent candidates won 72 of the 150 seats, making them by far the largest party in this tier. The Republic Bloc, a party tied to incumbent President Ter-Petrosyan, won 68 district and 20 list seats, making them the largest party (an Organisation for Co-Operation and Security report stated that the President would have the support of two-thirds of the legislature, implying that many independents were actually allied to the President). No other political party won more than ten seats.
Independent candidacies, however, have waned over recent elections in the nation, as can be seen above. Part of this may be a result of the change in the share of seats allocated on the party list; the share increased at the 1999 and 2007 election. It can also be attributed to the relative dominance of the Republican Party, a party that has been the largest at every presidential and legislative election since 2003 (though they have been dogged by allegations of electoral fraud). This represents an increasing institutionalisation of the party system, as parties (a party, to be precise) becomes the key part of elections.

The new electoral system represents what will likely be a complete removal of independent candidacies from Armenian politics. The full document, passed last year, divides Armenia into thirteen electoral districts. Parties must nominate a list in each district, and a national list. When voters vote, they choose a party list, and may also cast a preference vote for a candidate on the district list.

Seats are initially allocated between using the Hare quota and largest remainders, with a threshold of 5% for parties and 7% for alliances of parties. However, after the Electoral Commission determines the seat allocation, if no party receives at least 53 seats (a majority of the 101-member Assembly; such a party would then receive a top-up to give them 54% of the total seats), and no 'stable majority' coalition (a group of parties which has been allocated at least 54% of the seats in this preliminary distribution agreeing on a Prime Minister) can be formed within three days, a second round is held three weeks later between the top two parties or coalitions. A further four seats are allocated to ethnic minorities, and there are quotas for women representation.

In the second round, new parties may join with the parties or coalitions in the top two, though seats won by parties outside the top two in the first round are apparently not altered by the second round results. The party that wins in the second round is allocated 54% of the total number of seats.

For allocation of seats to actual candidates within parties, for each party half of their seats are allocated to the candidates on the national list (which is closed). The remaining seats are allocated between the districts using the Hare quota again (based on the number of votes cast for the party in each district, so if the Republican Party were to get 20% of the vote in Yeravan District, 20% of the Republican Party's district seats would be allocated to candidates in the district). Seats are allocated to the highest polling candidates within districts. The system is similar to that passed in Italy in 2015 (see this article for details) but later ruled unconstitutional.

In this election, the Republican Party appears to have won a majority even without the special provisions. The party won 49% of the vote, equivalent to 54% of the vote amongst those parties that passed the threshold. The normal Hare distribution of the 101 seats would give them 55 seats (near-exact 54% of the Assembly).

The new Constitution

Up until a criticised 2015 referendum, the 'Yes' campaign in which was supported by the Republican Party, Armenia was a semi-presidential country. This means that it had a directly-elected fixed-term President as head of state, as well as a Prime Minister as head of government responsible to the majority of the National Assembly, who both share executive power.

The 2015 referendum, in which the proposal was approved by 66% of the vote, changed the system to one that appears to be parliamentary; where executive power is in the hands of a Prime Minister responsible to the legislature. The President is elected by the majority of the National Assembly, but it is explicitly stated that "The Government (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) shall be the highest body of the executive power".

Few discretionary powers are granted to the President, who is not even vested with the power to appoint the Prime Minister; instead, he is expected to appoint the candidate who has the support of the aforementioned guaranteed parliamentary majority. He cannot veto legislation, and the determination of policy is reserved to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The question of whether this will increase the power of the Republican Party, and its leader (incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan) is a most interesting one. For Mr Sargysyan, at least, the change will allow him to remain in control of executive power beyond the two-term limit proscribed for the presidency under the previous semi-presidential system. 

In a more general sense, if the party system of a country is fragmented, parliamentary governments can be dependent upon shifting coalitions (for example, the Presidency of Nauru) and the parties supporting them can hold only a minority of the legislature, reducing their ability to pass legislation. When a great deal of Armenia's parliament was comprised of independents, a parliamentary government would have been weak, and the fixed-term and non-removable status of the Presidency can give the executive strength through stability.

On the other hand, under a presidential system, the possibility exists that the Presidency and legislature can be in different partisan hands, thus depriving the President of the power to pass legislation. A Prime Minister must at least have the tolerance of the legislature in order to stay in office, and the election law in Armenia actually guarantees a party a fairly comfortable parliamentary majority (this is underlined by a constitutional requirement that one party or coalition must end with 54% of the Assembly seats).

A Prime Minister with disciplined control of his majority political party can pass whatever legislation he supports, and also has control of the executive branch. If the Republican Party are able to maintain control over their members, the new electoral system and system of government will substantially increase their power.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Russian proposal for a new Syrian constituition

As the conflict in Syria continues, the various parties in the conflict have continued to debate and disagree upon a means of resolution. Recently, the Russian Foreign Ministry presented a proposal for a new Constitution for post-war Syria, which you can find here.

Most of my readers will be aware of Russia's support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. While Syria under Mr Assad's rule has had a constitution, up until 2012 the document entrenched the rule of Mr Assad's Baathist Party, which controlled the National Assembly and presented a single candidate to the electorate to be accepted or rejected in a referendum (these referendums generally resulted in 98-100% 'victories' for the Baathist candidate).

It was only in 2012, once the civil war had started, that Mr Assad amended the document through another referendum, which secured a claimed 89% approval but was boycotted by rebel and opposition groups and condemned by Western leaders. No mention is now made of the Baathist Party, and the Presidency is now directly elected for a seven year term, renewable once, from amongst candidates who receive the nomination of 35 members of the 250-member People's Council.

Opposition members and Western leaders have claimed that this is merely window-dressing, and no candidates with the support of the armed domestic opposition contested the 2014 presidential election, which was won by Mr Assad with 88.7% of the vote, a poll condemned by the West and called into question on statistical grounds.

It's clear, then, that it won't just be institutions that will have to change for the conflict to be resolved in a way acceptable to the armed opposition: nominally democratic institutions can clearly be subverted, and there needs to be a spirit of good faith amongst the various participants for institutions to work. Nonetheless, institutions matter, and it is worth looking at the Russian proposal to see what its effects might be.

Rights, Freedoms, and Devolution

As is now the norm, the draft constitution contains a list of 'Basic Principles', which in very general terms outline the roles the Syrian government is expected to play, and a later list of Rights and Freedoms. These promise freedom of religion, freedom of economic activity, a ban on discrimination based on gender and origin, freedom of speech (excluding "social, racial, national or religious hatred or hostility"), the right to privacy, and various others. Some more specific economic rights are included, such as the right to work in safe conditions and the right to medical care.

However, more interesting in this section is the provisions regarding decentralisation and language. The north-east of the country, a region known as Rojava, is dominated by the Kurdish ethnic group. This region is currently controlled by the 'Syrian Democratic Forces', a Kurdish-led group which has introduced a unique and relatively democratic form of government. The Kurds will want to keep some of this separate status in a post-conflict Syria.

In relation to this, the proposal promises that government agencies of the "Kurdish cultural autonomy", a term which is left to be defined by law, shall use Kurdish and Arabic in equal amounts. Syrians are also granted the right to educate their children in their "native language", and regions are granted the right, subject to approval by a referendum, to use another "majority language in addition to the official language".

It is also stated that "Syria consists of constituent parts" and that "the organisation of local authorities is based on applying the principle of decentralisation of authorities and responsibilities". Nonetheless, this is undermined by the fact that all of the powers for these local authorities, as well as their boundaries, are dependent upon national law. The lack of any explicit guarantee over the status of these authorities would likely represent a sticking point for Rojava, which may want to hold onto its autonomous status.

Structure of Government

The proposal calls for a bicameral legislature. The lower house, named the "People's Assembly", is directly elected for a four-year term: details such as the electoral system are left to legislation. It has the exclusive power to ratify treaties.

The upper house, named the "Constituent Assembly" (at least in this translation: normally such a name is used for bodies that draw up constitutions) is to consist of "representatives of the constituent parts (the regions)". Its composition and term lengths are left to legislation. It appoints judges of the highest court (the Supreme Constitutional Court), as well as the chairman of the National Bank.

In terms of passage of legislation, both houses and the President have the authority to introduce legislation, but legislation is to be first examined in the People's Assembly. If the law receives majority approval (note that it appears to require the majority of the legislature, not merely the majority of those present), it then proceeds to the Constituent Assembly. Again, it requires majority approval of the entire Assembly.

If this is denied, a committee of the two houses may look at the legislation. Failure for this to get the legislation approved by both houses means that the People's Assembly, by a two-thirds majority, may send the legislation to the President's desk; otherwise, the legislation fails.

The Executive

Executive power, under the document, is shared between the President and the Government. The President is elected by the two-round system for a seven-year term, renewable once (it has been speculated that this is in place to allow Mr. Assad to hold power for an extra fourteen years). Candidates will still require the support of 35 members of either the Constituent or People's Assemblies. Oddly enough, there is no fixed date for presidential elections; the date is chosen by the People's Assembly, but must be within a certain window of the expiry of the incumbent President's term.

The President has substantial power under this proposal. They are given the authority to represent Syria in international relations, to declare states of emergency with approval of the Constituent Assembly and to approve or reject legislation passed by the legislature (which may override rejection by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of both houses). The President can be removed from office after being charged with high treason or another grave crime by the People's Assembly through a two-thirds vote, the approval of the charges by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and a two-thirds vote of the Constituent Assembly to remove the President.

A semi-presidential system is proposed, which appears to be of the president-parliamentary subtype. This means that the President appoints and dismisses the Prime Minister and ministers: this government must be appointed "based on the proportionate representation of all ethnic and religious groups". The government is also responsible to the legislature, that is to say, it can be removed by a no-confidence vote of the legislature in joint sitting.

However, the balance is tilted in favour of the Government and President by a provision requiring that no-confidence motions be signed by one-third of the members of either the Constituent or the People's Assemblies: if the motion fails, none of those members may sign another no-confidence motion. No no-confidence motion may be carried during a state of emergency.

In the book Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers, David Samuels and Matthew Shugart show how under the president-parliamentary subtype, factors relating to the legislature (inter and intra-party conflict and legislative election loss) account for 43% of changes in the Prime Ministership in their sample of countries, compared to 76% for cases of the premier-presidential subtype (where only the legislature may remove the Prime Minister and cabinet). This shows that the President would have a key role in government appointment under this system.

Another key presidential power is the authority to unilaterally call binding referendums on "important issues which affect the higher interests of the country". Laws carried at such referendums are immune from constitutional review. This is a seemingly rare and extraordinary power for the President.

Miscellaneous Issues

A Supreme Constitutional Court is established, with judges chosen by the Constituent Assembly for renewable four-year terms. These terms are fairly short by international standards (France and Italy has nine-year terms, retirement at 70 for Australia and 75 in Canada, and judges of the US Supreme Court have life terms). Removal of judges can also be regulated by law, while it is more common for super-majorities of the legislature or other special procedures to be laid down for these judges.

The implementation of laws and the determination of policy is somewhat confusingly divided between the President (who "issues decrees, edicts and instructions in accordance with the Constitution and the law") and the Government (which "guides the work of ministries and public bodies" and "issues decisions and regulations").

Amendment of the Constitution can be done with 75% approval of both houses of the legislature and approval by the President. However, given that referendums initiated by the President are immune from constitutional review, this would appear to be the path of least resistance for de facto constitutional change.

Prospects for success

To say the least, the proposal has not been well-received by the existing armed opposition. It appears flawed in various ways for a post-conflict nation, but the key issue is its majoritarianism. No guarantee of regional autonomy is provided; it is still technically in the gift of the central government. 

More disconcertingly, the Constituent Assembly's composition is left entirely to law. Even were it to be initially chosen by elected regional governments, one party winning the Presidency and a majority in both houses could create weak, appointed regional government bodies and stack the Constituent Assembly (by legislating that it be appointed for long terms by the President, like the South African National Party did in 1955). The likelihood of such an occurrence would depend to some extent on the electoral system: the existing system is the multiple non-transferable vote, which can be highly majoritarian.

This proposal is an interesting contribution by the Russian Foreign Ministry to discussions for Syria's future. However, the document has the potential to create a top-heavy, powerful presidency, potentially filled by Mr Assad, which could create dissatisfaction amongst opponents of him and lead to future armed conflict. A better design for a post-conflict constitution would provide for more checks on this executive, such as a change to a premier-presidential system, entrenched power for regional governments, and a clearer outline for the composition of the Constituent Assembly.