The Daily Kos International Elections Digest is compiled by Stephen Wolf and David Beard, with additional contributions from James Lambert, Daniel Nichanian, Daniel Donner, and Julia van Hoogstraten, and is edited by David Nir.
In 2015, Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (abbreviated “PiS” in Polish) narrowly won an outright majority in parliament, which no party had ever managed since the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Party chair Jarosław Kaczynski is neither prime minister nor president, but he controls PiS with an iron fist, making him Poland’s leader in all but name. Following the example of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government in nearby Hungary, Kaczynski and PiS swiftly set about eliminating the rule of law in order to end liberal democracy and entrench themselves in power.
This ongoing crisis boiled over in July when PiS tried to pass three major laws to neuter the independence of the judicial branch, which sparked widespread protests and condemnation from European Union officials—but so far little direct action by the E.U. itself. But in a surprising development, President Andrzej Duda vetoed two of these measures, while acceding to the third. While Duda is an independent, he was elected as a member of PiS two years ago and until now has generally toed the party line while in office.
The two vetoed measures would have allowed the country’s minister of justice to fire any Supreme Court judges. They would have also given the governing majority the ability to control nominations for all judges, which are currently chosen by an independent institution. Since the justice minister already functions as Poland’s chief prosecutor, these measures would have eviscerated any semblance of judicial independence in Poland.
However, these vetoes by no means represent any kind of crushing blow to PiS’s scheme to destroy Polish democracy. The third bill, which Duda did sign, gives PiS the power to control the composition of lower courts, which will in turn determine which cases become available for the Supreme Court judges to take up on appeal. Furthermore, Poland has a separate court, distinct from its Supreme Court, that adjudicates questions of constitutionality. PiS sabotaged that body long ago, stacking the Constitutional Tribunal with friendly partisans immediately after 2015’s elections while also curtailing the court’s powers.
Unlike Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Kacynzski’s PiS not only lacks the two-thirds supermajority needed to amend the constitution, it’s also short of the three-fifths supermajority necessary for overriding presidential vetoes. However, it’s always possible that Duda might acquiesce to a more restrained power grab in the future, given his record. With its crackdown on independent media, potential ability to deprive opposition parties of public campaign funds, and continued support in the polls against a disorganized and fractured opposition, PiS remains a dire threat to democracy in Poland.
The next elections aren’t until 2019, but PiS’s efforts to capture state institutions that are responsible for validating election results should set off red alerts across the North Atlantic world. When Hungary’s Fidesz—like PiS, it was originally a mainstream conservative party—lurched to the authoritarian radical-right once it obtained complete power in 2010, the EU stood idly by. PiS has learned from the EU’s failure to safeguard democracy in Hungary by using Fidesz’s “success” as a roadmap to consolidating its own grip on power, and its plot to supplant liberal democracy with authoritarianism under Kaczynski shows no signs of abating.
● East Timor—parliament (July 22)
Last month’s parliamentary elections in the small Southeast Asian island nation East Timor saw all three existing major parties lose ground while new parties entered parliament for the first time. The center-left CNRT lost several seats and fell to second place with 22 of 65 seats, making the left-wing nationalist Fretilin party the largest bloc in parliament with 23 seats. Meanwhile, former President Taur Matan Ruak’s newly created People’s Liberation Party debuted with eight seats, while the opposition center-left Democratic Party slipped to seven and the nascent Khunto party grabbed five seats.
However, it’s unclear just how much will change as a result of these elections. CNRT and Fretilin have been the country’s two dominant rival parties for over a decade—a long time for a nation that only gained independence from Indonesia in 2002—but they formed a national unity government in recent years that looks likely to continue under Fretilin’s leadership. East Timor faces significant challenges with dwindling oil reserves, high unemployment, and pervasive corruption, but it’s an accomplishment that this year’s elections—the first since a United Nations peacekeeping mission left in 2012—proceeded without major flaws.
● Papua New Guinea—parliament (June 24 to July 8)
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill secured another term leading the governmentin Papua New Guinea, even as the results in a handful of seats are still being contested. This election was plagued by major irregularities that included some instances of violence, accusations of vote-buying, and reports that thousands of voters were improperly removed the rolls and unable to cast ballots. Although Papua New Guinea is generally regarded as a democracy, O’Neill’s coalition government has suffered allegations of rampant corruption, and it will now face an emboldened opposition after several anti-O’Neill parties gained seats.
● Kenya—president and legislature (Aug. 8)
Kenya’s upcoming general election will see voters elect a president, members of the country’s bicameral legislature, and local government officials. President Uhuru Kenyatta of the conservative Jubilee Party is seeking a second five-year term against the man he defeated 51-44 in 2013: former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the center-left Orange Democratic Movement. Kenyatta’s party came about as a merger of various right-leaning factions, and it currently governs the legislature in coalition with the small centrist Amani coalition. Odinga’s party, meanwhile, aims to gain a governing majority within the broader National Super Alliance of opposition parties.
Following independence in the 1960s, Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was Kenya’s first president and Odinga’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was the nation’s first vice president, but their Kenya African National Union later turned the country into a single-party state under President Daniel arap Moi. Multi-party elections were only legalized again in the early 1990s, and Kenya has struggled with a fragile democracy ever since.
As such, election-related violence is sadly common, and disputes following Odinga’s narrow 2007 loss to then-President Mwai Kibaki sparked mass civil unrest that claimed roughly 1,200 lives and left over 600,000 people displaced from their homes. Even the relatively peaceful 2013 elections saw major problems with voting machine malfunctions. And just last month, the senior manager in information technology at the national election administration agency was found tortured and murdered, raising anxiety about the integrity of ballot-counting and the safety of voters in this month’s elections.
In a nation that is fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines, yet another disputed election could trigger yet another outbreak of violence. While polling in poorer countries like Kenya is often highly unreliable, recent surveys suggest another tight race. However, polls predicted something similar in 2013, and Odinga disputed his 7-point loss to no avail. With the opposition warning about potential fraud again, the electoral outcome and its aftermath remain in doubt.
● Senegal—parliament (July 30)
Unsurprisingly, President Macky Sall’s United in Hope coalition easily maintained its dominant majority in Senegal’s unicameral legislature following preliminary results. The West African nation’s highly majoritarian electoral system has made it very difficult for the divided opposition parties to mount an effective challenge to Sall’s alliance, even as 91-year-old former President Abdoulaye Wade, whom Sall ousted in the 2012 presidential race, returned from abroad to lead the opposition Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, even though Senegal has long stood out as one of the most stable democracies in a region plagued by political instability, some problems marred this election. A significant share of voters weren’t issued their biometric identity cards needed to vote in in time, while others reported they were missing from lists of registered voters. In addition, Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall (no relation to the president) leads the country’s capital city and another major opposition faction, but he had to contest the election while in jail on charges of embezzlement, which he contends are politically motivated.
● Canada: Alberta—conservative unification (July 22)
Members of Alberta’s two right-of-center parties voted overwhelmingly to merge under one banner in separate votes on July 22. As a result, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, an old-line center-right party that ruled the province for over four decades, and the insurgent Wildrose Party, a more stridently conservative outfit that nearly won control of the province in 2012, have become the United Conservative Party.
The merger seriously imperils the re-election chances of Alberta’s center-left New Democratic Party, which successfully exploited vote-splitting between the two former right-wing rivals to capture its first-ever majority government in the province’s 2015 election. Indeed, a new poll shows the UCP enjoying a commanding 43-21 lead over the NDP, whose popularity has been battered by a prolonged recession in a province that is heavily dependent on oil revenues to balance its books.
However, the UCP has yet to hold a leadership vote, and both of its leading contenders, former federal Conservative MPs Brian Jean and Jason Kenney, may not necessarily appeal to centrist voters in the same broad way that many of the province’s Progressive Conservative premiers did. Alberta’s next election is expected in 2019.
● Brazil—president and legislature (2018)
Brazil’s 2018 elections will follow years of turmoil, as the country just recently exited its longest recession since records began in 1901. In 2016, pro-business factions in Congress cited endemic corruption as a pretext for ousting embattled leftist President Dilma Rousseff, whom they impeached as part of a legislative coup to implement their preferred policies—despite the fact that many of the impeachment leaders themselves faced corruption charges while Rousseff did not.
New center-right President Michel Temer had already decided not to seek a full term after passing harsh fiscal austerity policies, but the publicly despised incumbent faced a vote in Congress about whether to try him over—of course—corruption charges. However, the lower house voted 263-227 not to initiate a trial against Temer, who had conveniently doled out pork-barrel spending to key congressional districts recently despite forcing budget austerity on the poor.
Looming large over next year’s presidential race is the likely comeback candidacy of former two-term leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (better known as just Lula), who was Rousseff’s mentor and faced term limits in 2010. Although his Workers’ Party presided over the very same systemic corruption that was used as the excuse for Rousseff’s removal, Lula’s social welfare policies also helped pull tens of millions out of poverty, and his residual popularity had helped to make him the frontrunner in many polls. However, Lula was convicted of (guess what?) corruption and money-laundering charges last month and now faces up to a decade in prison. If his conviction survives appeal, he’ll be barred from running again, throwing next year’s election wide open in a country with a deeply fragmented party system.
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