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Democracy Notes
Published: 18/10/2022
Explainer: When do you call a seizure of power a coup, and why does it matter?
On 30 September 2022 in Burkina Faso, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré took control of the government, deposing Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba, who had himself seized power from the civilian government in January. Was this a coup d’état? On 20 April 2021 in Chad, after President Idriss Déby died, the military installed his son, General Mahamat Déby, as the new president instead of the leader of the National Assembly (as the constitution provides). Was this a coup d’état? Beyond the potentially difficult cases of Burkina Faso and Chad, the “coup” label has been applied to other contested cases in recent years. In our view, it is important to maintain clear conceptual boundaries around what is and is not a coup d’état. There are many ways in which illegitimate changes in government may take place. Some are legal, some are illegal, but not many fulfil the definitional requirements of a coup d’état. What exactly is a coup d’etat? In the classical conceptualization, a coup has three constitutive elements: (1) a state perpetrator, (2) the chief executive as a target and (3) the use of illegal tactics. There is no definitive statement in international law on what constitutes a coup. Why does the definition matter? The application of the label coup d’état can have important diplomatic ramifications in terms of how other states interact with the new government. It also has concrete legal implications for some intergovernmental organizations. The two organizations that have dealt with coups d’état most explicitly are the African Union (AU) and the Organization of American States (OAS). In the case of the AU, there is an established procedure for dealing with a broad category of events they call “unconstitutional changes of government” (UCG). When a UCG is deemed to have taken place, the member state should be suspended from the AU. In the case of the OAS, the Inter-American Democratic Charter includes a “democracy clause” that should lead to the suspension of a member states when the democratic order is interrupted by such as a “forcible overthrow” of the government. What’s happening in Africa? Since 2020, there have been seven successful coups d’état or unconstitutional transfers of power (Chad [April 2021], Guinea [September 2021], Sudan [October 2021], and Mali [August 2020 and May 2021] and Burkina Faso [January 2022 and September 2022] twice each), and two unsuccessful attempts (Guinea-Bissau [February 2022] and Niger [March 2021]) in Africa. It has been two decades since there was such a quick succession of coups and coup attempts. Where else in the world are we seeing this? Coups d’état (successful or attempted) have happened at some point on every continent. They were particularly numerous between 1960 and 1990, and had become rarer since the mid-1990s. In the last two years, the only coup d’état outside Africa took place in Myanmar in February 2021. To the extent that there is a “wave” of coups going on right now, it is geographically concentrated among Sahel countries. What’s the impact on regimes? When it takes place in a democracy, a coup d’état often tips the country into authoritarianism, increases levels of repression and, when perpetrated by the military, leaves a dangerous precedent for its involvement in politics. It also casts a long shadow, with a single coup attempt increasing a country’s coup risk for up to 25 years. Yet the vast majority of coups do not occur in democracies and the picture in authoritarian regimes is less clear cut. A growing body of research indicates that a coup, which removes an authoritarian regime can increase the country’s prospects of democratization – this is in part determined by the international community’s response.         What has the international response to these coups been? The response has varied somewhat, particularly with regard to what has been deemed to constitute a coup, or in the language of the AU a UCG. Myanmar’s coup was condemned as such by many member states in the UN General Assembly, but much of the international community has been hesitant to engage with the military regime and the National Unity Government. The AU classified both of the two recent coups in Burkina Faso to be a UCG. However, it refrained from doing so in the case of Chad, arguing that the suspension of Chad’s constitutional order was justified by the fact that the country was under attack from terrorists and foreign mercenaries. The inconsistency in the AU’s responses to this spate of coups reflects the difficult trade-offs that the international community faces when deciding on whether to sanction coup leaders in order to deter further coups, or to engage them so as to maximize the prospects of democratization. Yet a continuation of such inconsistency risks further weakening the AU’s anti-coup norm.                    What can be done to restore democracy? Following a coup d’état, it is necessary to quickly begin a process for a return or transition to civilian, democratic rule. The AU and ECOWAS interventions in Burkina Faso and Mali are good examples of how a transitional plan can be developed in the face of significant political instability, although holding coupists to timetables has proven difficult. The transitional plans for both countries are scheduled to end in elections.
Democracy Notes
Published: 07/10/2022
Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria Led to More Stalemate, not More Democracy
While the eyes of democracy watchers around the world may have been on the Brazilian presidential election on 2 October 2022, voters in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Bulgaria also headed to polls that day for general and early parliamentary elections. Both cases highlight how elections alone—in giving rise to political polarization, fragmentation, and apathy—are not sufficient to consolidate democracy in the region.  Bosnia and Herzegovina: Elections that fuel ethnic divisions  According to the Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoDI), Bosnia and Herzegovina has remained a weak democracy since 1996—the year following the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War. Originally envisioned to be a transitory power-sharing arrangement between the three constituent peoples it defines—Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs—the complex institutional framework resulting from the accords is largely regarded as having instead entrenched divides between the three ethnic groups. Electorally, ethnic and residency requirements for candidacy and voting exclude parts of the three constituent peoples from political participation and representation at the state-level, alongside the country’s 17 recognized national minorities. The provisions have been deemed discriminatory in court rulings; despite this, changes to the election law over the years have not addressed this fundamental principle. Recent proposed electoral law reforms have only served to drive accusations of ethnic bias and changes announced by the High Representative on election night to address post-election political gridlock are likely to spur further fallout.  If we take the simplest definition of democracy to comprise of popular control and political equality in exercising that control, it therefore comes as no surprise to see democracy stagnating in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whilst state-wide polling has shown citizens to prioritize the avoidance of inter-ethnic violence, the institutional framework disincentivizes consensus-building across ethnic lines. Democracy cannot develop under a system that fuels, rather than works to heal, ethnic-based divisions. Polarization has become increasingly expedient for elites, tarnishing this week’s elections. This, alongside the depth of political corruption in the country, serves to spur a sense of apathy amongst the electorate - with only 50% turning out to vote on Sunday.   Bulgarian Elections: In search of a parliamentary majority  Voter fatigue and frustration with political leaders were also present this week in Bulgaria, as turnout in the elections dwindled to historic lows.  Elections in Bulgaria, a mid-range performing democracy according to the GSoDI and an EU member state, once again produced political fragmentation. The previous ruling coalition had been fragile and composed of unlikely bedfellows—a mix of centrist, socialist, and populist parties—until it folded over the summer as a result of ideological differences between members. Sunday’s vote yielded a fragmented parliament, and threatens to continue a cycle of elections which fail to produce stable governments.   The winning centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party remains politically isolated, haunted by corruption allegations which led thousands of Bulgarians to take to the streets in 2020. GERB came ahead of the second biggest party, the reformist We Continue the Change, by five percentage points. The pro-Russian Vazrazhdane party drew twice as many votes compared to its November 2021 showing. The party has shown enmity towards the media, accusing journalists of conspiring with pro-Western forces and calling for outlets receiving funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. The election results indicate a populace divided about the country’s future direction—especially its stance on relations with Moscow. Far from a stabilizing outcome, the results suggest a high level of electoral volatility and failed to ease the country’s political turmoil.    Under the pressure of prolonged instability, Bulgaria’s democracy may suffer. It can limit Sofia’s ability to combat democratic stagnation as lawmaking is hamstrung, compromising an important vector for democratic renewal. It also risks making Bulgaria more vulnerable to external shocks, as showcased in the delayed passage of the laws needed to unlock the EU’s Covid-19 recovery funds.   Time to tackle democratic stagnation  Elections in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria have given rise to a number of commonalities which hinder democratic development in the two countries. Fragmentation, owing to the number of political actors unable and unwilling to find a way forward, produces stalemate in national legislative agendas. This means elections are working to entrench rather than address voter concerns over issues such as political corruption. Effectively leaving voters unrepresented, citizens will only continue to become more disengaged—particularly in the face of increasingly polarizing forces.   While regional leaders and policymakers have recently turned their attention to democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, democratic stagnation as seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria therefore also warrants action.   
Democracy Notes
Published: 06/10/2022
Brazil’s 2022 election: the missed story in the Congress
On 2 October 2022, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro placed well ahead of the other Brazilian presidential candidates and will contest the second round of the election at the end of the month. What received less attention was the continuation (from 2018) of the wave of support for right-wing candidates for the Chamber of Deputies and the expansion of this phenomenon to the Senate. After this election, what was an already right-leaning Congress will have a larger majority of right-wing members. In 2023, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) will have 99 seats in the Chamber (19 per cent) and 14 seats in the Senate (17 per cent). This is the first time since 1998 that a party has achieved such relative dominance in the Congress (though still not a single-party majority). Will this give Bolsonaro an empowered second term, or substantially hinder a new Lula administration? It is essential to note that this growth of the right wing in the Senate did not happen by chance. Having struggled to work with the Senate during his administration, during the campaign Bolsonaro devoted significant attention  to supporting the electoral campaigns of his favoured senatorial candidates. Surprisingly, right-wing parties have always had a majority in Congress and have been the base of support for all presidents since re-democratization in the mid-1980s⁠—including the Workers Party (PT) governments. The PL, which today is the terrain of bolsonarismo, was an ally of former President Lula during his administration, with a member of the party serving as Vice President. The party has evolved since that time and illustrates the fluid and fragmented nature of partisanship in the Brazilian Congress. Bolsonaro joined the party in 2021 as he prepared to run for re-election, bringing 44 members of the Chamber of Deputies to the PL with him and making it the largest party in the chamber (with 77 members). In his almost 40 years as a politician before joining the PL, Bolsonaro had been affiliated with eight other parties⁠—all with a right-wing orientation. If he wins in the second round, Bolsonaro will probably have an easier relationship with Congress, but the cost will be the continued control of the budget by the deputies and senators. Loyalty to the government will not be based solely on ideological commitment, but also on continuing to leave the distribution of money from the federal government to states and municipalities in the self-interested care of lawmakers. On the other hand, if Lula wins the second round, he will likely form a power-sharing government, distributing control of ministries, state-owned enterprises, and government leadership in Congress among necessary allies. These allies will undoubtedly be the same right-leaning congressmen who have always supported any government in Brazil. The PL itself will likely be part of an eventual Lula government⁠—with the caveat that the bolsonarista wing of the party will be in (at least ideological) opposition and its members may defect to one of the other right-wing parties who always have their doors open to new members. Whatever happens in the next round of the presidential election, the Congress will be in the hands of the right-wing.