Putin makes his move

President Vladimir Putin has begun to make changes to the structure of the Russian government. Some sort of move had been expected as he is currently term limited and must leave office at the end of his term in 2024.

The changes are described as being a shift in power from the Presidency to Parliament and the current government, headed by Dmitry Medvedev, has resigned. President Putin will take over the powers of the Prime Minister in the interim.

It is being proposed that the changes will be put to a national referendum – a suggestion which is not strictly necessary according to the current rules but which would entrench the new system.

With Putin set to relinquish the Presidency in 2024, the most common parlour game in Russia in recent times has to predict the mechanism by which he would seek to hang on to power. A constitutional change – either to allow him to run for a third consecutive term or to change the power structure – was the favourite option. Other proposals talked about were a new federation with a former Soviet state such as Belarus or for Putin to follow the lead of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and take a behind the scenes role while maintaining real power. Proposals for closer ties with Belarus were recently discussed but put on the back burner.

Whether Medvedev’s resignation is a clue that he is unhappy with the changes or that Putin was unhappy with him is unclear. Political analysts in Russia have made both suggestions. Mr Medvedev will become deputy head of the National Security Council, a body chaired by the President.

If the constitutional changes are approved by the public then it is likely that Putin will choose to take on a Parliamentary role, either as Speaker of the Duma or as Prime Minister – although the latter will be appointed by the Duma, a subordination that the current president may feel is not appropriate for his image. In either case, attention will now turn to parliamentary elections due next year. United Russia, the dominant political forced for more than 17 years, has effectively been abandoned by President Putin and has taken the blame as his popularity has waned. The most recent regional and local elections has seen a focus on loyalist candidates running as independents. Whether this strategy can work for a national vote remains to be seen. The alternative is the promotion of an alternative party or group of loyalist parties that will support Mr Putin in whatever role he chooses.

In his speech to lawmakers today, President Putin also proposed to tighten the rules for future presidential candidates to limit them to two terms in total (he has served four having swapped jobs with Medvedev between 2008 and 2012) and tightening residency requirements.

However the full proposed changes to the constitution have yet to be detailed and no date for a referendum has been given. It is possible that when further proposals are revealed another option for Russia’s leading man will become apparent.

 

UPDATE: Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center has tweeted the following thoughts:

Putin made it clear in his state of the nation address today that this is the official start of the transition of power, in preparation for him stepping down when his current terms ends in 2024. He suggests amending the constitution via a referendum to approve those changes. That way, it will be harder for the opposition and foreign powers to argue with the move to change the constitution.

The rule against 2 consecutive presidential terms will be changed to just 2 presidential terms. There can be no second Putin. Putin’s four terms were needed to help the country recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. From now on, the maximum reign will be 12 years. This means that if Medvedev returns to the presidency, he can only serve one term, having already kept the seat warm for Putin from 2008-2012.

The powers that Putin has amassed will not be passed on intact either. Instead, they will be shared out. Parliament will confirm the prime minister and other ministers, and the president cannot reject parliament’s choices—though he or she can dismiss them. The president will be weaker, and it’s beyond doubt now (despite earlier speculation that he would somehow stay on) that that president will no longer be Putin.

The State Council, on the other hand, will have increased powers, with Putin calling for “the status and role of the State Council to be enshrined in the constitution.” This could well be where Putin goes in 2024.

Putin also said the role of regional governors should be strengthened. Firstly, they are members of the state council. Secondly, a successor to Putin may have to be selected from among them.

Future presidents will have to have lived in Russia for 25 years without a break and have never had a foreign passport or residency permit. If this includes temporary permits such as for students, this would exclude Alexei Navalny (who has studied at Yale) from running.

The Russian constitution will be above any international legal obligations, so farewell to the European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe. There’ll be no more help from abroad. Overall, people will likely vote for these changes with great enthusiasm.

Elections to watch – 2020

It’s no surprise that the USA will host the biggest, most expensive and most important elections of the year on November 3rd. Donald Trump’s efforts to gain a second term will be played out across news bulletins around the world, whilst his various Democratic opponents will aim to get airtime when faced with the most media-dominant President in history.

It is often said that a second term president becomes a lame duck almost immediately, but that won’t be the case for Trump who has shown that he is willing to make quick, and often un-signalled, decisions on major issues. Apart from tax reform, Trump has relied less on legislation than almost any President before him. But he has been willing to withdraw from international agreements and upset the established liberal world order like never before.

Down-ballot, the chances of radical shifts in the House or Senate are slim, but we will see how the impeachment efforts will play out on those races.

However the US elections are far from being the only pivotal polls in 2020. Two contests – in Georgia and Belarus – will help us to understand the limits of Russian influence in countries in their immediate orbit and a third – Serbia – is a traditional Russian ally.

There are also re-runs of elections held originally in 2019 which, for different reasons, failed to produce a result. Israel will hold its third election in a year whilst Bolivia will attempt a clean election following the departure of Evo Morales.

There are also key contests in Egypt and Myanmar – countries dominated by the military – and elections in South Korea, North Macedonia and Iran which will be closely watched by foreign governments as they could signal the impact of international decisions on domestic attitudes. 

Iran, Parliament (March)

Iran continues to play its role as the grit in the oyster of Middle East politics with a network of official and semi-official proxies around the region. The country has always had its reformers and its hardliners and the spring election will be another test of strength between those factions.

Elections in Iran are largely conducted on a professional and democratic basis but with all but 5% of candidates (who represent religious minorities) subject to approval by the Islamic authorities.

The last elections in 2016 saw reformists emerge as the largest faction but without an overall majority. Iran has a reputation for huge numbers of candidates as 6,200 candidates ran for the 290 seats in 2016.

As well as its funding for militant groups and factions, Iran has also built up significant cyber capabilities and has allegedly used them extensively to interfere with the functions of other states for the past two years. Its nuclear programme is of concern to the west and the USA has pulled out of the JCPOA leading some to wonder whether military strikes are imminent. Iran’s position on the Staits of Hormuz also gives it unique powers to affect the world’s oil supplies.

Every country will be watching these elections with interest to see if the results may affect any of these interests. But it seems safe to predict that there will be no outcome that would comprehensively reverse any aspect of Iran’s current course.

Israel, Parliament (March)

The third election in Israel in a year will again be between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz with the former having won his Likud leadership primary at the end of 2019. This poll comes after a second indecisive election and the failure to form a government under Israel’s list election system which splits Parliamentary representation between ten different parties. 

It is impossible to foresee a majority party emerging and this contest will see voters tasked with giving either Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White the upper hand. But there is no provision for what might happen if the parties are again evenly split. Netanyahu has refused to give up the post of Prime Minister in any coalition in which his party features and Gantz refuses to serve under the longest serving Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Bolivia, President, Chamber of Deputies and Senate (March or April)

President Evo Morales stepped aside at the end of 2019 after his election win was found to be corruptly obtained. He won’t be a candidate in the re-run, but that won’t prevent the poll being highly controversial and tightly fought. In the aftermath of the failed poll, Morales sought asylum in Mexico as the army took a grip on the country and many of his former supporters were arrested. Since then there has been a general de-escalation in tensions and detainees have been released. Interim president Jeanine Añez will remain in charge until the vote in March or April.

North Macedonia, Parliament (April)

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called these early elections after the failure of EU members (largely at France’s behest) to agree the start of accession talks for his country and Albania. The country is also due to become a full member of NATO in the spring. In the last couple of years North Macedonia has formally changed its name to satisfy a long-standing complaint from Greece as well as undertaken large-scale structural reforms to bring it more into line with EU norms. The reward for these unpopular measures was to be the start of the long journey towards EU accession.

The election will pit Zaev’s SDSM against the anti-agreement VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski. The SDSM candidate won the presidential election in May 2019 but the parliamentary poll will be closely fought.

A win for Zaev’s party might give him and his supporters among existing members of the EU a boost before the next summit in June where France may be persuaded to change her stance. New EU President Croatia hs promised to keep the issue high up the institution’s agenda. A win for the opposition would surely end any prospect of further integration measures for the foreseeable period.

South Korea, Parliament (April)

There are significant domestic issues at play in this year’s legislative elections but these will play second fiddle in the minds of other countries to relations between South Korea and its neighbour to the north. At times President Moon Jae-In has been central to peace talks but has recently been sidelined by both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And whilst left-wing and pro North Korean parties are banned in the South, there are significant differences between the parties which will be a major factor in voters’ minds.

Proposed changes to the voting system would mean the small PR element changing from a parallel to a compensatory system, favouring smaller parties.

Polls suggest that the Democratic Party is well ahead of its main conservative opponents the Liberty Korea Party but effort to game the new voting system could leave the outcome in the balance.

Serbia, Parliament (April)

North Macedonia and Albania may have been seen as being at the front of the queue for EU accession, but Serbia has also been in the frame for membership for a number of years. And for the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, this would represent a significant departure from historic ties to Russia which seeks to maintain at least one friendly presence in the Balkans.

The major hindrance to western integration is the continued failure to establish common ground with Kosovo. Talks of a land-swap to settle a border dispute between the two were effectively quashed by Angela Merkel who saw this as a dangerous precedent for other countries. 

The current government is led by the pro-Western Ana Brnabić but previous elections have been criticised for the misuse of state resources and the lack of media independence and there is a proposed boycott by a number of opposition parties and groups. With decisions on Kosovo and western-oriented reforms likely to hit the popularity of the SNS government, it is possible that the coming election might be more competitive than assumed.

Belarus, President (August)

Few people will predict anything other than comfortable re-election for President Lukashanka but this election will be more notable for the tone than the outcome. Belarus has sought to maintain a balance between historic and economic ties to Russia whilst trying to avoid being perceived as a puppet of the Kremlin.

One of the potential routes for Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his second (and officially final) term in office comes to an end in 2024 is said to be a formal union with Belarus. This seems unlikely, but tax, currency and other financial ties remain under discussion. At the same time, the West, while being careful not to undermine Lukashenka by getting too close, will keep pressing for reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the removal of the only two opposition law-makers from Parliament in what was seen as a retrograde step. Will this contest shed any light on likely succession-planning?

Georgia, Parliament (October)

Electoral reform is not the usual issue to cause mass protests but such is the case in Georgia where a pledge to implement a more proportional system appears to have been abandoned. The state remains heavily dependent on Russia despite the continuing ‘frozen’ conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin recognises as breakaway states but Georgia (and most of the world) does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has seen almost half of its support drain away according to the most recent opinion polls, but the main opposition groups have also lost ground. Such fragmentation, as well as possible boycotts, make the elections unpredictable.

Egypt, Parliament and Senate (November)

Egypt’s flirtation with more genuine democracy resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, President el-Sisi has received significant support from the rest of the world as a bastion against terrorism and he has been able to limit popular expression in the country and put state organs in charge of much of the poll. The removal of the powers of the General Intelligence Directorate to create and approve candidate lists might have been seen as a progressive step, but their role has been taken by the National Security Agency instead. Prominent opposition figures have been arrested but there are reports that the Coalition of Hope, a moderate opposition group, may be about to contest the elections.

Myanmar, Parliament (November)

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for many years the symbol of opposition to military rule in Myanmar, has lost much of her lustre around the world as she has sought to defend what is seen as possible genocide against the Rohinga people in the west of the country and failed to overturn military dominance – the armed forces still has reserved seats in the parliament which makes fundamental change unlikely. 

How the people will react when given the chance to vote – and how free the military allows the elections to be – will be at issue in this contest. 

Venezuela, National Assembly (December)

The constitutional crisis in Venezuela – with two presidents claiming legitimacy and being backed by different countries – continues. The parliament remians the main opposition to President Nicolas Maduro whilst the Constituent Assembly, extablished to write a new constitution, are his main backers. Officially the constituent assembly will lose its mandate shortly after the parliamentary elections. However the outcome of the vote is unlikely to satisfy both sides and the battle for legitimacy will almost certainly continue.

Moldova, President (date unknown)

Moldova faces a Presidential election less than a year after the unlikely coalition government of pro-Western technocrats and pro-Russian socialists fell apart. That deal was done in order to oust the the Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc which was widely perceived to be corrupt. However there has been little time to complete reforms and the coming presidential poll will probably see a contest between incumbent Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Pavel Filip who seems likely to receive the Democratic Party nomination.

Reading List – 27th November 2019

John Lough analyses the state of play in Belarus and argues that the West should not write the state off as a Russian backwater, but should take steps to engage more.

 

Tatiana Stanovaya of Carnegie Moscow Center suggests that senior figures in the Russian regime are looking to make themselves indispensible as 2024 approaches and Vladimir Putin’s mandate comes to an end.

 

 

The odd-couple marriage between technocrat reformers and pro-Russian Socialists in Moldova has fallen apart. The question now is whether this heralds a return to power of key players mired in corruption or whether a new reformist ministry can take charge.

 

Are Facebook finally making a move to limit micro-targeting?

The Wall Street Journal says that Facebook is considering taking steps to limit micro-targeting – the practice of allowing advertisers to send individual ads to just a hundred or so users.

If such a move happens then it will be a response to the pressure the platform is feeling from politicians and activists across the world and the moves made by rivals Twitter and Google in recent weeks.

The proposal, according to the WSJ, would be to raise the minimum number of user targets to a few thousand. That would still allow a high degree of granulation – the ability to target ad recipients based on refined characteristics such as personal likes or geographic location. It isn’t the same as Google’s proposal to limit targeting to age, gender and postcode.

If it happens, this is once again a small responsive step from the biggest platform. What we are still missing is the big picture – where do they see their advertising policy being in five years time and how do they respond to the calls from around the world to make political adverts more transparent and, well, truthful. It would be great if Facebook would set out this vision for us rather than scattershot, incremental steps.

Incidentally, this video of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen ripping into the big platforms whilst receiving an award from the US Anti Defamation League is well worth watching in full.

Google cuts back on political adverts

Google will no longer allow adverts featuring deep fakes, micro-targetting or targetting voters based on registered political affiliation according to a letter sent by the company in the US. It will also expand its library of political ads. The decision is being seen as putting further pressure on Facebook.

The Google announcement, in common with other platforms,introduces terms and restrictions based around the current US market and political system. Adverts based on voter affiliation are already banned in the UK and questioning of the census – another restriction – is a US phenomenon. However the measures will apply worldwide and will be put in place before the UK votes on 12th December.

At present, both Labour and Conservatives are investing heavily in Google Ads which appear when users search for the names of other parties. The new policies would not appear to limit such adverts.

“Whether you’re running for office or selling office furniture, we apply the same ads policies to everyone; there are no carve-outs,” said Google Ads executive Scott Spencer in a blogpost. This is widely interpreted as a dig at Facebook which has exempted political adverts from fact-checking.

However, the company has admitted that its resources to check adverts are limited and the number that may be banned as a result of this policy will be small.

Micro-targetting is Facebook’s key advantage and only exists to a very limited extent on Google. Facebook has a vast database of knowledge on each of its users and sells this knowledge to advertisers, including political advertisers. Google will allow adverts based on gender, age and locations as small as individual postcodes – but will not permit other data to be used.

Twitter’s new policy has now been given in more detail and will ban all adverts from politicians and parties and those which are based on specific, even if they come from pressure groups or individuals. The company also aims to ban advertisements aimed at influencing legislation, but not those which refer to generic issues. Campaign groups have claimed that this means that polluting fossil fuel companies can still run ads to promote their products but that campaigners aiming to stop them will be banned.

Google, like Twitter, does not rely heavily on political adverts for revenue, generating around $128m from the US market since June 2018. But the Guardian has revealed that the company has been under-reporting poltical spending in the UK by a large factor. The newspaper claims that Labour was reported as having spent £50 in the week beginning 27th October, but that the actual figure was around £63,000. A smaller discrepancy also existed for the Conservatives. Whilst there is no indication that Labour or the Conservatives intended to mislead regulators, accurate reporting by platforms is vital to enable the Electoral Commission and public to check that parties are not over-spending on the election.

Reading List – 18th November 2019

In a opinion piece in the New York Times, Daniel Kreiss and Matt Perault (the latter of whom is former public policy director at Facebook) offer options for reforming the elections landscape of social media.

 

For anyone who wants to know more about Iran and how the regime there has changed its global outlook and ambitions, this is a good read.

 

Dr Georges Fahmi of Chatham House examines how protesters across the region have adapted their tactics after the experiences of the Arab Spring. He sets out five lessons for those wnating to overthrow the system in their country, notably that it is not all about a rush to replace unpopular leaders through fresh elections – changing the rules and socio-economic structure of society is vital too.

 

This last recommendation is a listen rather than a read. Brookings President John Allen on why autocrats are rising and what to do about it. Defenders of an international liberal rules-based order need to take action to preserve their vision.

 

EU highlights social media manipulation in Sri Lankan election campaign

The EU election observation mission has issued its preliminary statement on Saturday’s Presidential election in Sri Lanka. Overall the mission found the election to be well run, but says that there was an uneven playing field for the candidates resulting from the absence of a finance law and the bias of both state and privately owned media. But there are highly damaging findings on the use of online and social media. I’ve re-produced the relevant section and footnotes below:

“A coordinated distortion of the information environment online undermined voters to form opinions free from manipulative interference.

Thirty-four per cent of Sri Lankans have access to the internet and use smartphones to send and receive information. The digital literacy rate is low, leaving the online discourse prone to manipulation. (65) Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression is not explicitly extended to online content (66), and in the absence of all-encompassing privacy and data protection legislation, parties do not declare their use of voters’ personal data, which is collected by mobile applications or campaign staff. (67) Such practice is at odds with international standards. (68)

Among the social media platforms, Facebook is the prime contributor to the crafting of political narratives in the public space and to setting the electoral agenda. (69) The EC had only an informal understanding with Facebook on the removal of hate speech and disinformation. (70) Citizen observers also reported harmful content online to the EC and Facebook. (71) However, Facebook’s reluctance to take action, coupled to high levels of anonymous, sponsored content, enabled a mushrooming of hateful commentary and trumped-up stories that capitalised on long-standing ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions. (72) It continued also during the campaign silence, when Facebook removed only a small proportion of such paid content. (73) This was detrimental to the election and at odds with inter- national standards. (74)

Coordinated dissemination of outright false and/or demeaning information presented in various for- mats and across digital platforms dwarfed credible news threads. Suppression of credible news en- tailed the use of sponsored content on Facebook and coordinated sharing of political memes that sow discord and political gossip, both of which served as a source for multiple posts on political support group pages. In the majority of cases, the SLPP campaign benefitted from this. One such campaign undermined the integrity of postal voting; (75) four narratives capitalised on underlying fears and/or recycled previously debunked information. (76)

The use of algorithms and human curation to mislead the debate on Twitter was observed. (77) It in- cluded a high number of recently registered accounts amplifying certain political messages that also appeared on political support group pages. Ten days before the election, the SLPP further skewed the online discourse by announcing a “sharing” contest for 50,000 subscribers of the SLPP app VCAN. (78) A few professional fact-checking organisations exposed deceptive and false stories, but their staff levels and reach are far smaller than those of political actors, and they were not supported by broadcast or print outlets. (79) Overall, a damaging online environment distorted public debate and curbed voters’ access to factual information on political choices, an important element for making a fully informed choice.”

Footnotes:

65 – Computer and digital literacy are 27.5 and 40.3 per cent respectively (2018). Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka; joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda by recognised international bodies, section 3, says: “States should take measures to promote media and digital literacy”.

66 – UNHRC, Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, 4 July 2018:“[…] the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression…”.

67 – The VCAN app promoted by the SLPP (Google Play) demands registration with a National Identity Card (NIC); if permitted, it has access to a phone’s geolocation, can read the content of USB storage and view network connections. The privacy and developers’ pages are empty. The use of the VCAN app and enclosed private information by campaigners was confirmed to EU observers in Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Kalutara, Kurunegala and Trincomalee.

68 – ICCPR art. 17, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary […] interference with his privacy”. ICCPR, HRC GC 16 par. 10: “The gathering and holding of personal information […] on computers, data banks and other devices, whether by public authorities or private individuals or bodies, must be regulated by law.”

69 – As of October 2019, there are 6.5 million Facebook users, 1.1 million Instagram, 261,700 YouTube, and 182,500 Twitter users in Sri Lanka. Several million people use WhatsApp. Eight million communicate on Viber.

70 – Facebook has not published data about requests by, or its response to, government authorities in 2019. It notes that without a written agreement with the EC, the timeline for decisions remains at its discretion. The number of removed posts is not public. FB did not consider the EC’s media guidelines applicable to it.

71 – By 6 November the EC complaints centre has registered 102 complaints about campaign violations and hate speech online. 

72 – The EU EOM analysed 340 Facebook pages supporting one of the two leading candidates, including 167 prominent in one district. Twenty-six of national-level and 10 per cent of local-level pages featured sharply negative content. On 25 of the most popular meme pages, the EU EOM identified 47 political memes with a menace, including sectarian undertones. The EU EOM assessed public videos by ten of the most subscribed to YouTube influencers (more than 20,000 followers each) and identified at least 10 cases of sharply divisive rhetoric, including two with a racist message.

73 – On 14 and 15 November the EU EOM identified at least 300 sponsored posts/adverts with campaign content. CSOs identified 700 such sponsored posts, FB removed less than half of it.

74 – ICCPR, HRC GC 25, par. 19: “Voters should be able to form opinions independently, free of violence or threat of violence, compulsion, inducement or manipulative interference of any kind.” See also the joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda, sec. 4 ‘Intermediaries’.

75 – On 31 October an anonymous fan page, Iraj Production, posted “postal voting” results featuring the SLPP’s victory with 95 per cent of votes cast. The post cited the EC. It was shared and re-shared 30,000 times. The post was also shared by a FB page promoting the SLPP and serving as “a mother page” for sharply negative and manipulative content against the UNP. FB closed the fan page on 6 November. The “landslide victory of the SLPP in postal voting” was repeated in rallies.

76 – These include the UNP candidate pictured with a Muslim doctor falsely accused of sterilising 4,000 Buddhist women (de- bunked in July 2019), a claim that the SLPP candidate is supported by a Muslim politician, who, in turn, is falsely associated with “masterminds of the Easter bombings” (debunked in July 2019). The posts and sponsored content also capitalised on anti-foreign sentiments by falsely stating that the government was giving away 18 per cent of Sri Lanka’s land by signing an agreement with US.

77 – From 4 October to 4 November the EU EOM downloaded all tweets trending the neutral electoral hashtags #PresPollSL and #prespolls2019. Out of 2,000 accounts 500 were randomly selected for assessment. Nine per cent were established less than four months before the election, 4.62 per cent were deleted by Twitter, 28 per cent shared only negative content, and 35 per cent were only re-tweeted.

78 – By following the application, the EU EOM observed automated and concerted activities, including multiple sharing of the same post at odd hours (3:30am, 4:22am) but from different profiles which could indicate the activity of bogus accounts. 

79 – Three fact-checking projects employ a robust news/photo verification methodology. They have debunked 74 false sto- ries/statements/images by and about political figures. These included a claim of a politically motivated fight that followed a Premadasa rally, the arson of houses belonging to Rajapaksa supporters, and a letter from a cardinal opposing a big govern- ment agreement with US (the Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC). The debunking of false postal voting results was shared just 17 times as opposed to the 30,000 shares of the false news post itself. The EU EOM also identified an organisation that was impersonating a fact-checking organisation. It was featured in the mainstream media as a guardian of fairness in online campaigning, while in practice it was striving to discredit non-partisan fact-checkers.