A return of the Russian Federation electoral system to mixed-member majoritarian (MMM, also known as a “parallel” system) is underway. Essentially, it would return the county to the system used until ten years ago, when it was replaced by a single national district (450 seats), closed lists. Under the new-old MMM system, half the seats would continue to be elected in a nationwide closed-list contest, while the other half would consist of single-seat districts (plurality rule).
But while the prospect of individual candidacies suggests a liberalizing of a political system often criticized as heavily tilted in favor of Putin and the governing authorities, history shows that they can actually have the opposite effect.
This is because individuals endorsed by the majority party tend to have an advantage in name recognition and resources in local races, and because candidates who run as independents can often be enticed to join the majority party when the new Parliament is formed, using perks offered by the presidential administration.
The article cites the similar experience of Ukraine, which also has followed the path of MMM > nationwide PR > MMM:
In 2007, under a system of proportional voting for party lists, the Party of Regions won 175 seats with 34.4 percent of the vote. In 2012, the Party of Regions won only 30 percent in proportional voting but now holds 209 seats thanks to victories in individual districts by its own nominees or by independents who joined the faction later.
Finally, the article quotes a Russian election monitor, Arkady Lubaryev, saying his organization would have preferred a “mixed closed system” like that of Germany, rather than the “mixed open” system being proposed. I have never seen this terminology, and it makes no sense to me (raising the risk of confusing open/closed with the type of party list used). I will stick to MMP and MMM, or compensatory and not respectively.
While I still think MMM has its uses, the more I follow developments concerning that system, the more I think it is generally the worst of both worlds.1 It allows establishment parties to over-perform their party label popularity, while also complicating the strategy of opposition forces, which face the contradictory pulls of incentives to coordinate in the single-seat districts with incentives to run separately due to the proportional tier. The 2012 election in Japan suggests that country may be headed down a similar path after a brief period of two-bloc competition and alternation.
I might add that my co-edited book on mixed-member systems (2001) has an oft-overlooked question mark on its “best of both worlds” subtitle, and that I always thought the affirmative answer to that question was more plausible with MMP than with MMM. [↩]
The Republic of Georgia goes to the polls in parliamentary elections on 1 October. The electoral system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM; also known as a parallel system). There are 73 legislators elected in single-seat districts, and 77 from party lists.
The following is excerpted from Civil.ge Daily News Online, 26 August. It is an interesting example of campaigning to try to prevent a party’s supporters from splitting their vote.
Leader of opposition Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is campaigning in Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region on August 26-27, called on supporters not to differentiate between supporting Georgian Dream in party-list and majoritarian contests when casting ballot in the October 1 parliamentary elections. …
“We’ve been hearing from many regions: ‘We’ll vote for the Georgian Dream [in party-list contest], but there is a very good majoritarian [MP candidate from other party], like Gegenava or someone else’; don’t trust such [approach]; if Gegenava supports the current government he too is responsible for the authorities’ each and every step,” Ivanishvili said, apparently referring to an incumbent ruling party lawmaker Archil Gegenava, who is running in the October 1 parliamentary elections to retain his majoritarian MP seat in Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda single-mandate constituency.
The constitutional system is semi-presidential. (President-parliamentaty subtype, I believe.)
Following the “Orange Revolution” at the end of 2004, Ukraine’s parliament passed a package of constitutional reforms that stripped the presidency of the power to appoint and dismiss the premier and cabinet. Under the reforms, following a parliamentary election, a majority coalition had to form before a prime minister could be appointed; the president had to accept the choice of this coalition, and the government depended on the exclusive confidence of the parliamentary majority.
These reforms have now been reversed by a ruling of the constitutional court (CSM, DW). So Ukraine will again be a president-parliamentary system, instead of the premier-presidential system under which it has functioned in recent years.
The court has ruled that constitutional procedures were violated in the passage of the reforms. This is an awfully long time after the changes came into effect to be finding their enactment to be inadmissible!
The practical political effect is that the President Viktor Yanukovych, the very candidate that the “old regime” tried to install through the fraud that sparked the Orange Revolution and who won the presidency earlier this year, is now strengthened. He won the presidential election earlier this year, after one term of the pro-Western Orange candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.
At the time of the Orange Revolution, it was the people around Yanukovych who insisted on weakening the presidency and empowering the parliamentary majority. The parliament at the time had been elected in 2002, and was dominated by old-regime loyalists. Now Yanukovych has not only the office of the presidency, but also the restored power of the pre-Orange institution.
The Hurriyet Daily Newsreports that Latvian President Valdis Zatlers has called for a constitutional amendment permitting him to dissolve Parliament without the public’s consent at referendum. According to the article, he also has called for direct presidential elections.
Further, he has asked for the power to unilaterally dismiss the chief budget and central bank officers. Zalter’s stated reason for this is to ‘depoliticize’ these appointments.
There is no mention of any proposed change to presidential survivability. Will the dissolution of Parliament also trigger a presidential election, for example?
As is no surprise to F&V readers, the net effect of the above would be the diminution of arguably wise constraints on executive power.
Russian voters gave a huge “DA!” to Putin in legislative elections that were a de-facto referendum on extending Putin’s “national leader” status beyond the scheduled expiration of his presidential tenure next spring.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan voters narrowly gave a “NO!” to the referendum by ChÃ¡vez to extend his own tenure, as well as his powers and the role of the state in the economy.
I am unsurprised by the Russian result. Some months ago I said Putin’s party would win two thirds to three fourths of the seats, despite polls at the time that said 47% of the vote. It would appear that United Russia will have right around 70% of the seats. Stay tuned as to whether this is a step towards having the power to amend the constitution and abolish the term limit, or whether he will find other ways to exercise the dominance that he will claim a mandate for.
I am surprised by the Venezuela result. Pleasantly so. A 51-49 YES would have been a terrible outcome. A 51-49 NO could be salutary.
A couple of paragraphs from this morning’s LA Times well sum up what Venezuela’s voters turned down:
Chavez’s goal is authoritarian in nature, said Agustin Blanco Munoz, a researcher at Central University of Venezuela who wrote a biography based partially on jailhouse interviews he conducted after Chavez was imprisoned for leading the unsuccessful 1992 coup attempt.
“His model isn’t communism or socialism. It’s a varnish, a cover for a personalist system that exalts Chavez above all else as the caudillo, the new messiah, not the collective society,” Blanco Munoz said.
On the Russian vote, it is interesting that the other parties on the ballot listed the top three candidates on their national lists, whereas United Russia listed only Putin. The Times reported that many voters appeared unaware that it was a legislative election. Clearly, that was Putin’s intent, by abolishing the nominal tier of the former electoral system, and by creating the mass movement demanding him to stay on. Putin continues to deny he intends a third term. Will he be convinced otherwise, by the great democratic outpouring?1
Turnout was only around 55% in Venezuela, meaning only around 28% actually voted no. But good enough, for now, anyway. Russia’s turnout was around 60%, so only about 38% of the eligible electorate has endorsed this overwhelming majority. But good enough.
Please be sure your irony detector is appropriately calibrated. [↩]
Two elections on Sunday are worth watching as examples of an electoral path to authoritarianism. In Venezuela, voters will vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would greatly enhance the power of both the state in the economy and the president within the state. In Russia, voters will vote in legislative Duma elections that are sure to result in the outgoing President’s party winning a massive majority of the seats.
In both cases, we are witnessing the consolidation of authoritarian systems despite ongoing electoral processes and the retention of formal institutions of separated powers.
The Venezuelan referendum features votes on two packages of amendments. Both packages bundle reforms on both economic and social policy claims on the state and powers of the presidency. Of course, one of the reforms would lift the existing term limit on the presidency itself.
Venezuelans will vote on the reform on December 2nd and will do so in two blocks. Block â€œAâ€ includes President Chavezâ€™s original proposal, as amended by the National Assembly, which would change 33 articles out of the 350 articles in the constitution. Also included in block A are another 13 articles introduced by the National Assembly. Block â€œBâ€ includes another 26 reform articles proposed by the National Assembly. Voters may vote â€œYesâ€ or â€œNoâ€ on each block.
Polls have been somewhat mixed about the chances of the referendum, but it would be surprising if the substantial organizational prowess of the Chavista forces were insufficient to get the proposals over the 50% hurdle. How much over is hard to say. A close vote–either way–would be potentially dangerous, revealing the deep polarization.
Meanwhile, in the event that the referendum loses or is very close, the ChÃ¡vez camp is already prepared with the charges of CIA fomenting of opposition. James Petras, a well known sociologist and Latin Americanist, was on Democracy Now! this morning discussing these allegations and a supposed memo. (The memo may well be real, but its source was the ChÃ¡vez government, so there is reason to be skeptical.) And could the CIA be working with Trotskyites? Petras thinks so! (Many leftists flocked to ChÃ¡vez and then later broke with him, so there are indeed many left-wing organizations among the opposition.)
Petras suggests that there is nothing particularly worrisome about the end of presidential term limits, and notes that the ChÃ¡vez camp likes to cite cases of long tenure in parliamentary systems (Blair, Howard, and Japan’s LDP are specifically mentioned) as evidence that there is nothing out of the ordinary for democracies to have one party, even one leader, in power for multiple terms, even decades.
The government has argued, with some effectiveness, that in the parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office… So they donâ€™t see this asâ€”they donâ€™t describe this as an unusual happening, much more like a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential system, though in this caseâ€”
Unfortunately, just as this comparative institutions stuff was getting interesting, the interviewer cut Petras off and changed the subject. But maybe it was just as well, as this is actually very bad comparative politics. There is, of course, nothing that ChÃ¡vez is proposing that is making the system more parliamentary. Quite the contrary. He is proposing to concentrate ever more authority in his own hands, and to make himself eligible for reelection in perpetuity.
Not even a Howard, a Blair, or a Thatcher ever enjoyed the concentration of power that a president potentially can have for the simple reason that parliamentary systems enforce collective responsibility within the cabinet and promote party-building by the government and opposition alike. There are reasons why very few parliamentary systems have term limits, while such limits on executive tenure exist for virtually all elected presidents who serve as unchallenged head of their government (i.e. without a PM accountable to parliament). There are also reasons why almost all authoritarian leaders that arise within formally parliamentary institutions eventually change the formal institutions to presidential (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, among many others). While democratic presidential institutions actually put more checks on the chief executive than is the case in some majoritarian parliamentary democracies, there is no escaping the fact that presidential institutions are far more amenable to the electoral path to authoritarianism than are parliamentary.
The president fully controls the cabinet (and, in the absence of an institutionalized legislature with countervailing incentives, may also directly command the bureaucracy). The president runs for office directly and often–as in Venezuela–needs only a plurality of the votes. And the president need not have an institutionalized party as his vehicle for political support. It is feasible to have a party that is little more than a vehicle for placing presidential loyalists in the legislature via the president’s own coattails. As ChÃ¡vez has.
There are, on the other hand, no particularly good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. And that makes the Russian case all the more interesting. Here we have a vast federal and multi-ethnic country–empire, really–that has been governed under a presidential democracy or semi-democracy since almost the moment that the USSR began to fall apart in 1990. At that point, the Russian legislature chose Boris Yeltsin to be president as part of its assertion of authority against the crumbling USSR institutions.
Yeltsin’s successor as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, is now wrapping up his second of his constitutionally prescribed maximum two terms. In the legislative election Sunday, Putin will be heading the list of candidates of his United Russia Party. Just under two months ago, he announced intention to continue playing a â€œmajor roleâ€ in Russian political life.
There has been talk of Putin taking on some, as yet informal, title like “Leader of the Nation.” Yet without a formal institution under his command, he would be unlikely to retain the powerful de-facto role he and his supporters appear to have in mind for him, especially given that the presidency will soon be in the hands of a successor. I remain puzzled as to why Putin did not use his evidently vast political machine and patronage to secure an abolition of the presidential term limit.
One possibility is that Putin will suddenly decide that Russia’s ‘democratization’ requires a move to a parliamentary system, so Putin can be the perpetual prime minister. But then we are up against the fact that, as I noted, there are no really good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. Will Russia embark on one?
Another possibility is suggested in a news item at Canada.com:
It is thought that he will declare a preferred surrogate â€” the current favourites are Kremlin insiders Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and former minister of defence, or Dmitri Medvedev, chairman of Gazprom (Russiaâ€™s largest company) or Viktor Zubkov, whom Putin recently hand-picked as prime minister â€” to replace him as president.
Then, after winning the presidency, Putinâ€™s successor would resign, paving the way for emergency elections by which Putin could become president again.
Whatever the scenario, it is likely that both Russia’a and Venezuela’s elections on Sunday are further steps in the dismantling of electoral democracies and their transformation into authoritarian regimes.
Russia Profile has an interesting article on the party lists that are now in the process of being registered for Duma elections.
At the federal level, voters know parties mostly by the top three candidates on the party list who will be the first to enter the Duma if a party receives more than 7 percent of the vote nationwide.
With the notable exception of United Russia [the ruling party], almost all parties made their top three candidates public at their conventions.
Parties that are at risk of winning less than 7% of the nationwide votes are really struggling to stand out by personalizing their lists:
The smaller parties, striving to attract attention, put popular figures and TV personalities on their lists, even if the credentials of those people were somewhat controversial. The Civil Force, a party popularly seen as a “spoiler” group aimed at stealing the liberal vote from the Union of Right Forces, is headed by attorney Mikhail Barshchevsky, a popular figure on various intellectual TV shows, and Mariya Arbatova, a fiery feminist and TV personality known for her non-standard views on sex and marriage.
Some experts and prominent public figures expressed dissatisfaction at this tendency, saying that it turns serious politics into a contest for viewers’ sympathies.
“Parties do not know how to attract attention to themselves,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Unity in the Name of Russia foundation, a think tank associated with United Russia. “So they try to attract television viewers by putting familiar faces into their lists who have no real political meaning whatsoever.
When party labels are so weak, and the threshold so high, indeed they do.
The article also notes that, in addition to a national list, there are regional lists, which had not previously been clear to me in any summaries of the new all-list electoral system.
In accordance with recent change in electoral law, for the first time, parties have to register regional lists, with the hope that voters will be able to choose from candidates they know from local news and events.
The election is 2 December. Previous entries on the election can be found by clicking on either of the orchard blocks in which this one was “planted in,” above.
The campaign for the election to the State Duma (lower house) of the Russian Federation is officially underway.
As Kommersant notes, “The answer to the main question is known in advance. The United Russia Party will certainly win more than half the seats in the lower house.” (Earlier I suggested at least two thirds.)
Nonetheless, Kommersant suggests, there is some suspense:
The first intrigue is whether or not the potential successors to Putin (or even one of them) will top the election lists of the two parties in power, United Russia and Just Russia.1
Those candidates would be Sergey Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, both of whom have served Putin as First Deputy Prime Minister.
The Levada Center conducted a special survey in July to find out how Russians felt about Ivanov heading the party list for United Russia in the Duma elections, and about Medvedev heading Just Russia. Forty-four percent of respondents favored the Ivanov-United Russia pairing, with 14 percent opposed, and 36 percent favored Medvedev-Just Russia, with 17 percent opposed.
The combination they appear in will have more influence on the upcoming presidential elections that on the Duma elections. Both parties’ voters will be oriented not toward specific persons, but toward the leadership as a whole. They will vote for the party in power regardless of who leads it, whether it is the speaker of the Duma, a first deputy prime minister or just some mayor. But for either of the successors the top spot on the party list will mean the transition from potential candidate to real contender for the Kremlin.
The article includes a photo with the caption, “In three months, parties, and only parties, will divide up the seats in the State Duma.” This is, of course, a reference to the abolition of the nominal tier of single-seat districts. The election will be via closed list in a single nationwide district, 7% national threshold.
Regarding the change of electoral system, the Kommersant article notes:
There is no doubt that the Kremlin’s long nurturing of a two-party system has come to fruition, even if it has yet to reach it final form (Russia is still far from the Anglo-American system of alternating parties). That, in the final analysis, was why Kremlin political technologists made the Duma elections based exclusively on party lists and reduced the number of parties, lightening the ballast that made the entire party system less manageable.
The point about “managing” the party system (and the heavy “ballast” of legislators who actually campaign in local races) is a good deal more apt than any supposed parallel to the “Anglo-American system of alternating parties.” In fact, the piece goes on to suggest that the “the minimum program remains to guarantee that pro-Kremlin parties receive a total of two-thirds of the votes in the lower house.”
The final question addressed in the article is whether the “democratic parties” will make it into the Duma. That is somewhat doubtful.
Just Russia was one of the parties an earlier poll suggested was right at the 7% threshold. Of course, if a prominent Putin ally heads its list, it is almost certain to clear, and its doing so would only inflate the total “parties of power” seat total, if they draw from an even slightly different pool of voters. [↩]
US Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), paid an official visit to Kazakhstan last week at the invitation of Euro-Asian Jewish Congress President Alexander Mashkevich. [...]
As local Jewish media reports, Berkley was “impressed by the integration of the Jewish community on all the levels of social and political life” in Kazakhstan. “I am confident that tolerance towards other nations is a basis for successful development of every country”, she said. As local analysts wrote, “the status of the Jewish communities in the post-Soviet states often corresponds with the level of democratic development. Flourishing and highly involved communities are a good sign of democratization processes and openness. Kazakhstan’s Jewry constitutes an accurate example of such a concept, as its leaders support and promote the country’s rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular”.
While I am certainly prepared to believe that the status of a country’s’ Jewish community is a reasonably good proxy for various civic freedoms, the idea that there is a “democratization process” in Kazakhstan is laughable. Freedom House, for example, gives Kazakhstan a score of 5 on civil liberties and 6 on political rights, where 7 denotes the lowest levels of freedom possible. Freedom House further notes:
it has been plagued by a rise in authoritarianism and overwhelming levels of corruption within the ruling regime. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in office since 1989 and president since 1991, and he has allowed his family and close associates to take control of vital economic resources and political positions. President Nazarbayev was reelected first in 1999 in elections widely seen as marred, and in December 2005, he was granted an extended 7-year term in office through elections criticized as not meeting international standards. The executive branch controls both the parliament and the judicial system. Recently, the regime increased harassment of NGOs and independent media.
One should never conflate “integration of the Jewish community on all the levels of social and political life”–nor especially “rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular” –with a “democratization process.”
Surprise, surprise, the ruling party won the legislative elections of 18 August. In fact, it won all 99 seats.
Just like Ukraine, Russia will soon be electing all 450 of its legislators* in a single national district, via closed lists. Unlike Ukraine, however, in Russia the new electoral system is part of a centralized ruling party’s process of further centralization. Russia is, unsurprisingly given the narrowing of political space under outgoing President Vladimir Putin, headed for a hegemonic-party system. A recent Angus Reid poll suggests:
United Russia (YR): 46%
Communist Party (KPRF): 9%
Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR): 9%
A Just Russia: 7%
Agrarian Party of Russia (APR): 2%
Yabloko (Liberal): 1%
Union of Right Forces (SPS): 1%
Another party 1%
Would not vote: 7%
Hard to answer: 19%
(I am pretty sure I have never seen a poll with “Hard to answer” as an option before.)
The threshold is 7% (compare Ukraine’s 3%). So, the poll suggests only two or three small parties aside from YR would make it into parliament. It would not take many parties missing the threshold to result in sufficient wasted votes to give YR a majority of seats, even if it indeed wins only 46% of the vote. But it is likely that it will win much more than 50% of the votes, once we take the nonvoters out of the denominator, and imagine that the “hard to answer” bloc ultimately will include a significant number of YR voters. In fact, I would guess we could be looking at two thirds to three quarters of the seats for United Russia.
The election is 2 December. The presidential election to choose (make that anoint) Putin’s successor is expected in March, 2008.
* Unlike Ukraine, Russia also has an upper house, though its members are not elected.
The degree of institutionalization of an authoritarian regime is often somewhat ambiguous. But when a regime–and, even more, the country itself–has had only one leader, and his rule has been seemingly unchecked, the ambiguity is considerably less. So, it is hardly shocking that the interim president, selected by the Turkmenistani parliament after the unexpected death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, has suddenly had his constitutionally ineligibility for a full term lifted by parliament. The election–which almost no one expects to be fair–is set for 11 February.
Update: Robert Mayer has posted the best photo I have seen of the amazing (in an absolutely absurd sort of way) statue of “Turkmenbashi” himself.
In a previous post, I noted that elections had just been held in several Russian regions, including the Jewish Autonomous Region. I had no idea this relic of Stalin’s “nationalities policy” still existed. Of course, this oblast, formally established by Stalin in 1934, has never been either autonomous or Jewish in any meaningful sense.
United Russia, a Kremlin-backed party, won a convincing victory Sunday in elections to local legislatures in nine regions in what many politicians consider a preparation for next year’s parliamentary polls.
The elections took place in the Republics of Karelia, Tuva, and Chuvashia, and in the Astrakhan, Novgodorod, Lipetsk and Sverdlovsk Regions, the Jewish Autonomous Area and the Primorye Territory.
The ruling United Russia party claimed earlier this year that it would secure more than 45% of the party-list votes in Sunday’s regional elections.
New election rules, adopted on an initiative by President Vladimir Putin, eliminate single-mandate districts, and the preliminary results of Sunday’s voting indicate how strong United Russia’s hold is on the constitutional majority in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma.
The story continues with details from each of the regions.
Nikolai Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes in the Moscow Times about the upcoming Russian regional elections, which will precede the first State Duma elections to be held under an excusively closed-list electoral system.
What we are witnessing is a serious reformatting of the country’s political party structure. What is referred to elsewhere as the political landscape looks more like a political seed-bed in Russia.
Ah, an analogy after my own heart (even if he expands upon it with reference to vegetables).
There are also various young gardeners competing to see whose plants grow best. The two main groups vying for the green-thumb prize are those surrounding Vladislav Surkov and Igor Sechin, both presidential deputy chiefs of staff, and Sechin’s folks are rapidly gaining ground on Surkov’s.
The nominal leaders of the two columns that appear likely to form the backbone of the party system following the 2007 Duma elections are the Duma’s current speaker, Boris Gryzlov, and Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov…
After the latest moves, all you have to do is throw Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, also cozy with the party of power, into the mix and the Kremlin should be guaranteed complete control of the lower house.
Going back to the immediate post-USSR elections, the State Duma has been elected under a MMM system (parallel, half single-seat districts with plurality, half nationwide closed-list PR). Putin and his allies have changed the system to all closed-list PR in, incredibly, a single nationwide district. This new system, in conjunction with various other limits on free expression and assocation, will allow the Kremlin leaders to manage the main parties from the top. Rules also prevent the formation of multi-party lists:
This fall’s [regional assembly] elections will be the first held under new rules stipulating that a member of one party cannot be present on another party’s list. This is the Kremlin’s way of preventing the formation of loose alliances — like that between SPS and Yabloko in Moscow elections — that parties set up after the formation of official blocs was banned.
And I think the following is an innovation in list construction:
There is even a reality-show element in a new United Russia project, in which young people compete to fill one-fifth of the spaces on the United Russia party list.
Interestingly, Russia follows Ukraine in abandoning MMM for pure national-district closed-list PR, although the motivations of the move and the degree of inter-party competition in the two countries are quite different.
UPDATE: Publius Pundit is keeping up with the fast pace of events (and rumor) and posting photos, as well as links to other sources of news (and rumor). I think it is a bit premature of the Publius folks to be calling it a “revolution.” But apparently there was some growth in the scale of the protest compared to the first night, and some evidence (or rumors?) of police standing by and not blocking protesters. Over at the Reaction (see right sidebar, under “cross pollination” for link), I give my reasons why I would not expect another ‘Ukraine’ in Belarus: The conditions that were present in Ukraine are not present in Belarus, notably the opposition’s prior political control of roughly half the country, and its leadership by a former “insider.” (Yushchenko was a former prime minister and head of the central bank; BBC describes Milinkevich as “An intellectual rather than a politician.”
I hope I am wrong, and the absence of the Ukrainian conditions won’t stand in the way of the liberation of the people of Europe’s last dictatorship.
FURTHER UPDATE: Thanks to the scion grafted below by Arnauh, I found the coverage at Democracy Rising, where mattyj notes something encouraging:
the police appear to have allowed the demonstration to continue – at least for now. If the opposition can convince even 25% of officers to leave their protest alone it will cause friction and indecisiveness in the security forces. This was one successful tactic in the Orange Revolution.
21 MARCH UPDATE: BBC says the “crowd” in the square numbered about 150 this morning. Not good.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4