Author Archives: Veronica Anghel

Bulgaria – An EU Presidency and a Prime Minister’s Ambition

EPA/Julien Warnand

Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov welcomed by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R). Juncker is know to call the PM ‘his golden boy’.  EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

1 January marked the start of Bulgaria’s first presidency of the Council of the EU. This position amplifies international attention towards the country’s process of democratization and demands further investigation of the political practice in institutional power sharing. The following text is an overview of some of the key issues that Bugaria’s EU presidency will highlight in the next six months: (1) inter-institutional conflict over anti-corruption laws; (2) the dynamics between the parties in the governing coalition; (3) PM Boyko Borisov’s political strength.

  • Fighting corruption: a Bulgarian method

Bulgaria is a premier-presidential semi-presidential republic. This means that control over the government is assigned to the parliament, while the directly elected president shares some executive powers with the PM. The president can also veto legislation. President Rumen Radev used this veto right on 2 January 2018 against new anti-corruption law supported by the parliamentary majority. This is a controversial piece of legislation. According to it, the chair and all the members of a special anti-graft committee meant to investigate high public officials would be appointed by the parliament with a simple majority. The president claims this provides the framework for the parliamentary majority to manipulate the institution’s authorized use of special intelligence means – such as wiretapping – to target political adversaries. PM Borisov’s main coalition party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and partner United Patriots support the law, claiming that it answers to the demands of the European Commission for decisive action against corruption.

The Bulgarian constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and limits the powers of the president once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force.

The controversy surrounding this piece of legislation shows the potential for institutional disagreement when PM and president come from a different political support base. Such policy related conflict is not uncommon in situations of cohabitation and we could easily anticipate its outcome. The constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and renders the president weak once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force. But this particular conflict is more than ”business as usual’ cohabitation skirmishes.

The debate on the framing of anti-corruption legislation law is telling about the state of elite commitment to consolidate the rule of law in Bulgaria and warns about the democratic progress of the country. Radev was elected president with the support of the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). BSP had also proposed their version of an anti-corruption investigative agency whose head would be named precisely by the president. The competing propositions show a lingering understanding that in a young democracy such as Bulgaria, institutions could be created or shaped having in mind the immediate political benefits brought by a temporary distribution of power. While more advanced in its anti-corruption fight, a similar inter-institutional clash takes place in neighbouring Romania. In the Romanian case, the parliamentary majority is currently working on legislative reforms that would eliminate the president from the procedure to appoint the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Agency (and their deputies) and the chief prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency.

  • The far-right, from Sofia to Brussels

GERB formed the government with the political alliance United Patriots (UP).  UP consist of three parties – Ataka, led by Volen Siderov, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, led by deputy PM for Economic and Demographic Policy Valeri Simeonov, and the Bulgarian National Movement, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Krassimir Karakachanov. The extremist and racist public positions of the UP leaders regarding immigrants and the Roma communities have constantly raised international concerns. The UP ministers that assumed ministerial portfolios and their views are now expected to ‘shock Brussels’.[i] Nevertheless, while their rhetoric stems out, their views on limiting immigration are embraced by all parliamentary parties. Also, PM Borisov has so far proved to be in control of his coalition partners, satisfactorily addressing their demands without losing his status as Brussels’ ‘golden boy‘. As a result, the UP parties have moderated their tone in 2017 and in view of the EU presidency. Opinions may not change on the way from Sofia to Brussels, but their international public discourse could prove to be more restrained than it has previously been on the home front.

Moreover, the prospect of Bulgarian racism and xenophobia at the highest level of European decision making is but a teaser of what could follow once Austria takes over the presidency on 1 July. While the main political presence in both Sofia and Brussels is now secured by GERB ministers, the incoming Austrian government numbers five ministers from the far right Freedom Party (FPO), including the Minister of Interior and an FPO supported Foreign Minister.

  • Boyko Borisov: a balancing act

PM Borisov is highly concerned with internal stability during this period, satisfying requests from different segments of society to avoid any protests. He asked for restraint and ‘more patriotism’ from the socialist led opposition not to initiate a planned vote of no confidence for 17 January, pointing at them as inopportune trouble makers. He secured a truce with the opposition party Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and its leader Ahmed Dogan.[ii] Internationally, Borisov has set up the Bulgarian presidency as a ‘Balkan presidency’, proposing an ambitious agenda for a clearer European perspective for the Western Balkans. This choice of priority is a manifesto of a pro-European stance which Western Europe expects and favours. This comes in contrast with the pro-Russian image that president Radev and the BSP have been painted by Western media despite no practical proof of defiance against NATO or EU policies.

A seasoned politician, Borisov knows how to use the momentum of the presidency to boost his political capital internally and externally. He wants the following months to be all about his and his government’s successes. In contrast, a less politically experienced Radev avoided reference to the EU Presidency in his end of the year speech on 31 December 2017. Should Borisov successfully continue this balancing act between his coalition partners, citizens’ interest groups and Western European expectations, the resulting political stability would come in handy in delivering justice reforms without significant civic protest or objections from Brussels.  In the longer run, it could also help in winning the debate concerning the changes to the electoral system to his party long term benefit.[iii]

Conclusions

In its 12th year of EU membership, the Bulgarian state continues to grapple with a multitude of ‘sins’ familiar to observers of the democratization process of post-communist states, from unaddressed high-level corruption to power personalization and legislative instability. The EU presidency in itself may not structurally affect political activities, but it serves to highlight elite priorities and the political strategies on the ground. So far, this translates into a focus on the PM and his long term self-empowering ambitions of institutional reform.

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[i] Out of similar concerns, another interesting point on the EU calendar is the meeting of the EU Environmental Council to be led by UP supported Environment Minister Neno Dimov, known for a 2015 statement that global warming is a manipulation.

[ii] The power of DPS is far greater than its legislative size as it is also the party of Bulgarian oligarch and media mogul Delyan Peevski.

[iii] GERB favours an electoral reform towards a majority run-off system from which it (and BSP) could also benefit in the medium and long run. President Radev and smaller parties support a mixed electoral system.

 

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

Romania – The Judicial System and the Role of the President

 

Corruption has been a significant point of disorder and discontent for post-communist party systems and their societies. The case of Romania’s anti-corruption fight is significant for various reasons. It was commonly regarded as the ‘laggard’ of the countries that sought EU membership during the 2004/2007 enlargements[i] and became a subject of post-accession conditionality through the operationalisation of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Through this mechanism, the European Commission (EC) continues to monitor the progress made in the fields of judicial reform and corruption to this day. Since then, the Romanian National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) has made remarkable achievements in targeting high level corruption and claims an impressive record of ongoing investigations. However, the last EC anti-corruption report evaluates the overall national efforts as ‘inconsistent’. In early 2017, the government’s plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions stirred the largest anti-government protests since 1989, with president Klaus Iohannis siding with the protesters. A Joint Statement of EC President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans was also released, stating that ‘the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone’. The Social-Democrat Party (PSD) led coalition government backed down, despite having a solid majority in the parliament that could have supported their plans.

In this tense societal environment coupled with a general suspicion of politicians’ conduct for all things related to the judicial branch, any new reforms announced by the Ministry of Justice incite controversies and concerns. This is certainly the case with the amendments introduced into public debate by the Minister of Justice in August 2017. Some international actors question the amendments and some NGOs have perceived them as a new attempt to impede the progress made so far. The amendments would eliminate the president from the procedure to appoint the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the DNA (and their deputies) and the chief prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT). Currently, these are appointed by the president, following a proposal from the Ministry of Justice with the consent of the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM).

The current procedure requires a consensus among the political elites of the executive and the judiciary branches, the latter being represented by the CSM. The legislative branch is not directly included in the present nominating scheme or in the proposed future one.

Among other propositions, the reform also includes the transfer of the Institution of the Judiciary Inspection of the CSM under the Ministry of Justice and supplementary requirements from magistrates for career advancement. And yet, debates have centred on the effect of eliminating the president from the aforementioned key appointments. The motivations behind the concerns are political, based on recent history, as well as institutional, based on concerns regarding the balance of powers.

Firstly, as anti-corruption is a high-stakes issue for national security and democratic consolidation, the maintenance of a balance of powers in appointing key figures of the judiciary system is significant. The Romanian president is directly elected – a fact which could provide him or her with the necessary authority to be involved in all strategic issues that affect the country. On this issue, one line of argumentation considers that the current arrangement of appointments answers to all branches of power, with the elected president being regarded as a substitute for the legislative branch. The opposite argument goes that it is the government, through the Ministry of Justice, who represents the elected parliament. This is where the legitimacy to make these appointments lies and there is no need for the interference of the president. Though incongruously, there is no reform alternative that directly includes the parliament in the said nominations.

Secondly, the role of the president in the anti-corruption fight is very much dependent on recent Romanian history and public perception. Politicizing corruption has shown to be advantageous in political campaigns for some types of parties[ii] and Romanian parties have also used the anti-corruption rhetoric as a source of popular legitimation even before EU accession. President Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014), together with his Liberal Democrat Party (PDL), spearheaded the anti-corruption discourse and turned it into a successful campaign strategy in 2004. This was mainly directed against the incumbent PSD (2000 – 2004) and continued to be the top priority during his first presidential mandate which overlapped the pre-accession period. During his second mandate, an alliance between PSD and the National Liberal Party (PNL) led to his impeachment (2012) and an internationally resounding political crisis. It was a difficult moment for the whole society but it allowed the president to emphasize his image as the champion of the anti-corruption fight. The institution of the president came to be perceived as a bulwark against any abuse from the government or a legislative majority. President Iohannis continued to use the anti-corruption discourse as a main pillar of his political campaign in 2014. During the current debates, he expressed his own concerns related to the changes made, claiming in a FB post that Romania is witnessing an abuse against the rule of law and the independence of the judicial system.

Finally, the argument “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” carries its own weight. The progress made by the DNA and the other institutions in question is objectively measurable. Why should there be any changes in their organisation? The president has a say in matters of national security. One could argue that the weakening of the state through corruption is part of national security. On the other hand, the Constitution does not provide a role for the president on this particular matter and parliament could be considered within its rights to debate and vote laws proposed by the government.

In the end, any amendments would still reach the presidential desk for promulgation. And the president still has to sign off on his own elimination from this process. The return from the parliamentary summer holiday has coincided with heated debates over checks and balances and building elite consensus.


[i] See Pridham, Geoffrey (2007) ‘Romania and EU Membership in Comparative Perspective: A Post- Accession Compliance Problem? – The Case of Political Conditionality’, Perspectives on European Politics and Society 8(2), pp. 168 – 188

 

[ii] See Bågenholm, Andreas and Charron, Nicholas (2014), “Do politics in Europe benefit from politicising corruption?”, West European Politics 37(5), pp. 903-931.