Author Archives: Philipp Köker

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of this blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics  on the Palgrave website.

Czech Republic – Parties and candidates gear up for the 2018 presidential race

The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.

‘Zeman Again 2018’ – Poster of President Zeman’s re-election campaign | Source:

Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.

To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.

At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.

Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.

ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.

Jon Johansson – From Triumph to Tragedy: The Leadership Paradox of Lyndon Baines Johnson

This is a guest post Jon Johansson, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Victorial University of Wellington, New Zealand. In this blog post, he summarises his chapter ‘From Triumph to Tragedy: The Leadership Paradox of Lyndon Baines Johnson’ in the new volume ‘The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership‘ (edited by Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart, Oxford University Press 2017).

When asked to contribute a chapter in The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective, I leapt at the opportunity. Woodrow Wilson’s challenge to presidents, issued in his 1908 treatise on American Government, to be as big a man as they can be, made Lyndon Johnson’s presidency a natural choice to apply the Leadership Capital Index (LCI). The giant from the Texas Hill Country rose to stunning heights after assuming the presidency in the worst possible circumstances: the violent murder of President John F. Kennedy. As well as leading a masterful transition, Johnson exploited the tragedy to mastermind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the single most important piece of legislation passed since reconstruction. This act also reflected LBJ’s initial pledge to ‘continue’ the work begun by Kennedy.

The following year Johnson once again used the bully pulpit of the presidency to transform scenes of racial violence in Selma, Alabama into the Voting Rights Act 1965. Alongside his ‘Great Society’ programs, twin civil rights triumphs saw Johnson reaching his own personal mountaintop. Just over three years later, however, after Robert Kennedy announced his intention to run for president against him, Johnson chose to not seek re-election. He told his biographer Doris Kearns he felt ‘left alone in the middle of the plain, chased by stampedes on every side’.[1] Johnson was so consumed by the quagmire in Vietnam, unavoidable after the Tet Offensive in late January 1968 had laid bare his previously optimistic reports to Americans on the war’s progress. Amid increasingly violent protest at home he withdrew from the electoral arena to restore his self-image as a consensus seeking leader trying to end the war in Vietnam. What was also stunning about Johnson’s ‘Americanization’ of the Vietnam War was just how bad his judgments were, especially as they were made against his own previously sound instincts (and advice to JFK) to ‘keep American boys’ out of South-East Asia.

It was this basic duality that made Johnson such a fascinating subject and his paradoxical leadership begged the following question: how could a president with unique leadership capital, accompanied by the motivation and skills to exploit it, see his political resources collapse so quickly and with such intensity? I found the ‘Leadership Capital Index’ (LCI) a rich prism from which to analyse this question, although it did require some minor adaptation to accommodate the idiosyncratic particulars of the American political system. For instance, three of the LCI’s core constructs – a president’s longevity (diminishing vs. increasing capital); the likelihood of their facing a credible challenger (constitutionally mandated intervals vs. more frequent opportunity in Westminster systems), and parliamentary effectiveness (versus legislative effectiveness in the U.S. system of separated branches sharing power) – required clarification to acknowledge institutional differences between presidential and Westminster systems.

The richness of my study came from the LCI results (scored out of 50, with the higher the score meaning the greater the level of leadership capital). They confirmed the unique qualities behind Johnson’s stratospheric leadership capital scores during the early phase of his presidency, followed by the collapse of both his relational and reputational capital during his final phase as president. Four time intervals were selected to measure the direction of Johnson’s leadership capital. The first date selected was January 8, 1964, when Johnson declared a ‘War on Poverty’ in his State of the Union Address, only 47 days after Kennedy’s assassination. He also asked Congress to pass Kennedy’s tax bill as well the civil rights bill. Johnson’s approval rating sat at 77 percent, which revealed that Americans perceived him as having risen to his post-assassination challenge. His LCI score of 41 reflected his frenetic activity to both achieve a legacy for his predecessor, one which he hoped would forever link him with the dead Kennedy.

The second date selected to measure LBJ’s LCI coincided with his Inaugural Address in January 1965, when he’d reached his apex, with his LCI score a stratospheric 46. The ‘King of the Hill’ led the passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill into law, finally ending segregation. He’d out-maneuvered the Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, over Vietnam after Congress emphatically passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, going on to win the November election with a record 61.05 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats rode LBJ’s coattails to pad their already strong Senate and House majorities.

The third time interval charts Johnson’s sharp reversal to now exhibit sharply declining leadership capital (LCI = 31). It had all turned sour over Vietnam and economic insecurity. Delivering his State of the Union speech in January 1967 he asked Congress for a tax hike to pay for the war on poverty at home and the one against the Communists abroad. His promise to keep American boys out of Vietnam had given way to 500,000 combat troops on the ground. His ‘Great Society’ programs suffered myriad implementation problems. Even the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965 did not prevent a summer of rioting across American cities, exhausting support for civil rights. A credibility gap emerged between Johnson’s optimistic portrayal of progress in Vietnam and the reality of ever-increasing body counts and the economic costs of the military stalemate.

The final time interval is at the end of March 1968, when Johnson surprised his television audience by ending a lengthy speech tracing American involvement in Vietnam with the bombshell news that he was withdrawing from the presidential race to focus solely on ending the war. His presidency had fatally collapsed over Vietnam (his final LCI score plummeted to 19). Americans no longer believed their president and so they rejected him outright. Johnson’s final capitulation was an acknowledgement that the office had defeated him. He was alone, isolated.

All in all, the LCI was an excellent instrument for revealing the exceptional leadership capital Johnson created through a superior diagnosis of his initial context, and then by perfectly matching means to ends to incrementally expand the welfare state, be seen to contain communism, while managing America’s economic growth. It reflected equally well the disjunctive phase of his presidency when that basic consensus collapsed. Johnson’s character limitations continue to provide the best explanation for both his legislative and political triumphs as well as the ultimate tragedy his presidency proved.

Based on President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership capital, his ability to exploit his political resources for all they were worth, to turn Kennedy’s legacy into something meaningful, was more than good enough for an individual as flawed as Johnson proved to be. His tragic legacy, which became his country’s, was the fatal shattering of trust by Americans in their government and its institutions. Others contributed to that, too, notably Richard Nixon, but in 2016, it took a new grotesque form, providing another stark reminder of the link between presidential leadership and character.

[1] Kearns-Goodwin, D. (1976). Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: New American Library. 343.

Selena Grimaldi – The Leadership Capital of Italian Presidents: The Politics of Constraint and Moral Suasion

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi, University of Padova. In this post she summarises her chapter ‘The Leadership Capital of Italian Presidents: The Politics of Constraint and Moral Suasion’ in the new volume ‘The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership‘ (edited by Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart, Oxford University Press 2017).

Measuring leadership has primarily been a US-American concern, since its archetypical form of presidentialist government concentrates all executive functions in a single person, and also merges the duties of the Head of Government and of the Head of State in a single office. Indeed, the first attempt at ranking the leadership of presidents was made in 1948 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, surveying 55 scholars on several aspects of leadership of 29 US presidents.

Despite objections against the methodology of measurement, over recent decades it has been adopted in a number of Westminster democracies such as Canada[1], New Zeland[2], Australia[3]  and the UK[4]. Recently, measuring leaders’ capabilities has become a concern also in consensual democracies as the importance of prime ministers has grown even in these contexts – so much so that scholars talk of the ‘presidentialization’ of parliamentary democracies.[5] Irrespective of whether the presidentialization hypothesis can be considered confirmed[6], there is no doubt that since the 1990s Italian prime ministers have acquired a central role within the cabinet.[7] However, the political science literature has so far failed to address sufficiently the fact that the prime minister is not the only political actor who gained power as a result of the presidentialization process. In fact, there is another actor who benefitted from it: the president of the Republic, who is the only real monocratic figure of the Italian political system.[8]

So far, there has not been any attempt to rank presidents or prime ministers in Italy. This is most likely because both the head of state and the head of government are linked to the legacy of weak political actors preceding them.[9] Indeed, during the so-called First Republic (1948-1993), presidents were considered as notaries who exercised passive oversight[10]  and prime ministers were definitely first among equals.[11]

In the chapter summarized in this blog post I measured the leadership of Italian presidents rather than that of prime ministers because, to my knowledge, there is as of yet no ranking of any king for presidents of parliamentary republics. Moreover, I think it is useful to focus on these political figures which have too often been ignored by scholars, especially when their role has had a visible impact on the evolution of certain parliamentary democracies.

The Leadership Capital Index (LCI) was first conceptualised and applied to prime ministers (or directly elected presidents). However, it could be potentially also be adapted and applied to other kind of political leaders as it is based both on agency and personal appeal. For example, in the Italian case, presidential powers are not only institutional but take the least visible form of so-called moral suasion, i.e. where presidents influence, pressure, and persuade others based on their “neutrality” and personal appeal.

From a methodological point of view, the real challenge was to adapt the indicators used by Bennister et al.[12] to the Italian context and to ‘institutionally’ constrained leaders. In particular, building on the three main dimensions (skills, relations and reputation) of the leadership capital index, I employed 12 indicators that produced a synthetic score ranging from from 11 to 54 points. Since the LCI requires a lot of soft measurements, another meaningful step was to develop a questionnaire regarding Italian presidents which was then proposed to a panel of scholars with a good knowledge of contemporary Italian politics.

The analysis shows that the leadership capital of the three presidents of the Second Republic included in the study varies from medium (Scalfaro) to high capital scores (Ciampi and Napolitano). The LCI allows us to drill into these assessments and see the individual strengths and weaknesses of each office holder within the confines of the office. Scalfaro’s strength in maintaining his capital stemmed predominantly from his political skills, Ciampi’s from his relations, and Napolitano’s through a combination of reputation and political skills. For example, Scalfaro’s longevity in politics allowed him to successfully face down attacks by PM Berlusconi and right-wing parties, but his capital was weakened by his lack of neutrality. Ciampi, buttressed by the bipartisan agreement that secured his election, used these founding relations to influence foreign policy and domestically pursue a popular re-discovery of the Italian founding myth. However, as a political outsider, he was unfamiliar with the complexity of the Italian party system. Napolitano defended presidential prerogatives, at times challenging the government and inviting parliament to follow particular points of view. However, from 2011 onwards, public trust began to decrease as he became more interventionist and more deeply enmeshed in domestic crises.

All three presidents blended old and new powers to build leadership capital. The three office holders all brought high levels of capital to the position that they had built up during their previous, often very extensive, political careers. The traditional characteristics of neutrality, peer support (from the Electoral College), and long political experience all provide capital, building skills, relations, and reputation. On top of this, the three successive presidents discovered and built new sources of power by cultivating popular support, using communication strategies and offering a coherent and powerful political vision. Within this general formal institutional strengthening, each president then acquired capital from slightly different areas: whether through their skills, relations, or reputation. It was this synthesis of old and new elements, institution and agency, that has made presidents more effective in the political arena and active in policy-making, especially in foreign policy and government formation.

However, the LCI does not solve all of the problems involved in assessing leadership, as it is necessarily a context-based concept. The added value of the LCI approach is that it allows the traceability of power over time, revealing how each president has built on others’ strengths but all have encountered similar limits: while Italian presidents can spend their capital in focused areas, too overt attempts to act politically can erode their capital by damaging their perceived neutrality and moral probity. The steady, increasingly upward trend of the Italian presidents’ leadership capital points not only to the importance of these institutional leaders within the Italian context during the Second Republic, but to their gradual learning of what their authority can and cannot be used for. The ongoing political crisis, and the relative loss of legitimacy in almost all other political bodies, has empowered Italian presidents, demonstrating how the environment can be key to understanding trajectory as well as to building and losing capital.

[1] Granatstein, J. L., & Hillmer, N. (1999). Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. HarperCollins Publishers.

[2] Sheppard, S. (1998). Ranking New Zealand’s prime ministers. Political Science, 50(1), 72-89.

[3] Strangio, P. (2013). Evaluating prime-ministerial performance: The Australian experience. In: Strangio, P., Hart, P. T., & Walter, J. (Eds.). Understanding prime-ministerial performance: Comparative perspectives. OUP Oxford. 264-290.

[4] Theakston, K. and Gill, M. (2006). Rating 20th-century British Prime Ministers. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8(2): 193-213.

[5] Thomas, P., & Webb, P. (2005). The Presidentialization of Politics. A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Karvonen, L. (2010). The Personalization of Politics: A Study of Parliamentary Democracies. London: ECPR Press.

[7] Calise M. (2010). Il partito personale. I due corpi del leader Bari: Laterza.; Musella, F. (2012). Il premier diviso. Italia tra presidenzialismo e parlamentarismo. Milano: Egea.; Cotta, M. and Marangoni, F. (2015). Il Governo. Bologna: Il Mulino.

[8] Amoretti, F., & Giannone, D. (2011). La presidenzializzazione contesa. XXV Convegno SISP, Palermo, Settembre, 8-10.

[9] Elgie, R. (1995). Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies. London: Macmillan Press.

[10] Pasquino, G. (2003). The government, the opposition, and the president of Republic under Berlusconi. Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 8(4): 485-499.

[11] Sartori, G. (1994). Comparative Constitutional Engineering. An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives and Outcomes. New York: New York University Press.

[12] Bennister, M., t’ Hart, P. and Worthy, B. (2015). Assessing the authority of political office-holders: The Leadership Capital Index. West European Politics, 3(38): 417-440.

Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

Fabian Burkhardt – The Paradox of Presidential Power under Authoritarianism: Studying the Institutionalization of Russia’s Presidential Administration 1994 – 2012

This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen & German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

Rulers cannot rule alone. This simple wisdom is oftentimes forgotten with regard to Putin’s Russia. This blog post summarises a paper presented at the BASEES Annual Conference in Cambridge that attempts a systematic inquiry into the institutionalization of Russia’s ‘institutional presidency’ – the Presidential Administration – between 1994 and 2012. It argues that partial institutionalization over time contributed to an increase in presidential administrative power. But as personalism and proceduralism coexist, presidents remained weak and debilitated at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office (left) | photo via

The U.S.-American presidency remains the best-studied example of a presidential administration to date. After early presidents still had to hire staff out of their own pocket, Congress finally granted funds – albeit only for a single clerk. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939, the White House staff has steadily  grown into a fully-fledged bureaucratic organization. In the U.S. literature on the ‘institutional presidency’ – the process of staff growth, functional specialization, increasing complexity and routinized patterns of organizing work – is referred to as ‘institutionalization’ and usually contrasted to Neustadt’s seminal, but president-centered, personalized perspective on presidential power. We know quite a lot about the complexity, centralization, politicization and unilateralism of the U.S. ‘institutional presidency’, but not very much about ‘presidential centers’ elsewhere. Particularly for post-Soviet countries, and the Russian Federation more specifically, much remains to be explored. This can be partly ascribed to a lack of readily available data, yet this is also predicated on the tendency to focus on executive-legislative relations on the one hand, and a president-centered leadership bias on the other. Moreover, Russia scholars have made numerous contributions to the ‘Institutions under Authoritarianism’ literature, but so far they limited themselves to the legislature, parties, elections, or center-region-relations.

My research aims to open up the black box of an “institutional presidency” under authoritarianism: I analyze the ‘institutionalization’ of ‘the Kremlin’ – or more precisely the Presidential Administration (PA) – by taking a longitudinal view from 1994 until 2012, a period which spans the three presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and ten chiefs of staff. This strategy was chosen, among others, to investigate in how far core characteristics of the PA survive turnover of presidents and chiefs of staffs. To do this I applied a framework that was initially developed by Samuel Huntington who understood institutionalization as an “increasingly stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”, and which was later applied to the U.S. and Latin American ‘institutional presidencies’ (Table 1).

Scholars have attested a high degree of personalism to Russian governance both in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s the PA defied “traditional categories of organizational analysis” as it mixed “hierarchical bureaucracy” and a “loose confederation of offices” (Huskey 2016). Furthermore, Yeltsin’s approach to organizing advice in the administration “was individualized, anti-procedural, and anti-institutional” (Breslauer 2008). In the 2000s, a high degree of regime personalization, neopatrimonialism and patronal politics should also present a major obstacle to institutionalization. However, if we follow the logic of the literature on stable authoritarian regimes, one would expect that autocrats strive to reduce uncertainty of future outcomes by means of stable patterns recurring over time. Huskey sees the Russia of the 2000s as a technocratic authoritarian regime with an ever increasing “bureaucratization of politics”, hence concomitant to the party system or executive-legislative relations one should also expect a certain degree of institutionalization in the PA.

My research shows that, unsurprisingly, both proceduralism and personalism persisted, but their proportion changed over time. In my view, a strong case can be made for at least a partial institutionalization of the PA, mostly thanks to an increased autonomy, regularized procedures and more stable structures in the adaptability and complexity indicators.

With regard to autonomy, a tendency towards a “progressive independence of the executive power” (Schmitter 1976). This can be illustrated by the swelling of the PA’s share of the annual state budget in comparison to other state organs. While in 1994, both the PA and the Duma’s share were comparable at about 0.1 percent, by 2012 the share of the PA grew to around 0.7 percent while the Duma’s was more than 17 times smaller (0.04%). Until 1999 the difference was not that large, yet the years 1999 – 2003 marked a transition period which suggests that the rise of United Russia as a dominant party played a significant role in this.

Recruitment patterns of PA staff were used as a second indicator to find out whether staff was hired and promoted from the outside of the PA, or by means of a more closed hiring system from the inside. The challenge was to choose a category of staff that existed for the whole period of investigation. Therefore, I collected a complete data set of all presidential representatives in Russia’s regions for 1991 and 1999 and Main Federal Inspectors (MFI), who after the 2000 federalism reform fulfilled approximately the same task.

Figure 1 shows that until 1999 Federal Representatives were almost exclusively recruited from outside the PA, most frequently with a background from the federal parliament, or regional executives or legislatures. However, by 2004 more than one third of MFI boasted experience within the PA apparatus of federal representatives before they were promoted to this position.

For the adaptability indicator, a complete set of all units of the PA was compiled with information on their duration of survival over time.

Among the 100 units in the set, only seven “core units” survived for the whole period of investigation. Overall, I find that in the 1990s almost four times as many units were created as in the 2000s, after Putin came to power the units survived on average twice as long as under Yeltsin. Also, electoral cycles, and with them the rotation of chiefs of staff in proximity to elections, became crucial for the survival of units.

For complexity and functional specialization, organigrams were collected from various sources such as archives, presidential decrees and media. These schemes give an idea how structure “shapes the kind, caliber, and amount of information presidents receive on policy matters”. Figure 3 provides just one example to illustrate the approach: 1996 three parallel hierarchies existed within the administration: The Service of Aides (upper left), the security pillar which includes the Security Council (upper right) as well as the general management pillar subordinate directly to the chief of staff (lower middle).

The legendary Service of Aides was soon to abolished and never to be revived, among others because of the competing hierarchy and direct information channel it created paralleling the one of the chief of staff. Overall, it can be posited that at the latest by 1998 a consolidated structure was achieved by excluding some major units that had made the organization exceedingly complex. After that time, merging and adding new smaller units by layering were the main strategies of “institutional gardening” applied.

And finally, coherence refers to unity and consensus, and is operationalized as rule-following and compliance. For this purpose, I compiled annual implementation rates of presidential orders (Porucheniia Prezidenta) from internal statistics of the PA’s own Monitoring Department. Stunningly, for the 2000s only between 40 and 60 percent of presidential orders were implemented by the addressees of these orders. In other words executive actors oftentimes resist Putin’s policy initiatives. While even in Western democracies it cannot be assumed that unilateral executive acts are self-enforcing, in Russia this can be explained by bad governance and “debilitated dirigisme”: the “failure of an activist state”, or in this case an activist president, to control its supposedly subordinate agents.

So where does this leave us? In his seminal work on authoritarian Chile Pablo Policzer remarked that “rulers cannot rule alone”. This might sound a bit simplistic at first glance, but is highly relevant for Russia. Presidents – be it Yeltsin, Putin or Medvedev – were only as powerful as their administrations allowed them to be. Especially Vladimir Putin who is oftentimes portrayed as seemingly omnipotent oftentimes winds up being impotent after all, in particular when other actors need to be empowered to get things done. Due to a partial institutionalization of the PA, the ‘power over’ – its organizational and coercive aspects – increased, but not the ‘power to’, the ability to govern proactively.

Fabian Burkhardt is completing his PhD entitled “Presidential power and institutional change: A study on the presidency of the Russian Federation” at the University of Bremen’s Research Centre for East European Studies. He is a member of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Munich. Currently, he is also a fellow at the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. More information about his research can be found here ( He tweets @fa_burkhardt.

Ben Noble – Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

This is a guest post by Ben Noble (University of Oxford)

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.


[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Ben Noble (, @Ben_H_Noble) is the Herbert Nicholas Junior Research Fellow in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Regional Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His doctoral dissertation examining executive law-making in the Russian State Duma was awarded the 2017 Sir Walter Bagehot Prize by the Political Studies Association. From September 2017, he will be a Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

Hungary – Janos Ader’s re-election, ‘Lex CEU’, and the future of the Hungarian presidency

Over the last years, I have regularly written about the changing role of the Hungarian presidency under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Although more hopeful at first, the conclusion that its existence appears to be largely irrelevant for the functioning of the country’s  political system has been confirmed once and again. Last month, the Hungarian parliament re-elected janos Ader for a second term as president. Although it is not clear what his thoughts about the role of the presidency are, even if he wanted to, his potential to become a proper check-and-balance is severely limited.

Plenary of the Hungarian Parliament | photo via wikimedia commons

Hungarian presidents have been elected by parliament since 1990 and any attempts to introduce a semi-presidential system (mainly in the 1990s) have been unsuccessful. The reelection of Janos Ader on 13 March 2017 was the second presidential election held under the modified rules of the new 2011 constitution. After the old constitution allowed for three rounds of voting (the first two requiring a two-thirds majority for a candidate to win before lowering the requirement to a relative majority in the third round), the new rules reduced this to just two: A candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win in the first round and in the second round (which is a runoff between the two frontrunners if there are more than two candidates) a relative majority is sufficient. Since 2011 it is also more difficult to nominate a candidate. The old requirement was the support of 50 of 386 deputies (i.e. 13%) for a nomination, while the new requirement is 1/5 of membership. The latter is aggravated by the fact that the size of the Hungarian parliament has been reduced to 199 deputies since the 2014 elections.

As expected, the government parties nominated incumbent Janos Ader for a second term. However, as the Fidesz-KDNP government had lost its 2/3 majority gained in the 2014 elections due to defections, it was not going to be a first-round victory as in 2012. An alliance of all opposition parties except the far-right Jobbik, nominated László Majtényi, a law professor and former data protection ombudsman. Ader received 131 votes in both the first and second round, which equates to the seat share of the government, while abstentions in the first round were equal to the seat share of Jobbik.

The election result first and foremost means continuity in the way in which Hungarian politics works until the 2018 election or possibly beyond. Although the Hungarian president belongs to the formally most powerful presidents in the region, political practice has long kept presidential intervention in day-to-day politics to a minimum. However, the rebuilding of the Hungarian state by Prime Minister Orban and his Fidesz party have also severely restricted the the effectiveness of presidential powers. The presidential veto of legislation can be overridden by parliament with a relative majority. This has never been a problem for Hungarian governments in the past, yet the restructuring of the electoral system – which greatly advantaged Fidesz and was crucial to its 2/3 majority victory in the 2014 elections – means that the parliament can even override vetoes of organic laws and constitutional amendments (requiring a 2/3 override majority) without problems. Furthermore, the disempowerment of the Constitutional Court (once one of the most powerful in the world) and nomination of judges loyal to Orban means that requests for judicial review are more likely to be decided in favour of the governing majority.

Interestingly, Janos Ader still uses his veto with relative frequency. In the first years in office, parliament still considered these seriously and often included changes proposed by the president into bills as part of the reconsideration process. Since the 2014 parliamentary elections however, all of ten his vetoes have been overridden. At the same time, Ader has not used his veto or the high public profile bestowed unto him ‘ex officio’ to address any major issues or points of contentions in the political debate. Rather, he failed to comment or sided with the government. In this regard the recent controversy surrounding the education bill dubbed ‘Lex CEU’, a new law on foreign universities operating in Hungary which specifically threatens the operation of the Central European University, is very telling. Despite large-scale international criticism and demonstrations, Ader signed the bill into law on Monday and ignored calls to veto it or send it to the Constitutional Court for review.

The above pattern is unlikely to change in the near future. During his second term in office (2010-2014) Prime Minister Orban repeatedly hinted at the possibility of introducing a semi-presidential or presidential system in the country in the past, but he has since changed his mind. While there is thus nothing new in Sandor Palace, the 2017 presidential election and other political developments pose the question why a government committed to an ‘illiberal state’ is still committed to keeping the presidency in its current form, given that it serves no obvious purpose anymore.

Presidential Profile – Andrej Kiska, president of Slovakia (06/2014-present)

Slovak President Andrej Kiska in National Council | photo via

Andrej Kiska assumed office as the 4th president of Slovakia on 15 June 2014 following a surprise victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico. To this date, Kiska – who has never held membership in any political party – has remained remarkable true to the mantra of his electoral campaign: ‘The first independent president’. Yet, there are a number of other characteristics that make Kiska an interesting president for analysis. Kiska’s Czech counterpart, populist (and nominally left-wing) Miloš Zeman might have received considerably more attention due to controversial statements and label as a European version of Donald Trump (and has thus also had his fair share of coverage on this blog). Nevertheless, Kiska – a politically conservative former businessman who has so far refrained from using any populist rhetoric and steered clear of collusion of interest – arguably provides an equally fitting and timely point of analysis and comparison.

Business career and ‘Good Angel’ charity

Kiska’s business career began shortly after the fall of Communism in 1990. Having previously worked in a state energy company, Kiska went to the United States from mid-1990 to December 1991 where he worked in a variety of jobs – a time which he claims to have strongly influenced him in his business career. His first business venture in Slovakia as subsidiary of an American jewellery company proved unsuccessful; his breakthrough only followed in 1996 with the foundation of TatraCredit. Emulating catalogue sale models from the United States, the company specialised in direct-to-consumer sales of electronics and providing short- and long-term financing options. The selection of good was later expanded to other consumer products and was followed by foundation of Quatro which offered consumers the opportunity to lease products bought in store, with both companies eventually providing financial services to close to a fifth of the Slovak population. After a transformation and merger of the different companies in 2004, it was eventually bought by the ‘Všeobecná úverová banka’, a Slovak bank owned by the Italian Banca Intensa.

Following the sale of the companies, Kiska retired from business and focussed on charity work. His foundation ‘DOBRÝ ANJEL’ (Good Angel), which Kiska led as chairman until he resigned in May 2013 to focus on his presidential bid, was founded in 2006 and specialises in care for children in orphanages and cancer support as well as help for poor families and individuals. Through his business activities and charity, Kiska reached a certain level of name recognition among the Slovak public while steering clear of any controversies.

Entering politics: The 2014 presidential election campaign

Since 1999, Slovak president are elected by popular vote in a two-round runoff system. Then incumbent Ivan Gašparovič, who had built significant ties with Prime Minister Robert Fico and his SMER party during his time in office, had been elected for a second term in 2009 and was thus not able to run again. Kiska already announced his intention to run for president in October 2014, almost 18 months before the first round of election and 10 months before any other candidate declared themselves. Kiska’s previous involvement in politics had been limited to the promotion of his charity ‘Good Angel’. Although having spent a decade of his adult life in Czechoslovakia and finding work in a state-run company, Kiska never became member of the Communist Party and also refrained from joining or publicly supporting any political entity after the fall of Communism in 1990 and creation of the Slovak Republic in 1993.

Andrej Kiska’s election slogan: “The First Independent President”

During the presidential campaign Kiska quickly established himself as the main contender to Prime Minister Robert Fico (whose motivation to run for president is not entirely clear to this day) thanks to the fact that the splintered centre-right opposition parties failed to even consider a joint candidate. Nevertheless, he consistently polled less that Fico and also finished the first round of elections as runner-up with 24% – 4% less than Fico whose result failed to match the higher predictions of the opinion polls. Kiska’s campaign centred on challenging the power of the governing centre-left SMER party of the Prime Minister (which held 83 of 150 seats in parliament at the time) and a number of malaises that characterised Slovakia (and party still do), in particular corruption and an ineffective judiciary. In this, he not only successfully managed to ‘sell’ his experience as a business manager but also establish himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This, together with his solid performance in the televised debates and the fact that Fico’s campaign ‘Prepared for Slovakia’ largely hinged on past successes, eventually transported him to a decisive 59.4% victory in the run-off.

Kiska in office: Inevitable cohabitation

Kiska’s election started a new phase of cohabitation between president and government. To this day, cohabitation based on party affiliation has been rare in Slovakia, but has rather emerged from presidents’ personal opposition to the government and rejection of particular parties. First Slovak president Michal Kovač (1993-1998) spent most of his term in office in cohabitation with Prime Minister Mečiar although both came from the HZDS. President Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) officially ran as the government candidate, yet once elected rid himself of membership in his SOP (a coalition party) and positioned himself as the antagonist of the governments. Ivan Gašparovič was formally member and leader of the originally right-wing, extra-parliamentary HZD, yet during his term formed close personal ties with Robert Fico and left-wing SMER and subsequently was in cohabitation with the centre-right government of Iveta Radičova in 2010-2012. Given Kiska’s political self-placement as a moderate conservative, cohabitation with any government including SMER should be seen as a given.

Pursuant to his electoral campaign, Kiska has mainly tackled problems in the judiciary and healthcare. For instance, he rejected five out six candidates nominated by parliament to fill vacancies on Constitutional Court, vetoed legislation on that would have made elections in the Judicial Council (self-government of the judiciary) secret and refused another judge’s appointment due to irregularities in the selection process. Particularly, the first decision resulted in a lengthy and (partially) yet unresolved tug-of-war between parliament and president. In terms of healthcare, Kiska mainly used his position to raise awareness of waste of resources, including buying of overpriced hospital equipment. Kiska also used his legislative veto on a bill that abolished fees for priority medical examinations as well as on a number of other laws, ranging from amendments to minimum pensions, to the the Labour Code and the Public Procurement Act. While the president’s amendatory observations can be included as part of the veto review process, a veto can also be overridden by an absolute majority in parliament so that these tactics have been less successful. Nevertheless, his more sparing use of vetoes (especially compared to Rudolf Schuster) at least allows him to use this power to increase awareness of the issues. Interestingly, Kiska has been relatively silent on his election promise to curb corruption – particularly during his first year in office he was criticised for failing to speak out on a number of scandals. Kiska’s actions on the international stage have largely focussed on strengthening and repairing ties with NATO and Western EU leaders which have been strained thanks to Prime Minister Fico’s opposition against Russian sanctions and refugee quotas. Among the political leaders of Central and Eastern Europe, Kiska remains one of the few to argue in favour of accepting refugees.

Remarkably, Kiska has not yet formed an alliance with any political party. Even during the 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska remained largely neutral. He launched a webpage to promote participation in the election and highlighted issues in schooling and healthcare. Although this first looked like the attempt to build a more organised political basis, the page is now defunct and Kiska appointed another government led by Robert Fico after the elections. Until now, Kiska has fared reasonably well with his declared non-partisan strategy and regularly tops opinion polls, but it remains to be seen how voters will evaluate his record come 2019. Should a united centre-right coalition present a single candidate, this might well prove dangerous for Kiska.

Perspectives: Another model of multi-millionaire president?

Andrej Kiska is a prominent millionaire businessman turned politician – a model which (although far from unusual, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe) not the least since the election of Donald Trump has come under increased criticism and scrutiny. However, Kiska is far from creating the same controversies as the above shows. Kiska gave up business more than a decade before entering politics (while the relatives with whom he founded several of his companies continue to be active in the business world, there is not direct involvement in any of their projects either). This is also a great difference to Czech finance minister Andrej Babiš who not only founded his own party but also continues to be involved in his businesses. Also, Kiska’s anti-establishment stance is largely supporting the introduction of values and practices of the political systems of Western Europe; it is not the same anti-establishment (and particularly anti-EU) rhetoric used by the populist far-right in other European countries. Last, Kiska continues his charity work by donating his entire net salary to charity – every month it is distributed to families or individuals in need that have been nominated by Dobry Anjel and other charities operating within its remit. Although the PR value of this must not to be disregarded, it stands in stark difference to other multi-millionaire presidents (and politicians) around the world.