Author Archives: Philipp Köker

Germany – The unexpected leadership role of President Steinmeier in coalition talks

The results of the German federal election of 24 September 2017 shook up the country’s party system more than ever before. Both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic and Social Union (CDU/CSU) and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), registered significant losses, while four smaller parties – polling between just 8.9% and 12.6% – also entered the Bundestag. While far from unexpected, this result has created a particularly difficult bargaining environment for coalition talks. Amidst the new parliamentary arithmetic, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on an expected leadership role and could influence the formation and party composition of the next German government more than any of his predecessors.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) meets with SPD leader Martin Schulz | image via bundespraesident.de

Already hours after the first results were announced, SPD leader Martin Schulz declared that his party – having achieved the worst result since 1949 and without possibility to form a left of centre coalition with Greens and LINKE – would not renew its coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and become part of the opposition. Given that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for first time after just missing the 5% threshold in 2013, is universally shunned by the other parties, the ‘Jamaica’ option seemed the only possibility to form a majority government. Named after the combination of parties’ traditional colours (CDU/CSU = black, Green Party = green, FDP = yellow) this would have created a coalition which has hitherto only existed on local level. While CDU/CSU and FDP have governed together on both federal and state level and CDU/CSU and Greens have recently (if only sporadically) started to cooperate on state level, the economically liberal FDP and left-leaning Greens seemed unlikely bedfellows. Formal coalition talks between the three parties only started a month after the election, yet collapsed two weeks ago after the FDP withdrew its participation. Since then, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD) has taken an unusually active role in managing the coalition talks and encouraging parties to find a solution to avoid snap elections.

Since 1949, coalition formation in Germany has been exclusively dominated by parties. While the president formally proposes a candidate for chancellor to parliament after elections, presidents have always proposed the candidate chosen by parties once coalition talks were concluded. Only if the president’s candidate fails to gain a majority can the Bundestag attempt to elect its own chancellor with a majority. If in the end parliament fails to elect a majority candidate (which the president has to appoint), a final vote is held and it is at the president’s discretion to appoint a candidate who has only gained a relative majority of votes.

As leader of the largest party, Angela Merkel appears to be the only serious candidate for chancellor. However, she has repeatedly voiced her opposition both to leading a minority government and to triggering snap elections (a likewise complicated process; see below). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Jamaica talks, president Steinmeier unusually strongly appealed to parties to act responsibly and continues to hold publicised meetings with leaders of all parties. Especially his meeting with former co-partisan Martin Schulz seems to have had an effect as the SPD leader has now softened its stance on retreating to the opposition benches. However, he faced an immediately backlash from the party’s youth wing; the SPD is also likely to once again hold a ballot on any new coalition among its members.

There is no deadline for president Steinmeier to nominate a candidate for Chancellor, yet once he does the pressure is on parties to build a functioning (majority or minority) government. It is unlikely that Steinmeier will start the process before parties have made significant progress towards a new coalition, yet this possibility – together with the German constitution’s obsession with stability – gives him the upper hand. Once appointed, a chancellor can only be removed by the ways of a constructive vote of confidence (i.e. when a new Chancellor is elected with a majority) – even if a chancellor loses a vote of confidence and asks the president to dissolve the Bundestag, the dissolution remains at the president’s discretion (the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself). After previous dissolutions were heavily criticised due to the fact that sitting chancellors only feigned a loss of confidence, It is unlikely that Steinmeier will readily agree to such a move. Last, Steinmeier is in the rare situation that his five-year term only ends after the next regular federal elections and he is thus less bound by considerations about his re-election (which will partially rely on electors from the German states in any case).

It is thanks to this combination of factors that president can currently take on this (unexpected) leadership role in party coalition talks. While the old government is only provisionally still in post, he almost has a legitimacy advantage over the yet unformed government and can use his position to actively shape public opinion as well as increase pressure on political parties.

Overall, this sheds a new light on the role of the German president and highlights the value of the office. While scholarship (including my own) have so far rather focussed on the interference of presidents in day-to-day politics and resulting complications and ineffectiveness, the example at hand shows how presidents – even if only vested with reserve powers – can become guarantors of stability.

Aleks Szczerbiak – Poland: How will relations between President and ruling party develop?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

The Polish President’s decision to veto the government’s flagship judicial reforms was part of a broader move for greater autonomy from the ruling party. He clearly gains from highlighting his independence, while focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak opposition. But conflicting ambitions and emotions could make it difficult to contain competition between the President and ruling party within manageable boundaries.

Unexpected judicial reform vetoes

Although he was elected as candidate of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, at the end of July, in a dramatic and surprising move, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two controversial laws overhauling the country’s Supreme Court and National Judicial Council (KRS) that would have given the government significant new powers in appointing and dismissing judges. Overturning a presidential veto requires a three-fifths majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, where Law and Justice only has a simple majority.

Mr Duda’s unexpected move came after the ruling party’s judicial reform proposals triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and now the main opposition grouping, and smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party – strongly criticised the legislation. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, they argued that the reforms undermined the constitutional separation of powers and would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees. As a consequence, there were nationwide protests in dozens of Polish towns and cities. The reforms were also heavily criticised by the European Commission which warned that it was ready to take action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, if any Supreme Court judges were dismissed.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite was out of touch with ordinary citizens and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they said, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts and appointment of judges was justified, and simply brought Poland more into line with practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s counter-proposals

Last month, Mr Duda presented his own versions of the two vetoed laws. The original Law and Justice law to reform the National Judicial Council involved ending the terms of 15 of its 25 members and selecting their successors by a simple majority in the Sejm rather than by judges’ organisations as was the case up until now. In Mr Duda’s new draft, the majority of the Council would still be nominated by parliament but he repeated his earlier condition that they be elected by a three-fifths majority. In fact, Law and Justice had already accepted this proposal as an amendment to its earlier Supreme Court reform bill, even though it would have forced the party to negotiate Council appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

However, Mr Duda also proposed a further requirement that if, during a two month period, lawmakers could not muster the three-fifths majority then the President would have the right to select the Council members himself from among those considered by parliament. When it quickly became clear that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ would not support the constitutional amendment required to enact this proposal, Mr Duda proposed instead that a new vote should take place to break the deadlock with each Sejm deputy only able to vote for one candidate, which would also ensure that some opposition nominees were elected. Government supporters are concerned that this will not guarantee a clear ‘pro-reform’ majority within the Council and want the final decision to be taken by a three-fifths vote in the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber where Law and Justice holds 64 out of 100 seats.

The other Law and Justice-sponsored law required all current Supreme Court members to stand down except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list approved by the justice minister, with future candidates appointed in the same way. Mr Duda proposed instead that Supreme Court judges would retire at the age of 65 with the President deciding if their term could be extended. If introduced, Mr Duda’s plan would mean that around 40% of the current Supreme Court judges would have to stand down – including its president and harsh critic of the government’s reforms Małgorzata Gersdorf, who turns 65 in November – with the rest due to retire within the next three years.

Distancing himself from the ruling party

In fact, Mr Duda has, from the outset, struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. His opponents had dismissed Mr Duda as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ as he (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones. However, earlier this year Mr Duda dismissed his chief of staff Małgorzata Sadurska, who was felt to be too closely aligned with the Law and Justice leadership. Then, without consulting the ruling party, in May the President announced that he was initiating a national debate on whether to change Poland’s 20-year-old Constitution culminating in a consultative referendum in November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of the restoration of Polish sovereignty at the end of the First World War.

In July, the President also vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers to give the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are controlled by opposition parties. Then, in August Mr Duda – who, as head of state, is also commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces – refused to approve the appointment of dozens of generals, reflecting ongoing tensions between the President and defence minister Antoni Macierewicz who had earlier blocked a key presidential military aide’s access to classified information.

Mr Duda’s knows that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to attract support beyond the Law and Justice hard core and his decision to veto the government’s judicial reforms was not, therefore, a one-off but part of a broader move by the President to develop greater autonomy and independence from the ruling party. Voters appear to approve of this: surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency last month found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 74% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, while 68% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties; a sharp increase from 60% and 55% respectively in July.

‘Good change’ or ‘revolutionary change’?

However, by putting himself at odds with the ruling party, Mr Duda’s decision to veto Law and Justice’s flagship judicial reform laws was clearly a major turning point for his presidency and has introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics. Demonstrating that he could act independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – Poland’s most powerful politician who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – Mr Duda is trying to completely re-define his presidency and carve out an alternative power centre within the governing camp which the Law and Justice leader has to negotiate with to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme.

Indeed, the judicial reform crisis has highlighted some of the structural weaknesses within the governing camp. Given that the President’s most significant constitutional powers are negative ones, blocking nominations and legislation, some tensions between any government and all but the most passive head of state are almost inevitable. However, while Mr Kaczyński’s position as undisputed Law and Justice leader has given the governing camp a sense of unity and stability, it has also led to a reluctance to grant Mr Duda any real autonomy for fear that this would encourage the formation of rival power centres. This meant that when Mr Duda eventually tried to develop a more independent role for himself Mr Kaczyński and the Law and Justice leadership saw this as undermining the cohesiveness of the governing camp.

In fact, although Mr Kaczyński can at times be overbearing he is also deeply pragmatic and knows that entering into an ongoing, open conflict with the President would put his long-term political project of radically reconstructing the Polish state at risk. Mr Duda is also a much less experienced politician and lacks any real independent power base within the governing camp which remains overwhelmingly loyal to Mr Kaczyński. Moreover, although some government supporters, notably allies of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, question the President’s commitment to the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana), talk of a new centre-right ‘presidential party’ is fanciful at this stage.

Indeed, Mr Duda does not want to damage, or even significantly weaken, the ruling party whose support he needs to secure his short-term political objectives (his constitutional referendum proposal will, for example, require the approval of the Senate) and longer-term re-election prospects. Indeed, the President argues that he shares the government’s broad objectives but simply disagrees about the best means of achieving them and, in some cases, how radical the reforms should be; favouring, as he puts it, ‘good change’ over ‘revolutionary change’. In terms of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s proposals represent certain adjustments to, rather than a radical departure from, Law and Justice’s original plans. In other words, Mr Duda wants the Law and Justice leadership to pay more attention to his interests and develop its reforms in a more consensual way.

Containing divisions will be difficult

Mr Duda and the ruling party, therefore, have to maintain a careful balancing act. Although the President risks losing part of his political base and cannot achieve anything substantial if he moves too far away from the ruling party’s orbit, he clearly gains from highlighting his independence and autonomy. Focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak and ineffective opposition. In the case of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s actions not only defused tensions and de-mobilised mass protests in the short-term, they also shifted debate onto what form the reforms should take rather than whether they should be undertaken at all. This is one of the factors explaining why public support for Law and Justice has actually increased over the last couple of months: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice enjoying 42% support compared with only 22% for Civic Platform and only 9% for ‘Modern’.

However, although open hostility would be suicidal for all concerned, conflicting political ambitions and emotions could make it very difficult to keep political competition between the presidential camp and ruling party within manageable boundaries. Mr Duda’s vetoes were clearly a watershed and if Law and Justice and the President cannot develop an effective working relationship then the remainder of the current parliament could see ongoing political conflict, mutual recriminations and, at worst, the implosion of the governing camp. The next few weeks are likely to be crucial in determining whether this model of contained and managed political competition between its two most important elements can be sustained.

Marcelo Jenny: Austria – Legislative election results leave the president little leeway in government formation

This is a guest post by Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck.

Like many elections the results of Austria’s legislative elections on October 15th were a mix of expected and surprising elements. Among the surprising bits was a strong increase in electoral turnout from 74.9 %in the last legislative elections of 2013 to 79.4 %on Sunday. This is also well above the 74.2 %turnout in the final round of Austria’s presidential elections in December 2016, when the former long-time chairman of the Green party, Alexander van der Bellen, won against rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and was sworn in in January 2017 as the country’s first president not belonging to one the traditional government parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP).

The president will be particularly hurt by the fate that befell his former party shortly after it celebrated its biggest ever electoral victory. Frustrated by intra-party conflict with young activists and senior MPs, who failed to be renominated as candidates, its female party leader resigned and was followed by two women as co-leaders but could not stop the Green’s downward slope in the polls. The Greens dropped from a vote share of 12.4 % in the last election in 2013 to 3.7 % and, thereby, also out of parliament while the new party ‘List Pilz’ led by renegade Green MP Peter Pilz, parliament’s most senior MP, successfully crossed the 4% threshold with a vote share of 4.4 %.

Final vote and seat sharesfor the parties will be announced on Thursday after the last small batch of postal votes has been counted, but only minor changes are expected to preliminary results published by the Ministry of the Interior (https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/).

Preliminary results of the Austrian legislative elections | Austrian Interior Ministry https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/

The happy winner of these elections is the ÖVP’s young party leader Sebastian Kurz (just 31 years old) who came into office in spring of this year, rebranded the party within weeks and successfully translated his personal popularity into a 31.5 % vote share (24.0% in 2013). He jumped from heading the third largest party in the polls to becoming leader of the largest parliamentary party. The SPÖ was relegated to second place with 26.9 % (26.8 in 2013), while the right-wing FPÖ came in third by a small margin with 26.0 % (20.5). The liberal party NEOS remains in parliament with 5.3 % (5.0 in 2013).

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz is on course to become the youngest leader of a government worldwide. Most observers expect the ÖVP to form a coalition with the FPÖ, and even if he wanted president Van der Bellen will be unable to do much about it. By political convention the president tasks the leader of the largest party with forming a new government. President Van der Bellen has not done that yet. He will talk with the leaders of the five parliamentay parties first. By convention the current government resgined after the election and has been asked by the president to keep serving until the new government is sworn in.

How long it will take to form a new government coalition is among the most speculated topic right now, but once Kurz returns to the president’s office equipped with a coalition agreement with the FPÖ, few expect Van der Bellen to take a stand against it. The electorate has decisively moved to the right in this election and the ÖVP’s appetite for a renewal of the coalition government with the Social Democratic Party is at an all-time low. An alternative coalition between SPÖ and Freedom Party would have a nominal parliamentary majority but the Social Democratic Party is deeply split on that idea, making such an outcome very unlikely.

In the coming weeks and perhaps months Van der Bellen will be closely watched and compared at each step with his immediate predecessor Heinz Fischer (who served the last two terms 2004-2016) and most of all with another former president, Thomas Klestil, who strongly opposed the formation of Austria’s first coalition government between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party in 2000 due to its anti-European stance. Klestil expressed his opposition to including the FPÖ in government very publicly and refused to accept two of its ministerial candidates. Reactions from other EU member states were likewise strongly negative and even triggered sanctions against Austria. Eventually, everybody emerged bruised from this episode.

The times have changed and nobody expects something similar to happen again this time around. Eurosceptic parties are more widespread today and Sebastian Kurz’ restrictive position on immigration, very similar to the position held by the FPÖ, is also popular among Central and Eastern European governments. Taking the current domestic and international context into account, president Van der Bellen’s leeway in making a personal imprint on the next government is very small.

Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck. His research focuses on electoral behaviour, election campaigns and party competition, parliamentarism, content analysis and sentiment analysis as well as political communication.

Estonia – After one year in office president Kersti Kaljulaid still needs to make her mark

On 3 October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid was elected the first female president of Estonia. Following  the failure of both the Riigikogu (parliament) and the Valimiskogu (electoral college) to agree on a successor to Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016), Kaljulaid was elected as the all-party compromise candidate when the election returned to parliament. Kaljulaid follows a three very different different presidents who – despite being consecutively less active politically – all left their mark relatively early on in their term. Since taking the oath of office on 10 October 2016, Kaljulaid has remained largely in the background. So far, she has mainly followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, yet her recent speech at the opening of parliament could be the first step in carving out an independent profile.

Official portrait of president Kersti Kaljulaid | image via president.ee

Given the circumstances of her nomination, Kaljulaid was relatively unkown to the public when she was elected. The (comparatively rare) Estonian opinion polls showed only a very moderate increase in public trust during the first months in office (48% in October 2016 to 66% in April 2017), staying behind the popularity of her predecessor and hitherto least trusted among Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Contrary to her predecessors, Kaljulaid was not a professional politician before taking office. As a former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, she nevertheless possess some relevant, albeit limited political experience.

To date, Kaljulaid has only had few opportunities to prove herself in her new role, yet likely the most important occured only a month after her inauguration. After a no-confidence motion forced Prime Minister Taavi Roivas to resign, the government of Reform Party, Isaama and Res Publica, and the Social Democrats collapsed, paving the way for a government led by the Centre Party. President Ilves had still publicly declared his mistrust in then party leader and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar and the party – despite often finishing first or second in parliamentary elections – had long ostracised by its competitors due to its sympathies with the ethnic Russian population and Russia’s leadership, Kaljulaid invited all parties for consultations, yet was not involved in the actual negotiations for a new coalition. Although Estonian presidents only have little control over the government formation process and appoint those governments that emerge from parliamentary arithmetic, previous presidents still had some indirect influence on the nomination of individual ministers. Kaljulaid seems to have remained entirely passive and merely accepted the new coalition, although some friction was foreseeable early on (e.g. on the introduction of popular presidential elections – the project forced by the Centre party was however shelved indefinitely in January this year).

A second opportunity for came in December 2016, when Kaljulaid signed off amendments to a number tax laws despite protest by the opposition and a number of large interest groups, which not only criticised the contents of the law but also the procedure in which in had been passed (that did not allow full participation by the opposition). Kaljulaid defended her decision stating that she did not have the power to challenge individual paragraphs of the amendments [the Estonian president only has a block veto] and that these would better be checked by the Chancellor of Justice. This highlights a major difference to her predecessor Ilves; while Ilves too mainly relied on the Chancellor of Justice to ensure the constitutionality of legislation and generally remained uninvolved in the content of legislation, he did in fact veto bills because the correct procedure had been violated and liaised with lawmakers through his staff to pre-emptively tackle potential problems of constitutionality. Kaljulaid however vetoed a law on the so-called sugar tax that would have introduced an – arguably unconstitutional – exception for a Tallink Group cruise liners

Since then, Kaljulaid only rarely voiced her opinion and remained very cautious in public statements. The problem with finding her voice and handling situations such as the tax law amendments might also lie in the turnover of staff in the presidential administration that followed her inauguration. Since the mid-1990s, key staff in the Estonian presidential office has been remarkably stable, thus preserving institutional memory and contacts. Kaljulaid managed her first international visits without any hiccups and largely followed in the footsteps of predecessor Ilves in promoting Estonia as a leader in digital technologies, yet her other public statements have otherwise been criticised as too vague or missing the mark.

In this context, her recent speech at the opening of parliament appears to be a promising exception and potential attempt to carve out an independent profile. In particular, she highlighted the responsibilities of politicians towards the public and the need for political parties to make their finances transparent (a veiled criticism of the Centre party that has been at the centre of a number of allegations and investigations over the past year). Furthermore and most strikingly, Kaljulaid explained “that being proud of being an Estonian cannot be monopolised by anyone” and that “[t]here is no blue, black and white gene pool”. Thereby, she addressed on the of the most long-standing issues in Estonian politics and society – how to deal with the ethnic Russian minority (about 25% of the population are ethnic Russians, many of which hold Russian but not Estonian citizenship).

Both issues would lend themselves well to establishing Kaljulaid as a moral leader – they are timely and relevant, yet general enough to develop over the course of her term in office. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, both are largely within the remit of the role of the presidency as it has developed over the last 25 years. Kaljulaid will be able to launch some concrete initiatives (first president Meri for instance instituted a roundtable on minorities) which can bear fruit merely by raising public awareness rather than through the use of her (limited) formal powers.

Germany – Honorary pay and post-presidency perks: How to deal with former presidents

Recent news reports that former German president Christian Wulff had taken up the role of authorised representative of Turkish fashion label Yargici have rekindled a ‘smouldering’ debate about the role and entitlements of former presidents in Germany. The flames of this discussion, last hotly conducted following Wullf’s resignation amidst corruption allegations and attempts to suppress related news reports, have been fanned further by criticism of the new offices for former president Joachim Gauck, Wulff’s successor. Although the upcoming general election has meant that the topic received comparatively less attention, it is bound to return in the next years and changes to ex-presidents’ status are likely.

Living German ex-Presidents | image via bundespraesident.de

For a long time, post-political careers of German politicians were not a widely debated issue. Cabinet ministers often remained members of the Bundestag after serving in government and usually retired from politics – and work life – in their 60s and 70s. Chancellors usually left office at a similar age and refrained from controversial activities (the work of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) as lobbyist for Russian companies is a notable exception). Federal presidents on the other hand were usually already in their mid-sixties or older when taking office and had thus little opportunity to develop a new career after leaving office. This trend is mirrored in a number of other parliamentary republics, although it is not uncommon for younger former office-holders to re-enter politics (e.g. Latvian president Valdis Zatlers founded his own party and entered parliament as an MP after being denied re-election as president).

From the point of taking office, German presidents are entitled to an “honorary pay” of €236,000 p.a. for life, so that – as is commonly argued – former presidents do not need to pursue any other employment upon leaving office. Particularly the resignation of Christian Wulff after less than two years in office and aged only 53 has opened a number questions in this regard – For instance: Is a president entitled to honorary pay if they do not complete their term of office? And who is responsible for deciding about a president’s claim to honorary pay? While Wulff continued to receive his honorary pay after leaving office prematurely and the above questions remain unresolved, politicians agreed on ensuring that at least the ex-presidents’ offices – an important post-presidency perk – were run on a more cost-effective basis. Both Christian Wulff and his successor Joachim Gauck have thus not opened their offices in their former hometowns or pricey parts of Berlin, but in buildings belonging to the Bundestag (although this, too, remains controversial – see below). Furthermore, their number of staff is limited en par with offices for former chancellors.

Since Christian Wulff was cleared of corruption allegations in 2014, the majority of political commentators have quietly accepted the fact that Christian Wulff continues to receive honorary pay – also because he represented Germany at a number of occasions (former presidents frequently step in for their successors or chancellors at state funerals) and kept a relatively low public profile. Wulff, a trained lawyer, also opened a legal practice in his home town of Hanover – a move likewise regarded as largely uncontroversial as he returned to his original profession. Nevertheless, the move to become an authorised representative and thus not merely an advisor but active part of a business has changed perceptions of what might be an acceptable post-office career for a former president. Furthermore, politicians and citizens alike have been irritated by the fact that honorary pay is not reduced as a reflection of addition earnings – entitlements from state pensions on the other hand are counted against any honorary pay after reaching retirement age.

Yet Christian Wulff is not the only former president who has recently been criticised over expenditure. As mentioned above, former presidents are entitled to a fully staffed office upon leaving the office to be able to fulfil the role of ‘elder statesman’. Joachim Gauck left office earlier this year and his office has now been opened in the buildings of the Bundestag. Nevertheless, Gauck incurred charges for installing additional security on his floor (despite the building already being under the same protective measures as other parliamentary buildings) and a personal toilet with security lock for the president (costing €52,000) as well as €35,000 for new furniture. In addition, two of Gaucks members of staff have effectively received promotions and Gauck chief of cabinet in particular now earns more than he did when Gauck was still in office.

The only other living president, Horst Köhler, presents an interesting counter-example to his successors: Although Köhler claims an allowance for his office in an upscale office park in Berlin, he has refrained from claiming any honorary pay since leaving office. However, this is can hardly be an example to follow – as a former director of the International Monetary Fond (IMF), Köhler likely has a private pension that would far exceed a former president’s honorary pay.

Thus overall the question remains on how to deal with former presidents. It is clear that the traditional model predicated on the idea that the presidency is the crowning and final achievement of one’s life is – thanks to the election of younger candidates and longer life expectancy of former presidents – no longer practical. Furthermore, as the additional earnings of active politicians come under greater scrutiny it becomes even more difficult to justify expenditures for former holders of a largely representative office to the public. The next Bundestag would be in an interesting position to regulate on these questions as it is not involved in the next presidential election and parties can thus debate the issue with greater flexibility. However, viable proposals for change are still lacking as the most concrete suggestions stem from the discussions about Christian Wulff and would thus only regulate some very specific aspects of this complicated matter.

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For follow-up reading, you may be interested in my comparison of European presidents’ salaries:
Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?
Presidents and Paupers II: How much do Central and East European presidents earn?

 

Poland – How will President Duda’s judicial reform vetoes affect Polish politics?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

Earlier this summer Poland’s President shook up the political scene when he vetoed two of the right-wing government’s flagship judicial reform bills, which had triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. By carving out an alternative power centre within the governing camp it gives him an opportunity to re-define his presidency, but having taken ownership of the issue he is now under intense pressure to deliver on judicial reform.

Judicial reform is a government priority

Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which went on to co-opt a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. Judicial reform is, therefore, one of the most important elements of the party’s programme. To this end, the government proposed three key bills aimed at overhauling the country’s legal system. The first involved phasing out the terms of 15 of the 25 members of the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, and selecting their successors by parliament rather than the legal profession as has been the case up until now. The government’s original proposal envisaged these new Council members being elected by a simple parliamentary majority, but was amended to three-fifths following pressure from Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda, a move which would have forced the ruling party to negotiate the appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

A second bill changed the way that the heads of lower district and appeal courts are appointed giving the justice minister broad powers to replace chief judges within six months of the law coming into force; as well as requiring the random allocation of judges to cases in order to tackle what the government argued were corrupt local practices. The third proposed a new procedure for nominating Supreme Court judges requiring all of its current members to retire except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list presented to him by the justice minister (based on National Justice Council recommendations), with future candidates for appointment to the Court selected in the same way. The bill also envisaged the establishment of a new Supreme Court chamber that would make judgements on disciplinary actions against judges, following referrals by the justice minister.

Drifting towards authoritarianism or reforming an entrenched elite?

However, these reforms triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and the opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and smaller liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) grouping and agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) – strongly criticised the legislation arguing that it undermined the independence of the courts and constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents said that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees; pointing out that the Supreme Court rules on the validity of national election and referendum results. As a consequence, thousands of Poles protested against the reforms in street demonstrations and candle-lit vigils held in dozens of towns and cities.

The reforms were also heavily criticised by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the opposition enjoys close links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. The European Commission has been involved in a separate, ongoing dispute with the Polish government since January 2016 over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal. As the judicial reform crisis escalated, the Commission appeared to move closer towards taking further action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, in spite of the fact that the US Trump administration is a seen as one of the Polish government’s key international allies, the American State Department also raised concerns about the reforms.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, unfair and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. The judicial elite, they said, viewed itself as a superior ‘special caste’ out of touch with ordinary citizens, and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts, and the appointment of judges and their supervisory bodies, was justified. Moreover, they argued, the reforms did not necessarily impinge upon judicial impartiality as they simply brought Poland more into line with appointment practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s shock move

However, in a dramatic and surprising move at the end of the July Mr Duda announced that he would veto the National Judicial Council and Supreme Court bills, while ratifying the law on the lower courts. In fact, from the outset of his presidency Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were partly the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. Up until now, Mr Duda has been dismissed by the government’s critics as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’, having (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones, such as its actions during the bitter and polarising constitutional tribunal dispute.

Announcing his decision, Mr Duda expressed regret that the Supreme Court bill had not been consulted more extensively before it was put to a parliamentary vote and justified his veto on the grounds that the proposed reforms vested too much potential influence over the Court’s operational and personnel decisions in the hands of the justice minister, who in Poland also functions as the chief public prosecutor. Moreover, his condition for approving the National Judicial Council bill, that its parliamentary appointees be elected by a three-fifths majority, was actually introduced as an amendment to the Supreme Court bill, so once he vetoed the latter it was difficult for him to approve the former.

Mr Duda is also aware that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to appeal beyond the Law and Justice hard core and consolidate his support in the political centre. While the majority of Poles are dissatisfied with the way that the courts function, the ruling party was not able to win public support for these particular reforms, with polls suggesting that there was widespread backing for the presidential vetoes. Moreover, Mr Duda may have been influenced by the fact that the anti-government demonstrations appeared to mobilise a more diverse cross-section of the public than earlier protests, notably among young people. Indeed, the most effective opposition seemed to be organised by relatively new grassroots movements, such as the on-line ‘Democracy Action’ (AD) platform, which kept overtly party political slogans and leaders out of the limelight; although several government supporters argue that some of these were actually examples of ‘astroturfing’: orchestrated campaigns designed to look like spontaneous civic actions.

An alternative power centre in the governing camp

When announcing the vetoes, Mr Duda insisted that he supported the government’s broader objective of radically reforming the judiciary and promised to bring forward revised legislation within two months. There was some support for the President within the governing camp, notably those politicians clustered around the ‘Poland Together’ (PR) party led by deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin, one of Law and Justice’s junior partners in the ‘United Right’ (ZL) electoral coalition. However, the vetoes were generally met with bitter disappointment within the governing camp and viewed as an act of betrayal by some of its leaders, especially those close to justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also leader of the small ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party, another Law and Justice ally.

More broadly, Mr Duda’s vetoes have introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics, exposing divisions within, and undermining the cohesiveness of, the governing camp. They have shown that the President no longer considers himself to be dependent upon Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, has exercised a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. Mr Kaczyński now has to deal with the emergence of an alternative power centre within the governing camp that he will have to negotiate with in order to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme. Although presidential vetoes can be overturned by a three-fifths majority, this is larger than the number of parliamentary votes that Law and Justice can muster. Mr Kaczyński values political loyalty above all else but he also knows that a further escalation of the conflict with the President would be suicidal for the ruling party and that he has to work with him to keep the Law and Justice project on track.

At the same time, the opposition parties feel emboldened they were able to secure at least a partial victory and vindicated in their strategy of exerting pressure on the government through a combination of street protests and international influence (in Polish: ‘ulica i zagranica’). However, the reason that the street protests made such an impact was precisely because they appeared to be largely non-partisan, which made it difficult for the government to dismiss them as simply representing the old ruling elites. Indeed, many of those involved appeared to have little time for the current opposition leaders, who face the same problem that they did before the judicial crisis began: their inability to present an attractive alternative to Law and Justice on the social and economic issues that most voters regard as their priority. For this reason, opinion polls suggest that the crisis has not changed voting preferences with Law and Justice still comfortably ahead of the opposition.

For its part, the European Commission has shown no intention of letting up in spite of the presidential vetoes: issuing a new set of recommendations relating to the judicial reforms which, they argue, increase the systemic threat to the rule of law; and saying that it is ready to trigger Article 7 immediately if any Supreme Court judge is dismissed. However, Law and Justice has ignored previous Commission recommendations, saying that they represent political interference in Polish domestic affairs, and unanimity is required in the European Council to trigger sanctions with the Hungarian government, for one, making it clear that it will oppose such moves. In a separate action, the Commission has, therefore, launched an infringement procedure against Poland for alleged breach of EU law, arguing that the common courts law gives the justice minister too much influence on whether or not to prolong judges’ mandates and is discriminatory because it introduces separate retirement ages for men and women. This may eventually result in financial penalties being imposed on Poland but will have to be resolved in the European Court of Justice so could drag on for some time.

Under pressure to deliver

By demonstrating that he can act independently, Mr Duda’s vetoes of the government’s flagship bills reforming Poland’s legal system give him an opportunity to completely re-define his presidency. However, having taken ownership of the judicial reform issue he will now be under intense pressure to deliver. If he does not produce what the government would consider to be meaningful reforms this could alienate his right-wing political base, without necessarily expanding his support in the political centre. But while Mr Duda has drawn some short-term praise from Law and Justice’s opponents, they will quickly revert back to attacking him, especially if he ends up proposing a judicial reform package very similar to the government’s original proposals.

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: zemanznovu.cz

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.

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