Author Archives: Philipp Köker

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 Kremlin.ru

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 (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/FabianBurkhardt). 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.

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[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 (benjamin.noble@politics.ox.ac.uk, @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 prezydent.pl

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 prezident.sk

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.

Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with  in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.

The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.

Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).

Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).

The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Czech Republic – National and international dimensions of president Zeman’s controversies

Czech president Milos Zeman has not shied away from controversy since taking office in spring 2013. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government which lacked support in parliament from the start and threatening interference in the formation of the current government, Zeman has drawn criticism for expletive-laden radio interviews, his support for Vladimir Putin and his comments on the refugee crisis. Especially the latter has put an international spotlight on the president so that gaffes and conflicts with the government increasingly create not only national controversies but also international repercussions.

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

President Zeman has long been a vocal opponent to accepting any of the refugees who have been coming into Europe during the last years. Although he is not alone in his general position among the presidents of the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), his recent proposal to send refugees to uninhabited Greek islands and send back all s-called ‘economic migrants’ was met with such international backlash that the Czech foreign minister saw itself forced to publicly state that these remarks did not represent the country’s policy.

Zeman has so far largely ignored the constitutional provisions and practice that put the government, rather than the president, in charge of foreign policy and has shown little tact on both the national and international stage. In a latest gaffe, Zeman prematurely announced Hynek Kmonicek as the new Czech ambassador to the United States. Kmonicek, who currently still serves as Zeman’s foreign policy advisor, had however not been approved by the United States yet. Zeman is already engaged in a personal feud with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Robert Shapiro, since Shapiro criticised the president’s pro-Putin stance (Zeman subsequently failed to invite the ambassador to a number of events at the presidential palace). Given that the current administration also disapproves of Zeman’s blanket criticism of the EU and most likely does not look favourably upon his openly voiced support for presidential candidates Donald Trump in the US and far-right Norbert Hofer in Austria, the president’s actions have put the entire appointment process in jeopardy. Zeman similarly revealed the name of yet another of his aides poised to become ambassador (Jindrich Forejt as Czech representative in the Vatican; yet given the Czech Republic’s reputation as [one of] the most atheist country in Europe this caused less friction internationally).

In another controversy, Zeman decided not to award a medal to Holocaust survivor and remembrance campaigner George Brady after his nephew, Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. The official position of the Czech Republic is to accept China’s claims on Tibet, but no punitive action has ever been taken against public officials who met with the Tibetan leader. Zeman on the other hand, has been an avid support of Chinese investment in the country and seems to have taken matters into his own hands after he was unsatisfied with the government’s response – in fact, it was the presidential office that released a statement distancing the government from minister Herman – who Zeman had previously personally requested not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Both the (potential) appointment of a Zeman allies to ambassadorial positions and the passivity in the Dalai Lama-episode highlights that the government does not possess the power to curb the president’s activism. After a slump in public opinion in late 2014, the Zeman has once again gained in popularity (not the least due to his populist stance in the refugee crisis) while the government’s support has been stagnant. Furthermore, a survey showed that following losses in local elections, many members of the main governing party CSSD look to Zeman (who was its chairman 1993-2001) for leadership rather than to Prime Minister Sobotka. Nevertheless, until now Zeman’s support base in the party is limited to grassroots members, rather than members of parliament so that his influence is still limited to some degree. Yet particularly looking forward to the next parliamentary elections in 2017 (to be held half a year before Zeman’s first term in office runs out) and the taking into account that Zeman has no official partisan representation in parliament, attempts to influence CSSD policy and strategy may increase and Zeman could try to use his popularity with CSSD members as leverage to assume an unofficial co-leadership role in the future and make sure the party supports his re-election bid in 2018.

 

Lithuania – A surprise victory of the Union of Peasants and Greens

This is a guest post by Dr Raimondas Ibenskas, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. raimondas-isbenskas

The second round of the Lithuanian general election on the 23rd of October resulted in a surprise victory of the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union. Having received only one seat in the previous election in 2012, this party scored 56 seats (40% of the total) in the Lithuanian parliament Seimas. Its victory notwithstanding, the party faces a challenge of forming a majority government. Neither the Social Democrats, the leading party in the outgoing centre-left government, nor the main opposition party, the conservative Homeland Union, seem to be keen on joining the coalition government with the Peasants and Greens.

outcome-of-the-lithuanian-parliamentary-election-2016_

 

Another major surprise of the election was the poor performance of the incumbent parties. The Social Democrats, despite leading in opinion polls throughout their term, came only distant third in the election after the Peasants and Greens and the Homeland Union, while the Labour Party was diminished from 29 seats in 2012 to 2 in 2016. The electoral decline of the Order and Justice party was more modest, although the party came perilously close to not reaching the 5 percent electoral threshold required for obtaining representation through the PR tier of the electoral system. The electoral losses of government parties could at least partially be attributed to multiple corruption scandals related to some of their politicians. They have also likely been hurt by the major welfare reform implemented shortly before the election. The liberalization of labour relations in the new labour code adopted as part of the reform was negatively perceived by the electorate and openly opposed by trade unions.

The Union of Peasants and Greens was the main beneficiary of this dissatisfaction. The party existed as a minor political force since the early 1990s and was a government coalition partner in 2004-2008. In the 2008 and 2012 parliamentary elections it did not cross the 5 percent electoral threshold, but some of its candidates were elected in single member districts. Despite its name, and somewhat similarly to the coalition between agrarian and green parties in Latvia, the party is socially conservative. On the economic dimension, it can be placed to the left of the centre, thus providing an attractive alternative for the supporters of centre-left government parties. Somewhat ironically, the party is led by one of the wealthiest people in Lithuania Ramūnas Karbauskis, an owner of the Agrokoncernas Group, which was worth an estimated 55 million Euros in 2016. Although elected as an MP, Karbauskis ruled out the possibility of becoming Prime Minister by arguing that his knowledge of foreign languages was insufficient for this position.

Two factors played a crucial role in propelling the Peasants and Greens to the position of the strongest party in Lithuania.  First, they managed to attract popular independent Saulius Skvernelis, a Police Commissioner General in 2011-2014 and Minister of Interior in 2014-2016. Although delegated by the Order and Justice Party, he kept his distance from this party and declared in March 2016 that he would be running in the parliamentary election with the Peasants and Greens. Although he did not formally join the party, he was its most visible leader during the election campaign, obtained the highest share of individual preference votes in the PR tier and also won a seat in a single member district in the capital city of Vilnius. While the addition of Skvernelis and several other prominent politicians or personalities provided the party with the image of newness, it may also lead to internal divisions and conflicts. A sign of the things to come was the indication from Karbauskis after the election that his party’s nominee for Prime Minister’s position may not necessarily be Skvernelis, as generally stated during the election campaign; an MEP and long-term insider of the party Bronis Ropė was put forward as an equally likely candidate.

Second, the Peasants and Greens also benefited from the mixed electoral system of Lithuania. Although they gained only 19 seats in the PR tier, thus coming only close second to the Homeland Union, 37 out of 42 of their single member district candidates won seats in the second round of the election (including 2 candidates that ran as independents in their single member districts but were on the party’s list). Being perceived as an attractive second choice for the supporters of most other parties, the Peasant and Green candidates had an advantage over the two major parties – the Homeland Union and the Social Democrats – that did well in the majoritarian tier of the electoral system in most previous elections.

In the aftermath of the election the latter two parties were indicated as potential coalition partners by the Greens and Peasants. Although a coalition with either of them would be a majority one, the Social Democrats may prefer to stay in opposition following their defeat while the Homeland Union insists that any coalition should also include their long-term partner Liberal Movement. The latter, being both economically and socially liberal, and having recently experienced a major corruption scandal involving its former leader, has been ruled out as a coalition partner by Karbauskis. Karbauskis also repeatedly excluded the possibility of the cooperation with the ideologically quite similar Order and Justice party by considering the latter as tainted by corruption allegations. A coalition with the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance would be more feasible, but it would not provide the Peasants and Greens with parliamentary majority. Finally, a single-party minority government of the Peasants and Greens is another possibility, although it was considered as unlikely by some observers.

The strategic situation in parliament therefore suggests that government formation will be an arduous process with an uncertain outcome. Additionally, the Peasants and Greens will have to deal with President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who in 2012 did not shy away from an (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent the inclusion of the Labour Party in the coalition government. Grybauskaitė, although formally independent, is also quite close to centre-right parties, especially the Homeland Union. Although after her first post-election meeting with Karbauskis and Skvernelis she declared that the responsibility for forming a majority coalition government falls on the Peasants and Greens and that she will not initiate “artificial” coalitions, she also indicated that she will actively shape the selection of ministers. The Peasants and Greens only need to look at the experience of the Labour Party, whose multiple ministerial candidates were rejected by President after the 2012 election, to know that this may prove as an important challenge to putting together a new government.

Raimondas Ibenskas is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. His research interests lie in the field of comparative politics with a specific focus on political parties and party systems. The main strand of his research examines key, yet under-studied aspects of instability of political parties, such as party splits, mergers, and electoral coalitions, in both Western and Eastern Europe.