Author Archives: Philipp Köker

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.

Estonia – Parliament elects first female president following electoral college failure

On Monday, 3 October, the Estonian Riigikogu elected Kersti Kaljulaid as the country’s new and first female president. Kaljulaid’s election comes after both parliament’s and subsequently the electoral college’s failure to elect a candidate with the required majority. Kaljulaid, although supported by five out of six parliamentary parties, entered the race as a dark horse – it is yet unclear how she will fill her new role but the long way to her election is likely to prompt a change to the mode of presidential election in Estonia.

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid | photo via riigikogu.ee

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid (centre)| photo via riigikogu.ee

The failure of both parliament and electoral college to elect a president in five rounds of voting was an unprecedented event in Estonian political history. Politicians from all parties – having faced wide-spread criticism over their inability to agree on a candidate – were quick to call for a joint, preferably non-partisan candidate to end the election fiasco. The Riigikogu Council of Elders (meeting of the six party faction leaders) was unofficially tasked with finding a new president (all previous six candidates were considered ‘burned’ through the unsuccessful election process) and soon narrowed down their selection to two people: Kersti Kaljulaid, former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, and Jüri Luik, the Estonian ambassador to Russia and a former minister of foreign affairs and defence. Eventually, the Council endorsed Kaljulaid and five of the six parliamentary groups followed by expressing support. Overall, 90 out of 101 MPs signed Kaljulaid’s nomination form – the eleven MPs refusing to sign being all seven deputies of the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) and four Centre Party deputies. As a candidate needs 21 signatures from MPs to be nominated and an MP cannot support two nominations at the same time, no other candidate was nominated. In the end, Kaljulaid was elected with 81 votes and 17 abstentions (three MPs did not attend the vote). While this is lower than the number of MPs who supported her nomination, it is technically the strongest mandate given to a president so far – Toomas Hendrik Ilves was re-elected in 2011 with 72. However, Ilves was elected in the first round of voting in parliament.

Kaljulaid is still largely unknown to the Estonian public as she has not held any front-line role in politics so far. Other than her two last predecessors who were party members when they were elected, she is non-partisan (according to the state broadcaster ERR she was nevertheless a member of the predecessor of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union – IRL – in 2001-2004). In the run-up to yesterday’s election, it also emerged that she had been approached about a potential candidacy for president over the summer but declined. Her political views are generally considered to be liberal on social matters and more conservative economically, yet do not clearly align with any political party. In her first interview after her election, Kaljulaid stressed her commitment to equal treatment of Estonia’s sizeable number of ethnic Russians as well as her support for upholding economic sanctions against Russia. Previously, she also mentioned issues such as the gender pay gap and women’s role in society as well as corruption as issues she would like to address. While she has acknowledged the Estonian presidency’s limited formal powers and direct influence over day-to-day policy-making, Kaljulaid is unlikely to be a comfortable president for government and opposition parties alike. Her eloquence and outsider status will likely help her to quickly garner greater public recognition and support so that she can effectively use speeches and other non-formal ways of activism to become an active check-and-balance vis-a-vis other institutions. This becomes even more a possibility given the overall similarity of her election to that of Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga in 1999 – first presented as a compromise candidate after several failed rounds of election, the non-partisan Vike-Freiberga who also lacked significant political experience (she was previously a psychology professor in Canada) soon became arguably one of the most prominent politicians in the country.

Irrespective of how Kaljulaid will interpret her new role once she is inaugurated on 10 October, the long way towards her election will have consequences for how Estonian presidents are election. Before her election on Monday, 31 MPs presented a motion to speaker Eiki Nestor to introduce popular presidential elections. Such initiatives – the last one was submitted by the Centre Party in 2013 and subsequently rejected – are however unlikely to succeed. A more likely solution will be to lower the majority required in the last round of election in the electoral college (i.e. a relative rather than an absolute majority) which is already common practice in most other parliamentary republics (e.g. Germany or Hungary). The electoral college itself could also be reformed and potentially reduced to give parties greater planning certainty or at least establish a parity between parliamentary and local council representatives. Nevertheless, for now it appears that there is no cross-party consensus on the matter and a solution might very well only come after the parliamentary election of 2019 where the presidential election debacle of 2016 will surely feature in campaigns.

Estonia – Politicians enter uncharted waters as electoral college fails to elect new president

On Saturday 24 September, Estonia entered yet uncharted waters as the electoral college – following three unsuccessful votes in parliament – failed to elect a president. The term of president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, ends on 8 October 2016, so that politicians need to act fast if they want to find a successor in time. As voting now returns to parliament, deputies continue to face the difficulty of finding a candidate that appeals beyond individual parties.

The Estonia Kontserdisaal - meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

The Estonia Kontserdisaal – meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

Estonia is one of the many parliamentary democracies which have chosen to elect their president indirectly. The first democratic presidential election following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 was still held under a special system in which the first round was held by popular vote and a runoff between the front-runners took place in parliament. Since 1996 however, the president is elected entirely indirectly. The first three rounds of voting are held in parliament and a candidate needs an absolute majority of 68 votes (i.e. 2/3 of members) in any round to be elected outright. If no candidate is elected during the first two rounds, a runoff is held between the front-runners of the second round, yet the majority requirement remains. If parliament fails to elect a president, the vote passes to an electoral college consisting of all 101 members of parliament and currently 234 representatives of local government councils (the number of electors is based on the size of the municipality and thus varies, yet only few municipalities send more than one elector). In the electoral college, candidates need an absolute majority to be elected; while the participants of the last round in parliament enter the voting in the electoral college automatically, new candidates can also be nominated. If no candidate achieves a majority in the first round, the second round (fifth round overall) is a runoff between the two front-runners.

In the 4 presidential elections between 1996 and 2011 it was necessary to convene the electoral college on all but one occasion (i.e. the re-election of presidents Ilves) as parliament regularly failed to elect a candidate. In 1996 and 2001, the electoral college needed two rounds to elect a new president and only in 2006 a single round was sufficient. The current situation in Estonia is thus both unprecedented and unexpected.

estonian-presidential-election-results-2016_rounds-1-to-5

The first two rounds of voting in parliament were very much dominated by the tactics of two of the governing parties. The Social Democrats (SDE) had very much hoped that Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party – RE) would concede the presidency to them (as the RE had done in the case of president Ilves who was a SDE member at the time of his election). Nevertheless, despite the chance of nominating non-partisan foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand who enjoyed great public support, RE leadership eventually decided to only support SDE candidate, veteran politician and speaker Eiki Nestor, for the first and round and then put forward former Prime Minister and EU commissioner Siim Kallas in the second round, calling on solidarity from its coalition partner. Kallas had already been set to become Prime Minister instead of Rõivas after the resignation of Andrus Ansip in 2014 but withdrew following allegations concerning his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank in the 1990s. It thus seems that Rõivas’ support for Kallas’ candidacy is thus a way to install him in another high-ranking political post – particularly because it was not fully supported by all RE deputies. The third coalition party, Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), on the other hand decided to support former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks (non-partisan) together with the conservative Free Party (EV). The Centre Party (KE) – the first party to agree on a candidate – somewhat suprisingly did not nominate long-time party leader Edgar Savisaar but its deputy leader and former minister of education Mailis Reps (who is part of a competing faction within the party). While the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) designated their leader Mart Helme as their candidate, they failed to gather a sufficient number of MPs to support him.

As expected, parties failed to unite in support for any candidate and the number of abstentions and spoiled ballots is very telling – several RE deputies seem to have refrained from supporting SDE candidate Nestor in the first round and Siim Kallas only gained 45 votes (the combined seat share of RE and SDE) in the second round. Very much counting on a transferal of the vote to the electoral college a third of all deputies abstained from voting in the third round of voting making it impossible for either Reps or Kallas to be elected.

seat-distribution-in-the-estonian-electoral-college

The vote in the electoral college brought a number of uncertainties for established parties. First and foremost, almost one third of the 335 electors and thus about half of the local government representatives are not members of parties represented in parliament but were elected on the basis of local/independent electoral lists of varying ideological leaning and coherence. The second uncertainty was created by foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand’s decision to resign from her cabinet post and run for president. Having topped public opinion polls for weeks the decision was a strategically excellent move, yet presented a surprise for public and parties alike. In a poll conducted by public broadcaster ERR, Kaljurand had a narrow lead over other candidates among electors and was thus tipped as one of the favourites who likely to go head to head with Siim Kallas in the second round of voting in the electoral college. Several MPs of other parties (including EKRE) had come out in support for Kaljurand’s candidacy and the SDE decided to support her too instead of nominating Nestor again, increasing her chances even more. Third, in contrast to previous elections a third candidate from the rounds in parliament was renominated – Allar Jõks once again received support from IRL and EV meaning that there was another non-partisan candidate with potentially wider appeal in addition to Kaljurand.

These uncertainties produced a surprising result: four of the five candidates (the EKRE finally managed to get enough supporters to nominate Mart Helme) received almost equal support with only 6 votes difference separating front-runner Kallas and the unexpectedly third-placed Kaljurand. KE candidate Mailis Reps on the other hand did surprisingly well with a strong third place even though it was rumoured that party leader Savisaar had tried to convince fellow party members to vote for Kaljurand instead (a move that shows the great divide between the factions led by Savisaar and Kaljurand within the KE). The second round was then held as a runoff between Kallas and Jõks, yet the college eventually failed to elect a new president. Both fell 30 and 34 votes, respectively, short of the required absolute majority. Electors were apparently surprised by the fact that Jõks and not Kaljurand entered the runoff – the high number of blank ballots (60 + 3 invalid votes) shows both their general dissatisfaction with the choices but also the fact that political competition in Estonia, which has been dominated by the Reform Party for the past decade, is changing. New parties have already entered parliament in the last election and current polls see KE and RE head to head – it is not out of the question that the presidential election fiasco will have consequences for the government and end Rõivas’ premiership or party leadership. An additional factor which played out in the electoral college might be the fact that the local administration reform – which will mean that municipalities are merged and therefore must also trigger a change in the presidential election law – is still contested was far from favourably received. The support from primarily local representatives for non-partisan candidates Kaljurand and Jõks as well as the high number of blank ballots could – if they in fact came from local electors – be a protest against the reform bill.

Parliament will reconvene on 3 October to elect a new president and while it is yet unclear who will run for president, politicians and experts agree that all previous candidates are now metaphorically ‘burned’ and new faces are needed if parties want to save face. In case parties fail to elect a president by the end of Ilves term, this will trigger one of the most complicated stipulations for acting presidents in existence: Speaker Eiki Nestor will take over duties as acting president. For this time, however, he will have to give up both the position of speaker and his seat in parliament – subsequently a replacement deputy must be appointed and sworn in and a new speaker must be elected who will then preside over the next rounds of presidential elections. Irrespective of when a new president is elected, a reform of the presidential election law is now inevitable and will invite calls for a popular election of the president once again.

Aleks Szczerbiak – Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

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

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn-in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński 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.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.