Category Archives: European Union

Romania – The President’s ‘Breaking Bad’: When Does Negative Campaigning Work?

President Klaus Iohannis during a visit at a Romanian military base that was a PR success.  Source: digi24.ro

With one year to go until he stands for re-election, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis appears willing to go outside his defining detachment and become a fire – starter in the already tense framework of cohabitation.

The conventional wisdom that negative political campaigning works has been largely dismissed by research results. Scholars found no evidence of its success (see Lau, Sigelman and Rovner, 2007 for a literature review) or even claimed that the choice of negativity is disadvantageous, in contrast to the effects of positive messaging (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz , 2016; Claibourn 2012) and in particular for incumbents (Blackwell 2013).  We then continue to ask why candidates and political consultants believe in the effectiveness of attacking opponents. Most research on this topic focused on the US political system, but throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, Romania may provide a novel experimental setting to answer the same question: is political ‘breaking bad’ a good strategy to win presidential elections?

The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing

Most recently, President Iohannis (National Liberal Party – PNL candidate) concerned the EU by declaring that, (mostly) because of the incompetence of the social – democrat led government, Romania is unprepared to take over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, 2019 (NY Times reports). A declaration that was intended to win him points in national politics quickly escalated internationally when the Finnish PM, Juha Sipila, declared they are ready to take over earlier should Romania default on its obligations. This prompted the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs to issue an official statement denying the presidential claims and ‘stressing the importance of handling with responsibility information that is not founded on concrete endeavours (sic) and which may affect the image of Romania (…)’. Since this exchange, Romanian diplomats in Brussels have to publicly defend the on-going preparations.  Following this statement, the president suffered a backlash from his usual supporters, motivating him to soften his position by stating it was still possible to be reasonably prepared.

Given the usual dispassion of president Iohannis for political conflict coupled with the positive nature of his discourse in the first campaign (2014) and the first 4 years of mandate, his recent preparedness to lash out with negative attacks on the government can provide the counterpoint in a comparative test of what makes successful campaign strategies. Iohannis’s reactions are motivated by the criticism he endures for not being active on the public stage (I previously reported on this blog on the preference of president Iohannis to use formal powers and overlook informal ones). And in spite of the apparent uselessness of negative discourse, in the absence of a constructive policy agenda and constraining tools, there is one important effect of conflict framing and negativity that can be relied on for electoral success in the Romanian context.

Research results found (conditioned!) effects of negativity on increasing voter turnout. Krupnikov (2012) showed that negativity increases the likelihood that an individual will make a candidate selection. And conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote even in the less electorally engaging European Parliament elections (Schuck, Vliegenthart and DeVreese, 2014). This factor becomes increasingly important given that voter mobilisation is a substantial concern for presidential candidates in Romania and usually tilts the balance between winners and losers.

Framing the Presidential Run

Conflict framing has been at the base of Romanian elections since the early 1990s (see Anghel 2017 for a review of Romanian ‘anti-’ campaigns). In this broad agenda type of political contests, technical superiority, emotional voting and political calculations have a substantial importance. The position of a non – Social – Democrat Party (PSD) presidential candidate is naturally advantageous. Opposition parties can compensate their organisational weaknesses by unifying non-PSD voters, while the PSD is stuck at approx. 20% in voter preference.  A constant dwindling of turnout to less than 50% has secured PSD (partial) legislative victories, since their approx. 20% supporters also show up at the polls. The higher turnout in presidential elections has failed to deliver the PSD a victory in the past three runs (15 years).

Consequently, the effect of predominant conflict framing may be a mobilizing factor once again and increase the chances of president Iohannis for re-election. But this is highly context-dependent and not all researchers agree that the effect of negative campaigning is substantial on voter turnout (Garramone et al. 2009). It therefore may not be worth pursuing this strategy alone, as it can easily backfire. Other studies show that negative political campaigning evokes negative affect toward both the targeted opponent and the sponsor (e.g. Merritt 2013).

Increasingly aware of his electoral weaknesses, Iohannis also made an appearance at the yearly PNL Congress (August 4, 2018), showing his support for the PNL leadership and program and lobbying for their organisational support in the elections.  Having political proxies (or lobby groups) to deliver negative messages for the candidate is also better than when the candidate delivers them. According to Dowling and Wichowsky (AJPS, 2014), “candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work’”.  However, the current relation of PNL with the president is jaded and many strong local party leaders lack the incentives to engage in the hard presidential elections for another win for Iohannis, who has not collaborated with them in the last four years.

Conclusion: ‘Breaking bad’ badly is…not good

For a political attack to work, it must raise a credible issue. This is not difficult for the incumbent president, as the PSD led government has gone through a series of unpopular controversies related to justice system reforms. Yet the decision to ‘go negative’ to benefit from increased voter turnout appears counterproductive on all other accounts or, at best, difficult to manage. Should president Iohannis decide to continue on this path, the 2019 elections will provide the conditions for a comparative within case study of presidential political campaign strategies.

Alexander Bürgin – Leadership of the European Commission President: An Assessment of Juncker’s Organisational Reforms

This is a guest post by Alexander Bürgin, Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor at Izmir University of Economics. It is based on his recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

When Jean-Claude Juncker took office as Commission President on November, 1, 2014, he set out to establish a more political and less technocratic Commission, implying a focus on a smaller number of priority projects, and a stronger top-down steering. This was intended to enable the Commission to shed its image as a bureaucracy responsible for over-regulation, and to strengthen its profile in areas where EU governance is potentially more effective than national regulations (European Commission, 2014, p. 2). To facilitate his political leadership inside the Commission, he introduced seven Vice-Presidents, each responsible for the coordination of a team of Commissioners working on a specific priority project. In addition, Juncker further increased the Secretariat General’s (SG) staff numbers and range of competences in the coordination of the services. To strengthen the Commission’s leadership role within the EU system, Juncker assigned to the Vice-Presidents the task of organising the representation of the Commission in their area of responsibility in the EP, Council and national parliaments (European Commission, 2014, p. 5). A special role is foreseen for the newly established post of the First Vice-President, responsible inter alia for the coordination of the inter-institutional work on policy programming and the ‘better regulation agenda’.

Intra- institutional Leadership

Among the 37 experienced officials from the Commission, the Council, and the EP whom I interviewed between April 2015 and January 2017, there was a consensus that Juncker’s reforms have contributed to a centralisation of the coordination process in three regards. First, interviewees highlighted the specific filter function of the First Vice-President. It was argued that whereas in the past, the working programme was a rather bottom-up process, making it difficult for Barroso to impose his will, it is now a centralised, top-down process, steered by the First Vice-President. Second, it was also a common view that the introduction of project teams leading Vice-Presidents has promoted coordination at an earlier stage, and thus has improved strategic political decision-making among the Commissioners, providing stronger policy guidance to the services, which are constrained to a more executive role. Finally, interviewees considered the reduced number of Commissioners with a specific portfolio as beneficial for a more centralised coordination.

As regards the role of the SG, a majority of interviewees considered that the SG has significantly gained in importance since the end of the Barroso Commission. Interviewees highlighted that due to new units, the SG has become less dependent on the input from the DGs. Furthermore, there was a wide agreement that the increase in coordination meetings between the services, chaired by the SG, has reduced the discretion level of the respective lead DG, which in the past, could neglect aspects raised by other DGs in the early stage of the policy-formulation process, and be assured that, due to time constraints, the initial draft of the lead DG could only be slightly amended in the subsequent inter-service consultation.

Inter-institutional Leadership

As concerns the leadership of the Commission within the EU system, there was a consensus among the interviewees that the internal reforms are beneficial for the Commission’s leadership in inter-institutional relations. Three main arguments have been offered. First, interviewees stated that the frequent contacts between the First Vice-President or the Vice-Presidents and the EP confer greater political weight to the Commission’s positions, as they are able to present a topic from a more holistic perspective than Commissioners, who, in the past, often focussed on technical messages from their portfolio perspective. It was emphasised that the political rather than more technical language used today better corresponds to the MEP’s expectations. Furthermore, interviewees mentioned the more active SG role in the EP’s committees. Interviewees stated that while the SG used to have rather a note-taking role, the SG now often presents the Commission’s position in its function as chef de file, or monitors whether the line DG’s communication fits with the priorities of the Commission President. A final argument was that the coordination in project teams has led to a trend towards proposing legislative packages, covering items of several policy areas, making it difficult for the EP to unpack the package. It was argued that the EP struggles sometimes with the Commission’s package approach, because it obliges rapporteurs of different committees, and often, from different political parties, to write a common draft report, a practise to which they are not yet used to.

In addition to the organisational reforms, a broad majority of the interviewees stressed that Juncker’s leadership vis-à-vis the member states had benefited from the new appointment process. The cooperation between Juncker, the then EP-President Martin Schulz and the Chairmen of EPP and S&D have been characterized as close as in a coalition government, thus increasing the common negotiation power of Commission and EP towards the member states. Interviewees stressed that the strong coordination with the EP contributed to the Commission’s courage to start initiatives which the Barroso Commission would not have dared to launch, such as for instance some features of the banking union which were against German interests. As an additional factor strengthening the main EP’s parties support for Juncker, interviewees mentioned the increased number of anti-European parliamentarians since the last election, making a grand coalition between EPP and S&D more important than ever.

These findings contest the accounts which describe a decline in the Commission’s leadership capacity, and which emphasize a trend towards a ‘new intergovernmentalism’ (Bickerton et al., 2015). The evidence from the interviews rather suggests that Juncker has in fact further cemented the presidentialization of the Commission, and has successfully improved the Commission’s political leadership capacity in the dialogue with Council and EP. These findings resonate with previous accounts which challenge the ‘new intergovernmentalist’ view of a Commission in decline (Nugent and Rhinard, 2016; Peterson 2015, p. 207).

References

Bickerton, C. J., Hodson, D. and Puetter, U. (eds) (2015) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

European Commission (2014) ‘Communication from the President to the Commission, The Working Methods of the European Commission 2014-2019’, C(2014)9004, 11 November.

Nugent, N. and Rhinard, M. (2016) ‘Is the European Commission Really in Decline?’ Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 54, No. 5, pp. 1199-1215.

Peterson, J. (2015) ‘The Commission and the New Intergovernmentalism: Calm within the Storm’. In Bickerton, C. J. et al. (eds) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 185-207.