Category Archives: Portugal

Portugal – The memoirs of a president

In Portugal, ever since Mário Soares decided to publish annually his most relevant public interventions as a book, presidents have followed this practice. Soares published ten volumes of Intervenções (Interventions), Jorge Sampaio followed with Portugueses, and Cavaco Silva edited Roteiros(Roadmaps). These are collections of speeches in public occasions, with sometimes an interview or some other journalistic piece, and constitute a fundamental basis to analyse the terms in office of each president.

Cavaco Silva, however, ventured into new grounds when he decided to write his memoirs. Soares published a lengthy interview covering his entire life, including the years as president (Maria João Avillez.MárioSoares, 3 volumes). Sampaio has an authorized biography which also covers his years at the Palácio de Belém(José Pedro Castanheira, Jorge Sampaio, 2 volumes). No one had written individual memoirs centred on the role of the president. Cavaco Silva’s new memoirs come as a continuation of his previous books that covered his early life and his tenure as prime-minister for ten years (Autobiografia Política, 2 volumes), and respond to the need felt by the author to “offer citizens precise and clear information on the actions I undertook while discharging public functions”. In all, we dispose of four volumes of memoirs, a first hand testimony which is invaluable for the comprehension of his political persona. This post aims to discuss some of the issues raised by the most recent volumes, without any intention of exhausting the theme

These recent volumes are called Quinta-feira e outros dias(Thursday  and other days), as they  purport to focus on the relations between the president of the Republic and the government, Thursday being the long-established day of the week in which the prime minister visits the president to inform him on different issues. More than a formality and a gesture of goodwill, keeping the president informed “of all issues pertaining to the conduction of internal and external policies” is a constitutional provision (CRP section 201c). On top of that, the law on the intelligence services requires that the prime minister keep the president informed of major developments. Cavaco Silva would later recall that the prime minister had failed to inform him of the dealings with the EU in preparation for a package of austerity measures in 2011 as a “gross misconduct in institutional solidarity” which he castigated several times. Besides, as it will emerge further down, these meetings allow the president to react to the information received and enter a true bargaining process with the prime minister (something he cannot do directly with parliament). As a result, Cavaco Silva estimated that about one third of all legislation received from the government were amended at his request. Thursday meetings are an epitome to the power-sharing nature of Portuguese semipresidentialism

Of course, Cavaco Silva insists that his exercise of accountability towards the Portuguese is limited by the “secrecy imposed by the safeguard of the highest national interests”, and thus one cannot expect to have full disclosure of every episode that hit the news. However, Cavaco Silva is quite generous in opening up the drawers of his memory. Many references in the press to the facts disclosed in these volumes refer to la petite histoire, episodes that are controversial and still stir the popular imagination and feed gossiping, but on the whole are perhaps not the most interesting way to address the issue of presidential powers and how they were exercised by one particular individual.

The background to the volumes covering the presidency is given by the ten years in which Cavaco Silva was prime minister, which formatted most of his understanding of both presidential and governmental powers. As he says, implicitly criticizing the president with whom he worked as prime minister (Mário Soares), “my time as prime minister was one of fruitful learning about what a president of the Republic should not do”.  Perhaps the most evident sign of a particular reading of presidential powers is referred in the second volume of his Autobiografia Politicawhen he recalls having said this: “To those who spend their time in political manoeuvring and creating obstacles to the government, we say: let us work”. Together with his repeated references to the “forces of blockade”, these words were widely read as a reassessment of the government’s independence from all other organs of sovereignty, be they the Constitutional Court (which had raised several objections to his policies) or – above all – the president of the Republic. It was thus expectable that Cavaco Silva as president would not venture in terrains he had so bitterly criticized while serving as prime minister, and adopt a low profile as president. This was though a difficult task to perform.

The title of his presidential memoirs include the expression “and other days”, which refer to the scope of presidential initiatives that do not depend on the relation with the prime minister.

In the first of these volumes, the “other days” are present in a section he entitled “To Believe in the Portuguese”. He justifies this section by stating: “I defined as one of the goals of my presidency to give voice to good examples” in areas as disparate as science and education, culture and historical heritage, economy and information technologies, Portuguese communities abroad and youth, social inclusion and social institutions, the sea and fisheries, etc. This is not a small realm of intervention. Claiming he always “wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem” (and I would add, active part), he summoned members of government to accompany him and expressed publicly his views on the issues that surfaced in those initiatives. Presidential initiatives do have high media coverage, and this is a form of setting the political agenda inaugurated (against an angry Cavaco Silva) by Mário Soares with his “open presidencies” and to offer presidents ample room to intervene in the process of decision making. In the end of the day “all my initiatives were very welcome by the population, by the institutions and by all those who were involved in them”. Popularity is thus a critical element to gauge the effectiveness of presidential initiatives. In the second volume, the “other days” are mostly dedicated to the “projection of the interests of Portugal in the world”, assuming those to be framed by the concept of “presidential diplomacy” – an equivocal concept that does not derive from the constitutional powers of the president which, in matters of foreign affairs, are reasonably contained (CRP section 135). However, Cavaco Silva considered this to be one of the areas in which his voice could be heard, and independent initiatives taken, so much so that “during my terms in office a reinforcement was felt of the role of the president of the Republic in the realm of foreign affairs”. One of the reasons for this resides in the fact that, as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the president was involved in the deployment of Portuguese soldiers in several UN or NATO sponsored missions throughout the world. It is certainly an aspect that gained roots and is not openly challenged by any major political actor, and which evokes the French case of presidents assuming prominent roles in foreign relations and defence policies. It is interesting to note that at various points in his books, Cavaco Silva mentions several  formal direct meetings with the ministers of foreign affairs and defence, whereas in the case of most other ministers his relations were mediated by the prime minister.

The two volumes combined cover Cavaco Silva’s two mandates and refer to four different governments. When he took office in March 2006, the country had a majority socialist government headed by José Socrates. As is usual in Portugal, the prime minister did not tender his resignation nor did he put his job at the president’s disposal. The understanding is that the parliamentary responsibility of the government was assured, and thus the new president had to live with the existing government – or be determined to take action. It is useful to recall that Cavaco Silva had been the leader of PSD, and when that memory was still fresh he had lost the 1996 presidential election; seeking the presidency in 2006 was based on the affirmation of a clear distance between the candidate and the right of centre parties that supported him, assuming the traditional role of the president as an “independent” figure that should not guide his action by party motivation. Not surprising, Cavaco Silva promised during the campaign he would offer any government “strategic cooperation”.

The narrative of the period 2006-2009 is one of a deteriorating relation with the prime minister, which started on a high note and ended in one of the most sour episodes just before the legislative elections of that year (what he recalls as “the political intrigues of the summer of 2009”). Maybe the highest point of conflict was around a government proposal to change the statute of the Autonomous Region of Azores (unanimously approved in the regional parliament) which Cavaco Silva felt as an attempt to reduce his constitutional powers, which was a theme for discussion for about eight months before Caavaco Silva felt compelled to address the nation. The action of the president, however, was much broader, and included initiatives to reformulate the project for a new airport in Lisboa, a discussion of the high-speed train project, or the decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo (this one was present in sixteen of the weekly meetings with the prime minister), to quote just a few with heavy consequences. In most instances, the president managed to negotiate with the government the final outcome of public policies. Cavaco Silva does not shy away from criticizing by name some ministers, either because one had “little common sense” or another was prone “to speak out too much” – but in no circumstance did he go beyond asking the prime minister “to take adequate action”. If the suggestion was obvious that he would have welcome a change of minister, he stopped short of declaring he had lost political confidence or that the issue threatened the survival of the government.

Elections were held during his first term, and the socialist party won again, although it lost the absolute majority – a situation that, in principle, enlarges the scope of presidential intervention. A minority government was formed that had the difficult task to respond to the crisis that erupted in 2008 and was fast approaching Portugal. The distance and acrimony between Cavaco Silva and José Socrates was now public and evident. In the fall of 2010, when the budget was being prepared, Cavaco Silva realized “the prime minister has been lying to me about the deficit for this year”. The hypothesis of a political crisis was on the table. Still, he decided to use his goodwill to help negotiate a new budget that could be supported both by the minority socialist government and the PSD, the largest opposition party. He suggested one of his closest friends and sometime minister for finance to broker the deal. The deal was made under the auspices of the president.

The second term began with a very critical speech, which had a direct impact on the fall of the minority government a few weeks later. Fresh elections were called, as no solution was viable within the existing parliament. The right wing parties PSD and CDS obtained a majority and formed a post-electoral coalition. An old dream of PSD founder Francisco Sá Carneiro – “a majority, a government, a president” – was now possible (despite continuous claims that the president was “above the party fray”). Eventually, this became a nightmare for Cavaco Silva: for all major purposes, the leader of the majority was the prime minister, not the president. Cavaco as a university professor of public finance had his own views and claimed “I do not harbour doubts and I seldom make a mistake”; the prime minister, who had never had any job in government, and who had a poor formation on economics and finance matters, had to carve a balanced relation in which the weight of government far out weighted that of the president. In some instances, Cavaco Silva came to the rescue of government, as in the case of the huge popular demonstrations against one specific fiscal policy in September 2012, prompting a change of course. Some others, he criticized the government, as in the New Year speech of 2013 in which he raised fears of a “vicious circle of depression” – although he could not elicit any change of policy from the government. Even if many legislative pieces raised issues of constitutional conformity, Cavaco Silva most often decided to sign the bills and ask for the opinion of the Constitutional Court afterwards, thus facilitating the government’s policy, even with the cost of his own reputation (he stepped out of office in March 2016 with the lowest ever popularity rate: -13%, whereas the normal popularity rate for presidents is in excess of 50%).

The final episode of Cavaco Silva’s term in office took place after the legislative elections of October 2015. The right wing coalition won the election with a plurality of the vote; but the left parties soon declared they would oppose their continuation in office. Cavaco Silva disregarded the composition of parliament and installed the former prime minister again in his post, having decided to address the nation on the media to justify his option. However, parliamentary investiture is needed. It can come out of a vote of confidence presented by the government, or by a motion rejecting the government’s program tabled by the opposition. The rejection motion was approved by a large majority, and Passos Coelho’s executive fell. The president could not, in constitutional terms, dissolve the parliament and call fresh elections due to a double principle: presidents cannot dissolve parliaments in the last six months of their term in office, and parliaments cannot be dissolved in the first six months after an election. Cavaco would have three choices: to keep Passos Coelho as a caretaker government, with limited capacities, namely unable to propose a new budget, until the six months had elapsed and his successor could call fresh elections; to try what had been used back in the 1970’s – a government of independents regarded as “government of presidential initiative” – which raised constitutional doubts but not an outright impossibility, as recent examples in Greece and Italy suggest; or to appoint the leader of the largest left wing party, the socialist Antonio Costa, to form his government. He chose the latter solution, after lengthy consultations with several actors of the political arena and civil society, although he considered “It is difficult to believe that one government that depends on political forces that are against the EU, NATO and multilateralism in international trade can become a coherent, credible, stable, and efficient government”. For this reason, Cavaco Silva sent a memo to the socialist leader asking for “the clarification of several questions” and for “guarantees as to the stability, credibility and long-term perspectives” of the proposed new government (i.e., written documents signed by all parties involved in the new majority). When he finally accepted to swear in António Costa, he made a very critical speech in which he set boundaries to the policies the government was allowed to pursue, suggesting the government would be subject to constant presidential monitoring not so much in its institutional capacity, but truly in a sense that comprised political choices.

The question that remains after this episode in which the president is vehemently opposed to the political solution he had to empower, is this: would Cavaco Silva have behaved differently if he was not in the final six months of his term with his powers limited? Would he have behaved differently in there was not a question of the need of a new budget? Would he have behaved differently if he was in his first term with aspirations to be re-elected? All those circumstances must have weighted in the very peculiar situation in which presidents have their powers curtailed. If in full capacity, what would have been the outcome? It must be borne in mind that this example shows that disposing of a parliamentary majority is a facilitating condition for a government to emerge – and then to subsist – but its emergence must pass through a presidential decision – and the president may decide to try his luck if he dislikes the parliamentary majority. Cavaco Silva’s memoirs tell us a dramatic story which shows that there is room for interpretation of the presidential powers regarding the formation of a new government.

A few other comments can now be made. Some authors have referred to the existence of “weak powers” of the president, including under this heading the competence to appoint several public officers under governmental proposals. Cavaco Silva’s memoirs are very illuminating in this particular, as he had to deal with two appointments to the post of Prosecutor General and several top military ones. What emerges from his writings is a that a “methodology” exists – which was certainly present in other similar instances – by virtue of which the president and the prime minister agree to exchange views prior to a formal  governmental initiative (that is, before the constitutional prescriptions come into being), which in most cases consists of a proposal of up to three names from which the president can choose (or indeed reject). His descriptions of the processes leading up to the appointment of two Prosecutors General under different prime ministers shows that the principle is established and warrants presidents more than ceremonial roles, disposing of substantive capacity to influence the choice of top civil servants. The conclusion that emerges from these pages is certainly not one of “weak power”.

The last comment refers to the very last chapter of the second volume in which Cavaco Silva reflects on presidential powers. Arguing that he finds the constitutional powers to be well balanced with the fact that presidents are elected by universal suffrage, he nevertheless ventures to suggest six points that parliamentarians might take in consideration in future revisions of the constitution. Most of those points reinforce slightly the competences of the president without disturbing the overall distribution of powers, as would be the case if the president was given the power to appoint some members of the Constitutional Court or to enlarge the time limit for presidents to send legislation to that court in order to establish its conformity with the constitution, or even the power to appoint the governor of the Bank of Portugal upon a governmental proposal, and following a period of parliamentary vetting . One of Cavaco Silva’s suggestions, however, would significantly enhance presidential powers: he proposes that every legal diploma vetoed by the president should require a 2/3 majority in parliament to be overturned – a situation that occurs in a limited number of cases, and would, if extended, enlarge presidential powers and create a severe limitation to any parliamentary majority.

A final word on what appears to be a paradox. Cavaco Silva states time and again that presidential powers are adequate. On the other hand, he rejects any personal responsibility in the deterioration of the financial situation that took place after the onset of the global crisis of 2008-2009. Commenting on his very aggressive speech against the government in the inauguration of his second term (2011), he claims: “It was indeed a very incisive speech, growing out of my knowledge that the economic, social and financial situation of the country was very serious, and that there were errors in the economic policy of the government, which prime minister José Socrates resisted to change, despite my multiple warnings, both on the meetings that took place on Thursdays, and through the alerts I issued in several public interventions”. How can one be content with an array of competences that does not prevent the development and deepening of a very serious crisis in the country? Or is it the case that Cavaco Silva did not use all the presidential competences to guarantee the regular functioning of institutions beyond a mere formal analysis? Was he a prisoner of a parliamentarian understanding of the distribution of powers that the Portuguese Constitution attributes to the main political actors, neglecting the array of competences he had at his disposal? In the end, he contributed to bring down the minority government of Jose Socrates in 2011 not by taking any decisive action, but merely by speaking out his criticism that was welcome by all opposition parties which filed a non-confidence motion in parliament. The president watched this move in the comfort of Palácio de Belém,not intervening through a dissolution of parliament, the dismissal of the prime minister, nor even by sending a formal message to the parliament  . He simply used his public word – alas, quite a bit late.

Portugal – On the presidential use of veto powers

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has just entered the second half of his five-year term in office, providing us with the opportunity to review the way in which he has used his powers to define a specific role for the presidency. In this piece, my attention will be centred on the use of veto powers.

Veto powers are generally associated with the “pouvoir d’empêcher”, that is, the power to limit the action of the government or of its parliamentary support basis. As such, it is often assumed that its use reflects an opposition between the president and the government or the parliamentary majority. However, the political use of veto powers is somewhat more complex than this simple assertion[1]. In order to grasp the full extent of this power and its political implications, one ought to begin by reviewing the pertinent constitutional provisions.

The Portuguese Constitution of 1976, revised in the definition of presidential competences in 1982, determines in section 136 that presidents have the power to promulgate or veto legislation emanating from the government (decree-laws) or parliament (laws). In the case of decree-laws, the presidential veto is final, although the government may decide to reintroduce the same issue by means of a law voted in parliament. By contrast, vetoes applied to parliamentary laws can be superseded if some requirements are met: as a general rule, parliament must approve the vetoed bill by an absolute majority of MPs; in the case of “organic laws” (i.e., designed to lay the foundations for strategic decisions, such as the organic law of the National Health Service), external relations, limits to economic sectors (private, public, co-operative), or electoral matters, then a 2/3rds majority is required. Sections 278 and 279 deal with the possibility of presidents requesting the Constitutional Court for a decision on the constitutional conformity of any piece of legislation. If deemed unconstitutional (even if only in a specific section), then the president must veto such bill on these grounds. In this instance, the law is returned to parliament and it is either rectified by simple majority or ratified by a majority of 2/3rds of MPs (the president being obliged to sign it if ratified).

This constitutional framework should now be read in political terms. For instance: it is clear that minority governments tend to use decree-laws in order to circumvent the need for an absolute majority in the House, and seldom use the facility of transforming the legislative rule into a parliamentary law. By contrast, calling for the intervention of the Constitutional Court gives presidents an opportunity to request a 2/3rds majority which is not necessarily easy to obtain, and thus represent a very strong power of opposition. Finally, the constitutional framework does not prevent presidents from informally returning legislative acts without a formal veto assuming the prime minister will introduce some changes deemed necessary to obtain presidential agreement. All these instances suggest that the use of veto powers has a strong political nature, and that choices are present when a disagreement emerges between the president and the authors of the legislative act. Presidents may opt for stronger or softer ways to deal with such disagreements

In a recent and thorough study of the relations between Portuguese presidents and governments, Vasco Franco proposed a classification of the different circumstances in which veto power is exercised [2]. Franco proposes two ways to look at presidential vetoes. First, he suggests that vetoes may fall in three categories:

a) “constitutional” or “juridical” (when they are supported by a declaration of the Constitutional Court);

b) “political”, when it is (i) freely exercised by the president; (ii) not on grounds of constitutional non-conformity; (iii) based on an appreciation of the contents and/or the opportunity of the legislative initiative; and (iv) accompanied by a written message to the parliament or the government; and

c) “transitional” which takes place when a president actually vetoes legislation that is pending at the time of the election of a new parliament, or the appointment of a new government – in which case there is no judgement as to the merits but only to the opportunity of the acts. Although this could be considered as a form of “political veto”, it ought to be distinguished because presidents who use them – and there are plenty of examples[3]– do not necessarily pass a negative judgement on the essence of the legislative act, but rather a willingness not to limit the options of the newcomers.

In addition, Franco considers the meaning or sense of the veto, having as a reference the interests of the government. Presidential vetoes on acts emanating from parliament can thus be considered as

(i) “cooperative” in cases where a different majority was formed to approve the bill in opposition to the parliamentary basis of the government – a circumstance that may occur when the country has a minority government;

(ii) “neutral” when the veto “is irrelevant vis-à-vis the interest of the government”; and

(iii) “conflictual, when the president uses his power to oppose directly the interests of the government.

This sort of classification is important, as it defies the simple reading of veto powers as a manifestation of opposition between the president and the government. In political terms, the constitutional competence can have different readings

Turning now to President Marcelo’s two and a half years in office, the most significant aspect of his use of the veto power is that so far he has never asked the Constitutional Court for advice (both in advance of vetoing a law, or subsequently, as was often the case before him). Two reasons may explain this behaviour. Firstly, Marcelo is a professor of constitutional law, and therefore he feels very comfortable with his own reading of the problems involved in the appreciation of each bill. Self-confidence is thus a critical element to be born in mind. Secondly, the current government and parliamentary majority seem to have been careful in avoiding the course of action pursued by its predecessors, which turned the Constitutional Court into a central political player in the years 2011-2015.

Be that as it may, President Marcelo vetoed 10 bills in the last 30 months. In all instances, he issued  a “political veto”. By doing this, he offered the current government and political majority ample room to introduce changes that allowed them to overcome the presidential veto without the need of a 2/3rds majority. Nine of those ten bills have subsequently been approved after the introductions of changes suggested by the president without the need to negotiate with the opposition. This is a highly significant political stance which highlights the willingness of Marcelo to distance himself from the government on issues where he disagrees with the current majority and is closer to the values of the centre-right politics of the original political family that he respects (such as the bill on surrogate mothers or the framework for political parties’ financing) without attacking the government by trying to use “constitutional” vetoes. At the same time, he captures a centrality in the political process that had moved away from the presidency to the Constitutional Court in the years before his term.

Apart from the ten formal vetoes, by August 2018, Marcelo had returned 18 bills to the prime minister – but none to parliament. Those bills seem to have remained in a kind of limbo, as the government does not seem to have found ways to sidestep the objections of the president. Again, this form of behaviour is destined to lower potential tension between president and prime minister, and is in line with the fact that Marcelo has so far refrained from using the mechanism of a “constitutional” veto.

Many voices on the right of the political spectrum, including several in the party to which Marcelo still belongs and of which he was leader from 1996-1999, complain bitterly that he does not join in the condemnation of the left-wing government’s strategic options. However, Marcelo’s stance is the one that better suits the political culture that grants presidents with a “moderating power” and does not view them as party-based elements in the parliamentary game – a stance that was forged during Mário Soares and Jorge Sampaio terms with public applause. The very high rates of popularity of Marcelo indicate that this stance has been equally well received by the Portuguese, the consequence of which is the enlarged room for presidential intervention. Veto powers used with discretion may not be, after all, a symbol of political clashes but rather a means to implement some sort of co-governance.

Notes

[1]For a subtle discussion of veto powers as a symbol of political opposition, see Paulo José Canelas Rapaz, “O ‘veto politico’ do Presidente da República Portuguesa (1986-2013): uso e variáveis políticas”, in António Costa Pinto & Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds), Presidentes e (Semi)presidencialismo nas Democracias Modernas. Lisboa, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais,2017: 193-216

[2]Vasco Seixas Duarte Franco, Semipresidencialismo em Portugal: poderes presidenciais e interacção com o governo (1982-2016). PhD dissertation in Political Science, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2018

[3]President Ramalho Eanes used this form of veto on 32 cases that were pending in 1985 when prime minister Mário Soares was replaced by Cavaco Silva; President Sampaio used this in 18 instances in 2002 when prime minister Guterres was replaced by Durão Barroso; and again 33 times when prime minister Santana Lopes was replaced by Socrates

When European presidents abused presidential term limits

The abuse of presidential term limits is rife. In Uganda deputies voted only last month to abolish the age limit for presidential candidates. This decision paved the way for President Museveni to stand for a sixth term, the two-term limit there having already been scrapped in 2005.

In Europe, here meaning the member-state countries of the EU plus Iceland and Switzerland, presidential term limits are not subject to abuse. However, Europe has not always been exempt from practices typically associated with the abuse of presidential term limits. Indeed, there have been examples of presidential terms limits being abolished, ‘grandfathering’ clauses being introduced, and term lengths being extended to suit particular presidents.

In five European countries, presidential term limits have been abolished at some point. In these cases, the process of abolition was often associated with the manipulation of presidential term lengths as well.

  • In France, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was directly elected as president in December 1848. With the constitution allowing only a four-year non-renewable term, he staged a coup in December 1852, soon becoming Emperor Napoleon III.
  • In Lithuania, the 1926 coup led by Antanas Smetona was followed by a new Constitution in 1928. In the new Constitution, presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished, leaving President Smetona constitutionally secure in power.
  • In Portugal, a presidency was established with the 1911 Constitution following the abolition of the monarchy. In 1933 Salazar’s so-called Estado Novo constitution extended the president’s term to seven years and abolished term limits. Salazar himself didn’t serve as president, but the abolition of presidential term limits was part of his strategy for securing power in the regime at that time.
  • In Austria, President Hainisch stepped down in 1928 because he was term limited. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Miklas. In 1933 Prime Minister Engelbert Dolfuß effectively ended democracy by shutting down parliament. In 1934 a new Constitution was passed in which presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished. President Miklas benefited from the change, though he was allowed to do so because he was such a docile figure that he posed no threat to the authoritarian regime.
  • Finally, in Czechoslovakia the 1948 Constitution included a term-limit clause. The 1948 Constitution was drafted before the Communists fully assumed power that year. In 1960 a new Constitution was passed, leaving in doubt the Communist nature of the regime, and term limits were abolished as part of the reform.

‘Grandfathering’ is where a particular individual is exempt from a general rule. In the case of presidential term limits, it means that the Constitution includes a term-limit procedure, but a particular individual is exempted from such limits and, in effect, serves as a president for life. There are two historic cases of ‘grandfathering’ in Europe, both in Czechoslovakia.

  • In the 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution, the text stipulated a seven-year term with a two-term limit. However, it also stated that these provisions did not apply to the first president. This was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. President Masaryk reminded in power until 1935 when he resigned on health grounds.
  • In the 1948 Czechoslovak Constitution, there was also a clause stating that the term-limit provisions did not apply to a particular person, this time to the second president of the Republic. This was Edvard Beneš. He had succeeded Masaryk, becoming the second President of the Republic, only to be forced from power after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He returned in 1945 and was president in May 1948 when the Constitution of that year was promulgated. However, Beneš opposed the Communist takeover and he resigned in June 1948, effectively making the ‘grandfather’ clause a dead letter.

In effect, then, the abuse of presidential term limits in the countries in the sample here ended in the early post-war period. This is partly because in the post-war period most European democracies have had figurehead presidents, leaving little incentive to abuse term-limit provisions. More importantly, the abuse of term limits is endogenous to the abuse of the rule of law more generally. In other words, the abuse of term limits is a symptom of a democracy in decline, rather than the cause. Given democracy in Europe has remained strong, term limits have been respected. We only have to look at a European country outside the sample here, Belarus, to see how term limits were abused when democracy itself was abolished.

It is worth noting, though, that in four European countries in the sample, there are currently no presidential term limits. They are Cyprus, Iceland, Italy, and Malta. In addition, two democracies previously operated for long periods without term limits – Finland from 1919-1990 and France from 1875-1940 and again from 1958-2008.

The absence of term limits has led to some ‘long’ presidencies, even when countries have been unequivocally democratic. In Finland, President Urho Kekkonen was in office from 1956-1982 and in Iceland four presidents have served for three or more terms, with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson holding the presidency from 1996-2016.

In Iceland, Italy, and Malta, there are figurehead presidents. So, there is little call for the introduction of presidential term limits. Cyprus, though, has a presidential system. No Cypriot president has been elected for more than two consecutive terms since Makarios III, even if a number of presidents have stood unsuccessfully for a third term. Even so, the introduction of term limits is regularly part of the political debate. Indeed, a bill to this effect is due to be debated in the legislature very soon.

Overall, in European democracies presidential term limits are, almost by definition, safe from abuse as long as the rule of law remains in place. However, in the past term limits have been abused and more recently some European democracies have witnessed ‘long’ presidencies in the absence of a presidential term-limit clause.

New publications

Robert Elgie, Political Leadership: A Pragmatic Institutionalist Approach, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Robert Elgie, ‘The election of Emmanuel Macron and the new French party system: a return to the éternel marais?’, Modern & Contemporary France, pp. 1-15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09639489.2017.1408062.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-24, 2017 doi:10.1017/gov.2017.31.

António Costa Pinto and Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds.), Presidentes e (Semi)Presidencialismo nas Democracias Contemporâneas, Lisbon, ICS, 2017.

Rui Graça Feijó, ‘Perilous semi-presidentialism? On the democratic performance of Timor-Leste government system’, Contemporary Politics, Online first, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/Ah3Y2e6RJFCwnbA4BRze/full

Special issue on Perilous Presidentialism in Southeast Asia; Guest Editors: Mark Thompson and Marco Bünte. Contemporary Politics, Papers available Online first at: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=ccpo20.

Jung-Hsiang Tsai, ‘The Triangular Relationship between the President, Prime Minister, and Parliament in Semi-presidentialism: Analyzing Taiwan and Poland’, Soochow Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, Iss. 2, (2017): 1-71.

Nicholas Allen, ‘Great Expectations: The Job at the Top and the People who do it’, The Political Quarterly. doi:10.1111/1467-923X.12447.

Farida Jalalzai, ‘Women Heads of State and Government’, in Amy C. Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Farida Jalalzai (eds.), Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Across the Globe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Aidan Smith, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency’, London: Routledge, 2018.

Special issue on Protest and Legitimacy: Emerging Dilemmas in Putin’s Third Term, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2017.

Marcelo Camerlo and Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo (eds.), Government Formation and Minister Turnover in Presidential Cabinets: Comparative Analysis in the Americas, Routledge, 2018.

Michael Gallagher, ‘The Oireachtas: President and Parliament’, Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 6th Edition, Routledge, 2018.

João Carvalho, ‘Mainstream Party Strategies Towards Extreme Right Parties: The French 2007 and 2012 Presidential Elections’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-22, 2017, doi:10.1017/gov.2017.25

Sidney M. Milkis and John Warren York, ‘Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Executive-Centered Partisanship’, Studies in American Political Development, 31(1), 1-23. doi:10.1017/S0898588X17000037.

Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud, ‘Regime Development and Patron–Client Relations: The 2016 Transnistrian Presidential Elections and the “Russia Factor”’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 4, Fall 2017, pp. 503-528.

Rui Graça Feijó – On forest fires and Portuguese semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Since late 2015, Portugal has had a minority government led by the Socialist Party – the second largest in the House – and supported by some sort of confidence and supply agreement with the two parties to its left that provide it with a majority in critical moments. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, from the centre-right, was elected a few months after the new government, was reluctantly inaugurated by the outgoing President Cavaco Silva, and distanced himself from the right-wing coalition in parliament and the legacy of his presidential predecessor who wanted the new president to dissolve the House and call fresh elections. Instead, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stated publicly that the government would have until the local elections scheduled for October 2017 the chance to prove  its value and capacity. In between time – and in spite of some gestures to appease his electorate – the president did not stop supporting the prime minister and never questioned his legitimacy. In an earlier post, I discussed the possibility that a form of co-government was emerging nicknamed “Costelo” (an amalgam of  PM Costa and President Marcelo). This support was highlighted last June when the country was hit by a severe forest fire (with over 60 casualties) and the President stepped in to claim that “all that was humanly possible had been done”, backing up the government in the face of mounting popular shock for the failure of the civilian protection system.

On October 1, local elections returned a very comfortable victory for the Socialist party – as if the government had been excused for its June failure and in the recognition that new economic and financial policies had largely turned the page of austerity, offering the prospect not only of economic growth, unemployment reduction, deficit control, but more importantly, the recovery of some purchasing power and improved conditions of access to social utilities by millions of Portuguese. The right-wing parties were defeated – and this is particularly true of the largest one, the PPD/PSD, whose leader and former PM announced that he would step down when fresh party elections are called in January. In the face of these results, there would be no reason for the president to challenge the legitimacy of the government or to change his previous stance.

However, on Sunday October 15, a new wave of forest fires broke out, claiming another 45 victims. This second fire exposed the fragility not only of decades-old forest policies, but the inability of the current government to draw adequate conclusions from the June events – it had merely asked for an “independent inquiry” lasting over three months, with little having been done in the meantime to reform the civilian protection authority, which is ravaged by scandals. The shock in the country was even bigger than in June: twice the government had badly failed those who live far away from Lisbon.

After a very uninspired speech by the PM, the President took a bold initiative. He addressed the country from the heart of the ravaged areas. In a short sentence, he asked for a “new cycle of policies” that will force the government to consider “what, by whom, how and when” these new policies are to be devised and implemented. He mentioned that budgetary priorities should be considered again – this was only three days after the budget had been formally presented in the House. And he made it clear that the government needed to refresh its parliamentary legitimacy – either by presenting a confidence motion or winning a no-confidence motion presented by the right wing CDS party, which had fared quite well in the local elections. Unless his plea was heard, he would make use of “all his constitutional powers” to see that the Portuguese would not be let down yet another time, implying he might choose to dismiss the PM or dissolve the parliament. His popularity soared to the point that a left-of-centre commentator wrote: this is the example we can tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us why do we elect a President by universal, direct vote. Only a small number of voices claimed that the President had overstepped his competences. The last barometer (Expresso online, 17 November) shows that the president is the only politician who has risen in popularity to a very high net figure of 62.5% (70% positive, 7.5% negative opinions).

The government responded by immediately accepting the resignation of the minister in charge of Home Affairs. It held a special meeting of the cabinet to approve a string of measures to fight forest fires and reform forest policies which met the approval of the President. It announced that new items would be incorporated in the budget before the final vote. It defeated the no-confidence motion in parliament – although the left-wing partners kept a critical stance during the debate and did not approve all the government’s decisions on this issue. In brief, even if some of this activity was anticipated before the presidential speech, the government was seen as responding to the President’s ultimatum.

This episode lasted less than a week but has shown very clearly that the President, who is a professor of constitutional law, interprets his relations with government not only on a merely institutional basis – as some still argue ought to be his role – but that he believes the government must enjoy political confidence. In his view, the President has the power to oversee government policies and take action if he considers them to be failing to secure minimum standards – as was the case of the forest fires. Here we touch upon a critical point in the definition of the subtype of semi-presidentialism that exists in Portugal, as the dynamics of the relations of power are clearly at stake. The constitutional definition of a dual responsibility of the PM both before the President and the parliament cannot simply be divided in two: a political confidence vis-à-vis the House, a merely institutional confidence regarding the President, as much of the literature on Portugal has sustained. Marcelo has made it clear that, as long as he is President, he enjoys the right to set political boundaries to the action of the government. Going further than merely stating “strategic goals” aimed at capturing a “broad consensus (and being timid in the actual formulation of specific policies), Marcelo is moving one step forward. Take the example of the issue of the homeless. He has publicly asked the government to prepare measures aimed at eradicating homelessness by the end of his term (2021), but rather than waiting for the prime minister to present him with the government’s proposals and discussing the matter with him, Marcelo promoted meetings (which he chaired) to which he “invited” the junior minister in charge of the dossier, plus a number of national NGO’s and, critically, representatives of the Church – intervening directly in the design of public policies in tune with his “social-christian” (and rather assistencialist) personal views on the issue. This is an example of a presidential intervention in the formulation of public policies with few precedents.

It has been assumed that, in semi-presidential systems, there is an inbuilt pendulum which sometimes favours a “presidentialisation” of the situation, and which at other times oscilates in the opposite direction. One well-known commentator proposed thinking of the current situation as “semi-presidentialism of assembly”, given the fact that parliament played such an important role in the formation of Antonio Costa’a government. In other words, when parliaments have solid majorities, the role of the president tends to be less prominent than when different solutions emerge in the House. The example of President Marcelo somewhat defies this “rule”. Confronted with a minority government supported by a majority that has shown no signs of fracturing on critical issues, Marcelo has nevertheless created a high political profile for himself, intervening on a daily basis in the media on everything – as if he were still the political commentator that he was for fifteen years on prime time TV. His influence is directly linked with his popularity (a problem that the previous president, Cavaco Silva, felt acutely during his second term). And President Marcelo’s popularity – which he considers to be his best political asset – comes from a combination of support for the popular measures of the government and incisive criticism of its failures

Much as he is inclined to respect the formal political legitimacy derived from the existence of a majority in the House and to be willing to cooperate with the PM, President Marcelo’s speech on October 17, 2017 marked a decisive moment in the debate on the nature of the relations between the president and the PM in the Portuguese semi-presidential system in a way that emphasized the political competences of the head of state, and thus the double nature of the dependency of the prime minister before both the House and the President. There may be a time when those competences are more dormant, others when they surface more vigorously – but they remain in the DNA of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

Presidential Profile – Mário Soares, Portuguese President and Prime Minister (1924-2017)

Mário Soares, who has died aged 92, was widely regarded as the father of Portugal’s modern democracy. Following his death on 7 January the government decreed three days of national mourning. Soares was the first civilian to head an elected government in more than half a century and served as the president of Portugal between 1986 and 1996.

The former Socialist party leader played a crucial role in stabilizing the country after the 1974 Carnation revolution that overthrew four decades of dictatorship. He was arrested a dozen times, tortured and was living in forced exile, amongst others, in France and on the island colony of Sao Tome off the West African coast. In 1973 he founded the Socialist party (PS), which he led until 1985.

After the 1974 coup, Soares became minister in a provisional government led by moderate factions of the Portuguese military. As minister for overseas negotiations he was responsible for initiating the policy under which Portugal divested itself of its colonies. His role in granting rapid independence to Portugal’s colonies made him widely respected in Africa, but earned the lasting enmity of many of the hundreds-of-thousands of Portuguese settlers who fled from Angola and the other territories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soares between two key actors in Angola’s decolonization process, José Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA and Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA.

His greatest achievement was, arguably, to prevent the communists from overtaking the country in the turbulent years following the Carnation revolution. In November 1975 Portuguese communists organised a coup against the governing bodies but failed. Supported by Soares, pro-democracy and moderate General António Ramalho Eanes then carried out a counter coup, and thereby re-established the democratic process. The close relationship between both men resurfaced during the 1976 elections. Soares supported Eanes in his bid for presidency and the latter asked Soares to head a minority government. Soares resigned in December 1977 following the government’s defeat of a confidence motion. He was asked to form a new government, this time with the rightwing Democratic Social Centre (CDS). Yet, the gap in outlook between the two parties soon made the arrangement unworkable and in July 1978 the CDS withdrew its support. Soares did not resign immediately and was sacked by President Eanes, a move that caused ill-feeling between the two men for years afterwards.

Soares resignation in 1978 marked the beginning of a less successful period in his political career. President Eanes appointed three technocratic cabinets in a row in the period 1978-1979 (the cabinets Nobre da Costa, Mota Pinto and Pintasilgo). Furthermore, the centre-right wing parties succeeded in forming the Democratic Alliance (AD)[1], which won the 1979 and 1980 election. In 1981, Soares also had to endure intense criticism from leftwingers in his party for backing the AD’s proposal to revise the revolutionary constitution, which would limit the power of the president. With the support of the PS, which gave the AD the required two-thirds majorities, constitutional amendments were passed in 1982.

The PS returned to government in 1983 as part of a “Central Bloc” coalition with the Social Democrat Party (PSD). Barely two years later, Soares was again forced to resign after the new PSD leader Aníbal Cavaco Silva announced his party’s withdrawal from the government. The early 1985 elections resulted in a staggering loss for the PS and, to Soares’ great frustration, it was the PSD leader who took Portugal into the EU the following year.

 

Soares signs the EU membership treaty in 1985.

After his removal from government, Soares decided to run for the presidency in 1986. He won and remained president until 1996. Throughout the whole period in office, President Soares faced political opponent and PM Cavaco Silva whose cabinet enjoyed the support of a parliamentary majority. Tensions increased between both leaders: while the President used the veto power seven times during his first term in office (1986-1991) he vetoed thirty laws during his second term (1991-1996).

Soares served as a member of the European parliament from 1999 until 2004, and made an unsuccessful bid for a further term as president of Portugal in 2006.

His wife, actor, teacher and political activist Maria de Jesus Simões Barroso, whom he married in prison in 1949, died in 2015. He is survived by their daughter, Isabel, and son João who served as mayor of Lisbon and minister of culture.

Notes

[1] The Democratic Alliance (AD) was composed of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS), the People’s Monarchist Party (PPM), including also a group of dissidents of the right wing of the Socialist Party (PS) who were disappointed by the previous Soares government.

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.

Rui Graça Feijó – Semi-Presidentialism in Portugal: Towards Co-Government?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

As 2016 was approaching its end, a popular political commentator-cum-humorist claimed that the major novelty of the year was the apparition on the scene of “Costelo”, suggesting that PM António COSTa had fused with PR MarcELO Rebelo de Sousa (MRS) in one single political entity. With all the exaggeration that all caricature implies, this joke struck a sensitive chord. In this post I wish to explore one side of this joke: what is driving the new PR to make it plausible?

In an earlier post, I suggested that the 2016 presidential elections had heralded a new era in Portuguese semi-presidentialism, reinforcing both the role of Parliament and the Presidency (see my post of 25 July 2016). The reasons for the resurgence of the presidency are manifold. First of all, the new PR is a reputed constitutionalist who wrote many pieces on the subject of presidential power, and he can be quoted expressing a view on presidential competences that goes beyond what others have expressed. Even if he is not known for the firmness of his positions which tend to evolve (and more than thirty years have elapsed since he first commented on the 1982 constitutional revision), there is a coherent background to the claim that presidential powers derived from a direct election without party mediation (as is his case) transcend a literal reading of the constitutional word and require the contemplation of a “material constitution” in Sartori’s sense that encompasses established practices, precedents, and even public expectations that do not run contrary to the formal law. Secondly, MRS was also a popular pundit who entered everybody’s home every Sunday evening expressing reputedly common sense ideas on political events, and was acutely aware that his predecessor, Cavaco Silva, had sank the popularity of the presidency to its record lowest levels – he left office with an overall negative rating of -13 points according to the regular barometer published by the weekly Expresso, the only president to have ever recorded negative ratings (some have been credited with +70 or more). The plummeting of popularity impaired his capacity to intervene on the political arena, as his failure to stop the novel convergence of the parliamentary left clearly demonstrated. For this reason, MRS, an expert on media communication, set himself the goal to reverse such course and dispute with former president Mario Soares (and to a lesser extent, Jorge Sampaio) the championship of popularity – and therefore increase his room for manoeuvre. It must be stated that he has been very successful in such endeavour, Eurosondagem barometer crediting him with circa +70 positive against -13 negative ratings. He has championed what he labels “a presidency of affections”, stepping down from a pedestal erected by Cavaco to mingle with the people. Few persons in the country do not possess a “selfie” with the president smiling in their midst. And for everybody, the president is “o Marcelo” – addressed by his first name preceded by the definite article that instils even more familiarity. The question to be raised is: what does the PR use his power for?

For one, he uses his power in line with other presidents have done. The strongest traditional competence is le pouvoir d’empêcher: to use his veto powers. Marcelo has done it on a few occasions (e.g., on bank secrecy, changes in the status of metropolitan transport systems, and on surrogate motherhood – one bill he later signed after being amended in parliament in line with some of his suggestions) – none being critical for the survival of the parliamentary convergence sustaining the PM, almost all of them destined to send a signal to his conservative constituency.

If his “reaction powers” have not exceeded what might be expected, the use of “action powers” has proved to be somewhat more controversial. One of Marcelo’s idiosyncratic features his is alleged hyper-activism which brings him to issue comments and public statements on everything that goes under his nose – take for instance a note on the presidency’s official site expressing condolences on the passing of the English pop star George Michael, with no known special relation with Portugal. Other instances are politically more relevant, although not always coherent. For instance, Marcelo criticized the new salaries of the public commercial bank’s administrators (in tune with popular sentiments) but promulgated the law that allows them (arguing with the need to secure a “professional solution”).

In a political and institutional system in which the function of the president is distinct from the executive branch entrusted to the PM and his government, and is rather derived from Benjamin Constant’s notion of “pouvoir moderateur”, it is not a novelty that presidents have expressed their desire to “contribute” to political solutions that pertain to the realm of the executive. Mario Soares famous “open presidencies” were expressions of his agenda setting powers with important consequences in his so called “magistracy of influence”. Jorge Sampaio’s more subtle workshops of experts also set the tone for the intervention of the PR. Cavaco Silva boasted of having introduced amendments to a third of all bills brought before him (maybe in the memoirs he is currently writing he will explain this in detail). In all these instances – that constitute precedents for a PR who is thirsty of prominence – the presidential intervention was kept within the framework of separate powers, not invading the executive prerogatives. Will this hold true for Marcelo?

Fernando Pessoa, the modernist poet, coined the term “President-King” to allude to the brief term in office of Sidónio Pais during the First Republic – a charismatic figure that fell assassinated one year after seizing power in a coup and making himself elected by “universal” suffrage. This term was not supposed to evoke the 19th century constitutional monarchs who exercised a “moderating power” in Constant’s vein, but rather to the authoritative figure of an elusive, undisputed leader of yesteryear. This epithet has recently been retrieved in discussions about Marcelo’s self-ascribed role in national politics. In other words, several commentators and constitutionalists like Vital Moreira (an expert on presidential powers) fear he is mobilizing his enormous popularity and stepping on a thin line that defines the separation of powers. One recent example can be briefly discussed.

An important theatre company announced it was closing down after 43 years, suggesting that differences with public policies (dependent on the government) were to blame for the decision. Marcelo decided to attend their last performance, and the Minister for Culture felt compelled to follow him. Before the performance started, on stage, and with TV crews broadcasting the event, Marcelo debated with the minister the solution for this case.

Previous public decisions of presidents that allegedly interfered with the government competences were all carried through contacts with the PM – never directly with a minister, let alone in full public view. That was the case, for instance, with Jorge Sampaio who withdrew political confidence from one military chief and one minister, forcing the PM to propose their replacement, and who opposed the deployment of Portuguese troops in the Iraq war but did not debate the issue with the Minister for Defence but rather with the PM.

Even if Marcelo’s view was not upheld by the Minister for Culture and the closing down of the theatre company could not be avoided, this episode signals the willingness of the PR to use all the instruments in his toolbox to advance his own agenda, grounded on his capacity to capture the popular sympathy. He did so on other occasions with more success. Two examples: Marcelo publicly stated he would veto a presumed government attempt (inscribed in the Socialist Party manifesto and the government official programme) to reform the metropolitan areas governing bodies – prompting the PM to abandon his electoral compromise. He also made it known he supported the continuation of important “Public-Private Partnerships” (and therefore of significant private sector interests) in the health sector. The Minister for Health agreed to give PPPs a new chance in conflict with the parliamentary left that supports the integration of all public hospitals in the NHS.

There will be no constitutional court to set the limits to the PR’s initiatives. This will rather depend on the political relation of forces – and the force on the president’s side sits with his capacity to mobilize public opinion. That will be the critical factor determining if he succeeds in imposing a share of executive competences at a time when the right of centre is facing severe partisan difficulties to sustain a modicum of influence after a turbulent four and a half years in power. The fact that Marcelo was elected on a rather “independent” platform with the ill-disguised antagonism of PSD and CDS leaderships, with whom he entertains cold relations as his agenda is perceived to be distinct from theirs, enhances his stance and the chances that he will leave a new imprint in the political system.

The Portuguese system is not grounded on the centrality of the presidency to advance political agendas, as one could argue to be the case in France. Carlos Jalali has stressed that the premiership is the most coveted job for active politicians, and political parties are organized round this fact. For this reason, the notion of “cohabitation”and the parallelism with France that it entails is somewhat misplaced to grasp the dynamics of the Portuguese situation. The tense relations between the president and the leadership of his political family’s parties prevents one from considering his intervention as the surrogate for those who sit in the parliamentary minority, or to be strictly articulated with their strategies. Rather, it requires a new form of approach that considers at once the fact that the president has a personal agenda and that he intends to press for its implementation through what I suggest to call “co-government”on the limits of his constitutional powers, and clearly more aggressive than all other presidents after the revision of the Constitution in 1982.

Jorge M. Fernandes and Carlos Jalali – Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism after the 2016 Elections

This is a guest post by Jorge M. Fernandes (University of Bamberg, Germany) and Carlos Jalali (University of Aveiro, Portugal)

The famous dictum attributed to former British PM Harold Macmillan, ‘events, dear boy, events’, helps explain the evolution of Portuguese semi-presidentialism during President Cavaco Silva’s second term in office (2011-2016). In a recently published article in South European Society and Politics, we make an an appraisal of the evolution of semi-presidentialism in Portugal over the ten years of Cavaco’s tenure in power and shed some light on the election of his successor – Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

After being comfortably reelected in January 2011, with a 30 percentage point advantage over the second most-voted candidate, the political and economic situation of the country presented Cavaco with a difficult conundrum. The EU/ECB/IMF bailout that lasted from April 2011 until May 2014 placed important constraints on policy-making in Portugal. On the one hand, the president could give vent to popular dissatisfaction with the bailout’s austerity – and use his formal and informal powers to voice bottom-up disagreement with the government’s policies. However, this risked introducing difficulties into the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which could spark the wrath of the international creditors. On the other other hand, by staying idle, Cavaco faced the risk of unpopularity in public opinion.

Cavaco’s decision to give his tacit support to the implementation of the MoU had an important negative impact in his popularity, which, in turn, curbed his political influence. In the final months of his second mandate he was a lame-duck president, with increasing difficulties to use his non-formal powers. For example, in the turbulent government formation process following the October general elections, Cavaco Silva’s influence, or lack thereof, curtailed his capacities to liaise a deal between the two main parties, the Socialists and the Social Democrats, to form a grand coalition. Rather, a sub-optimal solution, from Cavaco’s perspective, was reached: a Socialist minority government with the tacit support of the extreme-left Communists and Left-Bloc.

Typically, Presidents have been the most popular political figures in Portugal, enjoying support levels above party leaders and other office-holders. Figure 1 depicts Cavaco popularity between 2011 and 2016. In January 2012, a sharp drop in popularity hurt Cavaco’s political influence after his public statements on how austerity would have a negative effect on his personal finances and how difficult it would be for him to pay for his personal expenses. Overall, at the end of his mandate, the institutional figure of the Presidency had its prestige and influence severely eroded due to Cavaco’s unpopularity in office.

Figure 1: Evaluation of President Cavaco Silva’s performance, 2011-2016 (balance between positive and negative evaluations)

Picture1

The 2016 presidential election took place against this backdrop. In addition, the months leading to the presidential election had witnessed the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in Portuguese democracy, with a difficult government formation process. The presidential election had 10 candidates, an unprecedented figure since Portugal held presidential free and fair elections in 1976.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the right-wing candidate supported by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, seemed poised to win the election, with his high levels of popularity garnered over decades as a political pundit in a popular television show. On the left, a myriad of candidates was trailing Marcelo’s lead in the polls, fighting for an opportunity in the second round. Sampaio da Nóvoa, a highly respected academic figure, earned the support of some of the founding fathers of Portuguese democracy in the Socialist Party. The candidate lacked, however, name recognition by median voters, which would have a negative impact on his result. Maria de Belém, a former Socialist minister, launched her bid to the presidency urged by a faction within the Socialist party. The Socialist party and the Prime Minister chose not to endorse any of the candidates. The Communists presented Edgar Silva, a former priest with low public visibility, while the Left Bloc put forth Marisa Matias, an MEP and a rising star in the party. In addition to the mainstream candidates, there were five independent candidates, looking to build upon the anti-party sentiment and to surf the discontent wave grassing in Portugal.

The campaign had a remarkably low mobilization. The hollowing of the presidential campaign resulted from the perception of the irrelevance of the president’s role, ensuing Cavaco’s choice not to help mitigate austerity and to give his (at least) tacit support to the bail-out measures. For all its problems, the role of the president in the political system was not debated during the campaign. Instead, candidates chose to have a personalized campaign, depoliticizing most of their campaign actions, focusing on personal contact with the population and in making a character judgment of the candidates. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the leading candidate in the polls, followed this strategy strictly in the hope that this would deflate the importance of the elections, allowing him to be elected in the first round.

On January 24th, 48.66 per cent of registered voters went to the polls to elect a new president, the lowest turnout in odd-numbered presidential elections, which have traditionally been more competitive for their importance in selecting a non-incumbent president. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won 52 per cent of vote, with a catch-all coalition. To be sure, his score surpassed the aggregate score of his supporting parties (PSD and CSD), just three months before, by adding 15.1 to the share of those two parties. Sampaio da Nóvoa came second with 22.9 per cent of the votes, falling just 2 percentage points short of forcing Marcelo into a second round, a remarkable feat for an unknown academic figure. Marisa Matias came third, with 10.1 per cent of the votes, yielding the best presidential score in the history of the Left Bloc. In contrast, the Communists had a grim electoral result, with their worst result ever, with just 3.9 per cent. Maria de Belém, the other candidate from the Socialist area, scored just 4.2 per cent, an extremely bad result for the former Health minister. Surprisingly, for all Portugal’s economic woes, anti-system candidates had very modest scores, totaling 6.84 per cent of the vote for 5 candidates.

What can we expect from a Marcelo presidency? On the surface, President Marcelo differs little from his predecessor. Both Marcelo and Cavaco Silva were previous leaders of the PSD; both had the backing of the PSD and the CDS; and both won their presidential elections on the first round with a margin of 30 percentage points over the second-placed candidate. Yet his first months in office suggest that Marcelo is trying to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor’s legacy. Indeed, in this initial period President Marcelo has actively courted public opinion, cultivated a supra-partisan stance and avoided tensions with the Socialist government of António Costa. This contrasts sharply with how Cavaco Silva’s presidency ended: an increasingly withdrawn and unpopular political figure, perceived by the left as a partisan president and unable to forge the consensus he sought between PSD, PS and CDS – most notably, in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections. President Marcelo thus appears to seek to re-establish the presidency after a period of hollowing out of the presidency which also shaped the presidential elections of 2016.

However, the end of Cavaco Silva’s presidency does not solely differ from the initial Marcelo presidency: it also stands in stark contrast from the initial period of Cavaco Silva’s own presidency. Then, just as with Marcelo, Cavaco Silva was an overwhelmingly popular president (with an average balance between positive and negative evaluations of +52.8 per cent throughout 2006) who maintained an ‘above party’ stance and avoided friction with a Socialist government – indeed, so much so that prime minister Sócrates told President Cavaco in December 2006 that ‘we like working with you’. Cavaco’s undoing was largely the result of a deteriorating economic, social and political situation that culminated in a bailout. Marcelo – who is widely reputed as a master political tactician – will need all his tactical nous to avoid repeating Cavaco’s fate, not least as Portugal’s economic, social and political situation remains uncertain and precarious.

Rui Graça Feijó – A New Configuration for Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Recent elections (legislative in October 2015, presidential in January 2016) have changed the political landscape in Portugal. This piece aims to assess their impact upon the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

The Portuguese government system has been basically stable since its adoption in 1976. Only once (1982) has there been a constitutional revision that addressed the distribution of powers among state organs. No significant institutional change has occurred since then. Politically, however, the story is more complex.

The 1987 elections returned the first single party majority. This gave the PM a prominent position, which has been characterised as the “presidentialism of prime minister” (Moreira 1989). Marina Costa Lobo (2005) has suggested that the “presidentialization of politics” manifested itself in the enhanced role of a PM who had been anointed with a direct mandate. After 1987, a non-written rule existed whereby the election of parliament was combined with a parallel “election” of the PM, reducing the room for decisions for president and parliament, as if being the leader of the largest party was a sufficient condition for acceding to the premiership. Only one PM failed to meet this criterion (Santana Lopes after Barroso left for Brussels in mid-term), and this was credited with weakening his legitimacy. This rule contrasted with the previous practice (the first parliament saw 4 different PMs). The rationale was that it would counteract the instability of the first years of constitutionalism and offer accrued legitimacy to the leader of the largest party in the context where a new government did not require a positive vote of investiture.

After the 2015 legislative elections President Cavaco appointed a PM who was the leader of the winning (but minority) coalition. The left majority in the House brought this government down. For the first time, the “winner” of an election was defeated in parliament at the beginning of his term. The president reluctantly appointed the leader of the second largest party to form a government with a majority of seats. This was a major novelty. Back in 1982, after PM Balsemão resigned, President Eanes refused to appoint Vitor Crespo who had the support of the majority, and dissolved the House. In 1987, when Cavaco’s minority government was defeated in the House, President Soares refused to appoint the socialist leader, even though he was supported by a majority and called early elections instead. Only in 2004 did President Sampaio accept a new PM without fresh elections – but he made a point of placing the government under special scrutiny and four months later he dissolved parliament. All these instances suggest a critical point in the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism: disposing of majority support in parliament is not a sufficient condition for a PM to be appointed or to remain in office as the notion of “popular election” supposes. It takes the political will of the PR to nominate and maintain the PM in office. This embodies the principle of double responsibility of the PM vis-à-vis parliament and the president (one that is central to president-parliamentary sub-types of semi-presidentialism)

The 2015 elections were held when presidential powers were curtailed as he was serving his last six months in office. Faced with a situation he politically opposed, Cavaco considered alternatives that included keeping the defeated PM as a caretaker until fresh elections could be called, or resurrecting the “governments of presidential initiative” that had been the hallmark of President Eanes’ first term – not unlike solutions found in Italy (Monti) and Greece (Papademos). In the end, he bowed to the parliamentary majority and European pressure on budgetary matters. One of his legal advisers, António de Araujo, claimed that a new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism was emerging: a “parliamentary semi-presidentialism” (2016). However, this may be a hasty conclusion.

For one, Cavaco’s term was coming to an end. If he had still been in office on the day new elections would have taken place, there is no doubt that he would have dissolved the parliament. Secondly, Cavaco imposed strict limits on the government’s programme that were not related to institutional considerations (as President Sampaio had done in 2004), but that related instead to the right-wing agenda he espoused. Finally, the new President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who was formally supported by PSD and CDS, was elected on a right of centre platform that was politically different from the one espoused by the coalition with the benediction of Cavaco in the previous legislative elections: he has made it known that he intends to exercise all the powers the constitution bestows upon the head of state, distancing himself both from “minimalist” positions that Cavaco is supposed to have upheld and from the conditions he imposed. Even if Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is not known for the consistency of his positions over time, as far back as 1984 he wrote:

A few months after the constitutional revision the president had the opportunity to exercise three fundamental powers: the power to dismiss the government, the power to refuse the appointment of a prime minister proposed by the parliamentary majority, and the power to dissolve the Assembly of the Republic […] against the opinion of the majority of the Council of State (1984: 57)

This is the view he most certainly still holds of his powers. It came as no surprise that he said he would “review” his support for government in the fall of 2017 when local government elections will be held. This means he has not relinquished any of his prerogatives, including those that refer to the survival of government.

A new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism is thus emerging: both directly elected institutions – parliament and president – have their roles enhanced. The “election” of the PM has lost its importance. It is clear that more than depending on direct popular support, the PM responds politically both to the President of the Republic and the Assembly of the Republic, and both organs are keen to exercise their full competences. Without implying an institutional modification, these developments amount to a new model for Portuguese semi-presidentialism, where the PM is no longer the only central figure.

References

Araujo, António. 2016. “Semi-presidencialismo de assembleia”, in Público, 13 January

Lobo, Marina Costa. 2005. “The Presidentialization of Portuguese Democracy?” in Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (eds), The Presidentialization of Politics, Oxford, OUP

Moreira, Adriano. 1989. “O regime: presidencialismo do primeiro ministro” in Mario Batista Coelho (ed), Portugal: o sistema politico-constitucional 1974-1987. Lisboa, ICS

Sousa, Marcelo Rebelo. 1984. O Sistema de Governo Português, antes e depois da revisão constitucional. Lisboa, Cognitio (3rd edition)