Category Archives: Italy

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.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

Mauro Tebaldi – The President of the Italian Republic in times of political and economic crisis (2010-2014)

This is a guest post by Mauro Tebaldi, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences, Communication Sciences and Information Technologies, University of Sassari

Foto del 11-05-15 alle 15.10

This post examines the role of the former President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in times of political and economic crisis, with particular regard to the period 2010- 2014. During this period, Napolitano (the first President of the Italian Republic to have been elected twice, in 2006 and 2013) was a key player in seeking solutions to the economic and institutional emergencies that governmental institutions and political parties were unable to find. This active role of the President of the Republic has been the subject of contrasting assessments, in both political debate and public opinion, as well as in the academic literature. Some consider the behaviour of the Head of State constitutionally legitimate and politically appropriate. Others found it constitutionally illegitimate and politically unwise.

This post aims to explain: a) why the former President of the Italian Republic tended to expand his powers; b) whether and to what extent the behaviour of the President exceeded his constitutionally prescribed role; and c) whether this presidential behaviour has protected or weakened Italian democracy.

In his capacity as Head of State, the Italian President has a number of powers that are not just symbolic or ceremonial in nature, but also endowed with high political relevance, such as the appointment of the prime minister and the early dissolution of parliament. From its earliest beginnings, the actions of the Italian presidents have shown great versatility and flexibility. They adapted to the different seasons of the Italian political system relying on a laconic constitutional discipline. So, without any substantial changes to the regulatory source from which they drew their legitimacy, Italian presidents have sometimes deeply affected the evolution of the Italian parliamentary system, extending their powers to the highest degree, while on other occasions they have remained on the sidelines of the decision-making arenas. These differences have led some scholars to talk of an ‘accordion’ of presidential powers, which can expand or contract. In certain circumstances and under certain conditions, the poorly defined constitutional powers of the President of the Republic may grow to impose his will on other bodies of the parliamentary circuit – the assemblies and the government – or on other political actors such as the parliamentary majority or the opposition parties. The underlying hypothesis is that the movements of the ‘presidential accordion’ depend on the strength of the party system. The more the party system is able to produce stable and cohesive majorities, the less space there will be for wide and autonomous use of powers by the President of the Republic during times of political crisis. When, on the other hand, the party system produces unstable and conflicting majorities, the President of the Republic will tend to intervene with broader powers and more autonomy in resolving the political crisis.

As we can see from the analysis of Napolitano’s presidencies in 2010-14, the role of the President grew dramatically when the crisis of the political parties made it impossible to form governments capable of dealing with the country’s financial and economic crisis. Napolitano extended his powers at the structural level in the sphere of politics, creating new procedures for government dissolution and formation. Of particular importance was his public announcement of Berlusconi’s resignation before the prime minister himself had announced it. In addition, he appointed Monti as Life Senator immediately before his appointment as prime minister. Still at the level of the political regime, Napolitano strongly defended some fundamental values of the Italian Republic, such as European Union membership.

There was a similar expansion of presidential powers at the level of political process. Examining the sphere of politics, the rise of the Monti government certainly was a procedural innovation, but, above all, it was a substantive choice of prime minister which Napolitano made by himself and forced the political parties to accept. Moreover, as Napolitano has openly acknowledged, the choice of Letta as the next prime minister was also autonomously decided by the president himself, and only weakly conditioned by the parties consulted. With regard to the sphere of policy, Napolitano played an important role constantly proposing institutional, constitutional and economic reforms to the government and political parties.

Apart from acting as a stimulus to the governments and their majorities, Napolitano continuously and personally monitored their work. Napolitano’s supervision of governmental activities and programmes from the end of 2010 until the beginning of 2014 applied to all the governments in power during this period (led by Berlusconi, Monti, Letta). This was necessary, since the domestic political context revealed the weakness of the parties in dealing with the country’s financial crisis and since the international economic institutions and the EU authorities had subjected Italy to very tight restrictions in the choice of its economic policies.

According to the theory of the ‘presidential accordion’, the role of Napolitano expanded when the political power of political parties and the government institution weakened. Eventually, he assumed the role of guardian for the functioning of the Italian parliamentary system. What is even more relevant, due to the constitutional and political sensitivity of the issue, is the analysis of the causal relationship between the Italian parliamentary system and the behaviour of the president.

Indeed, we can hypothesise that under certain conditions the trespassing of the Head of State into the government area may cause changes to the practices and substance of the parliamentary system. For example, this might occur when the majority that elected the Head of State coincides with that supporting the prime minister and his government, and both positions are held by leaders of the same coalition. Specifically, it might determine the transition from a model in which the Head of State and the cabinet are each potential veto players of one another, within a system of ‘separated institutions competing for shared powers’ to another model in which the president and the government merge in a system of ‘joined institutions sharing powers’. In a nutshell, it could give rise to a hybrid form of government, which would be much closer to a semi-presidential government than a parliamentary one.

In this regard, the expansion of the presidential role under Napolitano’s presidencies has been interpreted in different ways. Some authors describe it as a pathology of the Italian political system. For these authors, the behaviour of the president not only exceeds his constitutionally prescribed role, but also represents one of the main anomalies of Italian democracy. It entails some fundamental powers of government being assigned de facto to a guarantee institution, not accountable to the electorate, thereby weakening the quality of democratic government in Italy.

Other scholars emphasise that President Napolitano’s role fits into the physiology of the parliamentary government as designed by the Italian Constitution. Indeed, the flexibility given to the role of the president of the Republic can be regarded as a major instrument to resolve situations of institutional deadlock. From this perspective, the movements of the ‘presidential accordion’ becomes a key feature of Italian parliamentary government, enhancing the quality of democracy in terms of inter-institutional accountability when the weakness of the party system could block the formation of government or its functioning.

Our analysis suggests that President Napolitano acted like other presidents before him when the party system suffered similar issues and expanded his powers within the constitutional limits of the parliamentary form of government. He did so through an active role of stimulation, protection and guarantee towards the restoration of governmental and parliamentary functions. Within these constitutional limits, and with a personal style, Napolitano played a role that the political parties and their leaders could not perform. Rather than changing the features of the Italian parliamentary government and transforming it unlawfully into a semi-presidential government, Napolitano has confirmed that the role of the Head of State, with its capacity for expansion, is a key role strengthening the democratic parliamentary regime in times of grave crisis – particularly when the political system is simultaneously threatened by an exogenous crisis that forces the government to decide and an endogenous crisis that prevents it from taking decisions.

Mauro Tebaldi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences, Communication Sciences and Information Technologies, University of Sassari. His main research interests are political institutions, democratic theory and public policies.

Selena Grimaldi – The President of Italy: from veto player to first in command?

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi at the University of Padova

Foto Selena

In this post Selena Grimaldi summarises her article ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?‘, Contemporary Italian Politics, (2015), DOI: 10.1080/23248823.2014.1002247

This paper is part of a special issue for the review “Contemporary Italian Politics” edited by myself and Elisabetta De Giorgi (Nova University) on the transformation of the Italian political system in the last 20 years.

Starting from Arend Lijphart’s masterpiece (1999) we try to (re)locate Italy in the context of contemporary democracies. More specifically, we analyze those aspects which have changed from the 1990s on, namely the reforms of the electoral system, the transformations in the party system, and the evolution of the relationship between the government and parliamentary opposition. Furthermore, we explore the variation in the distribution of decision-making power among national, supranational and subnational (regional) bodies and the new role of the President of the Republic as an increasingly important counterbalancing power.

My piece, in particular, is an attempt to consider presidential involvement in the decision-making process and whether it marks a change from the consensual model of democracy to the majoritarian one. Following this path, the first point is to understand whether the activity of presidents in parliamentary systems can be added as an explanatory variable in assessing a possible change from one model of democracy to the other. In fact, the role of heads of state in parliamentary democracies is not taken into consideration by Lijphart, even though recent studies have shown that they can be treated as checks and balances as in the case of presidents in presidential systems (Nikolenyi 2011; Jacobs 2012).

As many scholars have suggested, I tried to combine Lijphart’s and Tsebelis’ (2002) approaches to support the claim that presidents in parliamentary democracies should be included in the second dimension of the Lijphartian scheme when they prove to be real institutional veto players. According to Tsebelis (2002), there must be agreement on the part of a number of actors – or veto players – for a policy to change, and therefore he distinguishes between two types of veto player: the institutional and the partisan.

Italy is not the only parliamentary democracy in which the Constitution gives the President certain countervailing powers to the government or parliament and more specifically it is not the only case in which presidents have actually influenced the policy process. In Germany, for instance, some presidents have intervened in the policy process both with veto powers and with moral suasion (Grimaldi 2012). As a consequence, the president in parliamentary democracies can be an institutional veto player, despite not being a collective complex institutional body like a constitutional court, and despite the absence of complex constitutional features such as federalism and bicameralism. Moreover, in line with Tsebelis’ findings, I argue that when the president acts as a veto player influencing policymaking, the democratic system is pushed closer to consensualism.

However, during Italy’s Second Republic, the President has not just been an active countervailing actor to the government, contributing to dividing and spreading power, but he has stood in for the government in situations of crisis and deadlock, becoming a sort of deputy chairman. Indeed, the President has contributed to enlarging the role of the executive more than the legislature in Italy with the formation of technocratic cabinets, and he has sometimes taken or influenced foreign policy decisions which, strictly, should be in the government’s domain. Therefore, when the President acts as a decision-maker or deputy chairman, Italian democracy is pushed closer towards majoritarianism.

The second important step is to divide presidential powers in two categories in order to verify when and to what extent Presidents of the Second Republic act both as veto players and as deputy chairmen. This distinction comprises both formal powers – clearly identifiable in the Constitution – and informal powers, which are linked to praxis and which have become more visible and frequent in recent years, such as moral suasion and media surveillance.

Moreover, in order to explain the enlargement of Presidential powers from the 1990s on, I have considered five variables: two systemic variables, namely the power of the parties and the strength of the cabinets, and two reputational variables, i.e. the level of presidents’ public support and their international networks, and the level of approval of the PMs.

At this point, I can say that my initial expectations are confirmed: presidents act as deputy chairmen especially when parties and cabinets are weak, but they act as veto players when cabinets are stronger and relatively stable. However, this is not the whole story.

On the one hand, It is true that when parties and/or cabinets were weak, presidents acted as deputy chairmen by appointing PMs or deciding whether or not to dissolve Parliament, as in the cases of Prime Ministers Amato, Ciampi and Dini, appointed by President Scalfaro; and Prime Minister Monti was appointed by President Napolitano. However, their capacity to make decisions relating to government formation, notably by suggesting certain ministers, and foreign policy also relies on other factors and particularly on their public support and international networks. The appointment of the Minister of International Affairs Ruggiero (2001) suggested by Ciampi and that of the Minister of Economy Padoan (2013) suggested by Napolitano are the clearest examples. In both cases, presidential influence was effective because of the presidents’ high levels of public support. In other words, the government could not oppose the suggestion of such popular Presidents. Moreover, presidents are able to directly influence foreign policy when they have strong domestic support and when they are assured of international recognition through their foreign contacts. This was precisely the case of Ciampi in dealing with the Iraq war and that of Napolitano with the Libyan war.

On the other hand, presidents act as veto players especially in opposition to strong cabinets. Presidents use formal powers, notably vetoes on legislation, messages to the Chambers, and the authorisation of government decrees, to control the longer-lasting cabinets. However, informal powers such as moral suasion and media surveillance are linked to the personal capacities of each president, in particular their ability to build approval for themselves and their communication skills. Actually, Presidents were effective in using informal powers when their popular support was relatively high.

My research points out that there is no one clear path followed by the Presidents of the Second Republic, and this makes it difficult to say if they further strengthened the consensus or the majoritarian principle. Both Scalfaro and Napolitano acted as a veto player and as deputy chairman, whereas Ciampi was the only one who mainly acted as a veto player and consequently mainly strengthened the consensus principle. Indeed, not only did Ciampi use formal and informal powers to control government policies and actions, but he also chose constitutional judges and life senators who could credibly oppose the government in office. However, his role of deputy chairman was not completely negated as he successfully influenced the nomination of Minister Ruggiero and an important foreign-policy decision in the Iraq war.

In conclusion, the involvement of the President in the decision-making process is an important factor in explaining the apparent change from a consensual to a majoritarian model of democracy in Italy, even though this inclusion may complicate the picture as presidential influence is not linear in pushing democracy towards the consensual or majoritarian side. The President’s intervention contributes to making Italy a mix, as certain decisions relating to government formation and foreign policy reinforce the majoritarian principle, whereas the president’s controlling actions reinforce the consensus principle.

References:

Grimaldi S. (2012), I presidenti nelle forme di governo. Tra Costituzione, partiti e carisma, Roma, Carocci.

Lijphart A (1999), Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven-London, Yale University Press.

Jacobs K. (2012), The more vetoes the better? The ambiguous relationship between veto players and democratic reform in consensus democracies. Working group on democracy. Innovative democracy working paper series Vol. 1, issue 5.

Nikolenyi C. (2011), When Electoral Reform fails: The Stability of Proportional Representation in Post-Communist Democracy, «West European Politics», vol. 34, n.3, pp. 607-25.

Tsebelis G. (2002), Veto Players. How political institutions work, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Selena Grimaldi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova. Her research interest is in Leadership Studies in Comparative Perspective, with particular attention to the role of presidents in parliamentary democracies. She has published several book chapters and articles on this theme, including the most recent: ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?’, in Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015.

Selena Grimaldi – The election of the new Italian President: Sergio Mattarella

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi at the University of Padova

Foto Selena

Sergio Mattarella has been elected as the new President of Italy. The successor to President Giorgio Napolitano was chosen in three days and four rounds of voting, beginning on Thursday 29 January and finishing on Saturday 31 January 2015.

Mattarella started his political career in 1983 in the ranks of Christian Democracy (DC). He was able to survive to the implosion of this “once dominant” party in the 1990s by joining centrist parties such as the Italian Popular Party (PPI) and the Daisy, and then finally the center-left Democratic Party (PD).

In these elections, Mattarella was the official candidate of the ruling PD party. Initially, though, there had been the prospect of a cross-party agreement between the PD and right-wing parties, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party (FI). To this end, at the first ballot of voting Berlusconi proposed Giuliano Amato, another politician of the so-called First Republic who was able to survive into the Second. However, both public opinion and part of the PD were opposed to this option.

In this context, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed someone who could unify his own party, which in the last few months had already proved to be divided on many issues related to the government agenda. Indeed, Renzi needed the votes of Berlusconi’s opposition party to proceed with institutional reforms and with the reform of the electoral law.

In addition, the PD could not risk a repeat of the nightmare of the last presidential election in 2013, when the party split up over the name of Romano Prodi and the outgoing president was asked to stay on for another term.

In fact, Mattarella represents a good choice for the element of the PD that disagrees with Renzi because he is a moderate who has shown that he is willing to follow the ideal of justice even to his personal detriment. One of the clearest examples of this was his criticism of the so-called “Mammì law”, which favored Berlusconi’s business interests when at the time he was just a media tycoon. When the government decided to approve the law, which went against an EU directive, Mattarella – then Minister of the Public Education – resigned.

This time Berlusconi’s FI did not present any official candidate, whereas other opposition parties did. The Five Star Movement proposed Ferdinando Imposimato (an ex anti-mafia judge); the Northern League chose Vittorio Feltri (a right-wing journalist) and the radical left (SEL) proposed Luciana Castellina (a left-wing journalist). The smaller ruling parties behaved in different ways. Scelta Civica (SC, the party of the former PM Monti) chose Emma Bonino (one of the Radical Party’s prominent leaders) as their official candidate for the first phase, while NCD (a small centrist party that was previously part of FI) did not present a candidate. However, SC, NCD and SEL decided to vote for Mattarella at the fourth voting round, while the Five Star Movement and the Northern League continued to support their official candidates.

Presidential elections remain one of the few political acts in which political parties continue to be important, even in a country where nobody really trusts them (popular consent is lower than 3%. Source: Demos&PI, December 2014).

Parties are committed to presidential elections for two reasons. On the one hand, the election of the President is indirect and therefore their role is required by the rules. On the other hand, parties are interested in the selection of the Head of State, since they are well aware of the strong role that the President can play, as the experience of the last three Presidents (Scalfaro, Ciampi and Napolitano) has clearly shown.

However, presidential elections remain quite conflictual. Firstly, this is due to the way in which the process is structured, as the electorate includes an incredibly high number of people and a super majority is initially required to elect the president. The President is elected by Parliament in a joint sitting of the two houses whose members constitute an electoral college that also includes 58 representatives of the regional councils. This time the Electoral College comprised 1009 people (315 Senators, 6 Life Senators, 630 Deputies and 58 Regional Representatives). A  two-thirds majority is required at the first three rounds of voting, whereas an absolute majority is needed for the fourth onwards.

Secondly, presidential elections often reveal conflicts within parties, which can be analyzed in terms of the length of the process, the fragmentation of candidatures, and the majority obtained by the winner.

The length of the process has considerably reduced in the last 15 years. Indeed, during this period parties needed a maximum of six rounds to elect the President. By contrast, in the past the process used to be much longer. For example, Giovanni Leone (1971) was elected at the 23rd round, Giuseppe Saragat (1964) at the 21st, Sandro Pertini (1978) and Oscar Luigi Scalfaro (1992) at the 16th. The new President was elected at the 4th round, confirming the shorter trend. This reduction can be explained by the centrality of the President in recent years. Consequently, parties which previously just played for time now face the threat of popular resentment if the election is delayed.

From the 1980s on, the fragmentation of candidatures has increased. Indeed, the mean value was higher than 10 for Cossiga (13), Scalfaro (16), Ciampi (18), Napolitano I (19), and Napolitano II (13). In the case of Mattarella the fragmentation was also very high, with a the mean value of 21.5. A possible explanation for this fragmentation is that the choice of the President has become more salient as parties have started to lose their grip on people. In other words, if parties are weak and government coalitions are heterogeneous, the President’s role becomes stronger both in terms of government formation and certain policy decisions, including foreign politics. Therefore, choosing a President who can stand in for the government has become an effective political game for all political forces, which as a result try to elect their own candidates in the first place.

Usually, Presidents obtained a relatively high majority in the election (between 60% and 69%) or a high majority (between 70% and 79%), although nobody has ever reached the peak of Sandro Pertini in 1978 (84%). In three cases only, the majority was low (between 50% and 59%). These are the so-called “Presidents of the Majority” (Segni, Leone and Napolitano I) who were supported by a combination of parties coinciding with the governing majority. Sergio Mattarella was elected with 665 votes or 66.8%, that is to say a relatively high majority of the electoral body. In particular, the ruling parties of the Great Coalition (PD, NCD and SC) and the radical left (SEL) voted in his favor. At the last round, the sum of the blank and null ballots was 11.8%. Silvio Berlusconi’s party decided to keep on voting a blank ballot, but this marginalized the party by preventing it from being one of the “President-makers” in the future.

Looking at the political profile of the new President, we can say that it is fully consistent with the tradition of the office. Mattarella has a long institutional career, having been a member of the Chamber of Deputies for 25 years from 1983 to 2008. Moreover, like the majority of his predecessors, he was appointed Minister several times (in six Cabinets: Goria, De Mita, Andreotti VII, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, Amato II) and, in particular, he served twice as Minister of Defense. In addition, like the majority of the former Presidents, he never had a strong position within his original party (DC) and within the subsequent PPI, even though he was one of its co-founders. Finally, Parliament elected him as Constitutional Judge in 2011. This experience is also in line with tradition, as other Presidents have formerly had strong roles in other public institutions (such as Einaudi and Ciampi who were both Presidents of the Bank of Italy).

From this point of view, it seems that parties have tried to replicate patterns of choice of the past. In particular, they have tried to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano, who had a long party career, as well as strong international and European credentials, and great ability to exploit the media. Indeed, there is no doubt that these qualities played a particular role on his ability to influence Parliament’s and Government’s decisions.

Even though parties try – as far as possible – to select presidents who can be controlled by them, often they have obtained surprising results. Indeed, Cossiga, Scalfaro and even Ciampi were able to oppose Prime Ministers and parties when they thought it was necessary, even though at the very beginning they seemed to be perfect “notaries”. Perhaps Mattarella will have similar surprises in store.

Selena Grimaldi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova. Her research interest is in Leadership Studies in Comparative Perspective, with particular attention to the role of presidents in parliamentary democracies. She has published several book chapters and articles on this theme, including the most recent: ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?’, in Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?

Presidential salaries – particularly during and after the European financial crisis – have been a hotly debated topic in a number of European republics and several office holders have voluntarily taken a pay cut. Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the earnings of Western and Central and Eastern European presidents or my old blog (presidentialactivism.com) which proved to be highly popular and generated some media attention. The posts which are reproduced here today and tomorrow try to answer the questions How much do presidents actually earn? Did the crisis have an impact on presidential salaries? And how do their earnings relate to other factors?

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the highest paid president in Western Europe (if you do not count the Chairman of the Swiss Confederate Presidency) | photo by GuentherZ via wikimedia commons

Presidents’ absolute salaries in comparison

Given different regulations about salaries, lump sums and other benefits it is difficult to establish universally how much presidents actually earn. For this post I tried to ascertain (accurately, I hope) presidents’ yearly gross annual income exclusive of benefits. However, I decided to include so-called 13th/14th salaries as these are part of the taxable income and many presidents were either entitled to receive those or were recently deprived of them (see more under the penultimate subheading). Although the national gross average income would certainly be easier to interpret as a point of reference, I had chosen the 2012 GDP per capita for the sake of reliability. I was also not able to find reliable data for Cyprus (please leave a link in the comment section if you know a reliable source).

Western european presidents_absolute annual salary_presidentialactivism.com_

The bar chart shows that there is a huge variety in presidents’ salaries in Western Europe. The top-earner is the Swiss Federal President, i.e. the chairperson of the seven-person collegiate presidency that is elected ‘President of the Confederation’. Members of the Federal Council receive €360,358 annually, the president receives an additional €9,735 (i.e. 370,093 annually). The runner-up and top earner among the ‘normal’ presidents – the Swiss-type collegiate presidency is worldwide unique – is the Austrian president. Current incumbent Heinz Fischer receives a gross annual salary of €328,188 which consists of 12 regular monthly salaries + two additional monthly salaries (not benefits) of €23,442 each. George Abela, the president of Malta,, on the other hand earns the least with just €56,310 and thus almost six times less than the Austrian counterpart. The average presidential gross annual salary is €191,149, the average GDP per capita (2012) is €30,860. There are only few presidents who earn a similar absolute gross yearly salary, although this looks different for relative yearly salaries.

Setting earnings into perspective

Absolute numbers are always present a somewhat distorted image in cross-country comparisons, which is why it is good to set presidents’ gross annual income into perspective. As mentioned above, I use the respective country’s GDP per capita from 2012 as a point for comparison.

Western european presidents_relative annual salary

There is a lot of change of positions when comparing absolute and relative gross annual income. While the Maltese presidents is still the lowest paid democratically elected head of state in Europe with 350% of the GDP per capita, previous front-runner Switzerland is with 606% of the GDP/capita only 12 percentage points above the Western European average. Greek president Karolos Papoulisas – in absolute earnings rather on the lower end of the spectrum – now finds himself in third position as his annual gross salary is more than eight times more than the GDP per capita (and this even though his salary had already been halved last year – more on this below). The top-earners in relative terms are by far the presidents of Italy and  Austria. Their gross annual salary amounts to almost nine times more than the nominal GDP per capita.

Western european presidents_scatterplot

The correlation between GDP per capita and presidential salaries is surprisingly high (R=0.8) and Switzerland is the only real outlier. The plot also shows that Finnish president Niinistö earned less than one could have expected from the GDP per capita – even before his salary cut.

The crisis and its consequences

The crisis has certainly taken its toll on presidential salaries in Western Europe as several presidents experienced a pay cut or voluntarily cut their own salary. French president Hollande cut his salary by 30%, Irish president Higgins voluntarily waived 23.5% of his salary, Finnish president Niinistö waived 20%. In Greece, parliament cut the president’s salary by 50% (and abolished a €6,240/month  representational allowance) after president Papoulias had suggested it. Papoulias had previously already waived his salary for a whole year as well as his right to a 13th and 14th monthly salary. Cypriot president (who could not be included in this ranking because of missing data) also waived his additional monthly salaries and cut his salary by 25% after his predecessor had already seen a 20% salary cut.

On the other hand, German president Gauck and Austrian president Fischer recently saw an increase in their income. In 2012, Gauck’s gross yearly income went up from €199,000 to €217,000 while Fischer receives has a modest €411 more in his bank account every month since the beginning of this year (this increase also applies to his two additional monthly salaries so that overall the gross yearly income went up by €5,754). At least in the case of Germany, this increase should not be seen too controversial. The president’s earnings are still rather average (see also scatter plot above) and had not been increased for almost a decade (furthermore, the salary is indirectly tied to the income of federal clerks).

Powers and mode of election

With relation to presidential powers and the mode of presidential election, the results contrast those from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the absolute results depend on whether Switzerland is included or not. Directly elected presidents have a gross yearly income of €183,355 (573% of the GDP per capita), while indirectly elected presidents (Switzerland included) earn €202,061 (664%) and thus more in absolute and relative terms. However, if one excludes Switzerland (which might be sensible due to the exceptionalism of the Swiss collegiate presidency) the gross yearly income is only €160,511 (703% of GDP per capita) which in absolute numbers is less but significantly more in relative terms.

When it comes to the relationship between presidential powers (measures taken from Siaroff 2003) and presidential income the correlation is R=0.0002 and thus non-existent.

***Sources (click on the country names)***
*AustriaFinlandFranceGermanyGreeceIcelandIrelandItalyMaltaPortugalSwitzerland*

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 1 August 2013.

Presidential term lengths and possibilities for re-election in European republics

I recently read up on the amendments made to the Czech constitution to allow for popular presidential elections and stumbled across Art. 57 (2) – ‘No person may be elected President more than twice in succession’ (which already applied to indirectly elected presidents) and wondered how it looks in other European republics and how it relates to term length. The results of my study of each country’s constitution are summarised in the bar chart below.

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit |photos via wikimedia commons

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit | photos via wikimedia commons

Term length

Term length is relatively uniform across European republics – in all but six countries a president’s term is five years. Exceptions can only be found in Iceland and Latvia (4 years), Austria and Finland (6 years), and Italy and Ireland (7 years). Interestingly, all presidents serving terms of six or seven years are popularly elected; yet, so is the president of Iceland who is only serving a four-year term.

Presidential term lengths and re-election provisions in the EU member states_presidentialactivism.com

Term limits

A limitation to two consecutive terms can be found in twelve out of 22 European republics, i.e. a former president who has already served two consecutive terms could theoretically be re-elected for a further two consecutive terms after ‘taking a break’. In Latvia, the constitution states that an individual may not serve as president longer than eight consecutive years (which equates to two terms in office). In Portugal, the constitution specifies that a president who has already served two consecutive terms can only be re-elected as president after a break of at least five years. In other countries with a limit of two consecutive terms no such provision exists.

In seven out of the ten remaining republics, presidents can only be elected for two terms – irrespective of consecutiveness. In Malta, a president can even only be elected for one term (although the constitution is rather imprecise on the subject). In Iceland and Italy, there are no regulations on re-election. While it is the norm in Iceland that presidents serve several terms – since 1944 all presidents have served at least three consecutive terms (the current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is in his fourth term at the moment), Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is the first Italian president to be re-elected.

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 August 2013.