Category Archives: Semi-presidentialism

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

Lee Savage – How do president’s influence coalition bargaining in semi-presidential systems?

This is a guest post by Lee Savage in the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London. It is based on his article in European Journal of Political Research.

Presidents in semi-presidential systems usually have a constitutionally prescribed role in the government formation process. Often, this is limited to the ability to appoint either a formateur or candidate for prime minister who will then go on to form a cabinet which must maintain the confidence of the legislature. In some countries, such as Bulgaria and Ireland, even the power to appoint a prime minister is limited by constitutional requirements to select the leader of the largest party in the legislature.

Even though the constitution may define a limited role for presidents role in government formation, they can still exert influence over the cabinet that eventually takes office. Previous research has shown that presidents can influence the composition of the cabinet by increasing the proportion of non-partisan ministers that are appointed. In some circumstances, presidents can also increase the likelihood of a cabinet leaving office prematurely. In new research, I have shown how presidents influence the coalition formation process itself by decreasing the duration of bargaining negotiations.

The duration of the government formation process can have significant consequences for a state. For example, the 541-day bargaining process experienced by Belgium between 2010 and 2011 resulted in the legislature’s failure to pass a budget which, in turn, led to an official rebuke from the European Commission. However, it is notable that there are few examples of protracted coalition bargaining processes in semi-presidential systems. But is this a result of presidential influence, and if so, then how is this influence exerted when cabinet formation is usually the preserve of the legislature in semi-presidential democracies? I argue that the influence of presidents on the duration of coalition bargaining is a result of first, the extent of their constitutional powers and second, their partisanship.

Presidential powers and coalition bargaining

The constitutionally-mandated powers of the president increase their legitimacy to intervene in the government formation process. More powerful presidents are seen as possessing greater legitimacy to act in the eyes of other actors in the process, specifically, the legislative parties. This legitimacy to act decreases the duration of the coalition bargaining process by reducing its complexity. More powerful presidents place implicit limits on the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors in the process. Presidents with stronger non-legislative powers, such as the power to appoint the prime minister, dissolve the cabinet, or dissolve the assembly can intervene directly in the process of government formation. The legislative parties will seek to propose a cabinet that is more acceptable to the president and reduce the likelihood that they will use their dissolution powers.

Presidents with stronger legislative powers also reduce the complexity of the bargaining process. Presidents are co-executive actors in semi-presidential systems and will govern alongside the cabinet as both try to satisfy the policy preferences of their voters. Rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will understand this and seek to limit their proposed cabinets to the set that can govern in relative harmony with the president. If a cabinet is appointed that has a completely divergent legislative agenda from that of the president then it increases the likelihood of conflict between the president and the legislature. Presidents can use their powers of veto or delay to disrupt the government legislation, or generally act to impede the cabinet’s legislative agenda as was the case during the period of cohabitation in France between 1986 and 1988.

In sum, when presidents have greater powers the range of potential governments is reduced to the set that will be more likely to be stable and are able to implement its legislative agenda. The chart below shows the effect that presidential powers have on the likelihood that coalition bargaining will end on a given day. At low levels of presidential powers (those that receive a score of 2 on the Shugart-Carey index) the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner is increased by around 50 percentage points in semi-presidential systems. However, when presidents are more powerful (those that receive a score of 8) the likelihood of government formation ending sooner is increased by 120 percentage points.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on presidential powers.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations.

Presidential partisanship and coalition bargaining

Some studies of semi-presidentialism, particularly those that examine cabinet composition, begin from the premise that the president has both a mandate and preferences that diverge from those of their party. This is apparent in those studies which view the appointment of non-partisan ministers to the cabinet as an indicator of presidential influence. Others have argued that presidents have large incentives to act in a more partisan manner. Party organisations provide campaigning support for presidential candidates and presidents that have a base of support in the legislature are more likely to be able to fulfil the policy preferences of their voters. In some instances, it has been argued that legislative parties in semi-presidential systems have become ‘presidentialised’ with the presidential candidate able to set the agenda for the party as a whole. Following the presidentialisation logic, it can be argued that the president will be more likely to see a cabinet proposal that includes their party as more acceptable than one that doesn’t. Other rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will also concede that such a proposal is more sustainable if it avoids a period of unstable cohabitation.

The complexity of coalition bargaining will therefore be lower when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position in the legislature. When the president’s party is a member of a greater proportion of minimal winning coalitions the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors is more easily identifiable. Therefore, when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position, the duration of coalition bargaining will be reduced.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations

 

The chart above shows the effect of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party which is measured by the Shapley-Shubik Index (the SSI indicates the proportion of minimal winning coalitions in the legislature to which the president’s party is pivotal). As is clear from the chart, the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner rather than later increases along with the bargaining power of the president’s party. To give an example of this relationship, in Poland, the first government to form after the inauguration of the SLD president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was an SLD-PSL coalition that took just 12 days to negotiate in 1996. The SLD’s bargaining power was 0.41 on the SSI at the time, meaning that it was a pivotal player in around 41 percent of possible coalitions. Following the 1997 general election, the SLDs bargaining power was reduced to 0.22 and government formation lasted 40 days resulting in the formation of an AWS-UW coalition.

Implications

The results of my research point to the systemic influence of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining. Presidents with greater powers can wield more influence over cabinet formation and other parties in the system adjust their own behaviour and expectations to account for presidential preferences. A further implication of the study is that presidential partisanship matters. Contrary to some studies which assume presidents are almost non-partisan actors, the results presented here indicate that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success.

Thomas Sedelius and Jonas Linde – Democracy and Government Performance: Parliamentarism, Premier-Presidentialism, President-Parliamentarism, and Presidentialism

This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, and Jonas Linde, University of Bergen. It is a summary of their co-authored article that was recently published in Democratization. The full text article is free to download here.

Do semi-presidential regimes perform worse than other regime types? Following the classical argument once raised by Juan J. Linz (1990; 1994) that presidentialism and semi-presidentialism are less conducive to democracy than parliamentarism, a number of studies have empirically analysed the functioning and performance of semi-presidentialism. With the notable exception of Elgie (2011), however, there is a lack of large-N studies where democracy and government performance are actually measured across the two subtypes of semi-presidentialism (premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes). Robert Elgie’s systematic and comprehensive study offers several important findings on the performance of two types of semi-presidentialism, but it does so in isolation from parliamentary and presidential regimes. Our study is an attempt to address this gap in the literature.

By using indicators on regime performance and democracy from a dataset containing 173 countries, we examine the performance records of premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes in relation to parliamentarism and presidentialism.

Guided by Linz’s argument on the “perils of presidentialism”, and by Matthew S. Shugart and John M. Carey’s (1992) proposition that president-parliamentary regimes are more perilous to democracy than other regime types, we test three basic hypotheses.

H1: Parliamentarism performs better than other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance.

H2: Premier-presidentialism performs better than president-parliamentarism and presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.

H3: President-parliamentarism performs on a par with, or worse, than presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.

For measuring democracy, we select four frequently used indicators: Freedom House’s index of civil liberties and political rights and Polity IV combined, Polity IV on its own, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, and the Executive Constraints indicator from Polity IV, which refers to the extent of institutionalized constraints on the decision-making powers of chief executives. For measuring government performance, we use the Government Effectiveness indicator from the Worldwide Governance Indicators, the Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, the Empowerment Rights Index from CIRI Human Rights Data Project, and the Human Development Index from UNDP.

Following a series of descriptive reports, we run some basic multivariate analyses with a conventional set of controls including GDP/capita, population size, ethnic fractionalization, proportional representation, and different world regions.

Overall, our findings do not support the proposition that parliamentarism performs better than all other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance (H1). Rather we observed a pattern where premier-presidentialism performs almost as good – and on some measures even better – as parliamentary regimes. Neither the measures of democracy nor the measures of government performance show significantly better records for parliamentary regimes than for premier-presidential ones. This indicates that a parliamentary constitution with an indirectly elected president does not necessarily go along with better political performance than a premier-presidential one with a popularly elected but weak or medium weak president. Thus, to the extent that we think about semi-presidentialism in terms of premier-presidential regimes, we have reasons to question strong propositions about the “perils of semi-presidentialism”.

However, the picture certainly looks different with regard to president-parliamentary regimes. While premier-presidential regimes are closer to parliamentary regimes, president-parliamentary regimes display performance records more similar to pure presidentialism, and it performs even worse on most indicators (H2, H3). When it comes to the level of democracy, the only regime type to perform significantly worse than the parliamentary one – on four separate measures and with conventional controls – is the president-parliamentary regime type. The differences in terms of government performance are less pronounced. Although there is a tendency of slightly poorer performance by presidential-parliamentary regimes also in terms of government performance, and significantly so on one indicator, our results demonstrate that the type of constitutional system seems to affect democracy more strongly than government performance.

Shugart and Carey’s general recommendation to stay away from the president-parliamentary form of government certainly finds support in our data. In our study, we mostly refrain from making claims about causal mechanisms behind the observed pattern. However, we allow some general comments on the importance of presidential powers in relation to the four regime types. We show how variation in presidential powers follow closely the four regime types – weakest among the parliamentary regimes and strongest among the president-parliamentary regimes. We know that case studies on e.g. post-Soviet countries where the system has shifted from president-parliamentary to premier-presidential constitutions provide additional support to the negative impact of president-parliamentarism on democracy. For instance, Elgie and Moestrup (2016) show that reduced presidential powers and a shift to a more balanced semi-presidential system have been associated with better democracy records in e.g. Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. A general trend among the post-Soviet countries is that the presidents have used their control over the administration to curb the opposition and thereby directing the trajectory of constitutional developments in their own favor. The outcome has been increased power of already powerful presidents – a straight road to the consolidation of autocracy.

Our study is limited to the extent that it draws on cross-sectional data only, and we acknowledge the need for more sophisticated analyses. In addition, the study can make no valid claims of having disentangled endogeneity challenges regarding institutions and political outcomes. Yet, we reveal a general pattern with regard to the four regime types on performance. Based on our findings, we claim that democratic performance is likely to be better with a parliamentary or premier-presidential form of government. If the most positive accounts about semi-presidentialism are relevant, such as executive flexibility, power-sharing, and a uniting president, those are most likely to be identified under the premier-presidential form of government. Our data give no support for general recommendations to avoid dual executives or popularly elected president with limited powers.

Finally, and well in line with more recent scholarship, we argue that discussions about the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism should include the distinction between its sub-categories as well as considering dimensions of presidential power.

References

Elgie, Robert. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Elgie and Sophia Moestrup (Eds.). Semi-Presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Linz, Juan J. “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 1 (1990): 51-69.

Linz, Juan J. “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference?” In: Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. (Eds.) The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 3-87.

Shugart, Matthew S. and John M. Carey. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Thomas Sedelius is Associate Professor in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research covers semi-presidentialism, political institutions, transition, democratisation, and East European politics. His work on semi-presidentialism has appeared in journals such as Democratization, Government and Opposition, and East European Politics, and also include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.

Jonas Linde is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, Norway. His research has dealt with different aspects of political support, perceptions of corruption, quality of government, e-government and post-communist democratization. Linde’s works have been published in journals such as Governance, European Journal of Political Research, International Political Science Review, Political Studies, Government Information Quarterly and Government and Opposition.

Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

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[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

Bulgaria – Who got what in Borisov III cabinet?

About one month after the general election held on March 26, a new government formally took office in Bulgaria on May 4. The post-election negotiations were led by Boyko Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which has emerged once again as the largest party in the fourth consecutive election since 2009. In fact, since the party first competed in a national poll in 2009, GERB and PM Borisov have spent only one year in opposition between May 2013 and October 2014.

As anticipated, a majority coalition was forged between GERB and the United Patriots (UP) alliance, which brings together Bulgaria’s three main players of the far right: the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), and Ataka. Separately, the three parties have proved instrumental to maintaining both GERB- (in 2009 and 2014) and BSP-led governments (in 2013) in power without directly participating in government. This time around, due to their ability to unite ahead of the 2016 presidential election and support a common candidate, the nationalists are formally represented in cabinet.

Technically, the government has a mere one-seat majority, as the two coalition partners have 122 deputies between themselves in the 240-member National Assembly. Nevertheless, the ruling parties may be able to count on the more or less explicit parliamentary support of Volya, a new anti-establishment party founded by businessman Veselin Mareshki, which won 12 seats in the March election. A first indication in this regard was the investiture vote held on May 4, which the government won by 134 votes to 101, as Volya MPs voted alongside GERB and the United Patriots.

Portfolio allocation

Figure 1 compares the share of legislative seats the two partners contribute to the governing coalition with their portfolio payoffs. Out of 21 posts, GERB retained 17, including the PM, while UP obtained four posts. As kingmakers in the government formation process, the United Patriots were expected to demand a high price for their participation in cabinet. As far as the numerical payoffs are concerned, though, they received one portfolio less than their proportional share of the cabinet prize (if a purely proportional divisor method like Sainte-Laguë or Hare-Niemeyer were used to translate their seat contribution into cabinet posts). That said, removing the temporary portfolio in charge of Bulgaria’s 2018 EU Presidency from GERB’s share of ministerial posts results in perfect seat proportionality in portfolio allocation. Thus, the distribution of ministries may have taken into account the long-term prospects of the governing coalition and the need to underline the government’s pro-EU and pro-NATO stance ahead of the 2018 EU Presidency despite the presence of the Eurosceptic and pro-Russian (as far as Ataka is concerned) United Patriots in government. Moreover, an entire portfolio devoted to the EU Presidency is also consistent with the centrality of EU-related domestic and external policies highlighted in GERB’s 2017electoral manifesto.

Figure 1. Seat shares and portfolio allocation in Borisov III cabinet

The slight underpayment of the United Patriots may also reflect GERB’s dominant position within the party system and the decline in the nationalist vote compared to the 2014 general election. In fact, with the exception of Volya’s entry in parliament, the only parties that gained votes and seats in the 2017 election were the mainstream GERB and BPS, which dominate the right and left side of the political spectrum. Moreover, given the consensus on UP key demands such as increasing public spending and curbing immigration during the campaign, reaching a compromise with the nationalists may have been less of a complex bargain to strike.

In terms of policy areas, the United Patriots received two out of four deputy prime ministerships, along with the defence, economy, and environment portfolios. Krasimir Karakachanov (VMRO), the UP candidate in the 2016 presidential poll, cumulates the deputy prime ministership with the defence portfolio. One of his main priorities is to bring back compulsory military service, despite GERB’s reluctance to commit to anything more than “encouraging” voluntary military service in the governing programme. Valeri Simeonov (NFSB leader), who is deputy PM in charge of economic and demographic policy, has already faced calls for resignation after he downplayed a Nazi salute scandal that led to the resignation of an UP deputy minister. The economy portfolio is occupied by Emil Karanikolov, who was nominated by Ataka, while Neno Dimov, a former deputy environment minister during 1997-2001 who recently described global warming as a fraud, is the new environment minister.

GERB has kept the remaining 17 posts, including two deputy PMs. Most of these positions are occupied by ministers from previous GERB governments. Some of them have returned to the same posts they occupied in November 2016, when the government stepped down. This is the case for Tomislav Donchev (deputy PM), Vladislav Goranov (Minister of Finance), Ivaylo Moskovski (Minister of Transports), Temenuzhka Petkova (Minister of Enery), Nikolina Angelkova (Minister of Tourism) and Krasen Kralev (Minister of Youth and Sports). Others were promoted from the team of previous ministers or from the leadership of state agencies. Overall, the similarity with Boyko Borisov’s previous team has strengthened the expectations that “the status quo won” and that the country will receive “more of the same” while the GERB-UP coalition is in power.

Gender balance

Gender equality is not the strongest feature of PM Borisov’s third cabinet. Women hold only five out of 21 posts. The United Patriots did not nominate any women for their ministries. Most of the prestigious posts controlled by GERB went to men, including the ministries of the Interior, Finance, Labour, Health, Agriculture, Education, and Regional Development. That said, a few exceptions exist. Former justice minister Ekaterina Zakharieva was promoted as deputy PM and assigned the foreign affairs portfolio. She was succeeded at the Ministry of Justice by Tsetska Tsacheva, GERB’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Both women had previously held important political roles: the former was President Plevneliev’s Chief of Staff and served as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed during 2013-2014; while the latter served twice as Speaker of the National Assembly while GERB was in power (2009-2013 and 2014-2017). Former women ministers in Borisov’s previous cabinet picked up the other three portfolios in Energy, Tourism, and the temporary ministry in charge of the 2018 EU Presidency. On the whole, while this is a far cry from a parity government, at least women were not exclusively allocated stereotypically “feminine” or low-profile portfolios.

  Figure 2. Women and independent ministers in Bulgarian cabinets (1991-2017).                                                       Source: Cabinet composition data from Database on WHO GOVERNS in Europe; European Journal of Political Research Political Data Yearbook (Bulgaria); Wikipedia (Bulgarian pages)

Figure 2 shows that the current cabinet does not stand out from his predecessors. Since 1991, the percentage of women in Bulgarian cabinets has not exceeded 35%. In fact, it was during PM Borisov’s first term in government that the number of women in government increased from well below 20% to more than one third of cabinet members. This time around, though, women make up less than one quarter of cabinet members. As we can see from Figure 2, a significant number of Bulgarian ministers continue to be recruited from outside the parliament and political parties, partly as a result of enduring distrust in politicians and state institutions.

New president-cabinet relations

The return of GERB and PM Borisov to power is also likely to change the working relations between the head of state and the new executive. As it is known, Bulgaria’s third consecutive snap poll was triggered by the 2016 presidential election, as PM Borisov stepped down after GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was defeated by Rumen Radev, the non-party candidate supported by BSP. Although the presidency is not a particularly important asset for running the government, the prime minister speculated the moment to prevent the Socialist Party from capitalising on their electoral victory in the long run.

Since President Radev, a former air force commander, ran in the election as a non-partisan candidate supported by BPS, the relations with the GERB-led government should not be labelled as cohabitation. That said, the level of conflict between the president and the government can escalate even outside periods of cohabitation. For example, President Plevneliev, who also run for office as a non-partisan candidate supported by GERB, constantly used his constitutional powers to put pressure on the Socialist-backed Oresharski government during 2013-2014.

Like his predecessor, President Radev seems to take a keen interest in electoral reform. In early April, while government formation negotiations were in full swing and the Gerdzhikov caretaker government was still in office, the president was involved in a controversy about the drafting of legislation limiting the voting right of Bulgarians living abroad. The caretaker government had no attributions in setting policy but the scandal intensified when officials from the Ministry of Justice claimed that the proposed amendments to the electoral legislation had been drafted in meetings with the president and his advisers. President Radev did not deny his involvement and argued that despite lacking formal powers of legislative initiative, he sees it as his duty to get involved when issues “particularly important to society and national security” are at stake.

To a certain extent, the voting bill rights episode may reflect the president’s lack of political experience. At the same time, it could also indicate his readiness to clash with political actors if necessary. PM Borisov’s plan to introduce a majority run-off system to elect all members of the National Assembly could provide such a motivation. GERB’s electoral reform proposals are in line with the three-question referendum held in November 2016. While the referendum results were not validated, the turnout was high enough to force the parliament to discuss and vote on the referendum matter. As the party that would have the most to gain from a majoritarian system, GERB is alone in supporting the adoption of the majority runoff rule for all 240 constituencies. All other parties, including the United Patriots coalition partners, are in favour of a mixed electoral system. President Radev argued against a 100% majoritarian vote as well. Thus, cohabitation or not, the GERB-UP coalition and the president/cabinet relations may soon reach the end of their honeymoon.

France – Macron and Cohabitation: Don’t Worry About It

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron topped the poll at the first round of the French presidential election. This was in line with the polls, but it marked a shift in established French politics. Since 1981, elections have been won by candidates of the mainstream left or the right. These candidates have either immediately dissolved the legislature and returned a supportive majority, or they have won such a majority at the legislative elections that since 2002 have been held a month after the presidential election. The bottom line is that French presidents since 1981 have effectively begun their term in office with majority support in the legislature.

Macron is different because he is a centrist. He is also different because he does not have an established political party backing him. His movement is called en Marche! (or On The Move!). Macron is likely to win the second round of the presidential election. However, he has not yet chosen en Marche! candidates for the legislative elections that take place on 11 and 18 June. There are 577 seats to be elected at these elections. This has led to fears or speculation that Macron will not win a legislative majority in the June elections. Worse, it has led to claims that Macron would immediately be faced with a period of cohabitation. In this context, it is worth thinking a little about what is meant by cohabitation and why Macron is unlikely to have to worry about it.

Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different and opposing parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet at all. France provides the archetypal examples of cohabitation. Here, it has occurred three times – 1986-88, 1993-95 and 1997-2002. Cohabitation occurs because a party or coalition opposed to the president has an absolute majority in the legislature. This forces the president to appoint a PM and government that has the support of that majority and, therefore, that is also opposed to the president. The president is alone in the Council of Ministers without any supporters.

In this context, it is also worth thinking a little about what cohabitation doesn’t involve. It isn’t the situation where the president has formed a governing coalition that includes his supporters, perhaps including the prime minister, but where relations with the legislative majority are difficult, and where the president is unable to pass legislation in exactly the form that she wants. In other words, a weak, constrained, or even legislatively emasculated president is not necessarily a cohabitation president.

Cohabitation, therefore, is a very specific situation. It is clearly observable. Here is a list of all cohabitations that have ever occurred.

So, assuming Macron is elected president on 7 May, will he face a period of cohabitation six weeks later following the legislative elections? Matthew Shugart has convincingly argued that he will not. I agree. No period of cohabitation has never occurred when a presidential election has been followed by such a quick honeymoon legislative election. (In Portugal, the January 1991 presidential election was followed by the October 1991 legislative election. So, it is questionable whether this was a honeymoon election at all. Also, there was cohabitation prior to the presidential election, after the presidential election, and the legislative election confirmed the period of cohabitation. So, the political context was very different. A similar point applies to the Czech Republic after the January 2013 presidential election.) Cohabitation just doesn’t happen under the circumstances that will soon occur in France. So, don’t worry about it.

This is not to say, though, that any future President Macron will necessarily be supported by an en Marche! majority in the Assembly. French political history suggests various scenarios are possible in this regard.

The 1988 presidential election provides one possible scenario. Then, President Mitterrand dissolved the legislature immediately after his re-election. The Socialist party and their allies were returned with only a relative majority, but the divided opposition meant that the socialists were nonetheless able to govern effectively for the next five years without forming a coalition.

A further scenario is the one that occurred in 1958. This was the founding legislative election of the new Republic. It was before France had direct presidential elections. So, the context was very different. However, it did follow the referendum on the Constitution in September 1958, which was effectively a plebiscite on de Gaulle. At the November 1958 election the gaullist party was returned with only a relative majority. However, other deputies who were returned under a different party label were willing to support de Gaulle. My understanding is that some of these deputies were given the support of the gaullists at the election itself. So, they owed their election at least in part to de Gaulle. The government was a coalition, but the coalition also had the support of other deputies within the Assembly. Macron has promised to stand en Marche! candidates everywhere, but if he is not able to select 577 of them between 7 May and the elections, he may simply endorse existing right and left-wing deputies. With a cohort of en Marche! deputies and the support of these others, he is likely to reach a working majority. Even if he does stand candidates everywhere, he is still likely to endorse candidates of other parties at the second ballot of the legislative election in constituencies where his en Marche! candidates have been defeated. This could be difficult for Macron to manage and maintain, but it will not be cohabitation.

The other scenario is more straightforward. Macron may simply form a coalition with other parties. The Socialist party is likely to splinter after the election. There are also centrist and centre-right parties such as the UDI and Modem. With his en Marche! deputies, Macron may be able to build a coalition along the lines of the one forged by President Giscard d’Estaing in the mid-1970s. This could also be problematic to keep together in the long run, but it is not cohabitation.

So, parliamentary politics after the June legislative elections in France will be interesting and could be difficult for Macron, but commentators should not unduly worry about cohabitation occurring. Certainly, commentators should stop labelling something as cohabitation that isn’t.

Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić: the old and new strongman of Serbian politics

In this post, I examine the first and because of the results also final round of presidential elections in Serbia. The election was held on April 2 and Prime Minister Vučić won in this first round with predicted 54.9 % of the votes (with Sasa Jankovic coming as second with 16.2%) (see for the results Rudic 2017). This election comes roughly one year after the early parliamentary dissolution and the ensuing snap elections also won by Vučić. In the following, I will first briefly describe the process between the parliamentary and presidential elections, the campaign and motivations that might have driven Vučić’ candidacy. This is then followed by an assessment of the consequences of the results for the political process and the democratic development in Serbia.

In March 2016, the Serbian President – then Tomislav Nikolić – dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) and called for early elections (the third in four years). The reasons for the dissolution that I described in an earlier blog post discussing the parliamentary elections apply surprisingly well again and show the motivation why Vučić ran as candidate for the presidency.

Similar to the snap parliamentary elections last spring, the run for president by Vučić is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One main motive for the 2016 snap election was pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016). But considering the results of the early parliamentary elections, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. The SNS lost 27 seats in parliament and was far off by the projected +50% result (Pavlović 2017, 55). Even more important was a newly emerging opposition that was virtually non-existent or heavily discredited prior to the 2016 election. As Prelec (2016) has pointedly argued: “Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia”. This opposition consists now of an even more diverse group ranging from far-right to progressive movements. But still 48.2 percent of the votes guaranteed Vučić and the SNS a strong position, albeit within a coalition government he formed with some delay in August 2016. Many observers, including me, assumed that the new and old Prime Minister could continue his “domestic and foreign policy course [..] enacting the political and economic changes required for membership in the European Union, while simultaneously seeking closer relations with Russia.” (Brunwasser 2017)

But then something unexpected happened. Several viable candidates outside of the SNS influence emerged and made the presidency suddenly a possible veto point for Vučić’s plans of political leadership. Among possible contestants the most promising where Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli (an alias used by a satirical campaign) and the former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.  Vučić’s solution to the problem was running for president by himself. Next to the obvious threat of a loss of power Boban Stojanović, Fernando Casal Bértoa (2017) named 2 further reasons why he decided to do so, “the temptation of ‘illiberal democracy’” and “little significant change in terms of his [Vučić] capacity to influence policy or exert power”. In particular, the second argument needs some clarification. Contrary to what a variety of outlets reported, we should be careful when we characterize the presidency in Serbia as “largely symbolic” (Brunwasser 2017). Depending on the party majorities and the actors occupying the main posts within the executive, the assessment of intra-executive relations varies dramatically. One example would be the comparative case of the presidency of Boris Tadić. During his first term – also a period of cohabitation – he was often described as inactive. This however changed dramatically when his Democratic Party (DS) won the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary election. In his double role as chair of the party and president of the country he wielded enormous political influence and clearly dominated intra-executive relations. Mirko Cvetković as Prime Minister was however highly respected and his term and cabinet broke for a short time the unfortunate tradition of frequent cabinet reshuffles and snap elections.

After Sunday’s election and the landslide victory of Vučić, we can expect a similar development for Vučić’s presidency, when it comes to the part about the president’s dominance over the prime minister. He will influence the political landscape more than his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. Vučić will also aim for stability but this stability will actually mean something entirely different: stabilizing in this case will result in an even firmer and more authoritarian grasp on power in his bid for even more. Shortly after the election results were published, demonstrations against Vučić started all across Serbia and the organizers in several cities announced that they plan to continue their protest against election fraud, partisanship of media outlets and Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies.

Literature

Brunwasser, Matthew (2017): Serbia’s Prime Minister Projected to Win Presidency, Consolidating Control, in: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/europe/serbia-aleksandar-vucic-president-elections.html

Pavlović, Dušan (2017): Serbian Presidential Elections, in: Contemporary Southeastern Europe, in: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/sites/default/files/papers/pavlovic_serbian_elections_2016.pdf

Prelec, Tena: Serbian parliamentary election 2016: A gamble that almost backfired, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/04/26/serbian-parliamentary-election-2016-a-gamble-that-almost-backfired

Rudic, Filip (2017): Vucic Wins Serbian Presidential Elections, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vucic-wins-serbian-presidential-elections-04-02-2017-1
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2017): Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/04/serbias-prime-minister-just-became-president-whats-wrong-with-this-picture/?utm_term=.8cdfe26a5d7e

Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2016): There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

Republic of Macedonia – Problems of government formation

In a blog post in December 2016 about the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Macedonia[1] I already chose a pessimistic tone about a swift and stable coalition formation. The events since then have confirmed this pessimistic outlook. In the following I will briefly describe the problems preceding the election results and constitutional provisions regarding government formation. This is followed by an analysis of the coalition talks and the current crisis following President Ivanov’s decision not to agree to the formation of a new social-democratic government under a new Prime Minister, the Social Democrat Zoran Zaev.

On December 11, 2016 the Republic of Macedonia held parliamentary elections – after rescheduling two times (KAS 2016). The European Union had forced the different political groups to settle their conflict with the Pržino Agreement (European Commission 2015) and the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Gruevski was accused of being responsible for spying endeavors, allegedly using the information in the tapes to enhance his economic status and his personal political power. To further stoke up the conflict President Ivanov even pardoned some public figures accused in the wiretapping scandal – a decision he later revoked (see e.g. Casule 2016).

The parliamentary elections were supposed to solve this crisis but resulted in a narrow win of 51 seats (in the 120 seats parliament) by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and its chair, the former Prime Minister Gruevski. They were closely followed by the oppositional Social Democrats (SDSM) with 49 seats (Sekularac/Casule 2016). Art. 90 of the constitution stipulates a 10-days deadline within the president must ask the representative of the winning party to hold coalition talks. President Ivanov did just that and Gruevski had 20 days to organize a coalition majority to win the investiture vote in parliament. But the negotiations with the three ethnic-Albanian parties did not result in any coalition agreement with Gruevski. Instead Zoran Zaev and the Social Democrats could find support with the three minority parties and agreed on a coalition. But President Ivanov did not give Zaev the constitutionally required mandate for a new government (Verseck 2017).

President Ivanov based his decision officially on – what he calls a threat “of the unity of the country as the ethnic Albanian parties want greater rights for their community and a broader use of the Albanian language” (Dzhambazova 2017). This is a particularly odd claim as the ‘leading’ Social Democrats within this coalition are still mainly ethnic Macedonians. But further reasons that were listed that demands made by the Albanic minority parties concerning the official language and the status of the minority are allegedly unconstitutional (Verseck 2017). These are perceived – by some – as treats to the unity of the nation and an interference by another country.

Prior to the start of the coalition talks, these parties were determined to strengthen their claim on enhancing minority rights and better representation of Albanian demands. Among these demands were a constitutional amendment to recognize both Albanian and Macedonian as bilingual languages and “’equal participation’ in the country’s army, security, intelligence and judicial branches and a say in negotiations with Greece regarding a dispute over the country’s name.” (Testorides 2016) It is not clear how much of these demands will be met by the Social Democrats but Zaev presented his platform during a news conference. During this he explained that part of the coalition agreement was the “official use of Albanian and of other languages of ethnic minorities” (Marusic 2017). He also confirmed that he had met with constitutional experts and got their opinion on different aspects of a new language law. The overall sentiment was his intent to inform the reeling parts of the Macedonian population about his ideas.

Most observers agree that President Ivanov’s decision to withhold the mandate for government formation was, as Florian Bieber put it for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “an effort to ‘ethnicize’ a party conflict” (RFE/RL 2017). Even Federica Mogherini (Foreign Policy Chief European Union) has cautioned President Ivanov and reportedly asked him to “scale down the rhetoric” (Dzhambazova 2017). Her valid fear is that this inter-state conflict might turn into something large, affecting the whole – geopolitically sensitive – region. At the same time the Russian Foreign Ministry has declared its support for President Ivanov’s decision (Dzhambazova 2017).

Others have argued in a similar direction highlighting the instrumentalization of this political conflict. Not least, a lot of representatives within the VMRO-DPMNE have a lot to lose when facing an actual investigation and/or prosecution. This is something we can expect as soon as they lose power. What President Ivanov declared as necessary to guarantee the unity of the nation was called a “coup” (The Economist 2017) by the Social Democrats. Both sides seem to be determined to stand their ground: former Prime Minister Gruevski has called the ‘people’ to defend their state on state television (N1 TV 2017), opposition leader Zaev at the same time called for a peaceful transfer of power (Marusic 2017).

The influence of the European Union at this critical stage will be decisive, it is however unclear what strategy official EU representatives will pursue: today, March 22, Johannes Hahn (Commissioner European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations) will head to Skopje giving his input on the solution of the crisis (Hahn 2017). This will most probably be one of many attempts that might even lead to another round of parliamentary elections.

References:
Casule, Kaev (2016): Macedonian president pardons 56 in wiretap scandal, U.S. raps move.  April 13, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-wiretap-usa-idUSKCN0XA1ZB (last accessed June 5, 2016)

Dzhambazova, Boryana: Macedonia sinks deeper into post-election limbo, in: http://www.politico.eu/article/post-election-limbo-deepens-macedonian-stand-off-gjorge-ivanov/ (last accessed March 19, 2017)

European Commission (2015): Agreement in Skopje to overcome political crisis. July 15, in:
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/hahn/announcements/agreement-skopje-overcome-political-crisis_en (last accessed June 5, 2016).

Hahn, Johannes (2017): Twitter Feed, https://twitter.com/eu_near/status/843796060745162752 (last accessed March 20, 2017)

KAS (2016): The Republic of Macedonia’s 2016 Parliamentary Elections Handbook, in: http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_21036-1442-61-30.pdf?161201152443 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Marusic, Sinisa Jakov (2017): Zaev Unveils Platform, Vows to Respect Macedonia’s Constitution, in: www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-s-zaev-reveals-new-govt-platform-03-10-2017 (last accessed March 19, 2017)

N1 TV (2017): Gruevski: Država napadnuta, potrebno je da je narod odbrani, in: http://rs.n1info.com/a236089/Svet/Region/Gruevski-Drzava-napadnuta-potrebno-je-da-je-narod-odbrani.html (last accessed March 19, 2017)

RFE/RL (2017): http://www.rferl.org/a/macedonia-analysis-albanian-law-political-crisis-gruevski-zaev-ivanov-vmro/28358253.html

Riedel, Sabine. 2005. Die Erfindung der Balkanvölker. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Sekularac, Ivana/Casule Kole (2016): Macedonia’s nationalists win election: official results. December 25, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-election-result-idUSKBN1412L2 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Testorides, Konstantin (2017): Macedonia’s Ethnic Albanians Want Nation Declared Bilingual. January 7, in: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/macedonias-ethnic-albanians-nation-declared-bilingual-44621387 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Verseck, Keno (2017): Wahlfälscher, Erpresser, Provokateure, in: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/mazedonien-machtkampf-droht-die-gesamte-region-zu-erfassen-a-1138223.html (last accessed March 19, 2017)

Notes

[1] In this post the constitutional name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ is used (as it is accepted by the majority of UN member states). For the Greek-Macedonian naming dispute, see e.g. Riedel (2005, 141ff.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential power and the Austrian presidential election

In April 2016, I was asked by the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, to provide some general thoughts on presidents and presidential power in the run up to the first round of the presidential election there. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was expected to do well and I was asked about how the role of the president might change if he won. The article in Die Presse summarised my thoughts and is available in German here. With the re-run run-off election due to be held on 4 December and with the FPÖ likely to win, here is the full transcript of the comments I returned. They seem as relevant now as before except that the traditional situation in Austria is perhaps even more likely to change if Hofer is elected than was envisaged in April. Given the context of the election, if he wins he may wish to flex his presidential powers. Moreover, the presidency itself is also perhaps more likely to be the subject of controversy.

  • Which of the powers of a president have the greatest political significance in your view?

Presidential powers are always dependent upon context, particularly the party political context. For example, the power to dissolve parliament seems like a really important constitutional power. However, if the president’s party is poorly placed to do well at the election or if an election has been held only recently and another election is not going to change the situation, then the power to dissolve the legislature becomes almost a dead power. In effect, the president cannot use it. The same goes for the power to call a referendum. Presidents tend to call referendums when they know they are going to win them. If they are worried that they will lose, then they rarely risk calling one in the first place. So, the power in effect disappears.

Two important powers are the power to appoint and dismiss the PM. The power to appoint the PM seems very important. However, as before, often presidents have little choice. The election may have returned a party or coalition with a legislative majority. The party or coalition is likely to have its own Chancellor candidate. So, the president can often do little more than choose the PM that the parties have already agreed on. Only if there is a very fragmented party system, or if the government collapses and there is no clear alternative PM can the president exercise a personal influence. Clearly, this circumstance can arise, but it usually rare. By contrast, the power to dismiss the PM can be important. This situation can allow the president to take the initiative, especially if the PM is unpopular. The risk is that it brings the president into conflict with the parties in the legislature. Indeed, this power is one that is not recommended for young democracies.

  • Do you agree with the view that the actual power of a president depends on whether he controls (or is able to neutralize) parliament? Is it true that in a semi-presidential regime, a weak parliament is the precondition for a strong president?

Again, the exercise of power is a mix of constitutional powers and political context. France is the classic example here. In 1958 the constitutional powers of parliament were greatly reduced and by the mid-1960s the president was established as the main political leader of the country. So it looks as if a weak parliament was a necessary condition for a strong president. However, in France presidents have tended to be backed by a presidential majority in parliament. This majority has been loyal. The majority has not wanted to use any of parliament’s remaining powers to block the president. Even when the majority has been opposed to the president during periods of cohabitation, power has simply shifted to the prime minister. Parliament has not become any stronger. So, yes, the constitution matters. Parliaments can have more or less powers in that regard. However, the relationship between presidents and parties is equally if not more important. In practice, a weak parliament is often the result of a particular party political context, just as much as if not more so than the constitutional situation itself. Of course, the flip side can occur too. If the party political context is confused, then parliament can become strong, usually viz. the PM and government, though, rather than the president. That said, if parliament uses it power to vote down a government, then the president can be called upon to make a choice about a new government.

  • If you assess the constitutional powers of the Austrian president, could he – given different political circumstances – become as strong an institutional figure as the French president? What would be necessary for this to happen?

Austria is a very unusual case. Iceland is perhaps the only other country like it in terms of the presidency. In both countries, the powers of the president are strong relative to most other semi-presidential countries. For example, the Austria president probably has more constitutional powers than the the French president. The Austrian president can dismiss the PM and government, whereas the French president, according to the constitution at least, cannot. In practice, though, the situations in the two countries are reversed. In Austria, the president is a pure figurehead and has almost always simply executed the decisions that the government and parties have wanted. True, some presidents have been more willing to criticize the government than others, but none has used their powers independently. By contrast, the French president is seen as the leader of the presidential majority in parliament. This means that the president has usually been able to appoint a loyal prime minister who will carry out the president’s wishes with the backing of the majority. As the leader of the majority, the president has also had the de facto power to change the PM even though this is not in the constitution, whereas the Austrian president has not exercised that power, even though it is in the constitution.

For the situation in Austria to change, the political context must change. Up to now, parties have not chosen candidates who are likely to see the presidency as an active institution. This can be seen in the age and profile of previous presidents and presidential candidates. They have tended to be elderly figures, who have often had an important party career in the past but who are no longer senior party decision-making figures. Alternatively, they have been largely independent figures who have been adopted by political parties. In neither case have they had the party political authority to act independently. In this context, it is not surprising that they have been figurehead presidents. Moreover, there is also the historical factor in Austria. This has weighed against the desire for an active presidency. However, the political context can always change. If the president were to come from outside the governing parties, then this could change the situation. The new president might feel that s/he has a mandate to act. Also, if there was now a mood for a more active presidency to address the country’s difficult issues, then a new president might feel justified in using his/her powers.

Let’s go back to the Icelandic case. Here, it was very common to hear that the president’s powers were lost. The president was a pure figurehead. Nothing would change that. Powers would never be used. However, during the financial crash the president vetoed government bills on two occasions, leading to two referendums. Suddenly, the powers that some people had assumed had been lost came back. In fact, they had never gone away. It was just that the political context had changed and now the president was in a position to use them. The context in Austria may change too.

  • Is there any institutional aspect or authority that makes the Austrian president extraordinary in comparison with other European presidents (e.g. the right to freely choose the prime minister?

Other countries have this power. For example, the French president has the power to nominate the PM freely. It is worth noting that in contrast to some countries the Austrian president does not have long list of clearly defined executive powers. If the new president wanted to be more active and if the president was from a party that was not in government, there may be the potential for the constitutional powers of the president and government to be disputed. In this event, the courts might be called upon the interpret the constitution. This has happened previously in countries like Romania and Poland. So, the presidency could become a source of constitutional debate. Again, though, this would require a change of political context.

  • Do you think that directly elected presidents are (ceteris paribus) more powerful/influential than indirectly elected presidents, or are other factors (such as the configuration of the party system or the authority of the office-holders) of greater significance?

Direct election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a strong president. It is true that directly elected presidents tend to be more powerful than indirectly elected ones. For example, the directly elected French and Romanian presidents are more active than the indirectly elected German or Latvian presidents. That said, there are some very weak directly elected presidents. Austria is one case. Ireland and Slovenia are others. There are also times when indirectly elected presidents have been influential in countries like Italy. So, direct election is not a guarantee of power. Moreover, if we look at Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which changed their constitution and shifted from an indirectly elected president to a directly elected president, we see that the role of the president scarcely changed pre- and post-direct election. In other words, direct election has not made much difference to the exercise of presidential power in either country.

Again, what matters in the mix of the constitutional situation and the political context. The combination of a directly elected president, an important set of constitutional powers, and a political context where the exercise of those powers is seen as both legitimate and desirable can lead to a very influential president. In practice, that combination of factors has been relatively rare in post-war Europe. France is the obvious case where they have combined on occasions. In most cases, though, even when there has been a directly elected president, then either the president has not enjoyed very many powers, or, more usually, the party political context has not been particularly conducive to the exercise of those powers at least in the long-term.