Category Archives: Latvia

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.

_______________________________________________________________________
A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Latvia – Party conflict and presidential initiative in government formation

ON 11 February 2016, the Latvian parliament voted in a new government under the leadership of Maris Kučinskis. Over the last years, I have written about Latvian president Andris Berzins’ activism in government formation on several occasions (see my previous posts on Latvia). Today’s blog post discusses the process of formation of the most recent government as well as the president’s role. While it differs from previous posts in so far as with Raimonds Vējonis there is a new president, there are some interesting similarities in the president’s response to party tactics and the preference for a prominent position of his (former) party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZSS).

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

After heading two Latvian governments since the beginning of 2014, Prime Minister Lajmdota Straujuma (Unity) resigned from office on 7 December 2015 after. A decrease of support for her leadership among parties and potential government reshuffle had been rumoured since late October following her dismissal of non-partisan transport minister Anrijs Matiss (and failure to quickly reappoint a successor), but intensified in the week preceding her resignation in conjunction with discussions about the 2016 budget and the upcoming congress of her Unity party. President Raimonds Vējonis was clearly dismayed by the developments and openly criticised government parties for failing to work to together better and avoid a collapse of the government.

Immediately after Straujuma’s resignation, parties and media began to speculate about potential successors. Although president Vējonis met with all parties to discuss proposals for the new government, it was universally acknowledged that Unity as the largest coalition party would lead the next government (the social-democratic Harmony Centre party holds the largest share of seats parliament, yet it is routinely shunned by other parties due to its affiliation with the sizeable ethnic Russian minority in the country). Even though Unity chairwoman Solvita Āboltiņa was part of her party’s delegation to the talks with the president and had even suggest herself as the new prime minister weeks before Straujuma’s eventual resignation, it soon became clear that she lacked sufficient support among Unity’s previous coalition partners. Both the National Alliance and – more significantly – the ‘Greens and Farmers Union’ (ZSS), which is not only the second largest coalition party but also the former party of president Vējonis, signalled that they would not be happy with Āboltiņa as prime minister. Thus, her party colleague, interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis – who had also been endorsed by Straujuma as a potential successor – emerged as Unity’s new potential candidate. However, as divisions within Unity widened, Kozlovskis announced only two days later that he would not be available for the role. Tensions between coalition parties increased when Unity refrained from offering any other candidates for prime minister except Āboltiņa (albeit only unofficially) and National Alliance and ZSS repeated their opposition to a government led by the Unity chairwoman.

Towards the end of December, particularly the ZSS was able to maneouvre itself into an advantageous position as it announced that it would not be in a coalition with either of the two smaller opposition parties, ‘Latvia from the heart’ and ‘Latvian Association of Region’. Either one could have replaced the National Alliance in the coalition and increased the ZSS share of portfolios. However, the support of both would have been needed to form a coalition of Unity and National Alliance without the ZSS. Furthermore, The fact that the ZSS had a former co-partisan in the presidential office meant that they could be relatively sure to be included in the new government. Although Vējonis refrained from openly taking sides, he publicly criticised Unity for failing to propose a(n agreeable) candidate for PM. Eventually, ZSS even announced to present its own candidate by late December to put pressure on Unity which responded by formally proposing Āboltiņa. After the ZSS eventually away off from formally proposing a candidate and merely flouted two names and Unity once again failed to agree on a potential candidate in addition to Āboltiņa, president Vējonis eventually announced that he would approach potential candidates himself in the new year.

The first candidates – finance minister Janis Reirs from Unity and Mayor of Valmiera, Janis Baiks (affiliated with Unity via a local party) – both declined to be nominated and other potential Unity candidates were unequivocally opposed by both ZSS and the National Alliance. Although Vējonis met with another potential Unity candidate, he eventually nominated ZSS’s nominee Maris Kučinskis on 13 January 2016, disregarding any potential opposition from Unity regarding this candidacy. The remainder of the government formation process can be described as relatively ‘uneventful’ with regard to negotiations between parties and the president’s involvement. However, the latter was largely predicated by the fact that Vējonis was hospitalised with a heart condition and operated on shortly after announcing Kučinskis’ nomination. The government then passed its vote of investiture in parliament on 11 February 2016.

The pattern of involvement by president Vējonis is quite similar to cabinet formation under his predecessor. Here, too, parties disagreed on the candidates for prime minister and/or the choice of potential (additional) coalition partners until the president took the initiative and rejected all candidates formally proposed by parties (which also tended to lack support among other potential coalition parties) and then approaching candidates on his own initiative. Overall, however, Vējonis appears to have been less active, leaving parties more leeway (yet not necessarily more time) in proposing candidates and sorting out their internal differences before taking the initiative himself. Furthermore, although Vējonis would have been in a position to force a cabinet under the leadership by his own ZSS (aided by the party’s generally advantageous position; see above), he gave Unity a second chance after the nomination of Āboltiņa failed to garner any support from the ZSS and the National Alliance. This leads to the question of whether the president is actually necessary/desirable in situations like these and if these were not better solved by parties alone. In this instance, a strongly partisan president (irrespective of party affiliation) might well have significantly delayed the formation of a government by nominating candidates without support from other parties. Vējonis tactics of waiting for the field of candidates to thin out naturally, gauge parties’ support for the various nominees and only take the initiative when deadlock likely saved Latvia a further month of fruitless negotiations. Furthermore, by maintaining the current coalition which elected him last year, his activism will likely not result in a significant decrease of support come the next presidential elections.

______________________________________________________________________________________________
The composition of new Latvian government is available at: whogoverns.eu

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).

__________________________________________
[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.

Latvia – Defence Minister Raimonds Vējonis elected as new president

On Wednesday, 3 June, Latvia’s Saeima met for a extraordinary session to elect a new president to succeed Andris Bērziņš. Deputies eventually chose defence minster Raimonds Vējonis as the new head of state, yet only after five rounds of voting and amid continued uncertainty whether Vejonis would be able to gather sufficient votes. While Vējonis has stronger ties with his party – the Greens and Farmers Union – than his soon-to-be predecessor Bērziņš, the role of the presidency is unlikely to change during his incumbency. However, given that he eventually won against Egils Levits, who was nominated by the Greens’ coalition partner, the election might well be an indicator of first cracks in the government.

latvian presidential election results_presidential-power

Latvia employs an interesting method of indirect presidential elections with a limited number of repeated run-offs and an absolute majority requirement. To be elected, the successful candidate needs at least 51 votes in the 101 seat parliament. If no candidate achieves the required majority in the first round of voting, a second round is held with all candidates, thereafter the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped and a new vote is held. If no candidate is elected in the fifth round of voting, the election is postponed and new candidates need to be nominated.

Until now, parliament has only once taken more than two rounds of voting to elect a new president. Apart from the inaugural election in 1993 candidates were even elected during the first round. In 1999, however, five rounds of voting proved inconclusive and new candidates had to be nominated. The protracted election of Vejonis is thus rather unusual, even though coalition parties have until now only twice nominated a common candidate (Ulmanis in 1993 and Zatlers in 2007) and the majority was thus less than clear.

The National Alliance had already openly speculated about nominating their own candidate, rather than coordinating with their coalition partners, when it was still unclear whether incumbent Bērziņš would run again. The Greens’ and Farmers Union on the other hand took longer to find a new candidate and it initially looked like Unity, the largest coalition partner, would also present its own candidate, yet eventually supported Vējonis (also because the party could not agree on candidate). The social-democratic Harmony Party nominated their MP Sergejs Dolgopolovs, yet due to the party’s close association with the ethnic Russian minority it was clear from the beginning that his candidacy would be unsuccessful. Given the fact that the National Alliance put forward their own candidate, at least some of Harmony’s votes on the other hand would be/were necessary for electing any candidate. Equally without chance was the candidate of the Association of Regions, former basketball star and businessman Martins Bondars. The ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ party did not nominate their own candidate and did not impose a whip on their seven deputies.

The results of the first three rounds of voting show that at least some Unity and Green deputies (23 and 21, respectively) did not vote for Vējonis but it is difficult to reconstruct whether they voted for Levits, voted against all candidates, or spoiled their ballot. Harmony’s candidate Dolgopolovs appears to have only received the votes of his co-partisans (the party holds 24 seats in the Saeima). Votes ‘against all’ increased continuously through the rounds and National Alliance leader Raivis Dzintars told the press that his party would vote against Vējonis. Thus, even after the fourth round of voting, it was not yet clear whether Vējonis would get a majority in the final round.

Vējonis will now serve four-year term starting 7 July. As he comes from the second largest coalition party, friendly relations between presidency and government can be expected to continue. Overall, he is likely to be less active than his predecessor-to-be Bērziņš, whose involvement in the formation of the last two governments is one of the reasons many Unity deputies opposed his potential re-election. Vējonis is not only more politically experienced and will thus be able to choose his battles more wisely, he also has better connections that will allow him to be active more effectively (as well as informally, away from of the public eye). The more interesting effect of this election will be on the dynamic within the governing coalition. Although Prime Minister Straujuma was quick to say that the conflict between the National Alliance and Unity/Greens and Farmers over the preidency would not affect the coalition, Saeima speaker and Unity leader Āboltiņa already speculated whether ‘a new government would be needed’ by the end of the year. Previous governments have not split over the election of a president, yet the fierceness of the contest is hitherto unprecedented, leaving room for a different development.

Last, there are two other interesting facts that should to be mentioned in the context of the presidential election. As in almost all democratic parliamentary republics, the election of a new president in parliament has brought up calls for introducing popular presidential elections. An opinion poll conducted by SDKS in May showed that 43% fully supported the introduction of direct elections and a further 27% moderately supported it – this is a 13% drop from last year, accompanied by an inverse change in the number of supporters of indirect election (11% tended to support, 6% fully supported; in 2014 6% tended to support, 1% fully supported). The presidential election was furthermore accompanied by a private initiative called ‘MansPrezidents.lv’ (‘My President’) which allowed citizens to ‘vote’ for potential presidential candidates in a bid to influence parliamentary decision-making and to highlight public interest in the presidency. Contrary to parliamentary results, the final winner of the contest was Martin Bondars – Raimonds Vējonis only placed 6th out of seven. Although the formation of broad public support for/opposition against candidates in indirect elections is not new (e.g. in the 2011 presidential election in Germany, the public largely supported Joachim Gauck over eventual winner Christian Wulff), this seems to be the first initiative of its kind and an interesting innovation in the context of indirect presidential elections.

________________________________________________________________________
The Latvia Public Broadcasting Service wrote a live blog in English during the election which can be accessed here: http://www.lsm.lv/en/article/politics/live-blog-closed-defense-minister-raimonds-vejonis-is-elected-as-latvias-next-president.a132150/

Latvia – President Bērziņš and the arithmetic of presidential re-election bids

During the last months, the possibility that Latvian president Andris Bērziņš will not be re-elected at the end of his first term this summer has been a recurrent topic of public debate in Latvia. Although the governing coalition – in which Bērziņš’ ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ is a major partner – holds significantly more than the required 51 votes to re-elect him, more and more government deputies have voiced their opposition to re-electing him for another term. Bērziņš has not yet publicly declared his intentions and until now there is no clear alternative candidate. Nevertheless, the debate highlights a recurring problem of Latvian coalition governance and showcases the arithmetic of presidential re-election bids in parliamentary systems.

Bērziņš first election in 2011 was overshadowed by the dissolution of the parliament by a referendum initiated by his predecessor, Valdis Zalters, following parties’ failure to agree on Zatlers’ re-election and parliament’s refusal to lift the immunity of an MP accused of corruption. Therefore, Zatlers’ re-election was unlikely from the start and Bērziņš – the only other candidate – won in the second round of voting with a 53:41 margin. Apart from his own party, however, only the social-democratic ‘Harmony Centre’ officially supported his candidacy and other parties decided not to impose a whip on its deputies, so that it is difficult to ascertain which other parties (or at least the majority of their deputies) eventually supported him. Even though no other candidates have officially been announced yet, this lack of clarity on his initial election does not make it easier for Bērziņš to decide whether or not to run again.

seat distribution latvia 2

The problems for Bērziņš lie both within the governing coalition and beyond. At first glance, it would seem likely that Bērziņš as a representative of the third largest party in parliament and the second largest in the coalition (commanding only 2 seats less than Prime Minister Straujuma’s ‘Unity’) should be re-elected to guarantee continued good relations between president and government. However, ‘Unity’ representatives still remember all too clearly Bērziņš’ unprecedented intervention in the formation of the first Straujuma cabinet (see also previous blog posts here & here), so that party leadership sees a possibility to select a more passive candidate. Furthermore, it is rumoured that senior party figures in Unity (including speaker and party leader Solvita Āboltiņa) have an interest in becoming president themselves. Yet as none of them currently has the full support of the Unity faction, the official party line is that it will support a candidate from another candidate to provide for a better sharing/separation of powers. Meanwhile the National Alliance (the third coalition) has openly speculated about nominating Egils Levits as their candidate for president. Levits, a judge at the European Court of Justice, former minister of justice and well-respected law professor and diplomat, might thereby be a candidate who would be able to draw votes from both government and opposition parties.

Eventually, the problems of agreeing on a common presidential candidate appears to be symptomatic for Latvian coalition governments. In previous presidential elections, government parties frequently fielded their own candidates only in two out of six managed to get a common candidate elected (Nikolenyi 2014). While the Latvian presidency is less powerful (not the least due to its indirect election), its shorter term length (3 years 1993-1999; 4 years 1999-present) makes it a more ‘speculative’ post which can be made subjected to political deals more easily. Furthermore, following president Zatlers successful post-presidency career (his – now defunct – ‘Reform Party’ won the second largest share of votes in the 2011 elections), the post has possibly also become more attractive to politicians who find themselves in the middle (rather than the end) or their political career.

President Bērziņš finds himself in a difficult situation. Leaders of parties have stated that they would wait for the president to make his intentions clear before announcing any candidates of their own or openly declaring support for his re-election. Even Bērziņš could convince at least some Unity deputies to support him, it seems unlikely that ‘Harmony Centre’, currently the largest of all parties in parliament (24/100 seats) and thus key to a victory without support from all government parties, would elect him again. Harmony’s opposition to Bērziņš is thereby not only linked to the president himself, but also to his party. On the one hand, party leader Urbanovics still resents Bērziņš for not providing more support in obtaining access to to classified information (a highly contentious issues given the party’s association with the ethnic Russian minority). On the other hand, Harmony was forced to concede committee seats to the ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ party due to a lack of support from the Union of Greens and Farmers. While Bērziņš’ re-election is not impossible, the fact that he has to ‘make the first move’ with incomplete information appears to be his biggest disadvantage.

…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).

******************
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
******************
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.

Latvia – New government passes vote of confidence

Following the parliamentary elections in October, which saw the ruling centre-right coalition confirmed in office, the Latvian parliament passed a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma last week. As the government consists of the same party coalition as before, the changes to the line-up have been small and no major policy changes can be expected. The renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers in the coalition makes a re-election of president Berzins likely.

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins nominated Prime Minister Straujuma to head the next government less than a week after the election. The continuation of the coalition between her “Unity” party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Berzin’s old party) and the National Alliance was the only viable option to form a government. Given the prevalence of centre-right parties and strong russophile connection of the social-democratic ‘Harmony’, the latter had no chance of being included despite winning the most seats.

Despite this constellation and some more resources to distribute (Unity had absorbed the ‘Reform Party’ founded by former president Valdis Zatlers which previously held 3 portfolios), the coalition talks experienced several deadlocks which prompted president Berzins to publicly announce deadlines by which a conclusion should be reached. The ministry for Environment Protection and Regional Development Ministry triggered one of the larger battles between parties during the coalition negotiations with both the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance (which, too, is reliant on voters ins more rural regions and held the ministry in the last government) keen to claim it. In the end, the National Alliance was successful yet had to accept the Union of Greens and Farmers’ board chairman as deputy minister. Furthermore, the Union of Greens and Farmers were given the Health Ministry as well as the post of parliament speaker which was previously held by Unity leader Solvita Aboltina.

Overall, only modest policy change can be expected from the government. The fact that Latvia will take over the presidency of the EU for the first half of 2015 means that some domestic reforms will be put on hold and the opposition, too, has little interest in exposing the government to criticism during this time of international (or at least European) focus on the country. A factor to watch remains the government’s policy with regard to same-sex partnerships. In 2005 parliament passed a bill that defined marriage as being between two people of the opposite sex and a draft for a new bill is currently in parliament. Yet two days after the government received approval by parliament, foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics came out as gay (receiving words of encouragement mostly from his foreign rather than domestic colleagues) and called for a framework that allowed all kinds of partnerships.

Last, the renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers as well as their now more prominent position in government (it only entered the coalition earlier this year when Straujuma was first elected Prime Minister due to pressure by president Berzins), appears to have secured his Berzins re-election in the next presidential elections (2015).

____________________________________________________________
 Composition of Straujuma II

Straujuma 2 composition

Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Unity)*
Minister for Economics: Dana Reizniece-Ozola (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Finance Jānis Reirs (Unity)
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Unity)*
Minister for Education and Science: Mārīte Seila (independent; nominated by Unity)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (National Alliance)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development: Kaspars Gerhards (National Alliance)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (Unity)*
Minister for Justice: Dzintars Rasnačs (National Alliance)
Minister for Health: Guntis Belēvičs (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers)*

* Member of previous government

Latvia – General election results confirm ruling coalition’s mandate

On 5 October 2014, Latvia held parliamentary elections whose results will allow the ruling centre-right coalition to stay in office. Following the snap elections of 2011, the elections now followed a shortened legislative term of three years (while the legislative term generally lasts four years, the constitution prescribes regular general elections in four-year intervals) and brought two new parties into parliament.

Party % of votes Seats Change
“Harmony” Socialdemocratic Party (“Saskaņa” sociāldemokrātiskā partija) 23.13% 24 -7
Unity (“VIENOTĪBA”) 21.76% 23 +3
Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) 19.62% 21 +8
National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-“Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) 16.57% 17 +3
For Latvia from the heart! (No sirds Latvijai) 6.88% 7 new
Latvian Association of Regions (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība) 6.55% 8 new
Others 4.83% 0
Total 100.00% 100

As in 2010 and 2011, the election winner was the socialdemocratic “Harmony Centre” party, yet as it is strongly linked to the Russian-speaking population and only left-of-centre party, it is unlikely to be included in the government. Compared to 2011, Harmony however lost 7 of its seats in the 100-seat assembly and the runner-up “Unity” of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma only won one seat less. Unity gained three seats, however, it ran a common list together the “Reform Party” founded by former president Zatlers (both parties still gained a combined seat count of 42 in the 2011 the last elections). Unity’s coalition partners – the “National Alliance” and the “Union of Greens and Farmers” – both increased their seat share as well, so that the coalition now controls 61 seats. The Union of Greens and Farmers had only been included in the government since January 2014 following pressure from president Andris Berzins. While it would be difficult to link Berzins interference with the Union’ political success, its new status as second-largest coalition partner will most likely secure his re-election next year.

The elections also brought two new parties in to parliament. The “Latvian Association of Regions” – created through a merger of two smaller parties – and “For Latvia from the Heart” (a genuinely new party under the leader ship of former state auditor Inguna Sudraba) both gained representation. While the former party – whose candidate for Prime Minister recently suggested to introduce popular presidential elections – still has chances to enter the government, “For Latvia from the Heart”s chances are rather slim. Throughout the campaign the party tried to maintain a neutral stance towards the Harmony Centre and indirectly campaigned for the votes of the Russian-speaking minority.

It is still unclear whether president Berzins will nominate Straujuma for Prime Minister again. Her nomination in January was widely interpreted as a way to put a more uncontroversial figure at the helm of the coalition after the centre-right coalition’s approval ratings had been in constant decline (see also here). Although she was Unity’s official candidate for Prime Minister, she lacks a strong support base in the party. Outgoing EU commission Andris Piebalgs (Unity) appears to have better chances for the job. He had already been a preferred candidate of the president in January 2014 and might – given that Latvia will take over the EU presidency in January 2015 – be the better person for the job.

___________________________________
More information on the website of the Latvian Electoral Commission (in Latvian and English):
http://sv2014.cvk.lv/index_rez.html?lang=1

Presidents and Paupers II: How much do CEE 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?

gasparovic_basescu

The rich and the poor

For this post I collected data on presidential salaries including lump sums that are paid on a monthly basis without being designated for a specific function. The numbers presented below are however exclusive of benefits such as housing, allowances for hiring personal staff, use of cars/planes etc. The former type of benefits varies greatly between countries and these benefits are very difficult to compare (especially when one also includes allowances for spouses). However, one can say that in general those presidents who earn more also receive more additional benefits. Unfortunately, this does not apply to pensions. All data – except salary of Czech president Zeman – relates to the last quarter of 2012.

presidential salaries & average income_bar chart_newThe bar chart shows that in absolute terms Slovak president Ivan Gasparovic is the top earner among the Central and East European presidents. With currently € 9,172 per month Gasparovic receives almost six times more than his Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu (who earns a meagre € 1,529). Even though the differences in the national gross average monthly income are not as large, they are still visible. Slovenia is front-runner with € 1,546 while Bulgaria trails behind with less than a quarter (€ 384). The average presidential monthly salary is € 5,118, the gross average monthly income in Central and Eastern Europe is € 776.

Presidential salaries in perspective

When setting presidential salaries in perspective, the national average income is obviously the best reference value. When ranking presidential salaries as % of the national average income the order changes (although only the Slovenian and the Bulgarian president jump several places). Front-runner is once again Slovak president Ivan Gasparovic who earns 1167% of the national average income (although he now has to share the first place with Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite) and Romanian president Basescu, too, remains in his [last] place with his salary being only 335% of the national average income. Although in fourth place in the absolute ranking, Slovenian president Borut Pahor is now in the second last place – his otherwise upper-midrange salary (€ 5,419) is only 3.51 times more than the national average. On the other hand, while Bulgarian president Plevneliev’s € 2,356 is less than half of his counterparts’ average income, it is still 614% of what his fellow citizens earn. On average, CEE presidents earn 667% of the national gross average income.

Presidential salaries as % of national average income_newBoth bar charts do not necessarily suggest that a higher presidential salary is a function of a higher national gross average salary. Nevertheless, the scatter plot below shows that there is still a weak positive correlation (R=0.4187) between presidential salaries and the average income of their voters. Slovenia is the clear outlier – even before the 17% salary cut, the president earned considerably less than one could have expected from the national gross average income.

presidential salaries_scatterplot_new

What about power and elections?

Another interesting point of comparison for presidential salaries are presidents’ actual powers and their mode of election. To start with the latter: popularly elected presidents earn more than their indirectly elected counterparts. While the popularly elected heads of state in CEE earned € 5,375 (680% of the national average income), indirectly elected presidents earned € 4,519 (608% of the national average). Of course, there are only three indirectly elected presidents in the sample and the average would have looked a little different half a year ago when Vaclav Klaus was still the (indirectly elected) Czech president and earned up to €12,715 a month.

Looking a the relation between presidents’ powers and their salary, there is no obvious direction. The correlation between the adjusted presidential salary (as % of national gross average income) and the score on Metcalf’s (2000) revised measurement scheme is only R=0.15.

presidential salaries and powers_new

__________________________________________________________
This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 19 July 2013.

Comparing inaugural addresses of Central & East European presidents: Putting the country first?

Presidents’ inaugural addresses are usually eagerly awaited by journalists and citizens alike as the new office-holders regularly use them to ‘set the tone’ for their term in office. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), inaugural addresses are usually held in parliament (also due to the fact that half of the president are elected there by the deputies and not by popular vote) and while presidents’ words receive their fair share of media attention, they can hardly measure up to the inaugural speeches of the U.S.-American president.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev during his inaugural speech on 19 January 2012 © Office of the President of Bulgaria

comparison of presidents’ inaugural addresses from Washington to Obama on the website of the New York Times shows that since president Harry Truman ‘America’, ‘country’ or ‘nation’ have consistently ranked among the most-used words in presidents’ inaugural speeches. Political circumstances also left their mark, yet these only came second to the overall trend of presidents putting their country first in their speeches. This article gave the motivation to conduct a similar comparison among the presidents of the CEE EU member states. Given the pattern in inaugural addresses of US presidents, one should expect that presidents in CEE will also predominantly stress their respective country/nation in their speeches. Yet, speeches should at least party reflect current political problems or the incumbents’ ambitions for their term in office, too.

For this blog post, I have created word clouds reflecting the number of times certain words have been mentioned. While there are more sophisticated techniques in Political Science to analyse the frequency of words and their meaning, the visualisation is a very good method to give an overview (in the very literal sense of the word) of what  presidents stress in their first speeches to the nation. As historic inaugural addresses are often not available in English translation, I have limited my comparison to the currently serving presidents.

General patterns

Surprisingly (or not), in almost all of the inaugural addresses of CEE presidents (except the one by Václav Klaus, but I will come back to him later) the respective ‘country name’ / ‘country adjective’ / ‘nation’ / ‘people’ belong to the most frequently used words. It is particularly prominent in the speech of Bronislaw Komorowski held in the wake of the Smolensk air crash in which his predecessor, Lech Kaczynski, tragically died. More than the other presidents, Komorowski stresses Poland/Polish/Poles in all varieties of the word, while ‘Smolensk’ is mentioned only rarely (you can find it in the upper right corner).

‘Europe’/’European’ is also mentioned in several addresses but features particularly prominent in the inaugural speech of president Ivan Gasparovic who was inaugurated only shortly after Slovakia’s accession to the EU (in fact, ‘Slovakia’ is mentioned less often than ‘European’). Traian Basescu (inaugurated in December 2004) also mentions ‘European’ and ‘integration’ with above-average frequency. Another variation of this pattern is Borut Pahor’s repetition of the word ‘crisis’ which also – but not exclusively – relates to the European currency crisis.

Furthermore, several presidents – especially those elected by popular vote – bring in more ‘policy’ content. Bulgarian president Plevneliev often mentions ‘security’, ‘economy’/ ‘economic’ and ‘energy’ and his Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaite, mentions ‘courts’, ‘policy’ and ‘interests’ while also addressing a very wide range of other issues.

There are three inaugural addresses which in my opinion and for one or other reason stand apart from the others speeches. I present my comments on these below.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – Estonia and only Estonia

Inaugural address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia, 09/10/2006)

Inaugural address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia, 09/10/2006)

The inaugural speech of Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves stands apart because in no other speech one word – ‘Estonia’ – is mentioned with such a high relative frequency that it figuratively dwarfs the other content. The high frequency of ‘people’ and ‘state’ paired several references to ‘independence’/’independent’ makes this speech relatively apolitical. Given Ilves’ foreign policy background and the fact that he understands his role as being mostly as being above petty politics (plus, the office only provides him with very limited agency), it is not surprising  that what we see here is rather a statesman’s speech than the outline of a political programme. Nevertheless, the sheer dominance of ‘Estonia’ makes this one of the most interesting word clouds.

Janos Áder (Hungary) – Uncompromisingly supporting compromise

Inaugural speech of Janos Áder (10/05/2012)

Inaugural speech of Janos Áder (10/05/2012)

Hungarian president Janos Áder’s speech on the other hand is also clearly influenced by the political circumstances at the time of his election. The dominance of the word ‘compromise’ demonstrates Áder’s attempt to make a new start as president and build a bridge to the opposition (in fact, his speech was very well received by commentators and politicians from all parties alike). While his Polish colleague Bronislaw Komorowski appeals to national feelings to call for ‘cooperation’, Áder’s choice of words presents him as a pragmatist with a more practical approach to reconciling political divides (the frequency of ‘respect’ also supports this image). Of course, ‘Hungary’/’Hungarian’, ‘country’ and ‘nation’ are also mentioned very frequently and the speech thus still conforms to the general pattern.

Václav Klaus (Czech Republic) – I want the political

Inaugural speech of Václav Klaus (Czech Republic, 07/03/2003)

Inaugural speech of Václav Klaus (Czech Republic, 07/03/2003)

As always, there is one exception to every rule and when it comes to presidents in CEE this is usually Czech president Václav Klaus. Even though ‘country’ is still mentioned relatively frequently ‘Czech’ or ‘Republic’ are not. Interestingly, the words ‘want’ and ‘political’ are mentioned most often (and this even though wordle filters many often used verbs such as want to make the word clouds easier to interpret). Of course, this result leaves room for much speculation – especially as it fits Klaus’ image as a power-hungry politician surprisingly well.

Conclusion (albeit a short one)

Havel inauguration speech_word cloud

As mentioned above, word clouds are not the most sophisticated (or indeed particularly valid) means of analysing inaugural addresses and the above analysis is too superficial to reach definite conclusions. Nevertheless, it is interesting that a trend among US presidents is also visible in the EU member states of Central Eastern Europe. The (manifold) exceptionalism of Václav Klaus does not fit the general pattern (his predecessor Václav Hável also mentioned ‘country’ and ‘nations’ more frequently than Klaus) but raises the question in how far his successor will conform to the trend and put his country first or use his inaugural address to set his own priorities.

___________________________________
This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 Janurary 2013.
A list of links to CEE inaugural speeches can be found here.