Category Archives: Latvia

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).

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 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.

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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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Term length

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

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

Term limits

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

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

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

Who’s in charge when the president is gone? Acting presidents in European republics

The premature termination of a presidential term – be it by impeachment, resignation or death of the incumbent – is generally a rare phenomenon so that the respective regulations belong the constitutional provisions that are applied least often in political practice. Nevertheless, in recent years a number of European republics had to activate these stipulations, often for the first time. This post compares the regulations on acting presidents in European republics and discusses the consequences for the separation of powers and potential for conflict.

Acting German Federal President, Speaker of the Federal Council and Minister-President of Bavaria Horst Seehofer in 2012 | © German Presidential Office

The resignations of German Federal Presidents Horst Köhler in 2010 and Christian Wulff in 2012 presented the first instances in which speakers of the Bundesrat had to take over presidential duties. Similarly, the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński in 2010 was the first event in post-1989 Poland that required the Sejm Marshal (speaker of the lower house) to temporarily fulfil the role of president. In Romania, the two impeachment attempts against president Traian Basescu in 2007 and 2012 also meant that the speaker of the Senate acted as president while the population was consulted in referenda. On the other hand, when Slovak president Schuster needed to receive specialist treatment in an Austrian hospital in 2000, the speaker of parliament and Prime Minister fulfilled his duties in tandem.

The above examples show that European republics show a great variation in who becomes acting president. In fact, Bulgaria and Switzerland are the only European republics with a functioning vice-presidency (although due to the collegial nature of the Swiss executive its position/relevance differs significantly) [1] and In the remaining countries it is not always obvious who takes over presidential duties in the case of presidential impeachment, resignation or death. The default option is to temporarily devolve the function to a representative of parliament (in all but Bulgaria, Finland and Switzerland representatives of parliament are involved), yet even here differences exist that have consequences for the division of power.

In France, Germany, Italy and Romania the speaker of the second chamber of parliament. As – except for Italy – the government is not responsible to the second chamber this arrangement guarantees a mutual independence of acting president and other institutions. Even though Austria and Poland also have bicameral system, presidential duties here are performed by the speakers of the first chamber and thus by politicians that are more prominent in everyday politics and usually belong to the governing party. In Austria this is partly mitigated by the fact that the speaker and the two deputy speakers perform this role together, yet in Poland the stipulation proved to be controversial – not only because the generally more political role of the Polish Sejm Marshal but also because of the fact that acting president Komorowski was the government’s candidate in the presidential elections. In the Czech Republic, likewise a bicameral system, presidential duties are also fulfilled by the speaker of the first chamber, yet in cooperation with the Prime Minister.

Map_of_EU_presidents away2_

Countries with unicameral systems cannot generally choose a more independent political candidate, yet as the examples of Iceland and Ireland show it is still possible to create less political alternative by pairing them (among others) with the Chairman of the Supreme Court in multi-member committees that jointly fulfil the position of acting president. Estonia shows another way of ensuring independence of the speaker of parliament as acting president in a unicameral system. The constitution foresees that speaker of parliament temporarily gives up their function to act as president and a new speaker is elected for that period to maintain a clear separation of powers.[2] Last, only Finland and Malta place the role of acting president in the hands of the Prime Minister which is even more exceptional when considering the great differences between the two political systems.

The comparison above has shown that variations in who becomes acting president do not vary according to the mode of presidential election or presidential powers and their origin often predate the current political system. An example for this are the regulations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia which both based their regulations on constitutional drafts that still were still designed for the countries’ functioning within a federal Czechoslovakia. Once the break-up was agreed and quick adoption of new constitutions was needed, the presidency was merely added and the actors that previously represented the republic at federation level became the designated acting presidents (Slovakia only introduced a co-role for the speaker of parliament in 1998 as it turned out that the constitution did not transfer enough power to the Prime Minister as acting president to maintain a functioning state after parliament failed to elect a new president).

The question of who is in charge when the president is gone might appear relatively insignificant at first glance given the rarity of early terminations of presidential terms or long-term absence of presidents during their term. Nevertheless, the different stipulations strongly affect the degree to which the presidency can or is likely to still fulfil its function as check-and-balance on other institutions while it is vacant. While this becomes more relevant the longer there is a vacancy in the presidential office, it still changes the balance of power within a political system already in the short term and therefore merits attention. For instance, during the one month that Slovak president Rudolf Schuster spent in hospital in Austria in 2000, Prime Minister Dzurinda and National Council speaker used their position as acting presidents to veto three bills to which Schuster had previously declared his opposition. Only shortly afterwards, the government majority passed the bills again and thus made sure that Schuster could no longer veto the bills or request a review before the constitutional court.

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[1] The Cypriot constitution also institutes a vice-presidency which is reserved for a Turkish Cypriot while the post of president is to be held by a Greek Cypriot. Initially a Turkish Cypriot vice-president served alongside a Greek Cypriot president, yet the vice-presidency has been vacant for about 50-40 years. The start date of the vacancy is difficult to establish – while Turkish Cypriots have not participated in government or parliament since the 1963 crisis, the title of vice-president appears to have been used by Turkish Cypriot leaders until the coup d’état in 1974.
[2] Estonian members of government are also required to give up their place in parliament upon appointment and another MP enters parliament in their place for the time of their appointment.

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.

Latvia – New government under leadership of country’s first female prime minister inaugurated

On 22 January 2014, two months after the resignation of prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, parliament approved a new government under the leadership of Laimdota Straujuma, the country’s first female prime minister. While the latter fact has made international headlines and Straujuma’s inauguration brings an end to the difficult process of finding a new government leader, the new government is not necessarily an achievement for the coalition parties, but rather a (small) victory for the president.

New Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma in parliament on 22 January 2014 | photo via wikimedia commons

After the resignation of prime minister Dombrovskis over the tragedy caused by the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, president Andris Bērziņš took a suprisingly active approach when it came to forming a new government (see also my previous post on this blog from 11 December 2013), Until early January, president Bērziņš declined to nominate any of the candidates proposed by the four centre-right parties poised to form a new coalition, while all candidates proposed by him declined to take on the job.

In the end, president and parties agreed on the nomination of Laimdota Straujuma, a 61 year-old career civil servant who – after having served in various ministries at secretary of state/deputy minister level had headed the ministry of agriculture in the last Dombrovskis government since 2011. Having not been affiliated with a political party before (her ministerial nomination had been made on the ticket of prime minister Dombrovski’s ‘Unity’ party), she only joined Unity on 5 January, two days before her nomination.

Straujuma is Latvia’s first female head of government but not the country’s first female political leader – from 07/1999 to 07/2007 Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga served as president and was the first elected female head of state in the region. Freiberga – a former professor of psychology and semiotics at the University of Montreal – was instrumental in Latvia’s EU and NATO accession and remained a non-partisan during both of her terms in office. While the latter was an advantage for her as president, Straujuma will likely be disadvantaged by her lack of a long-standing party affiliation, as she will be without clear authority in the coalition’s largest party. While her previous positions will have provided her with an in-depth understanding of Latvia-EU relations (very important given the country’s recent adoption of the Euro) and she was one of the better-rated members of the previous government, her influence in the coalition will still be very limited. Yet as parties have agreed not to amend the budget for 2014 (which would only have been possible in the summer), there is only very little room for manoeuvre for Straujuma and her government anyway.

Overall, the formation of the government appears to be a victory for the president (as well as his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers) and evidence that his unusually active approach paid off. Even though president Bērziņš initially rejected the idea of a purely technocratic government, a government under the leadership of quasi-technocrat Straujuma has several advantages for him. First and foremost, in a situation where the prime minister has less authority over the coalition parties, the president’s influence automatically increases. Furthermore, by not pushing for a purely technocratic government, the previous coalition parties remain in power and are not cut off from the spoils of office. Keeping a good relationship with all centre-right parties is instrumental for Bērziņš in securing his re-election. Last, the new government now includes Bērziņš’ own party whose votes are necessary to secure a majority in the assembly which increases the president’s leverage over the coalition.

Of course, the new coalition also has benefits for the other parties: Straujuma is a largely uncontroversial figure who will potentially mitigate some of the public dissatisfaction with the previous government’s policies which will be carried out until the general election in October 2014. At the same time, prominent party politicians can take a step back from the first line of politics while remaining in office (furthermore, in contrast to Dombrovskis III, they are now also more slightly adequately rewarded in terms of portfolios).

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Overall, Straujuma’s new government consists of 14 cabinet members (prime minister + 13 cabinet ministers), seven of which served in the Dombrovskis III cabinet (except for Straujuma all in the same positions). There are two non-partisan cabinet members, yet these are clearly linked to Unity and the National Alliance, respectively, and thus not the result of presidential intervention. The Reform Party of former president Valdis Zatlers is slightly underrepresented despite having the second largest seat share, yet take the high-profile ministries of foreign affairs, economics, and interior. In addition to prime minister Straujuma, there are four other female cabinet members (which is an increase by two compared to Dombrovskis III); the average age is 47.9 years.

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_straujuma 1

The new government holds 62 out of 100 seats in parliament.

Composition of Straujuma I
Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity, female, 63)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 48)
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Reform Party, male, 40)*
Minister for Economics: Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Reform Party, male, 36)
Minister for Finance: Andris Vilks (Unity, male, 50)*
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Reform Party, male, 44)*
Minister for Education and Science: Ina Druviete (Unity, female, 55)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (independent [National Alliance], female,  42)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 41)
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development:  Einārs Cilinskis (National Alliance, male, 50)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (independent [Unity], male, 40)*
Minister for Justice: Baiba Broka (National Alliance, female, 38)
Minister for Health: Ingrīda Circene (Unity, female, 57)*
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 61)

(*= member of previous government; except for Laimdota Straujuma all with same portfolio)

Latvia – President Berzins and the difficulties of forming a new government

On 27 November, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned from office taking the political responsibility for the collapse of a supermarket roof which killed 54 people. Since then, president Andris Bērziņš has played a surprisingly active role in forming a new government, yet until now with little success.

The resignation of Valdis Dombrovskis, who has headed three different cabinets since March 2009 (his most recent coalition of three-party centre-right parties had been in office since October 2011) [1], came as a surprise to many observers and was met with criticism from commentators and fellow members of government. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the tragedy some had blamed his government for loosening building regulations and thus being indirectly responsible for the tragedy. Dombrovskis’ justification for his resignation (“Latvia needs to have a government that will supported by the Saeima majority and deal with the current situation in the nation”), however, highlights another, likely more important factor for his resignation. Only two weeks earlier and following a number of conflicts within the coalition, Dombrovskis refused to dismiss a disgraced party member of his coalition partner VL-TB/LNNK (National Alliance) from the position as Justice Minister. While the the National Alliance’s other representative remained in cabinet, the coalition was effectively terminated and the government has been without a clear majority since.

Latvian president Andris Bērziņš | photo via wikimedia commons

President Bērziņš put pressure on parties to quickly form a new government, yet until now he appears to be a hindrance to the process himself. The Latvian Constitution leaves the president much leeway in appointing a prime minister, yet the established practice has been that the president plays a purely formal role in confirming the outcome of party negotiations. President Bērziņš has taken a different approach by becoming actively involved in the search of a new prime minister (and it is even rumored that it was him who put pressure on Dombrovskis to resign). All four centre-right parties in parliament (i.e. the three coalition parties + Bērziņš’ own ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ which together command 63% of seats) have vowed to work together in a new coalition government but have not started negotiations yet. Despite being the largest party in parliament, the left-wing ‘Harmony Centre’ is unlikely to be included in any coalition (both due to the policy distance and its identification with the country’s Russian minority) and the four centre-right parties thus present the only viable option for a majority government.

Dombrovskis’ ‘Unity’ Party has proposed three possible candidates who were all rejected by president Bērziņš on the basis that they were not the ‘strongest possible candidates’. He has also turned down the candidates of his own party and of the National Alliance, although no specific reasons were made public. On the other hand, both candidates suggested by the president – EU Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and speaker of parliament Solvita Aboltina – declined to take on the role. 

Bērziņš’ activism is not only interesting in so far as it deviates from established political practice, but also because his predecessor, Valdis Zatlers, failed to be re-elected after confronting the government about its refusal to lift the immunity of an MP accused of corruption (thus illustrating that indirectly elected presidents are very much agents of the assembly rather than independent actors). It is possible – but in now way confirmed – that Bērziņš is trying to forge a stronger cooperation between his ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ (which was part of Dombrovskis’ second cabinet from November 2010 to October 2011) and the other parties in order to ensure his own re-election in 2015.

The parties’ patience with the president is likewise noteworthy, yet the reasons seem to be more straightforward. First and foremost, the 2014 budget has already been passed meaning that the current government can still fulfill its duties. As Bērziņš appears to prefer a political rather than technocratic cabinet (although he has not outright rejected ‘Harmony Centre’s suggestion to form one), coalition parties also do not have to fear to be excluded from the spoils of office any time soon. Furthermore, elections to the European Parliament will take place in May and the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2014. As all centre-right parties can be expected to fare worse than in previous elections and because amendments to the budget are not possible for the time being (meaning that there is no potential for pork barrels), parties are naturally not too eager to join a new government whose duty it would be to merely continue the increasingly unpopular policies of its predecessor.

In the short term, this situation plays in favour of the president and parties might eventually even be quite content to be able to leave the choice of successor for Dombrovskis to the president. Should the 2014 parliamentary elections produce an unclear majority situation, Bērziņš might again play a crucial role in assembling a new (centre-right) government. However, he still runs the risk of becoming too involved and being replaced with a candidate promising to be less active come re-election.


[1] Sikk, Allan (2011) Baltic Governments 1990-2011. http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~tjmsasi/baltgov.pdf

For further background on the Latvian political landscape in the wake of the supermarket tragedy see: Cianetti, Licia. 2013. ‘The Latvian government after the Riga supermarket tragedy has exposed deep divisions in the country’s political system’. LSE EUROPP Blog 10/12/2013.

Kiss of death? – The failure of president-endorsed parties in Central and Eastern Europe

In a recent article in the Prague Post titled ‘Presidents give parties “kiss of death”’ Daniel Bardsley draws attention to the fact that parties backed by former or current Czech presidents failed to succeed in parliamentary elections (president Zeman’s ‘Party of Citizens’ Rights – the Zemanites (SPOZ)’ only received 1.51% and the ‘Heads up’ party backed by former president Václav Klaus 0.41%). Motivated by the subsequent discussion between Seán Hanley, Robert Elgie and me on Twitter (click here to read) this post looks at the success and failure of parties affiliated with current and former presidents in Central and Eastern Europe.

This post will be the first post in an irregular series in which the contributors to this blog explore the relationship between presidents and their parties.

A seemingly common phenomenon
At first glance, the failure of parties affiliated with former or current presidents to gain significant electoral support appears to be a common phenomenon across Central Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In addition to the Czech Republic (where one might additionally refer to Václav Havel’s half-hearted and subsequently unsuccessful backing of the Green Party), there are several other cases. In neighbouring Slovakia, the newly-formed ‘Party for Citizens’ Understanding’ (SOP) led by Rudolf Schuster won 8% in the 1998 elected, entered the government and saw its chairman elected president in the country’s first popular presidential elections. However, already four years later the party did not run again and dissolved a year later. The ‘Movement for Democracy’ (HZD) of Schuster’s successor, Ivan Gašparovič, fared even worse. Founded in 2002, the party never gained parliamentary representation, yet was surprisingly able to have its chairman elected president. While Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 was successful (not the least thanks to the support from the parties of the government coalition), HZD did not run again in the 2010 and 2012 parliamentary elections and recommended to vote for SMER-SD instead. In Poland, the ‘Non-partisan bloc for Support of Reforms’ (BBWR) founded to create a parliamentary representation for president Lech Wałęsa gained only 5.41% in the 1993 elections and received barely more than 1% of votes in 1997 (admittedly, Wałęsa’s presidency had ended in 1995 and he had no involvement in the subsequent campaigns). Further north in Latvia, there is another example of a failed president endorsed-party. Having served as president from 1993 to 1997, Guntis Ulmanis returned to politics in 2010 as chairman of the party alliance ‘For a Good Latvia’. The alliance won only 8% seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections and dissolved before the 2011 snap elections. One of the constituent parties ran again yet failed to win any seats.

Common problems?
Concluding that presidents are the key factor in causing a party’s demise based on the examples above would certainly not be a good idea. We have not yet looked at the successful examples of president-endorsed parties (more on these below) – or for parties not endorsed by presidents for that matter – and there is thus no variation on independent and dependent variables. But already a closer look at the mentioned cases shows that presidential endorsement is hardly the reason for the parties’ lack of success. In the case of the recent Czech parliamentary elections, the failure of SPOZ and ‘Heads up’ to succeed was interesting but – given previous opinion polls – not too surprising. Even though in existence since 2006 and having run under different names, ‘Heads up’ had never been a successful party (in fact, they failed to win seats in all national and European elections in which they participated). In addition, opinion polls never suggested that there was a chance for the party to succeed and reported it under the ‘other’ column. SPOZ on the other hand had had a greater chance of entering parliament (polls still showed it at 7.2% in August 2013) but only had a very limited policy programme (its most important point – the introduction of popular elections – had already been realised in 2012/2013). Similarly in Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis’ ‘For a good Latvia’ consisted of parties that already did not fare well in public opinion so that the meagre result in the 2010 elections and the subsequent failure to gain representation in 2011 (at this point Ulmanis had also already declared that he would not run for parliament again) was no surprise.

In the case of Lech Wałęsa’s BBWR, Schuster’s SOP and Gašparovič’s HZD, the reason for the party’s success seems to be rather neglect than outright endorsement. In Poland, the BBWR had been founded without formal involvement of Wałęsa and – in a very Wałęsa-typical whim – he retracted his official endorsement shortly before the elections (nevertheless, he managed to install two of its representatives in government). Gašparovič and  Schuster both quickly distanced themselves from their parties after their election as president. While Gašparovič remained at least formally faithful to the HZD while building new connections with SMER and a few other parties, Schuster almost immediately abandoned the SOP so that president-government relations from only two years after his election onwards can be described as cohabitational.

Success stories
It appears that the main problem for parties affiliated with presidents is thus that presidents chose to support (or continued to support) parties whose chances were – for whatever reason – already slim or  withdrew their support before the (next) electoral contest. To stay in the ‘kiss of death metaphor’, presidents chose to kiss a party that was already dead or made their exit before it died.

Nevertheless, there are also success stories of parties endorsed by former presidents. In Lithuania, the ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ founded in 2002 by former prime minister Rolandas Paksas not only managed to get Paksas elected president in 2004 but has also since been represented in parliament with a moderate contingent of deputies (2004-2008: 11 seats, 2008-2012: 15 seats, 2012-present: 11 seats) and is currently part of the governing coalition. In Latvia, the ‘Reform Party’ (initially ‘Zatler’s Reform Party’) of former president Valdis Zattlers (2007-2011) won 22 seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections making it the second largest party in the legislature (it has since lost 6 deputies and is only the third largest party group). It also participates in the government coalition.

Nevertheless, both cases also share a similarity that makes the drawing of definite conclusions difficult: by a significant share of voters both Paksas and Zatlers are likely seen as having been unrightfully removed from office. In the case of Paksas – who was impeached in 2004 – this is relatively self-explanatory as the constitutional court later ruled that his removal from office was unconstitutional. Zatlers on the other hand was simply not re-elected for a second term by parliament. Nevertheless, the main reason behind this was that Zatlers had initiated a referendum on the dissolution of parliament after the parliamentary majority refused to lift the immunity of an MP under investigation for corruption. While citizens greatly supported the dissolution (94.5% for dissolution, 44.5% turnout), MPs did subsequently not re-elect Zatlers.

While it is not clear which current and former presidents across the region will lend their support to parties future, at least one interesting case of a president-endorsed party is already on the horizon. Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) is currently involved in building a coalition of left-wing parties for the 2014 European parliament elections under the name ‘Europa Plus’.