Category Archives: Slovakia

Slovakia – Low turnout thwarts anti-LGBT referendum

On Saturday, 7 February, Slovakia held a referendum on three questions pertaining to same-sex marriage with the aim of further restricting LGBT rights in the country. The referendum was initiated by the Christian right-wing organisation ‘Alliance for the Family’ (Aliancia za rodinu) after it gathered more than 400,000 signatures (50,000 more than required, ca. 8% of all citizens).[1] Despite being supported by the Catholic Church and a great number of other religious and civil society organisations, the referendum eventually failed to succeed due to low turnout.

Questions and result of the same-sex marriage referendum in Slovakia, 7 February 2015

Question Yes No Invalid
1 Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? 94.50% 4.13% 1.36%
2 Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children? 92.43% 5.54% 2.01%
3 Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the children or their parents don’t agree? 90.32% 7.34% 2.33%
Registered voters: 4 411 529

Turnout: 21.41% (referendum not valid as turnout below 50%)

Source: http://www.volbysr.sk/en/data.html

The ‘Alliance for the Family’ was formed in late 2013 with the aim of enshrining the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and strengthening the ‘traditional family. In April 2014 started to collect signatures for their referendum initiative after having been supported by the Slovak Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as a number of other churches and religious groups (the Catholic Church even had a letter in support read out during Sunday worship). Parties and political leaders on the other hand were hesitant to support the referendum – the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) was the only party to openly call for voting in favour of all questions, whereas others only asked their supporters to participate in the referendum without indication of how to vote.

Likewise, political leaders were hesitant to affiliate themselves with either side, careful not wanting to scare off potential voters (parliamentary elections will be held in March 2016) as well as not to worsen relations with the churches and grass-roots organisations. Prime Minister Robert Fico, leader of the left-wing SMER party, hinted at being in favour of some form of same-sex unions. However, in June 2014 (and thus while signatures were still being collected) the Slovak parliament – with the votes of Fico’s SMER which holds almost 2/3 of the seats – changed the constitution to re-define marriage as being a man and a woman (a move rumoured to be a deal with the KDH to push through further judicial reforms). President Kiska (independent, politically centre-right) initially declared that he would vote yes on the first two questions and no on the third, yet tried to relativise his statements after public criticism.

Presidents and referenda have difficult history in Slovakia. In 1997, president Michal Kováć and the government clashed over the scheduling of a referendum on NATO entry and inclusion of a question on introducing popular presidential elections. Kováć’s successor, Rudolf Schuster, on the other hand announced a referendum initiated by the opposition which called for the shortening of parliament’s term in 1999. Not only to avoid conflict, but certainly also to remain a more impartial position, rresident Kiska decided to put the questions before the constitutional court – a right the president only gained as part of the 1999-2001 constitutional reforms. In the end the Constitutional Court decided to exclude a fourth question from the ballot, judging it as unconstitutional.[2]

When the results started to come in, it soon became clear that the results of the referendum would be invalid due to low turnout – only the Námestovo Electoral District recorded slightly more than the 50% turnout that would have been necessary. Eventually, only 21.41% of voters cast their vote (i.e. only little more than twice the number of signatures submitted) which mirrors not only Slovak citizens’ turnout in the six previous referenda (only the 2003 referendum on EU entry achieved the required turnout) but also general voter apathy in the country. The referendum as such thus presents a dilemma for Slovak politics. Despite attracting much international criticism (most notably from Amnesty International), it is Slovakia’s first publicly initiated referendum and the ‘Alliance for Family’ is the largest civil organisation since the ‘Public Against Violence’ (the Slovak counterpart to the Czech ‘Civic Forum’) which toppled the Communist regime 25 years ago. Although the Alliance has thus managed what few others have managed to do – namely unite a not insignificant part of the public on a single issue and force it on the national agenda – its failure might eventually lead to even greater voter apathy.

It is not clear to what extent the results of the referendum can be interpreted with regard to the parliamentary elections next year. Superficially, it might appear that the KDH as the only party which actively supported the referendum might benefit (it with 8.8% it was the second largest party in the last elections), yet the parties on the political right in Slovakia are traditionally splintered and so are their support bases. It is thus unlikely that a single party may gain in a more multi-faceted electoral setting. The transformation of the Alliance into a new party is also unlikely – on Sunday representatives re-asserted their claim to be ‘citizen’s activists’ and not wanting to become politicians.

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[1] In the end 390,000 signatures were judged to be valid.
[2] The fourth question read: ‘Do you agree that no other form of cohabitation shall be awarded the special protection, the rights and the obligations which by legal norms are awarded to husbands and wives as of 1 March 2014 – in particular the recognition, registration or documentation as a form of cohabitation before public authorities, and the possibility of adopting the child of the other parent?’

See also: Croatia – Referendum criticised by the president and prime minister passed with large popular support

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

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

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

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

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

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

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

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

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

Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments

The first three months of the presidency of Slovakia’s self-styled ‘first independent president’ (he has not held membership in any political party at any point in his life) Andrej Kiska have been far from inactive, despite the political low season that usually occurs during parliament’s summer recess. Thereby, the issue of judicial appointments has once again returned to the political agenda. While the reform of the judiciary was part of Kiska’s electoral manifesto, it also shows that this is one of the few areas in which the Slovak presidency might still be able to exert decisive influence.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska | photo via prezident.sk

Right from the start of his presidency, Andrej Kiska was thrown in the deep end. Apart from a number of inaugural visits abroad, he had to deal with an invitation to the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising that his predecessor had extended to Vladimir Putin without consulting the government or the new president-elect. He also had to decide on proclaiming a controversial referendum on issues surrounding same-sex partnerships initiated by a citizens (he opted to ask the Constitutional Court to review the proposed questions) and most recently attended that NATO summit in Wales. While his promise to station NATO troops in the country was met with great opposition by the government and is likely to lead to more conflict in the future, Kiska picked his first fight with government parliament on an issue that already created conflict between these institutions and his predecessor, i.e. the judiciary.

During his first week in office, Andrej Kiska was faced with the decision of whom to appoint as new judges to the country’s Constitutional Court. Parliament had already delivered a list of six nominations to his predecessor (who chose not to concern himself with the issue during his last days in office) from which Kiska – according to Art. 134 II of the constitution – was to appoint three. However, Kiska only appointed one candidate and subsequently demanded that parliament resent him with new candidates, citing their lack of experience with regards to constitutional law and justifying his actions by his oath of office. Naturally, the request was rejected by parliament and government and – partly due to parliament’s summer recess – no further actions have been taken from either side. Only two weeks later, Kiska used his first veto on a bill that among others foresaw to make elections in the Judicial Council (self-governance of the judiciary in Slovakia) secret and later rejected the appointment of a judge due to alleged irregularities in the selection process.

Kiska’s activity in this area thereby does not seem to be solely motivated by his wish to implement his electoral promises, some of which (e.g. the donation of his salary to families in need) he has already been able to implement with publicity effect. The judiciary also presents one of the few areas in which the Slovak president is still be able to exert decisive influence. The president does not have mentionable power over government formation and censure (while presidents can theoretically reject candidates, they have not done so since 1993) or over substantive legislation as their veto of such bills is almost always overridden. Due to the very frequent use of vetoes by Kiska’s predecessors Schuster and Gašparovič, the power has also largely lost its potential to be used as a clear signal to voters.

In contrast, there is only little constitutional practice on president’s discretion in judicial appointments and the precedent case of Ivan Gašparovič’s refusal to appoint a new public prosecutor has shown that Kiska might be able to force his preferences and otherwise has to fear little consequences. Given that Kiska will remain in opposition with the government for the next two years (or even longer should the party of the centre-right continue to fail at uniting against the SMER party of Prime Minister Fico), having well-disposed judges on the constitutional court would certainly strengthen Kiska’s otherwise rather weak position.

Thus, although Kiska’s activism regarding the judiciary may partly be motivated by his wish to fulfill the promises of judiciary reform and fighting corruption on whose basis he was elected, it could not only help to secure his re-election but also strengthen his position vis-a-vis parliament and government. This would particularly be true if he actually plans to remain completely independent politically (i.e. not even form an informal affiliation with one of the centre-right parties) and lets the cohabitation with the government – irrespective of its party composition – continue.

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.

Slovakia – Perils of semi-presidentialism?! Independent Andrej Kiska inaugurated as new president

On 15 June 2014 independent Andrej Kiska was inaugurated as Slovakia’s new president, succeding Ivan Gašparovič who had served as president since 2004. Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president and while his lack of any partisan affiliation was one of the main reason for his electoral victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico, it will also be his greatest obstacle to exerting political influence.

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Andrej Kiska giving his inaugural address in the concert hall of the Slovak Philharmonic | photo via nrsr.sk

Since 1993, Slovakia has experience three different presidents – indirectly elected Michal Kovač (1993-1998; indirectly elected), Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) and Ivan Gašparovič (2004-2014; both directly elected) – all of which declared to stand above parties and act as presidents of all people. Kiska, too, declared his ambition to be a president above parties, yet in contrast to his predecessors he is – in his own words – “the first president without political or partisan past”. Non-partisan presidents are not an unusual phenomenon and given that constitutional stipulations or constitutional practices in most European republics foresee that presidents give up their party membership a number of presidents could be classified as such. Nevertheless, Kiska is exceptional in so far as he never served in any other political office and has never been member of a political party. His predecessors were all experienced politicians and (at least up until their inauguration) party members. In a European context, the only real point of comparison for such apolitical and non-partisan candidate even entering the second round of a popular presidential election would be Stanislaw Tyminski, a Polish-Canadian businessman who surprisingly advanced to the second round in the 1990 Polish presidential elections but eventually lost against Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Kiska’s lack of a political past together with his background as a self-made man proved to be his most important asset and unique selling point in the presidential campaign. However, Kiska’s independence will now likely be an obstacle to his success as a president. The political left, almost exclusively represented by the governing SMER-party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, sees Kiska as a representative of the right and will generally be hostile towards the new president (not only because he defeated Fico). While this might not lead to open conflict between government and Prime Minister, the refusal of outgoing president Gašparovič to meet with his successor is reminiscent of the way the semi-authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar (1992-1998) tried to sabotage the work of president Michal Kovač and shows how the government could try to prevent Kiska from becoming an effective check-and-balance. The fragmented political right on the other hand is wary of the new president and despite the support Kiska received from the third- and fourth-placed centre-right candidates, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko, he can hardly count on any party to act as his support base.

With the next parliamentary elections still two years away and SMER holding a majority of 55% in the assembly, Kiska is in a difficult situation. On the one hand he is in cohabitation with the government and should therefore be more active to show his closeness to and build alliances with the centre-right in parliament. On the other hand, although SMER’s approval ratings have been falling since their victory in the snap elections of 2012, it is currently unlikely that an alliance of centre-right parties will emerge that can topple the current government. Furthermore, if Kiska wants to play at least some role in everyday politics in the next two years, he needs to stay on neutral terms with the government and parliamentary majority. Although the contents of Kiska’s inaugural address should be interpreted with caution, his announcement to support political ideas from whichever political side they come from appears to be a signal in this direction.

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Kiska’s campaign poster [slogan reads: ‘The first independent president’] | image via andrejkiska.sk

In their discussion of presidentialism, Linz (1990) and Mainwaring and Shugart (1997) agree that popular presidential elections are more likely to bring political outsiders into power which can have negative consequences for political stability and presents one of the theoretical perils of presidentialism. Due to the limited powers of the Slovak president, a destabilisation of the political scene is unlikely – even the extremely frequent use of vetoes by president Rudolf Schuster who vetoed more than 10% of all legislation did not affect the parliamentary character of the system. Rather, the outsider status appears to have a negative effect on the president’s ability to influence policy and thus represents a peril for the president, not democracy.

For now, Kiska’s most likely course of action appears to be to continue stressing his philanthropic activities – he is founder of the “God Angel” charity, declared that he was willing to give his salary to the poor (see also here) and invited a number of socially disadvantaged people to the first dinner he hosted as president – while looking for a viable political partner. The new centrist formation ‘Sieť’ (Net) of third-placed presidential candidate Radoslav Procházka (the only of the centre-right candidates to unequivocally support Kiska in the second round) could be an option. According to a recent poll, its approval stands at 13% and is thus only second to Prime Minister Fico’s SMER (34.6%). Nevertheless, Kiska will likely remain cautious in affilliating himself with any political party (even inofficially) and probably wait how ‘Sieť’ fairs in local election in autumn before deciding on further steps.

 

Slovakia – Independent Andrej Kiska wins presidential elections, turbulent times ahead

On Saturday 29 March Slovakia held the second round of presidential election. After Prime Minister Robert Fico had still emerged as the winner of the first round, he was now clearly defeated by independent candidate Andrej Kiska. As Kiska lacks both political experience and a support base in parliament, conflicts between the president and other institutions appear to be inevitable.

Results 1st and 2nd round Slovak presidential elections2

Robert Fico’s bad performance in the first round had already come as a surprise as all polling firms had predicted at least a 10% lead for the Prime Minister. No polls for the second round were made public, yet the fact that candidates from the political right (including Kiska) claimed the majority of the vote in the first round made Kiska’s victory over Fico (leader of of the leftist SMER-SD) more likely.

The two weeks leading up to Saturday’s election were largely characterised by Fico’s aggressive and negative campaigning. He and his team repeatedly raised accusations that Kiska was a member of (or had at least close contact to) Scientology in a bid to win over conservative voters and tried to shed doubt on Kiska’s business success. At the same time, Fico tried to present himself as an internationally recognised and experienced candidate with the backing of Czech president Zeman, French president Hollande and European Parliament speaker Schulz to highlight Kiska’s lack of political experience. He even tried to increase his appeal with ethnic Hungarian voters by putting up bilingual billboards. However, in 2009 Fico and his then-coalition partner, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), had mobilised voters to elect president Ivan Gašparovič for a second term by telling them ‘not to let the Hungarians elect their president’. It is therefore questionable how successful this move was but it can defintely be interpreted as a sign of desperation on Fico’s part.

Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur and philantropist, on the other hand stayed relatively uncontroversial. The direct confrontation with Fico in several TV debates demonstrated that he is less eloquent than the experienced Prime Minister, yet this might have rather added to his appeal as a true outsider (previous presidents Schuster and Gašparovič had officially run as independent candidates yet were both still leaders of their own parties during the campaign). Kiska also managed to receive the official (albeit less than whole-hearted) backing of the third- and fourth-placed candidates from the first round, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko. 

In the end, the second round drew 290,000  (7%) more voters to the polls, yet it was mostly Kiska who profited from this. He could almost triple his absolute number of votes, whereas Fico failed to even double his number of votes from the first round. Fico only received a majority of votes in the strongholds of his party SMER-SD, yet these electoral districts also tended to be those with the lowest turnout.

The question is now how – to use one of Kiska’s campaign slogans – ‘the first independent president’ will change the politics of the presidential office once he is inaugurated on 15 June. At the moment, a scenario similar to the clashes and conflicts between president Schuster and Prime Minister Dzurinda in 1999-2004 seems most likely. Even though Schuster had been the government candidate, he cut all ties with his party (which participated in the government until 2002) and started to challenge the government and almost every occasion. Lacking a parliamentary support base (and thus bargaining weight vis-a-vis parliament and government), Schuster soon became isolated and resorted to his veto power with unprecedented frequency.

Kiska faces similar problems: He has never held a political office before and maintains no affiliation with any party. While the latter might allow him to garner support from a wider range of right-of-centre parties, the fragmentation of the political right in Slovakia will make it difficult for him to build alliances. Given the limited powers of the Slovak presidency, Kiska will have problems to implement his electoral promises and is thus limited to highlight his policy positions by returning bills to the assembly where – at least until the 2016 parliamentary elections – his vetoes will inevitably be overturned by the absolute majority of Fico’s SMER-SD government.

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More information about the elections is available on the website of the Slovak Statistical Office (in English): http://prezident2014.statistics.sk/Prezident-dv/home-en.html

Slovakia – First round of presidential elections

On Saturday, 15 March, Slovakia held the first round of presidential elections; it is the third presidential election since the country changed from indirect to direct elections in 1999, As expected, none of the 14 candidates came close to a majority of votes and Prime Minister Robert Fico and independent candidate Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, will face each other in the second round. Nevertheless, the result can still be seen as surprising and makes predictions about the outcome of the second round even more complicated.

Results 1st round Slovak presidential elections

All recent polls had predicted Fico and Kiska to advance to the second round, yet most had seen Fico  at 35-38% and thus 9-15% in the lead. The relatively small gap between the two front-runenrs as well as the fact that candidates from the political (centre-) right (Procházka, Kňažko) to which Kiska belongs, appear to make Kiska’s victory more likely. At least one opinion poll – albeit from last December – saw Kiska win again Fico should they compete in a second round of voting.

While the Slovak centre-right has long been fragmented, Procházka as well as the SDKU (whose candidate only received 3.3%) have already declared their support for Kiska. Some further candidates might declare their support for either Kiska or Fico (although the latter’s potential is smaller), but the bigger question is which candidate will able to mobilise more voters. On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause shows how different shares of voters staying home or coming to the polls can drastically change the situation and even though most scenarios would see Kiska as Slovakia’s next president, could also lead to Fico’s victory.

Campaign slogans of Robert Fico ('Ready for Slovakia') and Andrej Kiska ('The first independent president')

Campaign slogans of Prime Minister Robert Fico (‘Ready for Slovakia’) and independent contender Andrej Kiska (‘The first independent president’).

During the campaign, Fico has failed to clarify his intentions with regards to the future role of the presidency (see also here). Thus, even voters who would generally vote for Fico’s SMER party (which currently holds 83/150 in the Slovak Parliament) might be deterred by this uncertainty or would rather have Fico continue as Prime Minister. Andrej Kiska, with his campaign slogan ‘The first independent president’, could potentially capitalise on Fico’s vagueness on this point. In his campaign, Kiska also promised to be an active check-and-balance on government and parliament. While he would have difficulties attempting to implement most of his policy promises due to the limited powers of the presidency and the lack of partisan representation in parliament, promising to be more active might resonate well with voters who have been disappointed by outgoing president Gašparovič and his growing closeness to SMER (which either meant large-scale inactivity or the controversial exploitation of constitutional loopholes).

Nevertheless, despite their popular mandate, Slovak presidents since 1999 have not been able to establish themselves as important political players. The continuously low turnout (staying always below participation in parliamentary elections) in presidential elections is evidence of the fact that Slovaks see the contest as a second-order election.

The second round of elections will be held in two weeks on 29 March 2014. Results can be expected from 9pm GMT.