Category Archives: Europe

Germany – The unexpected leadership role of President Steinmeier in coalition talks

The results of the German federal election of 24 September 2017 shook up the country’s party system more than ever before. Both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic and Social Union (CDU/CSU) and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), registered significant losses, while four smaller parties – polling between just 8.9% and 12.6% – also entered the Bundestag. While far from unexpected, this result has created a particularly difficult bargaining environment for coalition talks. Amidst the new parliamentary arithmetic, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on an expected leadership role and could influence the formation and party composition of the next German government more than any of his predecessors.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) meets with SPD leader Martin Schulz | image via bundespraesident.de

Already hours after the first results were announced, SPD leader Martin Schulz declared that his party – having achieved the worst result since 1949 and without possibility to form a left of centre coalition with Greens and LINKE – would not renew its coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and become part of the opposition. Given that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for first time after just missing the 5% threshold in 2013, is universally shunned by the other parties, the ‘Jamaica’ option seemed the only possibility to form a majority government. Named after the combination of parties’ traditional colours (CDU/CSU = black, Green Party = green, FDP = yellow) this would have created a coalition which has hitherto only existed on local level. While CDU/CSU and FDP have governed together on both federal and state level and CDU/CSU and Greens have recently (if only sporadically) started to cooperate on state level, the economically liberal FDP and left-leaning Greens seemed unlikely bedfellows. Formal coalition talks between the three parties only started a month after the election, yet collapsed two weeks ago after the FDP withdrew its participation. Since then, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD) has taken an unusually active role in managing the coalition talks and encouraging parties to find a solution to avoid snap elections.

Since 1949, coalition formation in Germany has been exclusively dominated by parties. While the president formally proposes a candidate for chancellor to parliament after elections, presidents have always proposed the candidate chosen by parties once coalition talks were concluded. Only if the president’s candidate fails to gain a majority can the Bundestag attempt to elect its own chancellor with a majority. If in the end parliament fails to elect a majority candidate (which the president has to appoint), a final vote is held and it is at the president’s discretion to appoint a candidate who has only gained a relative majority of votes.

As leader of the largest party, Angela Merkel appears to be the only serious candidate for chancellor. However, she has repeatedly voiced her opposition both to leading a minority government and to triggering snap elections (a likewise complicated process; see below). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Jamaica talks, president Steinmeier unusually strongly appealed to parties to act responsibly and continues to hold publicised meetings with leaders of all parties. Especially his meeting with former co-partisan Martin Schulz seems to have had an effect as the SPD leader has now softened its stance on retreating to the opposition benches. However, he faced an immediately backlash from the party’s youth wing; the SPD is also likely to once again hold a ballot on any new coalition among its members.

There is no deadline for president Steinmeier to nominate a candidate for Chancellor, yet once he does the pressure is on parties to build a functioning (majority or minority) government. It is unlikely that Steinmeier will start the process before parties have made significant progress towards a new coalition, yet this possibility – together with the German constitution’s obsession with stability – gives him the upper hand. Once appointed, a chancellor can only be removed by the ways of a constructive vote of confidence (i.e. when a new Chancellor is elected with a majority) – even if a chancellor loses a vote of confidence and asks the president to dissolve the Bundestag, the dissolution remains at the president’s discretion (the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself). After previous dissolutions were heavily criticised due to the fact that sitting chancellors only feigned a loss of confidence, It is unlikely that Steinmeier will readily agree to such a move. Last, Steinmeier is in the rare situation that his five-year term only ends after the next regular federal elections and he is thus less bound by considerations about his re-election (which will partially rely on electors from the German states in any case).

It is thanks to this combination of factors that president can currently take on this (unexpected) leadership role in party coalition talks. While the old government is only provisionally still in post, he almost has a legitimacy advantage over the yet unformed government and can use his position to actively shape public opinion as well as increase pressure on political parties.

Overall, this sheds a new light on the role of the German president and highlights the value of the office. While scholarship (including my own) have so far rather focussed on the interference of presidents in day-to-day politics and resulting complications and ineffectiveness, the example at hand shows how presidents – even if only vested with reserve powers – can become guarantors of stability.

France – The election of Emmanuel Macron and the French party system: a return to the éternel marais?

This is the summary of an article that has just been published in Modern and Contemporary France. There are 50 .pdf e-prints freely available. Just click on the above link.

In 1964, Maurice Duverger published an article in the Revue française de science politique entitled ‘L’éternel marais: Essai sur le centrisme français‘ [The eternal marshland: An essay on centrism in France]. He argued that for around 80% of the period from 1789 to 1958 France had been governed from the centre, which he disparagingly called the marais. For Duverger, the French post-Revolution party system was characterised by a bipolarisation of party competition between the left and the right. However, both the left and the right were split between an extreme version and a moderate version. With the extremes opposed to each other and with the moderates usually unwilling to work with their respective extremes, Duverger argued that rather than alternations in power between the left and the right, power had shifted between governments of the moderate left and the moderate right. These forces had governed either separately or sometimes together, but, crucially, almost always against the two extremes. This was the system that Duverger characterised as the éternel marais.

Writing in 1964, Duverger believed that the system might be about to change. In retrospect, he was right. For more than 50 years, marais governments all but disappeared in France. With very few exceptions, the right governed against the left as a whole, or vice versa. However, the election of President Macron in 2017 election may have marked a change, challenging the party system that has been in place since the mid-1960s and suggesting the potential for a return to a new-period of marais government. In the article, I provide evidence to suggest that the current Macron administration has the characteristics of a Duverger-style marais government. I then sketch two potential interpretations of the contemporary party system, both of which raise the prospect of a return to the éternel marais.

There is evidence that from Macron’s LREM parliamentary party, the parliament in general, and the cabinet to suggest that the current administration has the characteristics of a Duverger-style marais government.

The June 2017 legislative election returned 310 députés who were officially members of the LREM parliamentary group as of 24 July. Many of these députés were elected for the first time. However, many others were previously associated with party politics. In this regard, Le Monde (Sénécat and Damgé in Le Monde, June 27, 2017) reported that 68 had previously been associated with the moderate left Socialists, 20 with the centre-right Union des democrats et indépendants and 10 with the right-wing Les Républicains (LR), plus a small number who had been associated with other parties. Thus, there is evidence that LREM itself corresponds to Duverger’s portrait of a marais party, namely one that contains representatives of both the moderate left and the moderate right but not the extremes.

Since the Assemblée nationale began its work after the legislative election, LREM has also received support from other elements of the moderate left and the moderate right there and has been opposed by the extreme or anti-system right and leftFor example, when Prime Minister Philippe invoked Article 49-1 on 4 July, all members of the centrist MoDem parliamentary group voted for the government in the confidence vote. In addition, all members of Les Constructifs group either voted for the government or abstained. This group brought together moderate right deputies from LR party who had chosen to remain in LR but who were willing in principle to work with LREM. What is more, most members of the ex-Socialist party group also either voted for the government or abstained in the confidence vote. By contrast, the extreme right and the extreme left were opposed to the government. All eight FN deputies voted against the LREM government, as did Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who rallied to Marine Le Pen at the second round of the 2017 presidential election. Similarly, all the Communists voted against the government, as did all the members of the La France insoumise (LFI) group.

In addition, the Philippe government itself also included former representatives of ex-LR moderate right figures, such as Bruno Le Maire and Gérard Darmanin, ex-PS moderate left ministers, such as Gérard Collomb and Jean-Yves Le Drian, and centrists from MoDem. This is in addition to ministers who were founding members of the LREM party itself.

Thus, there is no question that Macron’s election has led to another period of marais government in Duverger’s terms. In itself, this is quite a change in the context of the party system of the Fifth French Republic since the early 1960s. However, to what extent has Macron’s election reshaped the party system such that there may be a return not just to a short-lived period of marais government, but to the éternel marais?

Building on Gougou and Persico’s recent article in French Politics, the new French party system might be interpreted in one of two ways.

The first interpretation is a tripolar system (or tripartition). Here, the first pole would be an anti-system left pole comprising LFI, the Communists and perhaps also a rump Socialist party that would be anchored on the left and would be willing to work with other groups on the anti-system left but not with LREM. These groups would share a common set of anti-austerity economic values and cultural/universalist values. In this tripartition interpretation, there would be a second pole on the extreme right comprising the FN and a set of parties that would be willing to work with it, including perhaps LR, especially if it were to be led by one of the leading candidates for the party leadership in the vote later this month, Laurent Wauquiez. In this scenario, LREM and allies would constitute the third pole. Here, LREM would remain a combination of moderate left and moderate right figures. This pole would also include other moderate right groups such as MoDem and the Constructifs and perhaps even a small, ex-PS moderate left party that was unwilling to cooperate with the anti-system left. The various elements of this third pole would be irreconcilably opposed to the anti-system left in terms of economic policy and to the extreme right on cultural/universalist values. With the extreme left and the extreme right unable to cooperate and with the various elements of the third pole sharing basic values whether or not LREM managed to remain a united party over time, there would be the potential for a return to ongoing marais governments.

The second interpretation is a four-pole system (or quadripartition). Here, LFI, the Communists and perhaps a rump PS would be on the extreme or anti- system left; LREM would operate as a de facto moderate left pole; LR and various allies would constitute a moderate right pole; and the FN would be on the extreme right. This interpretation assumes that LR would not cooperate with the FN because they would be opposed on economic policy and there would still be a gap between the two parties on cultural/universalist policies, even if the gap narrowed in 2017. Facing an electable moderate right in the form of LR, LREM would choose to compete with LR and its allies on economic issues by moving towards a more clear-cut centre-left position. (There is little evidence of such a move from the very early period of the Macron presidency.)

If the French party system were to take this form of quadripartition, then the prospects for ongoing marais governments would also be very high. Here, there would be considerable opportunity for an alternation in power, but it would be likely to take place only between the moderate left and the moderate right, both of which would always be governing against the extremes. This form of quadripartition would correspond most closely to the pre-1958 situation that Duverger outlined in his 1964 article. This was the period of the éternel marais.

Clearly, the Macron presidency is still in its infancy. President Macron will face many challenges in the years to come. His response to them—and that of his government— will help to shape the future contours of the French party system in no doubt unexpected ways. Nonetheless, the 2017 presidential and legislative elections did mark a change in French party politics. Duverger’s idea of the marais may be a useful way of thinking about the contours of the French party system in the immediate aftermath of these elections and the nature of the governance that flows from it.

Slovakia – Relations between the President and Prime Minister reach a low point

The surprising victory of Andrej Kiska in the March 2014 presidential elections in Slovakia has, until recently, not had any major negative impact on the stability of intra-executive relations in the country. The main executive authority rests with the government headed by the Prime Minister, who is backed by a parliamentary majority. The directly elected president has important but limited powers, especially in the realm of appointing public officials, including the Prime Minister and government ministers. Nevertheless, his room for maneuver is restricted by the party composition of the parliament. As a result, President Kiska has kept a low profile, respected the agreements of political parties, and appointed (as well as dismissed) all the ministers as proposed by the Prime Minister Robert Fico, whom he defeated in the presidential elections. Following the March 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska promptly appointed the new four-party coalition government led by Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), and publicly supported its goals of fighting extremism and deepening European integration.

The president has more leeway when it comes to the judiciary. During the first weeks of his presidency, he rejected five out of six candidates proposed by parliament for Judges of the Constitutional Court, thus filling just one out of three vacancies at the Court. Moreover, another spot at the Court became vacant in February 2016. Although the parliament proposed, in line with the Constitution, two new candidates for the post, Kiska again refused to choose either of them, citing their lack of adequate qualifications. The Constitutional Court accepted the constitutional complaints of five unsuccessful candidates for further deliberation but so far has not ruled on the matter.

The conflict over the Constitutional Court has been the most visible exercise of formal presidential powers vis-a-vis the government and the parliament. The president has, on several occasions, invited individual ministers to voice them his concerns over the development of their portfolios. However, he normally uses more traditional tools available to ceremonial heads of states: media statements and speeches at various public events. Since his election, President Kiska has become a vocal proponent of increased transparency and anti-corruption; he regularly criticizes what he perceives to be the systematic failure of the state to take care of its socially deprived citizens. Kiska recently ruled out setting up a new party or joining an existing one in order to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Despite some suggestions that he may not seek reelection, he stated he would announce his decision in September next year. By and large, the relations between government and president seemed cooperative and respectful. In recent weeks, however, tensions between the Prime Minister and President have emerged.

In September, several media outlets anonymously received reports of a 2015 tax inspection in the KTAG firm, which is owned by the President and his brother. As it turned out, the tax authorities concluded in 2016 that the KTAG had violated the law, since it paid some €27,000 less than it should done on taxes. The company did not object to the findings and paid the sum as well as the penalty. In a series of brief statements, President rejected any personal wrongdoing but did not offer any detailed account, thus ignoring allegations that the company may have used the money to finance his 2014 presidential campaign. The head of the tax authority later apologized for the information leak and claimed an “individual failure” was behind it. However, Kiska implicitly accused the government, stating: “If a head of state can be attacked in such a way, no single person in Slovakia can be sure that such gangland-style blackmailing practices will not be used against him or her.”

The Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák called the president “a tax fraudster” and the Prime Minister even accused Kiska of trying to influence the investigation by approaching the Prosecutor General. In response, the Prosecutor General stated he had talked to the President back in 2015 on a whole range of issues but strongly denied the Prime Minister’s allegation that President had intended to influence the investigation or discussed his firm’s problems with him.

the Interior Minister’s remarks, however, should be viewed in a broader context of Kiska’s anti-corruption agenda. Minister Kaliňák has faced a series of allegations for his business with Ladislav Bašternák, an entrepreneur who was recently accused by the police of tax fraud. Kaliňák himself has benefited from business with Bašternák but the police did not start an investigation due to the lack of evidence. In addition, Prime Minister Fico rents a flat from Bašternák himself, for which he has been heavily criticized by the opposition. The opposition parties organized a series of demonstrations throughout 2016 and President Kiska also suggested Kaliňák should step down to give the police free rein to properly investigate the case. In 2017, several anti-corruption marches organized by students took place. One of their key demands was the resignation of the Interior Minister and the Police Corps President.

In November, the Prime Minister attacked the President again, claiming the government was “ready to send the President an invoice” for €1.000.000 to pay for using the government’s plane to fly to his hometown Poprad (where the president’s family lives). The statement came as a surprise, since the President, following an unbinding parliamentary resolution issued in April, stopped using the plane and uses his car instead. When faced with the “airplane problem”, Kiska has always explained that he was using the plane at the Interior Minister’s suggestion. Kaliňák, according to President, asked him to use the plane because the pilots had logged too few flying hours. In April, Kiska effectively accused Interior Minister of plotting against him and suggested the Minister should deal with his suspicious business links instead. In November, when PM Fico re-opened the case against him, Kiska retaliated by saying that he understood the Prime Minister’s frustration over growing tensions within his party and falling public support for his policies.

Why have the relations between President and Prime Minister become so tense? There are several possible interpretations. Firstly, they may be pre-emptive steps to damage Kiska’s chances in the 2019 presidential elections, should he decide to run again. The President’s approval ratings are unmatched by other active politicians, and Prime Minister Fico may feel that a negative campaign against President Kiska will improve the chances of his party’s future candidate. Secondly, following a poor performance of Fico’s party in the November 2017 regional elections, when four out of six Smer-SD-backed regional governors lost to opposition candidates, media attention has focused on how the largest Slovak party will react. Several prominent party members suggested personnel changes at the top should follow, including a possible departure of the increasingly unpopular but powerful Interior Minister Kaliňák. Fico, after a week of silence, claimed that his party, in fact, won the election, gaining a plurality of regional deputies. Reopening Kiska’s “airplane problem” may be an attempt to change the main subject of the public debate. Moreover, Kiska’s past problem with the tax authorities has been a welcome development for Smer-SD, since both Kaliňák and Fico can use it to divert public attention from themselves to the President. Thirdly, it may be a simple tit-for-tat tactic, a reaction to Kiska’s recent criticism of how the Smer-SD-led government has handled several high-profile social policy issues. These include the occurrence of serious flaws in the management of resocialization facilities, leading, among other things, to the unnecessary detention of children, and under-age sex between staff and children. Kiska stated that Slovakia was not a functioning welfare state, by which he effectively questioned the policy record of left-leaning Smer-SD, the party that has been in power for over a decade.

Whatever the true reasons, government and president are entering uncharted waters of open political confrontation. However, any escalation to the levels reached in the mid-1990s between the then President Kováč and Prime Minister Mečiar seems unlikely.

Ukraine – EuroMaidan: 4 years on

On the night of November 21st, 2013, the citizens of Ukraine came to the streets to protest the policies of then government of Viktor Yanukovych. The wave of demonstrations and civil unrest now commonly referred to as EuroMaidan ultimately forced the president and many high political officials to flee the country. Although the demonstrations were sparked by the decision to suspend the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, the protests were also against corruption at the highest levels of the Ukrainian society. Yesterday marked 4 years since the beginning of EuroMaidan, what progress has been made since then?

Last week, the President of the World Bank, Jim Young Kim, visited Ukraine to discuss the reforms in the country. The President of the World Bank affirmed “we applaud the remarkable reforms Ukraine has implemented, which have helped the economy return to growth.” However, Jim Young Kim called for establishment of an independent corruption court as “a critical step to tackle corruption.”

Chatham House also issued a report on the state of the Ukrainian reforms in October 2017, praising “the remarkable progress in laying the foundations for reducing corruption in public life.” Nonetheless, the report also noted that, despite numerous achievements, from the standpoint of the Ukrainian population there has been little to show for the reforms [1]. Thus, it is not surprising that last month Ukraine was engulfed in yet another wave of anti-graft protests. Over 4,000 people gathered outside of the parliament demanding to lift parliamentary immunity, change electoral system to an open-party list, and create a National Anticorruption Court.

President Petro Poroshenko took immediate steps to speed up the legislative process to address the three demands raised by the protestors. As a result, the legislators agreed to fast-rack a bill stripping members of parliament of immunity from persecution possibly as early as next year. Parliament also started discussing the possibility of changing the electoral system. Finally, President Poroshenko promised to sign a law launching the anti-corruption court by the end of the year.

However, it is important to note that scholars still know very little about corruption, why some countries succumb to it, and most importantly how to eradicate it. Certainly, more research is needed on the topic, especially since Ukraine is definitely not the only country struggling with corruption. This year alone, on these pages we have reported on the corruption scandals at the highest levels of government in Brazil, Romania, South Korea and Guatemala, among others.

Although protestors in many countries in the world, including Ukraine, rightly demand the enactment of anti-corruption reforms and the elimination of corruption, these do take time. Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have that much time. In their 2015 article, Rosas and Manzatti found that victims of corruption are more likely to punish presidents and governments that condone or engage in corruption. Furthermore, “those that suffer corruption and find themselves in a situation of poor economic performance are even more likely to offer pessimistic assessments of the siting president” [2]. Only 18 months are left before the next presidential elections in Ukraine. Given the levels of inflation and struggling unemployment figures, Ukrainian citizens are likely to hold the president accountable for failing to curb corruption in the next elections. Therefore, to improve his chances of winning the re-election, President Poroshenko will need to show progress in reducing corruption in the country or at least to take significant steps toward it.

Notes

[1] Lough, John. 2017. “Anti-corruption Reforms” in Ash, Timothy et al. Chatham House Report: The Struggle for Ukraine.

[2] Rosas, Guillermo and Luigi Manzatti. 2015. “Reassessing the trade-off hypothesis: How misery drives the corruption effect on presidential approval,” Electoral Studies 39: 26-38.

Rui Graça Feijó – On forest fires and Portuguese semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Since late 2015, Portugal has had a minority government led by the Socialist Party – the second largest in the House – and supported by some sort of confidence and supply agreement with the two parties to its left that provide it with a majority in critical moments. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, from the centre-right, was elected a few months after the new government, was reluctantly inaugurated by the outgoing President Cavaco Silva, and distanced himself from the right-wing coalition in parliament and the legacy of his presidential predecessor who wanted the new president to dissolve the House and call fresh elections. Instead, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stated publicly that the government would have until the local elections scheduled for October 2017 the chance to prove  its value and capacity. In between time – and in spite of some gestures to appease his electorate – the president did not stop supporting the prime minister and never questioned his legitimacy. In an earlier post, I discussed the possibility that a form of co-government was emerging nicknamed “Costelo” (an amalgam of  PM Costa and President Marcelo). This support was highlighted last June when the country was hit by a severe forest fire (with over 60 casualties) and the President stepped in to claim that “all that was humanly possible had been done”, backing up the government in the face of mounting popular shock for the failure of the civilian protection system.

On October 1, local elections returned a very comfortable victory for the Socialist party – as if the government had been excused for its June failure and in the recognition that new economic and financial policies had largely turned the page of austerity, offering the prospect not only of economic growth, unemployment reduction, deficit control, but more importantly, the recovery of some purchasing power and improved conditions of access to social utilities by millions of Portuguese. The right-wing parties were defeated – and this is particularly true of the largest one, the PPD/PSD, whose leader and former PM announced that he would step down when fresh party elections are called in January. In the face of these results, there would be no reason for the president to challenge the legitimacy of the government or to change his previous stance.

However, on Sunday October 15, a new wave of forest fires broke out, claiming another 45 victims. This second fire exposed the fragility not only of decades-old forest policies, but the inability of the current government to draw adequate conclusions from the June events – it had merely asked for an “independent inquiry” lasting over three months, with little having been done in the meantime to reform the civilian protection authority, which is ravaged by scandals. The shock in the country was even bigger than in June: twice the government had badly failed those who live far away from Lisbon.

After a very uninspired speech by the PM, the President took a bold initiative. He addressed the country from the heart of the ravaged areas. In a short sentence, he asked for a “new cycle of policies” that will force the government to consider “what, by whom, how and when” these new policies are to be devised and implemented. He mentioned that budgetary priorities should be considered again – this was only three days after the budget had been formally presented in the House. And he made it clear that the government needed to refresh its parliamentary legitimacy – either by presenting a confidence motion or winning a no-confidence motion presented by the right wing CDS party, which had fared quite well in the local elections. Unless his plea was heard, he would make use of “all his constitutional powers” to see that the Portuguese would not be let down yet another time, implying he might choose to dismiss the PM or dissolve the parliament. His popularity soared to the point that a left-of-centre commentator wrote: this is the example we can tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us why do we elect a President by universal, direct vote. Only a small number of voices claimed that the President had overstepped his competences. The last barometer (Expresso online, 17 November) shows that the president is the only politician who has risen in popularity to a very high net figure of 62.5% (70% positive, 7.5% negative opinions).

The government responded by immediately accepting the resignation of the minister in charge of Home Affairs. It held a special meeting of the cabinet to approve a string of measures to fight forest fires and reform forest policies which met the approval of the President. It announced that new items would be incorporated in the budget before the final vote. It defeated the no-confidence motion in parliament – although the left-wing partners kept a critical stance during the debate and did not approve all the government’s decisions on this issue. In brief, even if some of this activity was anticipated before the presidential speech, the government was seen as responding to the President’s ultimatum.

This episode lasted less than a week but has shown very clearly that the President, who is a professor of constitutional law, interprets his relations with government not only on a merely institutional basis – as some still argue ought to be his role – but that he believes the government must enjoy political confidence. In his view, the President has the power to oversee government policies and take action if he considers them to be failing to secure minimum standards – as was the case of the forest fires. Here we touch upon a critical point in the definition of the subtype of semi-presidentialism that exists in Portugal, as the dynamics of the relations of power are clearly at stake. The constitutional definition of a dual responsibility of the PM both before the President and the parliament cannot simply be divided in two: a political confidence vis-à-vis the House, a merely institutional confidence regarding the President, as much of the literature on Portugal has sustained. Marcelo has made it clear that, as long as he is President, he enjoys the right to set political boundaries to the action of the government. Going further than merely stating “strategic goals” aimed at capturing a “broad consensus (and being timid in the actual formulation of specific policies), Marcelo is moving one step forward. Take the example of the issue of the homeless. He has publicly asked the government to prepare measures aimed at eradicating homelessness by the end of his term (2021), but rather than waiting for the prime minister to present him with the government’s proposals and discussing the matter with him, Marcelo promoted meetings (which he chaired) to which he “invited” the junior minister in charge of the dossier, plus a number of national NGO’s and, critically, representatives of the Church – intervening directly in the design of public policies in tune with his “social-christian” (and rather assistencialist) personal views on the issue. This is an example of a presidential intervention in the formulation of public policies with few precedents.

It has been assumed that, in semi-presidential systems, there is an inbuilt pendulum which sometimes favours a “presidentialisation” of the situation, and which at other times oscilates in the opposite direction. One well-known commentator proposed thinking of the current situation as “semi-presidentialism of assembly”, given the fact that parliament played such an important role in the formation of Antonio Costa’a government. In other words, when parliaments have solid majorities, the role of the president tends to be less prominent than when different solutions emerge in the House. The example of President Marcelo somewhat defies this “rule”. Confronted with a minority government supported by a majority that has shown no signs of fracturing on critical issues, Marcelo has nevertheless created a high political profile for himself, intervening on a daily basis in the media on everything – as if he were still the political commentator that he was for fifteen years on prime time TV. His influence is directly linked with his popularity (a problem that the previous president, Cavaco Silva, felt acutely during his second term). And President Marcelo’s popularity – which he considers to be his best political asset – comes from a combination of support for the popular measures of the government and incisive criticism of its failures

Much as he is inclined to respect the formal political legitimacy derived from the existence of a majority in the House and to be willing to cooperate with the PM, President Marcelo’s speech on October 17, 2017 marked a decisive moment in the debate on the nature of the relations between the president and the PM in the Portuguese semi-presidential system in a way that emphasized the political competences of the head of state, and thus the double nature of the dependency of the prime minister before both the House and the President. There may be a time when those competences are more dormant, others when they surface more vigorously – but they remain in the DNA of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

Czech Republic – Between parliamentary and presidential elections

A couple of weeks ago parliamentary elections were held in the Czech Republic. The country is also awaiting another electoral contest, the presidential election, which will be held in January 2018. To be sure, by far the most important elections are the parliamentary elections, because the president does not have enough power to affect major policies in the country (neither in terms of formal constitutional competencies, nor in terms of real power as Czech presidents have traditionally lacked a strong partisan background, which would allow them to gain additional leverage in the Czech politics). Yet, presidential elections can hardly be labelled as second-order, because the office is highly prestigious and presidential activities have traditionally been closely followed by media and general public. In addition, the president plays a very important role in the government formation process, which is currently a key political issue in the Czech politics.

The two elections are intertwined: the parliamentary elections will lead to a new government, but central to the government formation process, which is under way, is the president, who has the power to appoint the prime minister and on his proposal further government members. At the moment, there is no clear parliamentary majority – one that would back a new government in future a vote of confidence. Thus, it is clear that the president’s preferences and involvement in negotiations are of crucial importance. Moreover, the current president, Miloš Zeman, is seeking re-election. His participation in the government formation process might influence whether or not parliamentary parties will decide to support him in the presidential elections.

Before turning to the issue of the upcoming presidential election, it is useful to briefly summarise the major outcomes of the parliamentary elections:

1.) The Czech Republic has now a highly fragmented parliament with nine parties.

2.) The clear victor was ANO 2011, a populist movement led by a wealthy entrepreneur and former vice-prime minister and minister of finance (2014-2017), Andrej Babiš. His movement scored almost 30% of the vote.

3.) There are three parliamentary newcomers: the Pirate Party with 10.8%, the radical right-wing populists in the Party of Direct Democracy (SPD) with 10.6% and the liberal pro-European “Mayors and Independents” (STAN) with 5.2%.

4.) A relative success for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which received about 11% of the vote and which recovered from its 2013 defeat, when it suffered its lowest ever electoral result (7.7%). The liberal-conservative ODS was the main ruling party from 1992-1997 and 2006-2013.

5.) Electoral disaster for the traditional left-wing parties: the Social Democrats (ČSSD), who won the 2013 elections and who led the previous government coalition cabinet, ended up with 7.3% in 2017. The Communists (KSČM) dropped from 14.9% in 2013 to 7.8 % in 2017.

Although in mathematical terms various government coalitions are conceivable, ANO 2011 has so far been unable to negotiate an agreement with any of the parliamentary parties to support either a government coalition, or an ANO 2011-led minority cabinet. The key to understanding ANO 2011’s failure to find supporters in the Chamber of Deputies does not lie in the party’s program or policies. ANO 2011 is a centrist movement that does not display any strongly anti-European, far-right or far left elements. Instead, it lies in the person of Andrej Babiš. He is currently under investigation by the Czech Police as well as by the European Anti Fraud Office (OLAF) due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. Most parliamentary parties have refused to cooperate with Babiš, given the allegations and the police investigation. At the same time, Andrej Babiš can take most of the credit for the success of his movement, which approximates the concept of the business-firm party. Although ANO 2011 has several other remarkable members, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it is a one-man party. However, Babiš’ problems or even scandals (e.g. evidence that Babiš was an agent of the former Communist Secret Police; allegations about the controversial methods through which he became billionaire in the 1990s) were well-known and were discussed in the media even before he entered parliament in 2013. In 2017 Babiš won the highest share of preferential votes of all other politicians. In other words, a significant part of the electorate tolerates Babiš’ problems as exemplified by the ANO 2011’s election victory and his personal popularity.

Moreover, Babiš gained another powerful supporter – the Czech president Miloš Zeman, who authorized Babiš to form a new government cabinet in early November and who disregarded all the controversies connected to Andrej Babiš. The media have speculated that Babiš and Zeman have struck an informal deal: Zeman will not block Babiš to become the Prime Minister and Babiš’s ANO 2011 will not propose its own candidate for the 2018 presidential election, thus clearing the way for Zeman’s victory in the January contest. Although Babiš may not be able to command a parliamentary majority, the Czech constitution allows the president to appoint Babiš’ cabinet in a way that allows it to take office immediately after the appointment and start carrying out its functions. The newly appointed cabinet is obliged to ask the Chamber of Deputies for a confidence vote within 30 days of the appointment, but even if it fails to receive the confidence of the legislature, the president may authorize this cabinet to execute its functions until a new cabinet is formed. This will be again the president’s task. Thus, there is a possibility that the Czech Republic might have a government lacking parliamentary confidence for several weeks or months, a scenario President Zeman conceded.

Miloš Zeman is the first popularly elected president. His presidency has been marked by a number of controversies, such as his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese orientation; breaking several constitutional conventions and even constitutional provisions; and his relatively frequent use of vulgar terms in public. Yet, Miloš Zeman has been able to remain relatively popular among the general public, as he constantly travelled across the Czech Republic throughout  his term of office, visiting all Czech regions, meeting citizens of all occupations, age and social class, deliberately building an image of a popular and friendly president, who is able to talk and listen to any citizen. As a result, Miloš Zeman, enjoying an incumbency advantage, is currently the most likely winner of the first round of the 2018 presidential elections as a recent poll indicated. In order to get elected, the successful candidate has to receive more than 50% of votes. If none of the candidates fulfills this condition, a second round of the elections is held in two weeks after the first round. Only the two most successful candidates from the first round are allowed to participate in the second round. The candidate with highest number of votes is elected president.

Zeman is challenged by about a dozen other presidential candidates, but polls indicate that only two of them have a real chance of beating Zeman: the former director of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jiří Drahoš, and an musician, producer and entrepreneur, Michal Horáček. Zeman, though, struggles with yet another challenger – his health. Zeman’s ability to walk has visibly deteriorated recently and the media have been speculating about his other health troubles.

It is worth noting that none of the parliamentary parties nominated its own party candidate for the presidential contest. Three factors may explain this unusual pattern. First, there has been a tradition of non-partisan presidents in the Czech Republic. Voters prefer politically neutral presidents. Although the last two Czech presidents, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, had originally been the leaders of the largest parliamentary parties, they entered the presidential office as neutral persons who did not side with any political party. Thus, a strictly partisan appeal may be detrimental to a candidate’s chance. Second, traditional political parties in the Czech Republic are on the defensive, as they are not trusted as exemplified by the 2017 election results. They are reluctant to put up their own candidates out of fear that they may completely fail in the presidential elections, which was the case of partisan candidates in the 2013 presidential elections. The far-right or far-left parties are well aware of the fact that their candidates have only a theoretical chance of winning. Third, some parties simply act tactically – by pushing their own presidential candidates, parties might hinder the chances of a candidate, who is politically inclined towards them. This was the case with the Communists in the 2013 presidential election, because their voters preferred Miloš Zeman. In principal the same tactics can be now seen with ANO 2011.

The presidential campaign has already started, but on 7th November the list of candidates for the presidential office was closed. This was the deadline for official candidate submissions. They must be supported by one of the following ways:  50,000 signatures of voters, 10 signatures from the Senate, or 20 members of the Chamber of Deputies.

At the moment it seems that a minority ANO 2011 cabinet and Miloš Zeman’s re-election are the most likely scenarios in 2018, although other alternatives remain open too.

Alexander Bürgin – Leadership of the European Commission President: An Assessment of Juncker’s Organisational Reforms

This is a guest post by Alexander Bürgin, Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor at Izmir University of Economics. It is based on his recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

When Jean-Claude Juncker took office as Commission President on November, 1, 2014, he set out to establish a more political and less technocratic Commission, implying a focus on a smaller number of priority projects, and a stronger top-down steering. This was intended to enable the Commission to shed its image as a bureaucracy responsible for over-regulation, and to strengthen its profile in areas where EU governance is potentially more effective than national regulations (European Commission, 2014, p. 2). To facilitate his political leadership inside the Commission, he introduced seven Vice-Presidents, each responsible for the coordination of a team of Commissioners working on a specific priority project. In addition, Juncker further increased the Secretariat General’s (SG) staff numbers and range of competences in the coordination of the services. To strengthen the Commission’s leadership role within the EU system, Juncker assigned to the Vice-Presidents the task of organising the representation of the Commission in their area of responsibility in the EP, Council and national parliaments (European Commission, 2014, p. 5). A special role is foreseen for the newly established post of the First Vice-President, responsible inter alia for the coordination of the inter-institutional work on policy programming and the ‘better regulation agenda’.

Intra- institutional Leadership

Among the 37 experienced officials from the Commission, the Council, and the EP whom I interviewed between April 2015 and January 2017, there was a consensus that Juncker’s reforms have contributed to a centralisation of the coordination process in three regards. First, interviewees highlighted the specific filter function of the First Vice-President. It was argued that whereas in the past, the working programme was a rather bottom-up process, making it difficult for Barroso to impose his will, it is now a centralised, top-down process, steered by the First Vice-President. Second, it was also a common view that the introduction of project teams leading Vice-Presidents has promoted coordination at an earlier stage, and thus has improved strategic political decision-making among the Commissioners, providing stronger policy guidance to the services, which are constrained to a more executive role. Finally, interviewees considered the reduced number of Commissioners with a specific portfolio as beneficial for a more centralised coordination.

As regards the role of the SG, a majority of interviewees considered that the SG has significantly gained in importance since the end of the Barroso Commission. Interviewees highlighted that due to new units, the SG has become less dependent on the input from the DGs. Furthermore, there was a wide agreement that the increase in coordination meetings between the services, chaired by the SG, has reduced the discretion level of the respective lead DG, which in the past, could neglect aspects raised by other DGs in the early stage of the policy-formulation process, and be assured that, due to time constraints, the initial draft of the lead DG could only be slightly amended in the subsequent inter-service consultation.

Inter-institutional Leadership

As concerns the leadership of the Commission within the EU system, there was a consensus among the interviewees that the internal reforms are beneficial for the Commission’s leadership in inter-institutional relations. Three main arguments have been offered. First, interviewees stated that the frequent contacts between the First Vice-President or the Vice-Presidents and the EP confer greater political weight to the Commission’s positions, as they are able to present a topic from a more holistic perspective than Commissioners, who, in the past, often focussed on technical messages from their portfolio perspective. It was emphasised that the political rather than more technical language used today better corresponds to the MEP’s expectations. Furthermore, interviewees mentioned the more active SG role in the EP’s committees. Interviewees stated that while the SG used to have rather a note-taking role, the SG now often presents the Commission’s position in its function as chef de file, or monitors whether the line DG’s communication fits with the priorities of the Commission President. A final argument was that the coordination in project teams has led to a trend towards proposing legislative packages, covering items of several policy areas, making it difficult for the EP to unpack the package. It was argued that the EP struggles sometimes with the Commission’s package approach, because it obliges rapporteurs of different committees, and often, from different political parties, to write a common draft report, a practise to which they are not yet used to.

In addition to the organisational reforms, a broad majority of the interviewees stressed that Juncker’s leadership vis-à-vis the member states had benefited from the new appointment process. The cooperation between Juncker, the then EP-President Martin Schulz and the Chairmen of EPP and S&D have been characterized as close as in a coalition government, thus increasing the common negotiation power of Commission and EP towards the member states. Interviewees stressed that the strong coordination with the EP contributed to the Commission’s courage to start initiatives which the Barroso Commission would not have dared to launch, such as for instance some features of the banking union which were against German interests. As an additional factor strengthening the main EP’s parties support for Juncker, interviewees mentioned the increased number of anti-European parliamentarians since the last election, making a grand coalition between EPP and S&D more important than ever.

These findings contest the accounts which describe a decline in the Commission’s leadership capacity, and which emphasize a trend towards a ‘new intergovernmentalism’ (Bickerton et al., 2015). The evidence from the interviews rather suggests that Juncker has in fact further cemented the presidentialization of the Commission, and has successfully improved the Commission’s political leadership capacity in the dialogue with Council and EP. These findings resonate with previous accounts which challenge the ‘new intergovernmentalist’ view of a Commission in decline (Nugent and Rhinard, 2016; Peterson 2015, p. 207).

References

Bickerton, C. J., Hodson, D. and Puetter, U. (eds) (2015) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

European Commission (2014) ‘Communication from the President to the Commission, The Working Methods of the European Commission 2014-2019’, C(2014)9004, 11 November.

Nugent, N. and Rhinard, M. (2016) ‘Is the European Commission Really in Decline?’ Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 54, No. 5, pp. 1199-1215.

Peterson, J. (2015) ‘The Commission and the New Intergovernmentalism: Calm within the Storm’. In Bickerton, C. J. et al. (eds) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 185-207.

France – Emmanuel Macron’s triple language

French Presidents regularly have difficulty in ensuring a good fit between their political actions (‘doing’) and their political speech (‘saying’). De Gaulle cultivated a rarified political parole: but his interventions at the height of the May ’68 events were out of touch with the popular movement and the new generation of baby boomers that was contesting the established order. Georges Pompidou (1969-1974) was notoriously ill-at-ease with the New Society of his premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1969-72). Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) sought to reach out to the people at the early stages of his presidency (inviting himself to dinner amongst ‘ordinary’ people), before the presidential parole became rarer as the misfit between proximity and the presidential function and personality became more manifest. Francois Mitterrand deliberately cultivated a mysterious, ambiguous language, consecrated in the image of the Sphinx, the mysterious Egyptian god. Closer to home, Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was left speechless during a televised campaign debate during the 2005 Europe referendum, as he was unable to comprehend the Euroscepticism expressed by young people. Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term (2007-2012) was deeply transgressive, not least at the level of his political language which descended to hitherto unfathomable depths (the famous ‘get lost, you loser’ [‘casse-toi pauvre con’] launched against an opponent at the Paris Agriculture show in 2008). François Hollande appeared to lack a consistent legitimising discourse to justify the main reforms of his presidential term, at least during the 2012-2014 period.

In practice, Macron appears still to be searching for a harmonious mix of language and practice. The young President is torn between two rival imperatives, each of which has discursive ramifications. First, to reinvest the presidential office with the dignity and abstraction that (in the view of Macron) proved beyond his three predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. The dignified part of the constitution incites the President to appear above the fray, above party, exercising a rare presidential parole, invested with wisdom and guided by the heavy charge of leading the national destiny. The early acts of the Macron presidency were quasi-regal in their symbolism. This positioning corresponds to the early period of the Macron Presidency, the courting of the image of Jupiter that was discussed in the previous blog. The sudden drop in popularity over the summer 2017 highlighted the dangers of this stance.

The second presidential imperative is the political need to confront the people with the harsh realities of France’s situation, along with the increasingly explicit blaming of the previous administration for current difficulties . The linguistic component of this claimed transparency is one of telling the truth, ‘saying’ as a prelude and accompaniment to ‘doing’. In his first TV interview since being elected (October 15th), Macron repeated pointedly ‘I do what I say’, a stance that recalled the ‘telling the truth’ mantra of former premier Michel Rocard (1932-2016). Implicit in this stance is the promise of a clear legitimising discourse around change (why it is necessary and what it implies), as well as a pedagogical commitment to justify the need for change or at least to convince doubters of the well-founded and necessary nature of reforms. This pedagogical ambition is arguably appropriate and necessary, given the ambitious reforms enacted or announced during first six months of the Macron presidency (in the field of labour law, unemployment insurance, social security, pensions, training: all fields where the previous administration is deemed to have failed). A carefully stage-managed pedagogy, based on the capacity of reason, even philosophical justification, is required to convince, to persuade, to carry the day. The second dimension involves the President coming down from his discursive pedestal and leading from the helm: the dangers of a hyper-president are assumed, though the risk is evident that Macron will eventually become discredited by the unpopularity of the measures he proposes (as did his predecessor Sarkozy). One interesting dimension of this transparency agenda is that it has been linked to France’s neo-Protestant moment, with Macron reputedly emphasising the Protestant values of individual rigour, effort, wealth creation and responsibility (The reference to neo-protestantism is that of Regis Debray, however, not Macron himself. See Regis Debray, Le nouveau pouvoir Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2017).

In practice, presidential language has appeared too often to tread water, drifting somewhat uneasily between these two registers. The early months of Macron’s presidency demonstrate a clash of linguistic registers. On the one hand, Macron speaks a language that the people have rarely spoken, replete with references to classicism and metaphors of a by-gone age. The recent (October 15th) TV interview concluded with the use of expressions such as truchement (the literal translation of truchement is by, or through) and croquignolesque (which, in old familiar language, signifies risible, though its usage is very rare for someone of Macron’s generation). Henceforth, this antiquated register must compete with against a popular (not to say populist) political language, designed to counter the image that Macron is the President of the Rich. For the 2018 budget has witnessed a minor rebellion from within the ranks of the LRM deputies. The decision to suppress the wealth tax (l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) and replace it with a property tax (impôt sur la fortune immobilière) caused unease amongst former Socialist deputies in particular. Under pressure, the government agreed to amendments whereby totems of ostensible wealth, such as yachts, fast cars and gold, will still be subject to wealth taxes.

In a register close to that of former President Sarkozy, Macron has taken to speaking the language of the people, criticising the lazy (‘les faineants’) who don’t want to work; professing ‘I’m not Father Christmas’, when faced with demands for Guyanese demonstrators for the massive aid and development package promised by the previous government; lamenting the ‘unreformable character’ of the French, denigrating those ‘people who are nothing’ who took to demonstrating against his government’s reforms, and condemning the ‘lazy’ and the ‘illiterate’. On occasion, Macron’s language has appeared callous and humiliating: such as the ‘bordel’ incident when he claimed that French workers being made redundant ought to look for new work rather than complain or demonstrate.

It is unclear whether the descent into popular language is deliberate (a carefully scheduled exercise in political communication) or reflects frustrations with the obstacles placed on the reformist path. Is it a simple example of cognitive dissonance or a deliberate strategy? Does it reflect Macron’s own frustration with the failure of the society to conform to the presidential desire for control? Probably. Macron is still forging a presidential style. The early positioning as Roman god Jupiter led to accusations of arrogance and distance from the people. A language based on reason and abstraction now coexists alongside something much more concrete, some might say vulgar: a language based on emotion, which probably betrays the President’s own frustrations and anger with the state of French society. The President is aware of the force of words, so much so that he was forced to clarify his use of language in his October 15th interview (” I do not speak to humiliate people’). Opinion surveys do little to suggest that such a regain of trust has taken place, however, and the image of arrogance has taken root. Only time will tell whether lasting damage has been done.

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Anna Fruhstorfer – The presidential election in Slovenia

The question of “will he need a runoff vote” was at the center of most news outlets’ attention prior to the presidential election in Slovenia in October 2017. He, the incumbent Borut Pahor, has been president since 2012 and was campaigning for re-election. Various polls suggested that he would already win the necessary absolute majority in the first round of the election. But Pahor fell short and won ‘only’ 47.1 percent with a low voter turnout of 43.5 percent. This now makes a second round of presidential elections in November necessary and thus gives his strongest contester Marjan Šarec a new chance to succeed. This election provides also “a large scale public opinion poll as well as a prequel to the parliamentary elections” (Bitenc 2017) – considering the results – a bleak outlook for the government. This post will focus on the two main candidates and their campaigns, describe the election results and discuss the chances for the two candidates to become the president in the run-off ballot.

During the first round of the presidential election a total of nine candidates ran for the office of Slovenian President (State Election Commission 2017). Presidential candidates are put forward by National Assembly deputies, political parties and the electorate. More precisely, according to the provisions of the Election Law of Slovenia, a candidate is required to fulfill at least one of the following requirements to be able to run: the support of either ten deputies; the support of at least one political party and three members of parliament (or the signatures of 3000 votes); or the signatures of 5000 voters (State Election Commission 2017). Most of the nine candidates were backed by parliamentary parties, among them Romana Tomc by the conservatives and Ljudmila Novak by the New Slovenia Christian-Democrats (Zerdin 2017).

Throughout the campaign the incumbent Borut Pahor and Marjan Šarec, the mayor of Kamnik (a town north of Ljubljana) were the two main contestants. Both candidates label themselves as more or less anti-parliamentary/establishment party politicians. This is a characterization that is particularly misleading for Borut Pahor. Already during the 2012 presidential campaign Pahor ran on an anti-establishment party platform, although he used to head the Slovenian government (until only a few months before the presidential election in 2012) and was chairman of the Social Democrats. During the 2017 campaign he ran again as independent and for example used the campaign to walk 700 km throughout Slovenia in an attempt to get to know local people (Novak 2017).

Marjan Šarec, who won 25% of votes during the first round, ran on the so-called List of Marjan Šarec. Both during the campaign but also now heading towards the runoff vote, Šarec pledged to provide change and to nominate a new generation of people for official posts. He also criticized Pahor for being rather a celebrity than a statesman (news outlets describe Pahor as instragram president due to his avid use of the application). This campaign issues have to be described within the context of the constitutional provisions concerning the Slovenian President. The 1991 constitution provides only a limited amount of constitutional power to the president. But presidents have established a – at times – powerful role in politics and are expected to fulfill a role of a non-partisan leader. As described in an earlier blog post, the Slovenian President is directly elected with an absolute majority in the first round (Art. 103). Slovenian Presidents do not participate in cabinet meetings, they hardly have any competences for times of crisis, yet a countersignature – e.g. by the prime minister – is not stipulated in the constitution. Without competences in the legislative process (no legislative veto and no legislative initiative; Art. 91 and 88), the president gains power mainly through the nomination and appointment procedure for the prime minister. In addition, “[…] in Slovenia the presidency depends very much on the charisma, political style and ambitions of the person holding the office” (Krašovev and Lajh 2008, 217; see also Cerar 1999). Thus, Slovenia has provided us with both restrained but also very active presidential leadership. Despite some instances that Borut Pahor is a representative of the latter type, with the end of his first term as president, it is safe to say that he was most of the times restrained and not involved in decisive political decisions. In the second round, Pahor is certainly the favorite, but the runoff will attract voters from different backgrounds for Šarec and he might be in for a surprise. It will not be unusual for the incumbent to serve only one term, Danilo Türk was the incumbent in 2012 and lost against Pahor in the runoff vote, and Janez Drnovšek decided to not run for a second term in 2007.

Literature

Bitenc, Aljaž Pengov (2017): A Preliminary Guide to Slovenia’s Presidential Elections, in: http://balkanist.net/a-preliminary-guide-to-slovenias-presidential-elections/

Cerar, Miro. 1999. “Slovenia.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 232–59.
Krašovec, Alenka, and Damjan Lajh. 2008. “Semi-presidentialism in Slovenia.” In Elgie and Moestrup, Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe, 201–18.

Lukšič, Igor. 2010. “Das politische System Sloweniens.” In Die politischen Systeme Osteuropas, edited by Wolfgang Ismayr, 729-772.

Novak, Marja (2017): Polls open as Slovenian president runs for his second mandate,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-slovenia-election/polls-open-as-slovenian-president-runs-for-his-second-mandate-idUSKBN1CR05R?il=0

State Election Commission (2017): http://www.dvk-rs.si/index.php/en/where-and-how-to-vote/the-electoral-system-in-slovenia

Zerdin, Ali (2017): Slovenia’s president wins most votes, but faces runoff, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/slovenians-choose-president-as-pahor-seeks-re-election/2017/10/22/c92d384c-b6f8-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.d460494591ba