Category Archives: Europe

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership

 

This post was co-authored by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius.

Despite almost three decades of empirical research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister and her cabinet on the other. Our new book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership, published in the Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics series, breaks thus new ground by exploring how intra-executive coordination works (and does not work) in three European countries with roughly similar constitutional frameworks – Finland, Lithuania, and Romania.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with select informants (primarily ministers and civil servants from the offices of the president and the prime minister with long-standing experience of intra-executive coordination), official documents, as well as secondary material such as politicians’ memoirs, the purpose of our book was to go beyond cohabitation and constitutional powers and to dig deeper into the relations between the two executives. Our basic premise was straightforward: the less there is formal, regular coordination between the two leaders, the more there is space for presidential activism. Formal coordination mechanisms in a sense tame or constrain presidents – and should overall contribute to smoother intra-executive relations.

When deciding on our case selection, we wanted to compare countries that have sufficiently similar constitutional regimes but display variation regarding the socio-economic context and the dynamics of party politics. The presidents of Finland, Lithuania, and Romania enjoy broadly comparable constitutional prerogatives, although the Finnish presidency is vested with somewhat weaker powers. However, the difference lies not so much in constitutional rules as in the socio-economic context. Finland is an old democracy known for its political stability and low level of corruption. The constitutional reform process that culminated in the new unified constitution of 2000 was an orderly, calm process based on broad party-political consensus. Lithuania and Romania, in turn, are much younger democracies that needed to rapidly adopt new constitutions in the heated circumstances of the early 1990s. Their party systems tend to be less stable, with political parties often vehicles for the personal ambitions of individual politicians. Both countries, particularly Romania, have also had serious problems with corruption. Not very surprisingly, Finns tend to trust their political institutions whereas Lithuanians and Romanians do not (at least no to the same extent).

Our main findings need to be understood in the context of these rather fundamental societal differences. In Finland the politicians and legal experts responsible for amending the constitution opted for formal coordination instruments that essentially force the president and the prime minister to cooperate regularly. The Finnish president chairs the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and meets both the prime minister and the foreign minister on an almost weekly basis. But perhaps even more important is the legacy of Urho Kekkonen, who ruled the land with an iron hand for quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981. There was a shared understanding among the political elites that the balance of power had shifted too far in favour of the president. There was thus the political will to significantly reduce the powers of the president, but also a recognition of the need to bind the president to governmental decision-making. In Finland it is still perceived inappropriate for the president to become involved in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the cabinet and the Eduskunta. This applies particularly to government formation, as one of the key factors contributing to the position of Kekkonen was his ability to basically dominate government formation processes, cherry-picking prime ministers and vetoing ministerial candidates and even the inclusion of whole parties in cabinets. Finnish presidents do not criticize the prime minister and the cabinet publicly. Disagreements do occur, but they are mainly handled behind the scenes without public conflicts.

In Lithuania and Romania, on the other hand, it is certainly both legitimate and appropriate for the president to interfere in matters that constitutionally belong to the competence of the government. The transition to democracy in the early 1990s provided a critical juncture in terms of institutional design. Both countries opted for a stronger presidency than in Finland and, more importantly, decided against specific rules about intra-executive coordination mechanisms. Neither country utilizes ministerial committees that would enable regular exchange between the president and the government. Even though the president meets the prime minister often, the frequency of such bilateral meetings is very much dependent on individual office-holders. Both countries also offer evidence of communication breakdowns, with the president or the prime minister simply refusing to talk to one another. Crucially, it is the president that holds the initiative regarding interaction with the prime minister or the government. The level and forms of intra-executive coordination are thus very much determined by the president. Lithuanian and Romanian presidents have adopted even quite confrontational stances, unleashing harsh attacks on the government.

An interesting dimension is party politics, or the role of political parties in facilitating or hindering presidential influence. In all three countries the president as the head of state is not formally a member of any party, but here we see notable variation. Romanian presidents are quite openly involved in the work of their parties: the presidents have attended various party congresses, maintain in general close ties with their parties, and even campaigned in favour of their parties in parliamentary elections. In Lithuania such party ties are much weaker, although we must remember that two of the three presidents, Adamkus and Grybauskaitė, were elected into office as independent candidates. In Finland the non-involvement of presidents in party politics is strictly observed. Future research should examine more closely how presidents use their parties or friendly legislative majorities to achieve policy goals. The Lithuanian and Romanian examples illustrate how ‘outsider’ presidents, such as Constantinescu and Iohannis, have found it much more difficult to shape politics than incumbents that have long experience from party politics.      

Our analysis indicates the buffet table of strategies available for presidents to wield influence. Apart from using their constitutional prerogatives, presidents make active use of informal channels: they meet with individual politicians, including party leaders, hold important public speeches that typically enjoy wide media coverage, and establish close links with various interest groups and citizens’ associations. Again such activities are not regulated by any laws. Previous research has very much focused on visible actions – presidential vetoes or the role of the president in forming and dissolving cabinets. These are clearly important dimensions that deserve to be examined, but influential presidents may not need to veto bills or reject governments. Given favourable circumstances, not least a friendly prime minister and a legislative majority, presidents can achieve a lot without leaving any public trace of her actions. This is why we deliberately relied heavily on interviews with people in key positions. If we want to understand how individual presidents behave, one simply must talk to such informants and identify how presidents seek to influence politics.  

An important and so far under-researched theme is the role of presidential staff. In Finland the size of the presidential office is very small, and hence the Finnish president is strongly dependent on preparatory work carried out by the government. In Lithuania and particularly in Romania the presidential palaces have generous staff levels, meaning that the presidents have, if required, the capacity to look into policy questions in much more detail and to prepare various political documents. A striking and perhaps also a surprising finding concerns the portfolios that the staff focus on. Most of the staff working for the Lithuanian and Romanian presidents deal with policy areas that fall under the competence of the government – economic policy, education, social and health affairs, culture etc. Importantly, these persons follow developments in the ministries and the legislature, maintain active links with interest groups and other shareholders, and in general try to generate support for the positions and initiatives of the president. Future research on political leadership should therefore pay close attention to advisors and other staff, including of course also in the office of the prime minister.

Intra-executive coordination is most institutionalized and regular in foreign and security policy. Finland uses a specific ministerial committee in foreign and security policy that meets around twice a month and brings together the president, the prime minister and other cabinet members. Lithuania and Romania utilize national security councils that meet less often but are convened to discuss various topical matters related to security policy. While there have been some public disputes or disagreements between the president and the government in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania, normally the goal of speaking with one voice in foreign and security policy is achieved. There is routine, day-to-day administrative interaction between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, and in all three countries the president meets the foreign minister on a regular basis.

The findings are thus in line with our theoretical expectations. The more there is formal and regular coordination, the less space for presidential activism – and vice versa. And in line with institutional theory, our book illustrates path dependency and the stickiness of initially adopted courses of action. We also provide further evidence of some of the negative features often associated with presidents and semi-presidential regimes. Most of the intra-executive conflicts or tensions in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania result from actions of the president. At the same time we must underline the exploratory nature of our research. Our analysis covered only three countries, and thus the number of individual presidents in our data set was small. Various presidential activities – from public speeches, party links, to ties with various stakeholders – could be subjected to much closer examination and be linked to data on intra-executive conflicts or legislative vetoes. Finally, our research design and data should not be understood as criticism of more quantitatively oriented studies. However, an in-depth understanding of presidential behaviour and how the two executives work together is not possible without reaching ‘behind the scenes’ and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of intra-executive coordination.   

Turkey – Is there a way out of Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism?

In the March 2019 local elections President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party suffered a blow when it lost almost all big cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Adana and Antalya, to the opposition (the Nation Alliance of the Republican Peoples Party/CHP, the Good Party/IP). The greatest loss was undoubtedly Istanbul. Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising start of Turkish politics was a relatively unknown candidate for Istanbul before the election. He ran against the former PM Binali Yıldırım, but his real rival was President Erdoğan himself. President Erdoğan campaigned fiercely for his candidate, using state resources and public funds; the government controlled major media outlets ignored all opposition candidates, including Imamoglu.

Defying all obstacles, Imamoglu won the election with a small margin of 13.000 votes. The High Election Board, however, annulled the Istanbul mayoral election after the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alleged irregularities. While President Erdoğan called on the Board several times to rerun the election alleging vote rigging, the board found no evidence of election fraud. Its decision was based on a weak legal argument that certain ballot officers were not civil servants, despite the fact that they had been appointed and cleared by the Board itself.

Many Istanbul voters reacted negatively to this decision, convinced that the government had pressured the Board to cancel Imamoglu’s rightful victory. In the end, Imamoglu won again in the rerun, this time with more than 800.000 votes, thereby increasing his support nearly ten per cent in two months’ time. In a short time, Imamoglu transformed from a relatively unknown mayor of the not “so important district” of Beylikdüzü into a hugely popular politician, winning twice against president Erdoğan who had not lost a single election for a long time.

In the Turkish context, Imamoğlu’s victory may be more significant than a simple mayoral election win. President Erdoğan who was once the mayor of Istanbul himself, famously said that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Erdoğan’s regime has been said to have four distinct characteristics; electoral authoritarianism as its electoral system, neo-patrimonialism as its economic system, populism as political strategy, and Islamism as political ideology.[1] Losing big cities in general, and Istanbul in particular, has the potential to affect all four aspects.

Imamoğlu gives hope to people that it is still possible to win and transfer political power through the ballot box – meaning that Turkey’s electoral authoritarian regime is competitive in nature. There is an uneven playing field, but there may still be a slight window of opportunity for the opposition to gain political power through elections, no matter how unfair or unfree they are.

Imamoğlu’s campaign strategy was to reach people in the streets, talk, and listen without grand meetings. All major media outlets are controlled by Erdoğan and they all proved useless against this strategy. Erdoğan’s discourse is premised on the existence of an enemy. His often angry, divisive, and threatening rhetoric was beaten by Imamoğlu’s good natured, hopeful, inclusive, and pluralist approach. He has been backed not only by The Nation Alliance but also the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party/HDP and the conservative Happiness Party/SP. He managed to form a larger alliance to restore Turkish democracy which he called the “Istanbul coalition”. Many people believe that he now has an opportunity to create a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s regime by running Istanbul successfully. He might also prove that it is possible to beat populist, authoritarian politicians in their game.

As for the economic system, opposition wins in big cities including Istanbul means losing one of the biggest sources of patronage for the AKP. Funds and public companies run by mayors have been channels for charitable patronage as well as other types of economic “reward” and “punishment” mechanisms. Under the current poor economic conditions in Turkey, the government has been increasingly short of funds to feed its patron-client relations, especially through charitable patronage.

Campaigning fiercely for big cities, and especially for Istanbul and losing it twice, Erdoğan seems to find it hard to keep his political support intact. This display of political weakness affects his position as the patron of his neo-patrimonial regime, as the patron’s weakness pushes clients to search for other patrons or new positions under the changing conditions.  There are already signs of this happening as former Prime Minister Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Babacan have resigned from the AKP to form new parties. But the most important client disobedience has yet to come from the judicial elite which meters out punishments for the regime. The rule of law and constitutional rights have long been undermined in Turkey. Many journalists, academics, elected mayors, and members of parliaments have been imprisoned due to their opposition to Erdoğan’s regime.

As Erdoğan’s regime is rapidly losing legitimacy and funds to feed its patronage network, he may try to compensate by increasingly leveraging the judicial system to prosecute opponents. There is already a criminal case filed against the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and another case against Imamoğlu is to be filed. President Erdoğan has alleged that İmamoğlu insulted the governor of Ordu while visiting the town and the governor has declared his determination to file a criminal case, adding that Imamoğlu will lose his office if he is convicted. Erdoğan has also threatened breakaways from his party, saying that “they will pay the price for treachery”.

As for the ideological power of political Islam to support and sustain Erdoğan’s weakening regime, it is highly doubtful that it could replace legitimacy derived from the ballot box or economic performance, or that it could console voters for the lack of charitable patronage. In short, Erdoğan’s political charm is no longer unbeatable – there is a new rival in town charming voters by just being the opposite of everything that Erdoğan is.  


[1] Ihsan Yilmaz & Galib Bashirov (2018) The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey, Third World Quarterly, 39:9, 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371.

Lithuania’s new president to be sworn in on July 12, 2019

This is a guest post by Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University and Researcher at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania

On July 12th, Gitanas Nausėda will be sworn into office as president of the Republic of Lithuania.  Nausėda, who is 55, is a former chief economist at SEB bank. He defeated former Finance Minister Ingrida Šimonytė with 67% of votes in the second round of the presidential election. In his first address to the nation, on the evening election results were announced, Mr Nausėda promised that “from this day forward things will be different.”

Who is Gitanas Nausėda?

Lithuania‘s incoming president is a long-time chief economist of SEB bank, and an associate professor at the International Business School at Vilnius University. He has a degree in economics and holds a PhD in social sciences. He previously worked at the Competition Council of the Republic of Lithuania and at the Bank of Lithuania. During the presidential election campaign, Nausėda declared his intention to unite Lithuania‘s political parties and increase political cohesion, promote the openness of the presidential institution, and seek to establish a welfare state. Nevertheless, the presidential election campaign and Nausėda‘s public pronouncements tell us little of his political character and personality.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr Nausėda demonstrated openness, participated in debates, visited Lithuania‘s regions and probably intended to distance himself from President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s style of communication. On the other hand, it has been difficult to pinpoint the ideology and main political principles that Mr Nausėda represents. Some analysts (such as Šarūnas Liekis) have referred to Gitanas Nausėda as a candidate who lacks character and is supported by business interest groups.

The composition of the president‘s team does not shed much further light on the new president‘s political program. The formation of the president‘s team is still underway and its membership remains unclear.  Although the new president has not been communicative about his new advisors, he has made it clear that he prefers professionals from academia and the diplomatic corps to political party members. So far, only a couple of names are known: Aistis Zabarauskas, who was responsible for communication during Nausėdas‘ election campaign, and Povilas Mačiulis, a former vice mayor of the Kaunas city municipality. Among potential foreign policy advisors, the name of Linas Kojala, director of Eastern Europe Studies Center, a PhD student at Vilnius University, was mentioned, but Mr Kojala declined the offer. Under circumstances such as these, when a president does not have extensive political experience, his choice of domestic and foreign policy advisors might give a strong indication of his future politics, but in this case Lithuanians will have to wait a bit longer.

Why did Gitanas Nausėda win the presidential election?

When Gitanas Nausėda announced his decision to run for president in the autumn of 2018, some analysts (Kęstutis Girnius, for instance) were sceptical about his chances to win the election as an independent, nonpartisan candidate without experience in politics. However, during the presidential campaign, public opinion polls (SPINTER, Baltijos tyrimai, Vilmorus) constantly mentioned Mr Nausėda as one of the top presidential candidates.

Several factors could have contributed to Nausėda‘s victory in the presidential election. First may actually have been the fact that he ran as an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Some analysts claim that in Lithuania‘s presidential election many people voted not for Gitanas Nausėda, but against Ingrida Šimonytė who was supported by the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. During the presidential election campaign, Gitanas Nausėda consistently highlighted his independence from any political party. This proved to be a wise strategy since Lithuanians do not trust political parties. Public polls demonstrate that political parties are the least trusted political institution in Lithuania: according to the latest polls (Vilmorus: June 2019), only 6.2% of Lithuanians trust political parties (in comparison, 58.2% of Lithuanians trust the presidential institution). Second, Nausėda‘s opponent‘s election campaign was not aggressive enough: under criticism for poor management of the 2008 financial crisis (she was Finance minister back then), Ingrida Šimonytė chose to talk about future plans instead of effectively countering criticism of her past performance. Third, for some of the voters Gitanas Nausėda embodied an example of the classical ideal family, in contrast to his opponent and current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Finally, Lithuania‘s 2019 presidential election once again shows that the electorate tends to vote for „hope“ and new faces in politics.

How might Nausėda‘s foreign policy look like?

So far, it seems that the new president will follow up on his earlier expressed foreign policy ideas. It is already known that for the first official state visit the new president of Lithuania will continue a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus (interrupted by D. Grybauskaitė) by going to Poland (the visit is scheduled for 16 July). Soon after the election, Mr Nausėda also reaffirmed his intention to maintain the current foreign policy line towards Russia, while also claiming that he will aim to be more diplomatic. The current minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius, states that there will not be any strategic changes in Lithuania‘s foreign policy.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Nausėda expressed support for Lithuania‘s status quo policy and pro-Western orientation based on membership in NATO and the European Union: he claimed to perceive the United States as a security guarantor and one of the most important allies of Lithuania; emphasized the importance of a value-based foreign policy and a strict position towards Russia; underscored the need for stronger cooperation with Poland; and stressed the need for closer cooperation with Latvia and Estonia, and for regular meetings with Baltic leaders.

Some analysts claim that in the 2019 presidential election the Lithuanian electorate demonstrated its political maturity. Indeed, Lithuanians gave their support for the candidates with a declared pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation. On the other hand, the electorate voted in the second round for the candidate who does not have any political experience. Thus, Lithuania‘s presidential election results still confirm a general trend to vote for new faces in politics.


Finland: a left-leaning five-party government shares power with a conservative president

After the latest Eduskunta election in Finland, held on 14 April, it seemed almost self-evident that the new government would be formed around the Social Democrats and the National Coalition (conservatives). The Social Democrats had won the election by a narrow margin and would thus be leading the government formation talks. Yet Antti Rinne, the chair of the Social Democrats, managed to essentially surprise everyone by announcing that he would try to form a five-party government that includes the Social Democrats, the agrarian / liberal Centre Party (that had suffered a massive defeat in the elections), the Green League, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party.

Rinne’s background is in the trade union movement, and it is probable that his experience of tough bargaining in that environment contributed to the relative ease of the government formation process, with President Sauli Niinistö appointing the new government on 6 June. The Rinne cabinet controls 117 out of the 200 Eduskunta seats, thus continuing the Finnish tradition of ideologically heterogeneous surplus majority coalitions. The two main opposition parties are the populist / nationalist the Finns Party and the National Coalition.

The programme of the Rinne cabinet is very long indeed, 214 pages, a record for Finnish governments. Critics have argued that the programme is despite its length frustratingly vague, with a something-for-everyone approach that leaves many points open. Another line of criticism concerns the economic optimism of Rinne: unlike the previous Centre-led right-wing coalition that had introduced budget cuts, the programme of the Rinne government is full of promises about public sector investments. Indeed, during its first weeks the government has already announced more money for things like rail infrastructure and education. Rinne has defended this line by commenting that many of the public sector investments will depend on the health of the economy: if economic growth slows down, the government will re-think its strategy.

The April elections resulted in an important victory for the political left: the combined seat share of the Social Democrats, the Greens (which achieved their best-ever result in Eduskunta elections with 11,5 % of the vote), and the Left Alliance rose from 61 seats in 2015 to 76 in 2019. Notably all three leftist parties are included in the Rinne government. This is surely appreciated in the trade unions, as their societal legitimacy and influence is strongly dependent on the inclusion of Social Democrats in the cabinet. The government programme also contains many elements that were found in the election manifestos of the three leftist parties: investments in job creation, education, social and health care, and in preventing societal exclusion, and at least ambitious plans for tackling climate change.

Whether those ambitious plans will translate into concrete action remains to be seen. The same applies to the future of social and health services and social security. It was in the end the failure of the social and health reform package that brought down the Sipilä cabinet a month before the Eduskunta elections, and now the Rinne cabinet has taken a more cautious approach by not starting the whole project completely from scratch. Instead, it will utilize the preparatory work of previous governments and according to the government programme Finland will also get directly-elected regional councils, an important question for the Centre Party, but the timing of the first elections remains undecided. Overall, the Rinne government intends to re-introduce broad-based parliamentary committees to look into various issues.

In terms of EU and foreign policy, the government is definitely pro-EU but will most likely follow the line of previous cabinets in being lukewarm towards the deepening of economic integration, for example through creating an additional budget for the Eurozone or through changing the rules of the European Stability Mechanism. Finland will hold the EU presidency during the latter half of 2019, so Rinne will surely get a busy and demanding start to his premiership. The new foreign minister is Pekka Haavisto of the Green League who has long-standing experience from international organisations. It is unlikely that either Haavisto or Rinne will publicly challenge the highly popular President Niinistö who in recent years has strengthened his role in foreign and security policy (according to the Finnish constitution foreign policy is co-directed between the president and the government while EU policy is in the competence of the government). Yet this is the first time since 2012 that Finland will have divided government, with President Niinistö – elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition and in 2018 as an independent candidate but with strong backing from the conservatives – sharing power with the social democratic prime minister.

For outside observers the Rinne government may look like a strange beast, bringing together parties from the left and the right. Yet this is what Finns are used to: cabinets are typically oversized cross-bloc coalitions. While the media will no doubt keep a close eye on the government, an equally interesting question concerns the parliamentary opposition. Disappointment is quite widespread inside the National Coalition, as around two years ago it seemed likely that the party would win the 2019 elections. The party will hold a leadership election in the summer of 2020 and it is by no means certain that the current chair Petteri Orpo will emerge as the winner. The seating order in the Eduskunta was changed after the elections so that the Finns Party will sit next to the National Coalition at the right end of the chamber. Most National Coalition supporters want the party to keep a healthy distance to the Finns Party, but at least in economic issues the two parties have very similar positions. Given that the Rinne government will probably adopt liberal positions towards both climate change and immigration, the National Coalition will have to strike a delicate balance between pursuing liberal policies and joining forces with the Finns Party in attacking the cabinet.

President Vladimir Putin’s “Direct Line”

On 20 June 2019, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, took part in the annual “Direct Line” television show. The concept is simple: Russians submit questions on a wide range of topics for Putin to answer during a live broadcast.

This was the seventeenth such TV event since Putin was elected to the presidency in 2000. During his time as prime minister, 2008-2012, the show was called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin” – and, not to be left out, President Medvedev had his own “Results of the Year with the President of Russia”.

Reporting on “Direct Line” is dominated by numbers – not only viewership figures (which were down this year), but also the number of questions submitted (more than 1.5 million by the morning of the broadcast), the number of questions answered (81), the percentage of Russians planning to keep an eye on the show (75%), as well as the length of the broadcast (four hours and eight minutes).

The Kremlin reported that Putin was preparing right up until he went on air. The dutiful, conscientious, hard-working president pored over documents to learn about the state of the federation – meticulous training for the marathon phone-in itself. That was the image to be conveyed: dedication and endurance. And Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much: “The hallmark of this entire chain [sic] is the president’s ability to answer direct questions for many hours”.

Beyond demonstrating knowledge of, and interest in, the state of the country, the show also provides an opportunity for Putin to address citizens’ grievances. “Direct Line” allows the “good Tsar” to correct the errors of lower-level officials and to improve the lot of everyday Russians. Putin promised, for instance, to raise salaries for firemen and to provide additional support for young families. One of the show’s hosts, Yelena Vinnik, even said that “[p]roblems end as soon as Direct Line starts”. The intended takeaway is clear: if only Putin himself were able to deal with all Russian citizens’ problems personally, all would be well.

Following Putin’s pronouncements on various topics, it’s the job of officials to put them into action. For example, the steering body of the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly – planned to meet on 24 June to discuss how to turn Putin’s statements into legislation. Similarly, Putin said that regional heads should take careful notice of the problems mentioned by citizens during the show and take steps to remedy them. Already, the governor of Murmansk has fired one of his deputies in response to a complaint made during “Direct Line”.

The problem, of course, with “hands-on management” is its basic inefficiency. One clear, unintended signal from the “Direct Line” shows, therefore, is that the current system of state management isn’t working. If everyday problems require intervention from the head of state to be resolved, then delegation chains and lines of responsibility are not functioning as they should. For those citizens who “win the lottery” of having their problem taken on by Putin, life might get a bit better for a short time, but the flipside is that the vast majority of people’s problems are not addressed directly. And, even if a flurry of laws are produced following the show, this is far from a guarantee that things will actually change for the better for ordinary Russians.

Why, then, does Putin continue with the show? “Direct Line” is an opportunity for the president to perform his “direct” connection with the Russian people. Who needs formal political institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures when people can talk directly with the head of state? In one widely reported moment, Putin was on the verge of tears recalling the time a woman fell to her knees, handing him a piece of paper with a problem noted on it. Putin promised to look into the issue she raised, but the note was lost by one of his assistants. According to this narrative, a lowly functionary messed up, but Putin felt personal responsibility.

Although modern-day Russia has an authoritarian political system, Putin’s genuine popularity is crucial to the durability of the regime. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of revolution from the streets – it also reduces the likelihood of a palace coup, as second-tier elites are less sure of a viable coalition against the leader. Putin’s popularity is, of course, partly engineered through denying the emergence of potential rivals, as well as other mechanisms, such as media control. But it’s the end state of popularity that matters for the Kremlin, less so the means of getting there.

And Putin is more conscious than ever of the importance of popularity – and trust. Since the introduction of a deeply unpopular pension reform in 2018, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped markedly. So too have his trust ratings – to the extent that the Kremlin put pressure on a polling agency to revise its methodology to produce a rosier picture of Putin. Even still, the latest figures show a declining trend. Events like “Direct Line” will be seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to stop this decline.

For all of the problems of this “tired format”, “routinized” show, “Direct Line” is here to stay – as long as Putin is around. Even though the president’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to deny accusations that questions purportedly from citizens were actually written by Russian special services personnel, to cancel the show would be too risky – interpreted as a sign that Putin can’t handle the preparation workload or that he is no longer interested in the concerns of Russian citizens.

Even in light of all of this, Peskov is, apparently, puzzled as to why European leaders haven’t copied the “Direct Line” format. The answer should be clear: in consolidated democracies, institutions like parties, elections, and legislatures provide the machinery for accountability and responsiveness between the people and officials, reducing the need for the type of executive magnanimity on display in “Direct Line”. The president’s public intervention on certain problems might seem like good PR, but this format only perpetuates a system of personalist rule that’s increasingly vexed by the question of life after Putin. What happens when Putin no longer picks up the phone?

Outgoing Slovak President Andrej Kiska Starts a New Political Party

Today, two days after his five-year presidential term expired, former Slovak president Andrej Kiska officially announces the launch of his new political party. This is an unprecedented step in the country whose directly elected but largely ceremonial presidency normally represents a destination for ambitious politicians who wish for an honorable culmination of their political careers. Things seem to be changing, though: Kiska, a novice himself, was replaced by another political newcomer, an environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová, who also started her political career by winning the country’s presidency. Moreover, since 1918, when the Czechoslovak Republic was established, no Czechoslovak, Czech, and Slovak president ever returned to active party politics.

Earlier last year, Kiska decided to complete his term and quit active politics altogether. After the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in February last year that exposed links between elements of the criminal underworld and representatives of some state institutions, he announced he would forge a new political party. That was the only way, he claimed, that would allow him to fight against what he came to call “the mafia state.”

Although Kiska departed from the tradition of outgoing presidents retiring from political life, while in office, he nominally remained above party politics: He formally started collecting the required 10.000 signatures needed to establish his new party only after his presidential term ended.

Kiska acknowledged that he was in regular contacts with the former Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, a popular politician who quit politics in 2012. However, despite some speculations, Radičová said she would not return to politics and claimed she only provided political consultations to the outgoing president. Kiska’s new associates include a former Member of the European Parliament, a former spokesperson of the For Decent Slovakia civic initiative, a former Slovak Ambassador to NATO, and mayors of several towns elected in the 2018 local elections. It is widely expected that a few more senior politicians will join the party in the coming weeks and months.

Early opinion polls suggested potentially wide support for the project. In March 2019, some 9% voters said they would “definitely” vote for Kiska’s new party, and additional 31% said they would “probably” vote for it. Subsequent polls brought more mixed results: In May, the same agency reported a 10.8% support, while in June, another agency reported 6.2% support for the party. It would be a mistake to make far-reaching conclusions based on these assessments. Chances are the new party will become a relevant player in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March next year. As the massive anti-government protests in 2018 indicated, there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the parties of the current governing coalition. Furthermore, as first indicated in the November 2018 local elections, a new generation of political leaders can challenge the positions of the governing parties independently of the current parliamentary opposition. 

This “new wave” politicians represent a natural ally and also a potential competition for Kiska’s new party. The presidential aura and a level of “natural support” for the head of state are Kiska’s substantial assets, as is the fact that as a well-off former businessman, Andrej Kiska has money to finance the early period of his party. On the other hand, his competitors-cum-natural-allies have been in the campaign mode since late last year and were able to score two crucial victories at the national level: Zuzana Čaputová, who won the March presidential elections, was a nominee of the Progressive Slovakia (PS), a new liberal party, where she served as the deputy chairwoman until her election victory. And an electoral coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu (Together), another new center-right formation, won the May European Parliament elections, gaining 20.1% and four out of 13 Slovak seats in the European Parliament. The PS/Spolu alliance now regularly polls double-digit numbers. Leaders of the two parties have been in contact with Kiska since 2018 and reportedly offered him close cooperation, but their talks did not result in any tangible arrangement. On June 14, just before Kiska’s presidential mandate expired, the two leading representatives of the coalition held a joint press conference. There they announced they would form a formal electoral alliance for the 2020 parliamentary elections. They also repeatedly appealed to Kiska to join them. This time, however, the tone, timing, and wording of the appeal suggested the PS/Spolu gained more confidence and they no longer talked to Kiska from the positions of junior partners.

Kiska’s new party will also face formidable opponents in other parts of the political spectrum. The governing Smer-Social Democracy, still led by the former Prime Minister Fico, misses no opportunity to criticize Kiska for his performance in public office. Smer’s electoral performance has been worsening ever since its landslide victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, Fico himself unsuccessfully attempted to exit party politics by running for a post in the Constitutional Court. Despite defeat in the EP elections, Fico has withstood pressures to give up the party leadership and is set to lead the party to the next elections.

Furthermore, opposition to the current government comes both from liberal/moderate PS/Spolu positions and from the anti-system quarters. The extreme-right Peoples Party our Slovakia (ĽSNS) scored its best result, reaching 12% and gaining two seats in the EP. Besides, supporters of the controversial judge Štefan Harabin, who finished third in the presidential elections, also work on establishing a new party. Both ĽSNS and Harabin portray Kiska as the agent of anti-Slovak cosmopolitan interests, and their message is spread by the country’s expanding disinformation websites. 

Kiska’s new party is to be called “Za ľudí” (For People) and is projected as a centrist force, appealing to both conservative and liberal voters. It is too early to guess its electoral prospects and political future. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that high approval ratings enjoyed by President Kiska are unlikely to be translated into equally high support for party chairman Kiska.

Czech Prime Minister’s Troubles and Presidential “Kisses of Death”

In spring 2019, Czech politics was largely shaped by the European Parliament election campaign and election results as well as by ongoing street protests against controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to allegations of conflict of interests and other affairs.

Before turning to the results of the vote for the European Parliament in the Czech Republic, I will summarize problems Andrej Babiš is currently facing. Anti-Babiš demonstrations have been regularly organized by a civic initiative called „Millions of Moments for Democracy“, which seeks to attract the general public’s attention to multiple problems related to Babiš’s political and notably economic interests. First, is in a gigantic conflict of interest because of his business conglomerate “Agrofert” of some 250 companies. Agrofert receives tens of millions of euros each year in EU funding, mostly farm subsidies. Even though Agrofert was placed in trust funds in 2017 to comply with a new conflict of interest law, Babiš has command of trust funds that control the Agrofert group and Babiš’s cabinet formulates farming, environmental and other policies that affect Agrofert business. Since Babiš came to power, there has been a clear rise in the total amount of subsidies for the Agrofert conglomerate. The subsidies outweigh the amount of taxes paid by Agrofert to the state. The above civic as well as partisan opposition, was fueled by a European Commission’s report that confirms that Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest. The Czech branch of Transparency International which initiated the EU probe estimated the Czech Republic would have to return about 19 million euros in EU subsidies. Consequently, the Czech government will be obliged to claim the money back from Agrofert. The opposition Pirate Party claimed it would seek a vote of no confidence in the minority cabinet led by Babiš. However, the government may count on a solid base of support in the Chamber of Deputies. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, have proved reliable support parties.

However, this is not the only instance of conflict of interests for Babiš. Agrofert is the owner of two national newspapers with high circulation, several magazines and a radio station, a fact that allows Babiš to significantly affect the media atmosphere in the country, including his own media image. Babiš also faces the charge of the alleged misuse of 2 mil euros in EU subsidy. Moreover, Babiš has been criticized for having sacked the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek, who resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped up their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial over the above-mentioned affair of misappropriating an EU subsidy. Mrs. Marie Benešová, President’s Zeman advisor, was appointed to replace him at the head of the Ministry of Justice. Protesters complain that Benešová may hinder the independent work of judges and affect the final outcome of the trial.

Despite these serious problems which would likely derail the political careers of most politicians elsewhere, Babiš remains the dominant figure of Czech party politics. This is exemplified by the fact that his political party (officially called “movement”) – ANO 2011 – won a relative majority in the European Parliament elections. Sure, his victory was not as great as expected by many commentators and polls, still, ANO 2011 gained two more seats in comparison to the 2014 EP elections. Overall, opposition parties won a majority of 12 out of 21 MEPs, whereas the ruling parties, including the two support parties scored 9 MEPs.

To explain the dominance of ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic is not an easy task. The party has been a ruling party since 2014 (as a junior coalition party 2014-2017). One could expect the gradual decline of its popularity, as has been the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) that has been in power together with ANO 2011 since 2014 (in 2014-2017 as the leading coalition party). ČSSD and ANO exchanged roles after ANO won in the 2017 elections. It could be generally argued that in contrast to the ČSSD, Andrej Babiš and his business-firm party has been skillful in communicating its policies and political successes to the voters. Babiš is a charismatic figure and remained a popular chairman of the party, portraying himself as a successful businessman which made him also a successful politician. He was able to reap major credit for rising pensions and for a good economic performance of the country, including rising GDP per capita and notably almost non-existent unemployment. His party uses efficient political marketing and promotes Andrej Babiš as a leader who is able to deliver the policies that most people wish for.

In contrast, the ČSSD failed in the elections and gained no MEP. Its voters deserted to ANO and other political parties. The ČSSD lacks charismatic figures, clear policy messages and remains torn between a liberal pro-European wing on the one hand and a national-conservative Eurosceptical wing on the other hand. Some former ČSSD’s voters cannot forgive the party for being in the ruling coalition with Babiš’ ANO 2011. Other voters, who value liberal democratic principles, opt for other parties, including the Czech Pirate Party. Traditional left-wing voters may consider Babiš as more skillful than the ČSSD in securing social benefits. Shortly before the EP elections,  ČSSD’s reputation might have been negatively affected also by the fact that the ČSSD’s Minister of Culture, Antonín Staněk, demonstrated a lack of competence and resigned. It is uncommon that ministers of culture, a generally weak portfolio with a small budget, attract so much attention. In media terms, Staněk was originally almost an invisible minister. Media focused on him only two times, both times unfavorably. First, he participated in the presentation of a controversial book written by a communist MP, Miroslav Grebeníček, who strongly criticized financial compensetion to churches in the Czech Republic. The churches were deprived of their properties during the 1948-1989 Communist dictatorship and in 2013 the right-wing coalition pushed trhough a bill which introduced the compensation. Second, Staněk recalled the director of the National Gallery in Prague as well as the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. The arguments that were to support the recall of both directors appeared unconvincing and led to a number of protests and petitions against Staněk who eventually resigned from office. The ČSSD was pictured as a party, which lacks enough competent persons to fill ministerial posts.

There is a special feature of the Czech politics that is related to the ČSSD electoral disaster in 2019. There has been a tradition of (at least rhetorically) non-partisan presidents. At the same time, however, the Czech presidents have repeatedly attempted to form a loyal party in the Chamber of Deputies. However, once they openly supported any political party, the party failed in the elections. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “the kiss of death”, can be consistently and repeatedly illustrated by all the three Czech presidents. None of them was able to create solid partisan support in the Chamber of Deputies. From public opinion surveys, it can be inferred that voters insist on a non-partisan president who is not directly associated with any political party loyal to the head of state.[1] As for the most recent case of the kiss of death, Miloš Zeman strongly advocated for ČSSD’s involvement in Babiš’s cabinet in 2017. At the March 2019 ČSSD party congress, Zeman praised the party for having joined the coalition and made it clear he would vote for the party, which received less than 5 percent in the EP elections. Of course, Zeman’s kiss of death can be hardly identified as the primary source of the ČSSD’s debacle, still it has confirmed this peculiar pattern of Czech politics.



[1]
M. Brunclík and M.
Kubát, Parliamentarism,
Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe
 (London and
New York: Routledge, 2019), 110-113

Latvia – President Egils Levits

The next President of Latvia will be Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union – Egils Levits. The newly elected President will begin his term of office on 8 July 2019.

Egils Levits was elected in an open vote by the Parliament of Latvia in the first round of voting on 29 May 2019 with the backing of the ruling parliamentary majority. Following a constitutional amendment in January this year that changed parliamentary procedures for presidential elections from a closed to an open vote [see my previous post here], MPs cast their vote simultaneously for the candidates nominated for President using ballot papers.

There were three Presidential candidates – Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union Egils Levits, Ombudsman Juris Jansons and MP Didzis Šmits. 8 MPs voted for Juris Jansons, 24 MPs supported Didzis Šmits, and 61 voted for Levits. In accordance with the revised Constitution of Latvia, Levits was elected president with a majority of not fewer than 51 votes.

This was the second time Egils Levits had been officially nominated for the post of president. Four years ago, Levits conceded to current State President Raimonds Vējonis (2015-1019) in the penultimate round of the Presidential election.

Newly elected President Levits has promised to be the President of all nationalities. He will represent both Latvians living in Latvia and those who live abroad. Levits has stressed that he will support greater solidarity in Latvia so that everyone can feel valued and belonging to the country.

Egils Levits was born in Riga in June 1955. He emigrated with his parents to Germany from the Soviet Union in 1972. In Germany, Levits obtained a degree at the University of Hamburg in law and political science. In 1990 he returned to Latvia and was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence of Latvia. Levits was the Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to Germany and Switzerland (1992-1993), Austria, Switzerland and Hungary (1994-1995); he was Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Justice, and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs (1993-1994); he has served as Conciliator at the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration within the OSCE, and been a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration; and he was elected as Judge at the European Court of Human Rights in 1995, re-elected in 1998 and 2001. Egils Levits has numerous publications on constitutional and administrative law, law reform and European Community law. He was a Judge at the Court of Justice since 11 May 2004.

Levits has expressed his determination to promote necessary reforms in the country, even if they are unpopular. According to him, it is quite normal for political forces, groups or individuals to exercise their interests in a democracy. Levits has stated that supporting clarity of common interests is a very important task for the newly elected president.

In 2019, Levits published the book “Will of a state: Ideas and thoughts for Latvia 1985–2018”, a fundamental legal, political and moral reasoning regarding the existence, meaning and essence of the Latvian nation, on the relations of citizens with the state and successful governance. Levits states in his book: “For a nation to exist it must not only be aware of the past, but, above all, it needs the will to build the future. It is a common will.”

The 10th President of Latvia believes that “the work on Latvia’s statehood never ends. It is our duty to work and make sure our future generations inherit a strong, secure and green Latvia”. It is his declared intent to focus his presidency on these priorities.

Ukraine – Volodymyr Zelenskiy wins the presidency

On April 21, Ukraine held the second round of the presidential election. Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the election with 73.22% of the vote securing an overwhelming victory across almost all (but one) regions in the country. A preliminary assessment of the election observers declared the election “genuinely competitive” with voting, counting, and tabulation conducted in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, which is a significant achievement.

The incumbent president graciously accepted defeat and congratulated the winner. However, Poroshenko also announced his intention to stay in politics: “I am leaving office, but I want to make it clear that I am not leaving politics,” he wrote on Twitter.  What is ahead for the former President? This may depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in the end of this year and particularly the success of his party, Bloc Petro Poroshenko.

Given that Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential system, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be even more important for the president-elect. In particular, this ability to form a large, stable coalition in the new legislature will be crucial.  Failure to do so can jeopardize his reform agenda and his ability to govern effectively.

That said, the president-elect sounded committed in the aftermath of his victory, announcing “I promise I won’t mess up” and “I will not let you down.” These are the promises he will need to keep as the Ukrainian voters have shown for the past decade that they do not take broken promises lightly. Given that not much is known about his policies and plans for the presidency, many questions remain. Corruption has been one of the main problems in Ukraine and something that the voters seem to have held the president accountable for.

According to a poll conducted by RATING in April 2019, 83% of the respondents said that the country needs radical changes and 48% expected improvements as a result of the presidential election. Even though it is clear that the country is ready for radical changes, it is important to remember the difficulty of the situation that the new president will face – struggling economy, low trust, on-going war with Russia, and very high expectations.