Category Archives: Europe

Martial Law and Presidential Powers in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Serhiy Kudelia, Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor University

Since November 28, 2018 ten oblasts (provinces) in Ukraine have been operating under the provisions of the ‘martial law.’ President Petro Poroshenko introduced it in response to violent seizure of 3 Ukraine military vessels and arrest of 24 sailors by Russian coast guard ships in the Kerch strait. The Ukrainian parliament’s confirmation of the president’s decree followed a day of bargaining during which he agreed to limit the duration of the law to 30 days and restricted its operation only to the provinces neighboring Russia or Russia-controlled territories (such as Transnistria).

Some viewed the exercise of legislative checks on the desires of the president as an example of Ukrainian “messy democracy” at work since the longer duration of the ‘martial law’ or, rather, a ‘state of siege’ would have interfered with the formal start of the presidential campaign and delayed the election now officially scheduled for March 31, 2019. Since then president Poroshenko has sent mixed signals about his intentions. On one hand, he has resolutely dismissed the possibility that ‘martial law’ would be a pretext for canceling election suggesting that it would only be to the benefit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other, he also admitted that ‘martial law’ could be extended as long as Russian aggression continues – setting a very low bar for its possible renewal given ongoing Russian interference in Donbas and occupation of Crimea.

And there is a strong incentive for the president to do so. With the presidential election just four months away only 10% of respondents indicated in the recent poll that they were willing to vote for him in the first round. Also, every second Ukrainian says that they will not vote for the incumbent president under any circumstances. Losing the re-election bid will become not only a political setback for Poroshenko, but represent a personal threat. Over the last few years he was the target of multiple corruption allegations by former political partners and activists. Hence, the loss of power raises the risks that the new institutions established during his presidency may ultimately turn against him.    

 If the president ultimately chooses to demand the extension of the ‘martial law’ and, hence, postpone the election, he is likely to succeed in imposing his preference on the parliament. As I showed in my recent article in Post-Soviet Affairs, Ukraine’s premier-presidential model still allows the president to overpower the parliament on key issues, such as the composition of the cabinet and the tenure of prime minister. Without any formal powers to dismiss the government, three Ukrainian presidents operating under premier-presidentialism successfully achieved a turnover of three governments (in 2007; 2010; 2016) and only one attempt of government replacement by the president failed (2008). In all successful cases Ukrainian presidents had an advantage over other actors in informal powers that allowed them to reach well beyond the establish constitutional limits on their formal power. As long as they had a decisive say over the security apparatus and the courts, presidents could use their informal leverage to achieve favorable outcomes in confrontations with the legislature and the cabinet.

The new emergency powers granted to president Petro Poroshenko extend into three broad spheres and reinforce his informal authority. The first area is the relationship between citizens and the state. Based on the presidential decree the head of state can unilaterally limit some of the fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens guaranteed under the twelve articles of the Constitution. Among them are the rights to privacy and confidentiality of personal data, freedoms of speech, movement and assembly and ownership rights. The president can now rule to expropriate personal property, ban rallies or demonstrations, introduce curfews or restrict individual movement.

The second sphere is the intra-executive relationship with the cabinet and prime minister. The law on the ‘State of Siege’ allows the president to supersede prime minister informing regional executive administrations if they get transformed into military administrations. In this case the heads of military administrations are selected by the president on recommendation of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. He also acquires the full authority to decide on the structure and the staff of the local executive (Art. 4, Sec. 5). This, in effect, excludes the government from exercising any serious influence over the local governments.

The third sphere is the functioning of democratic institutions, particularly media and elections. The law allows the president acting through local chiefs and military commanders in each province to “regulate” the functioning of media outlets, influence its programming and close them down in case of the violations of ‘martial law’ requirements (Art. 8, Sec.11-12). It also unequivocally bans holding any elections or referenda on the national or local levels for the duration of the ‘state of siege’ (Art. 19). The key institutions of accountability of the authorities would thus either become suspended or seriously circumscribed in their operation.

Together these ‘emergency powers’ give the president broad discretionary powers over citizens, state officials and politicians. They also elevate the status of the presidency above other state institutions with the Commander-in-Chief now having a final say on key national matters. The new arsenal of informal powers improves president’s chances of persuading the parliament to extend the ‘state of siege’ beyond the initial 30 days if he chooses to do so.

The extension of the ‘martial law’ may serve a number of purposes. It enables the president to start informal bargaining with the current front runners, particularly Yulia Tymoshenko, on security guarantees following his likely exit. It also allows to shift the focus away from economic problems and increase the salience of national security issues int he campaign. Over the last two weeks Poroshenko frequently appeared in army uniform meeting military personnel and planning defense operations. Finally, martial law may serve as an elite coordination instrument that can help, for now, to prevent potential defections from his party to stronger contenders.

Since the imposition of the ‘martial law’ anywhere in Ukraine automatically prohibits removal of the president, the government and the parliament (Art. 10), Poroshenko will find many allies in key positions of power interested in minimizing the uncertainties related to the upcoming electoral cycle. This strategy, however, can only be a temporary solution for the ruling elites. If Poroshenko decides to choose existing security threats as a justification for extending his power his legitimacy at home and abroad will inevitably suffer creating the potential for even greater instability than following President Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014.

Poland – The president as legislator

On 20 November, Polish president Duda submitted another bill proposal the Sejm (lower chamber of parliament), this time aimed at creating local social services centres. Although presidents have frequently used this prerogative in the past (to the same degree as vetoes and requests for judicial review), Duda has been particularly active and proposed over two dozen separate bills so far. However, the Polish president is only one of four European presidents vested with the power to propose ordinary legislation – interestingly, the other three countries are also from Central and Eastern Europe (i.e. Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Polish president Duda presents the act amending the law on legal aid and education that resulted from his initiative, 30 July 2018 / ® Polish Presidential Office 2018

The president’s right to propose legislation has been included in all Polish constitutions since the fall of Communism, including the heavily amended Communist constitution (it was not, however, part of the Polish interwar constitutions). As the Polish president only possesses a block veto, the provision partly compensates for the lack of agenda-setting power through amendatory observations (as is the case in most other post-communist systems). Nevertheless, parliament is not obliged to consider presidential initiatives and can – once they have received by the appropriate committee – be abandoned without fearing any consequences. Furthermore, as presidents do not have any reserved policy areas for their initiatives, the usefulness of the power depends very much on the composition of parliament and government. If presidents have a majority (or at least strong presence) in parliament and/or government, bills are more likely to be accepted. Presidents without significant partisan support in other institutions should have little chance of seeing their bills become law. Accordingly, when Polish presidents made use their prerogative, they did so with varying frequency and varying degrees of success (see Table 1 below).

Interestingly, the first three Polish presidents (who all experienced longer periods of cohabitation and unified government during their terms) used their powers largely independently of the majority situation in parliament and government. For Lech Walesa, this may largely be explained by the fact that neither the fragmented Sejm, nor the stream of coalition governments had the resources to craft legislation, allowing the president to set the agenda. However, given that less than half of his initiatives were successful, actual implementation of policy can only be part of the reason why he (and his successors) used this power so frequently. On the one hand, we may be able to explain the use of initiatives by presidents’ desire to communicate with voters – more so than ‘reactive powers’ like the veto, legislative initiatives allow presidents to proactively highlight their policy preferences. On the other hand, interviews I conducted with presidential advisors in Poland for my PhD suggest that the presidential legislative initiative can be borne out of cooperation between president and government and provide a shortcut compared to regular parliamentary procedure – presidential bill proposals do not require the same statements or reports from ministries and agencies before they can be discussed (and passed) in parliament. However, the scale of these cases is difficult to ascertain without more detailed knowledge of individual bills.

To date, the use of presidential legislative initiatives outside of presidential systems has hitherto not been subject to much research. Nevertheless, the case of Poland raises a number of interesting questions that go beyond the four European cases mentioned above. First, why would presidents be vested with the power to propose legislation in the first place? Even where they are not formally part of the executive, they are not part of or emanate from the legislature either. Granting presidents proactive legislative prerogatives, particularly in systems where they are not the dominant actor, thus makes little sense. Second, how can we explain the use of this power – especially across varying partisan-political constellations? Furthermore, if bills are more likely to be accepted during friendly/unified relations between president, parliament and government, why would presidents need to propose legislation? After all, their policy preferences should already be implemented. Third, while part of the answer to the last question lies in the publicity potential of the bills, how can we reliably identify those bills that are (informal) collaborations between president and government to circumvent more lengthy parliamentary procedure? The answer to the latter would likely also reveal new information on president-government collaboration in semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Portugal – The memoirs of a president

In Portugal, ever since Mário Soares decided to publish annually his most relevant public interventions as a book, presidents have followed this practice. Soares published ten volumes of Intervenções (Interventions), Jorge Sampaio followed with Portugueses, and Cavaco Silva edited Roteiros(Roadmaps). These are collections of speeches in public occasions, with sometimes an interview or some other journalistic piece, and constitute a fundamental basis to analyse the terms in office of each president.

Cavaco Silva, however, ventured into new grounds when he decided to write his memoirs. Soares published a lengthy interview covering his entire life, including the years as president (Maria João Avillez.MárioSoares, 3 volumes). Sampaio has an authorized biography which also covers his years at the Palácio de Belém(José Pedro Castanheira, Jorge Sampaio, 2 volumes). No one had written individual memoirs centred on the role of the president. Cavaco Silva’s new memoirs come as a continuation of his previous books that covered his early life and his tenure as prime-minister for ten years (Autobiografia Política, 2 volumes), and respond to the need felt by the author to “offer citizens precise and clear information on the actions I undertook while discharging public functions”. In all, we dispose of four volumes of memoirs, a first hand testimony which is invaluable for the comprehension of his political persona. This post aims to discuss some of the issues raised by the most recent volumes, without any intention of exhausting the theme

These recent volumes are called Quinta-feira e outros dias(Thursday  and other days), as they  purport to focus on the relations between the president of the Republic and the government, Thursday being the long-established day of the week in which the prime minister visits the president to inform him on different issues. More than a formality and a gesture of goodwill, keeping the president informed “of all issues pertaining to the conduction of internal and external policies” is a constitutional provision (CRP section 201c). On top of that, the law on the intelligence services requires that the prime minister keep the president informed of major developments. Cavaco Silva would later recall that the prime minister had failed to inform him of the dealings with the EU in preparation for a package of austerity measures in 2011 as a “gross misconduct in institutional solidarity” which he castigated several times. Besides, as it will emerge further down, these meetings allow the president to react to the information received and enter a true bargaining process with the prime minister (something he cannot do directly with parliament). As a result, Cavaco Silva estimated that about one third of all legislation received from the government were amended at his request. Thursday meetings are an epitome to the power-sharing nature of Portuguese semipresidentialism

Of course, Cavaco Silva insists that his exercise of accountability towards the Portuguese is limited by the “secrecy imposed by the safeguard of the highest national interests”, and thus one cannot expect to have full disclosure of every episode that hit the news. However, Cavaco Silva is quite generous in opening up the drawers of his memory. Many references in the press to the facts disclosed in these volumes refer to la petite histoire, episodes that are controversial and still stir the popular imagination and feed gossiping, but on the whole are perhaps not the most interesting way to address the issue of presidential powers and how they were exercised by one particular individual.

The background to the volumes covering the presidency is given by the ten years in which Cavaco Silva was prime minister, which formatted most of his understanding of both presidential and governmental powers. As he says, implicitly criticizing the president with whom he worked as prime minister (Mário Soares), “my time as prime minister was one of fruitful learning about what a president of the Republic should not do”.  Perhaps the most evident sign of a particular reading of presidential powers is referred in the second volume of his Autobiografia Politicawhen he recalls having said this: “To those who spend their time in political manoeuvring and creating obstacles to the government, we say: let us work”. Together with his repeated references to the “forces of blockade”, these words were widely read as a reassessment of the government’s independence from all other organs of sovereignty, be they the Constitutional Court (which had raised several objections to his policies) or – above all – the president of the Republic. It was thus expectable that Cavaco Silva as president would not venture in terrains he had so bitterly criticized while serving as prime minister, and adopt a low profile as president. This was though a difficult task to perform.

The title of his presidential memoirs include the expression “and other days”, which refer to the scope of presidential initiatives that do not depend on the relation with the prime minister.

In the first of these volumes, the “other days” are present in a section he entitled “To Believe in the Portuguese”. He justifies this section by stating: “I defined as one of the goals of my presidency to give voice to good examples” in areas as disparate as science and education, culture and historical heritage, economy and information technologies, Portuguese communities abroad and youth, social inclusion and social institutions, the sea and fisheries, etc. This is not a small realm of intervention. Claiming he always “wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem” (and I would add, active part), he summoned members of government to accompany him and expressed publicly his views on the issues that surfaced in those initiatives. Presidential initiatives do have high media coverage, and this is a form of setting the political agenda inaugurated (against an angry Cavaco Silva) by Mário Soares with his “open presidencies” and to offer presidents ample room to intervene in the process of decision making. In the end of the day “all my initiatives were very welcome by the population, by the institutions and by all those who were involved in them”. Popularity is thus a critical element to gauge the effectiveness of presidential initiatives. In the second volume, the “other days” are mostly dedicated to the “projection of the interests of Portugal in the world”, assuming those to be framed by the concept of “presidential diplomacy” – an equivocal concept that does not derive from the constitutional powers of the president which, in matters of foreign affairs, are reasonably contained (CRP section 135). However, Cavaco Silva considered this to be one of the areas in which his voice could be heard, and independent initiatives taken, so much so that “during my terms in office a reinforcement was felt of the role of the president of the Republic in the realm of foreign affairs”. One of the reasons for this resides in the fact that, as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the president was involved in the deployment of Portuguese soldiers in several UN or NATO sponsored missions throughout the world. It is certainly an aspect that gained roots and is not openly challenged by any major political actor, and which evokes the French case of presidents assuming prominent roles in foreign relations and defence policies. It is interesting to note that at various points in his books, Cavaco Silva mentions several  formal direct meetings with the ministers of foreign affairs and defence, whereas in the case of most other ministers his relations were mediated by the prime minister.

The two volumes combined cover Cavaco Silva’s two mandates and refer to four different governments. When he took office in March 2006, the country had a majority socialist government headed by José Socrates. As is usual in Portugal, the prime minister did not tender his resignation nor did he put his job at the president’s disposal. The understanding is that the parliamentary responsibility of the government was assured, and thus the new president had to live with the existing government – or be determined to take action. It is useful to recall that Cavaco Silva had been the leader of PSD, and when that memory was still fresh he had lost the 1996 presidential election; seeking the presidency in 2006 was based on the affirmation of a clear distance between the candidate and the right of centre parties that supported him, assuming the traditional role of the president as an “independent” figure that should not guide his action by party motivation. Not surprising, Cavaco Silva promised during the campaign he would offer any government “strategic cooperation”.

The narrative of the period 2006-2009 is one of a deteriorating relation with the prime minister, which started on a high note and ended in one of the most sour episodes just before the legislative elections of that year (what he recalls as “the political intrigues of the summer of 2009”). Maybe the highest point of conflict was around a government proposal to change the statute of the Autonomous Region of Azores (unanimously approved in the regional parliament) which Cavaco Silva felt as an attempt to reduce his constitutional powers, which was a theme for discussion for about eight months before Caavaco Silva felt compelled to address the nation. The action of the president, however, was much broader, and included initiatives to reformulate the project for a new airport in Lisboa, a discussion of the high-speed train project, or the decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo (this one was present in sixteen of the weekly meetings with the prime minister), to quote just a few with heavy consequences. In most instances, the president managed to negotiate with the government the final outcome of public policies. Cavaco Silva does not shy away from criticizing by name some ministers, either because one had “little common sense” or another was prone “to speak out too much” – but in no circumstance did he go beyond asking the prime minister “to take adequate action”. If the suggestion was obvious that he would have welcome a change of minister, he stopped short of declaring he had lost political confidence or that the issue threatened the survival of the government.

Elections were held during his first term, and the socialist party won again, although it lost the absolute majority – a situation that, in principle, enlarges the scope of presidential intervention. A minority government was formed that had the difficult task to respond to the crisis that erupted in 2008 and was fast approaching Portugal. The distance and acrimony between Cavaco Silva and José Socrates was now public and evident. In the fall of 2010, when the budget was being prepared, Cavaco Silva realized “the prime minister has been lying to me about the deficit for this year”. The hypothesis of a political crisis was on the table. Still, he decided to use his goodwill to help negotiate a new budget that could be supported both by the minority socialist government and the PSD, the largest opposition party. He suggested one of his closest friends and sometime minister for finance to broker the deal. The deal was made under the auspices of the president.

The second term began with a very critical speech, which had a direct impact on the fall of the minority government a few weeks later. Fresh elections were called, as no solution was viable within the existing parliament. The right wing parties PSD and CDS obtained a majority and formed a post-electoral coalition. An old dream of PSD founder Francisco Sá Carneiro – “a majority, a government, a president” – was now possible (despite continuous claims that the president was “above the party fray”). Eventually, this became a nightmare for Cavaco Silva: for all major purposes, the leader of the majority was the prime minister, not the president. Cavaco as a university professor of public finance had his own views and claimed “I do not harbour doubts and I seldom make a mistake”; the prime minister, who had never had any job in government, and who had a poor formation on economics and finance matters, had to carve a balanced relation in which the weight of government far out weighted that of the president. In some instances, Cavaco Silva came to the rescue of government, as in the case of the huge popular demonstrations against one specific fiscal policy in September 2012, prompting a change of course. Some others, he criticized the government, as in the New Year speech of 2013 in which he raised fears of a “vicious circle of depression” – although he could not elicit any change of policy from the government. Even if many legislative pieces raised issues of constitutional conformity, Cavaco Silva most often decided to sign the bills and ask for the opinion of the Constitutional Court afterwards, thus facilitating the government’s policy, even with the cost of his own reputation (he stepped out of office in March 2016 with the lowest ever popularity rate: -13%, whereas the normal popularity rate for presidents is in excess of 50%).

The final episode of Cavaco Silva’s term in office took place after the legislative elections of October 2015. The right wing coalition won the election with a plurality of the vote; but the left parties soon declared they would oppose their continuation in office. Cavaco Silva disregarded the composition of parliament and installed the former prime minister again in his post, having decided to address the nation on the media to justify his option. However, parliamentary investiture is needed. It can come out of a vote of confidence presented by the government, or by a motion rejecting the government’s program tabled by the opposition. The rejection motion was approved by a large majority, and Passos Coelho’s executive fell. The president could not, in constitutional terms, dissolve the parliament and call fresh elections due to a double principle: presidents cannot dissolve parliaments in the last six months of their term in office, and parliaments cannot be dissolved in the first six months after an election. Cavaco would have three choices: to keep Passos Coelho as a caretaker government, with limited capacities, namely unable to propose a new budget, until the six months had elapsed and his successor could call fresh elections; to try what had been used back in the 1970’s – a government of independents regarded as “government of presidential initiative” – which raised constitutional doubts but not an outright impossibility, as recent examples in Greece and Italy suggest; or to appoint the leader of the largest left wing party, the socialist Antonio Costa, to form his government. He chose the latter solution, after lengthy consultations with several actors of the political arena and civil society, although he considered “It is difficult to believe that one government that depends on political forces that are against the EU, NATO and multilateralism in international trade can become a coherent, credible, stable, and efficient government”. For this reason, Cavaco Silva sent a memo to the socialist leader asking for “the clarification of several questions” and for “guarantees as to the stability, credibility and long-term perspectives” of the proposed new government (i.e., written documents signed by all parties involved in the new majority). When he finally accepted to swear in António Costa, he made a very critical speech in which he set boundaries to the policies the government was allowed to pursue, suggesting the government would be subject to constant presidential monitoring not so much in its institutional capacity, but truly in a sense that comprised political choices.

The question that remains after this episode in which the president is vehemently opposed to the political solution he had to empower, is this: would Cavaco Silva have behaved differently if he was not in the final six months of his term with his powers limited? Would he have behaved differently in there was not a question of the need of a new budget? Would he have behaved differently if he was in his first term with aspirations to be re-elected? All those circumstances must have weighted in the very peculiar situation in which presidents have their powers curtailed. If in full capacity, what would have been the outcome? It must be borne in mind that this example shows that disposing of a parliamentary majority is a facilitating condition for a government to emerge – and then to subsist – but its emergence must pass through a presidential decision – and the president may decide to try his luck if he dislikes the parliamentary majority. Cavaco Silva’s memoirs tell us a dramatic story which shows that there is room for interpretation of the presidential powers regarding the formation of a new government.

A few other comments can now be made. Some authors have referred to the existence of “weak powers” of the president, including under this heading the competence to appoint several public officers under governmental proposals. Cavaco Silva’s memoirs are very illuminating in this particular, as he had to deal with two appointments to the post of Prosecutor General and several top military ones. What emerges from his writings is a that a “methodology” exists – which was certainly present in other similar instances – by virtue of which the president and the prime minister agree to exchange views prior to a formal  governmental initiative (that is, before the constitutional prescriptions come into being), which in most cases consists of a proposal of up to three names from which the president can choose (or indeed reject). His descriptions of the processes leading up to the appointment of two Prosecutors General under different prime ministers shows that the principle is established and warrants presidents more than ceremonial roles, disposing of substantive capacity to influence the choice of top civil servants. The conclusion that emerges from these pages is certainly not one of “weak power”.

The last comment refers to the very last chapter of the second volume in which Cavaco Silva reflects on presidential powers. Arguing that he finds the constitutional powers to be well balanced with the fact that presidents are elected by universal suffrage, he nevertheless ventures to suggest six points that parliamentarians might take in consideration in future revisions of the constitution. Most of those points reinforce slightly the competences of the president without disturbing the overall distribution of powers, as would be the case if the president was given the power to appoint some members of the Constitutional Court or to enlarge the time limit for presidents to send legislation to that court in order to establish its conformity with the constitution, or even the power to appoint the governor of the Bank of Portugal upon a governmental proposal, and following a period of parliamentary vetting . One of Cavaco Silva’s suggestions, however, would significantly enhance presidential powers: he proposes that every legal diploma vetoed by the president should require a 2/3 majority in parliament to be overturned – a situation that occurs in a limited number of cases, and would, if extended, enlarge presidential powers and create a severe limitation to any parliamentary majority.

A final word on what appears to be a paradox. Cavaco Silva states time and again that presidential powers are adequate. On the other hand, he rejects any personal responsibility in the deterioration of the financial situation that took place after the onset of the global crisis of 2008-2009. Commenting on his very aggressive speech against the government in the inauguration of his second term (2011), he claims: “It was indeed a very incisive speech, growing out of my knowledge that the economic, social and financial situation of the country was very serious, and that there were errors in the economic policy of the government, which prime minister José Socrates resisted to change, despite my multiple warnings, both on the meetings that took place on Thursdays, and through the alerts I issued in several public interventions”. How can one be content with an array of competences that does not prevent the development and deepening of a very serious crisis in the country? Or is it the case that Cavaco Silva did not use all the presidential competences to guarantee the regular functioning of institutions beyond a mere formal analysis? Was he a prisoner of a parliamentarian understanding of the distribution of powers that the Portuguese Constitution attributes to the main political actors, neglecting the array of competences he had at his disposal? In the end, he contributed to bring down the minority government of Jose Socrates in 2011 not by taking any decisive action, but merely by speaking out his criticism that was welcome by all opposition parties which filed a non-confidence motion in parliament. The president watched this move in the comfort of Palácio de Belém,not intervening through a dissolution of parliament, the dismissal of the prime minister, nor even by sending a formal message to the parliament  . He simply used his public word – alas, quite a bit late.

Ukraine – Parliament Declares Martial Law

On Monday, November 26th, the Ukrainian parliament approved presidential decree “On Institution of Martial Law in Ukraine.” The measure was passed with 276 votes in favour during an extraordinary session of parliament. The decree was put forward by President Poroshenko on advice of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine in response to Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 sailors in Kerch Strait on Sunday.

Before the martial law was approved, the President was forced to compromise on a number of points. First, the initial decree requested that martial law be introduced for 60 days. Lawmakers only agreed to 30 days. It came into effect at 9am on November 28 and will be in place until December 27. Initial proposal also suggested that martial law would be introduced on the entire territory of Ukraine. But per the approved law, it will cover only 10 regions and territories along the Russian boarder, the Sea of Azov and the Black sea.

Second, lawmakers insisted on the relaxation of the proposed limits on the rights and freedoms of citizens. To reassure the citizens, the Parliament voted not to debate the martial law proposal in closed session but instead the debate was televised on national TV. On his website, the President insisted that the decree was proposed mainly as a security measure and assured that he did not intend any restrictions to citizens’ rights. The President also noted that neither partial nor full mobilization was envisioned unless the conflict escalates further.

Finally, during the Parliamentary session, lawmakers demanded assurances that introduction of martial law will not affect the holding of presidential elections early next year. Only 5 minutes after the Parliament voted in favour of martial law, it approved a law officially setting the date of the next presidential election for March 31, 2019.

These recent political events generated two main concerns. First, of course, comes the issue of security, territorial integrity, and independence of Ukraine. Russia has denied any wrong-doing. However, other countries and international organizations have supported Ukraine. During a press conference, NATO’s chief stated that “there is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and military personnel” and demanded that ships and sailors be immediately released. Concerns about what the attack and declaration of martial law could mean for the security in the region are high. President Poroshenko was careful to insist that “martial law does not mean declaring war. It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine’s defense in the light of a growing aggression from Russia.” He also noted that it did not mean that Ukraine either gave up or was not amenable to diplomatic solutions to the crisis, insisting that Ukraine will continue to comply with the Minsk agreement and all other international obligations.

Second, what impact will the introduction of martial law have on the political situation in the country, especially on the upcoming presidential elections? The opposition has accused the President of using martial law to divert public attention from his failing popularity. Some even expressed concerns that martial law will allow the possibility of postponing or cancelling the election complete. According to opinion polls, only 5-10 percent of citizens were ready to vote for him in the last couple of months. Less than 15 percent trusted the President. However, other presidential candidates have similar low levels of support and trust. For instance, 75 percent of those surveys did not trust Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main candidates running for president next year.

The next couple of months will be critical for Ukraine and its President. On the one hand, it will be important to secure territorial integrity of the country and avoid escalation of the crisis. On the other hand, the President will need to ensure that he keeps his word and that free and fair elections do take place as scheduled on March 31, 2019. In the words of the recent Foreign Policy dispatch: “Martial law is a test. Will Ukraine’s democracy pass?”

Turkey – Is Erdoğan’s Competitive Authoritarian Regime Stable?

Christopher Carothers argues in his recent article “the Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism” that many competitive authoritarian (CA) regimes have not achieved stability over the past ten years.(1) The data suggest that only a small number of CA regimes seem stable; the rest either democratised or turned into fully authoritarian regimes. According to his observations, there are four factors leading to breakdown in CA regimes: losing elections (national, local/mayoral) due to poor electoral strategies; manipulated elections triggering massive public protests and anger; achieving successful election rigging but turning the regime fully authoritarian out of fear of rising opposition; and finally losing ideological legitimacy for their regime.

Turkey is an interesting case study testing all these theories. Upcoming local elections will be held on 31 of March, 2019 and current polls suggest that the ruling AKP’s vote share is around 34-35%. If the opposition wins mayoral elections in big cities like İstanbul, Ankara, and Kocaeli, this might not only create an electoral alternative as suggested by Carothers, but it would also cut the patrimonial ties controlled by municipal authorities. In the Turkish context understating neo-patrimonial relations as a source of de facto power for President Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, is important to grasp the dynamics of the Turkish regime. (2) Neo-patrimonialism sets hierarchical patronal relations based on transferring collective interests from the big patron to the loyal group in exchange for political loyalty.(3) The selective transfer of collective interests in the forms of public aid, power and even public service is mostly controlled by local authorities, which also possess knowledge about electors in their area. Losing local elections would cut those ties which are already beginning to be severed by the deepening economic crisis.

Allegations of election/referendum rigging have been voiced for quite some time in Turkey without massive public protests.(4) This can be seen especially in the 2017 constitutional referendum, which established a hyper-presidential legal ground for Erdoğan’s patrimonial CA regime. The Higher Election Board accepted unstamped ballots, despite the clear ban in law no. 298, art.10. Furthermore, the fear of massive public protests like the Gezi protests in 2013 pushed the Erdoğan regime into passing repressive laws and being more aggressive. For instance recently 13 liberal academics and human rights activists were arrested and accused of spreading and organizing the Gezi protests, which more than 3 million people attended. Freedom House data confirms Carother’s arguments that the regime is turning seemingly more authoritarian spreading fear among the public in case they decide to take streets again.

As for losing its ideological legitimacy, the AKP’s CA regime faces the same danger. President Erdoğan still claims that Turkey is a democratic and free country where people enjoy basic rights despite overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise. Erdoğan’s regime increasingly compensates for the weaknesses of this argument by turning to Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially at the local level however high corruption rates and patrimonial relations potentially damage the religion and its power as source legitimacy increasingly in divided Turkish society even though it is hard to measure its extent at the moment. Also Erdoğan’s regime has enjoyed performance legitimacy due to its good economic performance in the past. Nowadays high inflation and unemployment, lower economic growth and bad economic performance will test Erdogan regimes’ performance legitimacy.

In short, the immediate state of the Turkish regime points in a towards more authoritarian direction, however it will be very hard for the AKP regime to stabilise it in the long run.

Notes

  1. Christopher Carothers, “the Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy, vol.29/4, October 2018, p. 130.

2. Fatih Çağatay Cengiz, “Proliferation of Neopatrimonial Domination in Turkey”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2018.15096938.
https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2018.1509693.

3. Gero Erdman, – Ulf Engel, “Neopatrimonialism Revisited – Beyond a Catch-All Concept”, Giga Working papers, no.16, 2006. P.20.
http://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/system/files/publications/wp16_erdmann-engel.pdf.

4. Koray Çalışkan, “Toward a New Political Regime in Turkey: From Competitive Toward Full Authoritarianism”, New Perspectives on Turkey, vol. 58,2018, p. 12-16.

New publications

Special Issue, Leaders, Crisis Behavior, and International Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62 Issue 10, November 2018.

Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: A Special Issue, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018.

Kaitlen J. Cassell, John A. Booth, and Mitchell A. Seligson, ‘Support for Coups in the Americas: Mass Norms and Democratization’, Latin American, Politics and Society, Volume 60, Number 4, pp. 1-25.

Hamid Akin Unver, ‘The fog of leadership: How Turkish and Russian presidents manage information constraints and uncertainty in crisis decision-making’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:3, 325-344, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2018.1510207

Trump – Causes and Consequences, series of articles in Perspectives on Politics, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/information/trump-causes-and-consequences#

Andrea Schneiker, ‘ Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’, Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807712

Ebenezer Obadare and Adebanwi Wale (eds.). Governance and the crisis of rule in Africa: Leadership in transformation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin’s Counterrevolution, The Brookings Institution Press, located in Washington, D.C, 2018.

Romania – The President’s ‘Breaking Bad’: When Does Negative Campaigning Work?

President Klaus Iohannis during a visit at a Romanian military base that was a PR success.  Source: digi24.ro

With one year to go until he stands for re-election, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis appears willing to go outside his defining detachment and become a fire – starter in the already tense framework of cohabitation.

The conventional wisdom that negative political campaigning works has been largely dismissed by research results. Scholars found no evidence of its success (see Lau, Sigelman and Rovner, 2007 for a literature review) or even claimed that the choice of negativity is disadvantageous, in contrast to the effects of positive messaging (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz , 2016; Claibourn 2012) and in particular for incumbents (Blackwell 2013).  We then continue to ask why candidates and political consultants believe in the effectiveness of attacking opponents. Most research on this topic focused on the US political system, but throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, Romania may provide a novel experimental setting to answer the same question: is political ‘breaking bad’ a good strategy to win presidential elections?

The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing

Most recently, President Iohannis (National Liberal Party – PNL candidate) concerned the EU by declaring that, (mostly) because of the incompetence of the social – democrat led government, Romania is unprepared to take over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, 2019 (NY Times reports). A declaration that was intended to win him points in national politics quickly escalated internationally when the Finnish PM, Juha Sipila, declared they are ready to take over earlier should Romania default on its obligations. This prompted the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs to issue an official statement denying the presidential claims and ‘stressing the importance of handling with responsibility information that is not founded on concrete endeavours (sic) and which may affect the image of Romania (…)’. Since this exchange, Romanian diplomats in Brussels have to publicly defend the on-going preparations.  Following this statement, the president suffered a backlash from his usual supporters, motivating him to soften his position by stating it was still possible to be reasonably prepared.

Given the usual dispassion of president Iohannis for political conflict coupled with the positive nature of his discourse in the first campaign (2014) and the first 4 years of mandate, his recent preparedness to lash out with negative attacks on the government can provide the counterpoint in a comparative test of what makes successful campaign strategies. Iohannis’s reactions are motivated by the criticism he endures for not being active on the public stage (I previously reported on this blog on the preference of president Iohannis to use formal powers and overlook informal ones). And in spite of the apparent uselessness of negative discourse, in the absence of a constructive policy agenda and constraining tools, there is one important effect of conflict framing and negativity that can be relied on for electoral success in the Romanian context.

Research results found (conditioned!) effects of negativity on increasing voter turnout. Krupnikov (2012) showed that negativity increases the likelihood that an individual will make a candidate selection. And conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote even in the less electorally engaging European Parliament elections (Schuck, Vliegenthart and DeVreese, 2014). This factor becomes increasingly important given that voter mobilisation is a substantial concern for presidential candidates in Romania and usually tilts the balance between winners and losers.

Framing the Presidential Run

Conflict framing has been at the base of Romanian elections since the early 1990s (see Anghel 2017 for a review of Romanian ‘anti-’ campaigns). In this broad agenda type of political contests, technical superiority, emotional voting and political calculations have a substantial importance. The position of a non – Social – Democrat Party (PSD) presidential candidate is naturally advantageous. Opposition parties can compensate their organisational weaknesses by unifying non-PSD voters, while the PSD is stuck at approx. 20% in voter preference.  A constant dwindling of turnout to less than 50% has secured PSD (partial) legislative victories, since their approx. 20% supporters also show up at the polls. The higher turnout in presidential elections has failed to deliver the PSD a victory in the past three runs (15 years).

Consequently, the effect of predominant conflict framing may be a mobilizing factor once again and increase the chances of president Iohannis for re-election. But this is highly context-dependent and not all researchers agree that the effect of negative campaigning is substantial on voter turnout (Garramone et al. 2009). It therefore may not be worth pursuing this strategy alone, as it can easily backfire. Other studies show that negative political campaigning evokes negative affect toward both the targeted opponent and the sponsor (e.g. Merritt 2013).

Increasingly aware of his electoral weaknesses, Iohannis also made an appearance at the yearly PNL Congress (August 4, 2018), showing his support for the PNL leadership and program and lobbying for their organisational support in the elections.  Having political proxies (or lobby groups) to deliver negative messages for the candidate is also better than when the candidate delivers them. According to Dowling and Wichowsky (AJPS, 2014), “candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work’”.  However, the current relation of PNL with the president is jaded and many strong local party leaders lack the incentives to engage in the hard presidential elections for another win for Iohannis, who has not collaborated with them in the last four years.

Conclusion: ‘Breaking bad’ badly is…not good

For a political attack to work, it must raise a credible issue. This is not difficult for the incumbent president, as the PSD led government has gone through a series of unpopular controversies related to justice system reforms. Yet the decision to ‘go negative’ to benefit from increased voter turnout appears counterproductive on all other accounts or, at best, difficult to manage. Should president Iohannis decide to continue on this path, the 2019 elections will provide the conditions for a comparative within case study of presidential political campaign strategies.

Historic presidencies and their legacies – Weimar Germany and the German Democratic Republic

No other date in modern Germany is as laden with significance as 9th November. While two events from the darkest chapters of German history – Hitler’s unsuccessful ‘beer hall putsch’ in 1923 and the Reichspogromnacht (often called ‘the night of broken glass’) in 1938 – took place on this date, the day is also associated with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the proclamation of the first Republic in 1918. In this blog post, I take the recent anniversary of the latter two as the occasion to look more closely at the presidencies of the Weimar Republic and the German Democratic Republic. Political scientists are largely aware of the (powerful) Weimar presidency, not least due to the fact that Maurice Duverger included it as an example of semi-presidentialism in his seminal book and article. However, the fact that the German Democratic Republic likewise had a single-person presidency for the first eleven years of its existence is relatively unknown.

Weimar Republic (1919-1934): The president as an ‘Ersatzkaiser’

The first German president Friedrich Ebert in 1925 / (c) Bundesarchiv

The presidency of the Weimar Republic was the first instance of a non-hereditary head of state in Germany. Thus, the discussions in the constitutional convention focussed among others on the French experience, although it was rather seen as a warning against concentrating too much power in the presidency than genuine inspiration, and other republics. Nevertheless, the convention eventually decided against a collegiate head of state and created a comparatively powerful single-person presidency. In hindsight, it was often seen as too strong and was therefore labelled ‘Ersatzkaiser’ – ‘substitute emperor’. Nevertheless, not all relevant powers are necessarily captured by contemporary approaches to measure presidential power. The president appointed the Reichskanzler (chancellor) and the cabinet ministers, yet these had to step down if the Reichstag (parliament) passed a vote of no-confidence. The constitution clearly gave the chancellor the right to determine the general direction in policy-making, yet presidents also claimed such a right for themselves, especially in foreign and defence policy. The president had no formal veto power (interestingly, the possibility of a particular type of pocket veto existed even then) but could put a bill to a referendum. The president could also dissolve the parliament at any time; however, at least officially this was only possible once for the same reason. Last, the president was able to force individual states to meet their obligations to the federation – even with military force. Shugart and Carey (1992) give the Weimar president an overall score of 16, largely driven by his prerogatives in government formation and dismissal and parliamentary dissolution, which is more than the current Russian presidency (14) but less than the Belarussian one (19).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 2 0 0 2 4 4 4 0 4 12

The election of the presidency contained a number of additional notable quirks. The first president Friedrich Ebert (Social Democrats) was still elected by the constitutional convention for a seven year term; the following two contests were held by popular vote. Thereby, a candidate needed to win an absolute majority in the first round of voting or, failing that, a relative majority in the second round. The second round was however not a run-off – any candidates from the first round could run again and even new candidates could be proposed. In fact, the second president, Paul von Hindenburg, did not compete in the first round of the 1925 election but was only a nominated by the national-conservative ‘Reichsblock’ after its initial candidate was considered not to be sufficiently appealing to beat out a popular opponent. Contrary to most modern semi-presidential systems, the Reichstag also had the right to initiate a recall referendum to dispose of the president (requiring an absolute 2/3 majority of deputies). However, if the recall failed, the Reichstag was to be dissolved and the president considered elected for another seven year-term.

The presidency of the GDR

Portrait of GDR president Wilhelm Pieck on a wallhanging commemorating 10 years of the GDR / (c) LEMO

In October 1949, a little less than five months after the establishment of the (West) German Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic was founded and enacted a new parliamentary constitution that had already been drafted a year earlier. The GDR was a real-socialist people’s republic and thus naturally not a democracy. However, looking at its institutional structure is nonetheless interesting as it diverges from other countries of the Eastern bloc. In particular, until 1960 it was organised as an archetypical parliamentary democracy and surprisingly similar to its new West German counterpart. The president was elected indirectly by the Volkskammer (people’s chamber – lower house) and the Länder Chamber (states’ chamber – upper house) for a four year-term. Only a relative majority was necessary to elect the president, yet an absolute 2/3 majority in both chambers was needed to recall the president. The president appointed members of the government, yet the constitution stipulated that the largest party group in the lower house nominated the minister-president (prime minister), that each party group of at least 40 MPs was part of the government, and that parliament confirmed the government before it took office. The president had no right to veto legislation; however, he was allowed to voice concerns over the constitutionality of acts and ask the lower chamber’s constitutional commission to investigate these concerns. The president could also not dissolve parliament – the constitution only allowed for self-dissolution (or automatic dissolution in case parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in a new government). The fact that all acts of the president required the countersignature of the prime minister or the respective cabinet minister furthermore highlights the presidency’s subordinate position. Thus, when we apply Shugart and Carey’s (1992) scheme to measure presidential power, we only arrive at a score of just 1 (thanks to the stipulation on a constructive vote of no-confidence).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1

The legacy of historic presidencies

After the death of Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler became acting chancellor and merged the functions of chancellor and president – a move confirmed shortly after in an only moderately democratic referendum. The office was only revived for three weeks when Karl Dönitz took over the office after Hitler’s suicide until the German surrender and then ceased to exist. In the GDR, the office of president was similarly abolished with the death of its officeholder – after Wilhelm Pieck, who had held the position of president since 1949, died in 1960, the presidency was transformed into the ‘Staatsrat’ (State Council). The State Council still had a president who acted as de-facto head of state and head of the executive, but it was legally a collegiate organ. Although there were plans to revive the presidency of the GDR after the fall of the Berlin wall, this never happened due to Germany’s reunification in 1990.

The legacy of the Weimar presidency is much stronger, although it largely served as a negative example. During the West German constitutional convention, delegates quickly agreed that the strong and popularly elected presidency of the Weimar republic had been one of its greatest problems. Consequently, they created a weak, indirectly elected office, and placed responsibility for governance in the hands of the chancellor. Even today, calls for the introduction of popular presidential elections are regularly answered by referring to the Weimar experience and the dangers of populism (as such, arguments often resemble Juan Linz’ ‘Perils of presidentialism’). German presidents are now rarely called upon to provide political (rather than moral) leadership; yet, the Weimar experience and reflections at the constitutional convention continue to influence the way in which incumbents interpret and perform their role as head of state.

Czech Presidential Politics in the Fall of 2018

There are two essential factors which facilitate understanding of the real power of Czech presidents and which make them relatively weak in relation to the government or parliament. First, none of them has managed to create a solid and strong party backing in the parliament.  This holds true also for Miloš Zeman, who has repeatedly attempted (and failed) to form a presidential party.[1] Thus, the October municipal and Senate elections[2] and their results had no specific and direct consequences for President Zeman. Second, the Czech president is endowed with few significant powers. Probably the most important one is the power to appoint the Prime Minister and, on the basis of his proposal, other members of government[3]. Hence, once the second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš had been appointed in July 2018, President Zeman had a much smaller influence on Czech governmental as well as parliamentary politics.

Despite these stable features of the Czech democratic regime, Miloš Zeman has constantly been able to create a stir in the Czech politics, an ability attributed to him both by his supporters and critics. First, even though Babiš’ cabinet was appointed and won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, the President kept influencing the cabinet’s composition, blocking Miroslav Poche, the Social Democratic (the junior coalition partner’s) nominee for the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Poche was refused by Zeman, officially because of the former’s positive stance to EU migration quotas. However, there were rumors that other reasons might have played a role in the rejection. For example, Poche supported Zeman’s rival, Jiří Drahoš, in the 2018 presidential contest. In addition, Zeman’s move was a tool to humiliate and weaken the Social Democratic party[4].

Be it as it may, Prime Minister Babiš did not insist on Poche, as he did not want to risk a conflict with President Zeman. As a result, the Social Democrats tacitly gave in and nominated another person – Tomáš Petříček. This was a surprising choice, because Petříček was Poche’s assistant without much political experience. Thus, only after three months, Czech political elites managed to provide a full-time leader for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Until that time, the ČSSD’s leader, and minister of the interior, Jan Hamáček had been in temporary charge.

Second, seeking his own foreign policy, to a large extent independently of the cabinet, President Zeman has made many other politicians uneasy. Zeman kept emphasizing an orientation to the East, notably to Russia and China, promoting “economic diplomacy” over human rights issues (the one-time the flagship of Czech foreign policy). This policy is to a certain extent consistent with Zeman’s predecessor, Václav Klaus, but is in stark contrast to Václav Havel, who is widely remembered as a vociferous advocate of human rights anywhere on the globe. Despite the fact that occasionally presidents and governments clashed over foreign policy issues, the major pillars of the Czech foreign policy of the 1990s were clear and major political representatives were consistent in supporting them: pro-Western, pro-EU orientation as well as promoting human rights issues. However, these pillars of the Czech foreign policy have been undermined by practical steps taken by both branches of the Czech executive over the last decade or so. Miloš Zeman is one of the most influential proponents of Russian interests in Europe, for example, advocating Russia’s position towards the affair of poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, calling for lifting anti-Russia sanctions, supporting the Russian state corporation, Rosatom, and its effort to win a tender to  enlarge the Czech nuclear power plants.

Whereas Zeman has rarely been accepted by Western political leaders, he has repeatedly visited Russia. Zeman has also been to China four times, meeting top Chinese leaders, supporting their idea of reviving the Silk Road. It seems that this clear Eastern orientation, legitimizing authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere, is not sufficiently balanced by other Czech foreign policy makers, some of whom take a similar position, whereas others are pragmatic and lack any orientation in foreign policy issues (such as Andrej Babiš). All in all, Czech foreign policy has been incomprehensible, especially vis-á-vis the EU. Thus, the person of the Minister of Foreign Affairs proves to be of key importance for the future of Czech foreign policy and its major goals, notably in the era of great debates on the future of the EU following Brexit.

Tomáš Petříček outlined the goals of his efforts as follows: “I would like to clearly delineate our country’s position in the European Union and the wider transatlantic area. Our core priorities are that our foreign policy has continuity, that it is consensual and that it is coherent.” This position was probably a reaction to varying standpoints on Czech foreign policy. This lack of consensus was visible within the executive over the past year and which made the Czech foreign policy unclear. As far as the migration crisis is concerned, Petříček adopted a very similar stance to Prime Minister Babiš: instead of letting refugees come to Europe, Petříček claims that migrants should be supported in their countries of origin: “We can do more in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to help refugees and improve their living conditions in refugee camps. Our target should be to stabilize the countries they are fleeing in order to ensure they can stay in their home countries.”

In general, the appointment of Tomáš Petříček as the Minister of Foreign Affairs was a clear disappointment for many observers, because Petříček is an inexperienced minister whose views on foreign policy had not been known in public before he became the Minister. Petříček’s efforts to take the initiative as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and set the agenda will probably be very difficult given his lack of experience, lack of political authority, lack of authority of his own party (which is also divided on key foreign policy issues) and also with regard to the assertive position of Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš, the two dominant figures in Czech politics and who are likely to outshine Petříček in Czech foreign policy.

Third, the Czech Republic celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state, which was established in 1918. The celebrations and various public events commemorating the ups and downs of the Czechoslovak and Czech state peaked with the traditional state decorations ceremony at Prague Castle. This was a special moment to award distinguished citizens, historical figures (honored in memoriam), artists, sportsmen and like. The ceremony was tainted by a bitter dispute between president Zeman and his opponents. This dispute dates back to origins of Zeman’s presidency when he came into conflict with various people, notably with academics and presidents of several Czech universities who were not invited to the state decorations ceremony. In addition, a few leading political figures were not invited either, whereas others rejected to attend the ceremony in protest against – what they labeled as – a private Zeman party. The dispute was also accompanied by a critique of persons who were decorated. Besides uncontroversial personalities (such as anti-Nazi fighters or Olympic gold medalists), critics reproached President Zeman for decorating his close friends, people who collaborated with the Communist secret police, or controversial businesspeople.

It is highly unlikely that Miloš Zeman will cease to be a provocative and controversial politician, constantly attracting media attention and giving cause to anger. On the other hand, the Czech presidents are generally trusted political figures. Even Miloš Zeman, who has always been a polarizing figure in Czech society, enjoys support/trust of about half of the Czech population, much more than the government or parliamentary chambers (but less than mayors or local governments)[5]. More than four years remain until the end of his second presidential mandate. Only health problems, which the media often speculate about, may become an effective stop to his political style.

 Notes

[1] For details see Brunclík, Miloš, and Michal Kubát. 2018. Semi-presidentialism, Parliamentarism and Presidents: Presidential Politics in Central Europe. London and New York: Routledge.

[2] Several Zeman’s rivals from the 2018 presidential contest were elected senators, such as Jiří Drahoš, Pavel Fischer or Marek Hilšer.

[3] Art. 68 of the Constitution of the Czech Republic

[4] Zeman was once the party’s chairman and even prime minister between 1998 and 2002. However, since a significant portion of social democratic MPs did not support Zeman in the 2003 presidential elections, Zeman’s relationship to his party changed for the worse and this event has plagued their relationship since then.

[5] Červenka, Jan. 2018. Confidence in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation. October 2018. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

Gubernatorial elections in Russia

In a post for this blog on 12 September, I provided an early review of the 9 September regional elections in Russia. This was a real mix of races, including ballots for regional legislatures, by-elections for the State Duma, and contests for regional heads. The last set of elections – for regional executives – has proved the most interesting, as no candidate secured more than 50 percent of votes in four of the first-round gubernatorial races, forcing run-off votes. What has happened since – and what can this tell us about politics in general at the start of Putin’s fourth presidential term?

 

Opposition-party victories

Of the four interesting gubernatorial races, opposition-party governors have already been elected in two regions. The second-round gubernatorial vote took place in Vladimir Oblast’ – a region to the east of Moscow – on 23 September. The sitting, Kremlin-backed governor, Svetlana Orlova (United Russia), lost to Vladimir Sipyagin – a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – who secured 57 percent of the vote. Similarly, an LDPR candidate, Sergei Furgal, beat the United Russia incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport, in the second-round vote in Khabarovsk Krai – a region in Russia’s far east – on 23 September, with 70 percent of the vote. Commentators have wondered whether this might be a moment when merely nominal opposition actors become real critics of the Kremlin, emboldened by electoral successes.

We should bear three things in mind when making sense of these opposition wins. Firstly, these losses for the Kremlin come in the context of the decision to implement a deeply unpopular pension reform – a policy change that has resulted in a sharp drop in support for United Russia. Rather than a positive vote for LDPR or KPRF (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), therefore, many Russians were using their votes in the 9 September elections (and subsequent ballots) to protest against this particular policy. Secondly, even though members of nominally opposition parties have become regional heads, that certainly does not mean that they will be combative with Moscow and Kremlin-backed actors. It has been reported, for instance, that Sergei Furgal has suspended his membership of LDPR in order to appease, and work with, members of the regional elite. Thirdly, and relatedly, these are not the first opposition governors in Russia. In Irkutsk Oblast’, for example, a KPRF politician – Sergei Levchenko – has been regional head since 2015. And LDPR’s Aleksei Ostrovskii has been the head of Smolensk Oblast’ since 2012. We should not, therefore, lose perspective on these opposition wins, regardless of whether they were a surprise for the Kremlin.

 

Unfinished contests

Two other regions have unfinished gubernatorial races. In Khakassia – a region relatively near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia – the second-round vote was scheduled to take place on 23 September. However, the incumbent governor – Viktor Zimin (United Russia) – withdrew his candidacy on 21 September, meaning that the ballot had to be postponed. In the run-up to the new voting date of 7 October, the “Just Russia” party candidate, Andrei Filyagin, also withdrew his candidacy, resulting in another postponement. The “Party of Growth” candidate, Aleksandr Myakhar, also withdrew on 15 October. The second-round vote is now scheduled for 11 November, with only one candidate, KPRF’s Valentin Konovalov, who secured 45 percent of votes in the first round on 9 September. One obvious explanation for the multiple postponements is that the authorities want to do all they can to frustrate another opposition-party victory – an explanation that fits with attempts to disqualify Konovalov from the race. Konovalov has a chance to win, but there have been further recent attempts to block his pathway to power.

The final gubernatorial vote is scheduled to take place in Primorsky Krai – a region in the far east – on 16 December. In the first-round vote on 9 September, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Andrew Tarasenko, won 47 percent of the vote, with the KPRF candidate, Andrei Ishchenko, achieving 25 percent. In the second-round vote on 16 September, Ishchenko looked certain to win. However, a dramatic surge for Tarasenko during counting of the final votes resulted both in his provisional victory and accusations of vote rigging. Indeed, these electoral fraud allegations resulted in the official invalidation of the voting results – something that deprived Tarasenko victory, but that has been challenged by Ishchenko in the courts, as he sees himself as the rightful winner. In light of this voting scandal, Tarasenko resigned and was replaced by Oleg Kozhemyako – until then head of Sakhalin Oblast’ – who will run as an independent in the 16 December ballot (although United Russia has declared its support for his candidacy).

The picture in Primorsky Krai has become even more complicated. On Saturday 3 November, the Primorsky regional KPRF branch voted not to field Andrei Ishchenko as its candidate in the December election. There are a number of reasons why this decision might have been taken. One possible consideration relates to reports of Kozhemyako’s rising popularity – something (if true) that will have been supported by the activities of Kremlin-funded political technologists dispatched to the region. Ishchenko’s withdrawal is, therefore, a pre-emptive move in anticipation of expected electoral defeat. Another possible reason relates to doubts about whether Ishchenko could clear the ‘municipal filter’ – a mechanism whereby electoral candidacy is only possible with the support of a specified number of municipal deputies. In practice, this provides a way for the authorities to block particular politicians from participating in elections. Indeed, there were reports that some municipal deputies in Primorsky Krai had complained of pressure not to vote for Ishchenko’s candidacy. The withdrawal decision might also signal the KPRF’s reluctance to incur the costs of opposing the Kremlin too publicly and meaningfully. As a member of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, the KPRF elite has to find the right balance between Kremlin loyalty and maintaining the semblance of an opposition political stance. It could be that the campaign leading up to the 16 December vote – never mind the prospect of an Ishchenko victory – upset that balance too much for comfort.

 

Not the end for Putin

Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term began six months ago, and should run until 2024. Do these regional election results constitute flashes of democracy in Russian politics – or signs that the Putin regime is in crisis?

No. But the electoral setbacks were not welcome for Putin’s team. A number of United Russia officials were fired following the regional race setbacks. This has been followed by moves to strengthen the party’s capacity in Russia’s regions. The reason is obvious: the Kremlin is keen not to see a repeat of the regional election surprises in 2019. It has been reported that the Kremlin has already begun evaluating the electoral appeal of governors up for re-election next year. Those who do not make the cut will be replaced with acting governors that the Kremlin thinks have better prospects of winning. This means that the Kremlin will reduce the likelihood of embarrassing electoral defeats, as well as giving incumbency advantage to more popular candidates. There is also a debate about whether to amend electoral legislation – a popular battleground for elements of the elite with differing views on how managed Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ should be.

Overall, then, the Kremlin was taken by surprise by opposition-party wins, but it is not in panic. Putin’s approval rating certainly took a significant hit as a result of the unpopular pension reform, but the numbers have stopped falling. Now, the task for ‘Team Putin’ is to adjust to the new normal – and to do what it can to prevent further opposition electoral gains. As the early anger resulting from pension reform has subsided, the protest-vote potential relating to this particular policy has certainly declined. But the regional election results will strengthen the position of those arguing for tighter, not looser, control of electoral campaigns – in the short-run, at least. In the longer term, this management might come into closer conflict with the rising importance placed by Russian citizens on democracy and human rights.