Category Archives: Europe

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.

Lithuania – Presidential Election Campaign to Reach the Finish

This weekend, on May 12th, Lithuanians will be electing their new president for the next 5 years. Presidential elections campaign, that some experts initially named “boring”, “indistinct”, and “without strategy”, currently is in full swing: from announcing the decision to run for a president in remote village to leaving the national debates in TV studio in a protest, presidential candidates reveal  a wide spectrum of possible choices for Lithuanians. However, it does not seem that the presidential elections of 2019 would transform Lithuania’s foreign policy: policy domain that is an prerogative of the president.

The final official list has 9 candidates: Arvydas Juozaitis, a writer, philosopher, one of the leaders of Sąjūdis (Independence from the USSR movement, established in 1987);  Gitanas Nausėda, a former chief economist of SEB bank; Ingrida Šimonytė, a former Finance minister, the only female candidate, current member of the parliament; Mindaugas Puidokas, political scientist, current member of the Parliament; Naglis Puteikis, a historian, current member of the Parliament; Saulius Skvernelis, former chief of police, current Prime minister; Valdemaras Tomaševskis, Polish origin Lithuanian politician, member of the European Parliament; Valentinas Mazuronis, member of European Parliament; Vytenis Andriukaitis, a former Health minister, current EU  Commissioner  for Health and Food Safety. According to the law, a person can run for president if he/she is at least 40 years old Lithuanian born citizen and has lived in Lithuania for the last 3 years. Latest public polls (by Vilmorus, for instance) suggest that the three frontrunners who could pass to the second round on the 26th of May are: Ingrida Šimonytė (22.3%), Gitanas Nausėda (21.9%), and Saulius Skvernelis (16.7%).

The frontrunners for the office seem to be appealing to a different kind of electorate. Current Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis chose to announce the decision to run for the president 300 km away from Vilnius, in Rusnė that was one of his first places to visit once he was appointed a Prime minister in 2016. Analysts suggest that in such a way he showed the focus on the electorate in the regions. Moreover, domestic policy issues card is used quite a lot by Mr Skvernelis: he promised to raise pensions, support for young families, full energy independence. Meanwhile, Gitanas Nausėda who declared his candidacy at the newest library of the Vilnius University aimed to be associated with innovations, critical thinking, and new ideas if to believe his team. This newcomer to politics might become “a pig in a poke” which usually is very appealing to Lithuanian voters. Moreover, his candidacy was publicly supported by the former president Valdas Adamkus. Ingrida Šimonytė, who creates an impression of a pragmatic personality and ability to handle criticism well, once asked why she had chosen a rather simple location (the stairs at the Parliament) to announce her decision to run for the office, laconically answered: “Because here the lightning is better for you, journalists”. Endorsed by the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, she might appeal to those who support current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. According to polling agency “Baltijos tyrimai”, Saulius Skvernelis is popular among men, Gitanas Nausėda appeals to the middle-aged electorate, while Ingrida Šimonytė would be elected by women and young people.

Despite the fact that Lithuania’s Constitution grants the right to settle basic foreign policy issues to the president, foreign policy issues have remained on the margins of the presidential elections campaign. Some analysts named foreign policy programs of the main presidential candidates “same wine in new bottles”. Indeed,  there does not seem to be a great divide between the key foreign policy ideas of Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis when finish line is approaching: all the 3 candidates highlight the intention to maintain the pro-western foreign policy, based on membership in NATO and European Union.

The aforementioned candidates also display similar foreign policy ideas about Lithuania’s international partners. Once asked, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis claimed that they would choose Poland as a country for the first official visit if elected (a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus but interrupted by Dalia Grybauskaitė). The United States is perceived as one of the most important allies of Lithuania and is security guarantor expressing the need for Lithuania’s bigger contribution to security and proof of its worth. Saulius Skvernelis has gone even further claiming that in case of meeting with Donald Trump as Lithuanian president he would apologize United States for voting in the UN against the U.S. decision to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

However, during the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis made some controversial statements: he suggested turning Astravets nuclear power plant into the gas power plant (the idea was rejected by Belarus), named Latvia a competitor of Lithuania, and expressed support for the transfer of Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was not completely clear whether he suggested the aforementioned issues as a Prime Minister or as a presidential candidate. He was harshly criticized by the president Dalia Grybauskaitė as not following the basic principles of Lithuania’s foreign policy as a result.

Meanwhile, Ingrida Šimonytė points out that Lithuania should act as a solid partner in the international arena, making more contributions, being a better listener and taking into consideration the interests of its partners. Analysts claim that if this idea was transformed into foreign policy practice, Lithuanian foreign policy would stop resembling 1 issue (security from Russia) country.

Russia’s issue has not been a dividing factor between the frontrunners: Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis. In their foreign policy programs, they stress that there is no need for changes in Lithuanian-Russian relations. Saulius Skvernelis refers that Russia violated international law, Ingrida Šimonytė encourages to prepare foreign policy guidelines for future Russia; Gitanas Nausėda emphasizes the importance of value-based foreign policy. However, it is worth mentioning that less than 1,5 years ago S. Skvernelis suggested to significantly improve relations with Russia.

In terms of China, Ingrida Šimonytė demonstrates the most cautious position indicating the potential threats from this country in both economic and national security sectors; while Saulius Skvernelis encourages focusing on the pragmatic interests in this regard. Gitanas Nausėda claims that he does not see any risks from trade with China and expresses the need for a more active role of the president in creating business opportunities.

In other words, despite some disagreements of opinions, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis mostly support Lithuania’s status quo foreign policy. Even though candidates’ foreign policy positions do not seem to be intriguing, there is still a chance for a surprise in elections results: data suggest (“Baltijos tyrimai”) that 25-30% of Lithuanian voters are undecided until the last minute in presidential elections.

Posted on behalf of Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer, Vytautas Magnus University, by Fiona Yap

Portugal: is Marcelo “popularist”?

Last March 9, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa completed three years as President of Portugal. His tenure has been widely acclaimed among the population, and stirred some controversies in academic and some political circles. What is Marcelo’s imprint on the political landscape of the country?

Recent opinion polls suggest Marcelo has reached very high levels of popularity. Although with a slight tendency to decrease over the last year, Marcelo still commands some 70% of positive opinions among the population at large – restoring the popularity of presidents to the levels obtained by Mario Soares (who left office in 1996 with 70%) or Jorge Sampaio (who also terminated his term with more than 55%), in sharp contrast with Cavaco Silva who, in spite of having had high marks, ended his tenure with negative (-13%) ratings. Cavaco Silva’s poor showing dramatically reduced his capacity to interfere in the political arena, and this fact has been widely acknowledged. So, restoring popularity is normally seen in Portugal as a necessary means to enhance the capacity of presidents to have a significant word on a multitude of aspects of political life, regardless of the constitutional provisions that remain unchanged. To dispose of high rates of popularity is thus a goal of every president.

Marcelo originates from the centre-right wing of politics, but his rise to power was mostly achieved by means of personal qualities and less by virtue of his line-up with the leadership of the parties of his political family, as his predecessor had done. His atitude towards the government issued from the 2015 elections was radically different from that of Cavaco Silva or the leaders of PSD and CDS: he recognised it as legitimate due to the existence of a parliamentary majority that supported the prime minister, even though the Socialist Party had only scored the second place in the popular vote. Throughout these three years, Marcelo has maintained the same position, not challenging the legitimacy of the government. He could then benefit from the positive atmosphere generated around a government that also benefits from the esteem of the electorate, as seen by the local elections of 2017 and consistent opinion polls that grant the left-wing parties a comfortable majority.

On the other hand, Marcelo has made a point of surgically distancing himself from the government in some critical instances, always intent on asserting the lineage of a centre-right politician. To start with, he broke with the tradition that assigns presidents a visit to Spain as the first foreign trip of their terms in office, and preferred to fly to the Vatican to meet the Pope (the country is nominally Catholic but the state is laic). Several other symbolic initiatives were taken along similar lines. But the confrontation that many expected he would pursue was not systematic. More than this, it did not derive from the use of his constitutional powers. For instance: veto power. In this area, Marcelo only used his veto power on eight occasions, and in all of them he forfeited the possibility of having the bills appreciated by the Constitutional Court, which might have produced a constitutional veto which would then require a special majority to be overturned, and preferred to use a political veto that could be overturned by simple majority. They were, so to speak, “friendly vetoes” that could be accommodated by the prime minister. In fact, as a former professor of constitutional law, Marcelo has never called upon the Constitutional Court to help in the analysis of controversial bills.

The source of Marcelo’s influence, paradoxically, resides in his extra-constitutional powers – namely the power of the word. As a former pundit who entered every house on Sunday nights for long years, commenting on every aspect of public life, Marcelo envisages his presidency much in the same vein: he offers his view on whatever issue is on the news. This technique of mass communication tends to generate an effect of proximity with citizens (illustrated by the fact that he excels in taking selfies with whoever asks for), and thus his presidency has been termed “the presidency of affections”. The photo that illustrates this post bears testimony to the proximity of the president with the people at large.

The power of the word, exercised in full view of the public, is critical to understand Marcelo’s presidency. Contrary to convention that suggests presidents and prime ministers exchange views in private (as Cavaco Silva has recently reminded us in bitter terms), or that their views are expressed after some bill has been presented for promulgation, Marcelo has inaugurated a new figure: to offer his opinion (and suggest the sense of his action) before the bill is presented to him, as to preempt the possibility of a veto. Two important pieces of legislation illustrate the presidential influence. Back in 2016, the prime minister announced he wished to propose a bill referring to the direct election of metropolitan areas governance bodies – and the president said it was not a good idea. Although the measure was in PS electoral manifesto and the government’s programme accepted by parliament, the prime minister did not pursue this initiative. More recently, Marcelo made it public he wished the proposed new law on the Basis of the Health System (framing the existence of the National Health Service) to be approved by more than the left wing majority in the House, and went further as he suggested that he would veto the bill if it were to exclude the private sector from participating in the management of units of the National Health Service. He even expressed his support to a draft bill proposed by a former Health minister which did not garner support in the parliamentary majority. Although the presidential position evolved (as he must have realised this is a bill which needs only a simple majority and therefore it would be possible for the left majority to impose its view whatever it would be), PS was split by this initiative and the original project was withdrawn in order to accommodate the presidential views. These examples make it clear that the weight of the president’s word is enhanced (or diminished) by their popularity and their capacity to stay tuned to the main stream of public opinion, even though one may not posit that in every instance the president expresses majoritarian views.

We have so far established that Marcelo is a popular character in Portuguese politics. For some people, however, the price of popularity is a concession to populism. Does the president enjoy high levels of popularity because he opens the doors to populism, i.e., to a form of political criticism that downplays the role of constitutional institutions? Or, conversely, is the president’s popularity an antidote to the rise of populism in the country (as many suggest), being able to contain criticism within the boundaries of established institutions?

Marcelo has been a moderate critic of the government, not less because the prime minister enjoys the sympathy of the electorate. But he has been tough on various occasions. Perhaps the most dramatic intervention of the president is the one linked to the great fires of 2017, which represented a very clear failure of the government to act swiftly. Public opinion turned then against the government, and the president expressed their voice. As mentioned in a post in this blog published at the time, Marcelo both expressed the view that the minister of Home Affairs was no longer able to keep her position (the prime minister proposed to replace her the following day) and the government needed to have its legitimacy refresh in the House (CDS presented a rejection motion that did not pass). Again, a tough intervention through the use of the power of the word – not the decision to dismiss a minister or the prime minister. On another count, Marcelo has made it clear time and again that he regards as a democratic imperative that the opposition to the government be strong and offers real alternatives. The fragility of the right of centre parties at a time when polls indicate they are at a loss and strategically divided offers the president an important arena to have his voice heard. However, he never hinted he would intervene directly over the party system (as he remains a member of PSD, albeit with his militancy suspended)

However, the frontier between the intervention of a popular president and that of a populist leader tend to be fluid. For this reason, it has been suggested that Marcelo should be considered as a “popularist” – i.e. both popular and at times populist. If so, it would be adequate to acknowledge that Portugal has so far been spared the plague of extreme right wing populism. The thesis that the Iberian Peninsula would avoid those dangers to democracy due to the long and painful experience of 20th century authoritarian regimes (Salazar and Franco) seems to be at odds with the reality of the emerging Vox party in Spain, and so new ideas are required to explain why Portugal has so far avoided the contagion of what seems to be a powerful force in modern Europe. So far, we may consider that Marcelo’s popularity has been a factor in mitigating its impact. The next elections will be a test. Will Portugal pass the test?

Finland – modest but important gains for the political left in parliamentary elections

The Finnish parliamentary elections held last Sunday (14 April) received international media attention primarily on account of the anti-immigration and nationalist The Finns Party finishing second, winning just one MP less than the Social Democrats that emerged as the largest party for the first time in the 21st century. Overall, all three leftist parties – the Social Democrats, the Green League, and the Left Alliance – won more votes and seats than in the Eduskunta elections held four years earlier, while particularly the Centre Party suffered a major defeat.

Finland had been governed since the 2015 elections by a centre-right coalition that brought together the Centre, the National Coalition (conservatives), and the Finns Party. The top priority of the cabinet had been the reorganization of health and social services, which would have brought about both a larger role for the private sector in delivering such services (a key objective for the National Coalition) and the introduction of directly-elected regional councils (a key objective for the Centre that wins most of its vote in the rural provinces). The project had run into serious trouble in the Eduskunta, with also some backbench MPs of the governing parties voicing strong criticism and indicating that they might not support the bill. Finally, the project was buried on 8 March, with PM Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party immediately announcing the resignation of his government.

With just over a month to go before the Eduskunta elections, many speculated that Sipilä had resigned in order to focus on the campaign, especially as the Centre was doing so badly in the polls. Sipilä seemed concerned about the Centre losing its core supporters in the rural areas, and hence he defended strongly the increasing use of logging and ‘sustainable use of forest resources’. In fact, climate change and the need to address global warming became arguably the leading topic of the elections, with particularly the left-wing parties advocating bolder measures that were criticized by the political right, not least by the Finns Party. However, apart from climate change the campaign themes ranged from the state of economy and employment (with the governing parties defending their good track record) to immigration, equality, and social security. European integration and foreign and security policy did not feature at all in the debates. Surprisingly the failed social and health care reform package was also by and large missing from the debates.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. This time the Social Democrats captured only 17,7 % of the votes (+1,2 % compared with the 2015 elections, the worst performance of the party after the Second World War) and 40 seats (+6 compared with the situation after the 2015 elections), the lowest-ever share won by the largest party in Eduskunta elections. While the polls had predicted a bigger victory for the Social Democrats, finishing first means a lot to the party and more broadly to the political left in Finland. The last time the Social Democrats won the elections was back in 1999, and hence Finland has not had a social democratic prime minister after the era of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ headed by Paavo Lipponen between 1995 and 2003. The inclusion of Social Democrats in the government is also crucial for the trade unions that received wide-spread criticism during the Sipilä government. Antti Rinne, the party leader and thus also the likely next prime minister, has a trade union background, and this no doubt strengthens the links between the new government and the corporatist actors. Rinne himself has been quite heavily criticized, and again there are question marks over his leadership as still between January and early April the support of the Social Democrats was according to polls around and even above 20 %.

The Green League recorded its best-ever performance, winning 11,5 % of the vote (+3,0 %) and 20 seats (+5). However, the celebrations were nonetheless quite muted, especially as the polls had predicted a larger vote share for the Greens and many party activists surely hoped that the party would achieve the next step of joining the group of large parties in Finnish politics. Pekka Haavisto, a senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, had been appointed as the interim party chair in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. The Greens are in many ways close allies with the Social Democrats, and would thus be a logical coalition partner in a Social Democratic-led cabinet. The Left Alliance also achieved an election victory, winning 8,2 % of the vote (+1,0 %) and 16 seats (+4). Hence the combined seat share of the left-wing parties increased from 61 seats after the 2015 elections to 76 seats (38 %).

International media coverage focused strongly on the Finns Party which finished second with 17,5 % of the vote (-0,2 %) and 39 seats (+1). When interpreting the results, we must pay close attention to the recent history of the party. The ‘new’ version of the Finns Party was established in summer 2017 when Jussi Halla-aho was elected as the party chair. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues and the new leadership also advocates more pro-market solutions than the ‘old’ Finns Party chaired by Timo Soini between 1997 and 2017. The support of Halla-aho’s party increased in the months leading to the elections, but the final result nevertheless took most observers by surprise. Halla-aho himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30596 votes in the Helsinki constituency. Also many other leading anti-immigration figures, such as Laura Huhtasaari, Juho Eerola, and Ville Tavio performed strongly in their respective electoral districts.

The election was at the same time a catastrophe for the Blue Reform, the ‘losing side’ of the Finns Party’s 2017 party congress. The Blue Reform was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many felt that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform thus continued in the cabinet and in the elections tried to defend the achievements of the Sipilä government. It managed to win only 1,0 % of the vote and failed to achieve representation in the Eduskunta, meaning also that the ministers of the party (Soini was not seeking re-election), including the party chair Sampo Terho, were not re-elected.

The two main governing parties, the Centre and the National Coalition, did their best to defend the track record of the cabinet, particularly regarding employment rate. The National Coalition managed considerably better, finishing third with 17,0 % of the vote (-1,2 %) and 38 seats (+1). While party chair Petteri Orpo and the party faithful appeared jubilant, one could also sense disappointment as the National Coalition had won the 2017 municipal elections with 20,7 % of the vote and for a long time it had seemed that Orpo might become the next PM. The National Coalition and the Social Democrats have experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015), and the current prediction is that the new cabinet would be constructed around these two large parties.

The Centre Party in turn captured only 13,8 % of the vote (-7,3 %) and 31 seats (-18), its worst performance in elections held after the Second World War. This was essentially a repeat of the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing took its toll. The market-friendly policies of PM Sipilä clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. If the Centre is not part of the next government (as appears likely), Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils. Sipilä announced his resignation as the party chair after the elections.

Of the smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party received 4,5 % of the vote (-0,3 %) and held to its 10 seats (including the sole representative of the Åland Islands) while the Christian Democrats won 3,9 % of the vote (+0,4 %) and also retained its 5 seats. The final MP is Harry Harkimo, the leader of Liike Nyt (Movement Now) that very much ran an ‘anti-party’ campaign and advertised itself as a new way of making politics.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. While Halla-aho has indicated willingness to make compromises and to take part in government formation talks, it is more likely that the Finns Party will continue in the opposition. In terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the election result will probably not result in any significant changes. The political left is stronger now than four years ago, and this is probably good news for those defending the welfare state and the role of the trade unions. However, concerns about the state of the economy, including reducing public debt, act as a constraint on the new Finnish government regardless of its party-political composition.

Turnout was 72,1 %, or 68,7 % when including enfranchised citizens living abroad. 94/200 (47 %) of the elected MPs are women.

Post-Communist Countries: Policy Diffusion relating to Immunity from Prosecution for Ex-Presidents

Immunity from criminal prosecution for sitting presidents is a common feature of democratic as well as authoritarian regimes.[i]    Shielding presidents from indictment and prosecution is designed to prevent members of the political opposition from weaponizing the criminal process and adding unduly to the already considerable burdens of political leadership.  Besides, in most countries, there is a political remedy for presidential corruption or malfeasance—impeachment—which places the responsibility for the fate of an errant president in the hands of elected representatives rather than prosecutors or judges. 

Less common in presidential or semi-presidential systems is immunity from criminal prosecution for ex-presidents.[ii]  Here the logic is different and more likely to apply in places where democracy has yet to be consolidated.  In these circumstances, immunity for ex-presidents can encourage leaders to leave office at the end of their constitutionally-mandated term without fear of losing their property, their freedom, or their lives.  In a word, immunity lessens the incentive for incumbent presidents to use constitutional[iii] or unconstitutional means to hold on to power.   

In the post-communist world, Russia was the first country to grant broad immunity protection to ex-presidents.  The measure came in the form of a decree issued by Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999, hours after Boris Yeltsin ceded the presidency to Putin, who had been prime minister.   This decree was part of a package of concessions to Yeltsin that facilitated the departure of the aging Russian president.[iv]  Among the decree’s provisions were expansive protections against criminal liability for acts committed while in office as well as protections against being “detained, arrested, searched, interrogated, or personally inspected [lichnyi osmotr].”  Moreover, the decree extended the immunity to a former president’s “residential and office premises, vehicles used by him, means of communication, other documents, luggage, and correspondence.”  However, a subsequent parliamentary statute, adopted in January 2001, eroded immunity guarantees for ex-presidents in Russia by subjecting former leaders to criminal prosecution if both houses of parliament first conclude that the president committed “grave crimes” [tiazhkie prestupleniia] while in office.[v]

In a striking example of legal diffusion and the neighborhood effect, the Russian legislation inspired subsequent laws protecting ex-presidents in 7 of the other 14 post-Soviet states.  In some respects, it was a throwback to the practices of the Soviet era, when Moscow would first develop a piece of model legislation [maket] and then the 15 union republics would adopt local codes with only minor variations from the model.  In the case of the follow-on laws on immunity for ex-presidents in post-communist states, the legislative language was often lifted word-for-word from the Russian model.  In these cases, according to the literature on policy diffusion, what was at stake was not authoritarian learning, competition, or coercion but authoritarian imitation.[vi] 

Because this demonstration effect radiated out to the immediate neighborhood and no further, the post-communist example fits into a pattern of “proximity diffusion” found in other parts of the world, and in at least one region on this very issue.  Many African countries, for example, have adopted common guarantees of immunity for sitting presidents and, in some cases, ex-presidents.  In these African cases, however, the protections may be removed when charges of “high treason” are at issue.[vii] 


As the accompanying chart illustrates, there are some significant variations in the provisions set out in national laws.  In the cases of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, for example, immunity guarantees apply only to the first post-communist president during his lifetime.  In Kazakhstan that is Nursultan Nazarbaev, who since 2010 has had the official title of Yelbasy, or Leader of the Nation; in Tajikistan it is Emomali Rahmon, who sports the even grander-sounding moniker of The Founder of Peace and National Unity—The Leader of the Nation.[viii]  Given Nazarbaev’s unexpected decision last month to resign after 30 years at the helm of Soviet and post-Soviet Kazakhstan, he is now in a position to enjoy the ad hominem immunity that he helped to put in place over the last two decades, an immunity that protects not only Nazarbaev’s person but the property and bank accounts of himself and members of his family living with him.  For his part, Tajikistani President Rahmon enjoys similar guarantees, except that the law covers all family members and not just those living with him, a provision that would seem to protect his grown children, including his oldest son, Rustam, who many view as the likely successor to his father as president of Tajikistan.

Given their traditional positions as the most authoritarian regimes in former Soviet Central Asia, one might have expected Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to have introduced versions of the Russian law on immunity that offered the broadest possible guarantees to an ex-president.  However, in important respects, ex-presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are more vulnerable to criminal prosecution than their peers in neighboring countries, at least according to the formal rules.  First, in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan immunity protections extend only to those actions “taken in connection with the execution of the powers” of president, and thus would arguably not cover all of the actions of a president while in office.  Second, by allowing the authorities to deprive an ex-president “of immunity if a criminal case is instituted in connection with the commission of a grave crime,” Turkmenistan grants considerable discretion to prosecutorial and judicial authorities.  Finally, the Uzbekistani law on immunity for ex-presidents makes no mention of protections for property.

Because many countries in the former Soviet Union’s southern tier do not have ex-presidents—they either die in office or have their titles stripped from them in the wake of popular rebellions —one might argue that parsing the legislation on immunity is a fruitless exercise.  Yet as we noted earlier, Kazakhstan now has its first ex-president; Kyrgyzstan has two, Roza Otunbaeva and Almazbek Atambaev; a former president of Azerbaijan returned to his country after many years in exile, in part because of the extension of immunity to ex-presidents; and courts in Armenia are this week trying to decide whether its constitution’s immunity provisions will protect former President Robert Kacharian.[ix] 

Finally, in Kyrgyzstan there have been attempts over the last year to revise, or eliminate altogether, immunity protections for ex-presidents, an effort prompted by the ongoing feud between former President Atambaev and his hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.  Thus, while a country in the throes of authoritarian consolidation like Tajikistan has recently strengthened protections for ex-presidents, Kyrgyzstan is threatening to break with the Russian-inspired model of immunity for former leaders.  The denouement of the year-long campaign in Kyrgyzstan to weaken immunity for ex-presidents will be the subject of my next post for this blog. 


[i] My thanks to Kelly B. Smith of Stetson University and Alexei Trochev of Nazarbaev University for bibliographic assistance on this post.

[ii] In France, for example, two of the three most recent ex-presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been charged with crimes.  Chirac was convicted and Sarkozy has been fighting a five-year long judicial battle to avoid a conviction.  Thomas Prouteau, “Affaire des ‘écoutes’: Nicolas Sarkozy sera-t-il jugé un jour?” RTL, April 9, 2019.  https://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/affaire-des-ecoutes-nicolas-sarkozy-sera-t-il-juge-un-jour-7797391350

[iii] By constitutional means I have in mind extending or adding terms of office.

[iv] О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи, Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 31.12.1999 г. № 1763. http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/14857

[v] Федеральный закон от 12 февраля 2001 г. N 12-ФЗ “О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи” (с изменениями и дополнениями). http://constitution.garant.ru/act/president/182948/  See

[vi] See Charles R. Shipan and Craig Volden, “The Mechanisms of Policy Diffusion,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 4 (October 2008), pp. 840-857.      

[vii] The countries referencing high treason as an exception are Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo.  These countries are among the 32 jurisdictions where ex-presidents enjoy some form of immunity; these cases are catalogued in the very useful compendium prepared by the Law Library of the Library of Congress. Immunity from Prosecution for Former Presidents in Selected Jurisdictions (Washington, DC: Law Library of the Library of Congress, October 2017).  For a perceptive analysis of immunity for presidents and ex-presidents in African states, see Charles Manga Fombad and Enyinna Nwauche, “Africa’s Imperial Presidents: Immunity, Impunity and Accountability,” African Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2012), pp. 91-118.

[viii] Vladimir Putin has been referred to at times in some Russian media outlets as the leader of the nation, though as yet that is only an informal label. 

[ix] “Armenian court extends ex-president Kocharyan’s arrest for another two months,” ARKA News Agency, March 13, 2019.  http://arka.am/en/news/politics/armenian_court_extends_ex_president_kocharyan_s_arrest_for_another_two_months_/

During the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili reportedly promised President Eduard Shevardnadze immunity from prosecution in order to encourage him to leave office, but I can find no record of legislation enacted that makes good on that promise.  See “Georgia’s Shevardnadze to be given immunity,” rferl.com, February 20, 2004.  https://www.rferl.org/a/1051611.html

Turkey – The Beginning of an End to Turkey’s Competitive Authoritarian Regime

Authoritarian and liberalization appear to alternate regularly in Ottoman–Turkish constitutional history. Moves towards authoritarianism were often motivated by intense power struggles between conservative forces opposing westernization/modernization and favoring political Islam, while reformist/revolutionary forces favoring secularization, democratization motivated changes towards the other end. Authoritarian turns were instigated by one of the three following coalitions: civil forces that came to power in a relatively democratic environment but were not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections; revolutionary civil forces aiming to design a new society, regime, and state based on their revolutionary ideas; or military forces that had no intention of establishing a long military rule, but wanted to design a constitution reflecting their vision of the state. Liberalization turns, on the other hand, come with an alternation in political power (removal and replacement of government by a civil competitor), and are characterized by a return to relatively free and fair political competition.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government is consistent with a civil competitive authoritarian regime, i.e., coming to power in a democratic environment but not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections and turning increasingly autocratic since the Gezi protests in 2013. However it seems that this regime has run its course and the cycle may turn in favor of liberalization once again, if the local elections on 31st of March are any indication.

Specifically, even though President Erdoğan’s alliance (the AKP and MHP) won %51.6 of the votes, they suffered a loss of 8-9 percent in comparison to previous local elections; more importantly they lost major cities including the capital Ankara. The biggest blow came from Istanbul, the economic centre of the country. According to the first official results the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election with a slim margin of 0.28 despite heavy pro-government media that showcased the polarising rhetoric of President Erdoğan, directly targeted opposition candidates, and systematically pressured the opposition that typified neo-patrimonial award-punishment processes. On April 9, the AKP leader Erdoğan and his alliance have demanded a recount to challenge the outcome, clearly unwilling to accept this loss.

On election night, the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) and Anatolian Agency (official news agency) stopped declaring results for 11 hours at 98.8 percent. The AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım declared his victory with a difference of  3000 votes meanwhile the opposition candidate İmamoğlu announced that he is leading the race according to the official ballot records  and pleaded the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) to carry on with the counting. He had 11 news conferences on the same night and in the end declared his victory, too.  On the following day, the YSK’s official results showed that İmamoğlu won the race with a slim difference. The AKP contested the counting and demanded recounting. Many of the invalid votes and some valid votes have been counted for 10 days, and the result did not change. Now the ruling alliance has demanded a re-election, based on voting irregularities. These claims of voting irregularities were made only when the results of recounting became obvious; perhaps interestingly, the opposition is accused of stealing the metropolitan city but not the smaller municipal divisions and city assembly, the majority of which won by the AKP. It seems highly improbable to cheat in one vote but not the other two as all three votes were cast in a single envelope. The YSK is expected to reach a decision regarding the AKP’s challenge in the coming days

Regardless of the result of this challenge, it seems clear that the AKP and its leader Erdoğan is losing influence on the people in big cities. The economic crisis is eroding support from the working class, and it seems that his polarising rhetoric is no longer effective. Erdoğan made the election a vote of confidence for himself and his regime; it seems that the people of major cities have turned in a vote of no-confidence. Rejecting the ballot results for Istanbul, then, may lead to the loss of the only legitimising factor in Turkey, given that performance legitimacy has completely eroded due to the economic recession. Such a move may shorten the remainder of the Erdoğan rule.

Equally important, economic crisis and end of privatizatio have eroded Erdoğan’s ability to use the neo-patrimonial reward-punishment processes that has maintained the AKP’s hegemony. Offices of mayors, especially the Istanbul metropolitan Mayor, have been chief beneficiaries of such rewards, and they have benefited notwithstanding rife allegations of corruption in the 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul metropolitan city. Loss of big cities ends any additional resources for patromonial rewards and, instead, bring new evidence of corruption.


Christopher Carothers contends four major factors leading to regime breakdown in a recent article on competitive authoritarian regimes.[i] One factor cited is the loss of mayoral elections, where an electorate seeking an alternative to the ruling party may hasten the process when it sees some success at mayoral level, notwithstanding the heavy pressure from the government. Opposition mayors in Turkey, then, share a responsibility of creating an alternative for Erdoğan’s long lasting rule.

Henry Hale in his book on patronal politics explains client organisation, resources and expectations of clients are critical to maintaining a patronal network.[ii] Clients (state elites including judiciary, media networks etc., party elite) monitor and deliver rewards for the patron, and follow patrons when they expect other clients to do so. Problems with organisation and resources influence expectations and expectations determine obedience and follow-through. Patronal relations breakdown when clients see or believe that a patron is no longer able to control the patronal network. Deteriorating political support, emergence of political alternatives, and shortage of reward resources have already fanned impressions that President Erdoğan is unchallengeable. The results of recent elections seems to signal the beginning of an end, even if only a slow end, for the patronal rule of President Erdoğan.


[i] Christopher Carothers, “The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, number 4, October 2018.

[ii] Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective,  (New York: Cambridge Uni. Press, 2015), 31-35.




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