Category Archives: Europe

Selena Grimaldi – Italy: Will President Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp?

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi of the University of Padova.

There is no doubt that President Sergio Mattarella was chosen in order to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano’s presidency. The first years of his term confirm this idea, in particular his sober leadership style and his self-restraint are in line with the typical President of a parliamentary system who tries to embody the unity of the nation rather than performing an active role in the day to day politics.

The differences with his predecessor are not simply related to their opposite political culture but also to their different visions of the presidential role. In fact, Mattarella has claimed to be the Guardian of the Constitution and an impartial arbiter of the political game, whereas Napolitano asserted his right to intervene to solve problems over party gridlock and meltdown.

This striking difference is recognizable even considering how Napolitano dominated international relations and how deeply he exploited the mass media to communicate his thoughts and vision in comparison to Mattarella. In a very rough attempt to empirically prove this, the number of interviews given by Mattarella and published in the Quirinale webiste from 2015 to 2018 was counted, and it appears to number only seven.

The polls also show that this self-restraint has probably negatively affected the trust people have in the presidential institution. Currently, the President remains broadly trusted by citizens, even though the percentage trusting him decreased from 49% in 2016 to 46% in 2017 according to Demos & Pi. In other words, a President who has been generally silent on most issues seems not to correspond to the citizens’ preferences and probably to the peculiar Italian political circumstances that emerged just before the beginning of Mattarella’s term. That is to say, the critical elections of 2013 that completely changed the dynamics of political competition.

The result of the elections of March 4 confirms that the tripolar competition that first emerged in 2013 is not a contingent but a stable feature of the Italian political system. The only relevant novelty is related to the changing power relations among parties. In particular, in 2013 three parties gained a similar quota of votes; the Democratic Party (PD) (25.4), Forza Italia (21.6) and the Five Star Movement (M5S) (25.6), and both the centre-left coalition and the centre-right coalition could not form a government alone, which pushed them to form a Grand Coalition. In 2018, among these parties, only the Five Star Movement has increased its score, becoming the first party with 32.6% of the votes. The PD is the loser, obtaining a result under 20% of the vote and in the centre-right coalition there has been a reversal of the balance of power, since the League (now without any reference to the North) gained 17.4% of the votes, whereas Forza Italia obtained 13.9% of the vote. Therefore, the final result makes it impossible for both M5S to govern alone, as well as for the centre-right coalition, which gained 37% overall.

In this party gridlock, President Mattarella is expected to act as “the second engine” of the system by finding a solution to government formation and preventing the possibility of new elections. This government formation process is a unique opportunity to understand if Mattarella’s style is simply connected with his personal attitude or if it is indeed a sign of a weak presidency. In other words, if there is a clear departure from the pattern of the Italian Presidents of the so-called Second Republic, who are examples of strong presidents even within a parliamentary context, or if there is a substantial continuity.

In particular, a call for new elections – even if it is unrealistic – would be the most negative result for the President because it would demonstrate his inability to find a political solution, not to mention the fact that with the current electoral rules, a replication of the same political impasse is the most likely outcome. The formation of a political government, namely a coalition government of any type, may prove to the opposition parties that the President is responsible. Or in other words, his capacity as mediator among parties, who themselves remain the real decision-makers. Finally, the formation of a caretaker/technocratic government or a government of the President may prove that Mattarella can impose his will on political parties, making his strength clear.

Six on weeks from the vote, two rounds of consultations have taken place. According to data published by Istituto Cattaneo, since 1994 only 2 governments have required more than 20 days to be formed: Berlusconi I in 1994 and Letta’s government in 2013. Moreover, on only four occasions have 2 rounds of consultations been needed to find an agreement (Dini, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, and Letta) and Letta’s was the only post-electoral government. Besides, it is well known that in pParliamentary systems government formation can require a lot of time, such as in the Netherlands or in Belgium, not to mention the formation of the recent Grosse Koalition in Germany or even certain Italian governments during the so-called First Republic (Cossiga I, Andreotti II, Craxi etc.). However, this is the first time that, even after a second round of consultations, nothing has really changed from the day after the elections.

Briefly, the situation appears to be the following: The Five Star Movement claims the premiership for Luigi Di Maio and has declared that it is open to forming a coalition with either with the PD or The League. Matteo Salvini also claims the premiership, since he represents the largest party in the largest coalition. However, within the right-wing coalition the League and Forza Italia have different preferences with regards the identification of potential allies. The League wants to form a coalition with the M5S, while Forza Italia probably prefers a coalition with the PD, since Silvio Berlusconi’s comment during the traditional press-conference at the Quirinale about the M5S as an anti-democratic and populist force. The challenge is that The League doesn’t seem ready to let go of its traditional allies to form a government with the M5S alone. However, Salvini has proven that he can cooperate with the M5S in the parliamentary arena, especially during the election of the Speakers of the Chambers. Finally, from the very beginning, the PD has declared that it is unavailable as a coalition partner and will remain in the ranks of the opposition. The truth is that, even within the PD, the situation is not so clear. The faction close to the former leader Matteo Renzi strongly supports this position, but other political factions, as well as the radical left, seem to be more open toward the M5S.

As a consequence, Mattarella decided to follow a traditional path confirming his attitude of caution. In other words, he decided to avoid the concrete possibility of a failure by giving a political pre-appointment to a candidate within the League or within the M5S, who would have to find a majority in Parliament by his/her own. Instead, the President has preferred – consistent with tradition – to give an explorative mandate (mandato esplorativo) to the President of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati (FI). In the next few days, the appointee is going to report to the President if she is able to find a possible majority in Parliament and a possible PM. If this attempt does not succeed, only two alternatives remain: a government of the President or new elections.

The situation is even more complex for Mattarella given he was elected without the support of the two largest parties: the Five Star Movement and The League. And even Silvio Berlusconi’s party cast a blank ballot during the presidential elections. This means that, this time, it may be more difficult for these actors to accept a government of the President.

The open question is: will Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp? Or, can he prove to be a strong President notwithstanding his proverbial discretion?

Alenka Krašovec – Is recent history about to repeat itself in Slovenia? Early elections and new parties

This is a guest post by Professor Alenka Krašovec, Chair of Policy Analysis and Public Administration at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

On the evening of 14 March 2018, PM Miro Cerar announced at a press conference that he would submit his resignation to parliament. He did so just a month before the normal termination of his government’s term and after President Borut Pahor had already consulted with representatives of parliamentary party groups about the date of regular parliamentary elections. Pursuant to Slovenia’s Constitution, the PM’s resignation meant the fall of the government. Consequently, an early election is being held.

In 2011 an early election was also held. This election was won by the List of Zoran Janković – Positive Slovenia. In 2014, another early election was held due to the resignation of PM Alenka Bratušek. This election was won by the Party of Miro Cerar. So, this is now the third early election in a row.

In 2014, PM Alenka Bratušek resigned after her defeat in an internal battle over the party leadership with the party’s founding father Zoran Janković, who wanted to take back the leadership of Positive Slovenia. In 2018, however, PM Cerar resigned for different reasons.

In the press conference on 14 March, PM Cerar explained that what pushed him over the edge was the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the 2017 September referendum on the Law on the Construction and Management of the Second Rail Track of the Divača to Koper Railway Line. This is a big infrastructure project (worth EUR 1 billion) to build a 27 km line designed to speed up freight traffic between the city of Divača and Slovenia’s state-owned Adriatic seaport at Luka Koper. The law was opposed by the civic initiative, Taxpayers Don’t Give Up, led by Vili Kovačič and was supported by the main opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party. Most controversial was the proposed path for the second track as well as its management as proposed by the government.

At the referendum, which was held in September 2017, the law was supported. However, the referendum’s initiator challenged the result before the Supreme Court, arguing it was unfair of the government to use public funds to advocate a particular position (in favour of the law) and that instead it should have presented arguments for and against. The Constitutional Court declared that parts of the Law on Referendum and Popular Initiative as well as the Law on Election and Referendum Campaign were unconstitutional because they allow the government to participate in the campaign using public funds. The Court held a public hearing at which PM Cerar also participated and several hours later it decided to cancel the referendum result and order a new referendum to be held on the same question.

This is the specific context in which PM Cerar resigned. However, the PM and his government were also facing a wave of strikes and protests by public sector workers demanding not only an end to the austerity measures introduced to cure the financial and economic crisis, but a salary increase amid the good economic results. In the press conference, PM Cerar also criticised his coalition partners, claiming that in several cases they had erected obstacles to urgent reforms, in particular the reform of the healthcare system.

Due to the PM’s resignation, President Pahor has become more heavily involved in the political process than usual. In Slovenia, the President does not hold a discretionary right to dissolve parliament, but he is obliged to do so in certain constitutionally-defined instances. One such instance is if the PM resigns. When the PM resigns, the President has the right to propose a candidate for PM. In the second or third round of voting in parliament, a parliamentary party or group of MPs can do the same. However, if no candidate is proposed, the President must dissolve the parliament and set a date for new elections. In 2018, President Pahor immediately announced that he would not propose a candidate for PM. The parties did not propose a candidate either. So, the President called elections for 3 June.

Apart from being the third early election in a row, the 2018 election may see the confirmation of another trend in recent Slovenian politics – the rise of new parties. For more than a decade after the democratic transition, Slovenia was one of the few post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries with a relatively stable party system. This was despite not having very demanding requirements for the establishment of a new party and an electoral system that favoured new parties. Even though new parties were common, none ever received more than 10% of the vote.

In 2011, however, a party that had emerged just before the elections, the List of Zoran Janković – Positive Slovenia, actually won the election with 28.5% of the vote. The story was repeated in 2014, when the Party of Miro Cerar, which again was formed only just prior to the election, won with 34.5% of the vote. What is more, in 2014 Positive Slovenia was unable to pass the electoral threshold.

A new party may again do well in the 2018 election. In the presidential election in autumn 2017, Marjan Šarec – the mayor of a small town close to Ljubljana – seriously challenged the incumbent president, Borut Pahor. Now, Šarec with the support of his local party (Lista Marjana Šarca) may also make a mark at the upcoming parliamentary election. According to the opinion polls, his appeal for a ‘new politics’ has assured him and his party a leading position. In June, we will see whether or not recent history repeats itself in this aspect too.

Montenegro – Milo Đukanović wins the presidential election

“(E)lections are readily perceived as a new beginning. Not so in Montenegro. In the last years the dominant figure in Montenegrin politics was one person: Milo Đukanović. Unlike any other politician in this region, he has remained on the forefront of political decision-making for now 25 years and has switched between being prime minister and president. His political career and his ideological adaptation mirror the development of the country since the end of communist rule.”

This was the introductory sentence to my last blog post about Montenegro in the Fall of 2016 on the occasion of the parliamentary election. It says a lot about the political role of Milo Đukanović that it would be possible to use this section again, only replacing parliamentary elections with presidential ones. Yet, the 1.5 years since the parliamentary election were not as uneventful as this little jab suggests. This blog post will briefly summarize the developments after the 2016 parliamentary elections, present the results of the recent presidential election and provide a forecast of what this might mean for Montenegrin political stability and democratic development.

The aftermath of the 2016 parliamentary elections

After the parliamentary elections that were won by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its candidate Milo Đukanović[1], the Democratic Front (DF) and other opposition parties declared that they would not recognize the election results due to the pressure on all opposition parties throughout the campaign (in particular, as the coup claims and the arrest of allegedly Serbian paramilitaries arguably influenced the election or at least the turnout). Due to this, Đukanović stepped down as prime minister (yet not as chair of the ruling DPS) and was replaced by Duško Marković. Some analysts argue that Milo got ahead of his intra-party critics, who blame him for the waning power and influence of the DPS. Until recently, the DPS had what Komar and Živković (2016, 793) described as an “image of invincibility”, a phenomenon characterized by a dominant or hegemonic party that gains from “the public perception that it cannot lose any elections”. The fear of losing this image of invincibility and not being able to form a coalition government led to the Đukanović’s retreat.

What seemed to some as the final ouster of a political dinosaur at the forefront of Montenegrin politics for 30 years was nothing more than an embossed tradition. It was actually the third time that Đukanović had used this ‘replacement technique’. In 2006 he announced his retirement from politics, installing Željko Sturanović as his replacement as prime minister. In 2008, after Sturanović resigned – due to health issues – Đukanović came back. Similarly, in 2010, Đukanović installed his long-time supporter Igor Lukšić to become the next prime minister. And again, Milo returned two years later and was elected to a seventh term by the Montenegrin parliament (RFE/RL 2012). There is little doubt that all three were a “political ploy” (Pavlović 2016), although Đukanović also pursued business interests. These business interests make him and his family very rich and the focus of immense criticism, even getting him labeled as Podgorica’s Godfather by international media (Ernst 2016).

Presidential elections 2018

After Đukanović’s retreat in 2016, talk started immediately about him running for president (a position he had already held from 1998 to 2002). He confirmed his candidacy in March 2018. He was unanimously backed by the leadership of his DPS (Reuters 2018), the coalition partner, the Liberal Party (LPCG), as well as a variety of other groups. Similar to the 2016 parliamentary elections campaign, the brief campaign for the presidency was styled as a contest between two opposing directions: Either EU membership and thus an – at least proclaimed – orientation towards the West or closer ties to Russia. Yet, the intensity that was reached during the 2016 campaign where Đukanović painted the dire picture of Montenegro becoming a “Russian Colony”, was not the same (see for reports e.g. Deutsche Welle 2016). It was not possible to confirm similar dramatic statements for the presidential campaign. Even more so, Đukanović moderated his verbal tactics and instead emphasized that he was not running for personal ambition: “(Victory) is more important for Montenegro and its path than to me personally, I am someone who has fulfilled my ambitions in politics,” (McLaughlin 2018).

At the same time, the opposition was not able to agree on a common candidate, yet Mladen Bojanić was supported by a broad group (among them the Democratic Front, Democratic Montenegro, United Reform Action and the Socialist People’s Party) (OSCE 2018) as well as Goran Danilović (a former candidate). A third candidate – Draginja Vuksanović – could also have had a key role. If she had reached close to 10% of the votes, a second round would have become likely.

Roughly one month after announcing his candidacy Đukanović was elected president in the first round with a projected majority of 54 % over the 33% of his main opponent, Mladen Bojanic (CeMI 2018). He was directly elected for a term of 5 years (with a maximum of 2 terms) (Art. 96 Constitution of Montenegro).

Outlook

Milo Đukanović has had a formative influence on the democratic practice, the political process and the development of the society in Montenegro (Banovic 2016). But since stepping down in 2016 as prime minister and installing one of his most important allies, Duško Marković as prime minister, their relation has reportedly soured (Ernst 2018). Đukanović’s impact over key political issues has become more constrained. The presidency is however not a powerful institution – at least constitutionally. Apart from a rather active role in the investiture of a new prime minister, his power and influence are limited. But it is also a fact that as chair of the DSP, Đukanović will be able “to wield considerable power and influence policy through the ranks of his Democratic Socialist party” (The Guardian 2018). It is unclear how the relation between Marković as prime minister and Đukanović as president will play out. In particular, his role in negotiating the EU accession of Montenegro will be of interest. Traditionally, presidents try to influence foreign policy even when they are not powerful in other areas. Đukanović’s main interest was always the orientation towards the West and it can expected that he will be involved in the EU accession negotiations. There is an inevitable conflict with the prime minister looming.

Literature:
Banović, Damir (2016): Montenegro, in: Fruhstorfer, Anna, and Michael Hein (eds): Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe, 289-306.

CeMI (2018): Election Results, in: https://twitter.com/CeMI_ME/status/985606974682353664?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.euronews.com%2F2018%2F04%2F16%2Fmilo-djukanovic-wins-montenegro-s-presidential-elections-pollster-cemi&tfw_site=euronews, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Deutsche Welle (2016): Montenegro’s longtime ruler faces ballot test (October 16), in: http://www.dw.com/en/montenegros-longtime-ruler-faces-ballot-test/a-36052927, last accessed October 18, 2016.

Ernst, Andreas (2016) Der Pate von Podgorica, in: https://www.nzz.ch/international/europa/djukanovic-haelt-montenegro-fest-in-der-hand-der-pate-von-podgorica-ld.122532. Last accessed April 16, 2018.

RFE/RL (2012): Djukanovic Gets Seventh Term As Montenegrin Prime Minister, in: https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-djukanovic/24789724.html, December 5, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Komar, Olivera & Živković, Slaven (2016). Montenegro: A democracy without alternations. East European Politics and Societies, 30(4), 785-804.

McLaughlin, Daniel (2018): East-West relations and mafia violence dominate election in Montenegro, in The Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/east-west-relations-and-mafia-violence-dominate-election-in-montenegro-1.3460842, last accessed April 13, 2018.

OSCE (2016): Montenegro, in: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/montenegro/295511?download=true

OSCE (2018): Interim Report, in: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/montenegro/376573?download=true, last accessed April 14, 2018.

Pavlović, Srđa (2016) Montenegro’s ‘stabilitocracy’: The West’s support of Đukanović is damaging the prospects of democratic change, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/12/23/montenegros-stabilitocracy-how-the-wests-support-of-dukanovic-is-damaging-the-prospects-of-democratic-change/, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Reuters (2018): Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s long-serving PM, to run for presidency, in: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-montenegro-election/milo-djukanovic-montenegros-long-serving-pm-to-run-for-presidency-idUSKBN1GW1PJ, last accessed April 16, 2018.

The Guardian (2018): Pro-EU politician set to win Montenegro’s presidential election, in: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/15/montenegro-votes-in-first-presidential-election-since-joining-nato, last accessed April 16, 2018.

Note

[1] The DPS won with 41% (36 seats in the 81 seat parliament) (OSCE 2016).

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite on an extended “vacation”?

The extent of visibility that Grybauskaite commanded both internationally and domestically before joint Russian-Belorussian military exercises “Zapad 2017” carried out in September was quite unprecedented. Since then, for the past six months or so, Lithuanian president appears to have almost completely “disappeared” from political engagements apart from occasional ceremonial duties and a minor clash with prime minister she had in early January, which appears to have soured their relationship.

The new year began with a short, two-day long, scuffle between the prime minister Skvernelis and Grybauskaite, when the former made an unexpected announcement during a radio interview calling to revive an intergovernmental commission between Lithuania and Russia. The prime minister suggested that it would be a practical move, based on Lithuania’s economic and national interests, and would be a beneficial step to open dialogue in such areas as trade, energy, logistics, agricultural products, transportation, and Lithuanian language teaching in Kaliningrad. “We are a unique EU state as we don’t have any—and let me reiterate—absolutely no contacts of any kind with the [neighboring] state [here, Russia], while other [EU] states, including our Baltic neighbors, are actively engaged in economic dealings,” claimed Skvernelis. Prime minister insisted that the current bilateral situation could not be viewed as a normal state of affairs. Skvernelis suggested that a revival of an intergovernmental commission would be highly beneficial for Lithuania’s economy concluding that “open and principled conversation is better than no conversation at all.” Indeed, Lithuania is rather unique in this regard as it is the only EU state that maintains no contact on any official level with Russia since the latter’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014. 

Since Skvernelis’s initiative clearly broke with the official foreign policy direction established and maintained by Grybauskaite, her office issued a staunch retort to the prime minister. “Lithuania’s position remains consistent and is based on principles, meaning, we seek mutually beneficial and respectful relations with all our neighbors. When Russia will change its aggressive policy towards the [neighboring] states, when it returns occupied territories, and when it cedes violating international law by meddling into other countries’ elections, then we will be ready to start a closer cooperation,” announced Grybauskaite. Such a presidential response suggested that a revival of intergovernmental commission would neither be possible nor desirable unless Russia met established “preconditions.” Furthermore, Grybauskaite indicated to the prime minister that his initiatives were not welcomed, that such proposals were irresponsible from the national security standpoint, and that as a head of state in charge of foreign policy she had no intention of changing the status quo that Lithuania finds itself in with Russia.

Skvernelis softened his stand a little bit the following day, when he announced that his and president’s views on Russia were the same and that they both “held almost similar principles [toward Russia].” Thus, there would be no need to find some sort of compromise between his suggestion and the presidential response on this issue. He also pointed out that he was not advocating for any reset in bilateral relations. “Friendship and partnership are two separate things,” he indicated. Grybauskaite countered this by saying that prime minister shows a large degree of naiveté by assuming that “economic relations with this country [here, Russia] can be separated from politics.”

Some political analysts suggested that the prime minister had badly miscalculated with such a spontaneous initiative, which he did not coordinate either with the presidential office or the minister of foreign affairs, and, in the end, was surely destined to suffer a bitter defeat from Grybauskaite. After all, since her arrival to the presidential office in 2009, Grybauskaite has trounced everybody eager to challenge her “absolute” rule in foreign affairs. Actually, it was not the first instance when Skvernelis publicly hinted about his discontent for being sidelined in decision-making on EU matters and about Grybauskaite’s “unilateralism” in foreign policymaking. For instance, in late December of 2017, he pointed out during a radio interview that “certain political decisions are made without any knowledge by, or information being shared with, the government. […] Voting in the UN showed that there was no collaboration [between the government and the president]. Furthermore, the government did not [even have a chance] to debate this matter.” Skvernelis appeared to be dissatisfied with a lack of cooperation shown by Grybauskaite on such a politically charged issue as voting in the UN, which pertained to Lithuania’s unexpected voting in favor of the resolution that condemned the US formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Potentially this spontaneous initiative regarding revival of Lithuanian-Russian intergovernmental commission was some sort of payback by prime minister, even if an unsuccessful one. 

Still others thought that Grybauskaite’s several months long absence in the public eye allowed Skvernelis to feel emboldened and eager to play a more prominent role in the foreign policy making of the country. After all, the president was absent in political arena since September 2017, and after a short January scuffle she had with Skvernelis, Grybauskaite disappeared once again from the public eye until Lithuania’s centennial celebration on 16 February. Although her reappearance for the centennial celebration was purely ceremonial and celebratory in nature, she ended up being criticized for garnering too much attention for herself, for sidelining other high ranking state officials (i.e., in particular the speaker of the parliament and prime minister) and for not inviting other Lithuanian officials to meetings with visiting foreign heads of states and EU’s highest officials. It may not be surprising that that same month (February), prime minister felt comfortable to be daring and provocative when he issued another snarky public supposition that Grybauskaite’s occasional criticism of his government inability to implement several laws could be viewed as a smoke-and-mirror tactics to actually cover up and compensate for both her and her office’s inactivity.

Meanwhile, Grybauskaite’s several months long absence prompted some analysts to suggest that the president has engulfed on an extended vacation of sorts. Surprisingly, her involvement in recent discussions on domestic issues such as taxes, tax reform, economics, and pensions reform—long considered as Grybauskaite’s primary areas of expertise—did not become more noticeable on the president’s agenda until after critical reviews of her inactivity became a matter of political debates. 

Likewise, president’s very limited involvement was evident in the most recent domestic crisis that unfolded in March. For the first time the country’s parliament had blatantly disregarded a Constitutional court decision and failed to remove a member of Parliament who violated Lithuania’s Constitution and parliamentary oath by concealing secret contacts with a KGB officer. Grybauskaite’s comment was communicated through a press statement in which she stated: “By trampling Constitutional Court’s decision and by ignoring state’s national security interests, the parliament has shamelessly discredited itself.” Such presidential detachment in the face of what one may consider a constitutional crisis is puzzling, particularly in light of an extensive work that Grybauskaite carried out to achieve greater transparency in governing structures and to fight nepotism and endemic corruption, especially in the country’s courts system. 

Despite Grybauskaite’s efforts to counter a growing number of unflattering public views, stipulations continue that president has lost her “steam,” that she does not have any new or exciting ideas, and that she clearly lacks determination to advance necessary changes and reforms. One prominent political commentator even suggested that time maybe right to institute a one-term presidency and to initiate necessary constitutional changes to that effect. In the meantime, speculations in the local media and by politicians continue to abound that Grybauskaite is already much more focused on finding a cushy position, allegedly in the EU structures, rather than being actively engaged in important domestic political matters and economic issues.

Ukrainian Presidents and NATO

Will President Poroshenko be able to take Ukraine into NATO? This is the question experts of the Ukrainian foreign policy are asking today. A bit over a year ago, in February 2017, Ukrainian President promised to hold a referendum on the country’s membership in NATO before leaving office. A few days ago, Ukraine reached another important milestone in its quest for the NATO membership. On March 10, President has declared that Ukraine is officially seeking to enter into a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a formal step toward joining NATO. As a result, Ukraine has been granted a status of “aspirant country.”

According to the NATO website, the Alliance may invite aspirant countries to participate in the MAP “to prepare for potential membership and demonstrate their ability to meet the obligations and commitments of possible future membership. Participation in the MAP does not guarantee membership, but it constitutes a key preparation mechanism.”

The first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk (1994-1999), was in favor of joining the Alliance, a position which he advocated during his presidency as well as long after. He considered membership in NATO to be the best guarantee of the security of Ukraine. Today, he still continues to publicly support Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance. In August 2017, Kravchuk was quoted that given the international situation and conflict with Russia, Ukraine “will not be able to survive” without an alliance and accession to NATO.

Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004), on the other hand, never openly declared any intention to join NATO. He usually listed three main reasons for leaving it off his foreign policy agenda: (1) NATO was not willing to let Ukraine in; (2) Ukraine was not ready and (3) attitudes Russia, which categorically rejected NATO’s presence in Easter Europe and the former Soviet Union [1]. Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), on the other hand, was a strong supporter of Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance and expressed country’s readiness to join the Membership Action Plan in 2006. However, the plan for NATO membership was completely abandoned in May 2010 under President Yanukovych (2010-2014).

This brings us back to the present day. In July 2017, as we reported on the pages of this website, President Poroshenko announced that he would seek an opening of negotiations on MAP as well as promised to hold a referendum on the membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Furthermore, for the first time Ukraine undertook the necessary domestic reforms to back up its claim for the membership.

There are, of course, two sides to the question of NATO membership. It is not only the Ukrainian presidents who matter in the membership decisions. Since president Trump took office, the US has sent contradictory messages on NATO and the country’s leadership of the Alliance has been uncertain. President Trump, however, has been largely supportive of Ukraine. He has recently approved sales of weapons to the country as well as deployed more tanks to NATO’s Eastern flank reassuring both Ukraine and his European allies. Whether NATO will accept a country with an on-going military conflict is also in question. It has not stopped West Germany from joining the Alliance in 1955 when GDR was under the USSR occupation. Whether the Alliance would be willing to do it again, however, remains to be seen.

Note

[1] Kuzio, Taras. 1998. “Ukraine and NATO: The evolving strategic partnership,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 21 (2): 1-30.

Russia – Putin Wins! Engineering an Election without Surprises

Following an adroitly-managed presidential election campaign, Russia’s leader for the last 18 years, Vladimir Putin, won a new six-year term of office in decisive fashion on Sunday, garnering over 76 percent of the vote.  If President Putin completes his new term, he would be only the second ruler of post-Imperial Russia to have governed the country for more than 20 years; the other was Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps the only elements of drama in the campaign surrounded the final margin of victory and the level of turnout.  For leaders in soft authoritarian regimes like Russia, it is not enough to defeat opposing candidates.  One must project an aura of political invincibility, which requires reducing opponents to also-rans in high-turnout elections where there are at least the formal trappings of competitiveness.

As the tables below illustrate, Putin’s victory margin was almost 65 percent, the highest in the post-communist era.  His vote total exceeded 56 million, over ten million more votes than he received in the previous presidential election.  Voter turnout reached 67 percent, up from the previous presidential election but below the 70 percent figure that the Kremlin apparently set as its goal.

To engineer these impressive results, Putin and his political allies pursued a carefully-calculated strategy, whose opening move was the exclusion from the presidential race of the Russian president’s most vocal and visible opponent, Alexei Navalny.  An anti-corruption campaigner whose mastery of social media and internet memes had electrified some segments of Russia’s political opposition, Naval’ny was unable to contest the presidency because of a 2014 criminal conviction for fraud, a decision labeled “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights.  Following his disqualification in December of last year, Navalny launched a campaign to boycott the election as a means of sullying Putin’s mandate for his fourth and—under current constitutional provisions—final term of office.

If the official election results are accurate—and there is credible video evidence of ballot stuffing in some Russian precincts—Navalny’s appeals for a boycott were no match for the combination of rule changes, media exhortation, and administrative resources marshalled behind the official get-out-the-vote effort.   In fact, by tossing down the gauntlet, Navalny encouraged the authorities to redouble their efforts to achieve a healthy turnout.  For the first time in the post-communist era, the Central Election Commission allowed voters to cast their ballots outside the precinct in which they were registered, provided they had informed the authorities of their intent by March 12.  Moreover, the Central Election Commission carried out a purge of voter rolls prior to the election in order to remove approximately 1.5 million “dead souls” as well as voters who were registered in multiple districts.  Without this initiative, turnout figures would not have increased appreciably from the last presidential election.

As in earlier electoral contests in Russia, state officials, from governors to university administrators, served as prodders and proctors to boost turnout in the election.  In one provincial university, students faced eviction from their dormitory if they didn’t turn out to the polls.  As observers from the OSCE revealed, governors in some regions organized competitions among electoral commissions and “offered monetary rewards for PECs [Precinct Electoral Commissions] with the best performance and the highest voter turnout.”[iv] Despite the full-court press to mobilize voters, turnout varied widely across the country, with some regions in Western Russia and Siberia lagging 35 points behind the ethnic republics of the Northern Caucasus and Tyva, which are the perennial front-runners in voter turnout in Russian elections.

Whether in Russia or the West, the electoral playing field is never level when an incumbent is in the race.  A sitting president in any country enjoys greater media attention because the daily tasks of governing shine a spotlight on the incumbent that is not available to challengers (see table below).[v]  In the Russian case, however, the Putin campaign was able to control the rules and the narrative in ways that constantly played to the strengths of the incumbent while highlighting the vulnerabilities of his opponent.  For example, the authorities moved election day up by a week to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which remains a wildly popular decision in Russia.   President Putin arranged to give his State of the Union address (Poslanie) just a little over two weeks before the election, an address that dominated several news cycles because of its dramatic claims that Russia possessed novel weapons systems for which the West has no answer.  Even the ballot itself presented President Putin in a distinctly favorable light.  Vladimir Putin’s name stood out in the middle of the ballot with its brief two-line biography, while all of his contenders had unwieldly six to eight-line descriptions of their backgrounds.  More importantly, the ballot listed Putin as a “self-nominee” [samodvyzhenetz], whereas the other candidates stood under a party banner at a moment when parties were the least respected of all Russian political institutions.[vi]

During the electoral campaign, the advantages of incumbency in a soft authoritarian regime were on full display on Russia’s main evening news broadcast, Vremia, which treated its viewers to campaign coverage that set President Putin apart from the seven other contenders for the presidency.  Each broadcast offered a short segment devoted to the campaign activities of Putin’s opponents as they traversed Moscow and the country in search of votes.   This daily news block on the election always ended with coverage of the Putin campaign, without featuring Putin himself.  While the president was pursuing the Russian equivalent of the Rose Garden Strategy, his designated electoral agents [doverennye litsa] were pictured on the hustings.  Among these agents was an assortment of celebrities drawn from the worlds of culture and sports.

Set against the star power of the Putin team was a rag-tag band of opposition candidates for the presidency, whose backgrounds and behavior were no match for the sober, dignified, and professional image projected by President Putin.  During one of the presidential debates, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the mercurial leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, hurled sexist insults against the only woman in the race, Ksenia Sobchak.  Sobchak responded by dousing him with a glass of water.   In another debate, the candidate representing the Communists of Russia, Maxim Suraikin, had to be physically restrained on stage as he charged a designated agent standing in for the candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grudinin.

Where most of Putin’s opponents escaped frontal assaults by the country’s media, almost all of which are pro-Kremlin, that was not the case with Pavel Grudinin, the millionaire businessman-cum-Communist who finished second in the presidential race.  The vitriolic news anchor for Vremia, Kirill Kleimenov, relentlessly criticized Grudinin’s business practices and his family’s ownership of luxury properties abroad, including ones in what Kleimenov called the “NATO country of Latvia.”  Kleimenov claimed that such links to the West should be a disqualifying factor for a Russian presidential candidate.  This tactic was emblematic of Putin’s campaign, and of Putin’s leadership more broadly, which has sought support and legitimacy in its championing of what one observer called “anti-Western, isolationalist, and conservative values.”[i]  Portraying Russia as the perennial victim of the actions of nefarious Western elites, who seek to demean and diminish Russia through indignities ranging from doping scandals to economic sanctions, Putin offered himself to the nation as the only guarantor of Russian security, honor, and grandeur.

The question now is what the Russian president will do with the resounding mandate achieved in the March 18 “referendum on Vladimir Putin,” as two Russian journalists dubbed the election Sunday evening.[ii]  The opposition may be in complete disarray, but Putin still faces serious challenges to his presidency from a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, from a shrinking labor force and increasing pension commitments to the morass in Syria.  In recent years Putin has postponed confronting Russia’s systemic problems by deflecting attention onto foreign adventures and by offering the “balm of righteousness”[iii] to a nation whipped into a frenzy about its unfair treatment by the rest of the world.   It is unclear how much longer Putin can rely on these tactics to sustain his personalist regime.

At an impromptu press conference immediately after the election results were announced, a journalist asked the Russian president whether “in the next six years we will see a new Vladimir Putin or the old one?” Putin’s response: “Everything changes…we all change.”  At the moment, though, change does not seem to be in the offing.

Notes

[i] Interim Report (5 February – 1 March), OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Election Observation Mission, Russian Federation, Presidential Election, 18 March 2018, p. 4.  https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/russia/374137?download=true

[ii] The table contains figures drawn from a search of the East View database of central Russian newspapers, using the first and last names of candidates as the search terms.

[iii] Polls conducted in October 2017 showed that political parties were viewed as completely trustworthy by only 19 percent of the population; the corresponding figure for the President was 75 percent.  Levada Center, Institutional Trust, October 11, 2017. https://www.levada.ru/en/2017/11/10/institutional-trust-3/

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Frozen Landscape: The Russian Political System ahead of the 2018 Presidential Election,” Carnegie Center Moscow, March 7, 2018. http://carnegie.ru/2018/03/07/frozen-landscape-russian-political-system-ahead-of-2018-presidential-election-pub-75722

[v] Pavel Altekar’ and Vladimir Ruvinskii, “Kogo pobedil Vladimir Putin,” Vedomosti, March 18, 2018. https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2018/03/18/754114-kogo-pobedil-vladimir-putin

[vi] A phrase used to describe George Wallace’s rhetoric and actions directed to white Southerners, whom he cast in the role of victims, in this case due to the imposition of Northern values on the South.   Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), p. 109.

Moldova – The president, necessary judicial reforms, and the European Union

In late February 2018, Radio Free Europe (Jozwiak 2018) reported on a draft recommendation by the European Union Foreign Affairs Council. In this draft, the Moldovan Government was urged to increase its fight against corruption and, in particular, to restore the public trust in the judicial system. It was not the first time the European Union has tried to influence the government in Chișinău in this regard. As far back as 2002 the Council of Europe (Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly 2006) raised the issue of judicial autonomy and suggested modifications of the nomination procedure for judges – a process that is equally important for the functioning of the rule of law as well as the influence of the president on the judiciary. In the following, two issues with judicial autonomy in Moldova will be discussed – the process of seating the judge (appointment) and the presidential involvement and the ability of the president to unseat or remove the judge (tenure): both processes are vulnerable to presidential meddling. This meddling is also one of the main points of criticism, but as will be discussed, this criticism is probably only an easy way out of a more complex situation.

In any democracy, the judiciary plays a major part in the development of democracy and its resilience against autocratic backsliding. Yet, judicial institutions are also political institutions that undergo the same pressures of self-interested political actors as other political institutions (Magalhaes 1999). At the same time, research shows that judicial independence is of utmost importance to democracy (Helmke 1998). Constitutional and statutory regulations are a first step, but “(i)ndividuals whose judicial careers are not secure are more susceptible to outside influences” (Herron and Randazzo 2003: 425). Hence, the intertwined relationship between the president and the judiciary is not a new problem the European Union has just discovered.

Several scholars pointed to the role of tenure for impartial decisions (Helmke 2002; Herron and Randazzo 2003). Moreover, various international actors emphasize the importance of the tenure of judges for a functioning rule of law in the Republic of Moldova. In theory, the appointment or reappointment of a judge should limit as much as possible the political pressure placed on them. Legal reforms have taken up this challenge in recent years. But like other countries, the provisions in the Moldovan Constitution regarding the president’s role in the nomination procedure of judges is insufficient and does not clearly state any provisions in case a conflict arises.

All ordinary judges in Moldova are directly appointed by the president on the basis of the recommendation of the Superior Council of Magistrates (Consiliul Superior al Magistraturii), the president has 30 days to decide and request information on the candidates. The president can refuse the appointment, but after Superior Council of Magistrates put the candidate forward for a second time with a 2/3 majority, the president must agree to the appointment. Furthermore, the 1994 Moldovan Constitution stipulated a 15-year period between the appointment of a judge and the tenured position; this was shortened to 5 years (Art. 116) in 1996. It was widely considered that this amendment (initiated by then-President Snegur) was an important step towards the strengthening of the independent and autonomous position of judges and therefore the rule of law.

Yet, it is also clear that the general idea of allowing the president to appoint judges or to grant tenure threatens the basic judicial autonomy and freedom of partisan influences of those judges. After President Voronin came into power in 2001, the threats against the political autonomy of judges increased. Reports on the political pressure on the judiciary became more serious (Freedom House 2003), the president increasingly used his power and refused to prolong the mandate of judges (Freedom House 2003). In 2012, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova decided on a judicial reform concerning in particular the appointment and tenure of judges (for a detailed overview of the individual reform laws see Hriptievschi et al. 2015). Since then – theoretically – clear criteria for the appointment and career of judges as well as “mandatory performance evaluations [] (and) the establishment of the Judges’ Selection and Career Board” (Hriptievschi 2017, 3) should guarantee an independent judiciary. Yet, several judges appointed since then face severe accusations against their integrity. They were appointed nevertheless, in some cases with the support of the president, but also after he (in this case Timofti) rejected the proposed judges (Hriptievschi 2017). Furthermore, the Superior Council of Magistrates is itself controversial, in particular because of a missing transparency in its decisions and ignoring the recommendations of the Judges’ Selection and Career Board (see e.g. Hriptievschi 2017).This is by no means a problem only observable in Moldova, similar conflicts can be found in Slovakia and Poland (see the blog post on Poland and on Slovakia).

In 2016, the Moldovan Parliament discussed a constitutional amendment draft regarding the reform of the judiciary. Also, the Venice Commission proposed an amendment that would allow the president to reject a nomination by the Superior Council of Magistrates only once and specifies that the appointment and tenure decision has to be based on objective criteria, merit and a transparent procedure (Council of Europe 2018). These institutional criteria were already stipulated in the 2012 reform but putting them into the constitution could be an important step for a more serious judicial reform in the Republic of Moldova.

To sum, the experience since the reform in 2012 shows that not only the involvement of the president but also the questionable decision making by the very instances endowed with guaranteeing judicial independence are a major problem. In addition, judicial behavior depends on more than institutional features: for a high degree of independence of the judiciary and its judges, a constitutional amendment only focusing on the presidential role will not suffice.

References

Council of Europe (2018) Republic of Moldova Draft Law on the Modification and Completion of the Constitution.

Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly (2006) Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Moldova: 10931, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/44c4d7e74.html, accessed 10 April 2015.

Freedom House (2003) Moldova Country Report, available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2003/moldova#.U-CY-aMd0X8, accessed 5 August 2014.

Helmke, G. (1998) Toward a Formal Theory of an Informal Institution: Insecure Tenure and Judicial Independence in Argentina, 1976-1995.

Helmke, G. (2002) ‘The logic of strategic defection: Court–executive relations in Argentina under dictatorship and democracy’, American Political Science Review 96(2): 291–303.

Herron, E.S. and Randazzo, K.A. (2003) ‘The relationship between independence and judicial review in post-communist courts’, The Journal of Politics 65(2): 422–438.

Hriptievschi, N., Gribincea, V., Chirtoaca, I., and Guzon, I. (2015) Selection and Career of Judges, available at http://crjm.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-01_DP-Selection-of-Judges_CRJM-EN1.pdf, accessed 10 March, 2018.

Hriptievschi, N.(2017) Independence and Accountability of Moldova’s Judiciary under Threat, available at http://crjm.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2017-04-Hriptievschi-judiciary.pdf, accessed 18 March 2018.

Joswiak, Rikard (2018) EU presses Moldova on judicial reform, fighting corruption, available at https://www.rferl.org/a/eu-presses-moldova-judicial-reform/29057286.html, accessed 18 March 2018.

Magalhaes, P.C. (1999) ‘The politics of judicial reform in Eastern Europe’, Comparative Politics: 43–62.

Hungary – Legislative vetoes by president Áder: Irrelevant activism?

There is no doubt that Hungarian president Janos Áder is a close ally and supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his illiberal politics. Interestingly, however, he has used and continues to use his legislative veto power with surprising frequency. Overall, this runs counter to existing explanatory approaches and might thereby shed new light on the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy.

Hungarian president Janos Áder – image via wikimedia commons

When Janos Áder was elected president, he promised to depart from the rubber stamp-attitude to legislation exhibited by his co-partisan precedessor Pál Schmitt (who not only failed to use his veto power during his two years in office, but has also publicly declared he would sign every bill the Fidesz majority in parliament passed). Opposition politicians welcomed (albeit cautiously) his declaration that if parliament passed a hundred good bills he would all sign them into law but if parliament passed a hundred bad bills he would use his veto against all of them. Nevertheless, given that the Hungarian president’s veto can be overridden by simple majority (unless the original bill required a higher majority to be passed, e.g. organic law) and presidents are obliged to sign bills that were passed again (even if changes were introduced during the veto/reconsideration process), it was clear that such activism would need to be amplified by use of the personal ties between Áder and his long-time friend Orbán.

Already early on in his first term, Janos Áder seemed to follow through on his promise – in his first year in office alone, he sent 11 bills back to parliament for reconsideration. Even his predecessor Lászlo Sólyom, who found himself in cohabitation with all governments during his five year-term in office and vetoed almost frantically in comparison to his own predecessors, took almost three years to veto as many bills. Although clearly in friendly relations with the government and parliamentary majority, Áder had vetoed 28 bills by the end of his first term last year (only four less than Sólyom who – as mentioned above – was in cohabitation the whole time) and vetoed three more since his re-election.

These number may not be high in comparison to other presidents in the region, particularly those elected by popular vote, yet they present a challenge to established explanations of presidential activism that others and myself have proposed. If presidential activism is primarily determined by the institutional structure (most prominently direct/indirect elections) and the political environment (the partisan composition and strength of parliament and government vis-a-vis the presidency), we should see comparatively fewer vetoes in the case of Janos Áder.

Additional explanatory variables that I found to be important in the case of president Lászlo Sólyom (2005-2010) also do not seem to apply here. For once, there is no personal antipathy between president and prime minister and more than two thirds of bills vetoed were prepared by ministries (i.e. not private members bills which have typically been of lower quality). Furthermore, after the government initially incorporated changes proposed by Áder into bills as part of the review process, all 12 vetoes issued since the 2014 parliamentary elections were overridden. Thus, presidential vetoes are not (or are no longer) an easy way to let the government fix problems with bills that were previously overlooked.

At the same time, Áder’s veto activity does also not quite fit into the pattern (if one can speak of such) of democratic window-dressing in the Polish case. Despite international outcry and serious flaws in bills Áder has not used his veto to stop (at least temporarily) the crackdown on public media, the ‘Lex CEU‘ or legislation that benefitted Fidesz politicians and their associates in other ways. While he used his veto on a number of other bills that were controversially discussed domestically, his opposition appears to be lacking in enthusiasm.

Thus, Áder’s use of presidential vetoes remains somewhat enigmatic. The fact that neither existing explanatory approaches nor the logic of presidential activism visible in other regimes can account for it should prompt a re-examination of how we imagine the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy. Áder’s (ostensibly) irrelevant activism could point towards a further concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and/or to the fact that his actions are directed towards other constituencies that have yet to be uncovered.

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A full list of presidential vetoes in Hungary is available here (in Hungarian).

France – Emmanuel Macron as the new ‘fast’ president

During the early days of his presidency, Emmanuel Macron was sometimes compared with the classical gods Hercules and Jupiter. The metaphor of Macron as Jupiter was intended to celebrate a return to authority and leadership at the heart of the State, a posture deliberately contrasted with the perceived failings of his three immediate predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. Is Macron a regal figure? Or a republican monarch? Such labels are the usual metaphors of French Presidents In fact, Macron’s presidential style has a syncretic quality, drawing on practices and symbols of past French and foreign presidents.

There is a conscious and continuing reference to the practices, routines and gestures of his predecessors, with the nine Presidents of the Fifth Republic providing a rich empirical pool for developing a repertoire of presidential action. De Gaulle is the most obvious model, as the General’s return to power in May 1958 was followed by a six month period of governing by decrees (‘ordonnaces’), and calling on high civil servants (rather than politicians) to govern the country. There are many similarities between Macron and the first six months of the Gaullien period, not least in the negation of party politics and the creation of a presidential movement to support the action of the provident individual; in sum, the de Gaulle heritage for Macron signifies in part a leader against parties and the old cleavages. Next, in terms of significance, from President Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81), Macron demonstrates a youthful modernity and calls to reform blocked France that aspires to be governed in the national interest beyond left and right. From President Mitterrand, Macron proclaims a grand European design, eloquently presented in speech to the Sorbonne, following in the steps of Mitterrand over three decades earlier. The counter-models are the two ‘radical-republican’ Presidents Chirac (who held a hazardous referendum on the future of the EU) and Hollande, the deliberate anti-model. Beyond France, the most influential model and source of inspiration is the US President Barack Obama (‘Yes, we can’) and, at a distance once-removed, J-F. Kennedy. There is nothing entirely new under the sun, but Macron’s leadership goes beyond a careful cultivation of – and respect for- selected predecessors and comparators.

More recently, there have certain parallels with Sarkozy (2007-2012). The speed of Macron’s reforms bears some similarities with the early Sarkozy period. I argued elsewhere that in 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office . The Sarkozy presidency was inaugurated with a discourse of rupture –a break with existing political practices and established interests, a skilful political construction that captured the reform theme for the French right. A clearer presidential mandate gave rise to a more explicitly assumed policy leadership. Most of the key reforms of the 2007-2012 were directly associated with Sarkozy; from the reforms to the 35 hour week and flexible working ( 2007), through the detailed interventions in the field of state reform (RGPP, 2007-2012), the universities (2007), the environment (2008), local government (2009-2010) and the pensions reform (2010). The rhythm of the early period could be explained because the incoming President was fully vested with the legitimacy of a decisive electoral victory. The overall evaluation of Sarkozy’s reformist record, tempered by the impact of economic crisis, was rather paradoxical. If Sarkozy’s presidency was a reformist one, almost all of the key reforms introduced in 2007-08 had been modified or abandoned by 2012. The economic crisis of 2008 recast the dice and gradually the memory of the early reform period receded.

Fast forward ten years, and leaving aside the natural bombast involved in comparisons with Greek and Roman gods, the Jupiterian phase of the Macron presidency was intended to give a new sense of purpose to political choices, in the register of transformative political leadership. The Jupiter metaphor allowed Macron to announce clearly the reforms that would be undertaken during the course of the quinquennat, to guide the way. It would be an act as bad faith to accuse Macron of not putting into operation his campaign promises. The Macron presidency has, thus far, revealed itself to be one of the most ambitious and reformist in the history of the Fifth Republic. Around a dozen major fields were opened in the first few months, with clear sequences intended to give meaning to political action throughout the five year period. After a shaky start (the sacking of the chief in staff of the Army, the poor reception of cuts announced across governmental budgets without prior negotiation [and specifically of the housing benefits], the obvious inexperience of several new ministers and members of the governing LREM party), the early months of the presidency followed, fairly clearly, the roadmap announced by the President. The law on the moralisation of French politics forbad the practice of employing family members as staffers, and placed limits on expense claims. The decrees reforming the Labour Code (enhancing firm-level bargaining, limiting severance pay, reforming the operation of trade unions, especially in the smallest firms, simplifying and unifying staff representative committees in the workplace) were intended to modernize France’s system of industrial relations and encourage investment; any analysis of their impact is premature.

The speed and rhythm of the reform programme cast Macron as a new ‘fast President’, announcing multiple reforms in a blitzkrieg designed to destabilize the opposition, rather reminiscent of the early Sarkozy (2007-08) or Blair (1997-98) periods. The 2017-18 reform programme was an ambitious one, and few sectors were absent: the moralization of politics, the reform of labour law, a new internal security law, the abolition of the wealth tax, the changing rules for university entrance, the reform of the unemployment insurance and training regimes, immigration reform, prison reform, civil service reform, the overhaul of school examinations (the Baccalaureate) and even the sacred cow of the special statute for national railway workers.

In both cases, Sarkozy and Macron, a clear presidential mandate was followed by a vigorous programme of social and economic reforms. In both cases, also, an active presidential leadership was framed as the antithesis of an earlier period of stasis; the immobile Chirac, for Sarkozy, or the compromised Hollande, for Macron. In both cases, finally, the speed of reforms was designed to destabilize adversaries and exploit to the maximum the window of opportunity opened by precise concatenations of circumstances.

There are also contrasts, naturally. First, in relation to the strategic use of time. The image of the Duracell president under Sarkozy implied action and energy, rather than deep strategic reflection. Macron can claim to have integrated a more strategic use of time. Reforms have been closely sequenced, designed to underline that the President alone is the ‘timekeeper’ (le maître de l’ horloge). The first six months were an economic sequence, designed to set France on a course of economic reform and competitiveness (standing on the right-leg); the next period was intended to re-balance, to offer a social counterpart to economic reform (standing on the left leg).

More generally, the management of time forms a key part of Macron’s agenda. The strategic dimension of time management can be illustrated with the 2018 budget. The headlines of the 2018 budget concerned the powerful symbolic abolition of the wealth tax, along with the adoption of a 30% ‘flat tax’ to encourage investment in the ‘real’ economy and risk taking. The main novelty, however, was to move towards a five-year budgetary logic. Announcing spending priorities and commitments across the five year period (2018-2022) was intended to modify the meaning of the annual budget cycle, with a view to ensuring fiscal and policy stability over the medium term and encouraging investment. In the case of Macron, an overarching strategic timeframe (the budget, the quinquennat) is coupled with a clever tactical use of time; involving social partners in consultation, floating ideas subsequently to be watered down, and forcing deadlines on negotiations.

Second, in terms of style and method, Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Notwithstanding Macron’s double or triple language, and the tendency to ‘speak the language of the people’ when faced with controversy (see the recent Salon de l’Agriculture), there is more method. The announced reforms have followed a similar pattern: the promise of consultation (but not negotiation) with social partners and other interested parties; a strictly controlled government timetable; the announcement of ambitious targets to be achieved; a stated preference for the procedure of decrees and limited parliamentary oversight, and a strong investment in new instruments of central steering (the creation of a territorial agency for local government, a new training agency etc.).

Thus far, there is little practical opposition to Macron; the veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was forced to admit that Macron had ‘won the first round’ as attempts to mobilise against the reform of the labour code fell flat; the Socialist Party (PS), a shadow of its former self, is engaged in a process of introspection and leadership selection; the National Front (FN), having already suffered a split, is about to engineer a name change in the hope of recapturing its dynamism of the 2012-17 period; the Republicans are reviving somewhat under Laurent Wauquiez, but the inheritor party of the UMP has been deserted by its centrist and centre-right elements and electors; finally, the trade unions are more divided and ineffective than ever. The window of opportunity for reform remains open, but the Sarkozy comparison points to the dangers of managing reform in the medium and long term. The real test of time will be in 2022.

Fabian Burkhardt – The non-campaign of the 2018 presidential election in Russia

Keep Navalny out, programmatic statements to a minimum, and turnout up. If one had to summarize the non-campaign of the 2018 presidential elections from the Kremlin’s vantage point in one sentence, this would probably be it. It will most likely go down in history as the most uninspiring presidential election in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Even President Vladimir Putin’s campaign slogan “A strong president – a strong Russia” had been copy-pasted from Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 referendum campaign. The incumbent is slated to win the elections on 18 March with a landslide and will then embark on his fourth presidential term ending in 2024 which – according to the constitution – would be his last six years in power as president. Vladimir Putin’s anticipated status as a “lame duck” in conjunction with the non-competitive, largely predetermined and non-programmatic nature of the campaign has led many analysts to speculate about the “arrival of a post-Putin Russia.” Nevertheless, elections under authoritarianism are not void of meaning. From a functional perspective, researchers conclude that “the role of Russian elections has evolved from information-gathering and co-optation to primarily signaling the regime’s strength and sporadically dividing and embarrassing the opposition.”[i] And indeed, signaling strength by showing strong turnout and splitting the non-parliamentary opposition seemed to be high on the agenda of the presidential administration.

The setup

The incumbent Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for president on 6 December 2017. This unusually late announcement three months before the election fits the overall impression of Putin’s campaign: The campaign trail and programmatic statements were reduced to a minimum. In fact, only the presidential address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March gave the broader public a glimpse into how Putin views the next six years, a vision analysts called “conservative technocracy”. Among the other seven registered candidates, two are outright spoilers (Sergei Baburin and Maksim Suraikin). Two represent parliamentary “systemic” opposition parties: Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the LDPR and Pavel Grudinin for the Communist Party (CPRF). Zhirinovsky has been a regular at presidential elections since 1991. In 2018, too, he played his role well of a scandalous, anti-Western, far-right scarecrow and clown that makes everyone else look well-behaved and decent. Shortly before his candidacy was announced, Pavel Grudinin himself did not know he would replace the CPRF’s long-term general secretary Gennady Zyuganov. Grudinin is not a party member, but was actively promoted by the leftist former protest leader Sergey Udaltsov during the party primaries. As director of the Lenin-Sovkhoz (sic) he merges both a capitalist and pro-Soviet or even Stalinist world view. As a newcomer his popularity quickly rose to higher single digits in official polls, but state television was quick to launch a smear campaign against him. This lead to speculation that his candidacy had not been agreed with the presidential administration or whether it signified infighting of various groups within the elite. Otherwise, Boris Titov – chairman of the Right Cause party and acting business ombudsman officially accountable to the president – admitted that he does not consider himself as a genuine candidate and sees the campaign rather as an opportunity to follow up on his cause as a business representative by other means. Grigory Yavlinsky, the co-founder and long-term leader of the liberal Yabloko party once more decided to take part in the election after he had not been registered in 2012, but observers describe his campaign as half-hearted at best. Probably the biggest surprise was the candidacy of journalist and socialite Kseniya Sobchak. During the campaign she has tried her best to convince the public that she was not a spoiler launched by the presidential administration although she did admit she had informed Vladimir Putin (who had worked under her father in the St. Petersburg city hall) about her plans. The amount of airtime on state TV she receives attests to claims that she fits the presidential administration’s plans rather well. Overall, it remains to be seen whether she aims to capitalize on the publicity she has received to increase the number of Instagram followers she has or to launch a new political party in the future. On the other hand, she has received praise from human rights defenders for speaking out in favor of some repressed activists like Yury Dmitriev and Oyub Titiev.

Boosting turnout to convey strength

Signaling strength to the elite, opposition and the wider population is among the core functions of authoritarian elections[ii]. Despite Putin’s approval ratings, which have remained above 80% since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this “approval” for various reasons does not automatically translate into electoral turnout in favor of the incumbent. In general, turnout has been declining across presidential, parliamentary, and gubernatorial elections (Figure 1). Nevertheless, this decline has been least pronounced for presidential elections, therefore a turnout between 65 and 70 percent might still be in the cards.

Given Vladimir Putin’s predominance in Russia’s state media and public sphere in normal times, pushing his person during the election campaign even more could backfire. Quite the contrary, at times observers have had the impression that the presidential administration has tried to restrict Putin’s election-related campaign events and TV reporting.

Overall, two main strategies to boost turnout can be identified. The first is a massive public relations and ads campaign launched by the Central Election Commission to inform citizens about the upcoming election. The official budget of the CEC for public relations amounts to 770 million rubles (13.6 million USD), but reports indicate that many companies voluntarily place information on the upcoming elections. Mobile telecom operators sent SMS text messages, the state services website Gosuslugi emailed users on behalf of the CEC, and companies ranging from the retailer Magnit to gas stations and Burger King placed election-related information on their receipts. Large state companies such as Aeroflot, Sberbank or VTB also placed ads on their websites, celebrities placed paid-for posts on Instagram, and youth TV channel ran clips about the most fashionable event of the spring.

Second, recent research[iii] has demonstrated that voter intimidation and mobilization at the workplace is an important component of elections in Russia. Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi (2018) report that during the 2012 presidential election campaign “17 per cent of employed respondents experienced intimidation by their employers.” Future research will have to investigate the scale of workplace mobilization during the 2018 elections, but at this point we already have evidence that especially large companies are preparing to do so, such as the Chelyabinsk-based metal producer Mechel or the oil giant Rosneft. It is also crucial to keep in mind that this is as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon. Given the large dominance of the state in the Russian economy, large companies have significant incentives to demonstrate loyalty to the state because they might be treated with sticks such as reprisals in form of oversight bodies or even expropriation, or with carrots such as a preferential treatment with state contracts.

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

While Sobchak’s campaign started from a mostly apolitical (“Sobchak against all”) slogan to a more political and programmatic platform (For Sobchak), Aleksey Navalny’s bid was political from the very beginning with a strong organizational component. His Foundation for the Fight against Corruption (FBK) managed to sign up more than 700,000 supporters and opened 81 regional headquarters all over Russia. Moreover, especially in the first half of 2017 Navalny managed to stage two comparatively successful protest marches with a strong regional focus in March and June despite increasing pressure from the authorities. In November 2017, for example, he announced that his employees in Moscow and the regions (i.e. not counting volunteers and supporters) had spent more than 2000 hours under arrest and had paid more than 10 million rubles (USD 175,000) in fines. As there is little doubt he would have been able to collect the 300,000 signatures demanded by law, Navalny announced a “voters’ strike” (Zabastovka izbiratelei) after the Central Election Commission rejected his bid to register officially as a candidate on 25 December 2017. Given the resources invested by Navalny, a “boycott” seemed rational, but this automatically pitted him against Sobchak and Yavlinsky. From the perspective of the Kremlin, this constellation was ideal for splitting the opposition with a minimum of effort by the presidential administration itself. What ensued was a rather fierce and at times self-destructive debate by supporters of the various camps about the perils and virtues of electoral boycotts. Electoral mathematicians such as Sergey Shpilkin and Andrei Buzin argued that a boycott that comprised only opposition supporters, but not Putin voters, would only marginally decrease turnout, but inevitably increase Putin’s vote. Notable political scientists such as Grigory Golosov and Aleksandr Kynev support the boycott. Quite interestingly, the debate frequently made reference to boycotts around the world. The most-cited reference was Matthew Frankel’s 2010 paper “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea”[iv] who argued that boycotts are rarely the correct strategy unless the opposition has widespread public support. But even supporters of the boycott found arguments in the Frankel piece that seemed to underscore their position, therefore cherry-picking among expert opinions and academic writings for political purposes was widespread. The whole debate illuminates blank spots in the reasoning and what the various political actors omitted. First, not much has been written about electoral boycotts in comparative politics, so it seems doubtful whether it is actually possible to draw robust conclusions “from the literature” for the Russian case. Second, Navalny’s ”voters’ strike” counts as a “minor boycott” at best. But comparative research so far has predominantly focused on major boycotts. In the most comprehensive work on boycotts to date, Emily Beaulieau only includes those boycotts in which more than 50% of the opposition takes part[v]. And third, the public debate mostly focused on the depression of turnout to harm Vladimir Putin’s claim to legitimacy, but other crucial aspects are kept quiet about. Staffan Lindberg found that boycotts are often positively correlated with electoral violence[vi]. Moreover, oppositional actors preferred to ignore that boycotts are frequently associated with a post-electoral crackdown by the authoritarian regime, and that the long-term prospects of democratization in the aftermath of boycotts are rather bleak[vii]. Overall, the debate on boycotts was rather superficial, but managed to drive a wedge between various opposition actors.

Election monitoring

Navalny and his team underscored that the election boycott was only one element of his strategy of voters’ strike, other elements include nation-wide protests and election monitoring. In fact, right after Navalny was denied official registration as a candidate he announced that his regional campaign headquarters would be transformed into election monitoring headquarters that would help organize and train the regional independent monitoring on election day. In early March, his website boasted more than 45,000 registered election monitors with an overall aim of 50-70,000 (there will be more than 95,000 polling stations). More crucially, while the debate on a boycott was mostly divisive, the election monitoring initiative seems to have led to some collective action and cooperation, and therefore also to a build-up of trust, social capital and experience among opposition actors. In late January, former Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, who is largely supportive of Yabloko, reached an agreement with Navalny: Gudkov aimed to cover all of Moscow’s 3500 polling stations with two observers (in early March 5500 had registered on his website), and Gudkov and Navalny would share expertise and training capacities.

While the scale and effect of this monitoring campaign remains to be seen, in the light of recent research this strategy seems to be justified from the opposition’s point of view. Rodion Skovoroda and Tomila Lankina, for instance, show that “reports by independent observers of subnational electoral irregularities could be employed as reasonably reliable indicators of fraud, and could be utilized alongside other data to ascertain the incidence of misconduct in Russia and other settings”[viii] In an another paper on Russian regional politics, Skovoroda and Lankina find that election fraud has the potential to generate protest[ix]. Depending on the degree of electoral fraud and the quality of election monitoring, the signaling effect and potential ensuing protests could actually prove more effective in delegitimizing the elections than the boycott which has been so divisive for opposition actors.

Constitutional politics and presidential power

The presidential campaign has once more highlighted how the expansion of constitutional and subconstitutional presidential powers[x] and the “rule by law” bolsters authoritarianism.

Navalny’s non-registration: On 25 December 2017 the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register Aleksei Navalny as a presidential candidate. In its decision the CEC argued that Navalny did not possess the passive right to be elected president due to his five year suspended criminal conviction in the Kirovles 2 case. The CEC’s point of reference was the federal law “On the elections of the President of the Russian Federation”, which states that persons convicted of severe or very severe crimes cannot be elected. Navalny, for his part, argues that Art. 32 of the Russian constitution only bans those citizens from being elected that are “kept in places of confinement by a court sentence.” Therefore, Russian federal law is more restrictive than the constitution which – as the supreme juridicial force with direct action – in Navalny’s and some notable constitutional lawyers’ reading should therefore trump federal law. Both the Russian Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court declined to review the Navalny case on the merits. Moreover, Navalny filed a second petition with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the repeated Kirovles 2 decision was handed down with major procedural irregularities. It is expected that the ECHR – just as in its first sentence on Kirovles 1 – will decide in favor of Navalny. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers already had appealed to Russia to allow Navalny to stand for elections.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly: Russia’s equivalent of the American State of the Union Address is usually held by the president every year. In 2017, however, Putin failed to deliver the address to the Russian political elite, a first in the post-Soviet Russian history. If the address is regarded as a duty, and not as a prerogative of the president, then Putin’s omission has to be interpreted as a violation of the constitution. In addition, in February the date of the address was postponed several times and finally took place only on 1 March. Due to the close proximity to the elections, the speech was in fact an address of the main presidential candidate, and not the president, to the political elite, and therefore not only dilutes the constitutional meaning of the address, but also even more distorts the electoral playing field in Putin’s favor.

Presidential term limit: Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 for his third term was accompanied by a debate about the meaning of paragraph 3 of Art. 81 of the constitution that “one and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running [dva sroka podryad]”. Many founding fathers of the constitution argued that this formulation essentially copied and implied the French meaning “two consecutive terms” that would not allow another term, even if the third was not consecutive as in Putin’s case. Kseniya Sobchak reinvigorated this debate by filing a lawsuit with the Supreme Court the aim of which was to achieve a ban of Vladimir Putin running for president in 2018. As expected, the SC confirmed that Vladimir Putin’s registration as a candidate by the CEC was lawful. Nevertheless, both Sobchak’s petition and her speech at the SC as well as her lawyer’s comment on the SC’s justification of its appellate ruling will be useful for posterity to judge Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Sobchak claims that a Constitutional Court ruling from 1998, a SC ruling from 2001 as well as a textbook written by the current chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin clearly underscore that one person cannot occupy the post of the president more than two times. But more interestingly, she also argues that Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin admitted on multiple occasions that they secretly conspired to retain the presidency within their elite group. In Sobchak’s reading, this plot constitutes a usurpation of power: even when Vladimir Putin was prime minister he de facto controlled the presidency and therefore in 2018 he has already held the presidency for four consecutive terms. Needless to say, the SC did not expand on the alleged secret deal. But still her legal reasoning resonates with Alexander Baturo’s work on term limits and continuismo[xi].

These three examples illustrate that talks about a post-Putin Russia appear to be premature at this point. At least the legal and political barriers for extending his rule beyond 2024 are low. More crucial still is what Henry Hale has called “the great power of expectations”[xii]. Vladimir Putin will leave the presidency voluntarily or by force only when a significantly large part of the elite will expect him to be weak. Monitoring and assessing these elite beliefs and expectations will be essential for Vladimir Putin’s fourth – or fifth – term to understand whether it will be his last, or not.

Notes

[i] Zavadskaya, M., Grömping, M., & i Coma, F. M. (2017). Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007–2016. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 25(4), 480.

[ii] Simpser, A. (2013). Why governments and parties manipulate elections: theory, practice, and implications. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Frye, T., Reuter, O. J., & Szakonyi, D. (2018). Hitting Them with Carrots: Voter Intimidation and Vote Buying In Russia. British Journal of Political Science, 1-25.

[iv] Frankel, M. (2010). “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea. Brookings Policy Paper, Nr. 19, 1-12.

[v] Beaulieu, E. (2014). Electoral protest and democracy in the developing world. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Lindberg, S. I. (2006). When Do Opposition Parties Participate? In: Schedler, A. Electoral Authoritarianism. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 149-163.

[vii] Smith, I. O. (2014). Election boycotts and hybrid regime survival. Comparative Political Studies47(5), 743-765.

[viii] Skovoroda, R., & Lankina, T. (2017). Fabricating votes for Putin: new tests of fraud and electoral manipulations from Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs33(2), 100-123.

[ix] Lankina, T., & Skovoroda, R. (2017). Regional protest and electoral fraud: evidence from analysis of new data on Russian protest. East European Politics33(2), 253-274.

[x] Burkhardt, F. (2017). The institutionalization of relative advantage: formal institutions, subconstitutional presidential powers, and the rise of authoritarian politics in Russia, 1994–2012. Post-Soviet Affairs33(6), 472-495.

[xi] See pages 49 to 53 for Baturo’s discussion of the extension of term limits and the Russian case: Baturo, A. (2014). Democracy, dictatorship, and term limits. University of Michigan Press.

[xii] Hale, H. E. (2014). Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.