Category Archives: Europe

Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with  in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.

The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.

Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).

Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).

The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.

Cyprus – Can a rotating presidency and cross voting change the rules of the game?

The current constitution of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) provides for separate political representation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots – the two major communities of the island; a direct effect of British colonial legacy. This is vividly reflected in presidential politics where the constitution stipulates that the Greek Cypriots (GCs) elect the president of the country and the Turkish Cypriots (TCs) the vice-president. The cabinet, according to the constitution, comprises 10 members: the GC president appoints seven GC ministers and the TC vice-president appoints three TC members. Between them, the president and the vice-president share all vital political powers, including the right of veto as a means to maintain the balance between the two communities. The veto was particularly designed to safeguard the TC community from majoritarian decisions taken by the Greek majority, but it proved to be a constant source of problems and tension.

In the short and turbulent period that the RoC actually functioned – from 1960 to 1963 and before the TCs withdrew from the state and government institutions in 1964 – the two communities remained totally independent/separate from each other at the political level. The 10-member cabinet functioned on a purely communal basis: the GCs acted solely on the basis of their community interests and the same did the TCs. The possible consequences of the cabinet members’ decisions upon the other community incurred no political cost for them since their selection did not depend upon voters from both communities. In the contrary, polarization and political competition with the ‘others’ solidified further their political presence. As a result, the Cypriot political and power system practically rewarded intransigent and extremist approaches, political forces and politicians and made division between the two communities an inherent feature of the political system and particularly the executive branch.

Following the Turkish invasion of July 1974 numerous rounds of negotiations between the leaders of the two communities did not manage to reach a solution to the problem of Cyprus’ de facto partition. Moreover and throughout the long history of the negotiations, the leaders of both communities never questioned this divisive provision for political representation, thus prolonging a past practice of separation. However, this changed in 2010 when the former leaders of the two communities achieved a consensus for a comprehensive system of political representation based on two axes: a rotating presidency between the elected leaders of the two communities and cross voting between the two communities for a first time in Cyprus political history. The aim behind this proposal was to eliminate a basic source of conflict within the system of representation and particularly the executive, which was a crucial – but not the sole – reason for the ineffectiveness of the existing constitution. The proposed formulae represents an effort to disconnect the vote from solely ethnic criteria and make the two elected leaders dependent upon the vote of voters from both communities. In this way, it is thought that unifying trends can prevail within the political system and society at large.

The voting formulae
The guiding principal of the voting process is ‘one person, one vote’. The elected president would need to secure 50% plus one vote in either of the two rounds of the elections. The same applies for the vice-president. However, given the numbers of the two communities with the GCs amounting to 80% of the population this principle, if applied on nominal terms, this would result in a permanent election of a GC president. Moreover, and probably more important, the GCs would be able to select the TC vice-president even without a single Turkish Cypriot voting for that particular TC candidate. Therefore, a golden formulae was needed that would overcome this barrier. Hence, the leaders agreed that in the case of the GCs their vote will be weighted in order to equal the number of the TCs that will vote for the GC candidate and vice versa.

Interdependence
According to this proposal, those standing for election although not on a joint ticket – as provided in the initial proposal of the then GC leader – will need to address the ‘other’ ethnic audience since their votes will count in the result. Given the long history of separation and other practical impediments, this proposal provides for a systemic motive to seek cooperation between candidates and parties, which will extend to other areas as well. Hence, more synergies will be created. Parties and candidates will need to include in their programmes and their campaigns issues important for the other community and propose solutions. For a party or a politician to remain relevant in the federal political system, they must seek for alliances with the ‘other’ community. In the long-run, it is expected that this system will turn Cypriot politics away from ethnic forms of confrontation and towards class and ideological lines of opposition.

Those parties and candidates that are not willing to address the ‘other’ community will be gradually sidelined at least with regard to the federal government and institutions. In a context where every vote counts it is assumed that it will provide utilitarian motivation for all political forces and politicians to link with the other community.

Although this consensus is yet to be officially agreed, it still remains a possible game changer regarding the future of Cyprus and the peaceful cohabitation/cooperation between the two communities.

Presidential profile – Sauli Niinistö, the president of Finland

Any potential candidate considering whether to seriously challenge the current office-holder Sauli Niinistö (born 1948) in the next Finnish presidential elections scheduled for January 2018 must be having second thoughts. Niinistö, elected to the post in 2012 with a comfortable margin as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, is yet to announce his plans, but should he decide to run his chances of re-election are very high indeed. Enjoying popularity ratings normally achieved by leaders in North Korea and other non-democratic regimes, it appears Niinistö can do nothing wrong.

Following on from his 2006 campaign, when he advertised himself as the ‘president of the working class’ and reached the second round of the presidential elections only to lose narrowly to the incumbent social democrat Tarja Halonen, Niinistö has very much sought to distance himself from his conservative party-political background. He has repeatedly emphasized that no one should be left behind, and that the well-being of the country depends on unity and the will to act together. Whether this discourse has any effect is not known as the president no longer enjoys any legislative powers in domestic policy. However, Niinistö has given generously to various charitable causes and has consistently reminded that politicians and other elites should lead by example. When he was the speaker of the Finnish parliament, Niinistö demanded that MPs travel in second class and stay in standard hotels, a policy that attracted widespread criticism among the deputies.

The remaining powers of the president are in the areas of foreign and security policy. Considering that Finland shares a long border with Russia, foreign and security policy is always a salient issue in Finland. People appreciate solid leadership in external affairs and by all accounts Niinistö has met such expectations. While the government is alone responsible for EU matters, foreign policy leadership is shared between the president and the government. Before his presidency Niinistö was critical of moves to further reduce the prerogatives of the president, and since elected he has certainly shown activism in foreign affairs. Here Niinistö’s leadership has been facilitated by developments in neighbouring Russia, whose aggressive foreign policy has created unwelcome tensions in eastern and northern Europe. During recent years Finland has maintained active bilateral relations with Russia, with regular meetings between presidents Putin and Niinistö in a central role in this dialogue. Niinistö has also benefited from the fact that the current prime minister, Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party, is clearly preoccupied with revitalizing domestic economy, leaving thus foreign affairs other than those handled via the EU more to Niinistö.

Finland had three consecutive social democratic presidents between 1982 and 2012, and hence Niinistö is the first right-wing head of state in a long while. Niinistö has shared power with cabinets led by the National Coalition and the Centre Party, but he is also used to working with the political left. He served as the minister of finance in the five-party ‘rainbow’ government led by social democratic prime minister Paavo Lipponen from 1996 to 2003 (he was first the minister of justice for a brief spell from 1995 to 1996). During that time he developed an image as a man keeping the purse strings tight. Niinistö was simultaneously also the leader of the National Coalition, a position he served from 1994 to 2001. Very popular inside his party, he nonetheless received criticism for trusting only a close group of friends and not paying sufficient attention to the views of the party members. Between 2003 and 2007 Niinistö worked as the Vice President of the European Investment Bank and from 2007 to 2011 as the speaker of the Finnish parliament.

With a degree in law from the University of Turku, Niinistö worked as a lawyer in his home town of Salo before elected to the parliament in 1987. In the 1995, 1999 and 2007 parliamentary elections he was the vote king of the elections, receiving the highest number of votes of all the candidates (in the Finnish parliamentary elections voters choose between individual candidates). His vote total from 2007, 60 563, is the record in Finnish parliamentary elections. He is married to Jenni Haukio, who is 29 years younger than Niinistö. The couple has no children, but Niinistö has two adult sons from his previous marriage.

Turkey – Erdoğan is closer than ever to his dream of a hyper-presidential system

On January 21 the Turkish parliament passed a constitutional reform package introducing a presidential system. the reform was passed with 339 votes in favour, slightly more than the minimum threshold of 330 votes. The ruling AKP party had the support of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the pro- nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) and some of his party’s MPs, despite the fact that considerable number of the MPs and party supporters opposed the proposal. Now the reform bill is going to be sent to the President Erdoğan’s Beştepe Palace  for promulgation. He has two choices, either send it back to the Grand National Assembly for reconsideration, or refer it to a referendum. It is expected that he will refer it to a referendum, which will take place in April.

The reform package has no provisions enhancing basic rights or correcting the defective Turkish democracy. The constitutional amendment has two important and interconnected intentions; one is to change the current semi-presidential system into a hyper-presidential system and the other is to reform the judiciary so that the president can have a major role in the formation of judicial supervisory body, the Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors.

The reform package abolishes the dual executive and replaces it with a president who is the sole executive authority. He appoints all ministers, undersecretaries, and bureaucrats without the approval of the assembly. He has the power of legislative decree. He may regulate any issues that are not enacted by the assembly in detail, except individual and political rights, and he may do so without an enabling law or any prior conditions, such as necessity or urgency. When it comes to issues enacted by the assembly, the president may claim that the parliamentary act is not detailed enough or that his decree is covering another aspect of the issue. There is no retrospective examination of decrees by the assembly either. This type of regulation is always likely to create legal chaos. The constitutional court has the power of judicial review over presidential decrees. However, the president’s power to appoint 12 of the 15 court members for a 1- year term creates certain doubts that the court may not be independent enough to actually challenge the presidential will.

Furthermore, the president may create or abolish any public legal entity, regulate the duties, powers and the structure of ministerial bodies from top to bottom, and change the whole administrative structure by decrees without needing a parliamentary act. This means that he may reorder the main principles of administrative law without a parliamentary act. This is a big change in Turkish administrative law, since one of its main principles is that administrative law has to be enacted by parliament (the legality principle). If the reform is accepted in the referendum, the person who makes the rule will be the same person who implements that rule. There will be no external oversight of the administration, making administrative courts meaningless.

In addition to above-mentioned powers, the president will also have the power to declare a state of emergency and issue emergency decrees which may infringe or suspend all constitutional rights without any judicial review. Such a powerful legislative decree authority is hard to find in any Latin American Constitutions, even though almost all the current Latin American constitutions give presidents the power of legislative decree. In this region, they either require prior enabling laws (Chilean Constitution art. 32/3), or they can only be issued if the usual law-making procedures in parliament are not working properly and when there is an urgent need for such decrees (Argentinian Constitution art.99/3, Brazilian Constitution art.62). Such power also comes with retrospective control exercised by the assemblies, which is not the case for ordinary decrees (only for emergency decrees) in the current Turkish constitutional reform proposals.

The president is also responsible for determining and implementing national security policies as well as having the power to decide to use the army. Under the current constitution, this type of decision making traditionally involved chiefs of staff, the council of ministers, and the parliamentary assembly.

In addition, the president also has the power of parliamentary dissolution, again without any prior conditions or time limits attached. The parliament would mean that an early presidential election is held as well, since the two elections have to be held concurrently to help guarantee that the party led by the president can also win a majority of parliamentary seats. The parliament may also decide to call an early election, but this would require a three-fifths majority of the whole members (360 of 600). Clearly, a single person is more likely to make such a decision than an extraordinary majority. The president may dissolve the legislature if there is a conflict with the majority, or when he is about to be impeached and right before the decision to send the case before the constitutional court, or simply at a convenient time. Dissolution power is quite rare in presidential systems. However, it is often seen in competitive or electoral authoritarian presidential systems such as Pinochet Chile before 1989, Venezuela, Syria, Guinea.

This amendment also alters one of the main principles regarding presidents, namely that they cannot lead a political party. Instead, they need to be impartial towards all political parties. With this change, presidents are no longer required to be neutral. They can be the chairman of a political party and lead this party’s parliamentary majority. Traditionally, Turkish parties are leader-oriented, and internal democracy is quite weak. The party leader decides who gets to be nominated.

As for the structure of the Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, which is responsible for overseeing the appointment, promotion, discipline, and dismissal of judges and public prosecutors, six of the thirteen members of the Council will be appointed by the president; the rest will be selected by the parliamentary majority. Since the president will be the head of a political party, he may lead the parliamentary majority. In the light of the current conditions in Turkish politics, the president is highly likely to control the parliamentary majority, which would make him indirectly involved in the selection process of the other members of the Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors.

The council selects the members of the High Court of Appeal (yargıtay) and three-quarters of the Council of State (the rest are appointed by the president). Their term of office is four years and they can be re-elected. The head of the council is the minister of Justice and his undersecretary is a permanent member. As pointed out above, the president also appoints a majority of the members of the Constitutional Court. In short, the President may shape all the high courts and the Council which control all the courts. This would potentially affect the independence of the courts from executive authority. Article 6 of the ECHR and Art. 38 of the current constitution state that there is the right to a fair trial, which includes being tried by an independent and impartial tribunal. Independence requires being free from the executive’s influence. The European Court of Human Rights uses four criteria to define independence; “the manner of appointment, term of office, existence of guarantees against outside pressures, and appearance of independence”. Under this amendment, none of these criteria are fulfilled. Without independent judiciary there is no fair trial for anyone and no rule of law. Furthermore, the manner in which the constitutional court judges are appointed by the president breaches a universal principle in law, whereby “no one can choose her judge” as the court is responsible for impeachment trials as well as examining decrees the president issues.

Overall, the reform package creates a very strong presidency without any checks and balances. It also supports the fact that in competitive authoritarian regimes presidents opt for new constitutions that consolidate their power, such as Venezuela (1999), Bolivia (2009), and Ecuador (2008). Currently, Turkey shows the signs of being a competitive authoritarian system. There is no free and fair competition among parties. It is a clientelistic and patronal system, which punishes the opposition (tax law, criminal law, etc) and rewards political loyalty by using state wealth and facilities. Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the co-leaders of HDP, the third largest party as well as many MPs of the same party are currently in jail; the main opposition, CHP, works under constant treats and some of its members are in jail too. Under the state of emergency the opposition faces especially tough constraints. Organising demonstrations and rallies are severely restricted.

Despite these facts, the AKP leaders still needs the support of MHP voter in the upcoming referendum according to the latest polls. If the right is unified, possibly with the help of a highly populist discourse, the reform package is likely to be accepted by the popular vote. However, “the no front” is getting ready for a tough struggle. It is going to be very tense three months in Turkish politics.

American Foreign Policy and Ukraine

On 24 January, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, appealed to the EU and the U.S. to keep sanctions on Russia. The U.S. and the EU initially imposed sanctions in 2014 in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Shortly before leaving office, President Obama extended the sanctions for one year, until March 2018, to signal the commitment to continue to support Ukraine. And until now, both the EU and the U.S. have promptly acted on their commitments toward Ukraine as the country has been facing some of its most challenging times.

The fears of President Poroshenko, however, are not unfounded. Following the recent presidential election in the U.S., Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, said it was a particularly stressful time for Ukraine and that “Ukraine was the biggest loser in the world tonight.” The statement was not surprising given the previous comments made by President Trump. In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, for instance, he suggested that there could be a shift in American foreign policy toward Russia and Ukraine, putting in question whether the U.S. will continue to impose sanctions on Russia and support Ukraine.

Even though in the last week the news has mostly focused on the recent executive orders issued by the U.S. government, the question of the sanctions remained in the media. During the recent press conference, when further pressed on the question, President Trump appeared ambiguous and noncommittal in his answer, saying “we’ll see what happens, very early to be talking about this.” The question of Ukraine, however, is likely to come up again later this week during the Senate confirmation of prospective secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

European leaders have not changed their position on Ukraine. Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, who has just finished her first state visit with President Trump, reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to maintaining sanctions on Russia “until it met its commitments on Ukraine.” Germany has also remained a steady ally of Ukraine through its roughest times. However, it is maintaining the support of the U.S. in the months and years to come will probably be one of the biggest challenges of the foreign policy yet to come for President Poroshenko.

France – The presidential election takes shape

On Sunday, the Socialist party chose its candidate for the 2017 French presidential election. At the second round of the party primary, voters chose Benoît Hamon over the former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Hamon won about 59% of the votes cast. With his selection, the line up of candidates – or at least the serious ones – for April/May’s election is now probably complete.

There are five main candidates in the field. From left to right, they are: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of The Left Party; Benoît Hamon for the left of the Socialist party; Emmanuel Macron for the centre-left or centrist En Marche! movement (the exclamation point is obligatory); François Fillon for the right of the right-wing Republicans; and Marine Le Pen for the populist, alt-right, extreme-right National Front.

The election is François Fillon’s to lose and he seems to be trying his best to do just that. The received wisdom was that whoever the Republicans chose as their presidential candidate would be able to win the election easily. This was because there was no serious candidate on the left and because Marine Le Pen is unelectable at the second ballot. So, when Fillon won the party nomination in November, he seemed to be a shoe-in. However, things are perhaps changing.

Fillon won the primary by appealing to the conservative element within the Republicans. This made sense if we assume that the median voter in the party is also conservative. However, once selected, it would appear to make sense for him to move to the centre. He has to win 50% of the  popular vote to win the second round of the presidential election and he will need the vote of people other than traditional conservatives to reach that figure. Yet, since his selection he has pretty much maintained his conservative stance on moral issues, welfare policy, and public sector cuts. Perhaps he assumes that he is bound to go through to the second ballot. On that assumption, then he may also assume that he actually has to avoid moving to the centre too soon and in so doing cede ground on the conservative right to Le Pen, thus continuing to pen her in as it were on the extreme-right. However, his refusal to move anywhere close to the centre has merely created a wide-open centrist space for Emmanuel Macron to move into. What’s more, last week a story broke about Fillon’s wife. It has become known as ‘Penelopegate’ after his English wife’s first name. The allegation was that Fillon had employed the aforementioned Penelope from his parliamentary allocation, but that she had done no work in return. If so, this is a so-called ’emploi fictif’, which is a crime. In an attempt at political damage limitation, Fillon said that he would withdraw from the contest if he was formally put under investigation. The long timeframe that it would most likely take for a formal investigation to start works in his favour, so it was probably a safe declaration to make. However, his problem is that even if nothing comes of the allegations before the election or indeed ever, which is quite possible, it has painted Fillon as a person of the establishment, remunerating his wife, and it turns out his sons as well, from the public purse. Relative to Sarkozy and Juppé, he was able to position himself as a sort of outsider, despite the fact that he lives in a castle. (Sorry, manoir). Not any more. His poll ratings have dropped and he is now in a tight race to qualify for the second round.

Fillon’s main first-round challenger has emerged as Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself somewhere on the centre-left. Perhaps more importantly, while he has some ministerial experience, he too is presenting himself as an outsider. In the context of France, Europe, most of the previously civilised democratic world, and, who knows, perhaps the universe generally, this seems like a winning electoral strategy at the moment. He has been helped by Fillon’s political positioning and #Penelopegate. He should also be helped by the Socialists’ choice of Hamon, who is on the left of the party. Already some PS deputies have said they are going to support Macron ahead of their party’s official candidate. In the most recent poll, Macron came in at 21% on the first ballot, one point behind Fillon. We all know that polls are no longer worth the pixels they’re reported in, but it looks like a closer first-round race now than at any time before. Indeed, all polls show that, like Fillon, if Macron qualifies for the second round, then he will easily beat Le Pen. So, there is now much talk of President Macron.

However, some caution may yet be in order. Macron is still behind Fillon, though only just. More importantly, he has no campaigning experience. He has been astute so far, but the campaign is only really beginning. He could come a cropper, especially as he comes under more scrutiny. More than that, he has no policy programme yet. It’s promised some point soon. But, as it stands, we don’t really know exactly what he is proposing. When it appears, it could raise issues that he has difficulty responding to. Also, he doesn’t have the backing of the Socialist party. More than that, the party establishment, or parts of it at least, would probably wish to see him lose, maximising their chances of maintaining their position as the main force on the left, rather than helping him win and then having to play second fiddle to him and his new movement!. At some point, not being the candidate of a major party might be a problem, especially if the Socialists play dirty. So, while Macron is currently better placed now than ever before and while recent events have been favourable to him, as yet he is no certainty to qualify for the second round.

In terms of Mélenchon and Hamon, we can think of it as a battle for what’s left of the left of the left. Mélenchon would have preferred Valls to win the Socialist primary. This would have allowed him to take up the mantle of the anti-establishment left candidate unopposed. However, Hamon is a Socialist frondeur. He’s been a thorn in the side of the Hollande administration and has gained some popularity by proposing the idea of a ‘universal income’. With Hamon campaigning in the same general space, it’s difficult to see Mélenchon breaking through. The same can be said of Hamon, though. There’s probably around 15-20% of the population that might be tempted by a credible truly left-anchored candidate. However, Mélenchon and Hamon are likely to fight out that vote between them. In fairness to Hamon, though, he has revitalised a certain previously demoralised Socialist electorate that feels hard done by under President Hollande. Hamon has the wind in his sails for a short time at least. He too can credibly position himself as an outsider. He may well beat Mélenchon, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which he would make it through to the second ballot.

This leaves Marine Le Pen. She is still ahead at the first ballot in all the polls, though sometimes not by much. Her problem is that she loses to everyone at the second ballot by a large margin. Her hope is that she will be the Donald Trump of France. In fact, she had herself pictured in Trump Tower in New York just before the inauguration. She wants to bring together the usual anti-immigrant, extreme-right vote that has been loyal to the FN for a while now, but add to it a working-class electorate that is worried about economic issues and that doesn’t like the EU. She is pushing a certain social welfare agenda, pressing on populist economic issues, and, as usual, identifying lots of enemies at home, the near abroad (read Brussels), and further afield still. It’s a strategy similar to ones that have worked in the US, Austria (nearly anyway), and in the Brexit referendum. In terms of getting elected, it’s a strategy that might have legs, especially if Fillon and the right implodes, and if she faces Macron at the second ballot in the context where Macron’s own campaign has become derailed somehow. In other words, it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination that the polls are underestimating her support, that some of the filloniste right could vote Le Pen at the second round ahead of even Macron, and that some of the left might even stay at home and not vote for Macron, in which concatenation of probably unlikely circumstances Le Pen could perhaps just squeak through. (Did you see all the qualifications I put in there).

But even then it’s a long shot. While Le Pen’s strategy has allowed her to emerge as the first-placed candidate at the first ballot, there are still no signs that she has sufficient support to win at the second. In France, there is already a certain populist left. This makes it more difficult for Le Pen to build a populist left/right coalition that might be possible in other countries. She, and the party, also have their own corruption issues. Indeed, the FN was relatively slow to jump in on the #Penelopegate furore last week, at least partly because of those troubles. More generally, there is still a solid set of voters on the left, the centre, and on the right that sees the FN as illegitimate and that will not vote for it whatever the circumstances. Finally, if you tie your colours to the Trump mast (bright orange presumably), then while you may rise with Trump, you can also fall with him too. No doubt some of the things Trump is doing in the US also appeal to FN voters in France, notably the immigration ban from certain Middle East countries. However, for at least as many voters the prospect that a Le Pen presidency might engender the same sort of chaos in France as Trump is currently causing in the US is likely to be off-putting.

There was a time when the 2017 French presidential was very predictable. No longer.

Presidential Profile – Mário Soares, Portuguese President and Prime Minister (1924-2017)

Mário Soares, who has died aged 92, was widely regarded as the father of Portugal’s modern democracy. Following his death on 7 January the government decreed three days of national mourning. Soares was the first civilian to head an elected government in more than half a century and served as the president of Portugal between 1986 and 1996.

The former Socialist party leader played a crucial role in stabilizing the country after the 1974 Carnation revolution that overthrew four decades of dictatorship. He was arrested a dozen times, tortured and was living in forced exile, amongst others, in France and on the island colony of Sao Tome off the West African coast. In 1973 he founded the Socialist party (PS), which he led until 1985.

After the 1974 coup, Soares became minister in a provisional government led by moderate factions of the Portuguese military. As minister for overseas negotiations he was responsible for initiating the policy under which Portugal divested itself of its colonies. His role in granting rapid independence to Portugal’s colonies made him widely respected in Africa, but earned the lasting enmity of many of the hundreds-of-thousands of Portuguese settlers who fled from Angola and the other territories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soares between two key actors in Angola’s decolonization process, José Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA and Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA.

His greatest achievement was, arguably, to prevent the communists from overtaking the country in the turbulent years following the Carnation revolution. In November 1975 Portuguese communists organised a coup against the governing bodies but failed. Supported by Soares, pro-democracy and moderate General António Ramalho Eanes then carried out a counter coup, and thereby re-established the democratic process. The close relationship between both men resurfaced during the 1976 elections. Soares supported Eanes in his bid for presidency and the latter asked Soares to head a minority government. Soares resigned in December 1977 following the government’s defeat of a confidence motion. He was asked to form a new government, this time with the rightwing Democratic Social Centre (CDS). Yet, the gap in outlook between the two parties soon made the arrangement unworkable and in July 1978 the CDS withdrew its support. Soares did not resign immediately and was sacked by President Eanes, a move that caused ill-feeling between the two men for years afterwards.

Soares resignation in 1978 marked the beginning of a less successful period in his political career. President Eanes appointed three technocratic cabinets in a row in the period 1978-1979 (the cabinets Nobre da Costa, Mota Pinto and Pintasilgo). Furthermore, the centre-right wing parties succeeded in forming the Democratic Alliance (AD)[1], which won the 1979 and 1980 election. In 1981, Soares also had to endure intense criticism from leftwingers in his party for backing the AD’s proposal to revise the revolutionary constitution, which would limit the power of the president. With the support of the PS, which gave the AD the required two-thirds majorities, constitutional amendments were passed in 1982.

The PS returned to government in 1983 as part of a “Central Bloc” coalition with the Social Democrat Party (PSD). Barely two years later, Soares was again forced to resign after the new PSD leader Aníbal Cavaco Silva announced his party’s withdrawal from the government. The early 1985 elections resulted in a staggering loss for the PS and, to Soares’ great frustration, it was the PSD leader who took Portugal into the EU the following year.

 

Soares signs the EU membership treaty in 1985.

After his removal from government, Soares decided to run for the presidency in 1986. He won and remained president until 1996. Throughout the whole period in office, President Soares faced political opponent and PM Cavaco Silva whose cabinet enjoyed the support of a parliamentary majority. Tensions increased between both leaders: while the President used the veto power seven times during his first term in office (1986-1991) he vetoed thirty laws during his second term (1991-1996).

Soares served as a member of the European parliament from 1999 until 2004, and made an unsuccessful bid for a further term as president of Portugal in 2006.

His wife, actor, teacher and political activist Maria de Jesus Simões Barroso, whom he married in prison in 1949, died in 2015. He is survived by their daughter, Isabel, and son João who served as mayor of Lisbon and minister of culture.

Notes

[1] The Democratic Alliance (AD) was composed of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS), the People’s Monarchist Party (PPM), including also a group of dissidents of the right wing of the Socialist Party (PS) who were disappointed by the previous Soares government.

France – The Socialists in Search of Survival?

In a previous blog entry (‘Bye bye Mr Sarkozy, hello Mr Nobody’) I argued that the generalization of the mechanism of primaries to select presidential candidates challenged an unwritten rule of party competition: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. In the case of the Socialists, the success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Herein lies a paradox: while in 2011 the primary election produced victory for the candidate best placed to defeat the incumbent President Sarkozy, in 2017 the Socialist primaries are turning in favour of a candidate – Benoît Hamon –  who is considered to have no chance whatsoever to win the presidency, or even go through to the second round, but who represents a form of ideological purity that is valued by activists and sympathisers after five years of inevitable compromises in office.  The primary is being fought for the right to lead the party in opposition and define the contours of party renewal and survival after the heavy forthcoming defeat. The paradox is more apparent than real; in parties across Europe, primary elections (or similar mechanisms) have mobilised, first and foremost, enthusiastic (young) activists and sympathisers in search of ideological renewal and survival. Jeremy Corbyn provides a similar example in a rather different context. In the specific case of the Socialist primaries, some 73% declared their priority to be that of selecting a candidate faithful to the values of the left, as against only 24% who considered their vote would help to select a future President.[i]

What a difference a quinquennat makes. If the Socialist primaries were the great innovation of 2011, paving the way for the eventual electoral victory of François Hollande in 2012, the primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire[ii], taking place on 22 and 29th January 2017, are a pale imitation, a mere side-show to the shaping up of the presidential contest between likely players: François Fillon (Les Républicains), Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!). The victor of the Socialist primaries – with Benoit Hamon the clear favourite in the run off with Manuel Valls – will likely feature in fifth position in the polls, behind Le Pen, Fillon, Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. [iii] The primaries of the Belle Alliance Populaire were originally conceived as a political instrument to allow incumbent President Hollande to gain momentum and stand for re-election.  Hollande’s dignified but unprecedented announcement in December 2016 that he would not stand for his own re-election was another novel precedent in the Fifth Republic.  Diminished for years as a result of persistently negative opinion polls ratings, Hollande fell victim to his proximity to journalists[iv], and the coup de grace exercised by two former protégés: for Industry minister Emmanuel Macron, who resigned as Industry minister in Summer 2016 to concentrate on creating the En Marche! movement and standing for the presidency; and former Premier Manuel Valls, who put maximum pressure on Hollande not to stand and pave the way for his own presidential bid. Hollande’s decision not to stand transformed the primary into a captivating side-show, one detail of which was the incumbent President’s refusal to watch the presidential debates (preferring to attend a show) or to vote in the first round of the primary (on account of an official voyage in Chile). Revenge of a sort…

The Socialist primaries are a rather melancholic retrospective on the inability of the French Socialists to reconcile their core contradictions that has a long history.[v] The primary election has laid bare the endless search for the reinvention of the PS based on bridging two increasingly irreconcilable families: the governmental left (represented by Hollande and articulated by Valls in the primary, notwithstanding his  contorsions and contradictions); and the ‘radical’ left, organized as the ‘frondeurs’ during most of the 2012-17 period. The leadership of the latter was one of the main issues at play in the primary. The mantle of leader of the left was disputed between the initial favourite, Arnaud Montebourg, already candidate in 2011 and former Minister of Industrial Renewal until being sacked by Valls in August 2014 ; and Benoît Hamon, a former Education Minister, who was also sacked early on by Valls for insubordination.  Both Hamon and Montebourg formed part of the Ayrault and Valls governments until their forcible ejection from the government in 2014. The primary played out, in miniature, the permanent drama that undermined the Socialists throughout the five years of the Hollande presidency: governmental versus radical left.

So what is the primary for?  To select the party’s presidential candidate? Yes, probably. There is no absolute certainty that the candidate selected on 22nd  and 29th January by the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will actually carry the colours of the party in April 2017. The most likely victor – Hamon – has made it be known that he might stand down in favour of Mélenchon in the interests of increasing the left’s chances of reaching the second round.  Is the main issue at stake that of determining the leadership of the rump Socialist Party after predictable defeat in the 2017 electoral series? Almost certainly. Hamon barely disguises his view that control of the PS rump will allow a transformation and ideological and organisational renewal of the party. But will there be any party left to lead? A Hamon candidate polling 7-8% at the presidential election would have disastrous consequences for Socialist prospects at the legislative elections that will follow the presidential contest in June 2017. The real benchmark is the 67 deputies retained by the PS in the 1993 legislative elections that concluded the troubled period of PS-run government from 1988-93. Will Hamon be able to ensure the return of a core rump of PS deputies? A credible performance in the presidential election might be the sine qua non for a successful capture and renovation of the party after the forthcoming electoral defeats; at present, the polls give little hope for Hamon (8-9%).

Within these narrow parameters, the three leading candidates have been navigating the horns of a dilemma. Manuel Valls, premier from 2014-16, has been forced into the role of defender of the record of the 2012-17 governments, indefensible in the eyes of the other leading candidates, Hamon and Montebourg. Valls (31.19% on 22nd January) has had to endure a complicated campaign: beyond the empty venues and frosty receptions, the former premier was forced to fight on the defense of the 2014-2016 record in office. He positioned himself as  unifier of the left, though he had diagnosed the  irreconcilable nature of the two lefts within the PS while still prime minister and called for the replacement of the PS with a more explicitly reformist party back in 2008. Symbolically, the commitment to exclude the future use of article 49, clause 3 was out of kilter with its use 6 times in 2015 and 2016 to force the Macron law and the El Khomri laws through their various parliamentary readings in the National Assembly and the Senate. The hard line taken on issues of laïcité  and security were reassuring to some, but deeply hostile to others.  The results of the first round, where Valls (31.19%) trails Hamon (36.21%) suggest that the record of the Socialist governments from 2012-17 has become a millstone around the neck of Hollande’s longest serving premier. The cocktail of economic realism + security + republican citizenship is not enough to re-mobilize a Socialist electorate disillusioned by the record of the 2012-17 governments.

Arnaud Montebourg (17.62%) fought a strangely  passéiste campaign, based on national protectionism, industrial revival (‘Made in France’) and Keynesian relaunch which  appealed to some traditional PS voters in industrial, non-metropolitan zones, but appeared strangely out of kilter with the younger, environmentally conscious activists. Benoît Hamon (36.21% on 22nd January) emerged as the only candidate with a real campaign dynamic, diffused by original ideas on political ecology, social protection (the ‘universal revenue’), social liberalization ( the legislation of cannabis, a new visa regime for refugees) constitutional reform (the suppression of article 16 of the 1958 constitution, before the eventual creation of a 6th Republic) and European relaunch (the ‘renegotiation’ of the Fiscal Compact Treaty [TSCG], and the renunciation of all debt contracted since 2008). Hamon’s campaign gathered momentum explicitly on the promise to revive a Socialist vision and programme, with its aspirational quality but distant relationship with reality. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Hamon’s appeal lies with those (often very young) sympathisers and activists engaged in re-thinking the future of a progressive left party to be built on the basic foundations of the Socialist Party.  A long spell of opposition would allow the return to a form of ideological purity – or at least a regeneration of ideas and personnel. The success of Hamon’s campaign was testified by the changing tone of the three televised debates between the candidates prior to the first round: there was a clear shift from the All Against Valls mood in the first two debates, to an All Against Hamon convergence in the third and final debate. For the record, the other candidates were Vincent Peillon (6.83%); François de Rugy (3.88%) Sylvie Pinot (1.99%) and Jean-Luc Benhamais (1.01%).

What about the broader impact of the results of the primary election? The likely victory of Hamon on 29th January is, on balance, good news for Emmanual Macron, as a Hamon victory will accelerate the move by many anxious PS deputies to En Marche!, in the hope of gaining the Macron label in time for the 2017 legislative elections. Look for movements as early as this week, before Hamon’s consecration. The result of the primary will have a more marginal impact, perhaps, on Mélenchon’s electorate; the leader of La France insoumise has built a solid electorate that is unlikely to cede to the Siren of Hamon. Indded, Mélenchon might even benefit from Hamon standing down in his favour in the broader interests of left unity and survival.   In the unlikely event that Valls overcomes Hamon on the second round, the main beneficiary would be Mélenchon, with Macron as a marginal loser.

The real action is playing itself out at the margins of the PS primary, initially envisaged as a mechanism to force recalcitrant Socialist electors to support Hollande’s reviewed bid for election. The former Left Front leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has demonstrated once again his talent for mobilizing the radical left against the party apparatuses of the PCF and PS. Mélenchon is currently on 13-14% in the polls, well ahead of any of the Socialist pretenders. Mélenchon pales beside the Macron phenomenon, the object of a future blog. The former Industry minister is currently polling up to 21% in the surveys, not far behind Fillon (23-24%) or Le Pen (25-26%).  If Macron might be likened in some respects to a French Tony Blair[vi] the underlying message from the Socialist primaries is that it might be too late to engage in a renovation of the existing Socialist Party. The PS has been a party searching for a role for a very long time; each episode of governmental power has produced an existential crisis that was, in its time, theorized by Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. The endogenous crisis is combined with a continent-wide crisis of social democracy. The decline of the Greek PASOK from over 40% to 5% in the course of a few years serves as a permanent reminder of the fragility of the govnermental left, as does the inability of the Spanish PSOE to form a government in 2016, as well as the current state of Corbyn’s Labour Party. The French Socialists have lost the core material bases of their organizational power over the past five years (defeats in the 2014 municipal elections and the 2015 departmental and regional elections) and look set to be decimated in terms of their parliamentary representation in 2017. Is there a way back from the brink, as occurred following the calamitous 1993 legislative elections (reduced to 67 deputies, but winning office four years later)? Or has the moment come for a lasting realignment, a quadrille quadipolaire, where key competition will occur between a robust left movement around Mélenchon, a reformed ‘ progressive’  centre party (En Marche!) a Conservative movement mobilizing on the themes of economic liberalism and social conservatism and a national populist movement, in the form of Le Pen’s Front national?  If the electoral setback is swift and thorough enough, the PS need not even put itself though the agony of self-introspection.

Notes

[i] Figures reported from an ELABE survey in BFM News 22nd January 2017

[ii]  The Belle Alliance Populaire was created with a view to broadening participation in the primary beyond the PS. In the event  the primary attracted Sylvie Pinel, of the Left Radicals,  and Francois de Rugy and Jean-Luc Benhamais, two independent ecologists.

[iii]  These figures are those of the latest round of the CEVIPOF IPSOS Sopra Steria survey, published in Le Monde on 20th January 2017. This survey, a longitudinal panel with 20,000 respondents, provides the most robust insights into the evolution of the campaign.

[iv]  Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… Paris : Stock, 2016.  Various confidential state secrets were revealed by these two Le Monde journalists in this book which did much to damage further Hollande’s reputation.

[v]  Alistair Cole,  ‘The French Socialist Party and its Radical Ambiguity’ French Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 29-48.

[vi] Gérard Grunberg, ‘Il réarticule libéralisme et solidarité’  Le Point 19th  January 2017.

Republic of Macedonia – Parliamentary elections and government formation

After nearly two years of intense political conflict, the Republic of Macedonia[1] finally held parliamentary elections in December 2016. In the following I will briefly describe the problems preceding the first attempt to elect a new parliament. This is followed by an analysis of the campaign and final attempt to hold the elections as well as the government formation in the Republic of Macedonia.

Early in 2015 a dramatic spying operation was made public by the Republic of Macedonia’s opposition and led to political unrest and protests. This scandal and the ensuing events[2] made the difficult situation of the Republic of Macedonia – that comes with the many sensitive issues in a multiethnic state, where the Slavic-Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority claim the same territory – even more difficult.

The EU forced the different political groups to settle this conflict with the Pržino Agreement (European Commission 2015) and the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Gruevski, who was widely accused of being responsible for the spying endeavors, allegedly used the information in the tapes to enhance his economic status and his personal political power. Despite the objections of the leading opposition party, parliament was dissolved and early parliamentary elections were scheduled initially for April, and then for June 2016. Yet, after the constitutional court declared the dissolution unconstitutional, parliament decided to move the elections (Mikhaylova 2016).

After this disaster, the next parliamentary elections were scheduled for December 11, 2016 and they were the fourth consecutive snap elections in the Republic of Macedonia (KAS 2016). But again, since the announcement of the election date, several issues continued to emerge. A recent analysis of the parliamentary election by the German Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation listed several issues, among them most importantly “the disproportionate number of voters in the electoral units and the initiative to alter the electoral units“ (KAS 2016, 11). The Przino Agreement was also aimed to confront some of these problems and parliament adopted several laws that amended the electoral code (Election Code 2015).

Finally, on December 11, 2016 the parliamentary elections were held and resulted in the narrow win of 51 seats (in the 120 seats parliament) by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and its chair, the former PM Gruevski. A contentious re-run in one electoral district was organized but did not change the overall result. The oppositional Social Democrats won 49 seats, and it seems that “Albanian voters in Macedonia shifted toward the Social Democrats in significant numbers for the first time since a 2001 interethnic conflict“ (Sekularac/Casule 2016). Within the 10-days deadline as stipulated by Art. 90 of the constitution, President Gjorge Ivanov asked Gruevski to hold coalition talks with the goal to form a new government. Gruevski has now 20 days to organize a coalition majority to win the investiture vote in parliament (Art. 90)

The only possible coalition partner comes from among the three Albanian parties, most probably Gruevski’s former coalition partner Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). DUI will be represented with 10 deputies in the new parliament. Yet, the DUI is far from consolidated as it splintered in 2015 when key members left the party (RFE/RL 2016). Additionally, it faced several new parties that also represent the ethnic Albanians as well as the shift of Albanian votes towards the Social Democrats (RFE/RL 2016). Shortly before President Ivanov announced his decision to ask former PM Gruevski to form the government again, the three ethnic Albanian parties adopted a joint platform to strengthen their claim on enhancing minority rights and better representation of Albanian demands. Among these demands are a constitutional amendment to recognize both Albanian and Macedonian as official languages and “’equal participation’ in the country’s army, security, intelligence and judicial branches and a say in negotiations with Greece regarding a dispute over the country’s name.“ (Testorides 2016) Thus, it remains to be seen whether the future actually holds a stable parliamentary majority that can implement some of the necessary reforms. Considering the events of the last two years, it would be a surprise if the pattern of snap elections, scandal and intense political disputes does not persist in the near future.

References:
Casule, Kaev (2016): Macedonian president pardons 56 in wiretap scandal, U.S. raps move. April 13, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-wiretap-usa-idUSKCN0XA1ZB (last accessed June 5, 2016)
Election Code (2015): Law on changes and amendments to the Election Code, Official Gazette of Republic of Macedonia, No. 196 of 10 November 2015, in: http://www.slvesnik.com.mk/Issues/63cc34eb402342698f7e82e59629175a.pdf (Accessed 16 January 2017)
European Commission (2015): Agreement in Skopje to overcome political crisis. July 15, in:
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/hahn/announcements/agreement-skopje-overcome-political-crisis_en (last accessed June 5, 2016).
KAS (2016): The Republic of Macedonia’s 2016 Parliamentary Elections Handbook, in: http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_21036-1442-61-30.pdf?161201152443 (last accessed January 16, 2017)
Mikhaylova, Marina (2016): Macedonia’s Constitutional Court annuls parliament dissolution. May 25, in: https://seenews.com/news/macedonias-constitutional-court-annuls-parliament-dissolution-526229#.dpuf (last accessed June 5, 2016)
RFE/RL (2016): Macedonians vote in tiny election rerun with national vote in the balance. December 2016, in: http://www.rferl.org/a/macedonia-election-vote-rerun-one-district/28195638.html (last accessed January 15, 2017)
Sekularac, Ivana/Casule Kole (2016): Macedonia’s nationalists win election: official results. December 25, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-election-result-idUSKBN1412L2 (last accessed January 16, 2017)
Riedel, Sabine. 2005. Die Erfindung der Balkanvölker. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
Testorides, Konstantin (2017): Macedonia’s Ethnic Albanians Want Nation Declared Bilingual. January 7, in: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/macedonias-ethnic-albanians-nation-declared-bilingual-44621387 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

[1] In this post the constitutional name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ is used (as it is accepted by the majority of UN member states). For the Greek-Macedonian naming dispute, see e.g. Riedel (2005, 141ff.)

[2] For example the pardoning of public figures accused in the wiretapping scandal by President Ivanov – a decision he later revoked (see e.g. Casule 2016).

Romania – The politics of the fourth cohabitation

Less than a month after the general election held on December 11, a new government formally took office in Romania. As anticipated, a two-party coalition was formed between the Social Democratic Party (PSD), represented by 221 MPs in the 465-seats bicameral parliament, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which holds 29 seats. The Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which won 30 seats in the election, signed a parliamentary support agreement with the ruling coalition but decided to stay out of government. Counting in the support of the 17 representatives of the national minorities, the government majority is only 13 seats shy of the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. The two ruling parties also seized the top legislative posts: PSD’s chairman Liviu Dragnea claimed the leadership of the Chamber of Deputies, while the Senate presidency went to the ALDE leader and former prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu.

While little time was spent on PSD-ALDE coalition negotiations, President Iohannis’ involvement in government formation delayed the appointment of a new prime minister and came close to triggering a new constitutional crisis. The Constitution grants the head of state some discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, but the final decision on the approval of a new government rests with the parliament. The president’s actual influence on who gets the PM post depends on political context and is usually limited to situations when either a presidential majority exists in parliament or a deep political crisis opens a window of opportunity for the head of state to put together a “crisis-solving” government. The latter scenario took place in November 2015, when President Iohannis appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş after the then PSD government led by PM Ponta stepped down amid country-wide anti-corruption protests. As the National Liberal Party (PNL) together with the other centre-right groupings barely control 36% of the parliamentary seats in the current legislature, the head of state seemed to have hardly any leeway in the exercise of his PM appointment powers.  However, President Iohannis found a way to hinder PSD’s efforts to dictate the formation of the post-election government.

First, he used a 2001 law that forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government as a legal ground to bar PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea from becoming prime minister on account of a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud he received in 2015. Dragnea admitted he was unable to claim the PM post for himself “for the time being”,  but made it clear he had a free hand from the party to make appointments to cabinet and hold the executive accountable for its actions. Consequently, his first nomination for the PM post was Sevil Shhaideh, a PSD member without a personal power base in the party but one of his longstanding collaborators and loyal supporters. President Iohannis rejected Shhaideh’s nomination without formally motivating his decision. Her Syrian husband’s ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was however seen as the main reason for the president’s unprecedented move to turn down a PM nomination. The PSD-ALDE coalition reacted with threats to initiate the proceedings for the president’s impeachment. This episode ended with President Iohannis’ acceptance of the Social Democrats’ second proposal for prime minister. Sorin Grindeanu, a relatively unfamiliar figure for the general public despite having been a minister in the PSD government ousted in November 2015, presented his cabinet and won the parliament’s investiture vote held on January 4 with 295 votes against 133.

PM Grindeanu’s cabinet profile: “politics is made elsewhere”

 Ministerial portfolios in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet are distributed among the two parties in strict proportion with their legislative seat-shares.

While most members in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet have some experience in national or local politics, few of them are high-profile politicians. About half of the ministers, including PM Grindeanu and deputy PM Sevil Shhaideh, have held posts in previous PSD cabinets. They occupy more or less the same portfolios they held before, despite having left few notable traces in their respective domains. Some of them come from local public administration (Sorin Grindeanu and Sevil Shhaideh fit this profile as well). Only half of the ministers were selected from among the sitting parliamentarians and not many of them have been key figures in their party’s national or local organizations. Moreover, despite PSD’s heavy criticism of the previous government’s technocratic nature, three of the cabinet members have no formal political affiliation. Additionally, several ministers are involved in corruption investigations or other controversies. As a matter of fact, PSD’s governing programme does not contain any references to continuing the fight against corruption.

Arguably, the ministers’ lack of personal notoriety makes them more susceptible to direct party control. The prime minister himself is better known as a local politician, due to his recent election as president of the Timiş City Council, despite having been a deputy in the 2012-2016 legislature and a minister in PM Ponta’s last cabinet. Although a longstanding PSD member, Sorin Grindeanu has never held a key position in the party’s national executive. That said, it is not unprecedented for a prime minister not to be a party leader as well. For example, PM Ponta stepped down as PSD leader in July 2015, after prosecutors from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) opened a corruption investigation against him (ironically, he was succeeded as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, who had already received a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud). Even in the French Fifth Republic, where control over the party machinery is often thought a prerequisite for the exercise of key executive roles, Lionel Jospin willingly resigned as leader of the Socialist Party before taking office as prime minister in 1997 (also at the beginning of cohabitation with President Chirac). In these cases, though, the prime ministers’ political authority over their governments’ actions and even on their parties was not questioned. This is hardly the case with PM Grindeanu, who lacks a personal power base in the party. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find another example of a prime minister stating that his cabinet has a purely administrative role, as “politics is made elsewhere”.

All important decisions following the general election have been announced by PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea, including the formal presentation of PM Grindeanu’s list of ministers. In fact, he repeatedly stated that the government is directly accountable on the party line and that he will personally monitor each minister’s performance. Dragnea has also taken over announcements concerning the steps taken by the government to fulfill the generous promises of the Social-Democratic programme, such as the swift elimination of the income tax for small pensions. Thus, as leader of the main governing party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea possesses all essential tools to control and speed up executive actions, acting as the country’s most powerful politician.

President Iohannis’ role in the fourth cohabitation

Although this is Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation, it is the first time that a general election brought it about. There are good chances it will also be Romania’s longest cohabitation to date, as the next presidential election is not due before late 2019. Therefore, one can only speculate about the role President Iohannis will choose to play from now on, especially if he intends to run for a second mandate. Granted, it is too early to tell if he will attempt to redefine his role as the leader of the opposition, like his predecessor did in 2007 and 2012. However, there are signs he might be willing to take a more active role in the confrontation with the ruling coalition.

For example, the head of state delivered a tough speech at the government’s swearing-in ceremony on January 4. On this occasion, he picked holes in the governing programme for not specifying how it will manage to keep the budgetary deficit under 3%, while making populist promises to increase salaries and pensions and cut down the VAT. He also hinted at the ministers’ inability to answer basic questions related to the governing programme during the parliamentary hearings, which were cut down to only 30 minutes for each minister.

Notable among the president’s latest actions were also his blasting comments on the Ombudsman’s decision to challenge the law banning convicted persons to join the government to the Constitutional Court. In fact, the Ombudsman’s action is generally seen as a blatant attempt to ease Liviu Dragnea’s future accession to the prime ministership. The president made similar harsh remarks several days later, when he warned the government against attempting to pass a law on amnesty and pardon of convicted or prosecuted politicians. He also pledged support to the DNA’s internationally recognised anti-corruption fight and vowed to use his veto powers against legislative and executive actions directed towards the weakening of anti-corruption legislation.

Whether such pledges can still pay off electorally – a view the latest polls did not seem to support – or have any political effects in the face of PSD’ solid parliamentary majority remains to be seen. For the time being, the PSD-ALDE majority has just engineered the government’s ability to govern through emergency ordinances that do not require the president’s approval while the parliament has convened for an extraordinary session.