Category Archives: Europe

Ben Noble – Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

This is a guest post by Ben Noble (University of Oxford)

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.

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[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Ben Noble (benjamin.noble@politics.ox.ac.uk, @Ben_H_Noble) is the Herbert Nicholas Junior Research Fellow in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Regional Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His doctoral dissertation examining executive law-making in the Russian State Duma was awarded the 2017 Sir Walter Bagehot Prize by the Political Studies Association. From September 2017, he will be a Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

 

Ukraine and NATO – President Promises a Referendum

In the beginning of February, in an interview with a German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, President Poroshenko announced that he would hold a referendum on Ukraine’s membership in NATO during his presidency. Citing increasing support for the alliance among the population of the country, the President confirmed that he would do everything in his power to join the North Atlantic Alliance if the Ukrainians vote for it.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Poroshenko paid particular attention to strengthening Ukraine’s relationship with the international organisations and alliances, with a particular focus on the EU and NATO. Visa free regime with the EU was one of Poroshenko’s headline campaign promises. And although it has taken two years longer to achieve than the president had hoped, the EU seems to be set to introduce a visa free travel for Ukrainian citizens in June.

However, a closer affiliation with NATO, even though might be desired by the majority of the Ukrainian population, might be even more difficult to achieve for the president. Poroshenko, however, does not seem to be dismayed by the challenging task ahead. In the interview, the president cited a quickly rising support for the alliance among the Ukrainian population: “Four years ago, just 16 per cent [of Ukrainians] supported NATO membership. Now it is 54 per cent.”

However, even if NATO referendum will pass, joining the North Atlantic Alliance may still prove difficult for Ukraine. It has been reported that, although supportive of the country, NATO is not keen on admitting it as a new member and is cautious not to provoke Russia. A very similar situation surrounded Poland, when it joined the Atlantic Alliance in 1999 but no Russia response followed. However, Russia made its position clear on the question of Ukraine joining NATO in 2008, when it threatened to target its missile on Ukraine if it joined the Atlantic Alliance.

NATO member fees have also been the topic of the controversy recently. During the recent visit of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the US, President Trump reportedly presented her with a £300bl dollar bill. Whether Ukraine would be able to cover its fee membership if admitted is also a question.

Nonetheless, the question of Ukraine membership in NATO is not new. An online petition, which collected 25,000 signatures, asking for a referendum on NATO membership was previously submitted to the president in August 2015. And even though the referendum, of course, will not directly result in Ukraine joining NATO, holding a referendum would not only fulfil President’s pre-electoral promise to do so but also show the support for the alliance in the country.

France – Of volcanoes and earthquakes: Looking back on the first round of the presidential election

The danger of hyperbole is bound to be present following the qualification for the second round of Emmanuel Macron (24.01%) and Marine Le Pen (21.30%) in the French presidential election. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the candidate representing the mainstream republican Right (understood as comprising both the Gaullist and liberal-conservative traditions) did not win through to the second round; and while the Socialists failed in 1969 and 2002, the candidate they supported has also usually fought the run-off (in 1965, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1995, 2007 and 2012). Exit the two main governmental parties of the Fifth Republic – at least on a first superficial reading. While the parliamentary elections might reverse the fortunes of the main players, the absence of the governmental left and right from the second round is sufficiently remarkable to withstand the accusation of hyperbole. Already, in an earlier blog I argued that the unwritten rules of the Fifth Republic were being sharply called into question by the 2017 election . But this was nothing compared with the seismic shift of 23rd April. Though predicted by the polls, the exclusion of the candidates from the two historic governing parties of the Fifth Republic – Hamon for the Socialists and Fillon for LR – is likely to have major consequences. At the very least, it demonstrates a disaffection with party and the candidates designated by the primaries. Is this damage asymmetrical? Is the potential damage to the PS more existential than to the Republicans? It is still – just – too early to say. Both LR and PS are sorely divided, however and the construction of pro-Macron poles in each movement is likely (possibly producing formal schisms). The situation is further blurred by the strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.66%) and his unwillingness openly to support the ‘globalist’ Macron against the nationalist Le Pen.

An earthquake? The metaphor is rather labored and has certainly been used frequently to refer to the FN, from the initial breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. A volcanic outburst might be more accurate. But what type of Volcanic eruption? A brutal Vesuvian eruption sweeping all aside in its wake? A Pompeii-style outburst, overwhelming, yet preserving remnants of the pre-existing order for the observance of posterity? A smouldering and spluttering Everest, ever-threatening to erupt, but contained within its mountain range? There is evidence to support each of these positions.

The first position implies a tabula rasa, a starting over again. This ambition is expressed by the En Marche! candidate, regularly repeated in the media. Rather paradoxically, this does not express itself for Macron in terms of a rejection of the Fifth Republic (there is no bombastic call for a 6th Republic, the project valued by Mélenchon and Hamon), but a reversion to one of the oldest traditions of the regime, in the form of the presidential rally. The references made by Macron himself to the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 were highly indicative of his ambition, but also of a certain political style that is presented as being compatible with an early interpretation of the Fifth Republic. En Marche! bears some similarities with the UNR of 1958: it frames itself both as cross-party (picking the best talents), and anti-party (the regime against the parties accused of undermining governmental authority and being self-serving); it places itself as being neither left nor right; it operates as a presidential rally to support an individual diagnosed as having exceptional qualities. The danger for the EM! candidate is that, once elected, he will dispose of few of the instruments to implement his political programme and will lack de Gaulle’s historic legitimacy. Converting the try will require a majority elected in the name of the President, a presidential majority. The failure to achieve this outcome will be lived as a failure- even though Macron has acknowledged that with a base of 24% he does not have a majority to govern then country by himself. Let it be said in passing that there is an unresolved tension: between the acknowledgement that 24% on the first round would not provide a sufficient base to construct a new presidential majority and that a reformist coalition would be necessary; and the refusal to allow joint membership (of EM! and the PS, for example) in the belief that EM! can provide the majority to support the President.

The Vesuvian eruption also implies a realigning election, in the sense of Pierre Martin, in the French version of realignment theory . A realigning election represents first a moment of rupture, a radical break with the old order that takes the form of a paradigm shift; this is then followed by a realignment around new issues, in all probability channeled by new political organisations. The first round of the 2017 presidential election has the appearances of a radical break; the traditional governmental parties (PS and LR) obtaining barely more than one-quarter of first round votes (26.29% to be exact), down from well over one-half (55.81%) in 2012. On the other hand, the electoral verdict in 2017 is not totally unexpected. Recent presidential contests have taught us to expect the unexpected. In 2002, the announced second-round contenders (Chirac and Jospin) did not, in fact, win through to contest the run-off. In 2007, the third candidate Bayrou almost broke the mould; but his 18.57% were not quite enough to swing the election. In 2012, Hollande was elected on a carefully constructed anti-Sarkozy ticket, which papered over the profound divisions within the PS and amongst the left in general that greatly harmed his presidency. Hollande’s deep unpopularity prevented the outgoing President from standing as a candidate for re-election, itself an unprecedented sign of political disaffection.

There is a good case that 2017 might represent a decisive break with the old order. The two second round contenders were well-positioned in terms of the two key defining features of the 2017 campaign: the rejection of existing parties (notwithstanding their effort to reinvent themselves via the primaries); and a clear position in terms of the progressive/nationalist cluster of issues. The 2017 provided stark evidence of the deep distrust for all the established political parties, which translated into the fact that only one in four electors voted for the candidates invested in the Socialist and Republican primaries. Three of the leading candidates embraced the populist appeal of rejecting party: Mélenchon, Macron and Le Pen. Mélenchon (19.66%) surfed on the rather populist, anti-party theme of la France insoumise – France’s radical, revolutionary tradition adapted to the digital age. The crisis of the Socialists was particularly acute during the 2012-2017 presidency; the first round sanctioned Benoit Hamon, one of the leaders of the frondeurs whose come -uppence took the form of a humiliating 6.3%. For LR, Fillon’s failure to win through to the second round (20.01%), after a campaign laid low by scandal, was not really a surprise.

The 2017 campaign also produced symbolic positioning in terms of boundaries, borders and space, centred around the cleavage between ‘mondialists’ and patriots, in the formulation of Marine Le Pen. Macron positioned himself as the only unreserved pro-European, the one candidate calling for closer European integration as an instrument to assist economic modernisation and promote social justice. While rejecting the accusation of being ‘naïve’, moreover, Macron insisted that France could not simply ignore the reality of economic globalization. Liberal in terms of social mores and respectful of plural French identities (hence more accommodating towards French citizens of immigrant origin), Macron also appeared as liberal in the economic sense in that he seeks to reform labour law, encourage business innovation and investment and make France fitter for purpose in embracing the challenges of economic globalisation. Marine Le Pen’s programme was almost exactly opposite: an ‘intelligent’ protectionism (taxation on imported goods), tough restrictions on immigration, and a referendum on future membership of the euro/EU. These positions were reflected in the respective electoral support bases of the two candidates: Macron leading in the metropolises (Paris, Toulouse, Rennes, Lyon); Le Pen ahead in la France péripherique . The centrality of the cosmopolitan/ nationalist cleavage cut across traditional lines of cleavage and blurred still further the boundaries between left and right. The positioning of J.-L Mélenchon is particularly significant in this respect; as a resolute opponent of Brussels and European integration, but also defender of diversity. Melenchon’s reluctance to call explicitly upon his electors to support Macron on the second round run-off was a further nail in the coffin of the Republican Front (the alliance against the FN) and, indirectly, the traditional logic of left-right bipolarization.

The second position – the Pompeii analogy – might be more accurate. The existing world has been overwhelmed, but vestiges remains in the ruins. Though seriously shaken and divided, the Republicans (LR) ought to live to fight another day. One of the paradoxes of the 2017 electoral series is that it might conceivably end with a new cohabitation, a LR premier called to head President Macron’s government after the parliamentary elections. For all of the anti-party rhetoric, EM! is shaping up as a presidential rally, rather than a structured movement. The difficulty in finding enough EM! assessors to man the voting booths on the second round on 7th May is one indicator of this, as is Macron’s refusal to publish the list of EM! Candidates before the presidential election. If Macron is serious about only candidates with the EM! label being able to contest the parliamentary election, he is likely to face serious obstacles from the other players: Mélenchon’s France insoumise, with or without the Communists; the PS, with or without Hamon (tempted by a realignment with the EELV) or Valls (tempted by Macron); the Republicans (LR), possibly shorn of pro-Macron reformist wing; and the FN (Marine Le Pen coming first in 216 or 566 constituencies in mainland France). In a five-space reality, few candidates will be elected on the first round, though the 12.5% of registered electors needed to progress to the second round will limit the number of triangular and quadripolar contests. In short, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the parliamentary elections. This matters, because the 2017 parliamentary contest is unlikely to be a mere ‘confirmation election’, inclined by the institutional logic of the quinquennat to confirm the choice of the decisive presidential contest.

In a third interpretation, the volcano might produce tremors, but not fundamentally overhaul the existing partisan supply. The eventuality of a fourth cohabitation, with a resurgent LR imposing a government on the recently elected Macron, cannot be excluded. The return of the parties would be the ultimate turn to this strangest of election campaigns.

Presidential profile – Tarja Halonen, the first female president of Finland

When Tarja Halonen (born 1943) was elected as the first female president of Finland in 2000, many interpreted that as the culmination of gender equality in Finland. Yet more critical voices pointed out that her election coincided with the entry into force of the new constitution that radically reduced presidential powers in favour of a more parliamentary regime. Indeed, to this day Finland has only had two female prime ministers for a combined spell of around one year (Anneli Jäätteenmäki in 2003 and Mari Kiviniemi in 2010-2011). Halonen was re-elected in 2006 and served thus as the president for two full six-year terms.

Large section of the electorate considered the social democratic Halonen as too ’red’ – which is also the color of her hair. Indeed, Halonen, who was a highly active speaker during her presidency, consistently focused on themes close to her heart – gender equality, the plight of women in developing countries, especially their right to education, democracy and the health of civil society, the United Nations, and human rights in general. These were themes that clearly resonated with particularly younger female voters – many of whom had in other elections voted for centre-right parties – and also reflected the gradually changing cleavage structure in Finnish politics. While the Finnish president co-leads foreign policy with the government, Halonen thus also had a personal, more ‘globalist’ agenda, but whether that had any impact on the preferences or knowledge of Finnish citizens is difficult to measure.

These interests reflect her professional and political background. With a degree in law, Halonen worked from 1970 onwards as a lawyer for the main blue-collar confederation, the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions. She joined the Social Democrats in the early 1970s and was first elected to the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, in 1979. She served as an MP until her election as the president in 2000. Halonen also held three ministerial portfolios: as social and health minister from 1987 to 1990, as justice minister from 1990 to 1991 and as foreign minister from 1995 to 2000. Within the Social Democratic party Halonen was estimated to belong to the more leftist wing of the parliamentary group.

Internationally, Halonen is probably best known for her work in the United Nations, an organization she clearly cares about very much. From 2002 to 2004 Halonen served as co-chair of World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, appointed by International Labour Organization ILO. From 2009 to 2014 she in turn was the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. In 2010 Halonen was appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and she is currently the co-chair of the High Level Task Force for International Conference on Population and Development. In the 1990s she was also active in the Council of Europe, first as Deputy-Chair of the Finnish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly from 1991 to 1995 and later in the Ministerial Committee. In 2012 the TH Global Sustainability Foundation was established to promote the work of Halonen in the field of sustainable development.

Halonen was by and large very popular during her presidency, enjoying high levels of trust among the citizens. This is not surprising, as the Finnish presidents consistently enjoy stronger support than prime ministers or other politicians. However, while some prefer to remember Halonen through her interest in social causes and her global activism, others perhaps remember mainly her power struggles with the government – conflicts which she was destined to lose. In a way these intra-executive conflicts were inevitable and would most likely have taken place irrespective of who was the president.

The new constitution from 2000 was hailed as the end point of far-reaching constitutional change that curtailed presidential powers and parliamentarised the Finnish political system. However, it became very soon clear that the majority of political elite, not to mention constitutional lawyers, were somewhat unhappy with the constitution, arguing that it contained many articles which could produce unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta, and the president. Indeed, the presidency of Halonen was plagued with both open conflicts and behind-the-scenes tensions between the two executives. In EU matters, Finland was known for its policy of ‘two plates’, referring to the dual representation of both the prime minister and the president in the European Council despite the fact that according to the constitution EU policy belongs to the competence of the government. Many felt that through participating in the summits of the European Council, Halonen was acting against the spirit of the constitution. The government acquiesced to the situation, but was seemingly relieved when the Lisbon Treaty and the resulting changes to the European Council’s rules of procedure offered an external solution to the problem through allowing each member state to be represented in the summits by either the prime minister or the president. The government wasted no time in dictating that the president would no longer attend European Council meetings. Halonen protested but to no avail. This change was subsequently given constitutional status in 2012: ‘The Prime Minister represents Finland on the European Council. Unless the Government exceptionally decides otherwise, the Prime Minister also represents Finland in other activities of the European Union requiring the participation of the highest level of State.’

Also the president’s appointment powers were further reduced in 2012 – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that Halonen several times vetoed government’s proposals, appointing instead persons of her own choice to leading civil service positions. Most significantly, the president no longer appoints permanent secretaries who are the leading civil servants in the ministries. Through her active use of powers vested in the presidency, Halonen thus contributed to the further parliamentarization of Finnish politics.

Halonen lives in Helsinki with her husband, Pertti Arajärvi. More information on her past and current activities is available at https://presidenthalonen.fi/en/.

France – Macron and Cohabitation: Don’t Worry About It

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron topped the poll at the first round of the French presidential election. This was in line with the polls, but it marked a shift in established French politics. Since 1981, elections have been won by candidates of the mainstream left or the right. These candidates have either immediately dissolved the legislature and returned a supportive majority, or they have won such a majority at the legislative elections that since 2002 have been held a month after the presidential election. The bottom line is that French presidents since 1981 have effectively begun their term in office with majority support in the legislature.

Macron is different because he is a centrist. He is also different because he does not have an established political party backing him. His movement is called en Marche! (or On The Move!). Macron is likely to win the second round of the presidential election. However, he has not yet chosen en Marche! candidates for the legislative elections that take place on 11 and 18 June. There are 577 seats to be elected at these elections. This has led to fears or speculation that Macron will not win a legislative majority in the June elections. Worse, it has led to claims that Macron would immediately be faced with a period of cohabitation. In this context, it is worth thinking a little about what is meant by cohabitation and why Macron is unlikely to have to worry about it.

Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different and opposing parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet at all. France provides the archetypal examples of cohabitation. Here, it has occurred three times – 1986-88, 1993-95 and 1997-2002. Cohabitation occurs because a party or coalition opposed to the president has an absolute majority in the legislature. This forces the president to appoint a PM and government that has the support of that majority and, therefore, that is also opposed to the president. The president is alone in the Council of Ministers without any supporters.

In this context, it is also worth thinking a little about what cohabitation doesn’t involve. It isn’t the situation where the president has formed a governing coalition that includes his supporters, perhaps including the prime minister, but where relations with the legislative majority are difficult, and where the president is unable to pass legislation in exactly the form that she wants. In other words, a weak, constrained, or even legislatively emasculated president is not necessarily a cohabitation president.

Cohabitation, therefore, is a very specific situation. It is clearly observable. Here is a list of all cohabitations that have ever occurred.

So, assuming Macron is elected president on 7 May, will he face a period of cohabitation six weeks later following the legislative elections? Matthew Shugart has convincingly argued that he will not. I agree. No period of cohabitation has never occurred when a presidential election has been followed by such a quick honeymoon legislative election. (In Portugal, the January 1991 presidential election was followed by the October 1991 legislative election. So, it is questionable whether this was a honeymoon election at all. Also, there was cohabitation prior to the presidential election, after the presidential election, and the legislative election confirmed the period of cohabitation. So, the political context was very different. A similar point applies to the Czech Republic after the January 2013 presidential election.) Cohabitation just doesn’t happen under the circumstances that will soon occur in France. So, don’t worry about it.

This is not to say, though, that any future President Macron will necessarily be supported by an en Marche! majority in the Assembly. French political history suggests various scenarios are possible in this regard.

The 1988 presidential election provides one possible scenario. Then, President Mitterrand dissolved the legislature immediately after his re-election. The Socialist party and their allies were returned with only a relative majority, but the divided opposition meant that the socialists were nonetheless able to govern effectively for the next five years without forming a coalition.

A further scenario is the one that occurred in 1958. This was the founding legislative election of the new Republic. It was before France had direct presidential elections. So, the context was very different. However, it did follow the referendum on the Constitution in September 1958, which was effectively a plebiscite on de Gaulle. At the November 1958 election the gaullist party was returned with only a relative majority. However, other deputies who were returned under a different party label were willing to support de Gaulle. My understanding is that some of these deputies were given the support of the gaullists at the election itself. So, they owed their election at least in part to de Gaulle. The government was a coalition, but the coalition also had the support of other deputies within the Assembly. Macron has promised to stand en Marche! candidates everywhere, but if he is not able to select 577 of them between 7 May and the elections, he may simply endorse existing right and left-wing deputies. With a cohort of en Marche! deputies and the support of these others, he is likely to reach a working majority. Even if he does stand candidates everywhere, he is still likely to endorse candidates of other parties at the second ballot of the legislative election in constituencies where his en Marche! candidates have been defeated. This could be difficult for Macron to manage and maintain, but it will not be cohabitation.

The other scenario is more straightforward. Macron may simply form a coalition with other parties. The Socialist party is likely to splinter after the election. There are also centrist and centre-right parties such as the UDI and Modem. With his en Marche! deputies, Macron may be able to build a coalition along the lines of the one forged by President Giscard d’Estaing in the mid-1970s. This could also be problematic to keep together in the long run, but it is not cohabitation.

So, parliamentary politics after the June legislative elections in France will be interesting and could be difficult for Macron, but commentators should not unduly worry about cohabitation occurring. Certainly, commentators should stop labelling something as cohabitation that isn’t.

France – A Very Unpredictable Election

The 2017 French presidential election has proven to be one of the most unpredictable ever. Just before Christmas, the election promised to be very boring. François Fillon, who had recently won the right-wing primary, was a shoe-in. He and Marine Le Pen were far ahead of any other candidates in the polls and Fillon was easily beating Le Pen at the second ballot. Four months on, these two candidates could still qualify for the second round in which case Fillon would most likely still win. However, it is now only one of a number of possible scenarios with the outcome of the first and second rounds of the election still very much in the air.

There are 11 candidates. There is Marine Le Pen, an extreme-right wing populist; François Asselineau, a right-wing populist; Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a populist conservative; François Fillon, a conservative populist; Jean Lassalle, an anti-European centrist; Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist, Benoît Hamon, a left socialist; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist socialist; Nathalie Arthaud, a neo-Trotskyist; Philippe Poutou, a neo-neo-Trotskyist; and Jacques Cheminade, a cheminadiste. There are eight avowedly anti-European candidates, some of whom are competing with each other to claim that they would be the first to withdraw France from the EU. There are also at least nine conspiracy theorists, even though they disagree about which occult forces are responsible for what.

From this motley bunch, four candidates have emerged – Le Pen, Fillon, Mélenchon, and Macron. A fifth candidate, Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the left-wing of the Socialist party (PS) and winner of the left-wing primary in January, has since faded away, with the polls showing that he is unlikely to reach double figures. This doesn’t bode well for the survival of the PS after the election, not least because various incumbent ministers and senior party figures, including the former PM, Manuel Valls and the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, have refused to support their party’s own candidate and have backed Macron. The only other candidate who has caused any ripples in the election is Philippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (not the old one, note). He caused a stir in the presidential debate a couple of weeks ago with a brilliant one-liner in relation to the personal and party scandals that have dogged Le Pen’s and particularly Fillon’s campaign. He was a breath of fresh air in the debate, but he hasn’t been rewarded with a meaningful bump in the polls.

Since 1974, the French presidential election has been a battle between left and right. The interaction of two factors has changed things this time. The first was the left- and right-wing primary elections. They returned candidates from the relative extremes of their electoral groupings. On a scale from 0 (extreme-left) to 10 (extreme-right), the PS chose Hamon with a score of 2.8 and the right chose Fillon with a score of 8.1. Their main left and right-wing challengers are Mélenchon, who comes in at 1.5, and Le Pen at 9.1 respectively. This left a huge gap in the centre that Macron with a score of 5.2 was able to fill. This gave him the space to put across a difficult message in the current era – he is pro-European and wants the prudent management of the economy. He has been lucky in that the primaries meant that he has been able to differentiate himself from all other candidates with such a message. At the same time, he has also managed to avoid any gaffes. In addition, the Russians have not been able to target him successfully. Faute de mieux perhaps, he is still the most likely president. The second factor was the series of personal scandals that hit Fillon and his inability to react to them other than petulantly. This led to a dramatic decline in the polls. The interaction effect comes from the fact that because Fillon was selected in the right-wing primary, it was subsequently very difficult to get rid of him when he became toxic. There was no obvious mechanism for standing him down and in any case the person who replaced him would immediately have been branded a ‘loser’. Fillon also had no intention of going anywhere. So, he stayed in the race and the right had to accept the fact. He has since clawed his way back and he is now within a margin-of-error of qualifying for the second ballot.

The recent surprise has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He was a candidate in 2012. Then, his support increased from about 8% to a high in one poll of 17% in mid-April. However, he finished with a score of 11.1%. Five years later, he was running at about 11% in the polls in March and has reached a high of 20% in one poll only recently. This time he hopes to maintain his momentum. Mélenchon’s stock (an inappropriate metaphor in his case) has risen since the televised debate a couple of weeks ago. He has mainly benefited from the decline of the PS candidate. At the beginning of March the two left-wing candidates were equal at about 12.5 per cent each. Now Mélenchon is at about 18 per cent and Hamon around 7 per cent. In other words, support for the left has not really increased, but within the left Mélenchon now dominates. He needs Hamon’s support to fall to below 5 per cent to maximise his chances of winning through to the second ballot. Mélenchon is anti-European, arguing that France should leave the EU if a list of impossible-to-agree-to demands is not agreed to. He also believes that France should withdraw from NATO. He is not against all international alliances, though, because he is in favour of linking with Cuba and Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. He has also refused to blame the Assad regime for the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. He believes that the war there is all about gas pipelines. He may yet qualify for the second ballot.

So, three days out from the first round there is a four-way contest.

Macron is still best placed. However, we should be wary of the polls in his regard. He has no party. He has no electoral history. In this context, how should pollsters adjust their raw data to get an accurate picture of his support? Who knows? In short, the polls could be greatly overestimating his support (or even greatly underestimating it). What’s more, a lot of people have yet to make up their minds. Typically, this involves left-wing voters being indecisive about which left-wing candidate to vote for and the same for right-wing voters. This time, though, people are also unsure about whether to vote for the centre rather than either the right or the left. They could choose to go with the left or the right, probably meaning Fillon in reality. Macron was weak in the televised debate. En même temps, his centrist moderation is also being increasingly lampooned. He looks well placed, but he could be the most disappointed on election night.

Mélenchon could also get through to the second ballot, especially if PS and Green voters completely choose to desert Hamon. He is the least likely of the top four to qualify.

For his part, Fillon is proving remarkably resilient. He has the advantage that there is some sort of party organisation behind him and a cohort of committed right-wing voters who want to support him. He has put some of them off with his scandals, but there could be enough for him to win through. I wouldn’t write him off at all. In fact, Bruno Jérôme and Véronique Jérôme have just issued a new Nowcast that shows Fillon going through to the the second ballot, confirming the worst fears of Macron’s supporters.

This leaves Le Pen. She has had a terrible campaign from her perspective. Amid rumours of party infighting, she has abandoned attempts to build some sort of coherent Trump-esque coalition and has fallen back on her most egregregiously atavistic historical revisionism and anti-immigration discourse. Her core supporters remain delirious at her campaign rallies, though, and there is no doubt that she will win the support of new voters who are fed up with everyone. However, she has not campaigned well. On the one hand, she hasn’t tried to win the support of moderate voters. On the other, she has been overtaken at the extremes by some other candidates on certain issues, notably Europe where has signally failed to monopolise the anti-European agenda. She is still likely to qualify for the second ballot, but it has been much more of a struggle than it ever seemed it would be.

The level of undecided voters is high and the level of abstention is likely to be greater than at the previous election. With four candidates so close together, this makes the election difficult to predict. What is more, the idea of ‘le vote utile’, or casting a ‘useful vote’, is playing out in different ways than usual. For some, a useful vote means supporting Macron as the most sensible candidate of them all. For those on the left, though, it can mean supporting Mélenchon as the candidate with the only chance of getting the left into power. For those on the right, it can mean going back to Fillon both as a way of keeping out Mélenchon and as a way of restoring some sort of order to the system. After all, this was an election that the right was going to win for a long time.

The bottom line is that no-one knows what will happen at the first ballot. In that regard, this has turned out to be a very unpredictable election.

Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

Hungary – Janos Ader’s re-election, ‘Lex CEU’, and the future of the Hungarian presidency

Over the last years, I have regularly written about the changing role of the Hungarian presidency under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Although more hopeful at first, the conclusion that its existence appears to be largely irrelevant for the functioning of the country’s  political system has been confirmed once and again. Last month, the Hungarian parliament re-elected janos Ader for a second term as president. Although it is not clear what his thoughts about the role of the presidency are, even if he wanted to, his potential to become a proper check-and-balance is severely limited.

Plenary of the Hungarian Parliament | photo via wikimedia commons

Hungarian presidents have been elected by parliament since 1990 and any attempts to introduce a semi-presidential system (mainly in the 1990s) have been unsuccessful. The reelection of Janos Ader on 13 March 2017 was the second presidential election held under the modified rules of the new 2011 constitution. After the old constitution allowed for three rounds of voting (the first two requiring a two-thirds majority for a candidate to win before lowering the requirement to a relative majority in the third round), the new rules reduced this to just two: A candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win in the first round and in the second round (which is a runoff between the two frontrunners if there are more than two candidates) a relative majority is sufficient. Since 2011 it is also more difficult to nominate a candidate. The old requirement was the support of 50 of 386 deputies (i.e. 13%) for a nomination, while the new requirement is 1/5 of membership. The latter is aggravated by the fact that the size of the Hungarian parliament has been reduced to 199 deputies since the 2014 elections.

As expected, the government parties nominated incumbent Janos Ader for a second term. However, as the Fidesz-KDNP government had lost its 2/3 majority gained in the 2014 elections due to defections, it was not going to be a first-round victory as in 2012. An alliance of all opposition parties except the far-right Jobbik, nominated László Majtényi, a law professor and former data protection ombudsman. Ader received 131 votes in both the first and second round, which equates to the seat share of the government, while abstentions in the first round were equal to the seat share of Jobbik.

The election result first and foremost means continuity in the way in which Hungarian politics works until the 2018 election or possibly beyond. Although the Hungarian president belongs to the formally most powerful presidents in the region, political practice has long kept presidential intervention in day-to-day politics to a minimum. However, the rebuilding of the Hungarian state by Prime Minister Orban and his Fidesz party have also severely restricted the the effectiveness of presidential powers. The presidential veto of legislation can be overridden by parliament with a relative majority. This has never been a problem for Hungarian governments in the past, yet the restructuring of the electoral system – which greatly advantaged Fidesz and was crucial to its 2/3 majority victory in the 2014 elections – means that the parliament can even override vetoes of organic laws and constitutional amendments (requiring a 2/3 override majority) without problems. Furthermore, the disempowerment of the Constitutional Court (once one of the most powerful in the world) and nomination of judges loyal to Orban means that requests for judicial review are more likely to be decided in favour of the governing majority.

Interestingly, Janos Ader still uses his veto with relative frequency. In the first years in office, parliament still considered these seriously and often included changes proposed by the president into bills as part of the reconsideration process. Since the 2014 parliamentary elections however, all of ten his vetoes have been overridden. At the same time, Ader has not used his veto or the high public profile bestowed unto him ‘ex officio’ to address any major issues or points of contentions in the political debate. Rather, he failed to comment or sided with the government. In this regard the recent controversy surrounding the education bill dubbed ‘Lex CEU’, a new law on foreign universities operating in Hungary which specifically threatens the operation of the Central European University, is very telling. Despite large-scale international criticism and demonstrations, Ader signed the bill into law on Monday and ignored calls to veto it or send it to the Constitutional Court for review.

The above pattern is unlikely to change in the near future. During his second term in office (2010-2014) Prime Minister Orban repeatedly hinted at the possibility of introducing a semi-presidential or presidential system in the country in the past, but he has since changed his mind. While there is thus nothing new in Sandor Palace, the 2017 presidential election and other political developments pose the question why a government committed to an ‘illiberal state’ is still committed to keeping the presidency in its current form, given that it serves no obvious purpose anymore.

Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić: the old and new strongman of Serbian politics

In this post, I examine the first and because of the results also final round of presidential elections in Serbia. The election was held on April 2 and Prime Minister Vučić won in this first round with predicted 54.9 % of the votes (with Sasa Jankovic coming as second with 16.2%) (see for the results Rudic 2017). This election comes roughly one year after the early parliamentary dissolution and the ensuing snap elections also won by Vučić. In the following, I will first briefly describe the process between the parliamentary and presidential elections, the campaign and motivations that might have driven Vučić’ candidacy. This is then followed by an assessment of the consequences of the results for the political process and the democratic development in Serbia.

In March 2016, the Serbian President – then Tomislav Nikolić – dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) and called for early elections (the third in four years). The reasons for the dissolution that I described in an earlier blog post discussing the parliamentary elections apply surprisingly well again and show the motivation why Vučić ran as candidate for the presidency.

Similar to the snap parliamentary elections last spring, the run for president by Vučić is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One main motive for the 2016 snap election was pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016). But considering the results of the early parliamentary elections, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. The SNS lost 27 seats in parliament and was far off by the projected +50% result (Pavlović 2017, 55). Even more important was a newly emerging opposition that was virtually non-existent or heavily discredited prior to the 2016 election. As Prelec (2016) has pointedly argued: “Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia”. This opposition consists now of an even more diverse group ranging from far-right to progressive movements. But still 48.2 percent of the votes guaranteed Vučić and the SNS a strong position, albeit within a coalition government he formed with some delay in August 2016. Many observers, including me, assumed that the new and old Prime Minister could continue his “domestic and foreign policy course [..] enacting the political and economic changes required for membership in the European Union, while simultaneously seeking closer relations with Russia.” (Brunwasser 2017)

But then something unexpected happened. Several viable candidates outside of the SNS influence emerged and made the presidency suddenly a possible veto point for Vučić’s plans of political leadership. Among possible contestants the most promising where Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli (an alias used by a satirical campaign) and the former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.  Vučić’s solution to the problem was running for president by himself. Next to the obvious threat of a loss of power Boban Stojanović, Fernando Casal Bértoa (2017) named 2 further reasons why he decided to do so, “the temptation of ‘illiberal democracy’” and “little significant change in terms of his [Vučić] capacity to influence policy or exert power”. In particular, the second argument needs some clarification. Contrary to what a variety of outlets reported, we should be careful when we characterize the presidency in Serbia as “largely symbolic” (Brunwasser 2017). Depending on the party majorities and the actors occupying the main posts within the executive, the assessment of intra-executive relations varies dramatically. One example would be the comparative case of the presidency of Boris Tadić. During his first term – also a period of cohabitation – he was often described as inactive. This however changed dramatically when his Democratic Party (DS) won the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary election. In his double role as chair of the party and president of the country he wielded enormous political influence and clearly dominated intra-executive relations. Mirko Cvetković as Prime Minister was however highly respected and his term and cabinet broke for a short time the unfortunate tradition of frequent cabinet reshuffles and snap elections.

After Sunday’s election and the landslide victory of Vučić, we can expect a similar development for Vučić’s presidency, when it comes to the part about the president’s dominance over the prime minister. He will influence the political landscape more than his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. Vučić will also aim for stability but this stability will actually mean something entirely different: stabilizing in this case will result in an even firmer and more authoritarian grasp on power in his bid for even more. Shortly after the election results were published, demonstrations against Vučić started all across Serbia and the organizers in several cities announced that they plan to continue their protest against election fraud, partisanship of media outlets and Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies.

Literature

Brunwasser, Matthew (2017): Serbia’s Prime Minister Projected to Win Presidency, Consolidating Control, in: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/europe/serbia-aleksandar-vucic-president-elections.html

Pavlović, Dušan (2017): Serbian Presidential Elections, in: Contemporary Southeastern Europe, in: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/sites/default/files/papers/pavlovic_serbian_elections_2016.pdf

Prelec, Tena: Serbian parliamentary election 2016: A gamble that almost backfired, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/04/26/serbian-parliamentary-election-2016-a-gamble-that-almost-backfired

Rudic, Filip (2017): Vucic Wins Serbian Presidential Elections, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vucic-wins-serbian-presidential-elections-04-02-2017-1
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2017): Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/04/serbias-prime-minister-just-became-president-whats-wrong-with-this-picture/?utm_term=.8cdfe26a5d7e

Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2016): There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

Turkey – Two weeks until the most important referendum in the country’s constitutional history

With two weeks to go until the most important referendum in Turkey for decades, the situation is looking increasingly tense and people are more and more divided. The stakes are high for both sides. If the “no” vote wins, this would shake Erdoğan’s long-standing populist rule. However, if Turkish voters prefer a “yes” vote this would  mean not only leaving behind the parliamentary tradition, but also turning the country’s back on basic European ideals, including liberal democracy.

The proposed Turkish type of presidential system would grant President Erdoğan the power to redesign the country’s state structure and rule pretty much as he pleases. This system has been promoted as a neo-ottomanist, pro-Islamist reform that would create a national, home-grown system.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, Turkey has adopted a model of modernisation. But now, such a modernisation process, which involves the secularisation of state and society, is increasingly being presented by the ruling party, the AKP, as being different from the country’s Islamic culture, despite the fact that Islam was itself an import from the Arab world. The constitutional reform is defended and legitimised as marking the reversal of an unlucky history and the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire, even though the real Ottomans are now long gone. Anyone who is against the reform is portrayed as being either a traitor or a terrorist. This simple and rather superficial propaganda has been repeated so often by President Erdoğan and other AKP politicians that it has dangerously increased the level of polarisation in the country, and which has already been at a very high level for the past 10 years. One journalist who is close to Erdoğan has branded Turks who believe in western ideals as partly alien to their native culture and claimed that even so, if the “yes” vote wins they will be granted the right to live as a sign of generosity since they are good Muslims. This type of thinking hints at the general ideology that is feeding Erdogan’s one-man rule. He is being portrayed as the saviour of Islam who will end the secular republic founded by Atatürk’s revolution.

Erdoğan has based his campaign on strong nationalist and Islamist ideals, and has used polarisation as a tool to consolidate conservative right-wing votes. To this end, not only has he promoted internal divisions against both secularists and religious and ethnic minorities, but he has also labeled everyone who rejects his vision of Turkey as being on the same side as the terrorists. His aggressive rhetoric is not limited to internal affairs. He regularly targets the Western world. After Germany, Austria and Holland restricted the AKP’s political rallies in their countries, he had the much needed opportunity to exploit nationalist feelings by attacking the governments of those countries as Nazis, despite the fact that the Turkish law itself bans Turkish political parties from campaigning abroad. His tactical choice of using aggressive, popular and polarising language has paid off in previous elections, given he has not lost since 2002. However, it is not certain how the Turkish public will react to this type of rhetoric now. Economic and political ties with Europe are too strong to be suddenly cut off without any consequences.

Erdoğan and other AKP politicians hardly mention the details of the reform. They only claim that a presidential system will make Turkey great and more democratic. There will be no coalitions; therefore the system will bring political stability and economic growth.

Erdoğan is not alone in his campaign. The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahçeli, is also on his side, campaigning for a presidential system even though some of his party’s current and former MPs have openly declared that they will say “no” to the change. Also, recent polls have suggested that a majority of the party’s voters are likely to to vote “no”. Bahçeli argues that a presidential system will help to keep Turkey together and that all terrorists will be destroyed if the new system is passed.

Using polarisation as a weapon to unite conservative voters is not the only tried and trusted method of Erdoğan and his supporters. Silencing the opposition has been another aspect of their competitive authoritarian rule for some time. According to a report from the Union for Democracy, an NGO, regarding air time from 1-20 March, the “yes” coalition got 486 hours, the main opposition party, CHP, got 45.5 hours, and the pro-Kurdish HDP got zero hours. In addition, the state of emergency since the failed coup attempt in July is still in force, and opposition rallies and meetings have regularly been cancelled because on security grounds. Systematic obstruction, including physical attacks and death threats, have been commonplace. Yet, despite the uneven competition, polls suggest that this referendum may not be as easy to win as previous elections.

The main opposition party has chosen a softer approach and avoided polarisation. They have not used their party symbols and have tried to unite different groups by emphasising that it is a national matter that is above party politics. They argue that this change will create one-man rule, will weaken the Grand National Assembly, diminish judicial independence, and destroy democracy, which has already had a troubled time in Turkey.

The leaders of the other opposition party, HDP, and many of its MPs are currently imprisoned, and others have been silenced by the mainstream media. This party has also quietly campaigned for a “no” vote, even though there are people claiming that HDP voters of Kurdish origin have lost interest in being part of Turkey’s future and may not prefer to vote at all. The overall picture is not that of a free or fair campaign for the opposition and confirms that Turkey is competitive authoritarian regime as defined by Levitsky and Way in their 2010 book “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War”. If this proposed hyper-presidential system is approved by the majority of people, avoiding competitive authoritarianism will become much more difficult.