Category Archives: Europe

Romania – Intra-executive conflict and confusion about patterns of hierarchical control

President Klaus Iohannis clashes with Justice Minister Tudorel Toader Source: b1.ro

In recent months, the semi-presidential republic of Romania saw the unravelling of a new episode of intra-executive conflict in the context of cohabitation.  A dispute over the procedure to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the Anti-Corruption National Directorate (DNA) confirmed the inherent confusion in semi-presidential constitutions about the chains of accountability and responsibility of political decision makers and the patterns of hierarchical control. The conflict between the president and the government was mediated by the Constitutional Court in favour of the government. The president accused the ruling majority of being determined to reduce his powers.

 No breathing space for the president

The current minimum-winning ruling coalition is composed of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). They have a stable legislative majority on their own, but also count on a formalised legislative support agreement with the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and first-time parliamentary party, Save Romania Union (USR), only have half of the voting size of the majority supporting the coalition. The other newcomer parliamentary party, the Popular Movement Party (PMP), is slowly being dismantled due to party switching to the side of the government. Consequently, it is safe to say that the government and the parliament are united and stable. The lack of incentives for a united parliament and government to collaborate with the president – as a whole or individually – leads to the increased isolation and irrelevance of the head of state.

The Constitutional Court has recently increased the political resources available to the government with a decision that considerably limits the president’s role in the dismissal of the chief prosecutor of the DNA. This blog has previously reported on the role of the president in the justice system, emphasizing his limited formal powers, while also mentioning his non-negligible informal powers stemming from his legitimacy as an elected official.  However, the use of informal and veto powers can only come willingly, as shown in the case of Poland. In addition to a highly hostile political environment, the only marginally combative attitude of the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, coupled with his decision not to politically coordinate with his own party, the PNL, has led to further accentuation of the peripheral nature of his activity.

An all men’s game: the justice system

For years, the fight against political corruption has dominated the Romanian system. Revising the powers of the judicial branch – to strengthen or constrain them – has also remained high on political agenda across the political spectrum. Revisions were voted by the current ruling coalition only two years after other revisions had been made by a technocrat government in 2016. In addition, the incumbent majority also sought to clarify the chains of command in the absence of any government/president consensus on key appointments and dismissals in the judiciary. The president’s ability to refuse only once the proposal of the justice minister for the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) and that of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT) was introduced in the legislation to clarify the procedure and was deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court also ruled that the president has no powers to oppose the decision of the justice minister to dismiss the head of the DNA, emphasizing an article of the Constitution which states that ‘prosecutors carry out their activity (…) under the authority of the minister of justice’. Consequently, the highly popular DNA chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, will now have to be dismissed by the president to conclude a procedure of removal that was initiated by the ministry of justice.

The politics of the Constitutional Court

The role of the Constitutional Court in mediating inter-institutional conflict is pivotal. Less easy to disentangle are its politics. The nine judges are changed in cohorts of three, every three years. A balance of representation between the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the Presidency has to be maintained, each having the right to nominate one judge in the changing group. The shifting majority in parliament and a period of cohabitation under two presidents that goes back to 2012 also leads to fluctuating majorities in the Court. Some correlation can be found between the agenda of the current president and the decision of the judges nominated by the presidency, but the overlap is not complete. Equally, the agenda of the opposition (PNL) is not fully endorsed by the judges they once nominated. The PSD-nominated judges are the ones that mostly correlate with a PSD agenda. Under the current composition of the court, the ruling coalition has a majority of at least 5 to 4. This adds strength to the coalition’s agenda to increase the power of the government.

Conclusion

Recent rulings of the Constitutional Court have led to a clarification of some procedures and the hierarchical control within the executive. They have also increased the power of executive control over the judiciary branch to the impairment of judicial self-regulation through their own institutions, such as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. Collaterally, they have also diminished the formal impact of the president on these matters in periods of cohabitation.

Between Notary and Creator: Presidents and Government Formation in the Czech Republic

This post is based on the article by Lubomír Kopeček and Miloš Brunclík that has just been published in East European Politics and Societies

In this paper, we use our classification system to assess the influence that the presidents of the Czech Republic have so far exerted over fourteen cases of government formation process since 1993.

Let us briefly recall the classification which is presented below. It consists of five major patterns – from “observer” as the weakest head of state, to “creator” as the only government-maker. Unlike numerous indices of formal presidential power, the classification reflects the real constitutional practice of government formation and takes account of various informal factors (e.g. the president’s relationship with parliamentary parties; the presence/absence of legitimacy; the fragmentation of party system) that may strengthen or weaken president in the government formation process (GFP).

Table 1: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

Control over the GFP Political preferences Level of activity
Observer no irrelevant no
Notary limited irrelevant low
Regulator medium relevant medium
Co-designer main relevant high
Creator exclusive relevant very high

Before focusing on the Czech presidents, Václav Havel, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, it is necessary to briefly describe the constitutional framework that regulates the government formation process in the Czech Republic. The Czech constitution (Art. 68) gives the president a comparatively large discretion in the GFP, when it says only that “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and, on the basis of the Prime Minister’s proposal, the other members of the government and entrust them with the management of the ministries or other offices.” The president is not obliged to appoint the leader of the largest parliamentary party, nor does the constitution specify any time period within which the president has to appoint a new prime minister. This large discretion may explain the protracted government formation, which started shortly after the 2017 parliamentary elections and which has not been accomplished yet[i]. The newly appointed cabinet is obliged to win the motion of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies (art. 68). If the government fails to win the Chamber’s confidence (which requires an absolute majority of votes from the deputies present), the initiative passes back to the president and the constitution prescribes that the whole procedure is repeated. If this second appointed government should fail in the Chamber, the right to choose the prime minister is passed to the Chamber’s speaker. Should the speaker also fail, the president has to dissolve the Chamber.

In this post we summarise only the major findings of our article, which analyzes in detail individual cases of the government formation process[ii]. The actual practice of the GFP shows a great variation in the role of Czech presidents: it varies from notary to creator (see table 2 below). There were thirteen government formation processes in total. We identified eight notary presidents (Havel in 1998/2 and 2002, Klaus in 2006, 2007 and 2009, Zeman in 2014, 2017 and 2018), four regulators (Havel in 1996, Klaus in 2004, 2005 and 2010), one co-designer (Havel in 1998/1) and one creator (Zeman in 2013).

We argue that the variance results from two major factors. Firstly, the timing of the GFP is important. When the GFP directly followed parliamentary elections, presidents were mostly much weaker. This finding applies also to two situations (2006-2007 and 2017-2018)  in which the first attempt to appoint a new cabinet failed, i.e. the cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, given a complicated situation there. However, using their power to appoint yet another cabinet, presidents Klaus and Zeman chose the same person as prime minister, because there was no viable alternative cabinet sponsored either by parliamentary parties, or by president.

Out of six such cases (the GFP following the parliamentary elections), there were five notary presidents (1998, 2002, 2006, 2013-2014 and 2017) and in two cases there were regulators (1996 and 2010). In contrast, when the GFP followed a government break-up during the electoral term of the Chamber of Deputies, presidents were significantly stronger. Out of six such cases, there were two notary presidents (2007 and 2009), two regulators (2004 and 2005), one co-designer (1998) and one creator (2013).

Secondly, the president’s role depends on the actual power of parties, i.e. their ability to act together as a firm parliamentary majority, which 1) does not need much help from the president in the GFP and 2) which is determined to challenge a potential attempt by the president at influencing the GFP more than the parties wish. In several cases, presidents resolved to play a greater role in the GFP than a notary, but often they faced a firm parliamentary majority that actually did not allow them to exert their influence. Indeed, at least in two cases a solid parliamentary majority thwarted overt presidential attempts to leave a much greater imprint on the final outcome of the GFP:  Havel in 1998/2 and Klaus in 2007.[iii]

In contrast, the presidents were particularly strong in times of major political scandals, when parties’ legitimacy suffered heavily and the president could take advantage of it. The most notable examples are Havel in 1998/1 and Zeman in 2013. The last case is particularly important, since it was the first GFP affected by the newly popularly elected president, who made an overt attempt at becoming a ruling president through the installation of a technocratic cabinet without any agreement whatsoever with parliamentary parties. This is a clear example of the president capitalising on his popular election, which was introduced in 2012 and which gave the president a legitimacy advantage. Indeed, Zeman explicitly referred to the fact that he had recently been elected by the majority of Czech voters. Moreover, the technocratic cabinet was closely tied to Zeman’s own party, which, although it lacked parliamentary representation, hoped the ministers would help it get media attention and public support in the 2013 parliamentary elections. This was, however, unsuccessful.

Table 2: Czech presidents in the government formation process

President Year and Prime Minister Role of president
Havel 1996: Klaus Regulator
1998/1: Tošovský Co-designer
1998/2: Zeman Notary (failed regulator)
2002: Špidla Notary
Klaus 2004: Gross Regulator
2005: Paroubek Regulator
2006: Topolánek I Notary
2007: Topolánek II Notary (failed co-designer)
2009: Fischer Notary
2010: Nečas Regulator
Zeman 2013: Rusnok Creator
2014: Sobotka Notary (failed regulator)
2017: Babiš I Notary

The step taken by Zeman was a radical breakthrough in the parliamentary regime and a major shift in the president’s role towards that of creator (e.g. government-maker). In so doing, he destroyed a key constitutional convention linked to the parliamentary basis of the political regime. Comparing the behavior of Zeman with that of his predecessors Havel and Klaus, there is an obvious, substantial, qualitative difference. Zeman’s predecessors always appointed a government cabinet that resulted from a deal with parliamentary parties (only the Tošovský cabinet in 1998 partly broke from the rule).

Thus, with the exception of the Rusnok cabinet (and to a certain extent the Tošovský cabinet too), parties by and large have managed to assert their will against that of the president. This has been substantially facilitated by the fact that no president has managed to create a solid and strong party backing in parliament. As a result, a political proximity between the parliamentary parties and the president plays only a marginal role in the GFP, since the presidents’ relationship to parties was ambiguous and sometimes full of paradoxes.[iv] This has been influenced by the public’s desire for non-partisan or so-called “above-partisan” presidents, who are to a large extent independent of political parties. This is true even though all three presidents were close to some parties or factions. Václav Havel was never a partisan, but he had a number of political allies, particularly in the small parties (the Christian Democrats, Freedom Union etc.), but he never attempted to create his own party. In contrast, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman had been partisan prime ministers and leaders of the then largest parties, but they resigned from their party and their relationship with their original parties became rather cold. Of the three Czech presidents, Václav Klaus enjoyed the strongest party backing, but only in the early days of his presidency. Still, the steps he took when governments led by the Social Democrats found themselves in crisis do not testify to Klaus acting as an ODS politician, although he later displayed moderate preferences for some ODS-led cabinets.

Evidently, Havel and Klaus were careful in building their ties with parties because their presidential mandates originated in parliament. This was not the case with Zeman, who has sought to create his own party backing much more purposefully. Nonetheless, his party (Citizens’ Right Party – Zeman’s Followers) failed in the 2013 elections and the pro-president faction within the Social Democrats likewise lost their standing.

Common to all three presidents has been their ignoring of certain parties or at least creating obstacles to their participation in government negotiations or formation. This was very conspicuous with Havel, who repeatedly excluded the Communists from coalition bargaining, and also the far-right Republicans, when they held parliamentary representation[v]. Despite formally respecting the Communists, Klaus effectively took the same position, and in fact went further by wanting signatures of “non-communist MPs” on a document pledging support for a government. This approach created the foundation for the role of the president-regulator. In reality, however, presidents have not always been successful.

Having applied the classification to the Czech case, we demonstrate a great variance in the degree of influence that presidents exert over the GFP, although formal constitutional rules regulating the GFP have remained unaltered since 1993. To slightly amend Maurice Duverger’s famous statement on the divergence between formal constitutional rules and actual constitutional practice,[vi] we can speak about “uniformity of rules, diversity of games.”

The variance of the roles presidents have played in the GFP results mainly from the timing of parliamentary (and sometimes also presidential) elections and from the solidity of parliamentary parties and their ability to act independently of the head of state. In contrast, the political proximity between president and the parliamentary parties does not appear to be key to understanding the level of influence presidents exert over the GFP.

As far as the Czech constitution is concerned, its importance lies in the fact that it offers the president a substantial and not entirely clearly defined space in the government formation process. In availing themselves of this space, all three presidents have very often refused to play the role of a notary who merely confirmed the results of negotiations between parties or provided a decorative façade for the process. Havel, Klaus and Zeman sought to play very active roles and, circumstances permitting, push through their own political ideas and attitudes.

As for the effect of the popular election, it is beyond doubt that it potentially boosts overall presidential power[vii] and in particular it gives the president additional leverage in the GFP, but only if he enjoys the advantage of legitimacy over parliament. But what is more important, the president has not been able to push political parties into the background and push through his own government. The president’s installation of the 2013 Rusnok technocratic cabinet was only a temporary solution; party leaders once again managed to secure the main say for themselves, and the president was forced into the role of head of state in a parliamentary regime. The increased activism of the popularly elected head of state hit the barriers erected by parties – barriers that the president, lacking his own party backing in parliament, has been unable to overcome.

Notes

[i] The Babiš cabinet appointed in January 2017 failed to receive the obligatory vote of confidence in the lower parliamentary chamber and the GFP had to start from scratch. Andrej Babiš was in early June 2018 appointed Prime Minister again, but his cabinet (Babiš II) has not been formed yet, as parties still negotiate with president on filling individual ministerial posts. Also, the junior coalition party – the Social Democrats – are awaiting results of their inter-party referendum that is supposed to confirm or reject party’s engagement in the Babiš cabinet.

[ii] In comparison to the original article, this post takes account of the more recent case of the GFP: Babiš I (Babiš II is being formed in June 2018 and is not therefore included in this post.

[iii] In at least two other cases parties left no room for the president to take initiative (Klaus in 2009 and Zeman in 2014).

[iv] M. Brunclík and M.Kubát, Semi-presidentialism, Parliamentarism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019 forth.), p. 110 af.

[v] In contrast, president Zeman was clearly in favour of incorporating the communists as well as the radical-right wing populists (the Freedom and Direct Democracy) in a ruling cabinet.

[vi] “Similarity of rules, diversity of games” by M. Duverger, “A new political system model: semi‐presidential government.” European Journal of Political Research 8(1980).

[vii] A. Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (New Haven: YUP, 1999).

Fabian Burkhardt – Future Leaders of Russia?

This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen)

A new generation of government officials is gradually emerging, but old hands in Russia’s institutions have been unwilling to make space for fresh faces.

Between October 2017 and February 2018, a competition was held that received little attention outside of Russia. Almost 200,000 applicants – 90% of whom came from outside of public administration – competed in several rounds for the title of future “Leaders of Russia”. The prize? A top job in the civil service or a state corporation. The finals were held in Sochi at the Siriuseducation center for gifted children headed by Elena Shmeleva, who was one of the three co-chairpersons of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign. And indeed, roughly sixty finalists were appointed in ministries and other federal state organs.

It is tempting to dismiss the competition as yet another Potemkin village to embellish Putin’s rather uninspired presidential election campaign. But there seems to be rather more to it than that. The event was organized by the deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Kirienko and the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Kirienko’s interest in personnel management is long standing. Back in 2000, when he was presidential representative in the Volga Federal District, Kirienko’s hobby horse had been a recruitment policy known as the “golden cadre reserve”. Several younger bureaucrats, such as economy minister Maksim Oreshkin or Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov, seemed to have been genuinely enthusiastic about boosting vertical upward mobility, unlike some other top officials among the 64 mentors of the program. Also, the unprecedented number of applicants from all over Russia somewhat belies the assertion often met in public discourse that there is a dearth of talent that could be tapped.

The composition of the new Russian government appointed on 18 May by president Putin, however, clearly demonstrated a victory of the cohort of ‘mentors’ over the ‘mentees’, and of horizontal rotation over vertical mobility. Indeed, changes occurred among slightly less than 50% of all cabinet positions, a scale comparable to the transition from Putin’s first to second presidential term when in Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s 2004 government, about half of the ministers had already served in Prime Minister Kasyanov’s 2000-2004 government. Yet, in fact, the new government of Dmitry Medvedev, whose reappointment had been anticipated by many, has actually become older by more than four years on average. In 2012, Medvedev’s government had an average age of 47.17 years while in 2018, the mean jumped to 51.27 years. This is consistent with broader trends among the Russian political elite of governors, in the presidential administration and the Federal Assembly: There is an ever widening gap between presidential rhetoric on bringing in fresh faces and the reality of an aging elite trapped in horizontal cadre rotation. Among the ten deputy prime ministers, really only one among the five newly appointed deputy PMs can be considered a clear case of upward mobility. That would be Maksim Akimov, responsible mainly for civil service and digital technologies, who made his career in the rather progressive Kaluga region. Most others have had cabinet experience in various positions at least since the mid-2000s, most notably Tatyana Golikova (minister of health from 2007 to 2012) and Aleksei Gordeev (minister of agriculture 1999-2009). Among the nine newly appointed officials in the rank of minister, the situation looks slightly better: three are former governors (a common pattern of promotion in the past), and four others stem from second and third layers of the civil service and who were now – as part of a more or less systematic cadre management system – promoted to a cabinet position.

One of the most remarkable features of the new government is what analyst Nikolay Petrov has called the rise of the “school of MinFin”, the Ministry of Finance, including two deputy ministers and three ministers with a background in the most meritocratic structure of Russia’s government. The incumbent Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov was promoted to first deputy prime minister, which made him, according to Sergey Aleksashenko, the most powerful Minister of Finance since the legendary Egor Gaidar in 1991/1992. These fiscal experts should not be understood as a team with a common mission, but the preference for nit-pickers clearly demonstrates that the main goal of the government is not so much reform, but the minimization of political and economic risks with tight resources available, and a foreign policy that puts additional strain to the state budget. This fiscal profile has been further strengthened with the appointment of former Minister of Finance Aleksey Kudrin as new Chairman of the Audit Chamber. In the run-up to Putin’s presidential inauguration, rumors had been circulating that Kudrin might be appointed to a leading position in government (such as deputy PM) or in the presidential administration. Kudrin’s new role appears to be further evidence that the role of the new government in the next presidential term will be confined to fiscal management rather than any kind of reformist endeavor.

Structural changes to the distribution of administrative functions among the ministries were also kept to a minimum. Most notably, the number of deputy ministers was increased by one, the previous Ministry of Education was split up into two ministries, one responsible for research, the other for education, and the position of minister for open government (without portfolio) was abolished altogether.

Chicago University’s Konstantin Sonin rated the past government’s performance with a school grade of 4+ (on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the best grade). Judging by the minor fine-tuning of both personal and institutional features of the government, one can assume that president Putin’s overall assessment did not differ much. Moreover, among those deputy PMs and ministers who left government, so far none of them was punished in an all too ostentatious manner by the president that would allow for conclusions about perceived excessive mismanagement or rent-seeking in their policy domains. Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, for instance, was dismissed from his post heading the Russian defense and aerospace sector only to be appointed as new head of Roscosmos, the agency responsible for the Russian space program. He won this new post even though he had drawn significant criticism both from branch specialists and the wider public.

Overall, both the composition and the appointment process seems to confirm that the government’s main purpose is to minimize political and economic risks, and to guarantee macroeconomic stability. In sharp contrast to the principles of openness and meritocracy espoused during the Leaders of Russia competition, the appointment process was characterised by a lack of transparency and the apparent backdoor haggling by various interest groups. This backroom drive for stability has been highlighted by Russian analysts, and the drawbacks are apparent: For the time being, even any only moderately ambitious reform attempt and upward mobility among civil servants have been jammed.

In terms of policy, the main strategic goals for the period between 2018 and 2024 have been set in a presidential decree on May 7 in a similar fashion to a series of ‘developmental’ May decrees at the beginning of the previous term in 2012. The over-arching goal: a “breakthrough in scientific-technological and socio-economic development.” At the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Aleksey Kudrin compared the new cabinet to a crouching tiger preparing for a big leap forward to achieve the ambitious goals set down by the president. According to Kudrin, since the early 2000s during his time as Minister of Finance, the intra-executive roles have been reversed: back then, the government outlined more ambitious goals that were then reined in by the president. Nevertheless, intra-executive relations in the Russian superpresidential system (president-parliamentary in more technical terms) are still best described in terms of principal-agent relations where the president sets forth wide-ranging goals while implementation is delegated in large parts to the federal government and regional administrations, with all the issues of informational asymmetry and monitoring discrepancies associated with this form of hierarchical control attached.

The urge of top-down strategic planning to a certain degree resembles Soviet five-year plans, according to Vladimir Gel’man. It has led to what Stephen Fortescue calls “policy irresponsibility”: the co-existence of a multitude of strategic documents both on the federal and regional level which posit exceedingly ambitious and compulsory goals that are often mutually contradictory and insufficiently backed by financial resources. Ex-deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich once complained 70% of his time gets spent solving coordination impasses among ministries in his sphere of responsibility. While the goals are set globally, implementation is done within organs of the executive which form vertical ‘silos’ or ‘wells’ (kolodtsy). In these Kolodtsy, ‘blame’drips downward towards the departmental or even regional level, and between ministries and other federal organs, hampering implementation quantity and quality.

Kudrin and his colleagues from the Center for Strategic Research are well aware of these issues. In one CSR paperfrom late 2016, analysts found that previous key strategic documents such as Strategy 2010 or Strategy 2020 have been implemented by just 30-40%. Under electoral authoritarianism, strategic documents are therefore not so much about achieving the goals stipulated in the documents, but about formalizing vertical monitoring and mechanisms of control. If taken seriously, seemingly meritocratic competitions such as ‘Leaders of Russia’ would actually undermine this form of bureaucratic control. Therefore, with the victory of the cohort of ‘mentors’ within the new Medvedev government, the crouching in the status quo seems to be the main implicit goal for the ‘Russian tiger.’

A version of this article was originally published by Riddle.

Selena Grimaldi – The institutional rift and Mattarella’s presidential activism

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

Since the election on March 4th Italy has been unable to form a government. This delay was exceeded during the so-called First Republic on only 4 occasions, mainly during the so-called ‘years of lead’ under the following governments: Cossiga I in 1979, Andreotti II in 1972, Craxi I in 1983, Andreotti III in 1976.

At the election, the M5S won 32.7% of the vote and the League won 17.4%. At the beginning, the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, tried to convince the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, to accept a coalition with all the parties of the centre-right coalition that had run together on 4th March winning 37% of the vote overall. However, Di Maio strongly rejected this proposal, since his electoral base could not accept being in government with Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, who had been defined as “a criminal” by the M5S from the beginning. As a consequence, Salvini decided to abandon his former electoral partners, namely Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right party, Italian Brothers, in an attempt to form a yellow-green government. Even though, most of the time seems to have been spent in defining points of common agreement between Salvini and Di Maio, there is no doubt that the two young leaders were also concerned with the ministerial nominees to be presented to President Mattarella.

As far as the coalition-agreement (the so-called contratto di governo, or coalition contract) is concerned, many analysts have suggested that agreement was difficult to reach both because the parties had mutually exclusive or ambiguous positions and because of the lack of financial detail in their programmes. In addition, many of the proposed points seemed to be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, President Sergio Mattarella decided not to comment, probably leaving himself the opportunity to intervene later by using his veto powers on a specific piece of legislation. This behavior seems to suggest that Matterella was trying to avoid any institutional rift and was trying hard not to hinder the formation of a yellow-green government.

As far as the ministerial nominees are concerned, the first big decision was that neither Di Maio nor Salvini would become PM. This meant that the two leaders had to try to find a candidate who would be acceptable to both. The name circulating since last week was that of Giuseppe Conte, an unknown law professor without any political experience. Despite some doubts, President Mattarella agreed to charge Professor Conte with formal powers on May 23rd. In so doing he highlighted the fact that the PM should not be seen as a puppet of the party leaders. In fact, during his meeting with Di Maio and Salvini, the President explicitly underlined this point and ended up reminding them of Article 95 of the Constitution, which states: “The President of the Council conducts and holds responsibility for the general policy of the Government. The President of the Council ensures the coherence of political and administrative policies, by promoting and co-ordinating the activity of the Ministers”.

Another important aspect to point out is that President Mattarella, as he explicitly noted in a subsequent public statement, had previously advised both Salvini and Di Maio, as well as Conte, that he would pay particularly close attention to the nominees of three Ministries: the Economy, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. Even though many analysts pointed out that some of the candidates proposed by the two parties were extremely weak – for instance, the Italian ambassador to Teheran, Luca Giansanti, as Minister of Foreign Affairs or Alfonso Bonafede (M5s) as Minister of Justice – the President decided not to oppose them. However, the biggest obstacle was the nomination of Paolo Savona as Minister of the Economy. The problem with Savona, who was strongly supported by Salvini, was his critical approach to the Euro and Italian membership to the EU. Even though the two political forces may have different ideas on this issue, for President Mattarella Europe was not a matter of political opinion. It is worth noting that Italy’s European membership has been constitutionalized (see especially Articles 11, 81 and 117 of the Constitution) and, thus, the President as the Guarantor of the Constitution has no choice but to defend this framework. Moreover, as the President pointed out, Savona’s nomination would most likely have a dangerous impact on the markets and put citizens’ savings at risk.

For all these reasons, Mattarella was hoping to convince Salvini to change his mind about Savona and tried to restore a more collaborative working relationship by making it clear that he would accept Giancarlo Giorgetti, the number 2 of the League, Minister of the Economy. However, Salvini tried to put the President in a corner, by stating that it would have to be Savona, or no government at all.

It is hard to know whether Salvini thought that Mattarella would back down or if he planned this strategy in advance so as to make new elections the only possible option. The result is that, now, there is no chance of a political yellow-green government and there is a dangerous institutional crisis.

The first reactions to Matterella’s decision have focused on the interpretation of the article 92.2 of the Constitution, according to which “The President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers and, on his proposal, the Ministers”. Many jurists have pointed out that the President plays an active and not simply a ceremonial role in government formation. In other words, it is impossible to sustain the idea that the President is always obliged to appoint ministers proposed by the PM. Further, looking at political practice, there are many examples of ministers who have been supported by or stopped by Presidents, e.g. President Scalfaro’s opposition to Previti as Minister of Justice in the Berlusconi 1 government, and President Ciampi’s support of Ruggiero as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Berlusconi’ III government. Going back to the so-called First Republic, President Pertini obliged the prime ministerial candidate designated by the DC (Andreotti V) to be flanked by two deputy Prime Ministers (Ugo La Malfa and Saragat). In short, it seems impossible to invoke the impeachment of the President under Article 90 of the Constitution.

However, many political forces have called for the president to be impeached, including the leader of Italian Brothers, Giorgia Meloni, and the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio. To date, the impeachment procedure has never been applied. In the case of President Leone, the political parties only threatened impeachment in order to force him to resign over the Lockheed affair. Many years later, it was clear that Leone had no involvement in the affair. The impeachment procedure was also activated against President Cossiga (especially at the behest of the PDS and the Radicals) and President Napolitano (at the behest of M5S), but in both cases Parliament did not take the issue further.

Therefore, what I predicted would happen immediately after Mattarella’s election, did actually happen yesterday: even the most self-restrained President may become active in the political arena under certain conditions. In particular, President Mattarella decided to hinder the appointment of Savona as Minister of Economy in order to respect his constitutional duties, as well as to avoid economic instability. Consistent with this line, Mattarella instructed the economist Carlo Cottarelli to form a presidential government, even though it is unlikely that he will obtain the confidence of the Parliament.

There is no doubt that a number of political problems will emerge from this situation.

The first relates to the so-called populist forces, which are likely to obtain a huge amount of support at the next election. In fact, both the League and the M5s have already started a campaign, accusing the President of being manipulated by the EU, bankers and certain foreign countries (especially Germany and France). These allegations seem to have already found some popular support with certain allies. Further, these forces have managed not to be held accountable for their electoral promises, and especially for showing where they would found the money required to pay for them. Thus, until the next election, no-one can blame them for any failure. Finally, Salvini is certainly the winner of this institutional rift and is likely to emerge as the most prominent figure of the Italian right, pushing Berlusconi aside once and for all and ending any residual centrist position.

The second political problem – as pointed out in my previous post – is related to the fact that neither the League nor the M5S has fully recognized the authority of this President from the very beginning, since they did not vote for him in 2015. Therefore, they may claim that Mattarella is acting as the President of the majority who elected him, namely the PD and other centrist forces. These allegations may contribute to delegitimize the Presidency as a whole as well as this particular President, since the President is meant to represent the whole nation.

The third political problem is that President Mattarella’s media strategy makes him appear remote from the citizens and consequently he cannot count on any huge popular support. In fact, according to Demos & PI, Mattarella is trusted only by 46% of citizens (data from 2017) with a drop of 3 points in comparison to 2016 and a decrease of 10 points in comparison with 2007 when Napolitano held the office. In the past, popular support has proved to be very important in the construction of the leadership capital of Italian Presidents and could have been crucial this time too.

Finally, the real political drama is that the distorted concept of democracy supported by both the M5S and the League (i.e. what counts is the will of the majority) seems to be resonating more with Italian citizens than Mattarella’s idea of checks and balances to protect minorities.

Poland – President Duda pushes forward with constitutional referendum idea

Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.

President Andrzej Duda (middle) attends a sitting the Polish Senate – image via wikimedia commons

Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.

The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.

Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.

The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.

Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.

Ukraine – Ex-Presidents and their Legal Troubles

A few weeks ago, on the pages of this blog, we posted an article about Peru’s ex-presidents and their legal troubles. Today, we continue the series with a follow up on Ukraine and ex-presidents’ troubles there.

In March 2018, EU prolonged sanctions against the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates, including President’s son, two former Prime Ministers, and Yanukovych’s chief of staff. EU accused the former President and his inner circle of misappropriation of state funds and froze their assets shortly after the president fled the country in February 2014. Estimated to be tens of billions of dollars, access to funds was blocked on the territories of 8 EU countries.

Yanukovych successfully challenged the sanctions during their first year, from March 2014 to March 2015, as EU did not have enough evidence of embezzlement at the time. However, the sanctions were re-instated starting from March 2015, followed by a recent extension for another year, until March 2019. Yanukovych and his son filed appeals in 2016 and 2017 to be taken off the EU sanctions listing. Both appeals have been dismissed and sanctions were upheld. Nonetheless, the President and his son continue to maintain their innocence and deny any involvement in corruption or other wrongdoings.

In the meantime, the court hearing for Yanukovych’s treason case in Ukraine also continues. The trial started a year ago, in May 2017. The ex-president is charged with state treason. The punishment ranges from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment. The current President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, was called to testify in February 2018. However, his testimony  ended prematurely as the judge accused the lawyers of the defense of intentionally asking questions unrelated to the criminal investigation. And in the latest development, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, requested to testify in the case. However, due to fear of persecution, he agreed to appear in court only via a video conference. It is estimated that the investigation and trial will go on for several years.

Despite all the corruption problems in Ukraine, Yanukovych is the only president currently either on trial or on the run. That said, another ex-President, Leonid Kuchma, has experienced his fair share of legal troubles. In addition to being accused of corruption and vote-rigging, in 2011 he was indicted by court for his alleged involvement in the 2000 murder of a Ukrainian journalist. However, Kuchma managed to rehabilitate his image and turned into a respected diplomat in 2015, helping Ukraine negotiate during the crisis with Russia.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has been quoted saying that every Ukrainian president is worse than his predecessor. This may explain the low trust Ukrainians have in the executive office and their readiness to go to the streets to demand responsible politics. With the upcoming election next year, the Ukrainians surely hope that the current president will prove Zbigniew Brzezinski wrong.

France – President Macron’s European Window of Opportunity: Double or Quits?

On the first anniversary of his election as President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron can make a credible claim to have imposed a new style and rhythm on French politics: characterized by a vertical chain of command, a distrust of intermediaries (parties, trade unions, interests) between the President and the People; a robust form of political expression, based on an explicit rejection of left and right and organized political parties, and a routine dismissal of the ‘old world’. The enterprise has encountered a measure of domestic success, it we are to believe Macron’s poll ratings after one year in office (more popular in various surveys at this stage than Sarkozy or Hollande). The drive to reform France domestically during the first year has, in part, been a function of restoring the country’s good name on the European level, by demonstrating the capacity to undertake reforms, to withstand the street and to overcome the usual veto players (the railway strikes are particularly symbolic in this respect). The claim that ‘France is back’ requires the nation getting its own house in order. From the outset, there has been an explicit linkage between domestic and European politics. But are domestic styles and remedies transferable to the European scene? The first year of Macron’s presidency is rather inconclusive in this respect.

That Macron has made an impact is not open to doubt. In recognition of his contribution to the ideal of European Union, he was awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize in May 2018, the first French president to have been thus honored since, in 1988, former President Mitterrand and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl were joint recipients of the award. The Charlemagne Prize was awarded mainly in recognition of the 2017 campaign itself, where Macron had been the only candidate explicitly endorsing enhanced European integration. Through his election in May 2017, Macron was widely credited with stemming the rise of populism after the Brexit referendum, at a critical juncture in European history – shortly before Germany, Austria and Italy would each in their own way call into question the reality of a new European consensus. Be that as it may, Macron’s activism in favour of a new European deal contrasted very starkly with the inaction of predecessors Chirac (after the 2005 referendum defeat), Sarkozy and Hollande. Macron’s European vision was articulated in four key speeches: at the Acropolis in Athens in August 2017, at the Sorbonne University, Paris, in September 2017, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and at Aix-la-Chapelle (Germany) in May 2018.

As in domestic politics, once elected President Macron enjoyed a seemingly favourable concatenation of circumstances in Europe. Quite apart from the moral credit of being elected as the only explicitly pro-European candidate in the French presidential election, Macron’s capacity to articulate a European vision contrasted with that of France’s main neighbors and partners. The self-exile of the UK via the BREXIT process presents challenges and opportunities for France, but in the short run it removed a competitor, notably in the field of European security and defense policy. Macron’s dynamic leadership contrasted with the running out of steam of that of Chancellor Merkel, with the Federal elections of September 2017 being followed by five months of coalition bargaining before a chastened CDU-CSU alliance finally agreed to renew its coalition agreement with the SPD. In some respects, the withering of Angela Merkel, after over a decade of uncontested European leadership, presents challenges for Macron but it also allows the French President to re-claim to a certain leadership role in Europe. The traditional Mediterranean countries that looked to France for leadership, or at least alliance – Spain and Italy – were both in a state of stasis (Rajoy confronted with the Catalan crisis in Spain; Italy having to manage the inconclusive election of March 2018, marked by the rise of the League and the 5 Star movement). Both countries were ill-placed to launch European initiatives. At the same time, the hardening of relations with several of the countries of central and eastern Europe – though dangerous in some respects – provided Macron with an opportunity to deliver on one of his domestic commitments (the reform of the posted workers directive). In this confused European context, Macron diagnosed a window of opportunity for European reform in a manner consistent with French preferences.

His European vision was central to his speech at the Sorbonne (September 26th 2017), renewing with a repertory not really seen since Mitterrand in the 1980s and early 1990s. In his Sorbonne speech, the French President called for a European relaunch, characterized by: a more integrated foreign, security and defense policy; more EU-wide defense procurement; measures to tackle the democratic deficit at the EU level (reforms of the European parliament, the introduction of EU-wide constituencies for the European elections; a new democratic dialogue across Europe); procedures for differentiated integration, where groups of member-states could engage in ‘enhanced cooperation’ in specific areas; and a Europe that ‘protects’ its citizens (reforms of the posted workers’ directive) and its industries (from Chinese assault, notably). The most ambitious EU proposals related to the governance of the euro-zone. Macron argued in favour of the creation of a Euro-zone Super-minister, with a separate dedicated budget, and the transformation of the European Security Mechanism into a fully pledged European Monetary Fund, all to be supervised by a new Euro-zone parliament. These positions were a powerful restatement of French preferences: namely, to ensure political supervision of the governing mechanisms for the euro (the Super-minister), to facilitate transfers from richer countries (especially Germany) to poorer ones, in the name of economic convergence and solidarity, and to endow the EU with new fiscal resources. Macron’s European en même temps reconciled a staunch belief in the merits of European integration with a recognition that it was essential to renew the citizenship compact after a tough decade of economic reform. The substance of the new European grand bargain reflected French preferences in other fields also. His call for there to be a Europe-wide consultative process – the EU conventions, modelled on his own practice (les marcheurs) – was given a polite reception in Brussels and in most European countries.

Ultimately, the limits of the Macron enterprise lay in the need to build the necessary coalitions (first and foremost with Merkel) and to demonstrate the economic success of the French model. In a rather predictable construction, Macron looked to the Franco-German relationship to assume a central role; the terms of which tied the success of the window of opportunity to developments in Germany, France’s main political partner, though figures published recently saw France retroceding to the 4th place in terms of economic exchanges with Germany. For months, the Macron proposals were met with a constrained, polite silence from Germany. After the German elections of September 2017, the CDU-CSU-SPD coalition agreement which eventually emerged (in March 2018) was potentially more favorable to Macron’s grand bargain than the alternative failed Jamaica coalition (the CDU, CSU, FPD and the Greens).

The reception of the Macron agenda in Brussels and other EU capitals has been mixed. The CDU-SPD coalition agreement, published in March 2018, did not mention the Euro-zone minister. It soon became apparent that the temperature in the new Merkel-led coalition was lukewarm to the French proposals. It is difficult to see the Germans allowing further mutualisation of euro-debts, or agreeing to more fiscal transfers within the Euro-zone – and even completing the banking union is fraught with angst. In the context of the rise of the AFD in 2017, the Germans have other priorities: ensuring more pan-European solidarity in relation to migration and refugees in particular. Moreover, the new German coalition is divided on issues of European solidarity and a more integrated EU defense policy, matters of great concern to French President Macron. Macron’s call for there to be EU wide lists for elections to the European parliament was specifically rejected by the European parliament. His proposal for creating a euro-zone parliament, which echoed that of his predecessor Hollande, faced hostility from Berlin, as well as from the European Commission, for whom the European parliament already provides a democratic oversight of EU institutions. And his call for a separate budgetary chapter for the euro-zone economies – if understandably well received amongst the euro-zone ‘sinners’ in southern Europe – provoked eight northern EU states led by the Netherlands to publish their own rebuttal of the roadmap and to restate the importance of respecting the rules of euro membership.

Does this episode demonstrate the victory of style over substance? Such a judgement would be a harsh one. At the very least Macron has restored France’s seat at the table; there has been a credible restatement of the Franco-German relationship and its role in driving major new policy initiatives (the ‘roadmap’ agreed by Macron and Merkel in March 2018). The real issues are now being played out. The European Commission’s draft budgetary perspectives 2021-2027 – represent a direct challenge to traditional French priorities in agriculture – by advocating cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy. The proposed creation of a modest budgetary line for the euro-zone would appear to fall well short of Macron’s proposals for a very substantial budget to oversee transfers to the poorer Eurozone members as a measure of solidarity. Macron’s European credibility will be tested in the European council meeting of June 28th and 29th, the last meaningful occasion to provoke a European awakening before the 2019 European elections. Whatever the outcome this summit being billed as historic, there are obvious questions to be asked in relation to the goodness of fit between domestic and European leadership styles. There is arguably no office more capable of expressing an idealistic European vision than that of the French presidency, especially as personified by Emmanuel Macron. Rather paradoxically, however, the ‘vision thing’ might appear as counter-productive in European arenas, insofar as a holistic and non-negotiated vision has to confront the realities of EU bargaining and the continuing attraction of alternative narratives of the future of Europe.

Estonia – Reforming the presidential election: A neverending story?

Estonia has debated the way in which the presidency should be elected since its creation by the constitutional convention in 1991-1992, After several unsuccessful initiatives and cosmetic changes throughout the years, the failure to elect a president in 5 rounds of voting in 2016 finally appears to have given the reformers sufficient momentum. Nevertheless, to date neither the new system nor the way it will be introduced is clear and there is still a minor chance the process will come to naught, thus continuing the ‘neverending story’ of presidential election reform in Estonia.

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

The Estonian constitutional assembly debated the presidency at length. After many drafts for the new constitution included a powerful and popularly elected presidency, the assembly eventually chose a strongly parliamentarian draft that included an indirect presidential election by parliament and an electoral college. To appease the public and some critics of the constitution, the first presidential election was however held by semi-popular vote: The public voted on candidates in the first round and the Riigikogu (the unicameral parliament) then decided between the two frontrunners. Since 1996, Estonian presidents have been elected through an entirely indirect process. There are three rounds of voting in the Riigikogu in which an absolute two-thirds majority (68/101 deputies) is required to elect a president (n.b. the third round just includes the two frontrunners from the second round). Failing that, the election is handed to the Valimiskogu (electoral college) consisting of the 101 members of the Riigikogu and roughly 2.3 times as many representatives of local councils (sending 1-10 councillors each based on population size). The Valimiskogu then has two rounds to elect a winner with an absolute majority. Thereby, the first round automatically includes the candidates from the third round in the Riigikogu and can include newly nominated candidates; the second round once again only includes the two frontrunners.

Since the constitutional assembly, there has been sizeable support in the Estonian population to introduce popular elections. Former presidents Lennart Meri (1993-2001) and Arnold Rüütel (2001-2006) called for popular elections and proposals were floated again and again. However, they were never supported by a majority of parties and were regularly voted down or shelved given more pressing political problems. One of the most important factors in this appears to be politicians’ idea of Estonia as a parliamentary republic which would be thrown out of balance by introducing a popularly elected president. To date, the only successful change to presidential election procedures happened in 2010, yet had little substantive effect. Up until then, local council did not follow a coherent set of rules when selecting their representatives for the Valimiskogu. The amendment supported by all parties bar the Centre Party (which stood to lose the most) now stipulated that there was only to be a single round of voting on the representatives. Officially, this was to ensure that larger parties would not be able to claim a disproportionate share of electors. Nevertheless, as only the city councils of Tartu and Tallinn send more than two electors (4 and 10, respectively), this was rather an attempt to curb the Centre Party’s traditionally large influence in these councils.

The failure to elect a successor for president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) in five rounds of voting – the election had to be handed back to the Riigikogu after voting in the Valimiskogu remained inconclusive – finally gave reformers sufficient momentum, albeit only in combination with an impending territorial reform that would reduce the number of local councillors by half if the current system was kept. However, two reform attempts were necessary to start the process. An initiative to introduce direct presidential elections with a two-round run-off was proposed by the Centre Party in early 2017 but was withdrawn soon after. Only after further negotiations between government parties were new proposals worked out and are currently debated in coalition working group.

Should a reform in fact take place, then a direct presidential election appears out of the question – despite the Centre Party’s insistence, its coalition partners just cannot be persuaded to even consider the proposal. Likewise, it appears that the ratio of local electors vs Riigikogu deputies will remain the same if not increase (ratios of 2:1 to 3:1 are currently debated). This would of course mean that local municipalities would send more electors than before – likely a minimum of two (instead of one). Furthermore, there seems to be more and more support to transfer the whole election to the Valimiskogu (only one out of five elections was completed in parliament in any case). The latter proposal was already once presented by president Lennart Meri in the late 1990s, yet was torn apart by media and politicians alike. The voting procedure, too, is likely to change – a preliminary draft foresees a maximum of five rounds of voting with the worst performing candidates being consecutively eliminated and a relative majority requirement in the last round (n.b. this is similar to the Latvian system).

These proposals for change go above and beyond the simpler solutions suggested after the 2016 election debacle, e.g. merely removing the absolute majority requirement from the last round of voting in the Riigikogu. Apart from the fact that all proposals are still at a draft stage (and include some controversial changes unrelated to the election procedure, e.g. a limitation of incumbency to a single seven-year term instead of two consecutive five-year terms), there are still some hurdles facing their implementation. An absolute majority of votes is necessary to the change the constitution and it is not guaranteed that the government coalition will be able to persuade the rest of the Riigikogu (including some of its own deputies) of the reform proposals. Furthermore, the presidential election law will need to amended as well. Thus, it remains to be seen whether there will be a substantive change after all or whether this will simply be another chapter in the neverending story that is presidential election reform in Estonia.

Turkey – First Concurrent General Elections under the New Presidential System

Concurrent presidential (first round) and legislative elections are to be held, one year earlier than the original date, on 24th of June, for the first time since the adoption of presidential system in a highly debated referendum in April 2017. A majority runoff system will be used for presidential election and the D’Hondt system with a 10 percent national threshold will be used for legislative elections.

There are two major election alliances. The ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its partner the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) formed an alliance called “Cumhur/Public”. The main opposition party, the CHP (the Republican Peoples Party), formed an alliance called “Millet/the Nation” with 3 other parties (İyi Parti/the Good Party, Saadet Partisi/the Happiness Party, Demokrat Parti/ the Democratic Party). The pro-Kurdish HDP (the Peoples Democracy Party) has not participated in any of the alliances so far but remains an important player despite the fact that its leaders and many of its MPs are currently in jail.

The ruling party and its partner favoured concurrent elections and changed the electoral rules in order to avoid divided government. According to the new system, each partner in an alliance needs to pass the ten percent national threshold if the total votes are higher than the threshold. This is a great incentive for smaller opposition parties to join an alliance to pass the national threshold in the legislative election. Each party can have their own list under the umbrella of an alliance. The total number of seats that each alliance gets will be decided by looking at their total votes. After the total numbers of seats are known, they will be distributed by party according to their portion in the total votes by the D’Hondt method. According to this system, the more votes remain under the threshold the larger the share of the biggest party within the total numbers. Accordingly, the main opposition party’s (the CHP) strategy to include other three opposition parties into the alliance aims to make the ruling party’s share more proportionate.

As for the effect of concurrent elections together with the majority runoff system generally, the results of legislative elections echo the results of the first round of presidential elections in presidential systems (1). Research shows that the majority run off system encourages a larger number of candidates at the first ballot in the attempt to gain a better bargaining position in coalition building at the second round as well as increasing the number of parties in the assembly (2). In that respect, the majority runoff system encourages coalitions before the election, especially before the second round (3). On the other hand, concurrent elections lower the effective number of parties in the assembly (4). Creating friendly majorities in assemblies still depends on the party system’s level of fragmentation (5). For instance, in a country where the political party system presents signs of polarised pluralism (6) (highly fragmented and ideologically polarised political parties) concurrent elections tend not to produce a solid majority in the parliament. The higher the level of fragmentation, the lower the possibility of a single party majority in the assembly. In such situations, presidents face uncompromising opposition in assemblies which can lead to a constitutional crisis such as in Guatemala and Peru in the 1990s (7). In both countries the presidents (Serrano and Fujimori respectively) ordered the military to close the assembly and arrest the opposition leaders. In Peru Fujimori succeeded whereas in Guatemala Serrano was abandoned by the military and removed from office. Either way the result was not supportive of democracy.

Concurrent elections can help to lower the possibility of divided government and strengthen elected presidents only under the right conditions, such as high popularity of a single strong presidential candidate. The Turkish case seems to confirm this general wisdom. The ruling party’s strategy is to win the much-needed support from its smaller partner in order to win the presidential race in the first round as well as alienating and pressuring the leaders and members of the HDP in order to push the party below the threshold in legislative elections. Meanwhile all the parties in the opposition alliance are running their own candidates in the first round of the presidential race and have decided to support whoever reaches the second round. Their strategy is to push the presidential election into a second round and win a majority of the assembly.

This situation encourages certain outcomes. First, there is the likely increase in the number of parties represented in the parliament. It is highly likely that President Erdoğan’s coalition will gain fewer assembly seats than at present and might even lose its majority in the assembly.

Secondly, there may be more coalitions under then presidential system than previously because of the majority runoff system. Despite the fact that President Erdoğan defended presidential system for not needing coalitions, he has been forced to form a coalition with the MHP in the first round. Whichever alliance wins, it is clear that there will be coalitions in both the legislature and the executive.

Thirdly, the pro-Kurdish HDP seems to be treated as an “anti-system party” (8). Its ideology has been alienated and it has a polarising effect on other electors. For that reason, other opposition parties have refrained from being in a coalition with it. However, the HDP may yet the key to victory for both alliances since the polls are showing a close race.

Notes

1. J. M. Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices on the Performance of Presidential Regimes.” Journal of Social Science and Philosophy 11, no.1 (1999), p. 97, and F. Nunes and M.F. Thies, “Inflation or Moderation? Presidential Runoffs Legislative Party Systems, and Coalitions.”, p.9 . Available at http://felipenunes.bol.ucla.edu/runoff.pdf, accessed 20 March 2015.

2.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p. 95; Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”, p. 8-9.

3. Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”,p. 26.

4.Ibid., p. 18.

5.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices” p.101.

6.G. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems a Framework for Analysis, ECPR Press, 2005 , p. 117-118.

7.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p.96.

8.Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, p. 118.

Armenia – In the wake of a colour revolution? Domestic and international context

April 2018 in Armenia was marked by massive grassroots protests, the resignation of the newly-nominated prime minister, and complex political negotiations.

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who formerly served as President for a decade, resigned on April 23, after 11 days of massive protests. While resigning, Sargsyan said: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” MP Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk Bloc, emerged as the undisputed leader of these recent protests. On May 1, the failure of the National Assembly to nominate Mr Pashinyan as provisional Prime Minister has led to a new wave of intensified protests.

While most analysts were surprised by the resignation of Sargsyan and the beginning of a new political process, elements of continuity can be observed, both at domestic and international level. First, the grassroots protests against Serzh Sargsyan’s extended term in office were sudden, but can be traced back to December 2015, when a controversial constitutional reform was approved. Second, while Russia has taken a non-interventionist stance, all actors involved are fully aware of the importance of the “big brother”.

Some protests? Business as usual! (or not?)

Armenia is a peculiar case in the post-Soviet space. While Freedom House classifies the country as a “partly-free regime”, Armenians have often taken to the streets against unpopular provisions, such as the increase in bus fares in 2013, the pension reform in 2014[1], and the increase in electricity prices in Summer 2015 (known as ‘Electric Yerevan’). Against this background, it is not surprising that people closely scrutinised the manoeuvring of their political leaders.

In December 2015, following a referendum, a constitutional reform was approved[2]. As a result, most executive prerogatives were transferred from the President to the Prime Minister. While the promoters of this reform repeatedly remarked that a parliamentary system would prompt the full democratisation of the country, the public debate focused on whether this reform was an ‘ad-hoc’ mechanism to extend the rule of (then) President Serzh Sargsyan, who was serving his second and last presidential mandate. Rather than ending after the referendum, these allegations were the subject of further discussion, notably at the parliamentary election in 2017. Throughout this time, Serzh Sargsyan assumed an ambiguous position, neither confirming nor denying his intention to stay in power. In March 2018, when Sargsyan’s transition to the premiership seemed almost certain, MP Nikol Pashinyan announced that massive protests would follow any such development. He said: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2018, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[3].”

On April 11, the ruling Republican Party (HHK) officially confirmed that Serzh Sargsyan would be nominated (and therefore elected) prime minister. While initially a limited number of people took to the streets, soon numbers added up, and thousands of people participated in the rallies, during which there were numerous clashes between the police and protesters. On April 22, after a meeting with the now prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan and some of his closest associates were taken into custody. However, Mr Pashinyan was released the following day and shortly after Prime minister Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation. As required by the law, the government resigned on the same day and first Deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, was named acting PM.

However, the rallies did not stop, as Mr Pashinyan, backed by numerous supporters, aimed to become the provisional prime minister, so to supervise the preparation of free and fair elections. It was feared the ruling party HHK would manipulate any transitional process, by using administrative resources to reconsolidate their power.

On May 1, due to the opposition of the Republican Party, Pashinyan failed to be elected provisional Prime Minister. As things stand, a new parliamentary debate has been scheduled for May 8. As per the Armenian constitution, if the National Assembly is again unable to select a premier, this impasse would automatically lead to the dissolution of the legislature and snap elections. As a reaction, Pashinyan called for ‘Nationwide Civil Disobedience’. In the words of Pashinyan: “The peaceful revolution goes on (…) We’re not going to let them steal our victory”.

Nikol Pashinyan’s background is particularly remarkable. While other status-quo challengers in the region, first and foremost former President of Georgia Saakashvili, were previously Cabinet members[4], Pashinyan used to be a political prisoner. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years for his role as an organiser in the anti-government protests of 2008. However, as a result of an amnesty, he was released the following year[5].

Big brother is (discretely) watching you

While the aforementioned dynamics are undisputedly domestic, all parties involved need to take into account the international environment, first and foremost Russia. As of 1999, Armenian foreign policy has been characterised by complementarity, which implies a diversified foreign policy within the leeway granted to it by Russia[6]. While some external observers have interpreted the protests as anti-Russian, Nikol Pashinyan, formerly known for his Russian-sceptic positions, has shown his awareness of the geopolitical constraints faced by his country.

When the protests started, some external observers said that they might be the prelude to an anti-Russian turn in Armenia. Former Georgian President Saakashvili, who framed the events as an anti-Russian uprising, unambiguously said that: “This is a very black day for Vladimir Putin. First, the West threatened him and imposed sanctions against him, hitting his oligarchs, and now they are squeezing the scope of his influence.” Similar comments were made by members of the Georgian parliamentary opposition[7]. Analogously, some Ukrainian media drew parallelisms between the current events in Armenia and the Maidan protests in 2014, which resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government[8]. For instance, journalist Ihor Solovey wrote that: “The street has won, and Russia has lost”, and therefore Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation should be understood as a “Russian foreign police failure[9].

Despite this reading of events, Russian officials clearly refrained from making an alarmist comments, as if to emphasise that the Kremlin was not planning to interfere. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists that Yerevan was: “Not going down the path of destabilisation“. Additionally, he specified that Russia hoped for: “Consensus among all the forces representing the Armenian people“. Similarly, Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, praised Armenia on Facebook for: “Not becoming divided, and maintaining respect for one another, despite definite disagreements“. Looking at the media coverage, Kremlin-friendly channels mostly ignored the events in Armenia until the resignation of Prime Minister Sargsyan and after that they commented on the festive attitude at the rallies. In some cases, it was openly said that the happenings in Yerevan were something completely different from Maidan[10].

This conciliatory attitude by Russia must not be confused with lack of interest. Russian officials and politicians made sure to keep their channels open with all the parties involved. On April 25, Putin had a conversation with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. The same week, while Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian met his Russian counterpart Lavrov, another meeting took place between some Russian diplomats and Nikol Pashinyan, who understands very well that a successful transition cannot happen without Russian support.

Previously, Nikol Pashinyan and his Yelk Bloc adopted clear Russo-sceptic positions. Notably, in Autumn 2017, they proposed a legislative initiative to the Armenian National Assembly which would have created a commission on withdrawal of Armenia from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to Pashinyan, membership in the EEU harmed the growth of Armenia, as it restricted its opportunities for international trade[11].  Additionally, he also made security-related considerations, calling the deepening military ties between Armenia and Russia “humiliating”, just at the Kremlin was also reinforcing its military-strategic cooperation with hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan[12].

Despite these unequivocal declarations, the prospect of becoming Prime Minister has made Pashinyan play down his former Russo-sceptic attitude[13]. In the immediate aftermath of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Pashinyan made it clear that the revolution was a domestic affair and that there was no geopolitical reversal on the agenda. Thus, during a press conference on April 24, Pashinyan declared that:  “We’re not going to make any sharp geopolitical movements. We’re going to do everything in the interests of Armenia“.  This point was made again, and emphasised, during a rally in Gyumry (April 27), where a Russian military base is located. On that occasion, Pashinyan bluntly said that: “We are no enemies to Russia,” and that he would not take Armenia “down the path of unwise [decisions] and adventures.”

Notes

[1] Loda, C., 2017. The European Union as a normative power: the case of Armenia. East European Politics33(2), pp.275-290.

[2] This blog has covered the constitutional reform as of 2015, analysing its detailsthe pre-vote dynamics, and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian pundit eyes reasons, future of ‘velvet revolution’”, April 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] ARMINFO News Agency. 2011. “Nikol Pashinyan released”, 28 May (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University), p. 3.

[7] However, other Georgian politicians spoke about the importance to maintain good relations with Armenia, regardless of the recent development [BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. “Some in Georgia see Armenian developments as blow to Russia”, April 24 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[8] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[9] BBC Monitoring Kiev Unit. 2018. “Ukrainian media hail victory of ‘Armenian Maidan’”, 24 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[11] “Armenian National Assembly discusses legislative initiative on withdrawal from EEU”, 3 October (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Hot debates in Armenian Parliament over creating the United Group of Armenian-Russian troops: Block Yelk considers the document humiliating and “vassal””, 4 October (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[13] Providing a full account of the Russo-Armenian relationship/dependency goes beyond the scope of this post. For more insights, refer to: Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University),