Category Archives: Europe

Ukrainian Presidents and NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

Russia – Putin Wins! Engineering an Election without Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hungary – Legislative vetoes by president Áder: Irrelevant activism?

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

Hungarian president Janos Áder – image via wikimedia commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France – Emmanuel Macron as the new ‘fast’ president

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setup

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

Boosting turnout to convey strength

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

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

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

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

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

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

Election monitoring

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

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

Constitutional politics and presidential power

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latvia – President Vējonis uses suspensive veto power for the 11th time

Latvia is a parliamentary democracy. Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the President. The President of Latvia is Raimonds Vējonis, who was elected in July 2015 for a four-year term.

One of the president’s legislative powers is to require the parliament to reconsider a law (suspensive veto power). Within ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima, the president can require it be reconsidered. If the Saeima passes the law again without amending it, the President cannot then raise an objection a second time. Should, though, the Saeima, by not less than a two-thirds majority vote, determine a law to be urgent, the President cannot request the reconsideration of a law, it may not be submitted to national referendum, and the adopted law shall be proclaimed no later than the third day after the President has received it [1].

President Raimonds Vējonis has used his suspensive veto power 11 times since being elected in July 2015. This is from a total of 654 laws and amendments, including laws determined as urgent, that have been proclaimed from July 8, 2015 until March 6, 2018.

In Latvia there is a standard procedure that the president’s request should be returned to parliament within a period of ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima. If the President, in accordance with the provisions of Article 71 of the Constitution of Latvia (Satversme), has requested a law be reconsidered, the Saeima at its next sitting, without holding a debate, forwards the President’s reasoned objections to the responsible committee and to other committees and sets the deadline by which proposals may be submitted and the law reconsidered [2]. When the law is being reconsidered, only the objections raised by the President and the proposals related to these objections are considered. When the law has been passed by the Saeima, the President signs it not earlier than the tenth day and not later than the twenty-first day after the law has been adopted.

During the Presidency of Raimonds Vējonis these procedures have been taken into account. Laws have been passed to the responsible commission within 5 to 13 days of the President’s request. In two cases, laws were then reconsidered within 18, 19 days, in four cases within just over a one month, in two cases it took two months, two cases were reconsidered three to four months, and the latest one, requested on February 9, is still in process.

Eleven written and reasoned requests [3] regarded amendments to laws:

  1. Amendments to the Electronic Media Law were prepared by a Saeima commission.  The  Saeima overrode the President’s request.
  2. Amendments to the Immigration Law were prepared by MPs. Amendments were partly accepted by the Saeima.
  3. Amendments to the Marine Code were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  4. Amendments to the Microenterprise Tax Law were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  5. Amendments to the Law “On Land Privatization in Rural Areas” were prepared by a Saeima commission. Amendments were partly accepted by Saeima.
  6. Amendments to the Alcoholic Beverages Circulation Law were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  7. Amendments to the Law on Credit Institutions were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima overrode the President’s request.
  8. Amendments to the Law on State Administration Structure were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  9. Amendments to the Law on Financial Instruments Market were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  10. Amendments to the Law “On Judicial Power” were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  11. Amendments to the Public Procurement Law were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima will evaluate the request on April 19, 2018.

This leads to a conclusion of the importance of cooperation between the President and Parliament. The more the president influences decision-making during the legislative process, the less the President needs to use a suspensive veto.

References:

[1] Constitution of Latvia, Satversme. 1922. (with amendments)

[2] Rules of procedure of Saeima. 1994. (with amendments) Article 115.

[3] President’s Raimonds Vējonis written and reasoned requests, 2015–2018. https://www.president.lv/lv/darbibas-jomas/likumdosanas-un-tiesibu-akti/otrreizejai-caurlukosanai-nodotie-likumi

Slovakia – With President Kiska and possibly also Prime Minister Fico gone, politics may be on the verge of a major change

They faced each other in the runoff in the 2014 presidential elections. They occasionally exchanged critical remarks and engaged in a bitter dispute in late 2017 over the perks of the presidential office and the policy record of the country’s coalition government. Now, Slovak media are extensively reporting that President Andrej Kiska and Prime Minister Robert Fico may be getting closer to a deal that would effectively mean their departure from Slovak politics.

When Andrej Kiska, a political novice with no previous experience of elected office, ran for the presidency in 2014, even his supporters acknowledged that his inexperience was his main weakness. His opponents, including Prime Minister Fico himself, tried to exploit the issue in the campaign. Nevertheless, Slovak voters elected him to the office with overwhelming support. Four years later, they do not seem to regret their choice: Kiska has been the country’s most trusted politician, largely abstaining from the heat of everyday politics. There were rumours that Kiska would set up his own political party and contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for Spring 2020. Last year, Kiska ruled out such a possibility. He also stated that he had not decided whether to run for a second five-year term as President. Throughout February 2018, various media outlets claim Kiska has made up his mind and will not seek re-election.

People close to the president, quoted by the media under the condition of anonymity, cite Kiska’s desire to spend more time with his family as the main reason. While the President spends most of his time in Bratislava, his family lives in Poprad in northern Slovakia. Some people suggest that he dislikes day-to-day political struggles, including his exchanges with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, an unpopular but powerful player and an undisputed No. 2 in Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy Party (Smer-SD). For over a year, Kaliňák has criticized President for using a government plane for weekend flights to his family. The President insisted he had used the plane at the Interior Minister’s request since the pilots had logged too few flying hours. Last April, the President stopped flying and has used a car ever since. Kaliňák even claimed his ministry sent an invoice to the president to pay for the service but it turned out no invoice was ever sent. In any case, it would have no legal basis since the president was entitled to use the plane throughout his term.

Since the beginning of the year, the President has met separately with the leaders of all relevant political parties (with the exception of the neo-Nazi People’s Party-Our Slovakia). While most of them declined to comment on the content of what was said, at least three opposition politicians did indirectly confirm that the president told them he would not run again and instead advised them to start searching for their own candidates. Leaders of two main opposition parties recently announced they already had suitable candidates should President Kiska not seek re-election.

Representatives of the governing parties were considerably less open to sharing details of their meetings with President. Several media outlets reported that Prime Minister Fico approached the President with the idea that he would step down as the Prime Minister, should Kiska appoint him to lead the Constitutional Court. In February 2019, a twelve-year term will expire for nine of the thirteen judges of the constitutional court, including the present Chairwomen. As specified in the Constitution, the Parliament will have to elect 18 candidates for the top court, and the president will have to choose nine. The resignation of the Prime Minister would automatically mean the entire cabinet must step down. Fico is said to have suggested to the President that Interior Minister Kaliňák would not need to be in the new cabinet. That would meet President’s earlier demands that Kaliňák should not hold any ministerial post, given his damaged reputation.

Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has commented on these reports. The scenario, however, was confirmed to the media by several well-informed sources in the Smer-SD party. The President’s spokespersons reiterated that Kiska would make his decision public by the end of September at the latest, but admitted it may be announced as early as March. The Prime Minister’s Office stated that Fico planned to lead his party into the 2020 parliamentary elections.

There is a general perception that should he run, Kiska would easily win a second term. If he really decides not to run again, the election outcome would be wholly unpredictable. For their part, the governing parties face grave difficulties in finding viable presidential candidates. While potential candidates of the two junior parties have little chance of winning, Smer-SD, as the most successful party of the last decade, is expected to field a strong contender. However, with Robert Fico vigorously ruling out another presidential bid, there are no obvious candidates to represent the party in the presidential contest. Miroslav Lajčák, a respected Foreign Minister who currently chairs the UN Parliamentary Assembly, stated in an interview that he would not run for the presidency. Maroš Ševčovič, another career diplomat, who is one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Commission, also hesitantly denied any presidential ambitions, even though many in his party believe he may eventually run.

Fico’s possible departure from national politics would be a litmus test for his Smer-SD’s ability to adapt to new conditions. He has been his party’s main asset and few observers believe there is a politician of comparable talent ready to replace him at the party’s helm. Kiska’s retirement may not have a direct impact on the party political scene, but it would open the possibility of a new (non-party) president with a potential to bring new dynamics into intra-executive relations.

Romania – An Underused Presidency?

Can the president of a semi-presidential republic build a politically independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament? The question continues to instil both scholarly and general interest debates. Recent political developments in Romania have once again brought to the public eye the matter of whether a president can actively and constructively contribute to government formation, the policy making process and agenda setting. And should s/he do so? In the present text I discuss what tools the current president has chosen to use from his ‘toolbox’, and what he stays away from.

  1. The Newest Government Formation

On 29 January 2018, Iohannis nominated his third prime-minister from the Social Democrat Party (PSD) in the course of approximately one year. The exclusive prerogative of nominating the prime-minister shines a spotlight on the president. The government was once again formed without his own National Liberal Party (PNL), prolonging a period of cohabitation. His supportive part of the public expected the president to lead the opposition in extensive negotiations for an alternative government formation. However, he quickly accepted the proposal of the parliamentary majority. Bargaining duration was of one day only. Consequently, he not only contradicted public expectations, but also some of the most recent empirical studies claiming that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success (Savage, 2017; Anghel, 2017). For the time being, the president has chosen not to instrumentalize his constitutionally prescribed role in cabinet formation to influence its outcome.

Iohannis shows a loose connection to his party (PNL), from whose ranks expectations of support and leadership have always existed. The PNL itself has a weak performance in the role of the main opposition party, which could incentivize the president’s doubts regarding its coalition potential or ability to assume governance.  Coupled with what his supporters perceive as a disengagement from public life, this might bring into question the interest of the president in pursuing a second mandate.

  1. Veto Power

The president of Romania has the right to veto legislation on constitutional grounds by reference to the Constitutional Court or for any other grounds by returning the bill to parliament. MPs may repass a bill through ordinary majority, and the president cannot veto it a second time. The table below shows the number of times president Iohannis made use of this prerogative (see Koker, 2017 for a comparison with the veto use in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). The third column shows how many laws passed with his consent. When comparing figures, we could infer a working relationship between parliament and president, and a consensus oriented elite. Most of the laws sent back to parliament have actually undergone a process of re-examination and have not been repassed in their exact initial form.

The major source of tension between the president and the parliament is the set of laws on justice reform supported by the government and the majority of MPs. In the proposed bills, the president’s own institutional role in the anti-corruption fight has been watered down. Iohannis has constantly shown a different approach to the government’s plans and even joined street-protests against a government ordinance that would have decriminalised some forms of public office abuse. He is expected to use this ‘tool’ and veto the justice laws once they reach him for promulgation. This prospect, coupled with some anticipation of a severe societal backlash, has so far influenced the government’s actions and is delaying a resolution.

President Klaus Iohannis and PM Sorin Grindeanu (18/01/2017) Iohannis appeared unexpectedly during a cabinet meeting where an emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code was to be discussed. PhotoSource: A3 Press

The same issue related to anti-corruption prompted the president to use two more of his executive attributions: calling for national referenda and taking part in the cabinet sessions when matters related to national security or foreign policy are discussed. Iohannis successfully prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code by unexpectedly attending a would be decisive cabinet meeting in January 2017. He also announced his (unfulfilled) intention to call for a national referendum concerning this amnesty bill, should it not be withdrawn. Iohannis’s use of formal presidential ‘tools’, in the context of recurring mass street protests, has so far delayed the government’s plans to reform the justice laws.

  1. Informal Powers

Most investigations on the powers of the president in multi-party systems agree that the president has a formally more or less limited role, in accordance to the Constitution.  Scholars have so far provided few inquiries into the informal aspects of presidential authority. The few studies that exist are focused on the USA and showed how presidents rely on their electoral legitimacy and visibility to influence the policy process via their public positions and symbolic actions (Strauss and Sunstein, 1986; Ashley and Jarmer, 2016). We should expect it to be the case for any directly elected president, and expand our research agenda.

In the case of Romania, the president’s public appearances are an underused tool. He is reactive in his (e.g) public statements, does not engage in unscripted dialogue with media representatives and mostly limits his activities to technical or ceremonial appearances. His priorities appear locked in preserving the status quo in the justice system, and does not appear willing to set other directions to the public agenda and use his own electoral legitimacy to get people to think about new issues or believe in particular actions. Three years in his (five year) mandate, we could conclude that informal powers are not among his preferred tools of action.

Conclusion

When compared to years of presidential activism by former president Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014) and the symbiotic relationship he had with his Liberal-Democrat Party (PDL), we can conclude that the mandate of president Klaus Iohannis turned Romania away from a path of increased presidentialization (Samuels, Shugart 2010) and party presidentialization (Passarelli, 2015).

The present text acknowledges that formally, a major effect of the president on the political life is conditional on the inclusion of his or her own parliamentary party in the cabinet. Institutionally, he or she has a limited number of tools to use as effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the willingness of presidents to use informal powers (symbolic actions, visibility, leadership abilities, electoral legitimacy, and a working relation with their own party) may not also condition the final output. The use of informal powers by popularly elected presidents in presidential and semi-presidential systems[i] to affect government formation, policy making and agenda setting would benefit from further empirical research.


[i] This blog also suggested that even presidents who are not directly elected can make a constructive contribution in government formation. See the case of Germany.

Poland – Is the presidency going down the Hungarian path?

Over the last years, I have chronicled (and lamented) the descent of the Hungarian presidency  during the Orbán government from promising check-and-balance into political irrelevance. After an initial phase of constructive presidential activism in which incumbent Janos Áder used his powers in an attempt to improve legislation, he subsequently failed to criticise any of the government’s controversial reforms and used his veto power and right to request judicial review on fewer and fewer occasions. Three years after the election of a Law and Justice (PiS) president and government in Poland, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path. Despite the added legitimacy and independence through a direct electoral mandate, president Andrzej Duda has done little to balance the increasingly illiberal policies of the government. Although he has not remained entirely inactive, his activism is geared towards re-election and democratic window-dressing, rather than becoming a real check-and-balance.

Photo via prezydent.pl

When the 42 year-old MEP Andrzej Duda was elected president in May 2015, it was easy to portray him as little more than a puppet of PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. After the parliamentary election in the autumn of the same year produced an absolute majority for PiS (for which Kaczynski has as of yet not taken an official seat on the front bench), Duda was complicit in the unconstitutional appointment of several judges to the Constitutional Tribunal (having previously refused to swear in judges that had been originally – and legally – appointed) and failed to step in when the government subsequently refused to publish the Tribunal’s judgement on the unconstitutionality of these actions. Up until last summer, president Duda failed to condemn any of the reforms of the Polish government, which resulted in the European Union’s decision to trigger Article 7 (a formal warning an possibility of disciplinary procedures) in December 2017.

In July 2017 president Duda vetoed two controversial judicial reforms that would have given the government near complete control over the judiciary. Nevertheless, as I argued at the time, the vetoes were little more than democratic window-dressing and inevitable due to national and international pressure after it emerged that the Senate had passed bills in different versions than the lower chamber. Duda’s vetoes caused friction with the PiS government and then Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as a number of other co-partisans accused him of hampering ‚improvements’ to the country’s legal system. Nevertheless, it is without question that these reforms will reappear in other forms and Duda will sign them off. The vetoes can merely be seem as an attempt to ‚save face‘ and means to appease critical voters in a bid to secure re-election in 2020.

President Duda’s signature under the so-called Holocaust bill, a law that seeks to punish those who accuse Poland or Poles of complicity in the mass extermination of jews during WWII with up to three years in prison, shows the same pattern of self-interested activism. Duda signed the bill into law but also submitted the bill to the Constitutional Tribunal at the same time. Signing the bill will appease not only the core electorate of PiS but also a the majority of Poles who rightly object to the phrase ‘Polish death camps‘ that is still frequently used to label Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland (the country’s embassies still regularly intervene when the phrase is used in the media). Simultaneously sending the law to the Constitutional Tribunal should be seen as a signal to those voters who fear a limitation of free speech. Nevertheless, a decision from the Tribunal could take 1-2 years and with the law in force, the government can already use it to silence its critics – after the cleansing of public media from critical journalists, it becomes another tool to suppress free speech. Interestingly, the same tactic was used by president Lech Kaczynski (the twin brother of party leader and then Prime Minister Jaroslaw) during the PiS governments in 2005-2007 with the exception that the Constitutional Tribunal was not yet staffed with loyal judges (who are unlikely to pronounce the law unconstitutional).

Thus, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path, albeit with some variation. As Andrzej Duda needs public support to secure his re-election in 2020 he is more active (or at least more visibly) than his Hungarian colleague. Given the greater international attention paid to the situation in Poland compared to the one in Hungary (where the EU clearly failed to step in in time) and stronger domestic opposition, Duda also needs to be active to appease international and national critics. However, overall the Polish presidency is currently failing at its job as a check-and-balance on parliament and government. An altered parliamentary composition following the 2019 legislative elections or even a second term for Duda in 2020 may change the situation, yet for now we may need to declare a ‘presidency lost‘.