Category Archives: Europe

Romania – President postpones anti-corruption referendum

Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation between centre-right President Iohannis and PM Grindeanu of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) seems to contain all the key ingredients of high inter-executive conflict: a tense relationship between the president, the cabinet and the parliament fuelled by mass anti-government demonstrations, referendum threats, and the ever present warnings of presidential suspension.

For several weeks in January and February 2017, Romania has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1989. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest government plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions. The government maintained that the amnesty and pardon measures were necessary in order to get the Criminal Codes in line with recent Constitutional Court rulings, reduce prison overcrowding, and prevent sanctions from the European Court of Human Rights due to the poor quality of detention conditions. However, the avoidance of transparent public debate on such important issues and the use of nearly clandestine means to pass draft decrees were perceived as attempts to reverse the anti-corruption fight led by the country’s national anticorruption directorate (DNA) and its chief prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kövesi.

President Iohannis has played an active role during the protests. Since the beginning of his new cohabitation with a Social-Democratic government, the head of state singled out the continuation of the anti-corruption fight as one of his priorities for the rest of his term. Thus, as soon as the new ministers’ took office in early January, he warned them against trying to pass amnesty and pardon legislation that would potentially undermine Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. Then he prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree regarding the pardon of certain detainees and the amendments to the Penal Code by showing up unexpectedly at the cabinet meeting held on 18 January. The government’s plan to commute some sentences was also criticised by members of the judiciary, including the General Prosecutor and the Supreme Council of Magistracy (CSM).

On 22 January, the president joined protesters in Bucharest, who demanded that the government abandons the emergency ordinance and other plans to weaken the rule of law. Critics said his involvement in the protests was a flagrant violation of his constitutional role as a mediator between political actors. The following day, the head of state took another step forward in his confrontation with PM Grindeanu’s cabinet and announced his intention to put the government’s amnesty bill to referendum. Under Article 90 of the Romanian Constitution, the president can call a consultative referendum on a “matter of national interest”. The parliament needs to be consulted, but obtaining its approval is not mandatory. However, as the Constitution does not allow organising polls on fiscal matters, amnesty, or pardon, the referendum topic was transformed into the continuation of the fight against corruption and the integrity of the public office.

PSD leader and Chamber of Deputies Speaker Liviu Dragnea reacted by announcing that the government also plans to hold two new referendums in spring: one on the definition of traditional family, which would effectively translate into a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples; and the other one on removing immunity for elected officials, including the head of state. Proposals to hold the government and the president’s referendums on the same day were also made.

As it is known, the cabinet went ahead and adopted the controversial emergency ordinance 13 (OUG13) that decriminalised official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (€45,000) in a late-night session cabinet meeting on January 31. The decree also reduced penalties for corruption offences such as abuse of office, conflict of interest, and negligence at work. Following a week of mass anti-government protests that took place across the country on an unprecedented scale, the emergency ordinance was repealed on 5 February before it went into effect. Soon afterwards, the justice minister responsible for the decree stepped down as well. Nevertheless, some protests have continued since then because people are not convinced that the government has given up plans to free corrupted officials.

On 7 February, after the joint legal committees of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate gave a unanimous favourable opinion for the organisation of the referendum, President Iohannis reinforced his commitment to call the referendum as soon as the parliament provided a final response. However, since the parliament approved unanimously the referendum request on 13 February, the president has delayed giving details about the date or the referendum question. More recently, he announced that he has not abandoned the idea of the referendum, but he intends to use it as “insurance policy” in case the government attempts another attack on justice.

The decision to postpone the referendum is motivated by the fact that the street protests alone were successful in forcing the government to repeal the graft decree. In other words, calling the referendum now would be a wasted opportunity to hold the Social-Democrats accountable for an action that has already been reprimanded by the civil society. As the amendment of the Criminal Codes has moved into the parliamentary arena, the referendum threat could be better used as a bargaining tool to ward off future attempts to weaken the criminal law or attack key institutions of the judiciary like the DNA.

There is also the concern that, in the absence of a mobilising question, the referendum could fail because of low voter turnout. The participation threshold for the validation of a referendum has undergone several changes since 2007, when the first referendum to impeach President Băsescu was called. Currently, turnout must surpass 30% of the registered electorate and at least 25% of the votes must be valid for a referendum to be passed by the Constitutional Court.

Recent events suggest that new clashes between the government and the head of state on anti-corruption issues may be imminent. For example, the PSD leader of the legal committee in the Senate proposed several amendments to the pardon draft bill adopted by the Grindeanu cabinet that pardoned corruption crimes like passive and active bribery, influence peddling, and abuse of office. Under pressure from Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and his party leader Dragnea, the senator accepted to withdraw the controversial amendments but only after their debate in the committee. Similar attempts to weaken the anti-corruption legislation cannot be ruled out.

The new Justice Minister is also mounting pressure on the DNA chief prosecutor and the general prosecutor. His attack comes after a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court, which found that the DNA had gone beyond its duties in the investigation on how the government drafted and adopted the controversial OUG13. Moreover, according to the Court decision, the DNA disrupted the normal functioning of the Government and the relationships that must exist between the judicial, executive and legislative. Promptly, the Justice Minister promised to evaluate the activity of the anti-corruption directorate and the public ministry, going as far as to suggest that the general prosecutor Augustin Lazăr and the DNA head Codruţa Kövesi should step down before he makes a decision.

However, the removal of the general prosecutor and the DNA head from office cannot be attained without the president’s agreement, who is unlikely to co-operate on the matter. In fact, following the justice minister’s statement, the president declared himself satisfied with the activity of both chief prosecutors. Coincidently, though, a draft bill introduced by the Senate Speaker Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu that aims to change the system of key nominations in the judiciary is now under debate in the legal committee. While currently the head of state appoints and removes chief prosecutors on the proposal of the justice minister and the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), under the new law the appointment and removal of top prosecutors would be decided only by the CSM.

The ruling PSD-ALDE coalition might also entertain the option of suspending the president. The possibility was first evoked in December 2016, when President Iohannis turned down PSD’s first nomination of Sevil Shhaideh as prime minister without motivating his decision. Since then, the president recidivated and angered the leaders of the ruling coalition on a number of occasions – for example, when he showed up unexpectedly to chair the cabinet meeting on 18 January;  when he joined anti-government protesters; when he asked the CSM and the Ombudsman to notify the Constitutional Court about the conflict between the government and the judiciary and challenge the constitutionality of OUG13; and when he delivered a harsh speech in parliament on 7 February. Consequently, on 8 March, the parliament adopted a political declaration that accused President Iohannis and the CSM of “abuse of law” and “usurpation” of the parliament’s right to hold the government accountable. Both the president and the CSM had filed complaints to the Constitutional Court about OUG13 that were eventually dismissed by the Court. The parliament’s act does not have any immediate consequences, but it was interpreted as a way of putting pressure on the president and the judiciary and even as a first step towards suspending the president.

Thus, given the multitude of tactics that ruling Social-Democrats can deploy to get their way with passing the controversial changes to corruption laws through parliament, the president might not need to wait a long time before he decides to play the referendum card. The role that the opposition parties will play in this process remains to be seen. The National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) continue to be divided, searching for strong leaders and a clear vision of how to react to current events. The two parties were only able to co-operate in calling a no-confidence vote against PM Grindeanu’s cabinet, which was easily defeated on 8 February. Both parties will be electing their leadership in the national congresses that will take place in May (USR) and June (PNL). In the meantime, former PM Dacian Cioloş has taken the first step towards establishing a new political party and seems to have abandoned plans to join either PNL or USR.

Presidential Profile – Andrej Kiska, president of Slovakia (06/2014-present)

Slovak President Andrej Kiska in National Council | photo via prezident.sk

Andrej Kiska assumed office as the 4th president of Slovakia on 15 June 2014 following a surprise victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico. To this date, Kiska – who has never held membership in any political party – has remained remarkable true to the mantra of his electoral campaign: ‘The first independent president’. Yet, there are a number of other characteristics that make Kiska an interesting president for analysis. Kiska’s Czech counterpart, populist (and nominally left-wing) Miloš Zeman might have received considerably more attention due to controversial statements and label as a European version of Donald Trump (and has thus also had his fair share of coverage on this blog). Nevertheless, Kiska – a politically conservative former businessman who has so far refrained from using any populist rhetoric and steered clear of collusion of interest – arguably provides an equally fitting and timely point of analysis and comparison.

Business career and ‘Good Angel’ charity

Kiska’s business career began shortly after the fall of Communism in 1990. Having previously worked in a state energy company, Kiska went to the United States from mid-1990 to December 1991 where he worked in a variety of jobs – a time which he claims to have strongly influenced him in his business career. His first business venture in Slovakia as subsidiary of an American jewellery company proved unsuccessful; his breakthrough only followed in 1996 with the foundation of TatraCredit. Emulating catalogue sale models from the United States, the company specialised in direct-to-consumer sales of electronics and providing short- and long-term financing options. The selection of good was later expanded to other consumer products and was followed by foundation of Quatro which offered consumers the opportunity to lease products bought in store, with both companies eventually providing financial services to close to a fifth of the Slovak population. After a transformation and merger of the different companies in 2004, it was eventually bought by the ‘Všeobecná úverová banka’, a Slovak bank owned by the Italian Banca Intensa.

Following the sale of the companies, Kiska retired from business and focussed on charity work. His foundation ‘DOBRÝ ANJEL’ (Good Angel), which Kiska led as chairman until he resigned in May 2013 to focus on his presidential bid, was founded in 2006 and specialises in care for children in orphanages and cancer support as well as help for poor families and individuals. Through his business activities and charity, Kiska reached a certain level of name recognition among the Slovak public while steering clear of any controversies.

Entering politics: The 2014 presidential election campaign

Since 1999, Slovak president are elected by popular vote in a two-round runoff system. Then incumbent Ivan Gašparovič, who had built significant ties with Prime Minister Robert Fico and his SMER party during his time in office, had been elected for a second term in 2009 and was thus not able to run again. Kiska already announced his intention to run for president in October 2014, almost 18 months before the first round of election and 10 months before any other candidate declared themselves. Kiska’s previous involvement in politics had been limited to the promotion of his charity ‘Good Angel’. Although having spent a decade of his adult life in Czechoslovakia and finding work in a state-run company, Kiska never became member of the Communist Party and also refrained from joining or publicly supporting any political entity after the fall of Communism in 1990 and creation of the Slovak Republic in 1993.

Andrej Kiska’s election slogan: “The First Independent President”

During the presidential campaign Kiska quickly established himself as the main contender to Prime Minister Robert Fico (whose motivation to run for president is not entirely clear to this day) thanks to the fact that the splintered centre-right opposition parties failed to even consider a joint candidate. Nevertheless, he consistently polled less that Fico and also finished the first round of elections as runner-up with 24% – 4% less than Fico whose result failed to match the higher predictions of the opinion polls. Kiska’s campaign centred on challenging the power of the governing centre-left SMER party of the Prime Minister (which held 83 of 150 seats in parliament at the time) and a number of malaises that characterised Slovakia (and party still do), in particular corruption and an ineffective judiciary. In this, he not only successfully managed to ‘sell’ his experience as a business manager but also establish himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This, together with his solid performance in the televised debates and the fact that Fico’s campaign ‘Prepared for Slovakia’ largely hinged on past successes, eventually transported him to a decisive 59.4% victory in the run-off.

Kiska in office: Inevitable cohabitation

Kiska’s election started a new phase of cohabitation between president and government. To this day, cohabitation based on party affiliation has been rare in Slovakia, but has rather emerged from presidents’ personal opposition to the government and rejection of particular parties. First Slovak president Michal Kovač (1993-1998) spent most of his term in office in cohabitation with Prime Minister Mečiar although both came from the HZDS. President Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) officially ran as the government candidate, yet once elected rid himself of membership in his SOP (a coalition party) and positioned himself as the antagonist of the governments. Ivan Gašparovič was formally member and leader of the originally right-wing, extra-parliamentary HZD, yet during his term formed close personal ties with Robert Fico and left-wing SMER and subsequently was in cohabitation with the centre-right government of Iveta Radičova in 2010-2012. Given Kiska’s political self-placement as a moderate conservative, cohabitation with any government including SMER should be seen as a given.

Pursuant to his electoral campaign, Kiska has mainly tackled problems in the judiciary and healthcare. For instance, he rejected five out six candidates nominated by parliament to fill vacancies on Constitutional Court, vetoed legislation on that would have made elections in the Judicial Council (self-government of the judiciary) secret and refused another judge’s appointment due to irregularities in the selection process. Particularly, the first decision resulted in a lengthy and (partially) yet unresolved tug-of-war between parliament and president. In terms of healthcare, Kiska mainly used his position to raise awareness of waste of resources, including buying of overpriced hospital equipment. Kiska also used his legislative veto on a bill that abolished fees for priority medical examinations as well as on a number of other laws, ranging from amendments to minimum pensions, to the the Labour Code and the Public Procurement Act. While the president’s amendatory observations can be included as part of the veto review process, a veto can also be overridden by an absolute majority in parliament so that these tactics have been less successful. Nevertheless, his more sparing use of vetoes (especially compared to Rudolf Schuster) at least allows him to use this power to increase awareness of the issues. Interestingly, Kiska has been relatively silent on his election promise to curb corruption – particularly during his first year in office he was criticised for failing to speak out on a number of scandals. Kiska’s actions on the international stage have largely focussed on strengthening and repairing ties with NATO and Western EU leaders which have been strained thanks to Prime Minister Fico’s opposition against Russian sanctions and refugee quotas. Among the political leaders of Central and Eastern Europe, Kiska remains one of the few to argue in favour of accepting refugees.

Remarkably, Kiska has not yet formed an alliance with any political party. Even during the 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska remained largely neutral. He launched a webpage to promote participation in the election and highlighted issues in schooling and healthcare. Although this first looked like the attempt to build a more organised political basis, the page is now defunct and Kiska appointed another government led by Robert Fico after the elections. Until now, Kiska has fared reasonably well with his declared non-partisan strategy and regularly tops opinion polls, but it remains to be seen how voters will evaluate his record come 2019. Should a united centre-right coalition present a single candidate, this might well prove dangerous for Kiska.

Perspectives: Another model of multi-millionaire president?

Andrej Kiska is a prominent millionaire businessman turned politician – a model which (although far from unusual, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe) not the least since the election of Donald Trump has come under increased criticism and scrutiny. However, Kiska is far from creating the same controversies as the above shows. Kiska gave up business more than a decade before entering politics (while the relatives with whom he founded several of his companies continue to be active in the business world, there is not direct involvement in any of their projects either). This is also a great difference to Czech finance minister Andrej Babiš who not only founded his own party but also continues to be involved in his businesses. Also, Kiska’s anti-establishment stance is largely supporting the introduction of values and practices of the political systems of Western Europe; it is not the same anti-establishment (and particularly anti-EU) rhetoric used by the populist far-right in other European countries. Last, Kiska continues his charity work by donating his entire net salary to charity – every month it is distributed to families or individuals in need that have been nominated by Dobry Anjel and other charities operating within its remit. Although the PR value of this must not to be disregarded, it stands in stark difference to other multi-millionaire presidents (and politicians) around the world.

President/Cabinet Conflict in Italy – The Results of an Expert Survey

Following on from yesterday’s post about president/cabinet conflict in semi-presidential Romania, today’s post focuses on president/cabinet conflict in a parliamentary country.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of president/cabinet conflict in a parliamentary republic, but it definitely occurs. Philipp Koeker (2015), of this very parish, has explored presidential activism in certain parliamentary countries in his thesis and forthcoming book. So too has Margit Tavits (2005).

Here, I report the president/cabinet conflict scores for Italy. For Italy, I was looking to record scores for 12 cabinet units. I did not ask for scores for non-partisan presidents or caretaker governments. I received six expert replies. Italy was one of the countries where the level of inter-coder reliability was high.

To recap, I asked academics to provide a judgment of the level of president/cabinet conflict on a four-point ordinal scale: a High level was indicated as the situation where there was persistent and severe conflict between the president and the cabinet; a Low level was expressed as the situation where there was no significant conflict between the president and the cabinet; and two intermediate levels – a Low-Medium level, and a Medium-High level – where the level of conflict was unspecified.

If we assign a value of 0, 0.33, 0.67, and 1 for Low, Low-Medium, Medium-High, and High respectively, then we return the following levels of conflict. See Table below.

As with Romania, the results will most likely not be a surprise for Italy experts. And the keen-eyed will have noticed the correlation between one particular Italian leader and the cabinets with higher levels of conflict.

References

Koeker, P. (2015), Veto et Peto: Patterns of Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe, Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science, University College London.

Tavits, M. (2009), Presidents in Parliamentary Systems: Do Direct Elections Matter?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

President/Cabinet Conflict in Romania – The Results of an Expert Survey

I am currently working on a book project, part of which involves a study of president/cabinet conflict in Europe’s parliamentary and semi-presidential regimes. Following the example set by Sedelius and Ekman (2010) and Sedelius and Mashtaler (2013), I conducted an expert survey. The survey was conducted between the beginning of August and October 2015. I was lucky enough to receive replies from over 100 academics. I am very grateful and I will acknowledge the help of all the respondents personally in the book.

I asked academics to provide a judgment of the level of president/cabinet conflict in 235 cabinets in 21 countries from 1995-2015. The academics were all political scientists with country-level expertise. I asked them to judge the level of president/cabinet conflict for each cabinet in a particular country on a four-point ordinal scale: a High level was indicated as the situation where there was persistent and severe conflict between the president and the cabinet; a Low level was expressed as the situation where there was no significant conflict between the president and the cabinet; and two intermediate levels – a Low-Medium level, and a Medium-High level – where the level of conflict was unspecified. The number of returns per country ranged from 1 for Malta to 9 for France.

With expert surveys, inter-coder reliability is always an issue. Certainly, there was disagreement among country experts and for some countries the level of inter-coder reliability was surprisingly low. However, Romania was one of the countries where the level of inter-coder reliability was high. Here, I report the president/cabinet conflict scores for Romania. In subsequent posts, I will report scores for other countries.

For Romania, I was looking to record scores for 16 cabinet units. I did not ask for scores for non-partisan presidents or caretaker governments. I received seven expert replies.

If we assign a value of 0, 0.33, 0.67, and 1 for Low, Low-Medium, Medium-High, and High respectively, then we return the following levels of conflict. See Table below.

The periods of conflict will not come as a surprise to Romania experts, especially the seven experts who kindly returned the survey given the level of agreement was high. However, along with scores from the other countries, these results and those like them provide a first step in the process of explaining why president/cabinet conflict varies both across countries and across time in countries. This is the aim of the study in the book that will appear later in the year.

References

Sedelius, Thomas, and Ekman, Joakim (2010), ‘Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe’, Government and Opposition, 45(4): 505–30.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Olga Mashtaler (2013), ‘Two Decades of Semi-presidentialism: Issues of Intra-executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991–2011’, East European Politics, 29(2): 109-134.

A Strange Affair: The 2017 Presidential Election Campaign in France

In an article written 15 years ago, I described the 2002 presidential election as being a strange affair. The 2017 contest is turning out to be even stranger. In between the two elections, the electoral scenarios have shifted. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen won through to the second round against expectations, with almost 18% on the first round; massive republican mobilization saw incumbent President Jacques Chirac re-elected with a large majority (81.75%). In 2017, few commentators cast any doubt on the likely presence of Marine Le Pen on the second round, though predictions of a Le Pen victory are more prevalent in the foreign media than amongst French commentators. While the expectation that a left-right cleavage will produce a run-off between a Socialist and a Republican candidate has underpinned most presidential elections, such a scenario appears unlikely in 2017.

But it is difficult to keep tabs on this campaign and several scenarios remain open. There is no presidential frontrunner and no absolute certainty about which candidates will win through to the second round. As it evolves, an increasingly likely scenario is that of a run off between two anti-system candidates, Marine Le Pen, for the Front national and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! Both candidates have successfully positioned themselves as above party; somewhat paradoxically, the absence of primary elections in the case of these two candidates has strengthened the claim not to be dependent on party. As the campaign dust settles, there is at least the beginning of a programmatic debate. Macron and Le Pen represent distinct alternatives and choices in relation to an overarching cleavage that might be described as cosmopolitanism versus ethnicised national identity. It is a sign of the times that only one candidate – Emmanuel Macron – has explicitly engaged himself in defense of the European project, including a public commitment to bring France back within the criteria of the Maastricht stability pact. In early March, Macron finally presented his programme, after many weeks of delay and preparation. Macron’s mix of economic liberalism, social protection, political moderation and European integration recalls New Labour, with two decades delay, the principal difference being Macron’s lack of a robust party organisation. Marine Le Pen’s national populist programme, on the contrary, articulates the demand for closed frontiers, economic protection, national preference and the recovery of an (illusory) monetary sovereignty, with France eventually exiting the euro after a referendum. The two putative second round candidates at least represent clear alternative visions of the future based on differing positions on the national protection, European integration and globalization spectrum. It is difficult to say as much for Fillon, whose radical cutting edge of November 2016 has been blurred in the fog of the Penelopegate affair. And even Hamon, whose radical Universal Revenue idea dominated the latter stages of the PS primary, has been bogged down in interminable negotiations with potential partners (the Green candidate Jadot withdrawing in favour of Hamon, but J.-L. Melenchon steadfastly refusing, probably ensuring the defeat of the Socialist candidate on the first round).

As it is unfolding, the 2017 campaign potentially challenges three unwritten rules of presidential elections. First, that control of the party organisation ensures the presidential nomination; this hierarchy has been upset by the primaries, though paradoxically it remains valid for the two leading ‘anti-party’ candidates, Macron and Le Pen. The primary elections have overhauled party organizational (logics) and created winners whose appeal is deeper to the core partisan electorate than to the elusive median voter (Hamon, Fillon). Meanwhile the logics of the primaries extend far beyond the selection of the party’s candidate. As I write (7th March), Francois Fillon appeared to have weathered the storm, using the result of the LR primaries to fend off challenges to his candidacy. Fillon’s argument is not only that he was consecrated as champion of the Republicans in the primaries, but also that LR sympathizers voted for radical programmatic change. As Fillon pointed out, in his televised intervention on France 2 (5th March 2017), no-one can prevent him from standing as candidate (all the more in that he has already deposited the 500 signatories necessary to stand). In this case, the primary election provided a powerful shield, even against the investigating magistrates announcing the opening of a judicial investigation against Fillon and convoking the candidate to appear on 15th March. Just in case of doubt, Fillon played the People against the Party card, steadfastly refusing to stand down as candidate notwithstanding intense pressures and the desertion of a swathes of LR deputies and senators from the Fillon campaign team. Juppé’s announcement on 6th March that he would in no case be candidate removed one serious obstacle to Fillon’s survival. On the Socialist left, the lasting impact of the primary has been to create a gulf between the candidate and the mass of PS deputies, deeply anxious about their – slim – prospects of re-election within the PS label.

The second unwritten rule being challenged in 2017 is that the presidential election encourages a left-right bipolarization and a corresponding presidentialisation of the party system. This was always an excessively institutional argument; each presidential election has produced a rather different political configuration. In practice, the bipolar logic of the presidential election, as assumed to have shaped political and party competition throughout most of the Fifth Republic, appears increasingly out of kilter with the 3, 4 or 5 party reality. It might be objected that this has always been the case; the 2017 campaign needs to be placed it in its historical context. One consequences of fitting a three-, four- or five- party reality into the bipolar jacket is that the threshold levels for gaining access to the second round is lowered: to around 20%. Combined with the partisan logic of the primary elections, the first round logic of rallying core supporters is stronger than ever. Candidates give primacy to first round mobilisation over the anticipation of second round strategies in 2017 because the outcome of the first round was far less certain than in any other recent presidential race (except arguably 2002). The 2017 campaign revealed more starkly than ever before the paradox that the traditionally most-coveted institution – the presidency – is contested by at least three of the leading five candidates. This institutional disaffection is complicated in 2017 by the deep anti-party sentiment.

Third: is the 2017 challenging the view that the presidential election is the core decisive election on which French politics is centred? The 2017 presidential contest will be the 10th direct election of the Fifth Republic, sharing some similar traits with previous elections, but also having its own distinctive characteristics. One of the core assumptions is that the presidential election brings in its wake a comfortable majority for the victorious candidate in the subsequent legislative elections. This mechanical relationship might not function as assumed in 2017. In the event that either Macron or Le Pen are elected President, it must not be assumed that an overall parliamentary majority will be produced in the wake of their triumph. Macron recognised this last week, when he acknowledged that a first round electoral base of 25% would not provide the necessary legitimacy to underpin a single party majority. There is a very real possibility that the candidate who eventually emerges as President will not obtain an overall majority ‘in his or her name’, one of the principal Gaullist legacies of the Fifth Republic.

Henry E. Hale – Presidential Power in Ukraine: Constitutions Matter

This is a guest post by Henry E. Hale, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at George Washington University

Some observers argue Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been determined to concentrate power in his own hands ever since his May 2014 election and has either failed or not seriously tried to eliminate high-level corruption. Yet nearing the end of his third year in office, he clearly lags far behind where his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, was three years into his presidency. Indeed, Ukraine in 2017 remains a much more politically open place than it was in 2013. Why has this been the case?

While leadership styles are clearly part of the story, there is a strong argument to be made that constitutional design is an important part of the explanation. When Yanukovych first came to power, he used his fresh mandate not only to get his own person installed as prime minister (something Poroshenko also achieved) but to establish a strongly presidentialist constitution, one that signaled his clear dominance over the parliament and all other formal institutions. This signaled to Ukraine’s most potent oligarchs and other power networks that Yanukovych was the unquestioned dominant authority and complicated their efforts to challenge him; even if his opponents had managed to win the 2012 parliamentary elections, which they did not, even this position would not have put them in a position to significantly limit presidential power.

Poroshenko’s election, on the other hand, emerged partly out of the discrediting of that very presidentialist model, which with the rise of the Euromaidan came to be blamed for fostering overweening presidential power and its use of brutal force against its own people. Indeed, one of the first moves of the victorious revolutionaries, weeks before Poroshenko’s election, was to restore the constitution that had been in place prior to Yanukovych’s 2010 election. This constitution establishes a division of executive power between the president and a prime minister who is primarily beholden to parliament. Thus while Poroshenko surely would have liked to have more formal power, he was not in position to capitalize on his election win to call for a newly presidentialist constitution.

As a result, Poroshenko’s efforts to augment his own power have been limited by a constitution that leads the country’s political forces to see him as not necessarily the dominant power. While the parliament did vote to confirm his preferred prime minister, his parliamentary majority is at best fragile and does not represent a strong control over parliament, and there is a strong likelihood he could lose control of the next parliament given current patterns of public support. With parliament (and by implication the prime ministership) a major prize, Poroshenko’s opponents thus find it easier to envision a successful move against him even if they cannot capture the presidency itself. And this leads others to be more cautious about placing all their political and economic eggs in Poroshenko’s basket, which further limits his authority in the country.

My sense, therefore, is that Ukraine’s being more democratic about three years after Poroshenko than it was three years after Yanukovych is more about constitutions than about presidential beliefs or capabilities–even in a country like Ukraine, where the rule of law is weak and people frequently question whether constitutions matter at all.

France – President Fillon: faute de mieux?

I was invited as an expert on the France 24 news programme last Friday (17th February).  As a guide to what I might prepare, I was told:  simply talk about the fronde.  Talk about Fillon, Hamon and the frondeurs. The use of the term the fronde has become ubiquitous.  Bearing a very loose link with its original meaning (the revolt of provincial parliaments and nobles against the centralizing pretensions of the French monarchy), it has been translated into a metaphor for resistance to an established  government (in the case of Valls from 2014-16) or even politicians (the case of Francois Fillon). Widely used to describe the rebellious group of Socialist MPs during the Hollande presidency, the term la fronde is now being employed to point to the stiff resistance of a number of Republican deputies – second fiddles close to Nicolas Sarkozy – to the prospect of Francois Fillon’s candidacy for the Republicans. Georges Fenech, Claude Goasguen, Nadine Morano and others justified their latest attempt to bar the route to Fillon with the argument that it is impossible to campaign for the candidate, that there is a deep lack of trust from Republican supporters throughout the country. A first attempt to force the LR candidate to stand down was crushed in Fillon’s press conference of 5th February; a second, more half-hearted effort was put down by Fillon on his return from La Réunion (a welcome three-day respite) a week later.

Faced with pressures from Sarkozy supporters, Fillon has decided to remain droit dans ses bottes, to resist the pressures pressing on him not to stand. This determination appears backed up by the latest surveys; the IFOP survey for the Journal de Dimanche (19/02/2017), for example, reports that 70% of likely Republican voters believe Fillon ought to maintain his candidacy for the Elysée. A core Republican electorate of 18-20% provides a solid base to encourage perseverance, though it is down from 28% in the immediate aftermath of the LR primaries.  As the deadline nears for filing the support of the minimum 500 signatures of elected officials, Fillon appears more than ever likely to tough it out and be a candidate. There is no serious Plan B. The 40-something generation is totally unable to agree on an alternative, while the Barons of the primary – Juppé and Sarkozy – have declared they will not contest Fillon. His determination to stand as candidate – even in the event of being called to trail, a break with his initial stance – is justified by Fillon with the argument that there is no possible alternative candidate.

Dampening la fronde required a contrite Fillon to pay a visit to erstwhile rival Nicolas Sarkozy, however, following which the LR candidate pledged to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years old, an old Sarkozy promise. The re-focusing of the campaign on security issues is a testament to the continuing influence of Sarkozy. In the context of riots in the suburbs, after a vicious police attack on the adolescent Théo and the violent response of a small minority of demonstrators, Fillon’s campaign has taken a security turn.

Meanwhile, the PS candidate Benoît Hamon – one of the leading frondeurs during the Valls premiership – is discovering the difficulties of reunifying a divided party, let alone a imposing himself as the uncontested champion of the left.  The aftermath of the primary retains a bitter taste. Few close to Valls have been involved in the Hamon campaign and the Macron temptation remains real, though there has been only limited movement towards Macron and En Marche ! (the main exception being the mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb, and most of his local party).  Hamon’s strongest argument is that of the useful vote; without a rallying of the main forces of the left behind his presidential bid, there is a real possibility that the left will be excluded from the second round. This logic is more or less accepted by Yannick Jadot, the candidate designated by Europe Ecologie les Verts, who organized an internal consultation which produced massive support (amongst voters in the EELV primary) for a rallying to Hamon as a Socialist candidate acceptable to the ecologists and their post-material and environmental agenda. But the key factor that might make a difference is that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon: the candidate standing in the name of la France soumise remains at around 10% of the electorate and is showing no inclination to stand down in favour of Hamon (whose likely electorate is stagnating at around 14-15%). Hence the direct appeal to Melenchon’s electors on the basis that Hamon is the only candidate who might prevent a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen – or between Macron and Le Pen (an equally sad state of affairs for some). The strategy just might pay off, especially now that Macron’s support has shown the first real signs of ebbing faced with his unwillingness – or inability – to publish a presidential programme.

Emmanuel Macron’s campaign is the most intriguing. Thus far, Macron has been the clear beneficiary of the public’s disaffection with Fillon and the choice of the frondeur Hamon as the PS candidate. Rising as high as 23% in the first round voting intentions, Macron is behind Marine Le Pen but ahead of Fillon. But is the Macron ferment beginning is likely to fade? The rally of support from disaffected PS deputes that he might have expected following Hamon’s victory in the primaries has not yet materialised. Attendance at campaign meetings has been rather disappointing (with the exception of Lyon). The En Marche ! candidate is beginning to pay the price for the refusal, or inability to publish a presidential programme. Where exactly does he stand on the big issues of the day? His attempt to position himself above left and right represents the latest attempt in the Fifth Republic to escape the straightjacket of the traditional left-right cleavage. Bayrou, with over 18% in 2007, came within a whisker of overhauling the established order, but failed at the last hurdle (Sarkozy and Royal fighting the run-off). Will Macron go one better?  Nothing is less certain: cultivating a new form of equidistance between left and right, he is likely to disappoint both centre-left and centre-right supporters. Declaring in Algeria that colonization was a crime against humanity might strengthen his position amongst certain groups in French society, but will alienate others whose support Macron needs if he has any chance of winning through to the second round. The logic was clear: to confront the issues from France’s colonial and post-colonial history preventing the nation from progressing. But has the candidate unnecessarily raked up past tensions for minimal political benefit? The ostensible efforts at destabilization by Putin and the Russian secret service deserve the fullest attention– the rumours on his sexuality, or on the financial sources of his campaign are  identified as a source of  illegitimate intervention not only by Macron, but by the Foreign minister Ayrault as well. But how long can Macron prosper without a programme?  An energetic candidate Macron is en marche…but towards what, exactly?

In the 2017 campaign, one candidate – Marine Le Pen – is very well prepared. She is the most likely to profit from the shifting of the agenda to security and migration related issues in the wake of the police brutality claim against Theo and the outbreak of violence in the Paris suburbs. The security turn has the advantage of occulting – somewhat – the issue of campaign funding. Herein lies the greatest paradox; Marine Le Pen is summoned to repay around €350,000 received by the European parliament to pay assistants working, in reality, for the FN in Paris. But this damning indictment has been transformed from a potential dead-weight into a political argument, at least insofar as it is a stick to beat Brussels and to tap into an underlying state of Euroscepticism. Marine Le Pen has been polling up to 27% in one of the recent polls. She has the most solid electorate: around 90% of potential Marine electors affirm they will not waver and declare themselves certain to vote for their candidate. By contrast, only 35% of Macron voters states they are certain to vote for the En Marche ! candidate. How solid is the glass ceiling that prevents the FN’s Marine Le Pen from being elected on the second round in 2017? When financial markets start to worry – and the ‘spread’ starts to widen – is it time to reevaluate the chances of Marine Le Pen? Making predictions post-Brexit and post-Trump is a hazardous business. This is the strangest campaign in recent years. It is very difficult to predict which candidates will run through to the second round. If  Marine Le Pen looks in pole position, her likely adversary could conceivably be one of three men: Macron, Fillon and – possibly –Hamon, if the latter manages to create a unitary dynamic in the last few weeks of campaigning. The most likely scenario in this fluctuating and addictive campaign is that the glass ceiling will hold – this time – and that Marine Le Pen will not win on the second round. This scenario is the most plausible if Fillon wins through to the second round, which is looking increasingly likely. Fillon faute de mieux?

Russia – An American Maidan? Analyzing Russian Press Coverage of President Trump’s Accession to Power

This is a post by Eugene Huskey

In the days before and after Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, the Russian press provided extensive coverage of the American transition of power (see Table below).  Based on a reading of all articles on Donald Trump that were published in eight leading Russian newspapers in the period from January 18-25, 2017, this post assesses the image of the new American president and administration in the Russian press.  Five major conclusions emerge from this assessment.

First, in comparison with Russia’s broadcast media, which are, with very few exceptions, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, newspapers offer a far more complete and nuanced picture of world affairs.[i]  In fact, during the week under review, many Russian newspapers published stories relating to the American transition of power that cast the Russian government and even President Vladimir Putin in an unfavorable light.  An article on the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 informed readers of a button on sale with the slogan: “Trump, Putin: Make Tyranny Great Again.”[ii]  Other versions of anti-Trump signs on display in Washington that were mentioned in the Russian press contained messages such as: “Putin’s Puppet,” “Kremlin Employee of the Month,” and “Welcome to the New Russia.”[iii]

Russian newspapers in this period also provided detailed accusations of Russian government attempts to undermine the integrity of American elections.  To be sure, the more sycophantic newspapers prefaced or followed such accusations with dismissive comments, and all publications tended to bury the lead on these stories.  However, a discerning reader of the Russian press had plenty of evidence to develop a sophisticated understanding of the claims being made about Russian involvement in American elections as well as the unusual affinity of Donald Trump toward Russia and the Russian President.

One of the most widely-covered stories during Inauguration week concerned the seemingly offhand comments made by President Putin at a news conference in the Kremlin with the visiting president of Moldova.  Seeking to squelch rumors that Trump’s infatuation with Putin and Russia was due to kompromat [compromising material] that the Russian government had on the new American president, Putin claimed–somewhat improbably–that because Trump was not a political figure when he stayed in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, it would not have occurred to the security organs to have entrapped him.  Feigning outrage, Putin then noted that persons who would make such accusations were worse than prostitutes.  As if to establish his own bona fides as a nationalist politician who had little time for political correctness, he quickly added that he could, of course, see how someone could be tempted by Russian prostitutes, given that they are the best in the world.[iv]

Second, the Russian press framed the deeply polarized nature of current American politics in terms borrowed from the post-communist experience.  It was a classic example of mirror imaging–the tendency to read one’s own experience into the affairs of others.  With the streets of the American capital filling with demonstrators on the day after Trump’s inauguration, numerous articles raised the specter of an American Maidan, a reference to the post-election uprising in Kiev that led to the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich.[v]  Others compared the Women’s March to the massive protests that occurred on the streets of Moscow in December 2011, in the wake of Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections.[vi]

The specter of the traditional American Establishment rising up against the arrival of an unwelcome populist, and possibly removing him from office, was a central theme in Russian press coverage during Inauguration week.[vii]  Some articles relied on fake news from American sources to support this assertion, including accepting at face value hoax ads that offered to pay demonstrators from $50 to $2500 to join protests against President Trump.[viii]  Such accusations would have resonated with Russian readers, who had been subjected to similar claims about rent-a-crowds participating in color revolutions in post-communist states.

Third, if the Russian press during Inauguration week was united in its criticism of Barack Obama,[ix] it revealed a deep ambivalence about the future of US-Russian relations and about Donald Trump as the new American leader.  On the one hand, Russian newspapers published American polling data and man-on-the-street interviews from Washington that revealed favorable opinions toward Russia.[x]  At the same time, many newspapers cautioned their readers against assuming that Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric would easily translate into a resolution of issues that divided the two powers, from Ukraine to sanctions and Syria to nuclear arms.  Alongside references to Trump as a pragmatist or “our man”–#Trumpnash, meaning “Trump is Ours,” was a Twitter handle mentioned in one story–there were efforts to lower expectations by preparing the Russian population for a long struggle for pre-eminence among different factions in the American political establishment and even within the Trump White House itself.[xi]

Fourth, where there was considerable uncertainty in the Russian press about the prospects for a Trump presidency, there was a clear consensus among Russian commentators that the world was entering a new, turbulent, and potentially dangerous era.   For one, Trump’s harsh comments on China threatened to upend Russia’s own fledgling partnership with its populous neighbor.[xii]  This undercurrent of discomfort, if not alarm, in stories about developments outside of Russia is something of a paradox.  For years, Putin had been seeking to replace the American-dominated international order with a multi-polar world. Now that this more pluralistic and dynamic order appears to be on the horizon, the Russian press is warning the population to fasten its seat belts.

Russian observers cited approvingly Trump’s rejection of the role of “world’s policeman” for the United States, as well as his apparent willingness to consider dividing the world into spheres of interest.[xiii]  However, several articles suggested that the old ruling class would not fade easily into history.  One article noted that Obama-era threats against Russia were part of the “agony of an Anglo-Saxon elite that for 200 years had been setting the tone for democracy and serving as the main arbiter of morals.”[xiv]  Another compared the hapless position of American liberals to that of the Russian bourgeoisie on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.[xv]

Some commentators used the occasion of the change of American administrations to remind readers of Russia’s position as a defender of Christianity and traditional values at a time when the West was moving rapidly toward a post-Christian future.[xvi]  Thus, to nationalists as well as religious conservatives in Europe and the United States, Russia was offering itself as a bulwark against globalism and atheism, while for Christian minorities in the Middle East, Russia held itself out as the Protector of the Faithful, a role reprised from tsarist times.[xvii]  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s insistence on January 18 that Russia was “very concerned about the departure of Christians” from the Middle East was followed several days later by a similar statement from Donald Trump in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.[xviii]

Fifth, and finally, the Russian press revealed its preoccupation during Inauguration week with the symbols and rituals of American power.  Newspaper articles offered detailed descriptions of everything from the desk in the Oval Office to the two Bibles on which President Trump swore the oath of office.[xix]  Although these articles may have satisfied the curiosity of readers about ceremonial niceties, they also–perhaps unwittingly–pointed out the contrasts with the succession process in Russia itself.  Descriptions in the Russian press of President Obama voluntarily transferring power to an adversary, Donald Trump, and then departing the ceremony in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, would have reminded some Russian readers of the gap between their own political traditions and those in the West.  In short, both supporters and critics of the Russian president would have found evidence in the Russian coverage of American Inauguration week to sustain their points of view, an illustration of the limits of Putin’s control over his country’s “information space.”

Notes

[i] For a sophisticated essay on the collapse of the American dream, see Anna Krotkina, “Svoi paren’, khotia i milliarder,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 15.

[ii] Elena Chinkova, “‘Svobodu Malenii!’–protiv Trampa vyshli ‘pussi-shapki’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 4.

[iii] Aleksandr Panov, “Ves’ Tramp–narodu!” Novaia gazeta, January 23, 2017, pp. 12-13.  This publication is the most prominent opposition paper in Russia.

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voskhozhdenie po Trampu,” Kommersant Daily, January 18, 2017, p. 1.

[v] Putin himself raised the specter of an American Maidan in comments to the Russian press.  Kira Latukhina, “VVS, ser!” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 2.  See also “Zhdet li Trampa svoi Maidan?” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Aleksei Zabrodin, “Demokraty opasaiutsia sdelki po Ukraine,” Izvestiia, January 20, 2017, p. 3; and Dmitrii Egorchenkov, “Nezhno-rozovyi Maidan,” Izvestiia, January 24, 2017, p. 6.

[vi] One prominent Russian politician compared America in recent years to the period of “stagnation” experienced by the Soviet Union under Brezhnev.  Igor’ Ivanov, “Tramp i Rossiia,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.

[vii] See, for example, Eduard Lozannskii, “Nastali budni,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 6.

[viii] Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Nepyl’naia rabotenka,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 8.

[ix] Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev insisted that Obama’s destruction of relations between Russia and the US will be remembered as his “worst foreign policy mistake.” Elena Kriviakina, “Dmitrii Medvedev: my ne bananovaia respublika! SShA etogo ne uchli,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 21, 2017, p. 2. One correspondent noted that “all that will be needed is a single meeting between Putin and Trump to bring down the wall of disinformation, moratoriums, sanctions, and lies that Obama had constructed.” Oleg Shevtsov, “Chto Tramp griadushchil nam gotovit’,” Trud, January 20, 2017, p. 1.

[x] Aleksei Zabrodin, “Izmeneniia nachnutsia priamo seichas na etoi zemle,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Georgii Asatrian, “Konservativnye i religioznye amerikantsy poliubili Rossiiu,” Izvestiia, January 23, p. 3.  One journalist even noted that Russians’ newfound attachment to an American president could help them overcome their desire to be needed in the world again, a sentiment identified by Eduard Limonov, the Russian radical writer, in 2014. Dmitrii Ol’shanskii, “Pochemu nash chelovek poliubil Donal’da Fredycha,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 24, 2017, p. 4.

[xi]Mikhail Zubov, “Itogo za nedeliu,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 20, 2017, p. 2; Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Kogo slushaet Tramp,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 8. For the views of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, see Ekaterina Zabrodina, “Dozhdemsia inauguratsii Trampa,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 5. In general, Trump received very favorable press in Russia, though one interview with a handwriting expert reported that Trump’s handwriting indicated that he had an authoritarian personality.  Dar’ia Zavgorodniaia, “Grafolog–o pocherke Donal’da Trampa: u takogo cheloveka stil’ pravleniia–avtoritarnyi,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 5.

[xii] Among the many articles warning of tensions in the triangular relationship among Russia, China, and the US, see Vladimir Skosyrev, “Si Tszin’pin opasaetsia druzhby Putina s Trampom,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 13, 2017, p. 1.

[xiii] Ibid.; Pavel Tarasenko, “Pobednyi sorok piatyi,” Kommersant Daily, January 21, 2017, p. 1;

[xiv] Elena Chinkova, Abbas Dzhuma, “Eks-postpred SShA pri OON Samanta Pauer: Koshmar–vse bol’she amerikantsev doveriaiut Putinu!” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 19, 2017, p. 4; Fedor Luk’ianov, “Ochevidnoe–neveroiatnoe,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 20, 2017, p. 8.

[xv] Mikhail Rostovskii, “Pryzhok k neizvestnost’,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 21, 2017, p. 1.

[xvi] Iurii Paniev, “Tramp ne vyzyvaet v Moskve ni opasanii, ni vostorga,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.

[xvii] Foreign Minister Lavrov argued that the so-called “liberal” values of the West had led to a massive exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria.  Edvard Chesnokov, “Sergei Lavrov: blizhnevostochnyi krizis–rezul’tat ‘eksporta demokratii’,” Komsomolskaia pravda, January 18, 2017, p. 3; Andrei Kortunov, “Chem opasno ‘vechnoe vozrashchenie’,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 9; and Mikhael’ Dorfman, “Iskupitel’naia missiia Trampa,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 14.

[xviii] Liubov’ Glazunova, “Lavrov rasskazal o tufte i feikakh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 18, 2017, p. 3.

[xix] Edvard Chesnokov, Aleksei Osipov, “Vmeste s Trampom v Oval’nyi kabinet v’ekhal Cherchill’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 25, 2017, p. 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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