Category Archives: Germany

Germany – Honorary pay and post-presidency perks: How to deal with former presidents

Recent news reports that former German president Christian Wulff had taken up the role of authorised representative of Turkish fashion label Yargici have rekindled a ‘smouldering’ debate about the role and entitlements of former presidents in Germany. The flames of this discussion, last hotly conducted following Wullf’s resignation amidst corruption allegations and attempts to suppress related news reports, have been fanned further by criticism of the new offices for former president Joachim Gauck, Wulff’s successor. Although the upcoming general election has meant that the topic received comparatively less attention, it is bound to return in the next years and changes to ex-presidents’ status are likely.

Living German ex-Presidents | image via bundespraesident.de

For a long time, post-political careers of German politicians were not a widely debated issue. Cabinet ministers often remained members of the Bundestag after serving in government and usually retired from politics – and work life – in their 60s and 70s. Chancellors usually left office at a similar age and refrained from controversial activities (the work of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) as lobbyist for Russian companies is a notable exception). Federal presidents on the other hand were usually already in their mid-sixties or older when taking office and had thus little opportunity to develop a new career after leaving office. This trend is mirrored in a number of other parliamentary republics, although it is not uncommon for younger former office-holders to re-enter politics (e.g. Latvian president Valdis Zatlers founded his own party and entered parliament as an MP after being denied re-election as president).

From the point of taking office, German presidents are entitled to an “honorary pay” of €236,000 p.a. for life, so that – as is commonly argued – former presidents do not need to pursue any other employment upon leaving office. Particularly the resignation of Christian Wulff after less than two years in office and aged only 53 has opened a number questions in this regard – For instance: Is a president entitled to honorary pay if they do not complete their term of office? And who is responsible for deciding about a president’s claim to honorary pay? While Wulff continued to receive his honorary pay after leaving office prematurely and the above questions remain unresolved, politicians agreed on ensuring that at least the ex-presidents’ offices – an important post-presidency perk – were run on a more cost-effective basis. Both Christian Wulff and his successor Joachim Gauck have thus not opened their offices in their former hometowns or pricey parts of Berlin, but in buildings belonging to the Bundestag (although this, too, remains controversial – see below). Furthermore, their number of staff is limited en par with offices for former chancellors.

Since Christian Wulff was cleared of corruption allegations in 2014, the majority of political commentators have quietly accepted the fact that Christian Wulff continues to receive honorary pay – also because he represented Germany at a number of occasions (former presidents frequently step in for their successors or chancellors at state funerals) and kept a relatively low public profile. Wulff, a trained lawyer, also opened a legal practice in his home town of Hanover – a move likewise regarded as largely uncontroversial as he returned to his original profession. Nevertheless, the move to become an authorised representative and thus not merely an advisor but active part of a business has changed perceptions of what might be an acceptable post-office career for a former president. Furthermore, politicians and citizens alike have been irritated by the fact that honorary pay is not reduced as a reflection of addition earnings – entitlements from state pensions on the other hand are counted against any honorary pay after reaching retirement age.

Yet Christian Wulff is not the only former president who has recently been criticised over expenditure. As mentioned above, former presidents are entitled to a fully staffed office upon leaving the office to be able to fulfil the role of ‘elder statesman’. Joachim Gauck left office earlier this year and his office has now been opened in the buildings of the Bundestag. Nevertheless, Gauck incurred charges for installing additional security on his floor (despite the building already being under the same protective measures as other parliamentary buildings) and a personal toilet with security lock for the president (costing €52,000) as well as €35,000 for new furniture. In addition, two of Gaucks members of staff have effectively received promotions and Gauck chief of cabinet in particular now earns more than he did when Gauck was still in office.

The only other living president, Horst Köhler, presents an interesting counter-example to his successors: Although Köhler claims an allowance for his office in an upscale office park in Berlin, he has refrained from claiming any honorary pay since leaving office. However, this is can hardly be an example to follow – as a former director of the International Monetary Fond (IMF), Köhler likely has a private pension that would far exceed a former president’s honorary pay.

Thus overall the question remains on how to deal with former presidents. It is clear that the traditional model predicated on the idea that the presidency is the crowning and final achievement of one’s life is – thanks to the election of younger candidates and longer life expectancy of former presidents – no longer practical. Furthermore, as the additional earnings of active politicians come under greater scrutiny it becomes even more difficult to justify expenditures for former holders of a largely representative office to the public. The next Bundestag would be in an interesting position to regulate on these questions as it is not involved in the next presidential election and parties can thus debate the issue with greater flexibility. However, viable proposals for change are still lacking as the most concrete suggestions stem from the discussions about Christian Wulff and would thus only regulate some very specific aspects of this complicated matter.

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For follow-up reading, you may be interested in my comparison of European presidents’ salaries:
Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?
Presidents and Paupers II: How much do Central and East European presidents earn?

 

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.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Germany – The headache of choosing a presidential candidate

When German Federal President Joachim Gauck declared that he would not run for a second term in February 2017, The Guardian described it as a ‘headache for Merkel‘. Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor best known for his work in overseeing the extensive archives of the former East German secret police 1991-2000, had been elected as a joint candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, Green Party and Liberal Democrats (FDP) after his predecessor Christian Wulff resigned amidst allegations of corruption. Many had hoped that Gauck – who still enjoys support from all major parties in the Bundestag except DIE LINKE (successor to the East German communist party) – would run for a second term, thus sparing parties the need to find a new candidate so closely before the next general election due to be held in October 2017. Avoiding a signalling effect for potential post-election coalitions, together with parties’ desire to have their candidate elected by absolute majority in the first or second round (rather than by relative majority in the third and last round of voting) complicates the situation and creates headaches for all party leaders – not only for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Federal Convention

The German Federal Convention 2012 meeting in the Reichstag building, Berlin | © bundespraesident.de

Since 2013, Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) hold a 71% majority in the Bundestag and form a grand coalition. Even though the Federal Convention – the electoral college convened for electing the German president – consists not only of members of the Bundestag but also the same number of delegates from state parliaments, both parties would have no problems to elect a joint candidate. Nevertheless, neither CDU/CSU nor SPD see this as an ideal option. With the exception of Joachim Gauck, first nominated by SPD and Greens in 2010, both parties have not nominated a joint candidate so far (rather, either party occasionally supported the re-election of the other’s incumbent). This time, too, both parties would most likely be happiest with a candidate clearly affiliated with or at least nominated only by them (not excluding support from a minor party). Nevertheless, the seat distribution the Federal Convention (see projection below) leaves little room for manoeuvre if parties want to see their candidate elected in the first two rounds. Neither CDU/CSU+FPD nor SPD+GREENS, who previously held majorities in the Federal Conventions and subsequently saw their candidates elected, hold a majority. Even a left-wing alliance of SPD, GREENS, DIE LINKE and the SSW (Danish Minority) would fall two votes short of an absolute majority.

German parties are generally cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future coalitions on the federal level. Thus, a cooperation of the SPD with far-left party DIE LINKE is unlikely because the SPD leadership has so far categorically denied federal-level coalition potential (despite cooperating with DIE LINKE on state level) – not only could it deter SPD voters, but the CDU/CSU would also likely try to use this pairing for their advantage in the electoral campaign. Similarly, the liberal FDP – although having been in coalitions with the SPD in the past – will likely try to avoid supporting a left-wing candidacy as it hopes to re-enter the Bundestag in 2017 by taking away voters from the right-wing/populist Alternative for Germany. Last, the often-floated option of cooperation between CDU/CSU and Greens is out of the question for similar reasons. Overall, a compromise candidate elected by CDU/CSU+SPD thus seems most likely.

Projection_Seat distribution in the German Federal Convention 2016

1260 seats total; 631 votes required in first and second round, relative majority in third and final round; for more information see http://www.wahlrecht.de/lexikon/bundesversammlung.html

Analysts have highlighted over the last months that parties, particularly the CDU/CSU, would like to see a ‘professional politician’ in the presidential office – although Joachim Gauck has not opposed the government in a major way, some MPs have criticised him for contradicting government positions and even went so far as to investigate means to ‘muzzle’ the president. The CDU/CSU also still lament the resignation of Horst Köhler in 2010 following public criticism of his statements regarding German military deployment which was put down party due to him not having a sufficiently think skin to withstand conflicts of this kind. Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has been mentioned most consistently (even before Gauck’s announcement) as a potential candidate. Despite having been the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in 2009 and serving as deputy party chairman, he is seen as a relatively party-neutral choice – the fact that he is by far the most popular German politican (71% approval) adds to his suitability. Interestingly, the second most popular politician, veteran politician and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), is also frequently named as a potential candidate. Nevertheless, his hard line on Greek state debt makes him less presentable on an international level. Also, Schäuble is already 73 years old would thus also likely be unavailable for a second term in office. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has a number of supporters across the political spectrum, yet is likely more keen to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor than become Germany’s first female president. Last, some social democrats have suggested social science professor Jutta Allmendinger (SPD member), director of the prestigious Berlin Social Science Centre, as a candidate. Nevertheless, the SPD previously failed to see a similar candidate elected on two occasions. On suggestion of then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD nominated professor Gesine Schwan, president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder), for president in 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, she failed to win and was involved in a number of controversies resulting in several SPD and Green electors refusing to cast their vote for her.

Until now, only the Free Voters – represented only in the state parliament of Bavaria and projected to send a mere 10 electors to Berlin next February – have officially nominated a candidate: Alexander Hold, a judge who gained national prominence by appearing in court room shows on German private TV station SAT 1, currently serving a local councillor and party faction leader for the Free Voters in the town of Kempten. There is little chance that Hold will gain more than the 10 votes of his party colleagues, but the nomination has already produced some headlines which might benefit the party. It would not be the first time that a party nominates a candidate know for their work on TV – in 2009 DIE LINKE nominated actor Peter Sodann as their candidate for president (he received 91 votes – two more than the total number of DIE LINKE delegates – in the first and only round of elections).

The race for president thus still remains open. In contrast to Estonia – where political leaders find themselves in a similar situation – however, there is still sufficient time for parties to find a candidate. On the other hand, a timely decision could mitigate the election’s signalling effect for the next Bundestag election and give parties more time to focus on their campaign. It is without question that all of them do not want to live with a headache for too long.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Germany – A muzzle for the president? President Gauck and the limits of freedom of speech(es)

The election of Joachim Gauck’s election as Germany’s 11th Federal President was a novelty in many respects. Gauck was not only the first president from the former German Democratic Republic, but also the first non-partisan to ascend to the Germany’s highest office. Gauck himself promised to be ‘an uncomfortable president’ who would voice his opinion more often even if it contradicted the policies of the government or went counter to prevailing public opinion. His remarks towards the far-right were welcomed by public and politicians alike. Yet Gauck’s calls for the need for greater German military involvement abroad and criticism of the possibility of a leftist politician being elected minister-president of Thuringia have been met with opposition. Now coalition politicians are reportedly seeking ways to ‘muzzle’ the ‘uncomfortable president’.

Joachim Gauck during his speech after being elected president | photo via bundespraesident.de | © Jesco Denzel / Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

The powers of the German presidency are generally very limited and the role of its incumbents is thus largely ceremonial with very little potential for independent political action. One of the few opportunities for German presidents to influence politics are their speeches and interviews and most office-holders to date have through these been able to install themselves as a ‘moral compass’ in the public debate. Due to his work as a Lutheran pastor, opposition activist and Federal Commissioner for dealing with the records of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) during the 90s as well as his oratory skills incumbent president Joachim Gauck had been established as a notable public figure even before his election and received overwhelming public support for his candidacies (his first one was unsuccessful) for the country’s highest office. Since his inauguration in March 2012, several of Gauck’s speeches have been met with acclaim (also internationally, e.g. his speech on European integration), just like his clear stance against the extremist far-right. In the latter case, the German Constitutional Court even confirmed that Gauck was allowed to label members and followers of the extremist far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) ‘nutcases’ and had the right to free expression as long as he does not ‘take sides in an arbitrary manner’.

Despite Gauck’s general popularity, German politicians have recently criticised Gauck for overstepping his constitutionally prescribed role. In the first instance, this was due to his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January this year in which he called for greater German military engagement abroad. The German president does not even possess ceremonial powers with regard to the military or foreign policy and elites were thus unhappy with his remarks. The government was also not pleased with Gauck’s interpellations in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis (among others, Gauck accussed Russian president Vladimir Putin of breaking international law) and had to employ great diplomatic effort to keep open a channel of communication with the Russian leadership. It should be mentioned Gauck’s remarks were also unusual for other reasons. The German public is not only traditionally wary having their troops deployed abroad, but Gauck’s pre-predecessor Horst Köhler resigned after he felt unduly criticised for declaring that German military deployments abroad (which are usually labelled as ‘humanitarian’ in the German discourse) also served to secure the country’s economic interests.

President Gauck was faced with second wave of criticism when he told journalists that he would be ‘uncomfortable’ with seeing leftist politician Bodo Ramelow’s being elected as minister-president of the German state of Thuringia. While his remarks were generally less surprising, they too meant means that Gauck entered (politically) uncharted waters. Ramelow is local leader of ‘Die LINKE’ (“The Left”) a successor party to the United Socialist Party (SED) – the GDR’s party of power. While ‘Die LINKE’ has participated in a number of coalition governments in the East German states (and even tolerated a Social Democrat-Green minority government in the West), it has never nominated the minister-president. Given Gauck’s role in the GDR opposition movement – among others he was co-founder of the ‘New Forum’ opposition movement – and his work as Federal Commissioner for dealing with records of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) 1990-2000, his criticism of LINKE-led government is understandable. Nevertheless, it is the first time in German post-unification (potentially even post-war) history that a president has taken a public stance on the political situation in one of the 16 German states.

It is thus not a coincidence that it was revealed last week that Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU; currently in government), commissioned the parliamentary research service to draft a legal opinion on ‘the competence of the president to make foreign policy statements’ (as Gauweiler’s CSU is fiercely opposed to ‘Die LINKE’, the focus on foreign policy alone is not surprising). The paper, which was leaked to a number of newspapers, clearly states that the president was not allowed to conduct an ‘alternative foreign policy’ and can be required to closely coordinate the content of public statements. While this describes the existing political practice (the general content of speeches is coordinated with the respective government ministries and the Chancellor’s office), the paper seems to open the possibility for a word-by-word coordination which would significantly reduce the presidents ability to influence political and public debates. Nevertheless, the opinion also tends towards rejecting a requirement for countersignature for speeches. While the vast majority of presidential decisions and actions is already subject to countersignature, the currently dominant opinion in legal scholarship argues against it.

It is unlikely that the government of parliamentary majority will initiate any steps towards formally restricting Gauck’s ability to make public statements. Nevertheless, the debate and the fact that the criticism has shifted from the fringes of the political spectrum (radical right and radical left) to mainstream parties should be food for thought for Gauck. While it is unclear whether he wants to seek re-election once his term ends in 2017 (he will be 77 years old by then), he might need be a more ‘comfortable’ president in any case to make sure that his words do not fall on deaf ears among those who can turn them into actions.

Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?

Presidential salaries – particularly during and after the European financial crisis – have been a hotly debated topic in a number of European republics and several office holders have voluntarily taken a pay cut. Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the earnings of Western and Central and Eastern European presidents or my old blog (presidentialactivism.com) which proved to be highly popular and generated some media attention. The posts which are reproduced here today and tomorrow try to answer the questions How much do presidents actually earn? Did the crisis have an impact on presidential salaries? And how do their earnings relate to other factors?

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the highest paid president in Western Europe (if you do not count the Chairman of the Swiss Confederate Presidency) | photo by GuentherZ via wikimedia commons

Presidents’ absolute salaries in comparison

Given different regulations about salaries, lump sums and other benefits it is difficult to establish universally how much presidents actually earn. For this post I tried to ascertain (accurately, I hope) presidents’ yearly gross annual income exclusive of benefits. However, I decided to include so-called 13th/14th salaries as these are part of the taxable income and many presidents were either entitled to receive those or were recently deprived of them (see more under the penultimate subheading). Although the national gross average income would certainly be easier to interpret as a point of reference, I had chosen the 2012 GDP per capita for the sake of reliability. I was also not able to find reliable data for Cyprus (please leave a link in the comment section if you know a reliable source).

Western european presidents_absolute annual salary_presidentialactivism.com_

The bar chart shows that there is a huge variety in presidents’ salaries in Western Europe. The top-earner is the Swiss Federal President, i.e. the chairperson of the seven-person collegiate presidency that is elected ‘President of the Confederation’. Members of the Federal Council receive €360,358 annually, the president receives an additional €9,735 (i.e. 370,093 annually). The runner-up and top earner among the ‘normal’ presidents – the Swiss-type collegiate presidency is worldwide unique – is the Austrian president. Current incumbent Heinz Fischer receives a gross annual salary of €328,188 which consists of 12 regular monthly salaries + two additional monthly salaries (not benefits) of €23,442 each. George Abela, the president of Malta,, on the other hand earns the least with just €56,310 and thus almost six times less than the Austrian counterpart. The average presidential gross annual salary is €191,149, the average GDP per capita (2012) is €30,860. There are only few presidents who earn a similar absolute gross yearly salary, although this looks different for relative yearly salaries.

Setting earnings into perspective

Absolute numbers are always present a somewhat distorted image in cross-country comparisons, which is why it is good to set presidents’ gross annual income into perspective. As mentioned above, I use the respective country’s GDP per capita from 2012 as a point for comparison.

Western european presidents_relative annual salary

There is a lot of change of positions when comparing absolute and relative gross annual income. While the Maltese presidents is still the lowest paid democratically elected head of state in Europe with 350% of the GDP per capita, previous front-runner Switzerland is with 606% of the GDP/capita only 12 percentage points above the Western European average. Greek president Karolos Papoulisas – in absolute earnings rather on the lower end of the spectrum – now finds himself in third position as his annual gross salary is more than eight times more than the GDP per capita (and this even though his salary had already been halved last year – more on this below). The top-earners in relative terms are by far the presidents of Italy and  Austria. Their gross annual salary amounts to almost nine times more than the nominal GDP per capita.

Western european presidents_scatterplot

The correlation between GDP per capita and presidential salaries is surprisingly high (R=0.8) and Switzerland is the only real outlier. The plot also shows that Finnish president Niinistö earned less than one could have expected from the GDP per capita – even before his salary cut.

The crisis and its consequences

The crisis has certainly taken its toll on presidential salaries in Western Europe as several presidents experienced a pay cut or voluntarily cut their own salary. French president Hollande cut his salary by 30%, Irish president Higgins voluntarily waived 23.5% of his salary, Finnish president Niinistö waived 20%. In Greece, parliament cut the president’s salary by 50% (and abolished a €6,240/month  representational allowance) after president Papoulias had suggested it. Papoulias had previously already waived his salary for a whole year as well as his right to a 13th and 14th monthly salary. Cypriot president (who could not be included in this ranking because of missing data) also waived his additional monthly salaries and cut his salary by 25% after his predecessor had already seen a 20% salary cut.

On the other hand, German president Gauck and Austrian president Fischer recently saw an increase in their income. In 2012, Gauck’s gross yearly income went up from €199,000 to €217,000 while Fischer receives has a modest €411 more in his bank account every month since the beginning of this year (this increase also applies to his two additional monthly salaries so that overall the gross yearly income went up by €5,754). At least in the case of Germany, this increase should not be seen too controversial. The president’s earnings are still rather average (see also scatter plot above) and had not been increased for almost a decade (furthermore, the salary is indirectly tied to the income of federal clerks).

Powers and mode of election

With relation to presidential powers and the mode of presidential election, the results contrast those from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the absolute results depend on whether Switzerland is included or not. Directly elected presidents have a gross yearly income of €183,355 (573% of the GDP per capita), while indirectly elected presidents (Switzerland included) earn €202,061 (664%) and thus more in absolute and relative terms. However, if one excludes Switzerland (which might be sensible due to the exceptionalism of the Swiss collegiate presidency) the gross yearly income is only €160,511 (703% of GDP per capita) which in absolute numbers is less but significantly more in relative terms.

When it comes to the relationship between presidential powers (measures taken from Siaroff 2003) and presidential income the correlation is R=0.0002 and thus non-existent.

***Sources (click on the country names)***
*AustriaFinlandFranceGermanyGreeceIcelandIrelandItalyMaltaPortugalSwitzerland*

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 1 August 2013.

Presidential term lengths and possibilities for re-election in European republics

I recently read up on the amendments made to the Czech constitution to allow for popular presidential elections and stumbled across Art. 57 (2) – ‘No person may be elected President more than twice in succession’ (which already applied to indirectly elected presidents) and wondered how it looks in other European republics and how it relates to term length. The results of my study of each country’s constitution are summarised in the bar chart below.

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit |photos via wikimedia commons

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit | photos via wikimedia commons

Term length

Term length is relatively uniform across European republics – in all but six countries a president’s term is five years. Exceptions can only be found in Iceland and Latvia (4 years), Austria and Finland (6 years), and Italy and Ireland (7 years). Interestingly, all presidents serving terms of six or seven years are popularly elected; yet, so is the president of Iceland who is only serving a four-year term.

Presidential term lengths and re-election provisions in the EU member states_presidentialactivism.com

Term limits

A limitation to two consecutive terms can be found in twelve out of 22 European republics, i.e. a former president who has already served two consecutive terms could theoretically be re-elected for a further two consecutive terms after ‘taking a break’. In Latvia, the constitution states that an individual may not serve as president longer than eight consecutive years (which equates to two terms in office). In Portugal, the constitution specifies that a president who has already served two consecutive terms can only be re-elected as president after a break of at least five years. In other countries with a limit of two consecutive terms no such provision exists.

In seven out of the ten remaining republics, presidents can only be elected for two terms – irrespective of consecutiveness. In Malta, a president can even only be elected for one term (although the constitution is rather imprecise on the subject). In Iceland and Italy, there are no regulations on re-election. While it is the norm in Iceland that presidents serve several terms – since 1944 all presidents have served at least three consecutive terms (the current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is in his fourth term at the moment), Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is the first Italian president to be re-elected.

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 August 2013.

Austria & Germany – The pocket-veto power of Federal Presidents

The majority of European presidents (as well as presidents in most other countries around the world) possess at least some role in the legislative process. Typically, this is the right to veto legislation, i.e. send bills back to parliament (usually with comments/sometimes with proposed amendments) where they are then discussed again. Two prominent exceptions are Austria and Germany where presidents do not formally have the right to refuse their signature.[1] Nevertheless, the interpretation of the respective constitutional stipulations is not clear and it can be argued that they possess a form of pocket veto.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the only Austrian president to date who has refused to sign a bill despite having no specific veto power |photo via wikimedia commons

At first glance, the stipulations of the Austrian and German constitutions about the final stages of the legislative process appear relatively simple and are almost identical – once a law has been passed it is signed and promulgated by the president (see table below) and the constitution do not foresee a presidential right to refuse the signature. Constitutional scholars in both countries have however argued that presidents may still refuse their signature under certain conditions, although the debate here has not reached a definite conclusion.

Austrian Constitution – Art 47 (1) The adoption of federal laws in accordance with the constitution is authenticated by the signature of the Federal President.
German Basic Law – Art 82 (1) Laws enacted in accordance with the provisions of this Basic Law shall, after countersignature, be certified by the Federal President and promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette.

The main point of contention is hereby the fact that both constitutions do not simply stipulate that presidents sign adopted laws but that they sign laws enacted/adopted in accordance with the respective constitution. For most scholars it is clear that presidents should be allowed to refuse signature to bills (or might pursuant to their oath of office to protect the constitution even have the duty to do so) if there were any procedural errors in any part of the legislative process. This could for instance be that the bill was not passed with the required majority or that the draft did not go through all three readings (correcting such procedural errors is interestingly also a not infrequent reason for ‘ordinary’ presidential vetoes in other European countries).

A significant minority of experts however argues that presidents do not only have the right to check the violation of procedural rules before they sign the bill (and refuse signature if they find any) and assert that the term ‘in accordance with the constitution’ needs to be interpreted more widely. Presidents should therefore also be allowed to review the constitutionality of bills with regard to further stipulations and only sign the bill if there are no ‘obvious’ violations (i.e. presidents and their administration should still not perform an in-depth legal analysis). In Germany, this group of scholars is further divided between a larger group that argues that the president should only check the bill for violations of the ‘fundamental rights‘ and a smaller group supporting an all-encompassing review power. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that presidents cannot refuse to sign bills for political reasons or non-legal objections to the content of legislation.

As there are no provisions that would allow presidents to return the bill to parliament (and for parliament to pass the bill again without introducing it again as a new draft), even the dominant ‘procedural’ interpretation of the respective stipulations can be seen as a form of pocket veto. From 1949 until now, presidents in both countries have only extremely rarely tried to exploit these constitutional ambiguities. German presidents have refused their signature on 6 occasions so far [2] and there has only been one case in Austria. In all cases, the refusal to sign the bills was clearly triggered by very obvious procedural errors or violations of basic constitutional principles. Nevertheless, the practical relevance should not be underestimated.

Although German presidents have only refused their signature under a bill once every ten years, the possibility of the president’s refusal to sign a bill accompanies most debates about controversial legislation, e.g. the recent passage of new regulations on the remuneration of members of the Bundestag. Even by delaying the signature under a bill and speculating about a pocket veto, presidents might able to extract concessions on related legislation in the future. In Austria, incumbent president Heinz Fischer was the first refusing to sign a bill, meaning that even after 60 years of constitutional practice in which presidents routinely played a subordinate role to the government president are able to curb out new powers.  Furthermore, similar to Germany the possibility of a pocket veto has also become part of Austrian debates about legislation.

For now, it is unlikely that parliaments or governments in either country will approach constitutional courts to have presidents’ compentencies clarified as it is possible that the court will provide unfavourable interpretation of the constitution and extend presidential powers. Nevertheless, at the same time the fact that a decision could also be taken in parliaments’ or governments’ favour should ensure that presidents do not use their power more frequently.

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[1] The Slovenian president also has no veto power, yet regulations differ from the Austrian and German examples.
[2] Tavits, Margit. 2008. Presidents and Prime Ministers. Do direct elections matter? Oxford: OPU. p 81.