Monthly Archives: November 2015

John Gaffney – Understanding the French Presidency

This post is drawn from the Introduction to John Gaffney (2015) France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (London: Palgrave).

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France is back in the news again and, as in January 2015, for deadly terrorist attacks, this time staggeringly more deadly; November 13: 130 dead, 350 wounded 80 of whom seriously. The French presidency was not the cause of these attacks, but it is central to the overall political process, and in particular its inadequacies. The presidency and the regime lie at the heart of France’s ills. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012, economic growth has been non-existent, unemployment has risen unrelentingly, along with the popularity of the far right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen. My recent book* identifies, chronicles and analyses this ‘dysfunctional’ presidential republic. I analyse what the first half of the five-year term tells us about the nature of the Fifth Republic, and the way in which François Hollande failed to understand the ‘performative requirements’ of the Republic, in particular the notions of time, character, and what I call ‘sequencing the self’. From a theoretical point of view I am concerned with the appraisal of the political performance of an individual and his entourage within a particular configuration of institutions and expectations. By 2015, in many polls up to 86% of respondents had a very negative view of Hollande. In my book, it is unavoidable being critical of Hollande himself and his team. My analysis is not, however, concerned with his real character except in as much as it informs us about his ‘performative character’, and his persona; it is the relationship of this to the configuration of institutions and to public opinion that is the central focus of my study. My focus is the presidency and its historical, cultural, and institutional conditions of performance. Paradoxically, I am equally concerned with presidential politics at the daily political level, because this is where the presidency as a perceived and symbolic institution and one that is ‘active’ in political life actually ‘performs’. The ‘trivial’, the incidental, the apparently unimportant, and the ‘trivial unexpected’ in French politics are now in a systematic (and yet chaotic) relationship to ‘real politics’, to the point where the trivial has become unpredictable in its effects and has major political consequences. The Hollande presidency is an acute illustration of the dysfunction of the presidency in the Fifth Republic. Functionally, actions, reactions, and responses all take place within a symbolic or ideational framework, in large part related to how the Fifth Republic is perceived, and has been historically perceived, ‘imagined’ and ‘constructed’ since 1958. I concentrate on how the republic functions and acts symbolically, how it ‘enacts itself’. I identify the range of historical and cultural reasons why the Fifth Republic is one in which ‘symbolic politics’ and its related myths, leadership image, discourse, rhetoric, and the President as the ‘embodiment’ of politics, have taken on inordinate political significance. The strongest myth is that of the recours, or return of the ‘saviour’, a feature of French politics for two centuries but given an institutional platform by the Fifth Republic, and used by all leadership contenders, even if they have already ‘returned’, i.e. are in office.

From the practical point of view, I ask a series of ‘normal’ political questions about Hollande’s presidency and his government/s: Why were they so unpopular? How do we account for the rise of all the negative indices of the regime barely four months into office? How do we account for the extremes, the surges of opinion, such as the widespread Manif pour tous or Bonnets rouges protests in 2013? More widely, how do we account for the general, we might venture almost clinical, depression of the whole population (and this before the attacks of January and November 2015 which terrified the nation), the political demobilisation of the electorate, and a growing disdain for politics throughout the years of Hollande’s presidency? Was all of this inevitable? What should Hollande have been doing? What should he have not been doing? And an even wider question: how do we understand this profusion of surface phenomena in terms of deeper structures and processes? Gestures and actions at a daily level ‘betray’, ‘reveal’ the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic. We can characterise, for example, the storm of trivial activity through the spring, summer and autumn of 2013 of gestures, initiatives, actions, interventions, short holidays, media saturation of presidential and prime ministerial ‘déplacements’ during July and August 2013 as surface expressions of a kind of neurotic attempt to ‘cope with’ the barely understood exigencies of the republic. These gestures were not unconscious but, beyond the grasp of their authors, they demonstrate, perform even, the dilemmas of the Fifth Republic, in particular the highly problematic nature of the presidency. The most dramatic – debilitating for subsequent negotiations in November 2015, and humiliating for Hollande in 2013 – was his making the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August-September 2013 a personalised clash between himself and President Assad, then his complete marginalisation when Presidents Obama and Putin defused the situation in September 2013.

De Gaulle created a very singular republic based inordinately upon 1) the role of the persona of the President, the role of discourse and of personal image and gesture, and the ‘character’ of the President; and 2) the constructed, ‘imagined’ relationship between the President and people on the one hand, and the President and ‘France’ on the other. These two facets of the new republic in 1958 had a dramatic and complex effect upon the nature of political competition, the influence of the political culture (later the role of the celebrity culture), the role of the symbolic, and the role and configuration of the institutions, in particular, the presidency. In the Hollande presidency there has been a series of such fundamental and on-going miscalculations that they raise the question of whether the political actors understand the republic. Simple things like an appropriate way to ‘be’ the President – how to talk, not constantly to joke, control the public comportment of his (now former) partner, and so on – betrayed a lack of sensitivity to both the exigencies of the office and the nature of the republic. After every interview, announcement, and press conference in his first two years, Hollande’s popularity fell significantly. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015 virtually no gesture, speech or action had traction on opinion. At times, indifference seemed even to replace hostility, as if the President had become an irrelevance, as if he barely existed. And tiny increases in popularity after crises like January and November 2015 were less the result of Hollande’s actions but because the office embodies national unity.

Not that Sarkozy had understood things much better. Sarkozy’s style might or might not have been appropriate, but Hollande’s own was in large part based upon his being simply the negation of Sarkozy, operationally, stylistically, politically, and – which would come to be highly problematic – ethically. Hollande had faced only half the issue (i.e. what unwanted features Nicolas Sarkozy had brought to the republic); what was not developed was an understanding of what he was going to replace them with and why, and how.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s fate as respected new President in 2007 was seen as being sealed the night of his victory by an ostentatious celebration meal in the Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s. Very badly received by the media and the public, this perceived, somewhat common, ‘bling’ expression of conspicuous consumption and celebration inserted fragility into his presidential status, and then a relentless decline in the new President’s popularity. This was the first time in the Fifth Republic such an ‘event’ had had such a crystallising effect. Hollande’s going off on holiday (almost immediately after election, and while unemployment burned) in July-August 2012 was his equivalent to Sarkozy’s defining miscalculation. Each of these events tells us a great deal about the ‘nature’ of this republic today: a single trivial act, given oxygen, as it were, by the media and opinion, can throw a presidency out of kilter. In some respects, this is a new and normative feature of governance or mal-governance in France. In another respect, it is not new at all, or is rather the singular new expression of a fundamental feature as old as the Fifth Republic, namely, the dramatically consequent phenomenon of personal popularity, or more accurately in these cases, unpopularity, themselves the product of a complex ‘imagined’ relationship between President and public. Charles de Gaulle brought to the Fifth Republic a very volatile emotional political relationship. Today, de Gaulle approaches sainthood in the public memory, but that was not the lived reality. Although the volatility of the relationship was displayed by him as appeasing of conflict, he was viscerally liked and disliked (one might venture to say loved and hated, admired and feared) in almost equal and varying measure; and this relationship saw his ultimate undoing in 1969 (and, ironically, established the conditions for the perenniality of both the republic itself and his mythical status). Beyond popularity, moreover, was the question of political and emotional need, what was ‘required’ of the presidency and how this fitted into the rapidly established parameters of the new republic between 1958 and 1962. De Gaulle responded to this need by developing all the dramatic aspects of his character, lending to the new French republic the ‘character’ of its new President: grand, visionary, imperial – in manner if not always in policies – interventionist, dramatic, in a phrase, larger than life. And presidential character was in a relationship to public approval – hence the triumphs of 1958 and 1962 but also defeat such as 1969. The same was less true of Pompidou, who acted as a kind of dramatic relief from such imperium (besides, any attempt to ‘follow de Gaulle’, as it were, would have looked farcical); but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s presidencies each displayed enormous swings in ratings of popularity-unpopularity in the polls. All of this suggests an emotional volatility between the public and the Presidents. With the celebrity culture from the 2000s onwards, a new feature does not simply emerge in France but merges with this deeper structural phenomenon of the Fifth Republic, changing the problematic ‘intimacy’ in leader-public relations: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande seemed to understand this aspect of the regime, the emotional intensity and complexity of an, albeit ‘imagined’, relationship, and the fact that with the new celebrity politics the President would be in the public eye on a daily basis.

John Gaffney is a political commentator and author, and currently Professor of Politics at Aston University. Specialising in UK and French politics and the discourse of leadership, he regularly contributes to TV and print media. In July 2012, he was awarded £77,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two year study of UK political leadership. His latest book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (Palgrave, 2015), is out now. His 2012 book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (Palgrave), is out in paperback.

Argentina – Center-Right Challenger Mauricio Macri Wins the Run-Off

On the pages of this blog just over three weeks ago, Ezequiel González Ocantos and Luis Schiumerini, two great colleagues of mine here at Oxford, wrote an incredibly detailed post that deconstructed the first round of the recent Argentine presidential elections. Their insightful analysis suggested that the days of Peronism in Argentina could be numbered. They contended that the main non-Peronist challenger to the presidency, Mauricio Macri, as a result of a combination of factors, including his strategic move to the center and the deteriorating economic situation, combined with his morale boosting first round victory, may have been enough to lure discontented voters from the camp of Sergio Massa (the third placed candidate in the first round election) and win the presidential run-off election on November 22.

Their analysis has proven rather prescient. Last Sunday, Macri, the non-Peronist challenger of Cambiemos, a largely centrist coalition comprising the vestiges of the long-standing Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), Macri’s own political party, Propuesta Republicana (PRO), and the Coalición Cívica, defeated Daniel Scioli, the chosen successor of the current Peronist incumbent, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Macri, the outgoing Mayor of Buenos Aires and his vice-presidential running mate, Marta Gabriela Michetti, won the election with 51.4 per cent of the votes in the run-off. With a solid 80 per cent turnout (approximately 25 million voters), Macri has a mandate for change.

There are a number of reasons for Macri’s victory. A proper analysis can be found in the post by Ezequiel and Luis but in short, they suggest Macri’s electoral success is rooted in his emergence as a credible political challenger, which was only bolstered by his first round victory, and his pragmatic move to the center and promise to maintain the most popular statist policies of the incumbent, combined with “the increasing doubts about Scioli’s ideological commitment to either Kirchnerism or anti-Kirchnerism, corruption scandals, and a series of events that underscored the deterioration of the economic situation,” all of which enabled Macri to successfully persuade Massa voters to support him.

One thing is for sure. This is a change election. It is the first time since 1999 that a non-Peronist candidate has won the presidency and it will be the first time since 2001 that a non-Peronist has held the presidency. Of course, Macri faces a number of formidable challenges, not least of which include the legacies of Kirchnerist polarization and the current economic situation, but change does seem to be in the air. Shortly after his election, Macri gave a news conference, a practice that had largely disappeared under the presidency of Cristina Fernández.

For a proper and full analysis of this election and the electoral data however, I guess I will just have to very nicely ask Ezequiel and Luis to write a follow-up post.

Rwanda – President Kagame and constitutional reform

A major overhaul of the 2003 constitution of Rwanda is underway. What are the major proposed changes, and how will they impact President Paul Kagame and the 2017 presidential election?

A constitutional reform commission established by parliament and approved by President Kagame was seated in September 2015 and proceeded to make recommendations for changes to a number of articles, notably those affecting presidential term limits. Signed petitions from Rwandan citizens had been arriving for months at the lower house of the Rwandan legislature, requesting an amendment of article 101 of the constitution that limits presidential terms to two seven-year terms. By mid-August, parliament had reportedly received 3.7 million signatures, an impressive figure for a population of 12 million people and equivalent to 60 percent of registered voters. The expression of popular will, says the government; the result of manipulation and pressure, say its critics. Some skepticism seems warranted in a country with limited political pluralism and where civil liberties declined over the past year due to narrowing space for freedom of expression, according to Freedomhouse which rates Rwanda as “Not Free.”

At the end of October, the lower house adopted a draft amended constitution. Major changes included reducing the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years, applicable after 2017. This means the candidate who wins in 2017 would still serve a “transitional” 7-year term, and then be eligible for two 5-year terms. This transitional period is according to Speaker Donatile Mukabalisa justified by “Rwanda’s unique context as the nation strives to achieve sustainable socio-economic transformation.” After this transitional period, the two-term limit in article 101 would be maintained.

Article 172 in the revised constitution states that “the President of the Republic in office at the time of commencement of this revised Constitution – that is President Paul Kagame in this case — shall continue to serve the term for which he was elected, and the provisions of Article 101 of this revised Constitution shall be applicable after the expiry of a seven-year term.” With these provisions, Kagame could potentially serve 17 years more in power after the end of his current term, till 2034.

The Senate adopted the draft amended constitution on November 17, after making substantive changes to 32 articles and formatting changes to 16 others, without changing articles 101 and 172. With regards to article 172 in particular, the chairperson of the committee on political affairs and good governance hon. Jean Nepomuscene Sindikubwabo stated that “it responded positively to requests of Rwandan citizens especially their wishes that triggered the amendment of the constitution.”

On November 23, the Chamber of Deputies met in plenary to approve the modifications made by the Senate to the draft amended constitution, thus marking the end of the constitutional review process at the level of parliament. Next step will be the organization of a national referendum for which no date has yet been set. The Democratic Green Party, by some accounts Rwanda’s only genuine opposition party and which has no representation in parliament, is the only party to have publicly opposed the elimination of term limits. The party unsuccessfully sought to block the constitutional review process through legal action and has declared its intent to wage a “no-campaign” for the referendum.

Unless Kagame decides he will not stand for reelection next year, the road appears to be paved for not one but three more terms in office for him. Donors have been fairly muted in their response. This is after all donor-darling Rwanda and not Burundi or the DRC. While expressing “grave concern” over the move to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to stand for reelection, the US State Department has refrained from threatening to cut aid, stating cautiously that if Kagame were to stay it could “impact US-Rwanda relations going forward.” The EU has no common position. During a visit in September, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica lauded the strong development partnership with Rwanda, while stating the EU supports “sovereign decisions taken by sovereign nations” with regards to the content of their constitutions.

Sri Lanka – President Moves to Abolish the Executive Presidency

Between 1947 and 1977 Sri Lanka had a prime ministerial form of government that resembled the Westminster model. In 1977 the then newly elected prime minister J R Jayewardene using his two-thirds majority in parliament introduced an executive presidency that came to be described as the “Gaullist System” of Asia. Under the constitutional provisions enacted, Prime Minister Jayawardane himself assumed the office of executive president without calling for a presidential election. In the first ever all-island presidential election held in 1982 he was reelected and held office until his second term ended in 1988. The constitution mandated a two-term limit on the presidency. After Jayewardene five others have held the office including the present incumbent Maithripala Sirisena who was elected in January 2015.

Jayewardene justified the executive presidency on the grounds that a powerful executive was essential to take quick and decisive decisions to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic growth. Critics of the presidency saw it as an authoritarian office that over-centralized power and undermined Sri Lanka’s democracy. For sure Sri Lanka’s economy has performed relatively quite well in the past 35 years. In 1977 the per capita GDP was US $294. By 1997 it had more than doubled to $800 moving up the country from “low-income” to “lower-middle” income category in World Bank classification. In 2014 the per capita GDP was $3,625. While cause and effect in this kind of relationship is hard to determine, for sure there is an association between the two. More importantly critics saw in the executive presidency an increasingly authoritarian trend that posed a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy. This reality reached its high point under the fourth executive president Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014). In 2001 under the 17th amendment to the constitution parliament unanimously voted for constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the executive presidency. Rajapaksa was elected to office for a second term in 2010 after he militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter fought the government for over 25 years to establish an independent state in the north and east one-third of the island. Exploiting the military victory that made him a hero, especially among the 75% Sinhalese majority, in 2010 Rajapaksa succeed in getting parliament to pass the 18th amendment to the Constitution that removed the two-term limit of office and also overrode the provisions of the 17th amendment making the office of president more powerful than ever.

In January this year Rajapaksa lost the presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. The latter promised to abolish the executive presidency and also limit his presidency to one term of five years. Two of his predecessors, Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who promised to abolish the office failed to do so.

The present Sri Lanka administration is a “national” unity government that is a coalition of the country’s two main political groups. The first is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United People Freedom Front (UPFA) that President Sirisena leads. The second, is the United National Party (UNP) that Prime Minister Rani Wickramasinghe leads. Together they command more than two-thirds of seats in parliament that permits them to amend or change the constitution. In a speech in Colombo on Tuesday November 17 Sirisena noted that the executive presidency in the “wrong hands” has become a “dangerous tool” and the “root cause of unprecedented corruption and breakdown of rule of law.” Many Sri Lankan voters would agree with Sirisena’s observation. Embarrassingly, he himself has provided proof for his assertion by appointing one of his siblings as the chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest corporations in the country. The new chairman has been publicly accused of preparing to buy an Indian-owned phone company operating in Sri Lanka at an inflated price.

Sirisena took the first steps to deliver on his promise to curtail the powers of the presidency when his government passed the 19th amendment to the constitution in April this year that overrode the 18th amendment, took away some of the presidential powers and more or less restored the 17th amendment that provided for the the establishment of a Constitutional Council that is responsible for establishing a group of independent commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission and a Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption.

Sirisena has four more years of his first term of office. It appears that his plan is to abolish the executive presidency at the end of his term and have an “Executive” Prime Minister. It is not clear at this stage how that position would differ from the office of prime minister of the British type that Sri Lanka had from 1947 to 1977. But what is certain is that it would be less powerful than the presidency. A committee that prime minster Wickramasinghe is to head will formulate the proposed constitutional amendments in the coming few weeks.

There is speculation that Sirisena who earlier hinted that he would retire from active politics when his presidential term ends might change his mind and remain in politics seeking the office of prime minister.

 

Russia – Vladimir Putin: President of his Country, and its Diaspora

Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin gave the opening address at the V Global Congress of Compatriots [Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov], a forum sponsored by the Russian President’s and Prime Minister’s offices. Established in 2001,[i] in Putin’s second year of office, the organization unites persons living outside Russia who feel an affinity toward the Russian Federation and have cultural, linguistic, kinship, or citizenship ties to the country or its predecessors–Tsarist Russia[ii] and the USSR. In his speech to 400 delegates drawn from 97 different countries, Putin made it clear that his responsibilities as president extend beyond the borders of Russia. “Persons [compatriots] living outside of Russia, for whatever reason, should be fully confident: we will always defend your interests, especially in challenging and crisis situations.”[iii]

Appealing in equal parts to the diaspora’s sense of pride and indignation, Putin explained to the representatives of the “huge and varied overseas Russian community”–approximately 30 million strong–that for the Russian state, “a reliable defense of compatriots against any form of discrimination” experienced overseas was a matter of principle. For their part, delegates from overseas reveled in Russia’s new prominence on the world stage and Putin’s muscular foreign policy. As an ethnic Russian from Kyrgyzstan observed, “it used to be that only the lazy failed to spit on Russia, which sapped the spirit of compatriots…but the insolent Saudis and Qataris suddenly understood that they could be smashed to smithereens by rockets from the Caspian fleet! In principle, I’m a pacifist, but I fully support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!! I’m happy that Russia has come alive!”[iv]

By appearing personally at the Congress of Compatriots, Putin signaled his support for a range of recent initiatives designed to expand the linkages between the Russian state and its diaspora, and in so doing to strengthen Russia’s soft power capabilities outside its borders.   On one level, official policy seeks to nurture the language, culture, and religions of Russia among compatriots living permanently abroad, often in countries of the Near Abroad whose governments have pursued policies of de-russification since the collapse of the USSR. Russian officials lament the fact that the Russian language has declined more rapidly than any other major world language, falling from 350 million speakers in 1985 to 270 million today. As Putin explained in his speech, in order to reverse this trend, the government has recently developed a new program, “The Russian School Abroad,” whose goal is to expose youth in the diaspora to traditional Russian methods of language instruction as well as approaches to Russian history, culture, and geography that align with official narratives advanced by the Russian state. Referencing an essay contest entitled “My Motherland is the Russian Language,” one journalist noted that “geolinguistics has become a part of Russian geopolitics today.” Extending an old saying attributed to Tsar Alexander III, he observed that “besides its two faithful allies, the army and navy, Russia also has a third, which is very strong: the Russian language.”[v]

In order to correct what the Russian political establishment regards as false impressions of their homeland and its foreign and domestic policies, Russia has also made significant investments of late in international broadcasting, including the RT network in English, and in programs that bring young compatriots back to Russia for higher education or for short-term travel. In 2015, Russia reserved 15,000 places in its higher educational institutions for members of the diaspora, and it is expanding its efforts to reach young compatriots outside the country, in part through distance learning and branches of Russian universities abroad. In April of this year, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the country organized in Sochi the first Global Games for Young Compatriots, which brought together 600 participants from 33 countries. “All of this,” Putin noted in his remarks to the Congress of Compatriots, “serves to strengthen the international authority and influence of our country; it helps to eliminate the stereotypes and prejudices of recent years; and it replaces various propaganda campaigns and cliches about our country with the truth.”[vi]

Besides initiatives designed to heighten the diaspora’s attachment to the “Russian World” [russkii mir], the Putin presidency has vigorously pursued resettlement efforts that encourage compatriots to return permanently to their ancestral homeland. Speaking in Kazakhstan in the early years of his presidency, Putin observed that due to the demographic crisis facing Russia, the country would need to attract up to 50,000,000 additional citizens.[vii] In recent years, significant numbers of labor migrants have moved to Russia from the poorer reaches of the Near Abroad, and in particular from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It is clear, however, that the Russian political establishment would prefer to make up this demographic deficit with immigrants whose linguistic, ethnic, and confessional backgrounds align with the majority population in the country.

Toward this end, both the Russian federal government and the governments of individual regions have developed resettlement programs that facilitate the return of compatriots by assisting with housing and employment. Operating under the umbrella of the “State Program for Offering Assistance for the Volunteer Return to Russia of Compatriots Abroad,” these efforts have resulted in the return over the last eight years of 367,000 persons, of whom 130,000 moved from Ukraine.[viii] Although these numbers are significant–and an additional stream of settlers from Ukraine is underway[ix]–this program is far from eliminating Russia’s demographic deficit, which is felt especially keenly in the sparsely settled areas along the Chinese border.[x]

Putin’s appearance at the Global Congress of Compatriots is a reminder that, in some countries, studies of the presidency must consider not just a leader’s relations with domestic audiences and representatives of foreign states but also those living abroad who remain attached to their homeland. As we have seen in Ukraine over the last two years, the Russian President has been able to mobilize members of the “Russian World” as a means of consolidating Russia’s position in the region and his own political support. How Putin uses these ties to his compatriots in surrounding countries, most notably in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic, will serve as a barometer of his own, and his country’s, ambitions in the region and the world.

Notes

[i] Organizers had attempted to launch such a congress in 1991, but its initial meeting was cut short due to the August coup, and the organization never recovered.   Mariia Chunikhina, “Chto takoe Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov?” Argumenty i fakty, 5 November 2015. http://www.aif.ru/dontknows/file/chto_takoe_vsemirnyy_kongress_sootechestvennikov More than 150 local Russian compatriot organizations exist around the world, and the overwhelming majority of their members, according to an official in the Moscow mayor’s office, “support Russia on practically all issues.” Ibid.

[ii] Speaking at the Congress, Count Nikita Lobanov-Rostovskii, a representative of the post-revolutionary emigration, recounted a comment attributed to Vladimir Putin as he passed the grave of a White Guard member in a Parisian cemetery. “These are children of the same mother, Russia, and it’s time for us to unite.” Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” Kommersant, 6 November 2015, p. 2. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2847377

[iii] A transcript of Putin’s address may be found at Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639. A transcript of his remarks to the previous congress, delivered on tape to the delegates in 2012, is available at Privetstvie uchastnikam Vsemirnogo kongress sootechestvennikov, 26 October 2012. http://kremlin.ru/catalog/keywords/32/events/16719 One observer remarked that the reception Putin received at the V Congress was even more enthusiastic than that at the All-Russian Popular Front, Putin’s domestic political movement. Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 5 November 2015, p. 1. http://www.mk.ru/politics/2015/11/05/podnyal-rossiyu-s-kolen-na-sezde-sootechestvennikov-putina-vstretili-ovaciyami.html

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” For his part, Mikhail Drozdov, the chairman of the Congress and the head of the local group of compatriots in Shanghai, commented that “An aimless and perplexed Russia no longer exists….We are now a people who have again recognized our historical mission….” Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh.”

[v] Iadviga Iuferova, “Uchit’ nel’zia zabyt’,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 4 September 2015, p. 11. http://www.rg.ru/2015/09/03/pushkin-poln.htm

[vi] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015.

[vii] Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 3 August 2015, p. 14. http://www.rg.ru/2015/08/02/bezhency.htm

[viii] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639

[ix] The figure of 137,000 represents only those Ukrainian citizens who have formally resettled in Russia. The Federal Migration Service indicates that more than a million refugees from Ukraine are now located in Russia. How many will remain in the country depends on the future course of developments in eastern Ukraine. Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta.

[x] The Government recently submitted a draft law to the Duma that would grant citizens up to one hectare of land free of charge in the Far East. “Zakon o razdache zemli na Dal’nem Vostoke mozhet vstupit’ v silu s 1 maia 2016 goda,” Kommersant, 19 November 2015. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2857367

The Philippines – Presidential Elections 2016: Families, Front-runners, and “Foreigners”

On May 9, 2016, a total of 18,069 national and local positions will be decided at elections in the Philippines. The run up to the elections witnessed the five-day candidacy registration at the Commission on Elections (Comelec) between October 12 and October 16, 2015, where a total of 130 filed for certificates of candidacy for the presidential race, and 19 for the vice-presidency. Voters have a vote each for the presidential and vice-presidential races; still, the discrepancy between the top and penultimate offices is instructive about the relative desirability of the respective offices. By way of comparison, 172 candidates are registered to run for the 12 senator seats up for contention, and 192 for the 58 party-list seats in the House. The campaign period for the president, vice-president, senator, and party-list representatives is slated for February 9 to May 7, 2016; for members of the House and other local offices, the campaign period will run from March 25 to May 7.

Clearly, not all 130 candidates who filed as candidates for the presidential race will be eligible to run; the Comelec will rule out “nuisance candidates” so that a final list of about five eligible candidates is expected to be announced around December 10, 2015.[i] The Comelec has also targeted December 10 as the deadline for substitutions, where a candidate substitutes for one that withdraws – such as occurred when LP Manuel Roxas II, the original candidate-elect for the Liberal Party in 2010 stepped aside for Aquino III to run as presidential nominee for the party – or is disqualified. This article surveys the backgrounds of likely candidates to emerge in that final tally for the presidential race, with their running mates, in alphabetical order:

Vice-president Jejomar Binay made clear his interest in the Presidency early on, resigning from his party of 30 years – the Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) – in April 2014 in order to launch his bid. Binay had enjoyed a significant run in the opinion polls – his approval ratings hit a high of 80 percent in Jaunary 2014 – but his ongoing struggles against corruption raps have taken a toll in the polls. Perhaps because of the falling numbers, Binay appeared to have trouble with a vice-presidential candidate: before formally announcing the Binay-Honasan ticket, Binay had wooed former president and current Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada, while Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. – son of former strongman-president Ferdinand Marcos – reportedly turned down Binay’s vice-presidential candidate offer.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago was a presidential candidate in 1992, but lost the race to Fidel Ramos by less than 900,000 votes, and also in 1998. The Senator – who is on her last term in the Senate – made her name as a young judge who ruled against President Marcos’ martial law in 1985. Her latest victory is over lung cancer: the senator has been cancer-free since June 2015.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte had repeatedly denied interest in the presidency, despite equally persistent rumours of the possibility of his presidential run. Indeed, the mayor did not file a certificate of candidacy by the Comelec deadline. Still, on November 22, 2015, Duterte officially declared his candidacy for the president, because he was “terribly disappointed” with the Senate Electoral Tribunal’s (SET) ruling to dismiss the disqualification case against Senator Grace Poe, currently the front-runner in presidential polls. The official candidate from his political party, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, Martin Dino, withdrew his candidacy for Duterte.

If the public opinion polls provide any insights, Senator Grace Poe is the candidate to beat in the presidential race: she has been the most popular of the potential presidential candidates since June 2015. Poe is the actor-turned-politician adopted daughter of Fernando Poe, also an actor who ran for the presidency in 2004 but lost to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Poe was elected to the senate in 2013 under Team PNoy, and was actively courted by Mar Roxas to be his vice-presidential running mate. Senator Poe’s candidacy has been challenged on the grounds that she is not a natural-born Filipino, so that the recent SET’s ruling is a major victory against her challengers. Poe has submitted to a DNA test to establish lineage with possible Filipino relatives.

Former Interior Secretary, Manuel Roxas II, was endorsed by President Aquino III for the 2016 race. Roxas was original candidate-elect for the LP in 2010, who stepped aside for Aquino III to run as presidential nominee for the party. While earlier polls had a poor showing for Roxas, the candidate’s standing has since improved to overtake VP Binay as the second most popular presidential candidate.

Clearly, the election news out of the Philippines promises to be abundant, if not interesting, given the total of 18,069 national and local positions in the elections that comprises 235 district congressmen; 81 governors; 81 vice governors; 772 members of Sangguniang Panlalawigan; 144 city mayors; 144 city vice mayors; 1,610 city councilors; 1,490 municipal mayors; 1,490 municipal vice mayors; 11,924 municipal councilors; one ARMM governor; ARMM vice governor; and 24 ARMM assemblymen.

__________________________

[i] Those who make a mockery of the election system; those who seek to confuse voters through similarity of names between candidates; and those who have no bona fide or good faith in running for office.

France – A state of emergency

On Friday 13 November, Paris was attacked by terrorists, who killed 129 people in horrific circumstances. How has President Hollande responded? What are the likely domestic political consequences?

In immediate response to the attacks President Hollande invoked a state of emergency (l’état d’urgence).1 This measure was introduced in 1955 at the time of the war in Algeria. The current application is the sixth. The previous time it was invoked was in 2005 during the riots in parts of Paris. Prior to then it was applied three times in relation to Algeria and once in 1984 with regard to the violence in New Caledonia. It’s a measure that doesn’t so much give the president more power personally. Instead, it gives more powers to the main ministerial and administrative actors in the domestic security context. So, the Minister of Interior gains certain powers as do prefects, who are the representative of the central state in the localities. It has a legal not a constitutional basis, though its constitutionality has been tested and approved by the Constitutional Council.

On Monday 16 November President Hollande followed up this measure with a speech to a Congress of parliament at Versailles. Bringing together the two houses of the legislature, presidential addresses of this sort have only been possible since the 2008 constitutional reform. Prior to that time, in strict adherence with a notion of the separation of powers, the president could only have a message read out to parliament and could not set foot in the institution. This was only the second in-person presidential address since the 2008 reform.

In his speech to Congress, President Hollande talked about extending the state of emergency for three months. He also introduced the idea of rewording Articles 16 and 36 of the 1958 Constitution to give this measure some sort of constitutional footing. At present, Article 16 deals with the president’s emergency powers, which are a step above a state of emergency, while Article 36 refers to the ‘state of siege’, which, again, is different from a state of emergency. As yet, not least because of subsequent events, no measures have been formally introduced.

President Hollande is now in the fourth year of his presidency. While leaders who are faced with severe security threats often benefit from a wave of public sympathy, President Hollande has not been in this position. He continues to record among the lowest satisfaction ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic. Following the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 there was a wave of national unity that included most of the political class, yet the opinion polls did not rebound in President Hollande’s favour.

It is too early to tell, not least given the events that followed on Wednesday morning in Saint-Denis, whether public opinion will rally around President Hollande in the current circumstances. There is, though, reason to suggest that it will not. The 13 November attacks again met with a wave of national solidarity, but this time party political opinion has quickly divided. President Hollande’s speech at the Congress of parliament was received with dignity. However, little such dignity was in evidence during the questions to the government in the National Assembly on Tuesday 17 November, though this was in the presence of the prime minister rather than the president.

In short, domestic security policy already seems to have become more politicised than it was before the attacks. Needless to say, this issue is related to, or has the potential to be related to, other salient and highly divisive issues, such as the EU’s policy on migrants, the Schengen agreement, welfare policy, and freedom of communication. In this context, the rise of the National Front is salient.2 Their new leader, Marine Le Pen, is trying to ‘de-demonise’ the party, in effect making it electable. The mix of a volatile set of policy issues for which she has some seemingly easy answers and yet a party that is increasingly aiming to present itself as a party of government may well mean that it gains yet more appeal.

There is also the traditional right. The most likely winner of the 2017 presidential election is going to be the candidate of the former UMP, the Republicans (les Republicans). The party’s leader is none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, who has ambitions to return to the presidency. Prior to his election in 2007, he made his name on law and order issues. Therefore, events would seem to be playing into his hands. However, Sarkozy is a very contested figure within the party. Figures such as former PM, Alain Juppé, still have presidential ambitions and the road to the candidacy will be a rocky one.

In the meantime, France is traumatised. There is a certain unity, but there is a tremendous amount of fear. The governing regime, and, indeed, the political class generally, has formal legitimacy, but lacks popular support. An overseas war risks spreading to the streets of the capital and France generally. A state of emergency has been invoked in response. It all sounds eerily familiar, but things have moved on in the last 60 years. A simple change of regime will not alter the underlying issues and there is no saviour figure waiting in the wings. As things stand, then, France is likely to lurch on from crisis to crisis and from president to president.

Notes

  1. There is a nice review of the history of this measure by Sylvie Thénault in Le Movement social, no. 1, (2007), pp. 63-78. It is Open Access.
  2. There is a special issue of French Politics on the recent spike in support for the National Front available here, including free-to-access articles.

Albanian presidents and an incriminated political elite

Recent reports on a parliamentary speech of Deputy Blushi (member of the ruling Socialist Party) describing the incrimination of other deputies, or claims of an unlawful surveillance of President Bujar Nishani paint a picture of a very problematic political development in Albania. These reports match earlier accusations made in 2009 by then President Topi from the conservative Democratic Party. In the following post I will briefly portray the president’s role in the political system and embed this in a description of the difficulties arising from the politicized state security forces and judiciary with a strong clientilism trying to make the president the “henchman of the prime minister” (Osterberg-Kaufmann forthcoming).

Presidential power in Albania

With a pre-emptive transition process accompanying independence and the personal continuity during the constitution-making process in the early 1990s, Albania was predestined to design a strong presidential institution. This process of democratization initially perpetuated the totalitarian and personalized cult around Hoxcha, who was the leader of communist Albania for over 42 years (Osterberg-Kaufmann 2012, 221). The premise for the establishment of a de facto delegative democracy in the 1990s was the close relation between a paternal figure and the non-scrutinized nature of presidential leadership (O’Donnell 1994, 59). The socialist constitution was replaced in April 1991 with an interim constitution. This interim constitution reproduced the old leadership pattern, offering President Sali Berisha the opportunity to bypass and marginalize parliament. From today’s perspective, the presidential power of Berisha up until 1998 can be considered relatively strong. This is partly to blame for the fact that in 1996 “Albania had degenerated into an illusion of democracy with an isolated authoritarian president, facing no effective parliamentary opposition, supported by an overly large highly politicized security apparatus” (Fischer 2010, 428).

Following the crisis of a failed draft constitution, but even more so the economic and political crisis of 1997 and 1998, the constitution-making process was dominated by the landmark establishment of a parliamentary system with an indirectly elected president, supported by a referendum. Nowadays Albania has one of the constitutionally weaker presidents in South-East Europe. According to Art. 85, the president has suspensive legislative veto powers, which can be overruled by an absolute majority, and according to Art. 134 the president (along with other institutions) can initiate a judicial review. Following the logic of a parliamentary system, the president nominates the prime minister (Art. 96 Sec. 1-4), which has to be confirmed by a majority in parliament. Overall, the presidential role remains reactive. This observation is also confirmed by the absence of a presidential legislative initiative. His competences are limited and, in addition, not even concentrated on standard competences expected also for a parliamentary system, which is different from for example Macedonia, and which entails a systematically weak position for the president.

Lustration Law 2009

With the competence of a legislative veto, the Albanian President would have the opportunity to at least establish some moments of power and thus influence both the policy agenda and the expectations of rivaling political institutions, as well as the public. Yet, in case the opportunity structure arises (for example in terms of public support for a veto), presidents choose to avoid the political confrontation. In the following, I will illustrate this for a highly controversial legislative project: a lustration law. This law also gave a brief glimpse (thanks to the reports in wikileaks) about the informal pressure behind political decision-making in Albania.

With the possibility of “the firing of anyone without proving he or she committed a crime” (Koci 2014), the 2009 lustration law became a confrontational issue between Prime Minister Sali Berisha and President Bamir Topi (both at that time important figures in the conservative Democratic Party[1]). The political positions in this difficult case were clear: President Topi was against this legislative project based on its far-reaching consequences. Prime Minister Berisha was pushing for the implementation of this internationally criticized law. It certainly carries a sad irony that Topi, who had not been politically active in communist times, thought of returning the lustration law to parliament. After all, this law had the function of banning former secret police officers, or employees in the judicial system, from public employment. Some authors consider the draft of the law in 2008 to have “[…] coincided with the prosecution of one of the biggest corruption charges, the so called Gerdec affair, which exposed several current ministers” (Elbasani and Lipinski 2011, 10). In a confidential interview between a US-diplomat with the then-President Topi, the president claims “[…] that in the event he vetoes the Lustration Law the DP [Democratic Party, author] would launch a “frontal assault” against him, including a smear campaign to paint him as protecting former communists” (Wikileaks 2009a).

Nevertheless, Topi confirmed in another confidential conversation “that representatives of former victims of the Albanian communist regime – a key political constituency for Topi – unanimously urged (him) [Topi] not to reject outright the Lustration Law, claiming that to do so would be politically devastating for him” (Wikileaks 2009b). Although the constitutional court later abolished the law, Topi’s obvious fear limited his radius of action. Although it should be clear that Wikileaks as the source of information chosen here has to be handled with care, considering that the statements given in private to a United States official might have different motivational backgrounds. However, despite the obvious opportunity structure, President Topi did not use his legislative veto. The Albanian Constitutional Court declared the lustration law as unconstitutional in 2010. The decision of the constitutional court was no surprise, as the lustration law from 2009 would have allowed for the prosecution of half the constitutional court (Likmeta 2012).

Discussion

Presidents in Albania obviously face high informal pressures to align with the government. Due to the sensitivity of informal influence we are hardly ever able to consistently trace this problem. However, the two reports of the two presidents show how informal pressure on president in Albania might work. And although the accusations of Bujar Nishani from 2015 were – at least what it looks like at the moment – a political move and not followed by any legal action, they show a similar pattern as the accusations of Bamir Topi in 2009. Both claims are nearly impossible to verify and go in hand with legislative initiatives concerning reforms of the legal system. A series of political corruption scandals, the grave distrust of the public towards the political elite and a political culture characterized by a specific form of personalization and clientilism is thus seriously damaging Albania’s democratic development.

References:

Elbasani, Arolda, and Artur Lipinski. 2011. “Public contestation and politics of transitional justice: Poland and Albania compared.” EUI Working Paper Series 11. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1956796

Fischer, Bernd J. 2010. “Albania since 1989: the Hoxhaist legacy.” In Central and Southeast European Politics since 1989, edited by Sabrina P. Ramet, 421–44. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.

Fruhstorfer, Anna and Michael Hein. forthcoming. Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems.  Wiesbaden. VS Springer.

Koci, Jonilda. “Albanian lustration law criticised.” SETimes.com. Unpublished manuscript, last modified May 09, 2014. http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2009/02/05/feature-02.

Likmeta, Besar. 2012.”Albania President Savages Berisha’s Communist Past.” Balkan Insights. March 7. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/albania-president-pans-berisha-for-his-communist-past

O’Donnell, Guillermo A. 1994. “Delegative democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5 (1): 55–69.

Osterberg-Kaufmann, Norma. 2012. Erfolg und Scheitern von Demokratisierungsprozessen: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Osterberg-Kaufmann, Norma. forthcoming. „Constitutional Politics in Albania.“ In: Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems. edited by Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein. Wiesbaden. VS Springer.

Ramet, Sabrina P., ed. 2010. Central and Southeast European Politics since 1989. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.

Wikileaks. 2009a. “PRESIDENT TOPI; IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP.” Accessed May 09, 2014. https://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09TIRANA9_a.html.

———. 2009b. “PRESIDENT TOPI LEANING AGAINST VETO OF LUSTRATION LAW.” Accessed May 09, 2014. https://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09TIRANA18_a.html.

[1] Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë (PD)

Haiti – Presidential election report

Uncertainty is generally a good thing for a democratic contest. Most of the time an election whose outcome is known in advance is a sign of a vice more than a virtue. But, when uncertainty is the result of the weaknesses of the actors involved in the contest, things are turned upside down: a virtue can become a vice and, vice versa, a vice turns into a virtue. This is exactly the case with Haiti at this time.

First, no one could say for sure if President Martelly would be around by the time his successor was chosen. Second, the composition of Electoral Council (CEP, in French) in charge of the election was never and still is not a settled matter. Third there are so many weak candidates and parties in the contest that the only certainty is that anything can happen. The likely victor is a matter of pure hazard. Everything depends on the resources that can be mustered to convince the other actors that he is the least bad choice.

With this calculus in mind, on October 25 Haitians went to the polls for the second time this year. Participation was higher this time than previously. Around 25% of registered voters participated in the contest, up from 18% on August 9. But more than 50% of the 2 million voters where delegated by the parties. Nearly a million citizens cast their ballots in a place different from their original polling station.

Two weeks after the elections, on November 5, the CEP announced the results. They were largely favorable to the candidates and parties sympathetic to the current administration. Jovenel Moise, the presidential candidate from the PHTK, the party of President Martelly, won a plurality of the vote (32.81%). In second position came Jude Célestin, from the LAPEH party, with 25.27% of the votes. Moise Jean Charles, from the Pitit Deslin party and Maryse Narcisse of Fanmi Lavalas came in third and fourth with 14.27% and 7.05% of the votes respectively. According to the electoral law the top two candidates qualify for the run-off in December 27. The other 50 candidates won about 1% of the vote each.

The results of the parliamentary elections have been also favorable to the party of the President. The PHTK will control a plurality of the vote in the Lower Chamber. It is expected to command an absolute majority of the deputies after alliances with parties in the orbit of the executive. No party will have absolute control of the Senate. But, again, parties associated with the President will have a majority of the seats.

These are impressive results for a party that was created only 3 years ago, with new politicians that never participated in any political activity before. The opposition has denounced the verdict of the CEP. They have been said that the election was rigged in advance to favor the President and his allies. Most of the allegations accused the representatives of PHTK of voting many times in different polling stations. So far, the CEP has annulled the results of about 3% of the polling stations for fraudulent procedures.

Since the publication of the results thousands of demonstrators have been protesting in the streets of the most important cities. At least one demonstrator has been killed by the police and several partisans of the Pitit Desalt party have been jailed. In some respects, the current situation is merely reproducing what has been the tradition in electoral contests in Haiti. Since 2001 results have been contested in the streets. Each time the opposition parties have been able to change the results.

After the parliamentary elections in 2001 the opposition took to the streets to protest against the results. Their demonstrations culminated 3 years later with French and US military interventions and the exile of President Aristide. In 2006 President Préval used the streets to force the CEP to change the result. He was successful and won the election at the first round. In 2011, the current President used the same tactic. He was moved from the third to the second position and was eventually elected in the run-off contest.

This is where the calculus of uncertainty comes in. In the last three presidential elections politicians have learned that the best way to guarantee their success is to wage a bloody battle before the contest in order to weaken their opponents. Because every actor is playing the same game, at the end of the day everyone is effectively weakened. At this point the most important thing is not the incompetency of the CEP, the fraud, real or only alleged, or the popularity of the opponents but the capacity to impose a certain perception. Then the mobilization can begin.

At first, the International Community (US, OAS, UN, French of Haiti) stands by the official results. But, when the situation becomes too chaotic, they usually change their position. No one can afford a power vacuum. That could put thousands of refugees on the road (actually at sea) which could affect the entire region. When the international community begins to analyze the political situation in these terms, the opposition has succeeded. In the last three elections it has been able to change to his favor the situation.

This is the calculus behind the post-electoral protests taking place at this moment in Haiti. This is not to say that the result of the elections did not respect the decision of the voters or that the CEP was not clean and competent in the way it handled the electoral process. It is just to highlight the strategies and tactics of the actors at elections in Haiti. Everything will depend, in the coming weeks and months, on the capacity of the opposition to change, through its mobilization, the perception of certain key international actors.

Roody Reserve

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Paul M. Collins, Jr. – Why do Presidents Speak about Supreme Court Cases?

This is a guest post by Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha at the University of North Texas and Paul M. Collins, Jr. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

On April 2, 2012, President Obama expressed his belief that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold his signature first-term domestic policy achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in the face of a constitutional challenge. The question before the Court was whether Congress had the authority to require American citizens to purchase health insurance coverage, popularly known as the individual mandate. In his public remarks, the president took a firm stance on what he believed to be the proper outcome of the case:

Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I’m pretty confident that this Court will recognize that and not take that step.

Almost immediately, in the instantaneous media environment within which presidents now govern, critics pounced. Many criticized the president for attempting to bully the justices to support his preferred position on the case. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), then Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, even penned an op-ed condemning the president for his “disturbing” comments that exposed the president’s “fundamental lack of respect for the judicial branch.”

One might read the president’s remarks and the ensuing response and conclude that presidents often attempt to influence the Court’s decisions through public speeches, much as they do to influence legislation or public opinion. Until recently, that may have been a reasonable conclusion. But our research shows just how unusual presidential commentary is on pending Supreme Court cases, as depicted in Figure 1. This graph indicates the number of Supreme Court cases mentioned by presidents in their public remarks (spoken and written), broken down by whether the remark came before or after the Court rendered its decision in the case.

Figure 1. Number of U.S. Supreme Court Cases Mentioned by Presidents, Before and After They Were Decided, 1953-2012

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 17.30.05As this figure reveals, instances of presidents speaking about Court cases before they are decided are exceedingly rare. Since 1953, presidents have mentioned pending Supreme Court cases in only 47 speeches. This is a miniscule portion of all speeches presidents have delivered over the past half century (less than 0.3 percent). Moreover, it is only 5 percent of all mentions presidents have made about Supreme Court cases since 1953. Thus, rather than taking public positions on pending cases, presidents much more frequently discuss cases after they have been decided.

Without question, presidents limit their references to pending Supreme Court cases. As we discuss in our recently published Presidential Studies Quarterly article, one reason this is the case involves the Office of Solicitor General, the group of attorneys who represent the federal government before the Court. Because the Solicitor General may be seen as an agent of the president, presidents have little need to deliver speeches on pending decisions. Such is the case because the Solicitor General can directly communicate to the justices the president’s preferences about a case, and can do so without encouraging accusations of intimidation by the president. Thus, when presidents take positions on pending decisions, we do not think that they do so to bully the justices. Instead, presidents discuss pending cases mainly to demonstrate their commitment to issues of substantial public concern.

Instead of using speeches to affect judicial decisions, presidents speak mostly about cases after they have been decided. Among these references, presidents discuss both historically-significant cases (e.g., Brown v Board of Education and Roe v. Wade) and recently-decided cases, such as President Obama’s repeated criticisms of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

We argue that presidents’ reasons for talking about decided cases are driven by their three primary goals of making good public policy, promoting their reelection, and advancing their historical legacy. Although we find that presidents speak about recent cases mostly during their second terms to promote their historical legacy, and attempt to direct the implementation of policy through written commentary on recently-decided cases, we conclude that the president’s primary motivation for speaking about decided cases is electoral. The likelihood that presidents will speak about decided cases is significantly higher during reelection than all other years in office. This finding is strongest for recently-decided cases, but also holds for historical ones, given the relevance of key precedents to presidents’ electoral bases. Presidents also prefer to comment on recent cases when they are salient to the media and the American people. This makes sense, not only for presidents to demonstrate democratic responsiveness to important matters of public concern, but also to maximize their exposure to the public through news coverage of these contemporary Supreme Court cases.

Although presidential remarks about pending Supreme Court cases generate a great deal of news coverage and political backlash, it is important to keep in mind that this type of position taking is infrequent. Rather than routinely staking out positions on pending decisions, and thus potentially violating the norm of judicial independence, presidents reserve the bulk of their public remarks for Supreme Court cases that have already been decided. Some of these references are to historical cases, while others are to more recently decided cases. Taken as a whole, our analysis indicates that presidents are primarily motivated to discuss Supreme Court cases in their public rhetoric in an effort to take positions on salient matters of public concern for the purpose of appealing to a motivated electoral constituency as they campaign for and attempt to win reelection.

Biographies

Eshbaugh-Soha_MatthewMatthew Eshbaugh-Soha completed his Ph.D. in 2002 from Texas A&M University and is currently Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of North Texas. His research agenda focuses broadly on the American presidency, the news media, and public policy.

 

Collins UMass HeadshotPaul M. Collins, Jr. completed his Ph.D. in 2005 from Binghamton University and is currently Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on understanding democratic influences on the judiciary, interdisciplinary approaches to legal decision making, and interest group litigation.