Monthly Archives: October 2017

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

Saskia P. Ruth – Do populist presidents always pose a threat to liberal democratic institutions?

This is a guest post by Saskia P. Ruth at the Department of Political Science, University of Zurich. It is based on her recent article recent paper in Political Studies, ‘Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America’. Her webpage is here.

In my article “Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America” I explore which factors enable or hinder populist presidents in Latin America to pursue a radical strategy of institutional change to erode horizontal checks and balances in their respective countries. Prominent examples in Latin America that increased the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislative branch are Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But are populists in power always as consequential to democracy as these prominent cases imply? Looking at other populist presidents in Latin America, we can also find examples where the threat to liberal democracy did not materialize, like Alan Garcia in Peru or Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil.

While comparative research is important to unpack the ambiguous relationship between populism and (liberal) democracy highlighting how populist governments differ from non-populist governments, I focus on the systematic analysis of the conditions under which populists in power pose a threat to democracy or not. Only if we know when and how populists engage in eroding liberal democratic institutions, can we begin to design strategies to countervail their impact. To answer this question, I take an actor-centred approach focusing on specific constellations in the political arena that shape populist presidents’ incentives and their ability to engage in institutional change.

Following the minimalist ideational approach towards populism (see Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser forthcoming) – I argue that the antagonistic nature and the moralistic style of a populist discourse are often directed against liberal democracy, which is based on political pluralism and the constitutional protection of minorities. This inherent tension between populism and liberalism is the reason why populists are perceived as a threat to democracy itself (see Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012). More specifically, especially in presidential systems, like those in Latin America, populist ideas clash with one core principle of liberal constitutionalism, namely horizontal accountability (here defined narrowly as executive-legislative checks and balances).

I argue that the rise of populism to power opens a unique window of opportunity for institutional change, but that the success of populist presidents to increase the power of the executive to their advantage depends on the potential power of other political actors to defend the status quo. I identify three conditions that constitute the political opportunity structure of institutional change, and thereby, either condition the incentive or the capability of populist presidents to erode horizontal accountability. These conditions are: First, the absence of unified government between the executive and the legislature, second, the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in the political arena, and third, high public support in favour of the president.

These hypotheses are then tested by means of a Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) which is specifically suited for research designs with a low- or medium number of cases (Ragin 1987). Therefore, I compiled an original dataset covering all populist presidents elected under democratic rule in Latin America from 1979 until 2014. To identify presidents deploying a populist discourse in their electoral campaign I proceeded in two steps: First, using the ideational definition of populism as a benchmark I conducted an intensive literature review. Second, to validate this coding the dataset was sent to several experts in the field to benefit from their expertise.[1] This led to the inclusion of the following 16 presidents in the analysis: Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina; Evo Morales in Bolivia; Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil; Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic; Jaime Roldós, Abdalá Bucaram, Lucio Gutiérrez, as well as Rafael Correa in Ecuador; Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; Mireya Moscoso in Panama; Alan García (both in the 1980s and in the 2000s) and Alberto Fujimori in Peru; as well as Rafael Caldera and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

As to the results – the QCA identified a complex causal path towards the erosion of horizontal accountability, indicating that successful populist presidents had strong incentives to undermine the power of opposing traditional elites if they fell short of a supporting majority in Congress. However, they were only capable to do so if they were able to exploit the bad reputation of traditional elites and at the same time uphold high popular support levels in favour of their agenda of institutional change. Among the five cases that are covered by this causal path are some of the most prominent populist presidents in the region: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Alberto Fujimori, Carlos Menem, and Evo Morales.

Moreover, the analysis also enabled me to investigate factors that might hinder populists to successfully engage in the depletion of liberal democratic institutions. For one, the analysis highlights the importance of party systems with stable social roots as safeguards against radical institutional change. If populists come to power as candidates of traditional parties, their own party organization may keep them from inducing institutional change processes. Moreover, the analysis also highlights a combined impact of non-unified government and low levels of popular support on the absence of institutional depletion by populist presidents. This substantiates Hochstetler’s plea (2006) not to underestimate the power of the public in executive-legislative conflicts. Popular mobilization is a crucial factor with respect to populist presidents’ success in restructuring liberal democracy.

While these results are a first step to uncover different political opportunity structures that may increase or tame the threat of populism to democracy, further research needs to be done. For example, this study only highlights the effect of populism on executive-checks and balances, while other institutions of horizontal accountability, like the role of the judiciary or other independent state agencies have been excluded. Moreover, with populist candidates globally on the rise it is impervious to identify when and how populist engage in illiberal behaviour and how to countervail their intentions to destabilize liberal democracy beyond the Latin American region. The results of this study may travel to other regions in the world, most likely, to other presidential systems like the USA or semi-presidential systems like France.

References

Hawkins, Kirk, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. forthcoming. “The Ideational Approach to Populism.”  Latin American Research Review.

Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America.”  Comparative Politics 38 (4):401-418.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, eds. 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas. Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ragin, Charles. 1987. The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Note

[1] Experts have been selected based on their publication record as well as their comparative knowledge of populism in Latin America. The survey has been sent to six experts of whom three – Kirk Hawkins, Steven Levitsky and Carlos de la Torre – responded with their evaluations of the case selection.

Venezuela – Elections for Governor Cause Opposition Disunity

On October 15th, Venezuela held elections for the 23 state gubernatorial posts. Despite public opinion polls suggesting that the opposition would gain a significant number of the governorships, with one prediction suggesting they could even control 16 states after the election (from three), the governing coalition of Nicolás Maduro eventually won 18 states of the 23, with the opposition coalition MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), taking the remaining five. These five states are Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta, Anzoátegui and Zulia, while the government regained the state of Miranda (which covers part of Caracas) and Hugo Chávez’s younger brother, Argenis, managed to maintain hold of the state of Barinas.

The MUD have since refused to recognise the legitimacy of the elections and have called for a complete audit. They accuse the government of widespread fraud and vote rigging. But the elections appear be driving a wedge among the opposition coalition and undermining their unity (and consequently their ability to challenge the government of Maduro). President Maduro insisted that before any of the governors take up their posts, they must swear allegiance to a new Constituent Assembly that Maduro created by decree in July.

The constituyente was created for two main reasons; firstly, to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state, and secondly, to sideline the opposition dominated Congress that has proven such a thorn in Maduro’s side. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, the government lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance. Although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking their seats, by barring three opposition legislators due to alleged election irregularities.

Initially, all five MUD governors choose to boycott the official ceremony in the Constituent Assembly where all governors were expected to swear their allegiance to the body. However, the governors from the states Táchira, Mérida, Nuevo Esparta and Anzoátegui changed their minds and did eventually swear the oath of allegiance. Now, one of the central figures in the opposition movement and a former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, has announced that he is leaving the MUD coalition in response to the decision of the four governors. This could have serious implications for the ability of the opposition to resist the increasing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.[1]

These gubernatorial elections have long been mired in controversy. The National Electoral Council, CNE (Consejo Nacional Electoral) had long prevaricated about when, and indeed if, these elections would be held. They were initially slated to be held in December 2016, but the National Electoral Council decided to push them back until mid-2017. Last May, the elections were scheduled for this coming December, before the electoral council announced a date in October.  During the elections themselves, numerous problems arose. At the last minute, 273 voting centres were relocated, largely from areas where the MUD is strong, for security reasons, and some ballots continued to carry the names of defeated primary candidates.

Whether Maduro can use these elections as a means to consolidate his power in the face of an economic crisis and widespread unpopularity remains to be seen.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

 

Georgia – The president’s veto of the constitutional reform is overridden

On September 26, 2017, the Parliament of Georgia approved a set of constitutional amendments on their third and final reading with 117 lawmakers voting in favor and two against.[1] On October 9, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, vetoed the constitutional amendments and returned the draft bill to Parliament together with his objections. The president noted six points, four of which reflected commitments made by the governing Georgian Dream party before the Venice Commission. These were: the issue of the electoral bonus for the winning party at legislative elections, the creation of electoral blocks, and issues relating to the constitutional court and religious freedom. The president also noted Georgian Dream’s initiative relating to the introduction of a fully proportional electoral system in 2020. Finally, the president suggested the introduction of an indirect presidential elections at some time in the future rather than after the 2018 election.[2]

President Margvelashvili suggested that if Georgian Dream were to accept these proposals, then it would demonstrate that Georgia had a “European” political culture and that the government would be acting in accordance with the Venice Commission.

On October 13, the parliament of Georgia overturned the president’s objections with 117 votes and approved the initial version of the document. [3] The ruling party announced several days before the plenary session that they would support president’s objections if the president suggested only two changes: allowing the parties to form electoral blocs for the next parliamentary elections in 2020, and allowing the so-called bonus system.

The next step in the constitutional reform was the signing of the constitutional amendment. As the presidential veto had been overturned, many experts believed that the president would not sign the bill into law. According the Georgian constitution, if President fails to promulgate a law within the specified timeframe, the Chairperson of Parliament shall sign and promulgate it.[4] However, one week after the president had vetoed the bill, President Margvelashvili signed the amendments into law. The president made a special statement before signing the amendments. He said that it was extremely difficult for him to sign the Constitution. However, he said that he would do so to avoid any destabilization.[5]

The new constitution will enter into force following the next presidential elections in 2018. This means that the 2018 presidential election will still be held directly. More generally, the president remains the head of state, the commander-in-chief and the country’s representative in foreign relations, but no longer ensures “the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” At the following presidential election, the president will be elected by way of an electoral college composed of 300 members, including MPs, members of two Autonomous Republics and local government representatives. Thus, semi-presidentialism will be remain in Georgia until after the 2018 presidential election. Next year will show how successful the amendments turn out to be.

Notes

[1] http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/saqartvelos-parlamentma-konstituciuri-kanonis-proeqti-mesame-mosmenit-miigo.page

[2] President Margvelashvili Sends Six-Point Motivated Remarks to Parliament, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/saqartvelos-prezidentma-parlaments-6-punqtiani-mot.aspx

[3] The Parliament overrode the Presidential veto on the Constitutional Changes, 13 Oct 2017,  http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/parlamentma-sakonstitucio-cvlilebebze-prezidentis-veto-dadzlia.page

[4] Constitution of Georgia, August 24, 1995, http://www.parliament.ge/uploads/other/28/28803.pdf

[5] President Margvelashvili: It Is Extremely Difficult for Me to Sign This Constitution, but We Should Take All Steps to Avoid Possible Causes of Destabilization, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/giorgi-margvelashvili-chemtvis-uagresad-dznelia-am.aspx

Anna Fruhstorfer – The presidential election in Slovenia

The question of “will he need a runoff vote” was at the center of most news outlets’ attention prior to the presidential election in Slovenia in October 2017. He, the incumbent Borut Pahor, has been president since 2012 and was campaigning for re-election. Various polls suggested that he would already win the necessary absolute majority in the first round of the election. But Pahor fell short and won ‘only’ 47.1 percent with a low voter turnout of 43.5 percent. This now makes a second round of presidential elections in November necessary and thus gives his strongest contester Marjan Šarec a new chance to succeed. This election provides also “a large scale public opinion poll as well as a prequel to the parliamentary elections” (Bitenc 2017) – considering the results – a bleak outlook for the government. This post will focus on the two main candidates and their campaigns, describe the election results and discuss the chances for the two candidates to become the president in the run-off ballot.

During the first round of the presidential election a total of nine candidates ran for the office of Slovenian President (State Election Commission 2017). Presidential candidates are put forward by National Assembly deputies, political parties and the electorate. More precisely, according to the provisions of the Election Law of Slovenia, a candidate is required to fulfill at least one of the following requirements to be able to run: the support of either ten deputies; the support of at least one political party and three members of parliament (or the signatures of 3000 votes); or the signatures of 5000 voters (State Election Commission 2017). Most of the nine candidates were backed by parliamentary parties, among them Romana Tomc by the conservatives and Ljudmila Novak by the New Slovenia Christian-Democrats (Zerdin 2017).

Throughout the campaign the incumbent Borut Pahor and Marjan Šarec, the mayor of Kamnik (a town north of Ljubljana) were the two main contestants. Both candidates label themselves as more or less anti-parliamentary/establishment party politicians. This is a characterization that is particularly misleading for Borut Pahor. Already during the 2012 presidential campaign Pahor ran on an anti-establishment party platform, although he used to head the Slovenian government (until only a few months before the presidential election in 2012) and was chairman of the Social Democrats. During the 2017 campaign he ran again as independent and for example used the campaign to walk 700 km throughout Slovenia in an attempt to get to know local people (Novak 2017).

Marjan Šarec, who won 25% of votes during the first round, ran on the so-called List of Marjan Šarec. Both during the campaign but also now heading towards the runoff vote, Šarec pledged to provide change and to nominate a new generation of people for official posts. He also criticized Pahor for being rather a celebrity than a statesman (news outlets describe Pahor as instragram president due to his avid use of the application). This campaign issues have to be described within the context of the constitutional provisions concerning the Slovenian President. The 1991 constitution provides only a limited amount of constitutional power to the president. But presidents have established a – at times – powerful role in politics and are expected to fulfill a role of a non-partisan leader. As described in an earlier blog post, the Slovenian President is directly elected with an absolute majority in the first round (Art. 103). Slovenian Presidents do not participate in cabinet meetings, they hardly have any competences for times of crisis, yet a countersignature – e.g. by the prime minister – is not stipulated in the constitution. Without competences in the legislative process (no legislative veto and no legislative initiative; Art. 91 and 88), the president gains power mainly through the nomination and appointment procedure for the prime minister. In addition, “[…] in Slovenia the presidency depends very much on the charisma, political style and ambitions of the person holding the office” (Krašovev and Lajh 2008, 217; see also Cerar 1999). Thus, Slovenia has provided us with both restrained but also very active presidential leadership. Despite some instances that Borut Pahor is a representative of the latter type, with the end of his first term as president, it is safe to say that he was most of the times restrained and not involved in decisive political decisions. In the second round, Pahor is certainly the favorite, but the runoff will attract voters from different backgrounds for Šarec and he might be in for a surprise. It will not be unusual for the incumbent to serve only one term, Danilo Türk was the incumbent in 2012 and lost against Pahor in the runoff vote, and Janez Drnovšek decided to not run for a second term in 2007.

Literature

Bitenc, Aljaž Pengov (2017): A Preliminary Guide to Slovenia’s Presidential Elections, in: http://balkanist.net/a-preliminary-guide-to-slovenias-presidential-elections/

Cerar, Miro. 1999. “Slovenia.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 232–59.
Krašovec, Alenka, and Damjan Lajh. 2008. “Semi-presidentialism in Slovenia.” In Elgie and Moestrup, Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe, 201–18.

Lukšič, Igor. 2010. “Das politische System Sloweniens.” In Die politischen Systeme Osteuropas, edited by Wolfgang Ismayr, 729-772.

Novak, Marja (2017): Polls open as Slovenian president runs for his second mandate,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-slovenia-election/polls-open-as-slovenian-president-runs-for-his-second-mandate-idUSKBN1CR05R?il=0

State Election Commission (2017): http://www.dvk-rs.si/index.php/en/where-and-how-to-vote/the-electoral-system-in-slovenia

Zerdin, Ali (2017): Slovenia’s president wins most votes, but faces runoff, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/slovenians-choose-president-as-pahor-seeks-re-election/2017/10/22/c92d384c-b6f8-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.d460494591ba

Aleks Szczerbiak – Poland: How will relations between President and ruling party develop?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

The Polish President’s decision to veto the government’s flagship judicial reforms was part of a broader move for greater autonomy from the ruling party. He clearly gains from highlighting his independence, while focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak opposition. But conflicting ambitions and emotions could make it difficult to contain competition between the President and ruling party within manageable boundaries.

Unexpected judicial reform vetoes

Although he was elected as candidate of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, at the end of July, in a dramatic and surprising move, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two controversial laws overhauling the country’s Supreme Court and National Judicial Council (KRS) that would have given the government significant new powers in appointing and dismissing judges. Overturning a presidential veto requires a three-fifths majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, where Law and Justice only has a simple majority.

Mr Duda’s unexpected move came after the ruling party’s judicial reform proposals triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and now the main opposition grouping, and smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party – strongly criticised the legislation. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, they argued that the reforms undermined the constitutional separation of powers and would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees. As a consequence, there were nationwide protests in dozens of Polish towns and cities. The reforms were also heavily criticised by the European Commission which warned that it was ready to take action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, if any Supreme Court judges were dismissed.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite was out of touch with ordinary citizens and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they said, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts and appointment of judges was justified, and simply brought Poland more into line with practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s counter-proposals

Last month, Mr Duda presented his own versions of the two vetoed laws. The original Law and Justice law to reform the National Judicial Council involved ending the terms of 15 of its 25 members and selecting their successors by a simple majority in the Sejm rather than by judges’ organisations as was the case up until now. In Mr Duda’s new draft, the majority of the Council would still be nominated by parliament but he repeated his earlier condition that they be elected by a three-fifths majority. In fact, Law and Justice had already accepted this proposal as an amendment to its earlier Supreme Court reform bill, even though it would have forced the party to negotiate Council appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

However, Mr Duda also proposed a further requirement that if, during a two month period, lawmakers could not muster the three-fifths majority then the President would have the right to select the Council members himself from among those considered by parliament. When it quickly became clear that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ would not support the constitutional amendment required to enact this proposal, Mr Duda proposed instead that a new vote should take place to break the deadlock with each Sejm deputy only able to vote for one candidate, which would also ensure that some opposition nominees were elected. Government supporters are concerned that this will not guarantee a clear ‘pro-reform’ majority within the Council and want the final decision to be taken by a three-fifths vote in the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber where Law and Justice holds 64 out of 100 seats.

The other Law and Justice-sponsored law required all current Supreme Court members to stand down except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list approved by the justice minister, with future candidates appointed in the same way. Mr Duda proposed instead that Supreme Court judges would retire at the age of 65 with the President deciding if their term could be extended. If introduced, Mr Duda’s plan would mean that around 40% of the current Supreme Court judges would have to stand down – including its president and harsh critic of the government’s reforms Małgorzata Gersdorf, who turns 65 in November – with the rest due to retire within the next three years.

Distancing himself from the ruling party

In fact, Mr Duda has, from the outset, struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. His opponents had dismissed Mr Duda as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ as he (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones. However, earlier this year Mr Duda dismissed his chief of staff Małgorzata Sadurska, who was felt to be too closely aligned with the Law and Justice leadership. Then, without consulting the ruling party, in May the President announced that he was initiating a national debate on whether to change Poland’s 20-year-old Constitution culminating in a consultative referendum in November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of the restoration of Polish sovereignty at the end of the First World War.

In July, the President also vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers to give the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are controlled by opposition parties. Then, in August Mr Duda – who, as head of state, is also commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces – refused to approve the appointment of dozens of generals, reflecting ongoing tensions between the President and defence minister Antoni Macierewicz who had earlier blocked a key presidential military aide’s access to classified information.

Mr Duda’s knows that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to attract support beyond the Law and Justice hard core and his decision to veto the government’s judicial reforms was not, therefore, a one-off but part of a broader move by the President to develop greater autonomy and independence from the ruling party. Voters appear to approve of this: surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency last month found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 74% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, while 68% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties; a sharp increase from 60% and 55% respectively in July.

‘Good change’ or ‘revolutionary change’?

However, by putting himself at odds with the ruling party, Mr Duda’s decision to veto Law and Justice’s flagship judicial reform laws was clearly a major turning point for his presidency and has introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics. Demonstrating that he could act independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – Poland’s most powerful politician who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – Mr Duda is trying to completely re-define his presidency and carve out an alternative power centre within the governing camp which the Law and Justice leader has to negotiate with to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme.

Indeed, the judicial reform crisis has highlighted some of the structural weaknesses within the governing camp. Given that the President’s most significant constitutional powers are negative ones, blocking nominations and legislation, some tensions between any government and all but the most passive head of state are almost inevitable. However, while Mr Kaczyński’s position as undisputed Law and Justice leader has given the governing camp a sense of unity and stability, it has also led to a reluctance to grant Mr Duda any real autonomy for fear that this would encourage the formation of rival power centres. This meant that when Mr Duda eventually tried to develop a more independent role for himself Mr Kaczyński and the Law and Justice leadership saw this as undermining the cohesiveness of the governing camp.

In fact, although Mr Kaczyński can at times be overbearing he is also deeply pragmatic and knows that entering into an ongoing, open conflict with the President would put his long-term political project of radically reconstructing the Polish state at risk. Mr Duda is also a much less experienced politician and lacks any real independent power base within the governing camp which remains overwhelmingly loyal to Mr Kaczyński. Moreover, although some government supporters, notably allies of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, question the President’s commitment to the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana), talk of a new centre-right ‘presidential party’ is fanciful at this stage.

Indeed, Mr Duda does not want to damage, or even significantly weaken, the ruling party whose support he needs to secure his short-term political objectives (his constitutional referendum proposal will, for example, require the approval of the Senate) and longer-term re-election prospects. Indeed, the President argues that he shares the government’s broad objectives but simply disagrees about the best means of achieving them and, in some cases, how radical the reforms should be; favouring, as he puts it, ‘good change’ over ‘revolutionary change’. In terms of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s proposals represent certain adjustments to, rather than a radical departure from, Law and Justice’s original plans. In other words, Mr Duda wants the Law and Justice leadership to pay more attention to his interests and develop its reforms in a more consensual way.

Containing divisions will be difficult

Mr Duda and the ruling party, therefore, have to maintain a careful balancing act. Although the President risks losing part of his political base and cannot achieve anything substantial if he moves too far away from the ruling party’s orbit, he clearly gains from highlighting his independence and autonomy. Focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak and ineffective opposition. In the case of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s actions not only defused tensions and de-mobilised mass protests in the short-term, they also shifted debate onto what form the reforms should take rather than whether they should be undertaken at all. This is one of the factors explaining why public support for Law and Justice has actually increased over the last couple of months: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice enjoying 42% support compared with only 22% for Civic Platform and only 9% for ‘Modern’.

However, although open hostility would be suicidal for all concerned, conflicting political ambitions and emotions could make it very difficult to keep political competition between the presidential camp and ruling party within manageable boundaries. Mr Duda’s vetoes were clearly a watershed and if Law and Justice and the President cannot develop an effective working relationship then the remainder of the current parliament could see ongoing political conflict, mutual recriminations and, at worst, the implosion of the governing camp. The next few weeks are likely to be crucial in determining whether this model of contained and managed political competition between its two most important elements can be sustained.

Eugene K B Tan – Singapore’s First Reserved Presidential Election: More Haste, Less Speed, and A Missed Opportunity?

This is guest post by Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He served as an unelected lawmaker between 2012 and 2014 in Singapore’s 12th Parliament.

After much hype and anticipation that preceded it, Singapore’s sixth presidential election in September 2017 quickly reached an anti-climatic end when the Presidential Elections Committee in pre-qualifying three presidential hopefuls determined that only one person, Madam Halimah Yacob, was eligible to contest.

Madam Halimah Yacob, who was Speaker of Singapore’s Parliament between 2013 and August 2017, made history by becoming Singapore’s first-ever woman President. She is also Singapore’s first ethnic Malay President in 47 years since Yusof Ishak (1965-1970), and will hold office for a six-year term until 13 September 2023.

The 2017 election was the third time (after 1999 and 2005) that the presidential election was uncontested since 1993. Earlier, in 1991, the presidency was converted from a ceremonial appointment to a popularly elected one.

This year’s presidential election was unique. Prior to the election, the government had embarked on the most significant re-engineering to Singapore’s constitutional architecture since the introduction of the Elected Presidency (EP) in 1991. In the 1991 constitutional changes, the head of state became a popularly elected office.

The EP institution was born out of the fears of a popularly elected ‘rogue government’ that could send Singapore down the road to ruin and perdition through populist measures that are financially unsustainable and the corrupt appointments of cronies to key leadership positions. However, the EP does not, in any way, detract from the fact that executive power and responsibility resides with the Cabinet. Singapore remains fundamentally a parliamentary system of government.

Under the Singapore Constitution, the EP is not a separate, countervailing power to the elected government. The EP’s role has been likened to a ‘second key,’ a watchdog, and a custodian. Through his custodial powers, the EP provides an additional layer of checks and balances, an “intra-branch” check on the Cabinet, which did not exist prior to 1991, in specifically defined critical areas including the drawdown of past national reserves, key appointments in the Public Service, corruption investigations, preventive detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act, and restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

To enable the president to stand up to the popularly elected government, the constitutional designers in 1991 decided that the head of state should possess the requisite authority and legitimacy through a popular mandate obtained in a presidential election.

Where the EP institution did not fare as well as its predecessor was for the office to be rotated among the different races. Prior to 1991, Singapore had consciously sought to rotate the presidency among the different races. For example, the successors to Yusof Ishak (Malay) were Benjamin Sheares (Eurasian), Devan Nair (Indian), and Wee Kim Wee (Chinese). With the introduction of elections for the presidency, no Malay had been elected in the four elections between 1993 and 2017.

The constitutional review process on the EP began in February 2016 with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointing a high-powered, nine-member Constitutional Commission, headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, to work on three tightly scripted terms of reference. They sought to update the eligibility requirements for presidential hopefuls, as well as the framework governing the exercise of the President’s custodial powers, including whether the views of the Council of Presidential Advisors can be given more weight – and if so, how. The Commission was also asked to consider including a mechanism to ensure minorities have a chance to be elected as President.

The Commission, only the second in independent Singapore’s 52-year history, invited submissions from the public on specific aspects of the EP. It received more than 100 written submissions. Of these, 20 contributors were invited to expand on their submissions at four public hearings in April and May 2016. The Commission completed its work in August 2016 and its report was publicly released in early September 2016.

The Government followed up with a White Paper on 15 September 2016 outlining its agreement with many of the Commission’s recommendations but also noting some of the differences in implementation and ideas.

A critical proposal it made was to have “reserved elections”, to pre-emptively manage the potential issue of race marginalisation and the need to have a person from every major race for the head of state office. The Commission recommended a “hiatus-triggered” mechanism in which a reserved election is activated only after there has not been a president from a major racial community for five continual terms, or 30 years. Clearly, the Commission viewed the reserved election as an inter-generational safeguard for minority representation.

Besides providing for reserved elections, the amendments to the Constitution made in November 2016 also raised eligibility thresholds for candidates from the private sector to qualify to run for the presidency. Such candidates must be the most senior executive with executive control and being accountable for the entity they run. Such an entity must be at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, and the candidates must have a track record of running these entities well.

Second, the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) was strengthened. The unelected CPA advises the President on matters pertaining to the exercise of the custodial powers, such as whether the government’s budget would draw on Singapore’s fiscal reserves not accumulated by the government of the day, and key appointments in the Public Service. This constitutional duty to consult the CPA applies to these decisions.

The President can exercise his discretion to veto the budget but if he does so against the advice of the CPA, then Parliament can vote to overrule the President. The November 2016 constitutional amendment increased the number of CPA members from six to eight.

In making consequential legislative amendments in February 2017, the government also announced that the 2017 presidential election would be a reserved election for the Malay community as the hiatus-triggered model came into play. (Whether the 2017 election ought to be a reserved election was the subject of an unsuccessful constitutional challenge.)

Historical Significance Overshadowed

Unfortunately, the historic significance of Madam Halimah’s election was overshadowed by the unhappiness among large segments of Singaporeans.  The public unhappiness cohered around two factors: (1) That the presidential election was uncontested, and (2) the apparent affirmative action provided for in a reserved election runs contrary to meritocracy, a key tenet of the Singaporean society which is almost sacrosanct for public office.

On the unhappiness over the uncontested election, the perception was that the enhanced eligibility criteria were unfair and sought to restrict the pool of eligible candidates to establishment figures and so strengthening the ability of the powers that be in ensuring that their preferred candidate would have a significant electoral advantage.

As for the apparent unhappiness over reserved election, this was not because Singaporeans did not appreciate that the presidency symbolised and embodied the nation itself and was a symbol of national unity. There is no doubt that having a minority President, elected by popular mandate, is a powerful statement of a thriving multiracialism in a polyglot society, where the ethnic Chinese comprise 75 per cent of the citizen population and the ethnic Malay is constitutionally recognised as the indigenous people and accorded a special position within the constitutionally setup.

Rather, Singaporeans were not persuaded that they could not see past a candidate’s race in deciding who to cast their ballot for. Again, the reserved election was seen as excluding candidates who might otherwise be eligible if it were an open election.

To be sure, the reserved election proposal was never popular right from the outset. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the reserved election “would be unpopular and cost us votes”.[1] For the government, their premise was that Singapore has “not arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race” even where progress have been made “but it is a work in progress”. He added that Singaporeans “should not be shy to acknowledge that in Singapore, the majority is making a special effort to ensure that minorities enjoy full and equal treatment”. The reserved election, in ensuring that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President, would also strengthen multiracialism: “[I]t is one important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspires to be. It is a reminder to every citizen, especially the Chinese majority race, that there is a role for every community in Singapore”.

However, there was the concern that the reserved election was an unfair indictment of nation-building efforts and the strength of the Singaporean-Singapore identity. Furthermore, there was also concern that the reserved election could transmogrify into a vehicle for affirmative action. A race-based election can give rise to the belief that a racial community has a legal right for one of its own to be elected president. Will there be subsequent expectations that other public offices be rotated among the races? If all races must have a chance to be elected head of state, would it also be setting a precedent for the other important public office such as the Prime Minister?

The concern with the erosion of the centrality of meritocracy was palpable. The Commission emphasised that candidates in a reserved election will have to meet the stringent eligibility criteria, similar to an open election. However, as a reserved election is not open to hopefuls from other races, a legitimate argument can be made that the meritocratic principle is not exercised in its full measure.

Furthermore, the reserved election approach also presupposes that only a minority race President can be a symbol of Singapore’s much-vaunted multiracialism. Indeed, it is not race or the colour of their skin that automatically endowed previous presidents as symbols of Singapore’s multiracialism. Rather, it was their practice and promotion of multiracialism that infused into the institution of the presidency the spirit and soul of multiracialism.

A reserved election might just reinforce the alleged tendency of Singaporeans to vote along racial lines. Voters might see that there is no necessity or urgency to vote for an electable minority candidate since the system will provide for a minority president in regular intervals if one is not elected.

Put simply, Singaporeans remained sceptical that they will compromise their own best interests and elect someone who is not deserving simply because they are of the same race. On the other hand, the government was of the view that multiracialism in Singapore needed the nudge of reserved election.

In essence, both sides of the debate saw the value and the power of electoral integration and how it could aid in the nation-building endeavour. The apparent chasm pivoted on whether integration should be allowed to develop organically or whether there should be deliberate effort at constitutional engineering. It probably boiled down to how the presidency can be safeguarded as a true symbol of Singapore’s national unity and to keep her multiracialism sustainable.

The above discussion does not at all deny that race, religion, and language remain fault-lines in Singaporean society. Neither do the above arguments under-estimate that these markers of ethnicity can induce and arouse primordial loyalties. Nevertheless, no amount of constitutional engineering can remove a racial or even a racist mindset and disposition in electoral behaviour.

Instead, the key questions that should arise from yet another uncontested presidential election is whether the reserved election mechanism would nudge and provide “incentives” for candidates and the electorate to think of how their electoral behaviour and their votes can entrench multiracialism and for their self-interest.

Singapore’s constant efforts at constitutional engineering suggest that in institutional design or re-design, process and procedures are not mere contingent tools or instruments by which the invaluable end of a more robust system of governance is realised. The process and procedures must be regarded and treated as necessary components of any system of governance.

How Singapore went about effecting the latest set of changes to selected aspects of the elected Presidency matters as much as the end result itself. Lessons will have to be learned as to why the ostensibly good intentions that formed the basis of the constitutional changes were not seen in similar light. It remains early days yet to determine whether values such as multiracialism, meritocracy, integrity, and the democratic mandate will be nurtured in the new constitutional framework.

The less than enthusiastic response to the no-contest outcome in September’s reserved presidential election suggest that ostensibly good intentions alone are inadequate as Singapore strives to create a system of governance that is robust, relevant, and resilient for the good and betterment of Singaporeans’ common destiny. Perhaps the process of engagement was inadequate.

In a one-party dominant system where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed uninterrupted since 1959, such significant constitutional changes are often perceived to be disguised attempts to maintain the political status quo and buttress the political hegemony of the regime. This is more so when the dominant impression was that of the government proceeding with undue haste especially when the system is not regarded to be broken. The process is as important as the final outcome, which in Singapore’s case is often seen as a foregone conclusion. This is a pity and could breed cynicism since the elected presidency, as the apex office in the city-state of 3.44 million citizens, can be a valuable safeguard in a system of government that has long taken pride in and become known for good governance, multiracialism, and meritocracy.

Notes

[1]  Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks at the People’s Association Kopi Talk at Ci Yuan Community Club, 23 September 2017. The title of his remarks was, “Race, Multiracialism and Singapore’s Place in the World”.

Nigeria – Will President Buhari seek a second term?

This is a post by Sa’eed Husaini

Nigeria’s next election is two years away which, based on the usual rhythms of Nigeria’s electoral cycle, might as well be tomorrow. President Buhari, who swept to power in 2015 following an unlikely opposition victory, just reached the mid-way point of his four year tenure this past May. Yet an energetic slew of endorsements, counter-endorsements, and official declarations of intent by presidential hopefuls have already brought to the fore the question of whether or not Buhari will seek to retain his seat in 2019.

Of course, the fact that Buhari’s second term ambition still remains a matter of speculation rather than a forgone conclusion is itself noteworthy in a broader regional context wherein assuming that incumbents will hold on to power has too frequently been the surest bet.

Closer to home however, Buhari is in a sense a victim of his own success, insofar as his historic victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan affirmed that a second term is no longer effectively a birthright for Nigerian presidents. Moreover, an ambitious and well-heeled crop of would-be successors are already making thinly veiled bids for the presidency meaning that Buhari will have to put up a serious fight if he will retain his tenancy in Aso Villa—Nigeria’s presidential palace—after 2019. Given these factors, what are some important considerations that might shape the president’s decision to either throw in the towel, or toss a hat in the ring?

Why he might run

Continuing to carry out what has largely been a personality-driven agenda will likely be Buhari’s key motivation for seeking to hold on to his seat. The security threat posed by Boko Haram and a fight against corruption have topped the president’s list of priorities during his past two years in office. Indeed Buhari’s background as an army general and a reputation cemented during his brief stint as military head of state for cracking down on corrupt officials were some of the bases for his popularity during his campaign.

Yet in government, much like in his campaign, Buhari’s strong personality, rather than wider institutional efforts, have been the ultimate base of his government’s agenda. Critics of the government’s anti-corruption fight in particular have pointed to its slow pace and unimpressive number of convictions it has scored as evidence of the president’s micro-managerial approach.

A promised clean up of Nigeria’s oil ministry—to which Buhari appointed himself as head—have also recently come under question, as two senior petroleum officials traded allegations of corruption on the front pages of national news. Buhari’s famous disdain for ‘Abuja politics’—or the regular dealings of Nigeria’s political class—has been at the heart of this close to the chest approach and might also imply a desire to personally see to the completion of his agenda, rather than to leave it in the hands of a successor.

Despite the setbacks, Buhari’s popularity, particularly within his core base in Northern Nigeria, is a second important reason why the president might still see a second-term bid as distinctly viable. To his base, built up across his four bids for the presidency, Buhari has represented the moral alternative to the corruption of mainstream Nigerian politics, a view which has been sustained (perhaps even been affirmed) amidst the difficulties his government has faced in navigating the treachery of high politics while in office. Firm affirmations and endorsements from across the North seem to suggest that, despite the stiffness of the mounting competition, he is still the man to beat in this region of the country.

Why he might not run

There are also a number of formidable hurdles that could dissuade Buhari against a possible second term.

Chief among these has been repeated health crises which have resulted in several extended medical absences during his presidency. This year, the president has spent more time in the U.K., where he has received medical treatment, than in Nigeria. Given his age of 74, these health challenges have been of particular concern.

The secrecy of the presidency about the exact nature of his illness strongly suggests a desire not to foreclose the possibility of a second term bid. Yet it also seems likely that audible doubts raised about his capacity to govern given his illness and advancing age will be a major consideration in deliberations about his political future.

Beyond the personal challenges, a Buhari second term bid also faces considerable political headwinds. Notwithstanding his popularity in the north, Buhari’s victory in the 2015 would not have been possible had he not joined a coalition with other regionally dominant political figures, including former governor of Lagos and southwestern political titan Bola Tinubu. This alliance, which is at the heart of Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC) party, has at various points during the presidency appeared to teeter at the verge of collapse. The party’s internal disfunction was brought home in 2016 when First Lady Aisha Buhari, in a publicly aired interview, criticized the president for failing to accommodate the interests of important members of the coalition and, significantly, threatened not to support her husband’s re-election in 2019. More recently, the President’s Women Affairs minister also publicly declared that she would support Atiku Abubaker, another major member of the APC coalition, over Buhari in a 2019 race. It is highly likely that these deep fissures in the coalition which brought Buhari to power will also constitute a significant consideration in the presidents’ assessment of his electoral prospects and ultimate decision to either return or retire.

What is at stake

Ultimately Buhari’s decision in either direction will be the most important test the APC would have faced since the 2015 elections, as the response of the party’s major stakeholders—whether to support or oppose Buhari’s decision—will determine the party’s continued cohesion and future. Furthermore, the chances that the opposition People’s Democratic Party, can make significant inroads before the 2019 election will also crucially depend on the candidate whom the APC selects as its frontrunner. The wider impact of a Buhari re-election bid for Nigeria more generally is also worth considering: a president walking away from a second-term ticket could signal that Nigeria’s democracy has matured to the extent that leaders see the best interest of the country as more important than personal ambition. How Buhari will ultimately decide still remains uncertain but what is clear is that his second term ambition is a matter that will certainly require some careful consideration.

Marcelo Jenny: Austria – Legislative election results leave the president little leeway in government formation

This is a guest post by Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck.

Like many elections the results of Austria’s legislative elections on October 15th were a mix of expected and surprising elements. Among the surprising bits was a strong increase in electoral turnout from 74.9 %in the last legislative elections of 2013 to 79.4 %on Sunday. This is also well above the 74.2 %turnout in the final round of Austria’s presidential elections in December 2016, when the former long-time chairman of the Green party, Alexander van der Bellen, won against rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and was sworn in in January 2017 as the country’s first president not belonging to one the traditional government parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP).

The president will be particularly hurt by the fate that befell his former party shortly after it celebrated its biggest ever electoral victory. Frustrated by intra-party conflict with young activists and senior MPs, who failed to be renominated as candidates, its female party leader resigned and was followed by two women as co-leaders but could not stop the Green’s downward slope in the polls. The Greens dropped from a vote share of 12.4 % in the last election in 2013 to 3.7 % and, thereby, also out of parliament while the new party ‘List Pilz’ led by renegade Green MP Peter Pilz, parliament’s most senior MP, successfully crossed the 4% threshold with a vote share of 4.4 %.

Final vote and seat sharesfor the parties will be announced on Thursday after the last small batch of postal votes has been counted, but only minor changes are expected to preliminary results published by the Ministry of the Interior (https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/).

Preliminary results of the Austrian legislative elections | Austrian Interior Ministry https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/

The happy winner of these elections is the ÖVP’s young party leader Sebastian Kurz (just 31 years old) who came into office in spring of this year, rebranded the party within weeks and successfully translated his personal popularity into a 31.5 % vote share (24.0% in 2013). He jumped from heading the third largest party in the polls to becoming leader of the largest parliamentary party. The SPÖ was relegated to second place with 26.9 % (26.8 in 2013), while the right-wing FPÖ came in third by a small margin with 26.0 % (20.5). The liberal party NEOS remains in parliament with 5.3 % (5.0 in 2013).

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz is on course to become the youngest leader of a government worldwide. Most observers expect the ÖVP to form a coalition with the FPÖ, and even if he wanted president Van der Bellen will be unable to do much about it. By political convention the president tasks the leader of the largest party with forming a new government. President Van der Bellen has not done that yet. He will talk with the leaders of the five parliamentay parties first. By convention the current government resgined after the election and has been asked by the president to keep serving until the new government is sworn in.

How long it will take to form a new government coalition is among the most speculated topic right now, but once Kurz returns to the president’s office equipped with a coalition agreement with the FPÖ, few expect Van der Bellen to take a stand against it. The electorate has decisively moved to the right in this election and the ÖVP’s appetite for a renewal of the coalition government with the Social Democratic Party is at an all-time low. An alternative coalition between SPÖ and Freedom Party would have a nominal parliamentary majority but the Social Democratic Party is deeply split on that idea, making such an outcome very unlikely.

In the coming weeks and perhaps months Van der Bellen will be closely watched and compared at each step with his immediate predecessor Heinz Fischer (who served the last two terms 2004-2016) and most of all with another former president, Thomas Klestil, who strongly opposed the formation of Austria’s first coalition government between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party in 2000 due to its anti-European stance. Klestil expressed his opposition to including the FPÖ in government very publicly and refused to accept two of its ministerial candidates. Reactions from other EU member states were likewise strongly negative and even triggered sanctions against Austria. Eventually, everybody emerged bruised from this episode.

The times have changed and nobody expects something similar to happen again this time around. Eurosceptic parties are more widespread today and Sebastian Kurz’ restrictive position on immigration, very similar to the position held by the FPÖ, is also popular among Central and Eastern European governments. Taking the current domestic and international context into account, president Van der Bellen’s leeway in making a personal imprint on the next government is very small.

Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck. His research focuses on electoral behaviour, election campaigns and party competition, parliamentarism, content analysis and sentiment analysis as well as political communication.

Jörg Michael Dostal – South Korea: New President Moon Jae-in Promotes Constitutional Reform

This is  guest post by Jörg Michael Dostal, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea.

Introduction: The ‘Imperial Presidency’

There is consensus in writings about South Korean politics (subsequently referred to as Korea) suggesting that the country’s ‘imperial presidency’ constitutes the major power centre. In the Korean context, the term ‘imperial’ is used to signify that the institution of the presidency, namely the president and his/her presidential office, enjoy dominance over the other political institutions, such as the prime minister (appointed by the president and approved by parliament), ministries and other state agencies. In the relationship between the presidency and Korea’s parliament (the National Assembly), the president also exercises strong direct and indirect control over legislation, via his right to appoint the state council (the government) which can put forward legislation and his ability to directly issue presidential decrees. Although parliament performs the role of principal legislator and must agree on the annual national budget as submitted by the executive branch headed by the president, its supervisory role is much diminished if the president’s party holds a parliamentary majority. In addition, the Korean president controls foreign policy-making, the state security institutions and the national military. Thus, in the Korean context the term ‘imperial presidency’ suggests the president’s concurrent control of domestic and foreign policy-making for which the current Korean Constitution of 1987 provides the enabling framework [1].

The Korean use of the term therefore differs from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous description of the US ‘imperial presidency’ that hinted at ‘executive excess’, namely offences against the balance of power as outlined in the US Constitution, such as presidential foreign policy-making based on inner circle decision-making without the involvement of Congress – e.g. the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In the Korean case, the 1987 Constitution in fact facilitates presidential dominance and would require amendments in order to create a more balanced political system.

Korea’s Constitutional History

Overall, Korea’s political and constitutional history since 1948 can be divided into the periods of authoritarian rule – strongmen backed up by the military – between 1948 and 1987, briefly punctuated between 1960 and 1961 by a parliamentary republic, and the period since the transition to democracy in 1987. The earlier authoritarian periods are referred to as the First and the Third to Fifth Republics. The Second Republic, lasting for less than a year between 1960 and 1961, was Korea’s first effort at democratic governance while the current democratic Korea is referred to as the Sixth Republic. The first Korean Constitution was issued in 1948 and is partially influenced by the US example, although sections about the rights of the individual and the people as the source of all political authority have been ignored under the authoritarian regimes.

The 1948 Constitution has been amended nine times and revised four times, most recently in 1987. The earlier revisions mostly concerned procedural issues such as how the president should be elected and the duration of his time in office. The major past event in this respect was the 1972 ‘Yushin Constitution’ that facilitated the continuation of the rule of President Park Chung-hee for an unlimited number of six-year terms that came to an end due to his assassination in 1979. All constitutional provisions between 1948 and 1960 and from 1961 to 1987 were fictitious in providing a thin veneer of façade democracy while unchecked presidential power was always the dominant element in the authoritarian system.

Because of this, the most crucial constitutional amendment was the latest one dating from 1987 that provided for the competitive direct election of the president by the people in a single round plurality vote for a non-renewable five-year term in office. Since then, six presidents have entered and left office in five-year spells with the exception of the last one, Park Geun-hye (the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee). Her term in office started in 2013 and came to an end due to a citizens’ protest movement that took off in the autumn of 2016 in reaction to revelations about her abuse of office, namely allowing her confidante Choi Soon-sil to collect ‘donations’ from chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) for ‘foundations’, i.e. monies were extracted in exchange for influence paddling. This revelation, currently still under investigation alongside other charges, resulted in her impeachment by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016, a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court on 10 March 2017, ending her presidency. She was subsequently, on 30 March 2017, arrested to facilitate ongoing investigations by the prosecutor, and her arrest was extended for another six-month period on 13 October 2017.

Constitutional Reform

The new liberal President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, elected on 9 May 2017, has announced that he intends to push for constitutional changes to reform the political system to uproot ‘deep-rooted irregularities accumulated over the last nine years’ [2]. He has further specified that he expects such changes to be subject to a popular referendum to be run concurrently with the next local government election that is scheduled for the July of 2018.

Significantly, talk about constitutional reform has been something of an evergreen in recent Korean politics. There was debate about reform under the last four presidencies, namely the ones led by the liberals Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) and the conservatives Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). These debates focused on reforming the presidency in a way that would strengthen other political institutions, perhaps in exchange for removing the single-term limit on the presidency to make the system conform with the US example allowing for two consecutive four-year terms in office. In this context, the most commonly voiced reform scenarios concerned semi-presidentialism (dividing authority between domestic and foreign policy-making and handing the former to the prime minister), or strengthening of the role of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the president. However, these debates were somehow academic and/or journalistic in the sense that other countries and their systems were presented to a Korean audience that took note, but was still not strongly committed to any particular reform course. No action was taken.

However, the new President Moon is more strongly committed to constitutional reform in comparison to his predecessors, and his high popular approval rates backed up by a narrow majority of liberal forces in the National Assembly (his own party holds 121 out of 299 seats in parliament while another liberal parties hold 40 seats) makes for a more enabling reform environment. Yet the liberal camp is short of the required two-third majority in parliament that is necessary to pass a constitutional reform bill, which would in turn enable the president to submit such proposal to a popular referendum next year. In other words, President Moon needs cooperation from at least some conservatives to find enough votes in parliament to ensure passage [3]. If this is in fact possible is currently an entirely open question. After all, the normal behavioural pattern of liberals and conservatives in Korea has been all-out confrontation rather than cooperation.

Nevertheless, thirty years after the last constitutional reform that issued in democracy in 1987, another round of reform appears at least plausible. But what are we to expect? In terms of potential reform scenarios, the options include the already mentioned semi-presidentialism, although this idea has so far not triggered much support. Other conceivable changes would concern the relationship between the presidency and the ensemble of the other political institutions mentioned in the 1987 Constitution, making the former less ‘imperial’ and strengthening the latter. For example, the presidential office that is currently made up of presidential appointees and controls the other institutions could hand over some powers to other actors. Another option would be to make the political system less centralised, by expanding the decision-making power of local governments. One could also think of efforts to change the way the legislature is elected, by changing the voting system from the currently dominant plurality system to a system that expands proportional representation. Such change would have the potential to transform the party system and could perhaps overcome the current patterns of political behaviour that is mostly based on personal loyalties to individual leaders and regionalism rather than political programmes and ideology.

The Future of Korean Democracy

Any constitutional reform scenario ultimately poses hard questions about the actual state of the country’s democratic capabilities. While the current mainstream view is the optimistic assertion that the unseating of Park Geun-hye, due to the popular protests in 2016 and 2017 with millions of participants in peaceful street rallies, has proven the resilience of democratic values and popular engagement in Korea, this view has not been universally shared. One observer has suggested that Koreans in all socio-economic groups mostly prefer paternalistic leadership over liberal democracy. The author further holds that ‘socioeconomic modernization has failed to emancipate the people from illiberal norms’, arguing that the ‘internalization of norms promoting hierarchism, collectivism, conformism, and [cultural] monism in social life … [promote] affinity for paternalistic autocracy’. These assertions, based on data from the 2015 Asian Barometer Korean survey, point back to the problem of the relationship between Confucian values and pluralist democracy [4].

In a similar vein, the current writer has suggested that Korean democracy suffers from clashes between constitutional, Confucian and hyper-capitalistic norms and values. Such competition produces a permanent state of flux; each of the three normative orientations have moments of dominance. As a result, interpersonal trust is low, which facilitates a highly competitive individualism taking advantage of weak institutional checks and balances. Any reform path would require overcoming the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in order to consolidate institutions of political participation based on deliberation and coalition-building [5].

The reality of Korean democracy is that there has been limited progress in terms of strengthening of formal institutions. Namely, the chaebols and their economic interests have always dominated the political agenda, while civil society actors have been weakly institutionalised and usually powerless. In turn, political parties also display little by way of an internal life beyond the leader-follower relationship. This spills over into the way the parties conduct parliamentary business. If institutions other than the presidency are expected to acquire a larger role in the future, their capabilities would have to be strengthened from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

Clearly, one of the paradoxes of President Moon’s plan of making the presidency surrender some of its power in favour of other institutions is that the current system would still demand him to assume leadership on devolving such power. This is necessary because the other potential actor of devolution, namely parliament, might be gridlocked if liberals and conservatives fail to agree on joined-up reform. In case of failure, President Moon could have a second shot at constitutional reform in 2020 when the next national parliamentary elections are due and the liberals could theoretically gain a two-thirds majority enabling them to act without the backing of conservatives. Yet such a surge in a president’s popularity at a later stage of his/her tenure has not happened so far in the post-1987 democratic system. Instead, presidents usually lose some of their previous support in parliament during later stages of their tenure, and their agenda-setting power is subsequently much diminished. Thus, whether the current round of constitutional reform debate is going to produce results is still an open question.

Notes

[1] Yong-duck Jung, The Korean State, Public Administration, and Development: Past, Present and Future Challenges, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2014, pp. 67-119.

[2] No stated author, ‘What Moon Jae-in pledged to do as president’, Korea Herald, 10 May 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170509000521.

[3] Hyo-jin Kim, ‘Constitutional talks may lose steam’, Korea Times, 16 October 2017, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/10/356_237679.html.

[4] Doh-chull Shin, ‘President Park Geun-hye and the Deconsolidation of Liberal Democracy in South Korea: Exploring its Cultural Roots’, Center for the Study of Democracy, UC Irvine, 14 July 2017, pp. 9, 13, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t68c47v.

[5] Jörg Michael Dostal, ‘South Korean Presidential Politics Turns Liberal: Transformative Change or Business as Usual?’, The Political Quarterly, 88, 3, 2017: 480-491, http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/sites/gspa.snu.ac.kr/files/Dostal-2017-The_Political_Quarterly%2088%283%29.pdf.

About the author

Jörg Michael Dostal (jmdostal@snu.ac.kr) is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea. He teaches comparative politics and has recently published on the politics of Germany, Switzerland, Syria and South Korea. His publications are available here: http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/node/76.