Monthly Archives: March 2019

Donald Trump: The Populist Political Superhero

This is a guest post by Andrea Schneiker (University of Siegen, Germany). It based on her recent article ‘Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’ in Political Studies Review which is available here.

With heads of states such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, populism has climbed into the driver’s seat of powerful states. While much has been written on populism, and populist foreign policy in particular, we still know little about populist leadership. If one defining principle of populism is its anti-elitism, how can populists such as Donald Trump maintain the illusion of not belonging to the ruling elite, once they become heads of state? The figure of the superhero can help us to answer this question. By adopting the image of a superhero, populist leaders can pretend to be ordinary citizens while at the same time ruling the country. Donald Trump is the prime example of such a ‘populist political superhero’. In the following and based on an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets — posted on his account @realDonaldTrump between March 2016 and January 2019 — I will briefly explain the characteristics of the superhero that make it a perfect fit for populist leadership, and highlight the consequences of such populist leadership for democracy and for foreign policy.

Instagram post by Donald Trump Jr. from 21 October 2017 (© Donald Trump Jr. 2017, displayed here under fair use)

Just like Spiderman, Superman or James Bond, the superhero marketed by Donald Trump is an ordinary citizen who, in case of an emergency, uses his superpowers to save others, in this case: the United States of America. To portray himself as an ordinary citizen, Donald Trump not only presents himself as a proud husband and father, but also regularly claims that he is close to everyday citizens and understands the problems and needs of ordinary Americans. For example, he tweets that he knows what they are worried about—namely, ‘rising crime, failing schools and vanishing jobs’ (1 August 2016). Furthermore, in line with the figure of the superhero, Donald Trump claims that he is the only one who can solve and respond to these problems and needs. No matter whether it is about national security, economy, or tax laws, Donald Trump proposes that he is the only one who can fix even existential problems.

According to Donald Trump, the need for a superhero to solve the problems of ordinary Americans and the nation as such arises from the inability of politicians to do so. Hence, the populist superhero is necessarily an anti-politician. Consequently, it is no surprise that Donald Trump uses words such as ‘politician’ and ‘politics’ in a derogatory way. He presents ‘politicians’ as by definition apart from the people, as an elite class, as the establishment. He portrays his rival politicians as incompetent, unable to solve problems, and as untrustworthy – supposedly his complete opposite. This strategy was not limited to his presidential campaign in which he, for example, criticized his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) for ‘never [having] created a job in her life’ (20 October 2016) and declared that ‘Owned by Wall St and Politicians, HRC is not with you.’ (1 October 2016). Donald Trump continues to blame politicians for their incompetence after he became President. In November 2018, for example, he tweeted ‘Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot.’ (19 November 2018).

Yet, in contrast to superheroes such as Superman, the populist superhero Donald Trump cannot operate in secrecy or in disguise. In order to differentiate himself from his competitors and politicians, Donald Trump has to convince the audience (his electorate), that he is better suited than anyone else to deliver on this promises, i.e. to solve problems. Hence, Donald Trump needs the world to know that he, and only he, can fix and has fixed a situation. Otherwise, he could not use his alleged exceptional problem-solving capacity as a unique selling point.

Twitter as communication channel fits perfectly the requirements of such populist leadership. It is fairly anti-elitist in that it is easily accessible as wireless technology allows for a tweet to be posted and read from almost anywhere at any time. On the one hand, Twitter provides a platform that Donald Trump can use to tell the world whatever he has done or plans to do. On the other hand, in order to know about what Donald Trump is doing, people do not have to listen to press conferences or read the newspaper – they just need to access Twitter. People can also ‘follow’ Donald Trump or even address him directly by using his @username reference – @realDonaldTrump. All these features create the impression of proximity between Donald Trump and ordinary citizens.

Yet, this is just an illusion, because this type of populist leadership, and the use of Twitter to communicate it, denigrate democratic politics. The populist political superhero reflects an understanding of political decision-making as an authoritative setting of ‘the truth’ by one supposedly competent individual, instead of through a deliberative process based on pluralistic ideas and interests. Furthermore, claims that current problems such as lacking job opportunities are the fault of incompetent politicians (rather than complex political decision-making and interdependencies in a globalised world) arguably oversimplify the issue. Such simplifications can be posted on Twitter without having to engage in a dialogue and without taking into account different opinions. In contrast to, for example, press conferences, Twitter allows Donald Trump to evade critical comments and debates, because questions and comments can remain unanswered. Twitter even, at least in theory, allows for blocking individual users and their comments.

Populist leadership in terms of a superhero is not only consequential for domestic politics. It also has effects on the international level, because it leads to a rejection of multilateralism. The latter generally requires some sort of power restraint and willingness to make compromise based on agreed-upon rules that equally apply to all participating states. Hence, multilateral forms of decision-making are incompatible with the requirements of the superhero – they do not allow Donald Trump to present himself as the one and only problem-solver. In multilateral settings, Donald Trump is just one head of state among many others. Therefore, he prefers bilateral negotiations or what he calls ‘deals’. These allow him to show the world that he is in control of the process, for example by continuously updating the public via Twitter on the state of the negotiations. Thereby, Donald Trump can also present himself as the only person being able to negotiate agreements with other states. This becomes apparent when looking at the US’ relations with North Korea or at the trade negotiations with China. Regarding the latter, Donald Trump for example tweeted that ‘President Xi and I […] are the only two people who can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond’ (3 December 2018) and that ‘No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points.’ (31 January 2019).

Overall, the figure of the populist superhero not only explains how populists can continue to pretend to be separate from the elite even after ascending to power; it also reveals populists’ disregard of democratic decision-making processes at the domestic level and for multilateral agreements on the international level.

Andrea Schneiker (schneiker@sozialwissenschaften.uni-siegen.de) is assistant professor (‘Juniorprofessorin’) in Political Science/International Relations at the University of Siegen, Germany. Her research focuses on Global Governance, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Political Communications. She is author and co-editor of several books, including ‘Researching Non-state Actors in International Security’ (Routledge 2017, co-edited with Andreas Kruck) and ‘Humanitarian NGOs, (In)Security and Identity’ (Routledge 2015). She tweets at @ASchneiker.

Germany – Party strategies and the selection of electors for presidential elections, 1949-2017

This blog post is based on an article by Philipp Köker recently published in German Politics.

Indirectly elected presidents and their elections are still an underresearched subject in political science. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of fierce competition between political parties over filling the nation’s highest office (many of these documented on this very blog) that highlight the presidency’s importance. In fact, all parties have a vested interest in determining the next president: Indirectly elected presidents often hold important reserve powers and are thus able to tip the balance of power in one’s favour. At the same time, they are effectively agents of parliament and thus less likely to interfere in the work of their principals. However, indirect presidential elections are also publicly observed events that allow parties to send signals to voters and position themselves for the next legislative elections. Therefore, we need to ask: How do political parties strategically approach the indirect election of presidents? Specifically, what value do parties place on capturing the presidency compared to signalling their voters?

The case of Germany offers a particularly interesting perspective on this question. The German president is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), an electoral college consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of electors nominated by Länder (state) parliaments. There are up to three rounds of (secret) voting in the Federal Convention – in the first two rounds, candidates need an absolute majority of electors to win; in the third and final round a relative majority suffices (to date all but three out of ten elections were held in a single round note that no candidate has ever been elected with less than a majority of votes). Electors are elected by state parliaments using proportional representation and must only satisfy criteria for active suffrage; thus, parties have free reign in who to nominate and their delegations can also include nominees who are not members of state legislatures (extra-parliamentarian electors – EPEs).

As can be seen in the above figure, state delegations since 1949 have always included a substantive share of extra-parliamentarian electors (EPEs). Media reporting regularly focusses primarily on the various celebrities (athletes, singers, writers, actors, and socialites) among the EPEs, but parties also nominate representatives of affiliated organisations (e.g. the Social Democratic Party always nominated the president of the German Trade Union Federation). Thus, EPEs can act as celebrity advocates for political parties and provide an opportunity to strengthen ties with other organisations or reward local campaigners. However, EPEs are not subject to the same kind of political socialisation or institutional pressures as deputies of state legislatures; information on their political preferences is also often limited, so that their voting behaviour is considerably more difficult to predict. Therefore, the share of EPEs in party delegations presents an indicator of the relative importance that parties place on capturing the presidency (fewer EPEs) versus exploiting the process for publicity and reward (more EPEs), and allows for assessing the determinants of their strategic considerations.

My main argument is that parties primarily want to see their chosen candidate elected president (or delay the election by preventing a victory in the first two rounds when their candidate has no realistic chance of winning). Exploiting the media attention of the election and strengthening ties with other groups presents a secondary goal. Both goals are in conflict with each other as the realisation of the primary goal requires high levels of voting unity, whereas the subsidiary goals can most effectively be achieved by nominating the – less predictable – EPEs as electors and risking deviations from party line. Based on these initial considerations, I formulate seven hypotheses on when parties should nominate more/fewer EPEs as part of their state delegation to the electoral college.

In my analysis, I use a new data set on 791 party delegations between 1949 and 2017 and use the share of EPEs as the dependent variable. The results confirm most of my hypotheses, yet also challenge some conventional wisdom about presidential elections in Germany. Scholars and journalists previously assumed that parties will nominate more EPEs when the outcome of the election is clear beforehand and competition is low. However, it appears that competition in the electoral college only played a minor role (if any). Rather, party strategies were influenced by the varying signalling power of the elections, i.e. the way in which the presidential election helped to position them with regard to upcoming legislative elections.

Parties were for instance more risk-averse and nominated fewer EPEs when they were part of the federal government, or when federal elections approached. Both scenarios increased the ‘seriousness’ of the election for political parties: Although research has shown no evidence for presidential coattails in Germany, governing parties should perceive themselves to be under greater pressure to display high levels of voting unity. The same applies to all parties if federal elections approach. In contrast, parties nominated more EPEs when they had a larger support base to reward (likely to include more representatives of other organisations, or because larger parties were rather able to accommodate EPEs alongside their political leaders). Interestingly, although electors are chosen at the state level, the control variables about parties’ membership in state governments and approaching state elections did not show statistically significant effects. While it appears that there is a need for a further differentiation of EPEs (e.g. some members of state governments do not or cannot hold legislative office at the same time), this overall supports my assertion that the nomination of electors is a federal strategy that is implemented at state level.

Unfortunately, there is yet little systematic and comparative research on indirect presidential elections. However, Germany is not the only country to elect their president in an extended electoral college (other cases include India and Italy) and/or includes extra-parliamentarian electors in the process (Estonia and Nepal do so, too). Furthermore, the signalling power / publicity potential of indirect presidential elections is likely to exist in other countries, too. Future research should thus analyse the role of the different compositions of electoral colleges, and assess and to what extent parties in other countries are torn between electoral success and exploiting the elections’ publicity potential.

__________________________________________________________________
This blog post is based on a recently published article:
Köker, Philipp. 2019. Risk vs Reward Strategies in Indirect Presidential Elections: Political Parties and the Selection of Presidential Electors in Germany, 1949-2017.
German Politics, [Online First; DOI: 10.1080/09644008.2019.1590549].
The data underlying this study are available via figshare DOI:
10.6084/m9.figshare.6263060.v1

Angola – The MPLA and the fall of Dos Santos’ dynasty

The change in the top leadership post of Angola, which started in 2017 through a sequential state ruling party leadership strategy, ended the long rule of José Eduardo dos Santos as both the head of state and the ruling party (MPLA) leader. João Lourenço succeeded Dos Santos in this unprecedented political leadership transition in the country’s post-independence and multiparty era. Along with Zimbabwe, Angola’s leadership change is somehow perceived as the beginning of a trend in which dynastic takeovers seem to no longer be acceptable in Africa.

But what do we know about leadership change in Africa and what can Angola tell us?

In overall terms, leadership change constitutes a moment of uncertainty, and it is particularly worrying in Africa. Taking power through violent means such as military coups and leaders overstaying in power are two highlighted trends in contemporary African politics. Concerning the latter trend a recent study by Denis M. Tull and Claudia Simons observes that in almost half of the cases in which an incumbent president reached the term limit, he attempted to extend his term by rewriting or reinterpreting the constitution, and the vast majority of these attempts were successful. Moreover, sitting presidents were able to win third-term elections, despite the popular protest demanding the enforcement of presidential term limits.

Dos Santos long rule spanned the years of the civil war (1975-1992; 1993-2002) and was extended resorting to an instrumental interpretation and rewriting of the constitution. The 1992 constitution established a three-term limit, but since elections never took place between 1993-2007, due to the reignition of the civil war after the first multiparty elections in 1992, Dos Santos managed to prolong his stay in power throughout this period. Ahead of the 2008 general elections, there were discussions on whether Dos Santos had already attained the limit of the presidential terms or if he would be eligble to two more mandates. The constitutional interpretation which then prevailed established that the second presidential term of Dos Santos was to start in the 2008 elections and that he would still be able to run for a third mandate in the 2012 elections. However, the new constitution approved in 2010 reinforced his presidential powers and allowed him to legally remain head of state until 2022.

The Africa Leadership Change (ALC) dataset reveals some important patterns of leadership change in the sub-Saharan region. First, there is a long list of African presidents who have managed to stay in office despite the “electoral revolution” of the early 1990s. Indeed, until 2017, Dos Santos was in the top 5 of the longest-serving presidents in Africa. Second, multiparty elections have seemed to be the most common way of replacing a leader after 1990. However, the incumbent wins in most elections, followed by an increased number of electoral succession cases (see the “no alternation” column of the figure below).

Source: Giovanni Carbone & Alessandro Pellegata (2017): To Elect or Not to Elect: Leaders, Alternation in Power and Social Welfare in Sub-Saharan Africa, The Journal of Development Studies, p. 6. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1279733.

The August 2017 elections in Angola represented a case of electoral succession in the sense that the new president comes from the same party of the outgoing president; however, it is a case of nonhereditary succession. João Lourenço was not Dos Santos’ first choice (he even tried to revert the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections) and speculation around the leadership succession pointed to his eldest son, José Filomeno dos Santos (aka Zénu).

Did the MPLA limit hereditary politics in Angola?

The hereditary succession has been a topic of concern in several authoritarian regimes. In 2007, Jason Brownlee developed an argument that emphasizes the role of ruling parties to account for differentials of hereditary succession in modern autocracies. He contends that hereditary succession depends on the precedent for leadership selection, i.e., if the party enjoyed a precedent for selection from within the ranks, as was the case in Angola, then elites will defer to the party as the recognized arbiter of succession, which is likely to be nonhereditary.

José Eduardo dos Santos was the successor of Agostinho Neto in 1979 and was selected by the MPLA. It remains unclear if Dos Santos tried to somehow impose his son in 2017. What we do know is that the continuity of Dos Santos in office or his succession was something that was deeply discussed and negotiated inside the ruling party by the political bureau. João Lourenço’s selection was also the MPLA’s response to the widespread dislike of the Dos Santos’ dynasty and, more importantly, to the ruling party’s growing crisis of legitimacy linked to Dos Santos’ rule. Thus, despite his personal rule, José Eduardo dos Santos is a case of a “ruler predated by the ruling party” in terms of leadership succession. We can also say that his grande famille has been also predated by the new leader.

The fall of Dos Santos’ dynasty

In less than a year in office, the new president began to remove members of the Dos Santos clan from Angola’s epicenter of political and economic power. João Lourenço deposed Dos Santos’ daughter and one of the richest woman in Africa, Isabel dos Santos, from the presidency of the state oil company, Sonangol. Also, her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, was removed from the chairmanship of Angola’s $5 billion USD sovereign wealth fund (FSDEA). More importantly, Filomeno was detained last September and held in custody over “practices of [alleged] various crimes, including criminal associations, receipt of undue advantage, corruption, participation in unlawful business, money laundering, embezzlement, fraud among others”. Isabel dos Santos also faces corruption investigations, allegedly for having funneled oil funds into her consulting companies. Moreover, João Lourenço’s “bulldozer” also affected the privileges of two other members of the Dos Santos family, as the new executive decided to put an end to the contracts with Semba Comunicação, a media sector company founded by José Eduardo Paulino (aka Coréon Dú) with his sister and partner Welwitschia “Tchizé” dos Santos, who is also an MPLA deputy.

According to Alex Vines, these removals have been effortless, as the former president’s family neither receives the MPLA’s support nor enjoys popularity. Furthermore, João Lourenço’s actions affecting Dos Santos’ family increased his popularity levels inside and outside the ruling party and thus didn’t allow the former president to stand up for his targeted family members, as pointed out by Ismael Mateus. Indeed, it was only in November of last year that the former president reacted, claiming during an unprecedented press conference held at the headquarters of his foundation in Luanda that, contrary to the previous declarations of his successor, he did not “leave the state coffers empty.” At the same time, Isabel dos Santos posted several messages on social media criticizing João Lourenço and emphasizing the dangers of having a deep political crisis coupled with the existing economic one, and also defending her honor and work for Sonangol. Tchizé dos Santos has also been using social media to defend both the paterfamilias and her arrested half-brother. Also, she has recently expressed that the leadership transition has not been as peaceful as expected and that João Lourenço should be focusing on the true problems of Angola.

These reactions from the members of Dos Santos clan show us that this powerful political dynasty doesn’t gather support from the MPLA and from the population. On the other hand, the anti-corruption discourse gave legitimacy to João Lourenço’s power consolidation strategy and that targeting the untouchables facilitates the fall of the Dos Santos’ dynasty for now. In addition to their family members, some of the closest allies of Dos Santos were also removed from government and the MPLA political bureau, and some of them are under investigation.

Is the ruling party a gatekeeper for leadership change?

The recent processes of leadership change in Angola or in Zimbabwe highlights the importance of the ruling party in selecting new leaders and limiting hereditary successions of long-serving presidents. African politics is often characterized by personal rule or “Big Man rule”. However, the case of Angola is revealing that strong ruling parties are important gatekeepers for leadership change, and can influence the rise, persistence and fall of ruling dynasties in competitive authoritarian regimes in Africa.

Cyprus: Creeping populism in view of the forthcoming European Elections

The concept of populism is controversial among scholars as to its analytical validity and utility. However, when populism is approached as a political strategy and style of political discourse that can be very useful in analyzing and understanding developments in political and party systems.

In Cyprus, most analysts agree that populism seems, at present, to be a limited force and has not become a threat to the mainstream political parties yet. However, there are circumstances of creeping populism that might favour the rise of populist actors in the near future. The forthcoming European elections present a good opportunity for this.

The major trends of this creeping populism are summarized below. These trends are repeatedly found in national opinion polls and Eurobarometres of recent years.

  1. There is a strong sense of identification with ethnicity and country.
  2. Turkey and immigration are perceived as the most significant and material threats to peace and security in Cyprus. These issues are among the most privileged ones for populist actors not only in Cyprus but all over Europe.
  3. The perception that ‘ethnic diversity destroys the unity of a country’ is widely held among Cypriots. Again this can be easily directed against immigrants and other minorities in Cyprus and particularly the Turkish Cypriots.

The above (1-3) must be seen in combination with the revival of nationalism in Cyprus society in the context of the Cyprus problem; nationalism is one of the most important ingredients of (right-wing) populism.

4. Very low levels of trust in national institutions. Eurobarometers continuously record very high numbers of people’s distrust towards political parties, national parliament, government, the president, the media, and recently the Cypriot Central Bank and the judiciary. These results indicate a great disappointment among the Cypriot citizens with the entire national political system which can be easily taken up by populist actors. 

5. Economic situation and corruption are the two most important problems faced by Cypriots which again lay the ground for future populist actors. This is coupled with widely held perceptions that socioeconomic changes in recent years have increased the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the underdogs.

6. Most Cypriots believe that corruption among public officials is high and widespread. Corruption is often cited as a pre-condition for the emergence of populism. Corruption issues feature high on populist parties’ campaign agenda and populists often use anti-corruption rhetoric to attract people’s support.

7. Perceptions of political party homogenization are high indicating that most Cypriots consider either all parties being the same or that all big (mainstream) parties are the same. However, they don’t put the small parties in the same frame; they consider small parties to be different. This reveals feelings of protest and anti-establishment politics which could be easily mobilized by a (small or new) populist actor.  

8. Cypriot citizens increasingly favour technocratic solutions sidelining all ideological and political discussions.

The above (4-8) suggest that Cyprus is facing a huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This crisis was intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and the inability of the political parties and the governments to protect the people from the economic crisis. The fact that both the left and the right had governed during the period of the crisis Cyprus (and Europe) went through has made all political forces looking the same. Moreover, all mainstream political parties are accused of having presented no solutions to the problems of the people. Therefore, a strong dichotomy was created between voters in general on the one hand and mainstream parties on the other.

All the above suggest that there are important contextual parameters that could provide a fertile ground for populism to rise. Populism can take both (or either) socioeconomic and cultural characteristics. Some polls when comparing the ideology of those expressing the above positions/feelings on the various issues find that there are stronger positions on all issues held among the nationalists. This is an important indication that shows that the possibility of populism is far bigger on the right than on the left.

The most possible candidate to adopt populist strategies is the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM). ELAM is essentially a branch of the Greek Golden Dawn but they carefully position themselves as nationalists who struggle for their country against the corrupted political and economic elite that has governed Cyprus since independence. According to some recent polls ELAM is a serious contender for the sixth seat of Cyprus in the forthcoming EU elections.

Finland heading for another coalition between Social Democrats and the conservatives?

In Finland the elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. Unfortunately this also means that European elections will definitely be ‘second-order elections’, with the political parties and the media investing their resources in Eduskunta elections and in the government formation talks that follow them.

With just over a month to go, it appears that the Eduskunta election campaigns will be dominated by a single topic – the reorganization of social and health services. It is essentially a deal between the two main coalition parties, Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting directly-elected regional councils (the Centre wins most of its votes in the rural areas of the country) and the latter in turn ensuring a larger role for the private sector in delivering social and health services. However, the process with all its twists and turns has dragged on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the required legislation cannot be approved before the April elections. In fact, the whole package may fail, especially as there is stronger criticism from within the governing parties, with several of their MPs already indicating that they will vote against the laws in the Eduskunta. Recently there has also emerged a wave of scandals concerning nursing homes and other facilities operated by private companies: public authorities have intervened, reprimanding companies for inadequate staffing and overall poor treatment of the occupants, and even enforcing the closure of some of the facilities.

It is perfectly understandable that the project has produced heated debates within and between parties, not to mention in the society at large. Finns are used to a high level of social protection and to health services being delivered mainly by the public sector, with the welfare state regime enjoying strong support among the population. To be sure, municipal councils that are responsible for providing the services have increasingly been purchasing them from private companies, but as the above-mentioned scandals indicate, there are genuine concerns about the quality of social and health services. The government has been arguing that the new system would be cheaper, but economists are not convinced. Also the introduction of directly-elected regional councils would involve a significant transfer of decision-making authority from municipal councils upwards to the regional level, and hence many fear the erosion of local democracy.

Whatever the merits of the planned reform, the timing could not have been worse for the cabinet. The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted by the leading daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat from 14 January to 14 February, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 20,8 % of the vote. If the SDP holds on to its lead, this will be the first time that the Social Democrats are the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. In the 2015 elections SDP captured only 16,5 % of the vote, its lowest share ever in Eduskunta elections. Social Democrats have criticized heavily the planned reorganization of social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering the services. However, for the most part SDP and the other opposition parties have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes. But whether the Social Democrats manage to keep their pole position depends on the final weeks of the campaign and on how the party leader Antti Rinne performs in the main television debates. Rinne just returned from a two-month sick leave, and there is general agreement that his past appearances in such debates have left considerable room for improvement. Rinne has a trade union background, and SDP will no doubt also emphasize employment and other labour market issues in its campaign.

The National Coalition came second in the poll with 18,6 % of the vote. The party is seen as the ally of large private companies, and thus it is logical that leading party figures, including party chair Petteri Orpo, have tried to divert attention to other issues. The Sipilä government has by and large achieved its main goals regarding employment and competitiveness, and the National Coalition has warned about the potential economic consequences of a SDP-led cabinet. While the National Coalition and the Social Democrats are currently fighting hard for the position of the prime minister, the two parties have also considerable experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015).

The Centre Party is in serious trouble, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll predicting the party winning only 14,7 % of the vote. This would be major loss for the party – it emerged victorious in 2015 with 21,1 % of the vote – and in line with the setback experienced in the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing seems to take its toll. The market-friendly policies of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä have clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. Hence it is not surprising that over the past few weeks Sipilä has focused in his speeches on issues close to the heart of rural voters, not least on the question of forest harvesting where Sipilä has defended increased use of forest resources. If the Centre is not part of the next government, Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils.

The third cabinet party is the Blue Reform, formed after the split inside the Finns Party in the summer of 2017. The party has found it difficult to establish an identity somewhere between the hard-line anti-immigration views of the Finns and the mainstream centre-right parties, and according to the Helsingin Sanomat poll its support was only 1 %. The support of the Finns Party has meanwhile been on the rise, with the recent poll giving it 11,4 % of the vote. Party chair and MEP Jussi Halla-aho is surely hoping for immigration and multiculturalism to become the main topic in both the Eduskunta and the European Parliament elections. Here the party may benefit from recent multiple abuse cases involving iimmigrants, with the victims including under-age girls. Halla-aho himself is seeking a return to the Eduskunta in the April elections.

Of the other opposition parties, the Green League appointed Pekka Haavisto, a popular and senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, as its interim leader in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. Under Haavisto the Greens have improved their ratings, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll indicating 13,6 % of the vote. This would mean a substantial victory for the Greens, as the 8,5 % achieved in the 2015 elections was their best-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. Climate change and education are the pet themes of the party, and such topics are likely to appeal to particularly urban, younger voters. The Left Alliance also has a popular party chair, the energetic Li Andersson. Under her leadership, the party’s election manifesto centres around equality, justice, and the need to prevent poverty. In the Helsingin Sanomat poll the party’s support was at 8,7 %. The Swedish People’s Party received 4,3 % and the Christian Democrats 4,0 % of the vote in the Helsingin Sanomat poll.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. The centre-left parties (Social Democrats, Left Alliance, and arguably also Greens) look set to perform much better than four years ago, and this is potentially also good news for the trade unions that have been the target of strong criticism during the reign of the Sipilä government. However, in terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the elections will not produce any significant changes. This applies also to foreign policy leadership which constitutionally is shared between the president and the government. None of the prime ministerial candidates are known for their expertise or interest in foreign affairs questions, and hence the highly popular President Niinistö is likely to retain his strong position in Finland’s foreign and security policy.

‘As soft as wool’? Reform and Repression in Zimbabwe

When he came to power in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa rode a wave of local and global goodwill. But by March 2019, the USA had renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe that have been in place for nearly 20 years. In February, the UK held parliamentary discussions on Zimbabwe and the Africa Minister, Harriet Baldwin, made it clear that a full normalisation of relations with Zimbabwe was no longer on the table.

So how exactly did we get here?

Mnangagwa the ‘Reformer’

“I’m as soft as wool,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa stated in an interview with Sky News in August 2018, in response to a question from a journalist regarding his fearsome nickname – the ‘crocodile.’ Mnangagwa had worked hard in the 18 months since the ‘coup’ that had put him in state house, cleaning up his image and promising to be a president for all Zimbabweans, vowing to set the country on a new path. President Mnangagwa came to power promising extensive reforms, global re-engagement and repeating the mantra that Zimbabwe was “open for business.”

Ahead of the elections on 30 July 2018, on the main thoroughfares through the capital and scattered across the country, big billboards towered over Zimbabwe’s citizens as they went about their business. These billboards were filled with images of an engaging and smiling President Mnangagwa, making sweeping promises about universal healthcare, decent jobs, power generation and ‘free, fair and credible elections.’ The administration invited credible election observation missions from around the world – missions that had not been allowed to monitor the country’s elections since the violent 2002 polls. Between them, the observer groups spanned 46 countries and 15 regional blocks, making the 2018 election the most observed election in the country since independence in 1980.

Mnangagwa had traversed the globe promising change and a “new dispensation” in Harare, and was well-received in global capitals, with the UK’s Rory Stewart – at the time the Minister of State for Africa – the first to arrive in Harare following Mnangagwa’s installation in 2017. Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth, with the UK supporting its application. The administration sought to re-engage with international financial institutions – the World Bank and IMF – from which it had been alienated since the early 2000s. The EU and USA began to discuss the relaxation of the remaining limited sanctions and it seemed that Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa might finally be welcomed back in to the international community, shedding its ‘pariah state’ status.

The July 2018 election

Despite all of the positive changes ahead of the polls, it was clear that there were rumblings of dissent from within the ruling party – and there were early indications that despite initial assurances about free and fair elections, some aspects of the playing field would remain skewed in the ruling party’s favour. The state media refused to give equal coverage to all 23 presidential candidates, particularly ignoring the ruling party’s key opponent – Nelson Chamisa of the MDC-Alliance. Despite their initial openness, the electoral commission soon began to stonewall key discussions on reforming the electoral process, making the electoral roll available for an audit and allowing the opposition to oversee the printing of ballots. Instead, an unconstitutional ballot was designed and printed, civic groups and opposition parties were left with little time to review and validate the roll and there were serious and widespread reports of intimidation in rural areas in the lead-up to the polls.

When 7 protestors were gunned down by soldiers in the streets of Harare in front of the global media on 1 August, the international community and political commentators were dumbfounded. The administration was so close to legitimating the 2017 coup with a flawed-but-meets-basic-standards election, that it seemed unthinkable that they would have squandered local and global goodwill so easily. At his inauguration, Mnangagwa condemned the violence, vowing that his new administration would usher in a “brighter tomorrow” – and he announced the creation of a commission of enquiry into the deaths on 1 August. He described himself as a “listening president”, and insisted that his government was committed to ‘constitutionalism, the rule of law and judicial independence.’ Again, the commentators were caught off-guard, and were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that perhaps the military had acted without sanction – or worse, that the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, had an eye on his boss’ job and had loosed the military on civilians to undermine Mnangagwa’s position.

To sanitise his image in the wake of the global outcry, several opinion articles appeared in the global media, ostensibly penned by Mnangagwa. He spoke of reconciliation, new beginnings and a better future for a long suffering populace. But when the commission of enquiry – headed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – wrapped up its business, they had heard from soldiers that those killed had not been shot by soldiers but instead had been stabbed by members of the opposition; that the MDC-A was to blame for the violence and deaths; and that Mnangagwa had given the orders to set up the rapid response unit that had been mobilised to the streets in response to the protests. Despite all his assurances of being accountable, Mnangagwa is yet to publicly release the full report which was handed to him in December 2018.

A disastrous January

By January 2019, less than 6 months into the administration, a simmering economic crisis had prompted disgruntled and increasingly desperate members of the civil service to make more demands from the state. Inflation in the black market for the country’s surrogate currency was at over 50% in January, and long lines at fuel stations made basic tasks difficult.

Mnangagwa announced an enormous fuel price hike on 12 January, before jetting off in a private aircraft to Central Asia. The country’s labour unions called for a national stay away to protest the declining economy and unaffordable fuel prices, which was then enforced by unknown elements and angry youths. In the melee that ensued, shops were looted, cars were burned and a policeman was stoned to death. In the wake of this, the state launched a violent and angry three-week crackdown on the country’s poor, beating those who lived in close proximity to the worst of the looting and violence – and committing systematic torture and collective punishment. Nearly a thousand people were rounded up, beaten and put in prison. Fourteen women are reported to have been raped by soldiers, and at least 17 people were reported to have been killed.

In person, Mnangagwa seemed to condone the violence, though his Twitter feed condemned it and called for accountability for the state-sponsored violence. In a strange twist, his spokesman went so far as to tell the public not to believe everything said on the president’s Twitter feed. This fresh crackdown prompted yet another round of global concern, and it appears that all prospects for international re-engagement have stalled. ZIDERA has been renewed, and the UK has disowned any plans to support Zimbabwe’s bid to re-enter the Commonwealth. US sanctions will make the bailout that Zimbabwe so badly needs from international financial institutions even more unlikely.

Mnangagwa’s consistent inconsistency

While early in his presidency, many were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt, it is increasingly clear that the new administration in Zimbabwe is both more authoritarian than its predecessor, and less strategic. Having denounced the January 2019 protests as a Western-backed attempt at regime change, the ruling party has dusted off its old anti-imperial mantra as a cloak for their repressive actions. They have charged key opposition and civic leaders with treason. In 25-year old Joanah Mamombe’s case, she is alleged to be the first woman charged with treason in the country in over 150 years. According to veteran journalist, Peta Thornycroft, “about 10 MPs from the opposition MDC Alliance are variously charged with incitement, subversion and treason.”

In light of all this, in early March, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that it would send special rapporteurs to Harare to investigate the claims of human rights abuses. In another spectacular about-face, this has apparently been welcomed by President Mnangagwa. The Foreign Ministry’s official who was sent to brief the press appeared to be living in a parallel universe, and reported substantial gains at international re-engagement. In a similar vein, it was reported on 6 March that the government – who are currently unable to stabilise the economy, pay civil servant salaries or settle vast debts to neighbouring South Africa – have decided to engage the services of a Trump-affiliated lobbyist to have the US sanctions dropped. This comes at an annual cost of $500 000 dollars. The likely success of this initiative is low, and Zimbabweans will probably see little gain from their misspent taxes.

Unfortunately, this young administration has proven to be both erratic and tone deaf. Having had several chances at reform, they have consistently undermined their own case but still hoped to find themselves in a strong negotiating position. For now, the reform ship appears to have sailed, and the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe are likely to continue to suffer under a regime that seems to care little for their welfare, and less for their protest. As Panashe Chigumadzi stated in August 2018, “the old Zimbabwe is the new Zimbabwe.”

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega and the Protesting Pensioners

Daniel Ortega began 2018 governing a Nicaragua whose political system could described as hybrid-tending authoritarian. The president, his family and his party (the FSLN, Sandinista National Liberation Front) controlled the machinery of state, not least the courts and the electoral commission. Ortega’s family and friends also owned the lion’s share of Nicaragua’s media, but not all of it. There was still room for political pluralism in the media, and independent public affairs-oriented civil society groups existed and functioned acceptably well. In 2019, however, political pluralism has vanished and Nicaragua has joined the ranks of authoritarian regimes. Examining how Ortega’s administration responded to protest explains how the shift occurred.

In 2013 and again in 2018 Nicaraguan president Ortega confronted protesting pensioners, seeking to protect or improve their social security pensions. In both cases, Ortega used violence to end the protests. But where there were no fatalities in 2013, in 2018 the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights counted 455 deaths over a period of five-and-a-half months; the government counted 198, while the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) found 319. While protest not infrequently produces violent clashes between protesters and the authorities, it rarely leaves so many dead.

Ortega’s decision to employ lethal violence in 2018 instead of persuasion, negotiation, co-optation, the threat of jail or even routine, non-deadly violence to end the protest reflects the mind set of a personal ruler who chooses which laws and institutions to observe and which to ignore. Killing hundreds of people goes a giant step beyond even normal authoritarian politics and bespeaks absolute impunity. If 2013 fit within in the limits of illiberal democracy, 2018 is plainly in the authoritarian realm.

In June 2013, Nicaraguan pensioners who did not qualify for a full pension mounted a protest to get Ortega’s FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) government to pay them a reduced, pro-rated pension if they met a specified threshold. To reinforce their claim the pensioners, supported by university students, occupied the social security administration’s headquarters in Managua.

The government then cut electricity and water to the building. This brought more students out to support the pensioners. The police then cordoned off the building and watched as FSLN supporters violently removed the protesters and their supporters from the premises. The government’s response to peaceful protest showed both the limits of the president’s tolerance for protests and, more importantly, that he controlled both the police and the extra-legal Sandinista enforcers.

Five years later social security pensions were again what sparked protest. On April 18, to address a budget deficit, President Ortega issued a decree reducing pension benefits while raising contributions to the pension fund. Ortega did not consult with the retirees who were directly affected, thereby making protest inevitable. What was not inevitable were the deaths of 26 protesters at the hands of riot police firing live rounds into the crowds.      

Ortega grasped his error and withdrew the decree. He also sought to open a dialogue but would agree to meet only with Nicaragua’s private enterprise council (COSEP). This was likely because Ortega and COSEP had got on well since his re-election in 2006. However, the business leaders declined, saying that the pensioners and students needed to be included. The president then labelled the business leaders golpistas, coup plotters, who sought his overthrow. The label golpista was soon applied to any who protested or supported the protesters, including the Catholic Church

Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo owed part of their political success since 2006 to reconciliation with the Catholic Church, seen most clearly in their support for outlawing abortion. Relations with the Church were perhaps cooler than with business, but they were far friendlier than in the past. It was thus no surprise to see the Church, led by Cardinal Brenes, take the lead in organising a National Dialogue to let all involved meet for frank discussions in May.

Unfortunately, these talks failed. Nevertheless, they resumed in July when the protesters agreed that the way out was to advance the date of the next elections from November 2021 to April 2019. Ortega obviously refused, opening the way two more months of violence. In fact, the state’s violence increased as a parapolice force of off-duty police, supplemented by young Sandinista men, armed with assault rifles, wearing masks and riding in pickup trucks took to the streets. The Church was a particular target: Cardinal Brenes was assaulted in the street and stabbed in the arm by an unknown assailant.

The protesters were mainly unarmed, and those who were armed mostly had homemade devices built to launch fireworks. Yet the protests continued until September 29, when Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal, making protesters criminals, ending the phase of mass demonstrations.

The protesters adapted guerrilla tactics, having one person read a declaration or leave material in a public place. They and their supporters also put more emphasis on the fate of protesters the police detained. Thus their protest continues, albeit far more quietly.

For its part, the administration began bringing protesters it held to trial, often on charges of treason. The government also increased its pressure on journalists and the owners of independent radio stations and other non-FSLN aligned media, causing many journalists to choose exile.

As well, Ortega’s government began arresting leaders of peasant organisations, key players in rural Nicaragua’s politics who had crticised the president’s policies in the past. Further, the National Assembly voted to withdraw the articles of incorporation of civil society groups like the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, leaving them unable to function legally, and followed up by seizing the groups’ property. Finally, Ortega set out his plans for post-protest politics in a paper proposing a process of national reconciliation to be administered by the police.

Early in 2019, Ortega’s personal rule appeared fully consolidated. However, he faces several challenges. First, five months of violence left Nicaragua’s once sound economy in tatters. Several years of 4 percent growth could become a year of 4 percent contraction. Second, turning business and the Church into opponents leaves Ortega and his Sandinistas without allies beyond their ranks. Third, he now faces international pressure from the OAS and the Trump administration, and can count only Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as hemispheric allies. Will this see Ortega relying even more on coercion to govern?

Waiting for the president: inter-branch relations under Bolsonaro’s administration

Magna Inácio (UFMG)

Since the election of the far-right and populist president Bolsonaro, the resilience of Brazilian democracy and its system of checks and balances has been put into question. With the beginning of the Legislative year, the institutional game has started anew. On February 1st, the new lawmakers took their seats and elected their Speakers, showing the faces of both the allies and opponents of the minority president.

This most fragmented Congress, populated by a large number of newcomers, showed the extent of the 2018 tsunami of concurrent elections at the federal and state levels. The quite stable partisan balance of the Congress of recent years was severely shaken. Small far-right and social conservative parties grabbed more seats while centrist and pivotal parties, for the first time since re-democratization, dried up. Although less devasted by this tsunami, given their electoral performance in the polarized presidential election, the leftist parties and potential opposition did not leave this dispute unharmed. The dominance of the Workers’ Party (PT) on the left is now challenged by the strengthened Democratic Labor Party (PDT), in the wake of the third-place of its presidential candidate. Can the lawmakers in both Chambers fine-tune the checks and balances mechanisms to operate in this adverse environment?

In the Brazilian Congress, leadership positions and parliamentary resources are allocated according to the proportional seat share of the parties. Therefore, these changes in the partisan composition of the chambers has raised concerns about the inter-branch relations under Bolsonaro’s presidential term. This is, especially, because the multidimensionality of the policy space has increased and the decision costs raised. For those concerned about the president’s capacity to approve costly economic reforms, such as the pension and tax reforms, a central question has been how responsive these fragmented chambers will be to these reforming agendas, some of them requiring supermajorities to approve constitutional amendments. On the other hand, those worried about policy shifts affecting the minority rights and progressive agendas implemented since the re-democratization have been asking how intensely can the congress move toward social conservatism and illiberalism, supported by these strengthened far-right parties?

Regardless of the substantive content of these agendas, Brazilian presidents have been successful in approving their agendas and changing the status quo only when they are able to make the largest parties their bedfellow allies, and jointly cartelize the legislative agenda, thereby boosting a friendlier inter-branch relationship. It is not only a strategy for overcoming minority status, but also a way to make the much-vaunted, wide presidential powers effective. Presidential unilateralism, by minority presidents in Brazil, has been showing itself to be a dangerous route toward decisional paralysis or, more seriously, impeachment.

Bolsonaro did not form a governing coalition by allocating portfolio positions to legislative parties, as all previous presidents have done. He started the administration as a minority president, whose party (Social Liberal Party – PSL) holds 11% and 4% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Keeping this rhetoric against the political establishment, the president has insisted on governing through legislative coalitions, backed by decentralized parliamentary groups. Heading a cabinet formed by military personnel, nonpartisan experts and radical conservatives, Bolsonaro has challenged the status quo in several policy areas. However, a lack of presidential leadership has been remarkable since Day One of the administration. Feeble cabinet coordination has spilled over to inter-branch relations, as demonstrated by the first signals coming from the Congress.

The start of the Legislative year in February, a month after the president’s inauguration, gave lawmakers enough time to decode the coordination problems affecting the administration. The value of legislative arena for established parties has increased with the anti-coalitional strategy of Bolsonaro. Its strategic advantages have increased with the intense troubles faced by the administration in its beginning. Conflicts among cabinet members, scandal involving the president’s son, and delays in publicizing the legislative agenda of the government have impelled some parties to step back their moves toward the government.

The election of the Chambers’ speakers showed some capacity of party leaders to strengthen the legislative position in the institutional game.  The well-established center-right Democrats party, which has some affiliated ministers but which declares itself as independent in relation to the government, elected both speakers. In the Chamber of Deputies, this party formed a large legislative coalition and reelected its former Speaker. The presidential party, PSL, took part in the coalition in the Chamber, securing important institutional positions. However, the party’s and the government’s moves to grab more power were constrained by the winner Speaker. Alongside this dispute, three parliamentary blocks have emerged: the largest right-center bloc, controlling the Speakership and 59% of the seats; and, two center-left and opposition blocks, one corresponding to 21% of the seats, and other controlling 19% of the seats. In the Senate, intra- and inter-party conflicts in the nomination process of candidates escalated the contest, and the election procedures were challenged in the Supreme Court. A newcomer senator, supported by the government’s Chief of Staff, won the election after this disruptive dispute. Differently from the Chamber, this process did not foster the parliamentary alignment of the parties in blocks.

In addition to these legislative parties’ moves, an unexpected event further weakened the fragility of the governing legislative basis in the Congress. Denouncements of electoral fraud put a minister close to Bolsonaro, who was the key coordinator of his campaign and the president of his party, at the center of a new scandal. This minister was the first fired after 58 days of this administration, following the release of audio files between the president and this minister and personal accusations. The main takeaways of this episode, from the legislators’ point of view, were: first, the strong influence of Bolsonaro’s sons can prevail upon political and partisan commitments; second, the aggressive posture of Bolsonaro toward his close aide, including the use of social media, reinforced the need to ground the relation with the president and his administration in an institutional basis. Hence, this episode has cost reputational losses to the president and overshadowed the introduction of his major legislative bill proposal, that of pension reform.

This long-awaited pension reform will be the first legislative battle for the Bolsonaro administration. As a constitutional amendment, it requires the support of 3/5 of deputies and senators in two-floor voting, in each Chamber, to be approved. While the state’s fiscal situation has put pressure on the Congress to approve this reform, its redistributive impacts have mobilized attentive interest groups and social movements, making it a costly decision. All presidents since Cardoso (1994-1999) have approved more modest reforms after intense conflicts in the Congress.

Now, lawmakers might see this reform as more costly, since they were not rewarded with a regular flow of executive resources as members of the presidential cabinet. Anticipating risks of tit-for-tat moves and in the opposite direction of the president’s electoral promises, government leaders signaled the traditional “horse-trading” with individual lawmakers for getting legislative approval of this bill. However, the political nominations of lawmakers’ allies to positions of executive agencies is apparently paralyzed due the failure of the government to coordinate it.  From the lawmaker’s side, a clear message has been already sent: the Deputies approved a legislative resolution revoking an administrative decree of the executive that increased the number of officials authorized to classify documents as secret, reducing the transparency of the federal Executive. The lawmakers’ impatience is clear: a super majority, 71% of the deputies, approved an urgency petition to revoke this decree.  It was the first legislative defeat of the government after the pension reform started its journey in the Congress. At this moment, it does not show a policy conflict but, rather, an unambiguous signal that the lawmakers are already at the bargaining table.  Waiting for the president. 

Czech President: between Adoration and Impeachment

The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, is an undoubtedly remarkable political figure who frequently faces fierce criticism because of his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy, a staunch support for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, awarding state decorations to other controversial figures, and many other matters. Mr. Zeman’s provocative political style as well as his controversial policies are now well-known abroad.C

Despite these controversies, president Zeman remains a highly popular figure in the Czech politics.[1] The President as an individual person, as well as an institution remains the most trusted figure among top Czech politicians and constitutional bodies. Miloš Zeman as a political person is trusted by 48 per cent of the population, although 46 per cent respondents claim that they do not trust him.[2] The data corroborates one peculiar and at the same time constant feature of the Czech president since his was elected to the office in 2013: his highly divisive political style that tends to polarize the Czech society. Zeman, as a constitutional body, was trusted by 53 per cent of respondents, which is more than other top constitutional bodies. Only local government, local mayors and presidents of regional councils score better as far as political institutions in the Czech Republic are concerned.[3]

Although the president enjoys considerable levels of popular support, Miloš Zeman faces a risk of impeachment. In January 2019, a group of senators have announced their intention to file a constitutional charge against Zeman for gross violation of the Constitution. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that the president will be impeached because of two major factors. First, the Czech constitution makes it procedurally extremely difficult to impeach president. The procedure was changed in 2012, together with the amendment that introduced the popular election of the president.[4] The art. 65 of the constitution allows the Senate, with the consent of the Chamber of Deputies, to file a constitutional charge against the President for high treason, gross violation of the Constitution before the Constitutional Court. In order to approve the filing of the constitutional charge, the consent of a three-fifths majority of the votes of present senators is required. In addition, in order to approve of the charge, the Chamber of Deputies is required to pass it by a three-fifths majority of all deputies. Second, several political parties, notably the Communists (KSČM), the populist right-wing party called Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), but also Prime Minister’s own party ANO 2011 and the Social Democrats do not support the ideas. These parties enjoy a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which makes the impeachment much more complicated and burdensome, as the Chamber may veto the process.

It should be noted that the notion of impeachment is not a novelty in the Czech politics. There were several initiatives to impeach president Klaus and Zeman, but so far only in one case did the charges eventually reach the Constitutional Court. Other initiatives were shipwrecked in the Senate. For example, in 2004, Senator Zdeněk Bárta sought to impeach President Klaus for rejecting to propose a further candidate for judge in the Constitutional Court, thus putting the Constitutional Court in danger of soon becoming unable to pass decisions.[5] In March 2013 the Senate filed a charge against the president Klaus for high treason. The charge included five delicts: (1) inactivity in the process of ratifying the Additional Protocol of the European Social Charter; (2) not accomplishing the ratification process of the Treaty Establishing the European Stability Mechanism; (3) the highly controversial amnesty issued in January 2013; (4) not proposing further candidates for judge in the Constitutional Court; and (5) not respecting a court’s decision to appoint a judge of a district court. However, the Constitutional Court did not decide, arguing that Klaus’s mandate was already over.[6] In Zeman’s case various politicians, notably Senators, have considered Zeman’s impeachment for several years. So far, there were three major initiatives to impeach President Zeman. None of them reached the Constitutional Court. First, in 2015, the Senate was petitioned to trigger impeachment against Zeman for high treason. Petitioners claimed that Zeman’s views on EU’s sanctions against Russia for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in Ukraine indicated that Zeman “acted in the interest of Vladimir Putin’s regime rather than in the interest of the Czech Republic and its allies”. Second, in 2017, Zeman displayed his strong dislike to recall Mr. Babiš, the then Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s cabinet. Zeman’s reluctance to comply with the Prime Minister Sobotka’s request would certainly contradict the constitution (art. 74).[7] However, after a strong pressure, Zeman eventually gave in and accept Babiš’s resignation.[8] Finally and very recently (in January 2019) a group of senators accused Zeman of gross violation of the Constitution. Their charge is not ready yet, but it will likely include a number of accusations. This initiative was triggered by a scandal related to efforts of the president and his chancellor to interfere in the courts. The initiator of the charge, senator Václav Láska, claimed that this scandal was the last straw: “When you take only individual actions of Mr. President, you may come to the conclusion that on their own they are on the edge of Constitutionality…But when you describe 20 such actions together it gives you a ground for a statement that the President does that on purpose, that his intention is to violate the Constitution, that he does not respect the Constitution”.

So, what were other problematic steps of the president that made senators prepare the constitutional charge against the president? Critics argue that Zeman is not defending the Czech national interests, nor his steps are in line with the Czech membership in the EU and NATO and its values, and that the president’s steps in foreign policy clearly contradict Czech foreign policy formulated by the government. Zeman is generally considered a Russian ally and the following cases support the above statement.

Zeman also vociferously defended Russian position in the well-known affair of poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and tended to repeat Kremlin arguments.[9] In 2016, a Russian citizen, Yevgeni Nikulin was detained by the Czech police. Nikulin was considered to be a Russian hacker who had attacked US social networks. Both USA and Russia intensively pressured the Czech Republic to extradite Nikulin. Zeman was lobbying for Nikulin’s extradition to Russia. However, the Czech Ministry of Justice eventually extradited Nikulin to the USA in 2018.

Another scandal is related to Zeman’s fierce criticism of an annual report issued by the Czech Security Intelligence Service (BIS), which among others said that Russian and Chinese spies in the country were working out of their embassies in Prague. Not only that Zeman argued that the BIS failed to provide evidence of specific Russian or Chinese espionage activities, but also he accused the BIS of failing to uncover any Islamic “terrorists” in the Czech Republic. On the top of that, Zeman described the report as “gibberish” or “blather” and the intelligence officers as “bozos.” His clearly pro-Chinese and pro-Russian position was well displayed in at least three other affairs.  In 2018 the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) issued a warning report arguing that Huawei’s products might be misused by China. This report is in line with the fact that growing number of companies, governments and academic institutions have called into question Huawei‘s close links to the Chinese state and its espionage activities. Thus, after an attack on the Czech Security Intelligence Service, Zeman attacked another Czech security institution and criticized the report. He accused NUKIB as well as BIS of having threatened Czech economic interests in China. As usual, his criticism was highly insulting, when he said that the security institutions issued their reports „either out of stupidity or for money“. Zeman argued that China was seeking economic retaliation measures. Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government, as well as opposition politicians, rejected Zeman’s criticism.

These affairs and conflicts, together with Zeman’s constant critique of media, delegitimizing the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tomáš Petříček, who is a clearly pro-Western, pro-European politician, clearly indicate symptoms of democratic erosion in the Czech Republic.[10] In other words, a battle over liberal democratic principles in the Czech Republic started a couple of years ago (Zeman is not the only person to blame for this negative trend). It remains to be seen whether democratic erosion will be sponsored only by the Czech president and two anti-establishment political parties, the KSČM and SPD, or whether other political and constitutional actors become infected with illiberal policies and values.


[1] For details see Červenka, Jan. 2019. Public Opinion on Performance of Miloš Zeman – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[2] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Popularity of Top Politicians – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[3] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Confidence in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation. January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[4] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 94-95.

[5] L. Kopeček, Václav Klaus. Politická biografie (Brno: Barrister & Principal, 2012).

[6] Ústavní soud. “Ústavní soud zastavil řízení o velezradě bývalého prezidenta Václava Klause – aktualizováno.” Brno: Ústavní soud. (Full text is available in Czech only);Brunclík and Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe, 94-95

[7] „The President of the Republic shall recall members of the government if the Prime Minister so proposes“.

[8] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 82.

[9] M. Krejčí, „The Czech President searching for the Novichok in the Czech Republic“. European Values, Kremlin Watch Report, 2018. Full text.

[10] S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt and, How Democracies Die (New York, Crown, 2018).