How competitive are indirect presidential elections in Europe? Part 1

In a recent article, I presented figures for the competitiveness of direct presidential elections in democracies around the world.[1] In a contribution to a new volume, I report figures for the competitiveness of indirect presidential elections in Europe.[2] The editor of the volume, Professor José M. Magone, has allowed me to build on the information in a couple of Tables in the book prior to publication. I am very grateful to him.

One of the tropes about indirect presidential elections is that they are so competitive it can be difficult even to elect a president. In Moldova in 2009-2010 this was certainly the case. There was an unsuccessful attempt to elect the president in May-June 2009, precipitating a parliamentary election, followed by another unsuccessful attempt in November-December 2009. This led to a referendum in September 2010 on the introduction of the direct election of the president. This reform failed and new parliamentary elections were held in October 2010, after which an interim president served in office until a president was finally elected in 2012. In Slovakia in 1998 the failure to agree on a president after five rounds of balloting and 10 votes led, like in Moldova, to the appointment of an interim president and a referendum in 1999 on the direct election of the president. Here, though, the referendum was successful. Equally, even though a president was elected by parliament in the Czech Republic in 2008, the difficulties associated with the election were such that they also precipitated the introduction of direct presidential elections there too. So, there is something to the idea that indirect presidential elections can be so competitive that they can be problematic and even destabilising, particularly when party discipline is strong, parliament is divided, and/or a super-majority requirement is needed.

Generally, we can think of the competitiveness of indirectly electing a president both in terms of the number of ballots and the time taken to elect the president. The more ballots and the more time, the more competitive.

In relation to the former, we see from the Tables below that it has taken a considerable number of ballots to elect some presidents in certain countries. Indeed, presidential elections in Italy strongly conform to the stereotype that indirect elections can be difficult and highly competitive affairs. The 1953 French presidential election, which took 13 ballots to complete, was also instrumental in creating this stereotype at least amongst a certain generation of academics. That said, in every European country in the timeframe indicated, including Italy on two occasions, a president has been elected at least once on the first ballot. Overall, with the exception of Italy, the mean number of ballots across the set of countries currently using indirect elections is not hugely greater than the standard two-round system that is used for most direct presidential elections in Europe.

Country Year of first (last) election No. of elections Average no. of ballots Highest no. of ballots Lowest no. of ballots
Albania 2002 3 3 4 1
Estonia 1992 5 3.4 5 1
Germany 1949 15 1.9 4 1
Greece 1975 8 2.3 5 1
Hungary 1990 (info. only from 2000 inc.) 3 1.7 3 1
Italy 1948 11 9.5 23 1
Kosovo 2011 2 2 3 1
Latvia 1993 6 2.3 6 1
Moldova 2001   (all figures exclude 2009) 3 1.67 3 1

I have no systematic details for Malta

Here are figures for three countries that no longer directly elect their president.

Country Year of first (last) election No. of elections Average no. of ballots Highest no. of ballots Lowest no. of ballots
Czech Rep. 1993 (2008) 4 4.5 9 1
France 1947 (1958) 3 5 13 1
Slovakia 1993 (1998) 2 6.5 10 3

In terms of time, the process can certainly be longer than direct presidential elections. In these latter elections, there is usually a two-week gap between the first and the second ballot. However, even leaving aside the Moldova example discussed above, in the Czech Republic in 2003 it took six weeks for parliament to elect the president. In Greece in 1990 the process of electing a president began on 19 February and ended on 4 May with a parliamentary election in between caused by the failure to agree a president. In general, though, indirect presidential elections do not always go on and on. For example, in Italy, even though it took 23 ballots to elect President Leone in 1971, the whole process took 15 days, pretty much the same amount of time between the two rounds of a typical direct presidential election. I don’t have systematic information, but my sense is that the average time taken to indirectly elect a president, i.e. from the first ballot to the successful election, is probably a little shorter than the standard two week period required by a two-round direct presidential election.

In a post next week, I look at the level of competition in terms of the candidates at the presidential election.

[1] Robert Elgie, ‘Types of Heads of State in European Politics’, in José M. Magone (ed.), Routledge Handbook of European Politics, London: Routledge, to appear in November 2014.[1] Robert Elgie, ‘The President of Ireland in comparative perspective’, in Irish Political Studies, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 502-521, December 2012. A slightly revised version was also published in John Coakley and Kevin Rafter (eds.), The Irish Presidency: Power, Ceremony and Politics, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2013, pp. 17-39.Next week, I will look at competitiveness in terms of candidates.

[2] Robert Elgie, ‘Types of Heads of State in European Politics’, in José M. Magone (ed.), Routledge Handbook of European Politics, London: Routledge, to appear in November 2014.

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