Csaba Nikolenyi – Indirectly Elected Presidents: The Importance of the Rules of the Game

This is a guest post by Csaba Nikolenyi of the Department of Political Science, Concordia University

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In my newly released book on Institutional Design and Party Government in Post-Communist Europe (Oxford University Press), I devote a chapter to the assessment of the relationship between the rules of indirect presidential elections and divided government. In democracies, where the chief executive is elected directly by the voters, the notion of divided government refers to split partisan control of the executive and legislative branches. In democracies with indirectly elected presidents, however, the notion of divided government is much less explored. In my study, I do not approach the question of presidential choice and divided government from the perspective of the head of state; instead, my interest is in understanding how particular institutional conditions help, or not, the governing majority of parties to acquire control over the presidency where the constitution provides for an indirectly elected head of states.

Among the ten post-communist EU member states, there are four that had indirect presidential elections as of 2010: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Latvia. Since then, the number has dropped to three as a result of the Czech Republic having adopted a constitutional amendment that made the presidency a directly elected office in 2012. I find that in all four cases the rules of the game, specifically the congruence of the presidential election process with the selection of the prime minister, has systematically affected whether the incumbent government coalition of parties will capture the presidency or not. In Hungary and Latvia the rules of winning both the legislature and the executive favor the majority coalition in government. As a result, we tend to see few instances of divided partisan control over the two branches. In contrast, the presidential election rules in the Czech Republic, until 2012, and in Estonia, make it very difficult for the governing coalition to do so: in the former case the selection of the president required bicameral assent, and, in the latter case the winning candidate needs a qualified 2/3 majority in the unicameral Riigikogu. As a result, divided government has been a more frequent outcome in these latter cases.

Do these differences matter? After all, conventional wisdom has it that indirectly elected heads of state tend to have more of a symbolic role than effective political power. I suggest the contrary. Margit Tavits has convincingly shown that presidential power is not always and directly a function of the way in which the chief executive is chosen. At times, an indirectly elected head of state can wield more power over parliament, and political life in general, than a directly elected one depending on factors such as the prevailing balance of powers among parties, personal assets, and, very importantly the formal powers of the office. In the context of East Central Europe, for example, Vaclav Klaus, former (indirectly elected) president of the Czech Republic, was well known for his ability to wield power far beyond what many other directly elected presidents in the region could. In short, it does matter who wins an indirectly contested presidency and, therefore, the rules of the game are very important.

The process of finding the next head of state can be in and of itself an important factor that either supports the institutionalization of the democratic system or paralyzes it. Slovakia abolished the indirectly elected presidency after multiple rounds of balloting in 1998 failed to produce a winning candidate leaving the office vacant for six months and creating considerable political and constitutional turmoil. Similarly, the election of Vaclav Klaus in 2003 was the end product of a prolonged sequence of three rounds of ballots that left the Czech Republic paralyzed for two months. In addition to producing divided government, Klaus’ eventual victory also led to continued acrimony within the ranks of the governing coalition. In fact, it was during the 2003 presidential election process that serious calls in favor of moving to a direct presidential election, as Slovakia had done a few years prior, surfaced. The case of Latvia shows that even a simple majority requirement, that should favor the candidate of the governing coalition, may not be sufficient to generate a straightforward presidential election if the party system is too fragmented: in 1999 it took six rounds of balloting in the Saeima to find the winning candidate, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

All of this leads to a specific recommendation that institutional designers may take to heart. Juan Linz famously argued that presidentialism, i.e. having a powerful directly elected head of state, is perilous for a new democracy for several reasons including the divisive zero-sum nature of the presidential election. I argue that an indirectly elected presidency may be just as divisive and perilous for a new democracy unless the rules of the game are planned carefully. If the constitution calls for an indirectly elected presidency it is best to have such rules in place that will keep the number of rounds, and the possibility of a protracted or failed balloting, to a minimum. Having a presidential election rule in place that requires the winning candidate to have a special qualified majority tends to exacerbate political divisions in two ways: i) they tend to lead to divided government and conflict between the legislative majority and the head of state; ii) and they increase the likelihood of protracted or failed votes. The current political crisis in Lebanon, where the legislature has failed to elect a new president after thirteen rounds of voting at the time of writing, is a stark reminder of the negative political consequences of such rules in a different part of the world. Simple majority rules allowing for limited rounds to elect the head of state may reinforce the political power of the governing majority by reducing the likelihood of divided government. As such, they lead to greater concentration of power than qualified majority election rules do. Nonetheless, they lead to smoother, more efficient and more predictable outcomes that reduce the strain on the institutional structures of a new democracy.

Csaba Nikolenyi received his PhD from the University of British Columbia in 2000 and was hired by Concordia University the same year. His research focuses on the comparative study of political parties, electoral systems and legislatures in post-communist democracies as well as on the political systems of Israel and India. He was former English Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of Political Science (2006-11). He served as Code Administrator in the Faculty of Arts and Science between 2009 and 2011 and as Chair of the Department of Political Science between 2011 and 2014. Currently, he is the Director of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. Dr. Nikolenyi has published extensively in comparative politics journals and has authored two books: Minority Government in India (Routledge 210) and Institutional Design and Party Government in Post-Communist Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2014). He was a Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2007-8) and the Centre for European Studies at the Australian National University (2012).

One thought on “Csaba Nikolenyi – Indirectly Elected Presidents: The Importance of the Rules of the Game

  1. Anna

    thanks for the post, another example is Moldova, where the majority necessary for the presidential election resulted in a 900 day deadlock;


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