Slovenia – From Milan Kučan to Borut Pahor: Presidents during government formation

Although Slovenia’s constitution provides only a limited amount of constitutional power to the president, these presidents have established a – at times – powerful role in politics. 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, Slovenia is also one of the prime examples for the influence of the behavior and role interpretation of the first incumbent on the latter role of presidents. Thus, in this post, I will bring these two perspectives together and outline the role of the presidency within the process of constitution making throughout 1991 and describe presidential behavior in the nomination process of prime ministers based on two examples.

Presidential power or rather the perception of presidential power is nicely illustrated by the following observation: “[…] 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). The role interpretation of the first incumbent after the end of the communist rule – President Milan Kučan – depended on these three ingredients. This can already be seen in the circumstances of the constitution-making process after 1989. The transition and the constitution-making process were characterized by intense elite negotiations (Kitschelt et al. 1999, 39) and a strong and dominant role of the oppositional forces, especially after the first free election in April 1990 (Töpfer 2016). Hence, the constitution-making process was driven by an expert group chaired by Peter Jambrek, meeting at Podvin Castle. Next to Peter Jambrek, I could confirm the names of Tine Hribar, Franci Grad, Matevž Krivic, Ivo Perenič, Miro Cerar, Lojze Ude and Tone Jerovšek as participants in Podvin (Slovenska ustava je stara 2012). This elite-driven process was – at least concerning the presidential institution – a highly strategic power struggle. Several authors (among them e.g. Krašovec and Lajh 2008; Töpfer 2012) have convincingly argued that the elite group in Podvin, consisting of members or supporters of the governmental coalition Demos (which was in name and in character the democratic opposition in Slovenia), wrote a tailor-made constitution. Yet, not to be misunderstood, this tailor-made constitution narrowed down the role of the first incumbent and still considered representative of the communist nomenclature, Milan Kučan. He had already been elected president since April 1990 at the time of the constitution making. In December 1991, the new constitution was adopted by parliament. The constitution established one of the weakest – yet directly elected – presidents in Europe. The only important power resource is the presidential role in the nomination and dismissal of the prime minister. According to Art. 111 of the constitution, the president has the first say in the nomination of the prime minister, in case the nominee does not gain the necessary majority in parliament, the president has the right to nominate again – the same candidate or somebody else within 14 days. In case the second vote fails, the president has the right to dissolve parliament and call for early elections, except parliament manages to elect another candidate as prime minister within 48 hours. Art. 116 and Art. 117 further stipulate the provisions concerning the dissolution of the assembly based on a constructive vote of no-confidence (similar to e.g. Germany).

One episode that illustrates the use of this competence is the nomination of Prime Minister Drnovšek by President Kučan in 1996, which was at the same time a decisive moment for the democratic development of Slovenia. Using his constitutional power in the nomination procedure of the prime minister, the president proposed Janez Drnovšek. Yet, the equal distribution of parliamentary seats would have allowed for a different decision. Consequently, Drnovšek needed a second round of votes due to a lacking majority. He was again nominated by the president (Krašovec and Lajh 2008) and finally passed the investiture vote of parliament, although only as a minority government (Lukšič 2010, 746). This power struggle, the steadfast commitment and Kučman’s activity in times of crisis, in this case the question of “[…] political continuity of centre-left governments” (Krašovec and Lajh 2008, 216), was also considered to be a commitment to democratic consolidation. Furthermore, in exceptional political situations, such as the unclear majority constellation after the 1996 parliamentary elections, Slovenian Presidents gain more influence and use their at other times very limited power resources.

This is most certainly counterbalanced by a clearly restrained role in everyday politics. “Interventions by the president in day-to-day decision-making processes have so far been only sporadic and rarely problematic, at least from the viewpoint of the majority of the electorate” (Krašovec and Lajh 2008, 216). This behavior is not only observable for Kučan in the 1990s, but also more recently for example for President Borut Pahor (president since 2012). As president he used his competences in the nomination and dismissal of the prime minister to influence the date of the general elections (see Bucur 2014). In this exceptional political situation, the otherwise restrained role of the president turned into the nucleus of the political game. It is certainly no coincidence that the politically experienced and influential, not to mention highly connected Borut Pahor used this path and showed the potential possibilities of the constitutionally weak presidential institution of Slovenia. Pahor was the former Prime Minister of Slovenia, the former President of Parliament of Slovenia and is, since 2012, the President of Slovenia (President of the Republic of Slovenia 2014). Pahor also recently initiated a constitutional amendment to change the nomination procedure of cabinet ministers. This initiative puts forward the idea that the president should be able to directly nominate cabinet ministers and not only confirm the selection of the prime minister. Based on the reports of the constitution committee it seems that this initiative was controversially discussed and is since then stuck in the committee (Parliament Slovenia 2016). It will be thus interesting to see if the constitutional competences will be expanded with this important element.

This brief view on two episodes of presidential influence show neither Milan Kučan nor Borut Pahor shy away from using their limited formal powers and creatively expand it in times of crisis. However, despite these two example were decisive moments in Slovenia’s recent political history, the otherwise limited amount of competences will not allow for these episodes to become something more frequent. No matter how charismatic Slovenian Presidents are, or how favorable the parliamentary majority might be, the limited constitutional power reinforces the power disparities to the benefit of prime minister and cabinet and to the detriment of the president.

Bucur, Christina. 2014. “Slovenia – How a “weak” president played a key role in the timing of a general election.” Accessed September 11, 2014.

Cerar, Miro. 1999. “Slovenia.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 232–59.

Kitschelt, Herbert, Zdenka Mansfeldova, Radoslaw Markowski, and Gabor Tóka, eds. 1999. Post-Communist Party Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Parliament of Slovenia. 2014. Homepage. Accessed March 23, 2016.

President of the Republic of Slovenia. 2016. Homepage. Accessed December 19, 2014.

Slovenska ustava je stara 21 let. 2012. December 23. Accessed January 28, 2015.

Töpfer, Jochen. 2012. Transformation in Slowenien und Makedonien. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Töpfer, Jochen. 2016. “Slovenia.” In Fruhstorfer and Hein, Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems. VS Springer.

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