Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius – Where rules are lacking, presidents prevail: Explaining presidential influence in Lithuania

This is a guest post by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’ that will be published in Government and Opposition

Despite more than two decades of research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister (PM) and her cabinet on the other. With some exceptions, even country studies have not probed the regular interaction between the executives. Our fresh case study of Lithuania seeks to partially fill that gap.  As part of a comparative project on semi-presidentialism granted by the Swedish Research Council, we use official documents and interviews with key civil servants and ministers for examining in detail how executive coordination has worked in Lithuania since the early 1990s (Raunio and Sedelius 2017).

Our research was driven by two inter-related questions: how does coordination between the president and PM actually work and how institutional design influences the balance of power and level of conflict between the two executives. The basic premise was that institutional design is related to the level of conflict between the cabinet and the president, and that conflicts over policy, legislation or appointments are manifestations of coordination problems. By institutional design we mean those rules, organizational arrangements and conventions that structure routine coordination between the two executives.

Challenging previous accounts of the Lithuanian case, our article argues that the existing modes of coordination facilitate presidential dominance. Absent of written rules or otherwise strong norms guiding intra-executive coordination, Lithuanian presidents have clearly enjoyed a lot of discretion in designing their own modes of operation. The transition period from authoritarian to democratic rule presented the opportunity to set rules about coordination, but there was insufficient political will for constraining the presidency through more precise legal rules or regular cooperation mechanisms. In line with institutional theory, the adopted approach has become the appropriate course of action, with each new president bringing her own staff, personality and leadership style into the equation. The presidents also have the power of initiative regarding cooperation, with forms and levels of intra-executive coordination essentially always determined by the president. For example, while joint councils or ministerial committees might facilitate better coordination, presidents do not need such bodies. As one of our interviewees put it: ‘Presidents that have enough powers do not create such councils, they do not need such kind of institutions, they just arrange ad hoc meetings despite the fact that it is not foreseen in any law.’

The obvious challenge stemming from lack of rules is that power is very much ‘up for grabs’, particularly given the Lithuanian personality-centred political culture which favours strong leadership and presidential activism. As another of our informants expressed it: ‘one side might ask “where is it written?” and another can argue “where is it forbidden?”’ There is a rather broadly shared expectation, especially by citizens, that the president is the ‘political authority’, and the successive presidents have repeatedly leaned on their popular support to intervene in questions falling under the government. Presidents have also essentially hand-picked various prime ministers and have forced PMs and other ministers to resign. Like in other semi-presidential regimes, much depends on party politics, with periods of cohabitation reducing the influence of the president and bringing about a more strict division of labour between the executives. At other times, such as when the current president Dalia Grybauskaité entered office in 2009, the economic and political conditions facilitated subsequent assertive presidential behaviour.

Another example of a ‘power grab’ is EU policy. Constitutionally European affairs are the domain of the government, with the PM leading Lithuanian integration policy. The cabinet is thus responsible for coordinating EU matters and for preparatory work ahead of the Council and the European Council. During the presidency of Adamkus the president participated in those European Councils which featured foreign and security policy while the PM would cover other matters. Often both executives would attend the summits. Grybauskaitė in turn participates in the meetings of European Council, even though constitutional provisions about division of labor clearly suggest that the PM should represent Lithuania. Again, this power of interpretation shown by Grybauskaité and bending rules in her favour can be explained by lack of formal regulation. The constitution, secondary laws, or the rules about domestic EU coordination do not detail who should represent Lithuania in the European Council.

Our article also highlights the role of advisors. The size of the president’s office may be small, but, interestingly, the staff of each president has comprised mainly policy advisers in areas falling under the competence of the government – including social policy, economic policy, education, culture, religion etc. Such advisors can be important for the presidents, not least through forming contacts with political parties and MPs, individual ministers and ministries or civil society stakeholders.

However, we should not exaggerate the powers of the Lithuanian president. The balance of power between the Seimas, the government and the president ensures that the president can achieve very little alone – and this in fact explains the strategic behaviour of the president and her advisers. Despite the lack of rules, intra-executive coordination does exist and in most instances conflicts are avoided. This applies particularly to foreign and security policy – an issue area that is both highly salient in Lithuania and where the president and the government constitutionally share power. Also the perceived role of the president as a ‘constructive statesman’ constrains the incumbents. But while Lithuanian semi-presidentialism has functioned by and large smoothly, the personality-centred politics commonly found in Central and East European countries does create favorable conditions for presidential activism. While one might argue that institutional flexibility has served Lithuanian politics quite well, the apparent lack of constitutionally regulated coordination between the two executives can prove a profound challenge during a long-term political and economic turmoil.

References:

Raunio, Tapio and Sedelius, Thomas (2017): Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania. Government and Opposition   https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.31.

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