Tag Archives: Caucasus

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

9781137387806

Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.

Georgia – A year ahead of parliamentary elections, the electoral system is still uncertain

Georgia will hold its next parliamentary elections in fall 2016. A year ahead of the polling day the electoral system is still unclear.

Currently, Georgia has a mixed electoral system: 73 MPs in 150-seat Parliament are elected in single-mandate constituencies, and the remaining 77 seats are allocated proportionally under the party-list contest among political parties that surpass the 5% threshold. In the single-member, majoritarian constituencies the number of voters ranges from over 150,000 voters in the largest one to less than 6,000 voters in the smallest one.

In early 2015, in his annual report to the parliament, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called for a reform of the electoral system and in particular emphasized that amendments to the existing majoritarian component of electoral system were fundamentally important.

Before the President spoke about it, several non-parliamentary opposition parties had already been campaigning jointly for several months, demanding a reform of the majoritarian component of the election system. The joint memorandum by the political parties stressed that the reform was necessary before the 2016 parliamentary elections, since the existing system violates the principle of equality of suffrage and fails to proportionally allocate seats in the legislative body.

Opponents of the existing system argue that it has the potential to produce a distribution of seats in Parliament that is different from those reflected in proportional, party-list election results. The difference between distribution of seats and votes garnered in party-list contest was obvious in the previous Parliament, when the then ruling UNM party held over 79% of seats in parliament although it received only slightly over 59% of votes in 2008 parliamentary elections. The explanation lies with the electoral system; UNM won all but four majoritarian constituencies across the country.

This was not the case in the 2012 elections, when the seats won by Georgian Dream coalition and UNM, both in majoritarian and proportional contests, mainly matched the share of votes they won in the party-list contest.

The mismatch, however, was evident in the 2014 local elections for Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo), when although it received 46% of votes in the party-list contest, GD gained 74% of seats in Tbilisi Sakrebulo because it won all but one of the majoritarian constituencies in the capital city.

The Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs, the Venice Commission, has long been recommending to Georgia that it needs to address the existing disparity, claiming that it undermines the principle of equality of suffrage. Georgian election observer groups have also been calling for the replacement of the current system with a “regional-proportional system”, based on open lists, wherein multi-member constituencies would be introduced instead of existing single-member ones.

Ruling of the Constitutional Court

In 2012, two citizens of Georgia (one of them the current public defender of Georgia) filed a case to the Constitutional Court arguing that discrepancies in the sizes of the single-member majoritarian constituencies violated the principle of equality of suffrage.

On May 28, 2015 the Georgian Constitutional Court announced its decision and ruled that the present electoral system and specifically its majoritarian section, did indeed violate the equality of vote and should be changed. “It is the discretion of the Georgian Parliament to decide on the proportional and majoritarian models of the electoral system provided that constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens will be protected in this process,” the Court stated.

Notably, the Constitutional Court did not rule out the majoritarian component of the electoral system or suggest that it should necessarily be scrapped.

Just a couple of days later, on May 30, 2015 at the conference hosted by the President Giorgi Margvelashvili, 14 opposition parties, including non-parliamentary and parliamentary ones, as well as 8 civil society organizations made a joint appeal to the Parliament to carry out this reform. They argued that the existing majoritarian system, where MPs are elected through plurality vote, results in a large amount of wasted votes and can potentially produce a distribution of seats in the parliament that is different from the distribution reflected in proportional, party-list election results.

Constitutional Amendments

Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition initiated constitutional changes to scrap the majoritarian component but only after 2016. The GD coalition revealed the full reform proposal recently: it envisages maintaining the mixed electoral model for the 2016 parliamentary elections, wherein 73 lawmakers are elected in 73 majoritarian, single-member constituencies and the remaining 77 seats are allocated by a party-list, proportional vote. The proposal offers to replace plurality vote to elect majoritarian MPs with a majority vote, which entails increasing the vote threshold required for an outright victory in the first round from the current 30% to 50%.

The plan also foresees redrawing the single-member districts to ensure equality of suffrage and the introduction of a constitutional amendment to scrap the majoritarian component of the system by 2020, in the event that there are no early elections.

At the same time, parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties continue to demand a cancelation of the majoritarian system for the upcoming 2016 elections. They have launched a campaign to collect 200,000 signatures to initiate a legislative draft to challenge the proposal of Georgian Dream.

But none of the two initiatives is likely to be passed as constitutional amendments require the support of both parliamentary majority and minority groups. Currently, the GD ruling coalition has 86 seats in 150-member parliament, which is not enough for the super-majority required to pass a constitutional amendment.

A year ahead of the polling day the fate of the electoral reform is still undecided. One thing is clear, however, the closer the country gets to parliamentary elections with uncertain electoral rules of the game, the more difficult it will be for political parties to mobilise and for voters to make informed electoral choices.

Armenia – From semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism?

A constitutional referendum is expected to take place in Armenia by the end of the year. In the event of a positive popular vote, the current semi-presidential political system will be transformed into a parliamentary one. At this stage, the reform is strongly favoured by the ruling party, the Republican Party (HHK) while the opposition is divided.

The transformation into a parliamentary system would dramatically change a key feature of the Armenian political system: the preponderance of the presidential office. The first post-independence constitution (also called by its critics “super-presidential”), in vigour since 1995, gave extensive power to the president over all the three branches of government. The second constitution, approved by referendum in 2005, introduced some limits to the power of the president and, conversely, enhanced the prerogatives of the parliament. However, given that for the past 16 years the same party (HHK) has dominated both the executive and legislative branches, no practical change has been observable[1]. The outcome of the referendum (a mandatory step to reform the constitution and expected to take place by the end of the year) may completely shift the distribution of power.

Departing from the past, the constitutional reform would make the presidential office largely ceremonial. More specifically, instead of being the head of the executive, the successor to Mr Sarkisian, would not be directly elected anymore but would be nominated by an electoral college, and would in effect be a super partes figure with limited leeway for autonomous action. In fact, he would have practically no room for intervention in legislative matters. By contrast, the prime minister, who at the current stage has limited personal power, would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy[2]. The President would still formally perform some relevant state activities, such as changing the composition of the government, appointing or recalling diplomats and approving (or suspending) international treaties. However, all those actions should be initiated by proposal of the prime minister[3].

The recent publication of a constitutional draft is the result of almost two years of work. On 4 September 2013 President Sarkisian set up a Commission on Constitutional Reforms. In November of the same year Mr Gagik Harutyunyan[4], the coordinator of the aforementioned Commission and President of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, asked the Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, for some assistance in the drafting of a new constitution. The demand was accepted and a group of rapporteurs was constituted. After various rounds of meetings and opinions, in July 2015 a partial first draft was submitted to the Venice Commission. The advisory body praised the effort but also highlighted some points of concern. One of them, pertinent to the parliamentary elections, was the mandatory second round of voting (between the first two parties) in the event that a clear parliamentarian majority failed to emerge. In the draft of July 2015 this point was disciplined by article 89, which provided detailed disposals on the conduct of the second electoral round as well as, for example, the obligation to present the candidate prime ministers. This point, also as result of numerous consultations with opposition parties, has been modified. In fact, in the new version of the text, a run-off vote “may be held” instead of “shall be held”. Additionally, all the details have been removed and transferred to the electoral code.

The run-off issue raised a concern not only in the Venice commission but also in most opposition parties (with the sole exception of ARF). In fact, the opposition feared such a provision would give a disproportionate advantage to the current ruling party such that, if the change had been included, it would have almost certainly recorded a clear-cut victory for the ruling party[5]. For this reason, until the beginning of the summer, the reform lacked broad political support. After the government declared its intention to exclude the aforementioned run-off vote from the constitutional draft, Prosperous Armenia (the second party in the parliament) agreed to back the proposal. Other parties, namely the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and Heritage party, continue to refuse to support the process. The reason for this inflexible attitude is that, even though in principle they may favour a parliamentary system, they fear that President Sarkisian could take advantage from the reform and extend his power beyond the end of his presidential mandate in 2017.

Under the current disposal, the president cannot run for a third term. Consequently Mr Sarkisian, who is already serving his second mandate, should step down after next election. Designating a successor is no guarantee on that he or she would be willing to accept Mr Sarkisian’s influence after the election. In fact, the current president enjoys limited popularity in the country and could be easily marginalized by any heir apparent[6]. Given that, critical voices argue that adopting a parliamentarian system may enable Mr Sarkisian to retain political power beyond the end of his term. As member of the National assembly, he could prolong his duration in power either as prime minister (though it is an option that he openly excluded), or as head of the ruling party. In brief is suspected that, instead of promoting the long-term stabilization of Armenia, the main goal of the reform is to ensure the permanence in power of the current political elite[7]. This vision is also shared by former president Kocharian (1998-2008), who bluntly declared that: “Any modification of the constitution for the sake of politicians’ current interests is a sign of the country’s degradation.” and by the former ministry of foreign affairs Oskanian (1998-2008).  Mr Oskanian also considers that the current government does not enjoy enough political legitimacy to promote such a dramatic change.

Civil society, even though during the summer it was mainly mobilized around the “Electric Yerevan issue”, has shown some interest in the topic. In the past months, the civic initiative “You won’t pass it” has been voicing its concern and trying to fundraise both domestically and abroad in order to rent conference halls and print leaflets. In September 2015 the initiative “NO” appeared. Looking at the population at large, a recent survey shows limited knowledge of the domestic political system. In fact, most respondents believed the country to be a presidential republic rather than a semi-presidential one[8].  Mr Armenak Minasyants[9], a Visiting Scholar in Public Administration at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, comments that the public debate around the issue has not focused on the legal aspects or content of the proposed reform but more notably on the implication for the distribution of power in the short run. The lingering question in almost all the talks is whether the president will step down or not after the term. Given the on-going mainstream narrative, the forthcoming referendum is likely to be perceived as a sort of popular confidence vote on Mr Sarkisian.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

[1] Mikayel Zolyan, Parliamentary Democracy or One-Party State: What is behind Armenia’s Constitutional Reform, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.3, September 2015, http://regional-studies.org/images/pr/2015/september/11/RSC_Staff_Analysis_Constitutional_Reform_Zolyan.pdf .

[2] Kathleen C. Weinberger, Armenia’s Constitutional Reforms: Forward Movement or Momentous Fallacy?, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.4, September 2015, http://regional-studies.org/images/pr/2015/september/11/RSC_Staff_Analysis_Constitutional_Reform_Weinberger.pdf .

[3] Draft Constitution (July 2015), articles 131 and 132, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-REF(2015)023-e .

[4] A well-recognized legal scholar and practitioner, he contributed to the drafting of all the Armenian constitutions, including the 2003 version that was rejected by referendum and not adopted. Mr Harutyunyan, convinced that the Constitution of 2005 did not fully match the Armenian political context, is believed to have played a strong role in the initiation of the Commission on Constitutional Reforms (Armenak Minasyants, phone interview, 13 September 2015).

[5] Zolyan 2015

[6] Zolyan 2015

[7] Weinberger 2015

[8] Ibidem

[9] Phone interview, 13 September 2015.