Tag Archives: constitutional amendments

Petra Stykow – Turkmenistan: The 2016 Constitutional Reform

This is a guest post by Prof. Dr. Petra Stykow of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

During the last couple of years, presidents of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and the Caucasus have been busily engaged in constitutional reforms. Praised as major steps toward the “perfection” and “further democratization” of the political system, such reforms are mostly cosmetic. However, most of the time, from behind the mixture of minimally re-edited phrases and copy-pasted international standards of civic and human rights some important details peer out. Typically, they legalize the president’s stay in office beyond term limits or regulate questions of a looming succession in power. This also holds for the 2016 reform of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world.

Turkmenistan’s first constitution was embraced in May 1992, being the first new basic law across the territory of the former Soviet Union. It created a system of government that has been qualified as “presidential” in the literature, but was of a very special kind. It perfectly matched the preferences of President Saparmurat Niyazov who had led the Turkmen Soviet Republic as the First Secretary of the Communist Party since 1985. The head of state and chief executive and the Mejlis as “a legislative organ” were but constituent parts of an “ultimate representative organ of popular government,” the “People’s Assembly” (Halk Maslahaty). In addition to the president and the cabinet ministers, the members of the assembly and the top office holders of the court system, this Assembly included representatives of local assemblies and heads of administrative units, and—after 2003—also the leadership of political and social organizations, eventually reaching the impressive number of 2507 persons. It was the Assembly that “convinced” the Turkmenbashi (“Leader of all Turkmens”) in 1999 to accept the presidency for the rest of his life, approved his proposals about laws, such as seven-generations-background checks for aspirants of the public service or the renaming of all days of the week and months of the year[1], lauded the president’s achievements, awarded him medals, etc.[2]

Niyazov suddenly passed away in 2006. A few days later, the People’s Assembly stripped the parliamentary speaker—who was to replace the president according to the constitution—of his immunity (making his arrest possible) and abolished the ban on an acting president to run for the presidency. This cleared the way for Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. In 2008, he launched a new constitution, abolishing the People’s Assembly and consolidating the presidency as the lynchpin of the political system. While the president has extensive nonlegislative and legislative powers, making him one of the strongest presidents worldwide,[3] the Mejlis, in turn, is one of the weakest assemblies in the world, barely fulfilling the role of a rubber stamp to the president’s will. A peculiar feature of all editions of the Constitution consists of the lack of an impeachment procedure. Instead, “in case of violation of the Constitution and laws,” the Mejlis may express “no-confidence” in the president by a vote of “at least three-fourth” of the 125 deputies. In this case, a national referendum ultimately decides on whether the president has to quit.

A constitutional amendment to the 2008 Constitution was drafted by a president-led Constitutional commission since May 2014 and subjected to public discussion in March 2016. On 14 September 2016, the reform was unanimously adopted by the advisory Council of Elders and the legislature. After the president’s immediate signature, the Amendment entered into force the same day.[4] It addressed a total of 107 articles, of which 24 were newly added and four extensively revised. Further, a section was introduced that codifies “Economy and Financial System,” based on the “principles of market relations.”

Most changes result from a minor editing of the text. In addition, there are some subtle, rather symbolic amendments. For example, the principle of neutrality in foreign affairs, which is the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy since 1992, is now enshrined in a separate article (art. 2), after having been pooled with the principles of democracy, legalism and secularism (art. 1) in the previous version. Other amendments are influenced by consultations with the UN, the OSCE, the German aid society GIZ, or have been suggested during the public debate on the Draft Constitution, so at least officials have claimed. Thus, a number of human rights provisions have been adopted. The president became the guarantor of “rights and freedoms of people and citizens” and was granted the right to nominate a candidate for the soon-to-be-established post of a Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ODIHR/OSCE Comments on the 2016 Draft Amendment consists of a long list of recommendations for the adjustment of provisions that do not meet international standards.[5] Sometimes, the final document seems to respond, but this does not necessarily solve the issue in question. A telling example is a clause that can be found in the 1992 and 2008 constitutions as well as in the 2016 Draft. In full agreement with the traditional Soviet understanding, it is stated that “the exercise of rights and freedoms shall be inseparable from the performance by a person and a citizen of their responsibilities toward the society and the state.” In the final version of the 2016 Amendment, this sentence has been eliminated. However, what remains is Article 30 claiming that “the exercise of rights and freedoms must not violate the rights and freedoms of others, as well as the requirements of morality, law, public order, or cause damage to national security.” This preserves wide scope for interpretation.

Other OSCE suggestions about issues such as institutional mechanisms ensuring separation of powers or counter-balancing “the quite extensive presidential powers” have been ignored by the regime—which is no wonder, if we assume that even dictators tend to use constitutions as “operating manuals” for the daily functioning of the regime. An example is the regulation of political pluralism. The 2016 revision of the Constitution introduces an explicit commitment to “political diversity and party-based pluralism,” obliging the state to ensure an “enabling environment for the development of the civil society.” This is mostly “cheap talk,” but it also fits Berdymukhammedov’s engagement in controlled party- and NGO-building, a strategy he shares with much of his colleagues in Eurasia. However, the Constitution restricts the right to form political parties, banning not only violent organizations but also parties “encroaching on the health and morality of the people” and “parties with ethnic or religious attributes.” This clause has neither been welcomed by the OSCE in 2008 nor in 2016 but remains unchanged since 1992.

The huge cosmetic part of the 2016 Reform almost conceals the single most important change. It consists of a small omission concerning presidential tenure in office. While the Turkmenbashi had scrapped the typical post-Soviet re-election restriction—“nobody shall be elected for more than two consecutive terms”—as early as 1999, Berdymukhammedov has now removed the last hurdle to lifetime presidency. Aged 60, he foresightedly lengthened the presidential term from five to seven years and removed the age-70 cap for candidates.

The 2016 reform also tinkers with provisions regulating the question of succession in power. As a measure of precaution against the premature removal by a rival, all versions of the Turkmenistani Constitution prohibit an interim president from running for office. Since 2008, this interim president had to be chosen by the Security Council from the no less than ten deputy chairmen of the cabinet. Now, it is—as it was from 1992 to 2007—the speaker of the Mejlis who temporarily stands in for an ill or dead incumbent. Thus, it seems as if a deputy chairman, even if he competes with nine colleagues, is considered to be more dangerous for a sitting president than the speaker of a toothless assembly. After all, a deputy chairman is responsible for a certain policy, such as Economy and Finance, or Oil and Gas. This grants him access to important resources on which to build power against the incumbent.

Against this background, the newest proposal of the President is worth attention. In his inauguration address on 17 February 2017, Berdymukhammedov who had won his third election against eight government-nominated “competitors” by 97.7 percent of the votes announced a new reform. The Council of Elders, which is not mentioned in the Constitution and consists of 600 people who are not elected but selected, is planned to be granted a status above that of parliament.[6] It shall be entitled to approve the decisions of the assembly and the cabinet before they enter into force.[7] This idea revokes the “People’s Assembly” in the 1992 Constitution. Its realization would deprive the Mejlis of their rubber stamp and further downsize the position of the assembly’s speaker.

Notes

The full text of the 2016 revision of the Constitution of Turkmenistan can be found here: http://www.legislationline.org/documents/section/constitutions/country/51

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaming_of_Turkmen_months_and_days_of_week,_2002

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[3] http://presidential-power.com/?page_id=2151

[4] http://www.turkmenistan.ru/en/articles/18145.html

[5] OSCE/ODIHR (2016):  Comments on the Draft Constitution of Turkmenistan, Comments-Nr.: CONST-TKM/288/2016, 21.7.2016

[6] https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-council-elders-berdymukhammedov-parliament/28322910.html

[7] https://rus.azathabar.com/a/28320695.html

Georgia – Proposed constitutional reforms

Draft amendments to the Constitution of Georgia are currently undergoing nationwide public discussions before being voted on in parliament. Among other significant amendments, the proposed draft foresees moving to a parliamentary form of government with the introduction of indirect presidential elections and changing the electoral system to full proportional representation.

On December 9, 2016 the Parliamentary Chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, announced the setting up of a constitutional commission tasked with drafting a package of constitutional amendments. The commission would report at the end of April 2017.

Soon after the announcement, Giorgi Margvelashvili, the President of Georgia, boycotted the process and his administration (including the Security Council) refrained from taking part in the commission’s discussions. The administration noted that the format offered by the Parliamentary Chairman raised a lot of question marks.

The ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia party had 23 members in the commission; the United National Movement was represented by 8 members; and the Alliance of Patriots by 2 members. The commission also included one representative from each of the parties in the electoral blocs that failed to clear the 5% thresholdin the last parliamentary elections, but that had garnered at least 3% of votes .

Before boycotting the process, the President was supposed to have three representatives in the commission: the Head of the President’s administration; the President’s parliamentary secretary; and the Secretary of the National Security Council.

The government was represented by the Minister of Justice and the government’s parliamentary secretary. The  commission also included the chairpersons of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court; the heads of the legislative and executive bodies of Adjara and Abkhazian Autonomous Republics; the Georgian Public Defender; the President of the National Bank of Georgia; and the chairperson of the State Audit Office.

Experts and NGOs were included at the Chairman’s invitation.

Despite the broad range of topics that the commission was tasked to discuss, the electoral system, the election of the president, and the definition of marriage generated the most heated debates.

While the Chairman of the Commission aimed to legitimise the process, President Margvelashvili launched a campaign called the “Constitution Belongs to Everyone” and visited a number of towns in different regions of Georgia to discuss the likely amendments before the draft amendments were published on May 1.

Shortly before its final session of the Commission, opposition parties also left the Commission in protest.

Major Draft Amendments

Election of the President

The Georgian Dream-led Constitutional Commission opted for a Parliamentary Republic. In particular, the proposed amendments will abolish the direct election of the president, transferring it to a college of electors composed of 300 MPs, local, and regional government representatives. The scrapping off nearly all the powers of the President was justified by the proposed shift to a parliamentary system.

The college of electors will consist of 150 members of parliament and all members of the Supreme Councils of Adjara and Abkhazia (in-exile). Electors from municipal councils will be nominated by political parties in accordance with quotas assigned “on the basis of the principle of proportional geographic representation and the results of municipal elections.”

The eligibility age for the President of Georgia will increase from 35 to 40. There are changes to residency requirements as well; a potential candidate will have to have lived in Georgia for at least 15 years. He/she, however, is no longer required to have lived in Georgia for the three years before the election.

The president will remain the head of state, the commander-in-chief, and the country’s representative in foreign relations, but will no longer “ensure the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” The President will lose the right “to request particular matters to be discussed at the Government session and to participate in the discussion.”

The National Security Council, which “organizes the military development and defense of the country” and is led by the president under the current constitution, will no longer exist. Instead, the draft constitution establishes the National Defense Council, which will function only during martial law to coordinate the work of the constitutional bodies, and will consist of the President, the Prime Minister, Parliamentary Chairman and the Head of the Armed Forces of Georgia.

The proposed indirect election of President was met with the fiercest criticism in Georgian society. In their address to the Venice Commission, local CSOs noted, “the Constitution of a specific country should take into account the local context and experience, and should be responsive to local challenges and needs.” CSOs underlines that Georgia does not have a rich democratic experience, that the political/legal culture of voters is developing, democratic institutions are not strong enough, and there is lack of trust towards public institutions in the country. In this context, CSOs viewed the draft amendments as a step made towards weakening democracy, describing the reforms as “risky and not desirable”.

NDI Opinion Polls 2017

The most recent opinion polls commissioned by NDI confirmed that the citizens of Georgia prefer the direct election of the president (84 %). Furthermore, President Margvelashvili viewed the draft amendment as a personal attack against himself, a non-partisan president, and emphasized this issue during the public discussions of the proposed amendments.

Electoral System

If adopted, Georgia will move to a fully proportional electoral system, replacing the current mixed system, whereby voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats are distributed proportionally in the closed party-list contest with a 5% threshold.

The new constitution will ban the establishment of party blocs ahead of elections, while leaving the 5% threshold intact.

The draft constitution increases the age of eligible candidates from 21 to 25 and sets a ten-year residency requirement in Georgia.

Only parties with members currently in the parliament or those which obtain the signatures of 25000 voters are eligible to participate in parliamentary elections. According to the draft, MPs nominated by one political party can form only one parliamentary faction.

CSOs in Georgia have concerns over the electoral system and, specifically, the allocation of the remaining seats (undistributed mandates). Since the constitutional draft introduces an unlimited bonus for a party that receives the most votes – all undistributed mandates will be allocated a single party. CSOs consider this aspect of the electoral system to be highly unfair and largely undermine the positive gains from the change of the majoritarian system. CSOs believe that the constitution should ensure that the undistributed mandates are allocated proportionally to all parties in the Parliament according to their election results.

Definition of Marriage

The draft constitution introduces the definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.” While the definition of marriage already exists as part of the Civil Code of Georgia, the Georgian Dream party decided to introduce a special provision as part of the constitutional reforms.

CSOs have named the definition of marriage as “a problematic issue”. According to their assessment, this amendment is particularly problematic given widespread homophobia, increasing cases of hate crimes, and the continuous struggle for LGBT groups to exercise their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Furthermore, the assessment states that the constitutional prohibition of marriage equality is particularly concerning given that Georgian legislation does not guarantee civil partnerships for same-sex couples. CSOs believe that in line with ECHR practice, Georgia should introduce the legal recognition of same-sex couples and guarantee similar rights as the opposite-sex couples.

The constitutional commission expects the opinion of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional and legal matters, to issue its preliminary conclusion before June in time for parliamentary discussions and the final conclusion of the debate on June 15. However, it is uncertain if the Constitutional Commission will reflect the Venice Commission’s conclusions in the final text that will be voted upon.

Azerbaijan – A New Constitutional Reform: Towards a Monarchical Presidency?

On 26 September, citizens of Azerbaijan were called to vote in a constitutional referendum. The constitution, approved in 1995, was already amended in 2002 and 2009. While the current amendments concern numerous topics (including civic liberties and right of assembly), some of them specifically concern the President’s role. It is proposed:

  • To amend Article 101.1 of the current constitution, which would extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
  • To introduce a “First Vice President” and a “Vice President”, chosen and appointed by the president. In the case of the president’s inability to perform his role, the First Vice President would take over. Currently, this “second-in-charge” function is a prerogative of the prime minister
  • To remove the minimum age limit to run for President (currently, it is 35). Similarly, the minimum age for parliamentarian is lowered from 25 to 18.
  • To introduce the right for the President to dissolve the parliament. This is in the event that the parliament votes no confidence to the government twice in a year or refuses the suggested appointees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the Central Bank’s main board.

In order to maximise the inclusivity of the voting process, polling stations have been established in Azerbaijani embassies. Remarkably, everything is ready in Ankara, Teheran and Riyadh.  However, notwithstanding the vocal support of the ruling party, the opposition has expressed its grave concern over the proposed changes.

While President Ilham Aliyev has not personally commented on the proposed amendments, pro-government voices have openly endorsed them. MP Siyavus Novruzov, who is the deputy executive secretary of the ruling ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, has defined the proposed amendments as necessary to enhance national security and reform of the state administration[1]. Emil Huseynli, head of the ‘Support for Youth Development – Dushunje’, declared that the various changes, including the strengthening of the presidential office, will foster the sustainable development of the country. Referring to the relaxation of the age limits, he commented that: this “will create an opportunity for the political activity of literate, prospective young people.” However, the opposition thinks that this amendment is specifically designed to favour a semi-monarchical transfer of power and, henceforth, that the children of the president would likely be the main beneficiaries of this “political opportunity”. Notably, it has been observed that Heydar Aliyev, the only son[2] of the presidential couple, will be 27 in 2025 (the most likely year for a presidential election). If his father decides to run for the presidential office in 2018 and to step down after that, the young Heydar would be an extremely probable “new” candidate. Other possible scenarios are the election of Heydar to parliament or the appointment of a member of the presidential family as vice-president[3]

In addition to being concerned about the future implication of these changes for the Aliyev family, the opposition is worried about the immediate effects of a “reinforced presidency”. Arif Hajili, the leader of Musavat party, bluntly declared that: “They [the state authorities] are not even able to explain to their citizens why we need these changes to the Constitution. They believe they can create a second North Korea here and rule in the same style[4]. Similarly, the prominent lawyer, Fuad Agayev, commented that: “An analysis of the document indicates that, if adopted, it will have an adverse impact on human rights, civil rights and freedoms, as well as power-sharing”.  This kind of apprehension is also shared by some international observers. Chris Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a concerned letter to Ilham Aliyev. At one point, it stated clearly that: “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” Lastly, some observers expect the referendum to be rigged.

In September various well attended protest rallies took place in Baku. The main argument is that the only aim of the referendum is to reinforce Aliev’s rule. “No to monarchy!” and “No robbery!” were the main slogans chanted[5]. Additionally, in the attempt to generate an international response, some Human Right Defenders asked to Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to submit the proposed amendments to the Venice Commission[6]. The main points of concern they raised were: the massive empowerment of the presidential office, the authoritarian climate the referendum takes place in, the non-consultation of the parliament, and the absence of public debate[7]. In addition to the Azerbaijani Human Right Defenders, on 5 September the PACE Bureau also asked the Venice Commission to give an urgent opinion.

In response, on 20 September the Venice Commission issued a “Preliminary Opinion on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution”. In the context of widespread concern on different matters, including the repression of dissident opinions, the Venice Commission expressed clear worries about the amendments in relation to the presidency. More specifically, it noted that, back in 2009, the removal of the two-term limit to re-election had already strengthened the power of the president. In the light of that, it said that: “the modification to Article 101 which extends the Presidential mandate for longer than is the European practice, coupled with the previous removal of the two-term limit, concentrates power in the hands of a single person in a manner not compatible with the separation of powers”. In addition, the Venice Commission expressed its concern about the president’s powers to dissolve the parliament, to call early elections, and to appoint a vice-president who, in practical terms, would be an unelected second-in-command.

Even though the voting has yet to be finalised, the rejection of the proposed amendments seems highly unlikely in contemporary Azerbaijan. Henceforth, in the face of domestic and international concern, the presidential office, which is already remarkably strong, will be further reinforced. Unfortunately, this seems to be a prelude to a further consolidation of the authoritarian tendencies in the country.

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

Notes

[1] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri court approves referendum on constitutional change’, 26 July (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] In addition to him, the president has two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.

[3]Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘It’s time for the United States to act on Azerbaijan’, September 9 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Arif Hajili: Usurpation of Power Will Not Save Aliyev’. 18 September (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Jamil Hasanli: Aliyev does not get tired to pervert the Constitution’. September 17 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] The role of the Venice Commission, with reference to the constitutional referendum in Armenia, has already been discussed in this blog.

[7] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘The report of “Musavat” about the referendum campaign’. 5 September (retrieved through LexisNexis).

Sri Lanka – President Moves to Abolish the Executive Presidency

Between 1947 and 1977 Sri Lanka had a prime ministerial form of government that resembled the Westminster model. In 1977 the then newly elected prime minister J R Jayewardene using his two-thirds majority in parliament introduced an executive presidency that came to be described as the “Gaullist System” of Asia. Under the constitutional provisions enacted, Prime Minister Jayawardane himself assumed the office of executive president without calling for a presidential election. In the first ever all-island presidential election held in 1982 he was reelected and held office until his second term ended in 1988. The constitution mandated a two-term limit on the presidency. After Jayewardene five others have held the office including the present incumbent Maithripala Sirisena who was elected in January 2015.

Jayewardene justified the executive presidency on the grounds that a powerful executive was essential to take quick and decisive decisions to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic growth. Critics of the presidency saw it as an authoritarian office that over-centralized power and undermined Sri Lanka’s democracy. For sure Sri Lanka’s economy has performed relatively quite well in the past 35 years. In 1977 the per capita GDP was US $294. By 1997 it had more than doubled to $800 moving up the country from “low-income” to “lower-middle” income category in World Bank classification. In 2014 the per capita GDP was $3,625. While cause and effect in this kind of relationship is hard to determine, for sure there is an association between the two. More importantly critics saw in the executive presidency an increasingly authoritarian trend that posed a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy. This reality reached its high point under the fourth executive president Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014). In 2001 under the 17th amendment to the constitution parliament unanimously voted for constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the executive presidency. Rajapaksa was elected to office for a second term in 2010 after he militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter fought the government for over 25 years to establish an independent state in the north and east one-third of the island. Exploiting the military victory that made him a hero, especially among the 75% Sinhalese majority, in 2010 Rajapaksa succeed in getting parliament to pass the 18th amendment to the Constitution that removed the two-term limit of office and also overrode the provisions of the 17th amendment making the office of president more powerful than ever.

In January this year Rajapaksa lost the presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. The latter promised to abolish the executive presidency and also limit his presidency to one term of five years. Two of his predecessors, Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who promised to abolish the office failed to do so.

The present Sri Lanka administration is a “national” unity government that is a coalition of the country’s two main political groups. The first is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United People Freedom Front (UPFA) that President Sirisena leads. The second, is the United National Party (UNP) that Prime Minister Rani Wickramasinghe leads. Together they command more than two-thirds of seats in parliament that permits them to amend or change the constitution. In a speech in Colombo on Tuesday November 17 Sirisena noted that the executive presidency in the “wrong hands” has become a “dangerous tool” and the “root cause of unprecedented corruption and breakdown of rule of law.” Many Sri Lankan voters would agree with Sirisena’s observation. Embarrassingly, he himself has provided proof for his assertion by appointing one of his siblings as the chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest corporations in the country. The new chairman has been publicly accused of preparing to buy an Indian-owned phone company operating in Sri Lanka at an inflated price.

Sirisena took the first steps to deliver on his promise to curtail the powers of the presidency when his government passed the 19th amendment to the constitution in April this year that overrode the 18th amendment, took away some of the presidential powers and more or less restored the 17th amendment that provided for the the establishment of a Constitutional Council that is responsible for establishing a group of independent commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission and a Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption.

Sirisena has four more years of his first term of office. It appears that his plan is to abolish the executive presidency at the end of his term and have an “Executive” Prime Minister. It is not clear at this stage how that position would differ from the office of prime minister of the British type that Sri Lanka had from 1947 to 1977. But what is certain is that it would be less powerful than the presidency. A committee that prime minster Wickramasinghe is to head will formulate the proposed constitutional amendments in the coming few weeks.

There is speculation that Sirisena who earlier hinted that he would retire from active politics when his presidential term ends might change his mind and remain in politics seeking the office of prime minister.

 

Slovakia – The 2014 presidential elections and prime minister Fico’s candidacy

The first round of the next Slovak presidential elections has been set for 15 March 2014 and with the deadline for registering candidates passing two weeks ago, the presidential race has begun. Recent opinion polls suggests that the race could be a done deal for prime minister Robert Fico, who announced his candidacy shortly before Christmas last year. Yet, Fico also remain the largest unknown in the contest and its aftermath.

Among the 15 candidates for the 2014 presidential race are Ján Čarnogurský and Milan Kňažko, two politicians well-known for their involvement in the Velvet Revolution and membership in the Dzurinda government (1998-2002) which brought an end to the tenure of borderline-autocratic prime minister Vladimir Mečiar. They are joined by former speaker of the Slovak National Council Pavol Hrušovský (one of the few candidates who has managed to gain official backing from a number of political parties), and entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. While the latter is runner-up in the latest opinion poll (admittedly from November 2013) and seems to continue the trend of wealthy businessmen in the region to run for political office (see e.g. Frank Stronach in Austria and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic), none of the candidates is expected to receive as many votes in the first round as prime minister Robert Fico. Kiska is currently the only candidate predicted to win if he entered a second round against Fico, yet this does not take into account the eventual support for the runner-up from other, failed candidates for either of the two. In 1999 and 2004, when above-mentioned Vladimir Mečiar entered the second round, voters grudgingly united in voting for his respective opponent as the ‘lesser evil’. While Fico is far from being the ‘greater evil’ in any combination with one of the potential runner-ups, he might still become a less preferred candidate should his plans for the future of the presidency not find public approval.

Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) on a poster for incumbent Ivan Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 | photo via wikimedia commons

It is exactly these unknown plans – potential changes to the presidential office or the general mechanisms of power in Slovakia and thereby Fico’s motivation to run for office – that have been subject to debate among experts (and it is unknown how the public would react to any of them). The Slovak presidency – despite its upgrade to popular elections in 1999 and extensive use of the easily overturned suspensive veto by its incumbents – remains a rather weak one and there are only few loopholes through which the president can block governmental or parliamentary decisions. Thus, it is surprising that Fico as a powerful prime minsiter (whose SMER party currently holds 55% of seats in the Slovak National Council) would choose to run.

On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause suggests several reasons: Except for the small likelihood of Fico actually wanting to withdraw from playing an active role in politics (either due to a) blackmail or b) health issues), there are also scenarios in which he could gain in power. He could accomplish this for instance by changing the constitutions (classified as less likely as SMER does not dispose of the necessary majority). In a post on his blog in March 2013, Robert Fico still declared the mismatch of the president’s lack of actual powers and the strong (compared to the president’s election in parliament between 1993 and 1998) electoral mandate, yet also acknowledged that it is unlikely that a super-majority to change the constitution could be reached in the next 20 years. For as much as this can be taken his actual views, one could at least assume that constitutional amendments are on Fico’s radar. 

Fico could also retain power within the framework of the existing institutions (seen as more likely by Deegan Krause) – either through accepting the splintering of his (then leader-less) party with him as guarantor of stability above the chaos (relatively unlikely) or through using the stipulations of Art 102 r) of the Slovak constitution that would allow him to chair cabinet meetings and demand reports from cabinet ministers (classified as relatively more likely).

Nevertheless, even if it is relatively most likely that Fico would retain control over his party in some way, the stipulations of Art 102 r) will probably not be part of his strategy. On the one hand, chairing cabinet meetings is a rather formal affair and while important policy decisions are officially taken at these meetings, they have been prepared elsewhere – in the ministries or in negotiations between a subset of government members. On the other hand, the example of Slovakia’s first president Michál Kováč – who despite backing from the constitutional court (which also ruled that the president had no influence over the content of the reports and could not even set a deadline for their completion) was unsuccessfully in obtaining any reports from the government – shows that Fico would need to exert control differently.

Rather, Fico might imitate some of the strategies of former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) in dealing with his party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). While Kwaśniewski was not prime minister but ‘only’ party leader and chairman of the parliamentary party, his control over the SLD was still wide-reaching. After becoming president and resigning as party leader, he remained the major point of orientation for his party for the next years (which would be even more the case for Fico, who faces hardly any intra-party competition) and then supported the SLD-led governments while also building a wider than merely partisan appeal. Even though the SLD lost the 1997 parliamentary elections, Kwaśniewski’s popularity eventually rubbed off on the party and so guaranteed its support for his re-election in 2000. After the SLD’s return to government in 2001, Kwaśniewski faced opposition from the new party leader and prime minister Miller yet was able to retain a sizeable influence due to the personal loyalty of a large number of SLD deputies.

Thus, should Fico want to hold on to power or expand it within the existing framework of institutions, it would need to be – at least publicly – more ‘hands-off’ and depend on informal connections and loyalties as well as a change of his public image rather than the use of formal powers and constitutional loopholes.