Tag Archives: Constitutional Court

Romania – Intra-executive conflict and confusion about patterns of hierarchical control

President Klaus Iohannis clashes with Justice Minister Tudorel Toader Source: b1.ro

In recent months, the semi-presidential republic of Romania saw the unravelling of a new episode of intra-executive conflict in the context of cohabitation.  A dispute over the procedure to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the Anti-Corruption National Directorate (DNA) confirmed the inherent confusion in semi-presidential constitutions about the chains of accountability and responsibility of political decision makers and the patterns of hierarchical control. The conflict between the president and the government was mediated by the Constitutional Court in favour of the government. The president accused the ruling majority of being determined to reduce his powers.

 No breathing space for the president

The current minimum-winning ruling coalition is composed of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). They have a stable legislative majority on their own, but also count on a formalised legislative support agreement with the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and first-time parliamentary party, Save Romania Union (USR), only have half of the voting size of the majority supporting the coalition. The other newcomer parliamentary party, the Popular Movement Party (PMP), is slowly being dismantled due to party switching to the side of the government. Consequently, it is safe to say that the government and the parliament are united and stable. The lack of incentives for a united parliament and government to collaborate with the president – as a whole or individually – leads to the increased isolation and irrelevance of the head of state.

The Constitutional Court has recently increased the political resources available to the government with a decision that considerably limits the president’s role in the dismissal of the chief prosecutor of the DNA. This blog has previously reported on the role of the president in the justice system, emphasizing his limited formal powers, while also mentioning his non-negligible informal powers stemming from his legitimacy as an elected official.  However, the use of informal and veto powers can only come willingly, as shown in the case of Poland. In addition to a highly hostile political environment, the only marginally combative attitude of the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, coupled with his decision not to politically coordinate with his own party, the PNL, has led to further accentuation of the peripheral nature of his activity.

An all men’s game: the justice system

For years, the fight against political corruption has dominated the Romanian system. Revising the powers of the judicial branch – to strengthen or constrain them – has also remained high on political agenda across the political spectrum. Revisions were voted by the current ruling coalition only two years after other revisions had been made by a technocrat government in 2016. In addition, the incumbent majority also sought to clarify the chains of command in the absence of any government/president consensus on key appointments and dismissals in the judiciary. The president’s ability to refuse only once the proposal of the justice minister for the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) and that of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT) was introduced in the legislation to clarify the procedure and was deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court also ruled that the president has no powers to oppose the decision of the justice minister to dismiss the head of the DNA, emphasizing an article of the Constitution which states that ‘prosecutors carry out their activity (…) under the authority of the minister of justice’. Consequently, the highly popular DNA chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, will now have to be dismissed by the president to conclude a procedure of removal that was initiated by the ministry of justice.

The politics of the Constitutional Court

The role of the Constitutional Court in mediating inter-institutional conflict is pivotal. Less easy to disentangle are its politics. The nine judges are changed in cohorts of three, every three years. A balance of representation between the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the Presidency has to be maintained, each having the right to nominate one judge in the changing group. The shifting majority in parliament and a period of cohabitation under two presidents that goes back to 2012 also leads to fluctuating majorities in the Court. Some correlation can be found between the agenda of the current president and the decision of the judges nominated by the presidency, but the overlap is not complete. Equally, the agenda of the opposition (PNL) is not fully endorsed by the judges they once nominated. The PSD-nominated judges are the ones that mostly correlate with a PSD agenda. Under the current composition of the court, the ruling coalition has a majority of at least 5 to 4. This adds strength to the coalition’s agenda to increase the power of the government.

Conclusion

Recent rulings of the Constitutional Court have led to a clarification of some procedures and the hierarchical control within the executive. They have also increased the power of executive control over the judiciary branch to the impairment of judicial self-regulation through their own institutions, such as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. Collaterally, they have also diminished the formal impact of the president on these matters in periods of cohabitation.

Indonesia – The Old is New Again? Nomination Thresholds for Presidential Candidates

Like most emergent democracies, Indonesia saw a proliferation of political parties and interest groups following democratization even as the country was restructuring its representative institutions, the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR), and the People’s Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD), into fully elected ones. To control the surge of candidates and parties standing for elections and the subsequent legislative fragmentation, Presidential Election Law, Law No. 42/2008, was passed in 2008 to govern the nomination and election of presidential candidates, while Election Law No. 8, was passed in 2012, to regulate how political parties may stand for legislative elections. Thus, the constraints of Election Law No. 8 included limiting political parties that may contest elections to only those who obtained a threshold of 3.5 percent of the national votes from the previous election.[1]

Perhaps of greater interest is the Presidential Election Law, which limited presidential nominations to parties that received 25 percent of the national vote or 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. To ensure that the thresholds are met, the Presidential Election Law also stipulated that elections for legislative and presidential elections be held at least three months apart. In the following, I track the recent ups and downs of the Presidential Election Law. Briefly, on January 24, 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that the sequencing of elections under the Presidential Election Law violated the constitution and ruled that legislative and presidential elections be held concurrently; however, the Court also left to the legislature to decide if the thresholds would remain. That was decided on July 20, 2017, when the House passed a bill maintaining the thresholds for the presidential elections in 2019.

The Presidential Election Law was challenged at the Constitutional Court in 2013, on the grounds that the Presidential Election law encouraged horse-trading among political parties rather than foster the discipline that underpins responsive or responsible policymaking. If the 2014 elections are any guide, that assessment is not far off-base. Specifically, no parties in the April legislative elections achieved the level of popular support needed to field independently a nominee for the presidential election in July, and that is with a highly popular candidate, then-governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Then-governor Jokowi was so popular that legislative candidates from other political parties used ads featuring the governor.

The resultant legislative results, then, took many by surprise: although the “Jokowi” factor kept the then-governor’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in the lead, it captured only 19 percent of the popular vote, well short of expectations. It meant that the PDI-P needed to form a coalition with partners in order to nominate a presidential candidate for the July elections, as would others. Unsurprisingly, the political jockeying for coalition-partners and the winnable president-vice president team began even before official results were announced. Two nominees emerged: Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi would go on to win the presidential elections, but that win did not stall the opposition coalition.

Indeed, events that followed were concerning for political developments in Indonesia. In particular, clear lines from the political jockeying carried through in the legislature; by the time of the President’s inauguration in October, 2014, the President’s coalition was in the minority. As a result, the President’s agenda was tested and several prominent positions – including House Speaker and Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly – went to the opposition majority coalition.[2] Fortunately for President Jokowi, several reversals occurred over time, so that by January 2016, the Gerindra party of Prabowo Subianto looked like it may be the only party remaining in the erstwhile majority Red-and-White coalition.

President Jokowi has kept a firm majority in the legislature since, so that it is probably not surprising that he championed the proposal to maintain the thresholds. Prabowo Subianto has also maintained a firm interest in politics, and he advocated for the elimination of nomination thresholds. Prabowo and his Gerindra Party have played a decisive – and ultimately victorious – role in the recent gubernatorial election in the capital city of Jakarta, and he is widely expected to use that win as springboard for a 2019 presidential run.

With the thresholds in place, minor party candidates definitely have their work cut out for them. Threshold or not, Jokowi and Prabowo look set to compete again for the presidency in 2019.

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[1] For additional conditions, see Yap, O. Fiona, 2014. “Indonesia – The 2014 Elections: Political parties and Presidential nominees.” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=643 <Accessed 26 July 2017>

[2] Yap, O. Fiona, 2015. “Indonesia – The President, Awesome Indonesia, and the Red-White Opposition.” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3084 <Accessed 26 July 2017>

 

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Aleks Szczerbiak – Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn-in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.

Poland – Judicial independence in jeopardy? President Duda refuses appointment of ten further judges

The controversy over Poland’s constitutional court triggered by president Duda’s refusal to appoint judges nominated by the outgoing Sejm and passage of legislation to legitimise his and the new government’s behaviour has so far dominated the presidency of Andrzej Duda (for a summary see Aleks Szczerbiak’s post here). Now, Duda is once again in the line of fire following his refusal to appoint ten out of thirteen judges from lower-level courts to higher positions. Thus, although the individuals put forward by the National Judiciary Council (a committee formed of 17 judges, the minister of judges and 5 political nominees) are far from uncontroversial, the relatively unchecked power of the president in the area of judicial appointments and the government’s plan to reform the judiciary continue to be the most prominent battlefields of Polish politics today.

President Duda appoints 'his' nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

President Duda appoints ‘his’ nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

The Polish constitution, like so many others (irrespective of this being intentional or not), remains vague on a number of presidential duties and prerogatives. Article 179 of the 1997 Constitution thus states with regard to appointments of judges that “judges are appointed by the president on the suggestion of the National Judiciary Council” but gives no further instructions on the procedures or an eventual right of the president to refuse such nominations. Constitutional scholars widely agree that presidents may refuse the nomination of any candidate for public office (irrespective of judge, professor or prime minister) on the grounds of a person’s lack of formal and legally required qualification or reasonable doubts about their loyalty to the constitution. While this generally follows from presidents’ inaugural oath to uphold and protect the constitution, the rejection of nominees for political or personal reasons arguably has no legal basis.

Duda’s refusal to appoint the judges met with particular opposition due to the lack of justification for his decision. Before being proposed candidates for judicial promotions are vetted by the National Judicial Council; if their application is denied they can appeal the decision in court. An additional vetting by the president beyond formalities thus appears not only unreasonable but also adds the complication that there is no prescribed legal way to appeal his refusal to appoint a nominee. Many conflicts over constitutional clauses along the lines of “the president appoints/signs/etc” fall into the category of conflict between two constitutional organs and can be adjudicated by the constitutional court by the ways of a standard procedure. Yet as both the National Judicial Council and the rejected nominees lack ‘organ quality’, neither of them can easily challenge the president’s decision. The latter became clear in the only other case judicial promotions at lower courts were refused by the president. In 2007 Duda’s pre-predecessor Lech Kaczynski (the deceased twin-brother of current Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), created a precedent for Duda’s actions by declining to appoint nine judges. The nominees’ constitutional complaints were eventually rejected after four years of deliberations as the justification was that the implementation of administrative law by the president does not fall within the remit of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Administrative Court likewise rejected the complaints and subsequent further constitutional complaints were also rejected so that the case now (still) lies with the European Court of Human Rights (for a longer summary, see the report of the Helsinki foundation here).

Newspapers have speculated on the reasons which led the president to reject the nominations. In fact, some of the nominees are far from uncontroversial. One judge was prominently accused of bribery, another judge controversially dismissed a collective law suit against the financial services provider Amber Gold (which was liquidated following the discovery that is was based on a pyramid scheme), and a third was involved in the widely discussed case of restricting the “parents’ rights” of a couple accused of violence against their children. In addition, one judge was widely criticised for continuously extending the arrest of a football fan for alleged drug-dealing, yet without any verdict being issued over the course of three and a half years. Last, one of the judges whose promotion was denied judged on a case in which Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski leader sued fellow legislator Janusz Palikot (then Civic Platform, later founder of ‘Palikot’s Movement’) for insulting him.

None of the above-mentioned controversies would generally justify denial of appointment or other presidential intervention. Thus, it is more likely that they are part of the Law and Justice government’s plan to reform and mould the judiciary in their image. Given that Duda is generally seen as little more than a vicarious agent of Law and Justice leader and Polish politics’ grey eminence (he does not hold any government office) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is now helping to fulfil that plan (while at the same time extending the powers of his office). In a recent proposal made by the government (which was already widely criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs), the National Judiciary Council would have to propose two candidates per vacancy thus considerably increasing the president’s power over judicial nominations. This, together with the conflict over the constitutional court and the government’s decision to once again merge the position of general prosecutor with the minister of justice (the positions were separated by the predecessor government in 2008 and unsuccessfully vetoed by president Lech Kaczynski) highlights the great importance that Law and Justice attaches to judicial reform. Nevertheless, it also shows that judicial independence in Poland might increasingly come under threat – not only, but partially due to president Duda’s activism.

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See also my blog posts on similar conflicts over judicial appointment in Slovakia:
Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments
Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

Austria – Complaint against narrow runoff result might lead to partial do-over of election

After Alexander Van der Bellen won the runoff with a razor-thin margin, calls for a recount and even accusations of electoral fraud from Norbert Hofer’s (FPÖ) supporters were expected. The FPÖ has now lodged a formal complaint with the Austrian Constitutional Court which could trigger a partial rerun of the second round of presidential elections. It is clear that there were some irregularities in the counting of votes and bodies on various levels failed to follow correct protocol. Unfortunately, Austria’s Ministry of Interior and the respective state electoral bodies have also not done the best job in preventing the emergence of further doubts. Given that the FPÖ has yet to make public its list of suspected violations – which is said to exceed the number of previously publicised cases – it is difficult to establish what the outcome of their complaint will be. In any case, the FPÖ has already succeeded in gnawing off some of the new president’s legitimacy before he has even taken office.

The known cases of electoral violations mainly concern the counting of postal votes, idiosyncratic decisions or errors by local officials, and turnout exceeding 100%. Some of the state-level agencies started counting postal votes (which were eventually decisive for the election) too early and some others at least opened the post vote envelopes already on Sunday instead of Monday morning. Although this was against protocol, there is not indication that there was any manipulation or interference with the ballots. In another case in the town of Helfenberg, there were three ballot papers too many in the box after the end of the day even though all voters had been registered twice before casting their vote. Eventually, the local electoral commission decided to take out three invalid votes to make numbers match – while certainly unusual, this seems like a fair decision in relation to its effect on the outcome. The problem here is that the mayor ripped up the three supernumerary ballot papers – a clear violation of federal law. There was also one case where a women was unable to cast her vote due to an error on the electoral register (where she was listed as a postal voter).

More troubling is the report of the municipality Miesenbach in Lower Austria where apparently a handful of 14 and 15 year-olds where allowed to vote – the general voting age is 16. Overall, fifteen teenagers below the voting age were listed as eligible to vote of which five eventually cast a ballot. The reason seems to be that the local electoral commission mixed up the electoral register for the presidential election with the so-called ‘Wählerevidenz’, a constantly updated list based on the local resident registration database. 380 valid ballots were cast in Miesenback, 258 for Hofer and 122 for Van der Bellen, so that it didn’t have a significant impact. Nevertheless, this is a blunder that cannot be easily justified.

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

Last but not least, an embarrassing error fuelled accusations of electoral fraud on the day after the election. The official election website on the pages of the Ministry of Interior showed an impossibly high turnout of 146.9% for the district Waidhofen in the city of Ybbs. A screenshot was widely shared across social media, particularly by supporters of Norbert Hofer. The Ministry later traced the error back to the state electoral commission. While the local district had submitted correct data, the state commission made an error during data entry and transmitted the incorrect data to the Ministry. Human error happens in every election but raises questions over the suitability of the IT systems used by Austrian authorities, e.g. why is there not automated checking of improbable values in the systems? In some other districts, turnout even exceeded 200% as a great number of people made use of proxy voters. In addition, the number of distributed ballot papers was slightly lower than votes received in a few more electoral districts. Nevertheless, while this may seem suspicious to international observers, this is simply due to the postal vote system in place in Austria (as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany). Postal voters receive their ballot paper by post and can either send it back by mail or go to any relevant polling station to cast their vote. The latter happens particularly often when people are on holiday and still want to cast their vote in person (in Germany this is limited to SMD districts).

These known cases alone should not be sufficient to trigger a partial re-run of the presidential runoff in the affected districts. However, the FPÖ claims that violations were recorded in 94 of 117 postal voting districts. Given that it was the postal votes that turned the result around and Van der Bellen eventually won with only 31,000 votes (0.6%) difference, such a claim – if it proves true – would definitely require a do-over of some sort. The Federal Returning Officer, Robert Stein, has however expressed doubts that the whole second round would be repeated. In any case, the FPÖ might have found a way to once again mobilise the anti-establishment vote that Norbert Hofer received. From the point of view of a rational observer, a ‘conspiracy’ against the FPÖ by the state (including public TV stations – one of the FPÖ’s recurrent targets during the election campaign) may be out of the question. Nevertheless, it is likely to resonate with the FPÖ’s core electorate which sees the stigmatisation of the far-right party and categorical exclusion from the federal government as an injustice and plot orchestrated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Even if the complaint is entirely unsuccessful, it casts a shadow over Van der Bellen’s election and will give additional ammunition to the FPÖ in the run-up to and after the next parliamentary elections.

Chile – Constitutional Court Rejects Labor Reform of President Bachelet

When Michelle Bachelet, of the Partido Socialista (PS) and larger Nueva Mayoría alliance, came to power in March 2014, she did so with nearly 63 per cent of the vote, although low turnout deprived her of a commanding mandate for change. Nonetheless, President’s Bachelet ambitious legislative agenda included major educational, taxation, electoral and labor reform.

Educational reform and alterations to Chile’s infamous binomial electoral system were always going to be difficult given the requisite constitutional majorities, but yesterday, President Bachelet’s hard-fought labor reform was halted in its tracks by Chile’s constitutional court. The Court, with 6 in favour and 4 against, ruled that the legislation, which was designed to aid organized labor in a country that saw labor weakened during the period of market reform, was unconstitutional.

The reform, which was only passed by the Senate in April and which caused divisions in the ruling coalition, Nueva Mayoría, sought to establish labor unions as the principal agent for collective bargaining. In effect, it was an effort to overturn the alterations to the labor code undertaken by the military dictatorship of General Pinochet in 1979, which saw Chilean organized labor significantly weakened and side-lined.[1] Members of the conservative right-leaning opposition opposed the legislation however, and filed a motion challenging aspects of the reform with the Constitutional Tribunal.

It was specific codes of the new provision that the Court objected to: the stipulation that companies must negotiate only with labor unions during wage talks; the prohibition on the extension of negotiated benefits to non-unionized works; and compulsory intercompany trading. Although opposition legislators hailed this decision as a victory, unsurprisingly, the government and labor unions were harshly critical of this outcome, with unions suggesting it could lead to labor unrest.

This comes at a bad time for President Bachelet. She has been seeking support for her larger legislative agenda, and her popularity has plummeted a long way from the eighty plus rating that she enjoyed towards the end of her first term in office. Her administration has been beset by a number of corruption scandals, one of which involved one of Chile’s largest corporate entities, Penta Group, and the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). More significantly however, one of the scandals involved the President’s own son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos was accused of using his political influence to arrange a US$10 million bank loan for his wife’s firm, Caval, which then used the funds to purchase land in central Chile that was promptly resold for a profit. This has left the Chilean electorate generally dissatisfied and unhappy with the political elite and the institutions of the state.

So what happens now? The government has two options: they can either withdraw the legislation altogether or they could effectively veto the Court’s decision. The Court has until May 9 to return the legislation, with their recommend changes, to the government. President Bachelet will then have 30 days to send the now altered legislation back to Congress, or to veto the alterations of the Court and re-send the original bill back to the house. In this scenario, the opposition could of course then challenge the legislation in the Court once again.

This means that this dispute could rumble on for quite a while unless some form of compromise is found.

[1] See for example, the chapter by René Cortázar in Labor Markets in Latin America, edited by Sebastian Edwards and Nora Lustig.

Guest post: Who is winning Poland’s ‘constitutional tribunal war’?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s new right-wing government has been engulfed in a debilitating controversy over the composition of the country’s constitutional tribunal. While opposition groupings claim that the government is undermining democracy, its supporters argue that the crisis was caused by its predecessor’s attempt to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new administration. The opposition has been more successful in promoting its narrative, and support for the ruling party and President have fallen, but the government retains the backing of its core supporters.

Controversy over new judges

Poland’s new government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has enjoyed virtually no post-election honeymoon and was plunged immediately into an ongoing dispute over the composition and functioning of the country’s 15-member constitutional tribunal. The tribunal is a powerful body whose task is to check whether or not laws and regulations adhere to the Constitution. At the end of November, the Law and Justice majority in the new Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, annulled the appointment of five tribunal judges nominated in October by the previous parliament dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the former ruling party. Earlier, in June the Sejm amended the constitutional tribunal law to allow the outgoing parliament to appoint these judges, including two whose terms of office were not due to expire until December by which time the new Sejm would have convened. However, the five judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda did not accept their oaths of office. This opened the way for the newly-elected Sejm to choose five new tribunal members, in spite of vocal protests from opposition parties.

At the start of December, the tribunal ruled that the appointment of two of the five Civic Platform-nominated judges (replacing those whose term of office expired in December) was unconstitutional, but that the other three were nominated legally and should be sworn in immediately. However, the presidential chancellery argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of Sejm appointments, and Mr Duda swore in the five judges nominated by the new Sejm instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work until he judged that their status was fully resolved.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen; thereby obliging Mr Rzepliński to accept the five judges appointed by the new Sejm. Moreover, the Law and Justice amendments increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority, making the votes of these new appointees more significant. They also stipulated that complaints filed to the tribunal would be considered chronologically rather than at its president’s discretion, potentially delaying its ability to question bills passed by the new government. The new law would take effect immediately, preventing the tribunal from declaring it unconstitutional. While critics claimed that that these changes would emasculate the tribunal, the government argued that they increased the legitimacy of its judgements and prevented the timing of cases being manipulated.

Threat to democracy or restoring balance?

The government’s actions met with vociferous protests from opposition politicians, the liberal-left media and much of the Polish legal establishment. Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping, apologised for the rushed nomination of two additional judges, but condemned Mr Duda for refusing to swear in the other three nominated by the previous Sejm and argued that the election of the five Law and Justice nominees was unconstitutional. It joined forces with most other opposition parties in accusing the government of interfering in the independence of the judiciary by trying to obstruct the tribunal in order to free itself from legal checks and balances. The government’s critics claimed that it was reverting to the allegedly confrontational and authoritarian style of politics that they claimed characterised the previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration, and that its handling of the constitutional crisis contradicted the moderate, centrist image that the party cultivated during the parliamentary election campaign; exemplified by Jarosław Kaczyński, the party’s combative leader, nominating his more emollient deputy Beata Szydło as its prime ministerial candidate. They also tried to raise the emotional temperature of the debate by arguing that the new government was violating the Constitution and posed a threat to democracy. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new civic movement, on the two Saturdays before Christmas; the largest of which, in Warsaw, was (according to police estimates) attended by 20,000 people. (A figure disputed by organisers who claimed 50,000 and cited figures produced by the Warsaw mayor’s office; although government supporters say that she participed in the demonstration).

On the other hand, the government’s supporters, who organised a 40,000-strong (according to police estimates) counter-demonstration in Warsaw, placed the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the previous Civic Platform-led government, which, they say, appointed five judges illegally just before the October parliamentary election that opinion polls suggested it would lose. It did so, they claim, to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new government, thereby frustrating its legislative programme. Previously, they said, government turnover had ensured a more politically-balanced tribunal but the fact that the Civic Platform administration was the first in post-1989 Poland to be re-elected for a second consecutive term undermined this relative pluralism. Indeed, by attempting to stack the tribunal with five rather than three additional judges, all but one of tribunal’s 15 members would have been appointed during the period when Civic Platform was in government. Thus, even with the appointment of five members by the new Sejm, the tribunal would still have been dominated by judges nominated by Civic Platform government-dominated parliaments (although the three vacancies due to arise within the next 18 months could give Law and Justice nominees a majority during the second half of the current parliament).

While some government supporters accepted that Law and Justice may be partly to blame for the crisis by voting out the three justices who, in the tribunal’s view, were elected legally by the outgoing parliament, others pointed out that their election was invalid because of procedural errors in the October vote. They also argued that, as guardian of the Constitution, the President had the right not to accept the five judges appointed (in his view illegally) by the previous parliament and that the tribunal could not instruct him what to do with parliamentary nominees. The new Sejm, they said, elected five new tribunal members on the basis of its own procedural rules which are in line with the Constitution and cannot be reviewed by the tribunal, whose only role is to check the constitutionality of laws and regulations.

More broadly, the tribunal’s critics see it as a highly politicised body (a charge that the tribunal and its supporters deny vigorously). Law and Justice believes that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and remains committed to a radical reconstruction of the state. While the Committee for the Defence of Democracy-sponsored protests may have involved many politically non-aligned citizens, the party’s supporters argue that, far from being spontaneous civic actions, they were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to the government’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. The latter include generous additional child benefits and reversing the Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular decision to increase the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men) to be funded partly by new taxes on banks and larger retailers. During the previous Law and Justice government the tribunal struck down key elements of the party’s programme, notably its flagship ‘lustration’ law extending the scope of vetting public officials and authority figures for their links with the communist-era security services. The new government, they say, had to redress the balance within the tribunal as it posed a threat to its core policy agenda.

No Law and Justice honeymoon

The constitutional tribunal war has developed into the most serious political crisis in Poland for many years, polarising opinion on both sides. No incoming Polish government has come under such rapid and intensive attack as the new Law and Justice administration. Given its determination to ‘cleanse’ the political system and scale of its reformist ambitions, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the new administration would encounter vigorous opposition. On the face of it, constitutional prerogatives and abstract concepts such as the ‘separation of powers’ are difficult for ordinary citizens to grasp, and the tribunal is a body that does not appear to have any direct impact on their day-to-day lives. However, the opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its argument that this issue exemplifies how Polish democracy is under threat from the new government; a narrative that has been picked up by large sections of the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and who share their dislike of Law and Justice. At the same time, the negative reaction to the government’s constitutional tribunal changes has caught Law and Justice off-guard and, in stark contrast to the professionalism of its election campaign, the party has failed to make its case effectively. Rather than using the language of ensuring greater pluralism and restoring balance, Law and Justice has often attempted to justify its actions by claiming that they increased the government’s effectiveness, making them appear part of a crude power grab. Although the Civic Platform government enjoyed much less hostility from the mainstream media (the lack of scrutiny of its over-reach in appointing additional constitutional tribunal judges in October being a case in point), it was also careful to ensure that it made state appointments with greater subtlety and finesse.

While newly elected governing parties usually enjoy a post-election ‘bounce’, opinion polls suggest that the crisis has led to a drop in support for Law and Justice among more moderate, centrist voters. The main beneficiary of this has been the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, a new party formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru which has pulled ahead of Civic Platform and is currently running neck-and-neck with (and, in some surveys, even slightly ahead of) Law and Justice. Others opinion polls have shown a substantial increase in negative evaluations of Mr Duda who, by being forced to take sides in such a divisive and polarising dispute, has paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government. For sure, Mr Duda still enjoys relatively high approval ratings and remains Poland’s most popular politician, but the perception that he is a ‘partisan President’ may be difficult to shift.

While Law and Justice probably did not anticipate that the ‘constitutional tribunal war’ would prove to be so debilitating, the party has stood its ground and is clearly willing to pay a political price for actions it feels are necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. It has retained (and possibly even solidified) support among its core voters and no national elections are scheduled until autumn 2018 so has plenty of time to recover. Moreover, while the opposition has been mobilised and, to a degree, united by the crisis, it remains fragmented. ‘Modern’ is currently benefiting from its political ‘newness’ but Mr Petru’s grouping remains an unknown quantity and experience suggests that the social base for a purely liberal party is relatively narrow. Although it would be extremely damaging for Law and Justice if the perception of the party as a ‘threat to democracy’ were to become firmly lodged in public consciousness, ultimately the government’s fate, and ruling party’s electoral fortunes, are probably more likely to depend on its ability to deliver quickly on its high-profile socio-economic policy promises.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of ‘Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?’ (Routledge, 2012) (http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9780415380737/) and blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

In a post last year I discussed Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s first three months in office and in particular his activism in the area of judicial reform. Since then, the conflict over the appointment of constitutional court judges between Kiska and the government has taken a number of unexpected turns which have opened a new chapter in the complicated relationship between presidents, governments and the judiciary in Slovakia.

The Slovak Constitutional Court | photo via www.concourt.sk

On 18 June, Andrej Kiska celebrated his first year in the presidential office. Having beaten Prime Minister Robert Fico, Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president yet given his centre-right policy positions has found himself in cohabitation with the government since his inauguration. While minor conflicts over health care reform and other legislation as well as foreign policy emerged appeared throughout the first year, the most controversial issue has been Kiska’s decision from last July to only appoint one of the six candidates for constitutional court judges proposed by parliament. The Slovak Constitution stipulates that the president chooses candidates from a set proposed by parliament (which is always twice the number of open positions) but offers no guidance on how to proceed if the president fails to do so or by which criteria s/he is allowed to ask parliament for more/other nominees. Since last year, two seats of the constitutional court have thus been left vacant.

After being denied appointment, all three of the judges filed complaints against Kiska in the constitutional court, claiming that his refusal to appoint them had violated their right to take up public office under equal conditions. In March this year, the court’s third Senate ruled in favour of three of the judges, yet apart from determination of guilt and ruling on compensation, it did not issue any further guidance on how the president should proceed (or should have proceeded) – an issue of which some hoped that it would be discussed in the judgement of the other Senate dealing with the separate complaint of the two candidates. However, during the last weeks the two remaining judges have withdrawn their complaint and the court subsequently seized any proceedings in the matter.

The court’s decision in March – although making clear that the president overstepped his boundaries in rejecting five out of six candidates – has unfortunately not brought political actors closer to resolving the issue much closer than a year ago. This is mostly because Kiska and his advisors still question the legitimacy of the ruling. The third Senate includes Jana Baricová -the only judge Kiska appointed last year – who Kiska accuses of being biased as she was involved in the nomination procedure. Nevertheless, a formal complaint and request to hear Baricová as a witness (which would have disqualified her from acting as a judge on the case) was rejected. Yet, eventually a single vote made the difference in the court’s decision which Kiska and his advisors interpret as supporting their claim of bias. These arguments notwithstanding, there are also some problems with the content of the decision as it only insufficiently discusses the way in which the candidates’ rights were violated and failed to spell out criteria under which a rejection would have been lawful (although it should be added that Kiska, too, failed to spell out why exactly he only appointed Baricová). Constitutional experts are currently at a loss of what should be done and by whom. Some argue that Kiska now has to appoint two of the five rejected candidates while others assert that parliament should present four new candidates (i.e. twice the number of open positions) or would only need to present one more candidate as the three nominees from the March decision were still eligible while the remaining two had disqualified themselves by withdrawing their complaint.

The tug-of-war between president and parliament/government over constitutional court appointments is thus likely to continue. Due to the fact that the term of constitutional court judges runs for twelve years and an increasing number of political conflicts is fought in the court, both sides are engaged in a high-stakes game in which one wrong move could have long-lasting consequences. At first sight, Prime Minister Fico and his government appear to be at an advantage given the court’s ruling in March as well as their strong majority in parliament which lets them control all subsequent nominations. However, with general elections approaching (scheduled for March 2016) Fico and his SMER party will be wary to seek a legislative solution (e.g. by changing the constitution or passing a law specifying the nomination procedures to their advantage) which could backfire in the next legislature. Kiska on the other hand needs to make sure that he does not become too active on this issue, thus spoiling his chances to affect policy change in other areas. Yet as the positions of all constitutional judges are up for renewal during Kiska’s term, he may well try to hold out and wait whether parliament will eventually give in to his demands, thus creating a precedent which would significantly increase his power.

Romania – President’s veto on Forestry Code sparks first conflict with prime minister

In the first five months of his term, President Iohannis has asked parliament to re-examine eight bills. This is by no means an unusual level of presidential activism during a period of cohabitation, as the bar was set high by his predecessor. However, the president’s veto on the Forestry Code stands out because it triggered not only one of the first serious clashes with the prime minister, but also a strong public reaction and a change in the president’s approach of publicising the way in which he uses the formal power to either promulgate or return laws to parliament.

One of the first bills President Iohannis sent to parliament for re-examination in late March 2015 was the Forestry Code. One of the provisions singled out for reconsideration regarded the introduction of a 30% threshold on the amount of a certain type of wood that single companies can process. According to the president’s re-examination request, the new bill ran counter to European Union competition law as it aimed to limit the economic activities of some companies. However, the decision to veto this law was not accompanied by a public statement or motivation, in spite of a vigorous and years-long public debate in Romania about massive deforestation and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry.

As it happened, the Austrian-based Holzindustrie Schweighofer, one of the largest wood processing companies in Romania, had been lobbying against the new Forestry Code using the same arguments. Several weeks after the president returned the bill to the parliament, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) accused Schweighofer officials of accepting illegally harvested wood and promising bonuses to the sellers. The revelations prompted country-wide protests against both the government, for allowing foreign companies to destroy Romania’s forests, and the president for delaying the enforcement of a bill that aimed to prevent foreign monopoly over the forestry industry.

A public spat soon erupted between the prime minister and the president as well, after the former claimed that the decision to veto the forestry bill had been influenced by Liberal leaders after private meetings with the Austrian company. President Iohannis was uncharacteristically vehement in his reaction, as he asked the chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to check the premier’s statements and threatened legal action if they proved wrong.  Soon afterwards, both of them took steps to put illegal logging at the top of the political agenda: the premier announced an emergency decree to temporarily ban exports of unprocessed wood, while the president tabled an analysis of illegal deforestation in the next meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence (CSAT).

Interestingly, the controversial association between the president’s veto and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry has also led to a reconsideration of the way in which the head of state informs the public about his actions. In a press conference called shortly after three parliamentary committees rejected his re-examination request, President Iohannis announced that in the future he will explain publicly decisions to promulgate, veto, or challenge the legality of important bills. He also clarified that the decision to return the Forestry Code to parliament was motivated by a formal notice from the Competition Council, adding that he was not planning to ask a Constitutional Court ruling on the bill.

Moreover, apart from discussing other bills he promulgated or was prepared to challenge, the president also spoke about bills he would veto if passed by parliament in current form. Specifically, President Iohannis warned that he would not promulgate amendments to the Criminal Code that protected MPs from investigation and was ready to challenge the law at the Constitutional Court.

In the future it will be interesting to follow if such warnings of imminent veto power use and public justifications of re-examination accompanied by amendment suggestions have a better change of increasing the president’s influence over the legislative process.