Tag Archives: government formation

Between Notary and Creator: Presidents and Government Formation in the Czech Republic

This post is based on the article by Lubomír Kopeček and Miloš Brunclík that has just been published in East European Politics and Societies

In this paper, we use our classification system to assess the influence that the presidents of the Czech Republic have so far exerted over fourteen cases of government formation process since 1993.

Let us briefly recall the classification which is presented below. It consists of five major patterns – from “observer” as the weakest head of state, to “creator” as the only government-maker. Unlike numerous indices of formal presidential power, the classification reflects the real constitutional practice of government formation and takes account of various informal factors (e.g. the president’s relationship with parliamentary parties; the presence/absence of legitimacy; the fragmentation of party system) that may strengthen or weaken president in the government formation process (GFP).

Table 1: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

Control over the GFP Political preferences Level of activity
Observer no irrelevant no
Notary limited irrelevant low
Regulator medium relevant medium
Co-designer main relevant high
Creator exclusive relevant very high

Before focusing on the Czech presidents, Václav Havel, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, it is necessary to briefly describe the constitutional framework that regulates the government formation process in the Czech Republic. The Czech constitution (Art. 68) gives the president a comparatively large discretion in the GFP, when it says only that “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and, on the basis of the Prime Minister’s proposal, the other members of the government and entrust them with the management of the ministries or other offices.” The president is not obliged to appoint the leader of the largest parliamentary party, nor does the constitution specify any time period within which the president has to appoint a new prime minister. This large discretion may explain the protracted government formation, which started shortly after the 2017 parliamentary elections and which has not been accomplished yet[i]. The newly appointed cabinet is obliged to win the motion of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies (art. 68). If the government fails to win the Chamber’s confidence (which requires an absolute majority of votes from the deputies present), the initiative passes back to the president and the constitution prescribes that the whole procedure is repeated. If this second appointed government should fail in the Chamber, the right to choose the prime minister is passed to the Chamber’s speaker. Should the speaker also fail, the president has to dissolve the Chamber.

In this post we summarise only the major findings of our article, which analyzes in detail individual cases of the government formation process[ii]. The actual practice of the GFP shows a great variation in the role of Czech presidents: it varies from notary to creator (see table 2 below). There were thirteen government formation processes in total. We identified eight notary presidents (Havel in 1998/2 and 2002, Klaus in 2006, 2007 and 2009, Zeman in 2014, 2017 and 2018), four regulators (Havel in 1996, Klaus in 2004, 2005 and 2010), one co-designer (Havel in 1998/1) and one creator (Zeman in 2013).

We argue that the variance results from two major factors. Firstly, the timing of the GFP is important. When the GFP directly followed parliamentary elections, presidents were mostly much weaker. This finding applies also to two situations (2006-2007 and 2017-2018)  in which the first attempt to appoint a new cabinet failed, i.e. the cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, given a complicated situation there. However, using their power to appoint yet another cabinet, presidents Klaus and Zeman chose the same person as prime minister, because there was no viable alternative cabinet sponsored either by parliamentary parties, or by president.

Out of six such cases (the GFP following the parliamentary elections), there were five notary presidents (1998, 2002, 2006, 2013-2014 and 2017) and in two cases there were regulators (1996 and 2010). In contrast, when the GFP followed a government break-up during the electoral term of the Chamber of Deputies, presidents were significantly stronger. Out of six such cases, there were two notary presidents (2007 and 2009), two regulators (2004 and 2005), one co-designer (1998) and one creator (2013).

Secondly, the president’s role depends on the actual power of parties, i.e. their ability to act together as a firm parliamentary majority, which 1) does not need much help from the president in the GFP and 2) which is determined to challenge a potential attempt by the president at influencing the GFP more than the parties wish. In several cases, presidents resolved to play a greater role in the GFP than a notary, but often they faced a firm parliamentary majority that actually did not allow them to exert their influence. Indeed, at least in two cases a solid parliamentary majority thwarted overt presidential attempts to leave a much greater imprint on the final outcome of the GFP:  Havel in 1998/2 and Klaus in 2007.[iii]

In contrast, the presidents were particularly strong in times of major political scandals, when parties’ legitimacy suffered heavily and the president could take advantage of it. The most notable examples are Havel in 1998/1 and Zeman in 2013. The last case is particularly important, since it was the first GFP affected by the newly popularly elected president, who made an overt attempt at becoming a ruling president through the installation of a technocratic cabinet without any agreement whatsoever with parliamentary parties. This is a clear example of the president capitalising on his popular election, which was introduced in 2012 and which gave the president a legitimacy advantage. Indeed, Zeman explicitly referred to the fact that he had recently been elected by the majority of Czech voters. Moreover, the technocratic cabinet was closely tied to Zeman’s own party, which, although it lacked parliamentary representation, hoped the ministers would help it get media attention and public support in the 2013 parliamentary elections. This was, however, unsuccessful.

Table 2: Czech presidents in the government formation process

President Year and Prime Minister Role of president
Havel 1996: Klaus Regulator
1998/1: Tošovský Co-designer
1998/2: Zeman Notary (failed regulator)
2002: Špidla Notary
Klaus 2004: Gross Regulator
2005: Paroubek Regulator
2006: Topolánek I Notary
2007: Topolánek II Notary (failed co-designer)
2009: Fischer Notary
2010: Nečas Regulator
Zeman 2013: Rusnok Creator
2014: Sobotka Notary (failed regulator)
2017: Babiš I Notary

The step taken by Zeman was a radical breakthrough in the parliamentary regime and a major shift in the president’s role towards that of creator (e.g. government-maker). In so doing, he destroyed a key constitutional convention linked to the parliamentary basis of the political regime. Comparing the behavior of Zeman with that of his predecessors Havel and Klaus, there is an obvious, substantial, qualitative difference. Zeman’s predecessors always appointed a government cabinet that resulted from a deal with parliamentary parties (only the Tošovský cabinet in 1998 partly broke from the rule).

Thus, with the exception of the Rusnok cabinet (and to a certain extent the Tošovský cabinet too), parties by and large have managed to assert their will against that of the president. This has been substantially facilitated by the fact that no president has managed to create a solid and strong party backing in parliament. As a result, a political proximity between the parliamentary parties and the president plays only a marginal role in the GFP, since the presidents’ relationship to parties was ambiguous and sometimes full of paradoxes.[iv] This has been influenced by the public’s desire for non-partisan or so-called “above-partisan” presidents, who are to a large extent independent of political parties. This is true even though all three presidents were close to some parties or factions. Václav Havel was never a partisan, but he had a number of political allies, particularly in the small parties (the Christian Democrats, Freedom Union etc.), but he never attempted to create his own party. In contrast, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman had been partisan prime ministers and leaders of the then largest parties, but they resigned from their party and their relationship with their original parties became rather cold. Of the three Czech presidents, Václav Klaus enjoyed the strongest party backing, but only in the early days of his presidency. Still, the steps he took when governments led by the Social Democrats found themselves in crisis do not testify to Klaus acting as an ODS politician, although he later displayed moderate preferences for some ODS-led cabinets.

Evidently, Havel and Klaus were careful in building their ties with parties because their presidential mandates originated in parliament. This was not the case with Zeman, who has sought to create his own party backing much more purposefully. Nonetheless, his party (Citizens’ Right Party – Zeman’s Followers) failed in the 2013 elections and the pro-president faction within the Social Democrats likewise lost their standing.

Common to all three presidents has been their ignoring of certain parties or at least creating obstacles to their participation in government negotiations or formation. This was very conspicuous with Havel, who repeatedly excluded the Communists from coalition bargaining, and also the far-right Republicans, when they held parliamentary representation[v]. Despite formally respecting the Communists, Klaus effectively took the same position, and in fact went further by wanting signatures of “non-communist MPs” on a document pledging support for a government. This approach created the foundation for the role of the president-regulator. In reality, however, presidents have not always been successful.

Having applied the classification to the Czech case, we demonstrate a great variance in the degree of influence that presidents exert over the GFP, although formal constitutional rules regulating the GFP have remained unaltered since 1993. To slightly amend Maurice Duverger’s famous statement on the divergence between formal constitutional rules and actual constitutional practice,[vi] we can speak about “uniformity of rules, diversity of games.”

The variance of the roles presidents have played in the GFP results mainly from the timing of parliamentary (and sometimes also presidential) elections and from the solidity of parliamentary parties and their ability to act independently of the head of state. In contrast, the political proximity between president and the parliamentary parties does not appear to be key to understanding the level of influence presidents exert over the GFP.

As far as the Czech constitution is concerned, its importance lies in the fact that it offers the president a substantial and not entirely clearly defined space in the government formation process. In availing themselves of this space, all three presidents have very often refused to play the role of a notary who merely confirmed the results of negotiations between parties or provided a decorative façade for the process. Havel, Klaus and Zeman sought to play very active roles and, circumstances permitting, push through their own political ideas and attitudes.

As for the effect of the popular election, it is beyond doubt that it potentially boosts overall presidential power[vii] and in particular it gives the president additional leverage in the GFP, but only if he enjoys the advantage of legitimacy over parliament. But what is more important, the president has not been able to push political parties into the background and push through his own government. The president’s installation of the 2013 Rusnok technocratic cabinet was only a temporary solution; party leaders once again managed to secure the main say for themselves, and the president was forced into the role of head of state in a parliamentary regime. The increased activism of the popularly elected head of state hit the barriers erected by parties – barriers that the president, lacking his own party backing in parliament, has been unable to overcome.

Notes

[i] The Babiš cabinet appointed in January 2017 failed to receive the obligatory vote of confidence in the lower parliamentary chamber and the GFP had to start from scratch. Andrej Babiš was in early June 2018 appointed Prime Minister again, but his cabinet (Babiš II) has not been formed yet, as parties still negotiate with president on filling individual ministerial posts. Also, the junior coalition party – the Social Democrats – are awaiting results of their inter-party referendum that is supposed to confirm or reject party’s engagement in the Babiš cabinet.

[ii] In comparison to the original article, this post takes account of the more recent case of the GFP: Babiš I (Babiš II is being formed in June 2018 and is not therefore included in this post.

[iii] In at least two other cases parties left no room for the president to take initiative (Klaus in 2009 and Zeman in 2014).

[iv] M. Brunclík and M.Kubát, Semi-presidentialism, Parliamentarism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019 forth.), p. 110 af.

[v] In contrast, president Zeman was clearly in favour of incorporating the communists as well as the radical-right wing populists (the Freedom and Direct Democracy) in a ruling cabinet.

[vi] “Similarity of rules, diversity of games” by M. Duverger, “A new political system model: semi‐presidential government.” European Journal of Political Research 8(1980).

[vii] A. Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (New Haven: YUP, 1999).

Selena Grimaldi – The institutional rift and Mattarella’s presidential activism

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi of the University of Padova.

Since the election on March 4th Italy has been unable to form a government. This delay was exceeded during the so-called First Republic on only 4 occasions, mainly during the so-called ‘years of lead’ under the following governments: Cossiga I in 1979, Andreotti II in 1972, Craxi I in 1983, Andreotti III in 1976.

At the election, the M5S won 32.7% of the vote and the League won 17.4%. At the beginning, the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, tried to convince the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, to accept a coalition with all the parties of the centre-right coalition that had run together on 4th March winning 37% of the vote overall. However, Di Maio strongly rejected this proposal, since his electoral base could not accept being in government with Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, who had been defined as “a criminal” by the M5S from the beginning. As a consequence, Salvini decided to abandon his former electoral partners, namely Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right party, Italian Brothers, in an attempt to form a yellow-green government. Even though, most of the time seems to have been spent in defining points of common agreement between Salvini and Di Maio, there is no doubt that the two young leaders were also concerned with the ministerial nominees to be presented to President Mattarella.

As far as the coalition-agreement (the so-called contratto di governo, or coalition contract) is concerned, many analysts have suggested that agreement was difficult to reach both because the parties had mutually exclusive or ambiguous positions and because of the lack of financial detail in their programmes. In addition, many of the proposed points seemed to be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, President Sergio Mattarella decided not to comment, probably leaving himself the opportunity to intervene later by using his veto powers on a specific piece of legislation. This behavior seems to suggest that Matterella was trying to avoid any institutional rift and was trying hard not to hinder the formation of a yellow-green government.

As far as the ministerial nominees are concerned, the first big decision was that neither Di Maio nor Salvini would become PM. This meant that the two leaders had to try to find a candidate who would be acceptable to both. The name circulating since last week was that of Giuseppe Conte, an unknown law professor without any political experience. Despite some doubts, President Mattarella agreed to charge Professor Conte with formal powers on May 23rd. In so doing he highlighted the fact that the PM should not be seen as a puppet of the party leaders. In fact, during his meeting with Di Maio and Salvini, the President explicitly underlined this point and ended up reminding them of Article 95 of the Constitution, which states: “The President of the Council conducts and holds responsibility for the general policy of the Government. The President of the Council ensures the coherence of political and administrative policies, by promoting and co-ordinating the activity of the Ministers”.

Another important aspect to point out is that President Mattarella, as he explicitly noted in a subsequent public statement, had previously advised both Salvini and Di Maio, as well as Conte, that he would pay particularly close attention to the nominees of three Ministries: the Economy, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. Even though many analysts pointed out that some of the candidates proposed by the two parties were extremely weak – for instance, the Italian ambassador to Teheran, Luca Giansanti, as Minister of Foreign Affairs or Alfonso Bonafede (M5s) as Minister of Justice – the President decided not to oppose them. However, the biggest obstacle was the nomination of Paolo Savona as Minister of the Economy. The problem with Savona, who was strongly supported by Salvini, was his critical approach to the Euro and Italian membership to the EU. Even though the two political forces may have different ideas on this issue, for President Mattarella Europe was not a matter of political opinion. It is worth noting that Italy’s European membership has been constitutionalized (see especially Articles 11, 81 and 117 of the Constitution) and, thus, the President as the Guarantor of the Constitution has no choice but to defend this framework. Moreover, as the President pointed out, Savona’s nomination would most likely have a dangerous impact on the markets and put citizens’ savings at risk.

For all these reasons, Mattarella was hoping to convince Salvini to change his mind about Savona and tried to restore a more collaborative working relationship by making it clear that he would accept Giancarlo Giorgetti, the number 2 of the League, Minister of the Economy. However, Salvini tried to put the President in a corner, by stating that it would have to be Savona, or no government at all.

It is hard to know whether Salvini thought that Mattarella would back down or if he planned this strategy in advance so as to make new elections the only possible option. The result is that, now, there is no chance of a political yellow-green government and there is a dangerous institutional crisis.

The first reactions to Matterella’s decision have focused on the interpretation of the article 92.2 of the Constitution, according to which “The President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers and, on his proposal, the Ministers”. Many jurists have pointed out that the President plays an active and not simply a ceremonial role in government formation. In other words, it is impossible to sustain the idea that the President is always obliged to appoint ministers proposed by the PM. Further, looking at political practice, there are many examples of ministers who have been supported by or stopped by Presidents, e.g. President Scalfaro’s opposition to Previti as Minister of Justice in the Berlusconi 1 government, and President Ciampi’s support of Ruggiero as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Berlusconi’ III government. Going back to the so-called First Republic, President Pertini obliged the prime ministerial candidate designated by the DC (Andreotti V) to be flanked by two deputy Prime Ministers (Ugo La Malfa and Saragat). In short, it seems impossible to invoke the impeachment of the President under Article 90 of the Constitution.

However, many political forces have called for the president to be impeached, including the leader of Italian Brothers, Giorgia Meloni, and the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio. To date, the impeachment procedure has never been applied. In the case of President Leone, the political parties only threatened impeachment in order to force him to resign over the Lockheed affair. Many years later, it was clear that Leone had no involvement in the affair. The impeachment procedure was also activated against President Cossiga (especially at the behest of the PDS and the Radicals) and President Napolitano (at the behest of M5S), but in both cases Parliament did not take the issue further.

Therefore, what I predicted would happen immediately after Mattarella’s election, did actually happen yesterday: even the most self-restrained President may become active in the political arena under certain conditions. In particular, President Mattarella decided to hinder the appointment of Savona as Minister of Economy in order to respect his constitutional duties, as well as to avoid economic instability. Consistent with this line, Mattarella instructed the economist Carlo Cottarelli to form a presidential government, even though it is unlikely that he will obtain the confidence of the Parliament.

There is no doubt that a number of political problems will emerge from this situation.

The first relates to the so-called populist forces, which are likely to obtain a huge amount of support at the next election. In fact, both the League and the M5s have already started a campaign, accusing the President of being manipulated by the EU, bankers and certain foreign countries (especially Germany and France). These allegations seem to have already found some popular support with certain allies. Further, these forces have managed not to be held accountable for their electoral promises, and especially for showing where they would found the money required to pay for them. Thus, until the next election, no-one can blame them for any failure. Finally, Salvini is certainly the winner of this institutional rift and is likely to emerge as the most prominent figure of the Italian right, pushing Berlusconi aside once and for all and ending any residual centrist position.

The second political problem – as pointed out in my previous post – is related to the fact that neither the League nor the M5S has fully recognized the authority of this President from the very beginning, since they did not vote for him in 2015. Therefore, they may claim that Mattarella is acting as the President of the majority who elected him, namely the PD and other centrist forces. These allegations may contribute to delegitimize the Presidency as a whole as well as this particular President, since the President is meant to represent the whole nation.

The third political problem is that President Mattarella’s media strategy makes him appear remote from the citizens and consequently he cannot count on any huge popular support. In fact, according to Demos & PI, Mattarella is trusted only by 46% of citizens (data from 2017) with a drop of 3 points in comparison to 2016 and a decrease of 10 points in comparison with 2007 when Napolitano held the office. In the past, popular support has proved to be very important in the construction of the leadership capital of Italian Presidents and could have been crucial this time too.

Finally, the real political drama is that the distorted concept of democracy supported by both the M5S and the League (i.e. what counts is the will of the majority) seems to be resonating more with Italian citizens than Mattarella’s idea of checks and balances to protect minorities.

Presidential Influence over Government Formation Process: Towards a Classification

This post is based on the article by Lubomír Kopeček and Miloš Brunclík, which has just been published in East European Politics and Societies (L. Kopeček and M. Brunclík, “How Strong Is the President in Government Formation? A New Classification and the Czech Case.” East European Politics and Societies (2018).

In this article we focus on the influence of formally weak presidents over the outcome of the government formation, which is often neglected in scholarly literature. However, as contemporary Czech or Slovak presidents have shown, weak presidents may still become key players in the process leading to appointment of government, i.e. a collective body headed by prime minister, who can be considered to be the chief executive in most European countries. The task of assessing the role of presidents in the government formation process (GFP) is tricky. One can take account of formal presidential powers enshrined in constitutions, but as many researchers have shown[i], formal powers may not tell us much about the real influence presidents exert over the GFP. It should be borne in mind that the actual influence of presidents varies from case to case. It is contingent on a number of circumstances, such as the president’s relationship with the parliamentary majority, the president’s political orientation, the degree of fragmentation of the party system, the organizational capacity of parties, historical precedents, the public’s expectations of the president, the president’s popularity and informal authority, the mode of election of the president, the timing of the presidential election, etc.[ii]

In order to assess the degree of influence presidents have over the GFP, we developed a classification of the roles of presidents in the GFP reflecting real practice, moving beyond comparing formal constitutional rules. We believe that this simple qualitative framework enables us to compare the degree of presidential influence within single presidencies (the degree of influence may vary significantly from one government formation to another), within a polity as well as across polities.

When analyzing the GFP,[iii] it is necessary to examine formal-constitutional rules regulating the GFP, as well as the actual course of the GFP in terms of real politics. An analysis of the GFP in European states in formal terms, e.g. studying constitutional texts, shows that government formation is the result of negotiations between parliamentary parties (and also among them) and the president (although the former is usually stronger than the latter)[iv]. Hence, it is logical to distinguish between parliamentary and presidential cabinets. The parliamentary cabinet largely results from an agreement between parliamentary parties. The president’s role in the GFP is rather formal: he/she formally confirms the cabinet determined by the parliamentary parties. On the other hand, the presidential cabinet primarily reflects the will of the president, whereas the parliamentary parties’ role in the GFP is only secondary. In political practice we can find a number of examples which are somewhere in between the two above-mentioned cases: these cabinets are formed as a compromise between the parties and the president, with each holding a varying degree of influence. The whole process can be seen as a trade-off: the greater the influence a president has over the GFP, the less influence the parliamentary parties exert and vice versa. For this reason, we define more subtle categories, which are presented below from the perspective of the president. The categories mainly reflect the real influence of the president in the GFP. Our classification categories are compiled inductively, i.e. on the basis of a generalization of knowledge about the GFP in particular European countries:[v] 1) observer, 2) notary, 3) regulator, 4) co-designer and 5) creator (see table below).

Table: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

  Control over the GFP Political preferences Level of activity
Observer no irrelevant no
Notary limited irrelevant low
Regulator medium relevant medium
Co-designer main relevant high
Creator exclusive relevant very high

This classification is further based on the assumption that the activity level of parliamentary parties may differ significantly from that of the president. While weaker heads of state (observer or notary) are rather passive and let the parliamentary parties take the initiative, stronger presidents (co-designer and creator) tend to be more active and play a more important role in the GFP. The extent of the actors’ activity is also linked to the relevance of their political preferences as to the government and its shape. While weaker heads of state do not display their preferences (as they are irrelevant anyway), stronger presidents tend to reveal their preferences in an effort to defend the steps they take in the course of the GFP.

Let us explore the categories in more detail. The observer, unlike any of the following patterns, has neither a formal nor an informal role in the GFP. In this case, the GFP is exclusively in the hands of the parliament. However, in European republics we cannot find any president that would fit the observer pattern (nevertheless, the observer type can surely be identified in some European monarchies: Sweden since 1975 and the Netherlands since 2012).

The regulator plays a relatively important role in the GFP. S/he is involved (directly or through mediators) in parties’ bargaining over a new cabinet. The regulator reveals his/her political preferences, which are thus relevant to the outcome of the GFP. S/he does not necessarily come up with his own government alternative. However, s/he may set some conditions for the new cabinet, e.g. a preference for a majority cabinet; a preference for a cabinet that includes/excludes a certain party or some candidates for prime ministers, ministers etc. The role of the regulator is no longer passive, but rather reactive. S/he expects that parties will propose their alternatives for the future cabinet within the limits set by him/her and s/he reveals his/her preferences for a certain alternative. Good examples of this situation come from Austria in the 1950s.[vii]

The co-designer is a strong player in the GFP and his/her overall influence over the outcome of this process is greater than that of the parliamentary parties. Unlike the regulator who does not usually propose governmental alternatives on his/her own, nor does s/he assert them, the co-designer promotes his/her own idea and composition of the future cabinet, and his/her opinion largely, but not completely, determines the outcome of the GFP. The co-designer is typically a powerful president, who however lacks majority support in parliament and who cannot afford to push his/her idea completely independently and against the will of the parliament. Instead, s/he needs cooperative parliamentary parties to set up the new cabinet. The co-designer can also be identified in situations in which a president has fewer constitutional powers in the GFP, but the parliamentary parties are unable to generate a cabinet on their own and thus encourage the president to step significantly into the process, so that an originally weak president becomes a co-designer. It follows from our observations that co-designer is rather infrequent pattern. Still, we can identify some examples[viii].

The creator clearly dominates the GFP. S/he forms the cabinet alone, in line with his/her ideas and political preferences. Parliament’s role is either limited to a minimum (e.g. formalizing the president’s choice in a vote of confidence) or parliament is out of the game altogether (in countries were the new cabinet is not obliged to ask for confidence). The designer creates so-called “presidential cabinets”, i.e. cabinets that are created primarily at the will of the president, while the parliament is sidelined.[ix] The creator is typical for countries where the president is usually responsible for the executive and has a wide range of executive powers. S/he is at the same time the leader of the parliamentary majority, and it is generally expected that the president will actually determine the government. French presidents during the Fifth Republic are a classic example. Of course, with the exception of the periods of cohabitation, when president faces a parliamentary majority from a different political camp. However, a creator might be also a president who is formally strong enough to appoint his/her own presidential (usually technocratic) cabinet, even though s/he lacks the support of the parliamentary majority, and the continuation of such a government in power and pursuit of its program may be extremely problematic.[xi] Good examples of this practice might be three short-lived technocratic cabinets appointed by the Portuguese president António Eanes in 1978 and 1979.[xi].

The classification can be applied almost to both republics and monarchies, indeed all cases where the government is a separate executive body from the head of state. Our classification rests on the qualitative assessment of individual cases of the GFP and requires detailed information about each GFP. Yet, it allows us to compare heads of state with different formal powers in different countries and different periods of time, thus making it a useful tool for comparative analysis. It may help us demonstrate that even extremely weak heads of state may occassionally significantly affect the outcome of the GFP, which cannot be reduced only to inter-party bargaining and coalition theories.

Notes

[i]  E.g. M. Duverger, “A new political system model: semi‐presidential government.” European Journal of Political Research 8(1980);

[ii] O. Protsyk, “Prime Ministers’ Identity in Semi-Presidential Regimes: Constitutional Norms and Cabinet Formation Outcomes”; O. Neto and K. Strøm, “Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies.“ P. Köker, “Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe.”; S. G. Kang, “The influence of presidential heads of state on government formation in European democracies: Empirical evidence.”

[iii] In line with the literature, we analyze the GFP when a new cabinet is to be formed after one of the following situations: 1) parliamentary elections, 2) PM’s resignation, including the fall of the cabinet following a successful vote of no-confidence, or rejection to pass a vote of confidence in the cabinet, 3) cabinet is recalled by the head of state, 4) change of partisan composition of the cabinet. Cf. J. Woldendorp, H. Keman and I. Budge. Party Government in 48 Democracies (1945-1998): Composition –Duration –Personnel (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publisher, 2000).

[iv] R. Carroll and G. Cox, “Presidents and their Formateurs”; cf. S. Choudhry and R. Stacey. Semi-Presidentialism as Power-Sharing (IDEA, 2014).

[v] E.g. T. Bergman, “Formation rules and minority governments.” European Journal of Political Research 23(1993); J. Blondel and F. Müller-Rommel, Cabinets in Eastern Europe (Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); K. Strøm, W. Müller and T. Bergman, Delegation and accountability in parliamentary democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[vi] This pattern can be also found in parliamentary monarchies where the sovereign is equipped with formally great powers but, in accordance with constitutional traditions, does not fully use them and lets the parliament decide on the future cabinet. The monarch only formalizes such decisions (e.g. Great Britain).

[vii] Wolfgang C. Müller, “Austria. Tight Coalitions and Stable Government”, in Coalition Governments in Western Europe. eds. W. C. Müller and K. Strøm, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 90.

[viii] I. Jeffries, Eastern Europe at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century: A Guide to the Economies in Transition (London: Routledge, 2002); . Bilefsky, “Serbia approves pro-Western government.” New York Times, 7 July, 2008.

[ix] Cf. A. Kuusisto, “Parliamentary crises and presidial governments in Finland.” Parliamentary Affairs 11(1958); E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Routledge, 2005); M. Needler, “The Theory of the Weimar Presidency.” The Review of Politics 21(1958).

[x] H. Bahro, B. Bayerlein and E. Veser, “Duverger’s concept: Semi–presidential government revisited.” European Journal of Political Research 34(1998).

[xi] P. Manuel, The Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Portugal: Political, Economic, and Military Issues, 1976-1991. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996); J. Magone, “Portugal. The Rationale of Democratic Regime Building,” in Coalition Governments in Western Europe. dd. W. Müller and K. Strøm, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Czech Republic – The President and a protracted government formation process

Although the 2017 parliamentary elections took place some six month ago, the Czech Republic still lacks a fully fledged cabinet. The country is currently run by a partisan caretaker cabinet led by Andrej Babiš, the leader of the largest parliamentary party, ANO (“ANO” means “yes” in Czech). His cabinet, which was appointed in December 2017, failed to receive a vote of confidence in the January 2018 parliamentary vote. In line with the Constitution, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to carry out governmental functions until a new cabinet is appointed. At the same time, he gave Mr. Babiš a long time horizon (until the end of June) to form a new cabinet which would enjoy parliamentary confidence. Given the strong presidential powers in the government formation process, President Zeman (along with Andrej Babiš) became a central figure of this process.

As far as the government formation negotiations are concerned, there is a paradox. ANO is a pragmatic centre-oriented populist movement that lacks a clear ideological profile. Instead, it is characterized by bowing both to the right and to the left and flexibly changing its policies. This flexibility gives ANO a great coalition potential. Indeed, ANO has been able to negotiate with almost all parliamentary parties. That said, ANO has failed to win support for its minority cabinet or generate a majority coalition cabinet. This puzzle can be explained by the very fact that Mr. Babiš, the leader and also the de facto owner of the ANO movement (ANO is a prime example of a business-firm party), faces a number challenges, including a police investigation of his business, his past co-operation with the former Communist secret police, and allegations of instructing political journalists of the media he owns. In addition, Andrej Babiš finds himself with a considerable clash of interests, because he is the owner of the Agrofert group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the country, owing various agricultural, food processing, and chemical companies. Agrofert is also the largest beneficiary of various state subsidies. Most parties are willing to co-operate with ANO, if Mr. Babiš stays outside the future cabinet. However, ANO insists that Mr. Babiš is its only candidate for the role of prime minister, which is understandable given the fact that ANO comes close to the ideal of one-man party.

Andrej Babiš can also rely on almost unconditional support from President Miloš Zeman. This pragmatic alliance between Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš (including their political styles, policies and rhetoric) brought thousands of people onto the streets of many cities across the Czech Republic in spring 2018. The protesters showed their anger with both figures and also with the rising importance of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the legal and ideological successor of the former Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The party has recently increased its influence upon the executive, because it is likely to support Babiš’s future cabinet. The party has not been in government since the 1989 Velvet revolution and no cabinet has so far been reliant on the votes of the Communists. This stable feature of the Czech politics seems to be coming to an end. In symbolic terms, this shift can be illustrated by the fact that Miloš Zeman attended the KSČM party congress in April 2018, whereas his two predecessors in the presidential office, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, never did so.

The most probable shape of the future cabinet appears to be a minority coalition by ANO and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), supported by KSČM, which is the option that was also supported by Miloš Zeman. ČSSD is heavily influenced by Miloš Zeman, who was the social democratic PM between 1998 and 2002 and who encouraged the party to join an ANO-led coalition. The party is still badly divided on the issue of joining the coalition with ANO. However, in spring 2018 the party’s congress elected its new chairman and vice-chairmen, who are supportive of co-operation with Mr. Babiš on condition that ČSSD would get four seats in the cabinet plus the Ministry of Interior to keep an eye on “neutral” police investigation related to Babiš’ alleged fraud of a two million euro EU subsidy. ČSSD also insists that if a government member (in fact M. Babiš) is convicted of a crime by a court, he will be obliged to resign from the cabinet. Mr. Babiš eventually accepted the former condition, but he strongly rejects the latter.

Andrej Babiš has also considered a minority ANO cabinet supported not only by KSČM, but also by a radical-right wing populist movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (SPD) led by a political entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, whose party has called for a “Czexit” (i.e. Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the EU), has pushed for a Czexit referendum, and has a strong anti-immigration rhetoric, which has made its critics call the movement “fascist”.  However, the idea of the ANO-led cabinet supported by SPD and KSČM was eventually rejected by ANO’s leading figures.

When it comes to the most important events of the second Zeman’s term, one can identify a consistent pattern. He keeps polarizing the Czech society. In his inaugural speech, he harshly attacked Czech quality media, including the Czech television, which is generally considered one of the most reliable sources of information in the Czech Republic and which is modelled on the BBC. Furthermore, Miloš Zeman has kept supporting Russia and Vladimir Putin. This peaked at his speech in the Council of Europe towards the end of his first mandate in October 2017. At that time he said that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and that European countries should look for alternative solutions to the crisis, such as Ukraine getting financial compensation for Crimea from Russia, or free deliveries of crude oil or natural gas. Such a position clearly diverges from the government’s position and displeased Ukraine.

In March 2018 the Novichok nerve agent was used to try to kill former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. British representatives have accused Russia of this act. Russia denied the allegations and argued that the nerve agent could have been produced in the Czech Republic. Although Prime Minister Babiš dismissed the Russian claim, Miloš Zeman asked the Czech counter-intelligence service to look for the Novichok agent. This led to a couple of Czech parliamentary parties to accuse Zeman of high-treason and of serving the interests of Russia against the interest of the Czech Republic. In relation to the Novichok scandal, a large number of (not only) European countries, including the Czech Republic, expelled Russian diplomats, but Miloš Zeman did not support this move.

Another controversy over Zeman’s foreign policy was also related to Russia. In spring 2018 Zeman lobbied the Minister of Justice for the extradition of Yevgeniy Nikulin to Russia, who had filed for his extradition on the grounds of a petty online theft. The suspected Russian hacker was, however, extradited to the United States, where he was charged with hacking American firms such as LinkedIn and Dropbox. The media speculated that Nikulin might have some details on Russia-sponsored cyber-attacks on the USA. As a reaction, Zeman’s chancellor to the president, Vratislav Mynář, called the minister‘s decision “unlawful”.

President Zeman also supports Chinese political and economic interests in the Czech Republic. Many observers were taken aback by Zeman’s decision to make Ye Jianming,  Chairman and Executive Director of CEFC China Energy Company Limited (a giant Chinese finance conglomerate with alleged links to Chinese secrete services), his official economic advisor in 2015. Although Zeman highly appreciated Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, they remain only marginally important for the Czech economy. Moreover, Ye Jianming was detained by the Chinese authorities. Ye’s detention in China was probably ordered directly by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. In the past, several CEFC’s representatives were accused of bribery and CEFC was criticized for risky investment projects.

Although these events have clearly cast doubt on Miloš Zeman’s foreign policy, he remains highly popular as some 50% of population trust the President. As for his use of presidential powers in the last six months, Miloš Zeman has respected the dominant position of the caretaker government and has not pushed the limits of his competences. There has been almost no conflict between the president and the government. President Zeman still retains the control over the government formation process. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Babiš will be successful in creating a new cabinet. Even if he fails for the second time (i.e. the Chamber of Deputies will not pass a motion of confidence in his cabinet), the power to appoint a new prime minister passes from the president to the Speaker of the Chamber of Depuites, Radek Vondráček, an ANO member.

Victor Araújo, Andréa Freitas, and Marcelo Vieira – The partisan logic of government formation in presidential democracies: evidence from Latin America

This is a guest post by Victor Araújo, Andréa Freitas, and Marcelo Vieira. It is based on their article in Revista Ciencia Política and is available here.

In presidential democracies, constitutions empower the head of the executive branch as the main actor responsible for the composition of ministerial portfolios. Once elected, the president has the prerogative to directly appoint the high-level members of the government. The invited parties, in turn, must also decide whether to accept the offer. This decision, similar to the decision in parliamentary multiparty systems, involves costs and benefits. However, there are few studies that examine the reasoning behind parties’ decisions to join coalitions in presidential systems.

In our recent article The Presidential Logic of Government Formation in Latin American Democracies, we argue that the decision over whether to join or reject the government’s coalition is related to the party leaders’ evaluations regarding how much political resources their party will gain from the policies. By analyzing 12 Latin American presidential democracies, we test whether the presence of institutional incentives that allow political parties to influence policies in the legislative arena is related to parties’ decision to join government coalitions.

Theoretically, we assume that decentralization of the legislative decision-making process creates institutional mechanisms for sharing the policy formulation competence among different actors, strengthening the system of legislative commissions and allowing those parties to use this decision arena to change the policies that interest them. Thus, decentralized parliaments tend to empower opposition parties and increase the probability of minority governments.

Considering that state resources are finite and political actors prefer policies closer to their ideal points, parties need to set strategies on how to access resources from the public machine. Therefore, the question that emerges is: In which arenas can parties act to have their preferences considered in policies to be implemented by the government? In democratic contexts, parties have three options:
1. To systematize, vocalize and organize their preferences in deliberative instances of the decision-making process within the legislative branch;

2. To use mechanisms of preference alignment during the formulation process of public policies or;

3. To occupy ministry offices and positions in the structure of the executive power, attempting to aggregate their preferences to the executive’s policy agenda.

If, in contexts such as 1 and 2, a parties’ chances of influencing the policy-making process are reduced, then its incentives pursue option 3 increase. In other words, if a party does not expect to be the formateur party, it is more advantageous to join the government and have the chance to actively participate in the public policy formulation process. Those contexts vary according to the set of political institutions in two dimensions based on the centralization or decentralization score of the legislative power and the executive power. These two dimensions regulate the capacity of each branch to influence the political agenda. That is, to aggregate their preferences into the decision-making process.

Figure 1. Policy aggregation preference arenas and incentives to integrate into government coalitions

Source: Elaborated by the authors

In the first context (I), the area to aggregate preferences according to the two arenas (executive and legislative) is equivalent (L<=>E). In this case, the institutional arrangement gives equal capacity to the executive and legislative branches to influence the decision-making process. In other words, the possibility that parties influence public policies through the process of formulation and control of the implementation of public policies, which occurs both in the legislative arena and in the executive arena, is open. Consequently, the party that expects to be the formateur party of the cabinet in the short and medium run – and other parties that choose to not integrate cabinet -, will have an equivalent executive capacity to influence the agenda. In this context, formed coalitions will be either minimum winning or even minority coalitions, depending on the political/ideological parties that form the legislature.

In the second context (II), there is a non-equivalence relationship in the aggregation of preferences between both arenas of power (E>L). Therefore, the capacity of the legislative branch to aggregate its preferences is reduced by an excessive centralization of decision-making power in the hands of the executive branch and president. In other words, not being a member of the government cabinet means having restricted access to the formulation process of public policies, due to the legislative branch’s reduced capacity to aggregate parties’ preferences. In this context, all parties invited by the president that do not aim, in the short term, to assume the presidency, tend to accept the president’s coalition offer.

The third context (III) describes a situation in which the president has fewer agenda-setting powers and a reduced autonomy to manage resources — positions and budget — as well as a decentralized legislature (L>E). In this context, the capacity of the executive branch to influence the decision-making process is reduced, making it less attractive to legislative parties. In such a context, coalitions will seldom be formed. Because parties can aggregate their preferences in the legislative branch, they will not risk the potential costs of being associated with the government.

The Latin American countries analyzed in our article represent each of the three contexts described above. Chile and Panama are examples of the first context (L<=>E). In those cases, although the executive power has considerable influence over the legislative process, processes in the legislature are decentralized and there is an open space for aggregating preferences in this arena. Colombia and Ecuador can be included in the second context (E>L). In those democracies, the executive has considerable capacity to aggregate preferences in the formation of policy, while there is also a relatively low degree of decentralization of the legislative process. Finally, Costa Rica and Paraguay are included in the third context (L>E). In both countries, the presidency has a reduced prerogative that limits the executive’s ability to dominate legislative agenda. There is also a high degree of decentralization of legislative activity in these cases.

We use information from 12 Latin American Countries, comprising 68 governments and 112 cabinets, formed between 1979 and 2011. We conducted a panel data analysis in which we considered the variation among government’s cabinets both between and within democracies. We tested the impact of the decentralization score of the legislative activity on the probability of parties joining a government’s coalitions in presidential systems.

Our results suggest that the existence of parliaments with greater influence on the legislative process consistently reduces the incentives of parties to join the government. Figure 2 graphically shows the predicted effect of the degree of decentralization on the size of the cabinet. By varying the degree of decentralization and keeping all other variables constant (at their means), we are interested in assessing the expected size of the government’s coalition when we observe different values for legislative decentralization. A basic interpretation of the figure indicates a linear and negative relationship between both decentralization and the proportion of legislative parties within the cabinet. As the variable decentralization increases, the proportion of legislative parties that join the coalition decreases.

Figure 2. Predicting the size of the government coalition according to the decentralization of the legislative process in 12 Latin American Countries

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Therefore, our findings reinforce the idea that offices in the structure of the executive branch are only one path, among others, used by parties to influence the policy decision-making process. Our results suggest that parties adopt a policy-seeking orientation in presidential systems. This does not mean that we assume the unrealistic premise that all parties pursue programmatic goals. Our assumption means that, even if a specific party has clientelistic and patronage aspirations, political and monetary resources are crucial elements to accomplish their objectives, and that the only way to access such resources is through control over policies. There are at least three clear advantages in assuming the premise of policy-seeking behavior of parties:) it considers all dimensions where parties can express their preferences; 2) it takes into consideration the role and preferences expressed by the voters, and; 3) it enables analyses of different aspects of the decision-making process, avoiding simplistic conceptions based on, for example, the idea of patronage.

Authors

Victor Araújo is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP, Brazil) and a Research Associate at Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Email: victor.asaraujo@usp.br Website: http://www.victor-araujo.com

Andréa Freitas is Professor of Political Science at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP, Brazil), and coordinator of the Center for Political Institutions and Elections Studies (CEBRAP, Brazil). Email: amfrei@g.unicamp.br

Marcelo Vieira is Professor of Political Science at the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (UFES, Brazil), and coordinator of Comparative Politics Center (CPC, UFES).
Email: marcelo.m.vieira@ufes.br

Selena Grimaldi – Italy: Will President Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp?

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi of the University of Padova.

There is no doubt that President Sergio Mattarella was chosen in order to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano’s presidency. The first years of his term confirm this idea, in particular his sober leadership style and his self-restraint are in line with the typical President of a parliamentary system who tries to embody the unity of the nation rather than performing an active role in the day to day politics.

The differences with his predecessor are not simply related to their opposite political culture but also to their different visions of the presidential role. In fact, Mattarella has claimed to be the Guardian of the Constitution and an impartial arbiter of the political game, whereas Napolitano asserted his right to intervene to solve problems over party gridlock and meltdown.

This striking difference is recognizable even considering how Napolitano dominated international relations and how deeply he exploited the mass media to communicate his thoughts and vision in comparison to Mattarella. In a very rough attempt to empirically prove this, the number of interviews given by Mattarella and published in the Quirinale webiste from 2015 to 2018 was counted, and it appears to number only seven.

The polls also show that this self-restraint has probably negatively affected the trust people have in the presidential institution. Currently, the President remains broadly trusted by citizens, even though the percentage trusting him decreased from 49% in 2016 to 46% in 2017 according to Demos & Pi. In other words, a President who has been generally silent on most issues seems not to correspond to the citizens’ preferences and probably to the peculiar Italian political circumstances that emerged just before the beginning of Mattarella’s term. That is to say, the critical elections of 2013 that completely changed the dynamics of political competition.

The result of the elections of March 4 confirms that the tripolar competition that first emerged in 2013 is not a contingent but a stable feature of the Italian political system. The only relevant novelty is related to the changing power relations among parties. In particular, in 2013 three parties gained a similar quota of votes; the Democratic Party (PD) (25.4), Forza Italia (21.6) and the Five Star Movement (M5S) (25.6), and both the centre-left coalition and the centre-right coalition could not form a government alone, which pushed them to form a Grand Coalition. In 2018, among these parties, only the Five Star Movement has increased its score, becoming the first party with 32.6% of the votes. The PD is the loser, obtaining a result under 20% of the vote and in the centre-right coalition there has been a reversal of the balance of power, since the League (now without any reference to the North) gained 17.4% of the votes, whereas Forza Italia obtained 13.9% of the vote. Therefore, the final result makes it impossible for both M5S to govern alone, as well as for the centre-right coalition, which gained 37% overall.

In this party gridlock, President Mattarella is expected to act as “the second engine” of the system by finding a solution to government formation and preventing the possibility of new elections. This government formation process is a unique opportunity to understand if Mattarella’s style is simply connected with his personal attitude or if it is indeed a sign of a weak presidency. In other words, if there is a clear departure from the pattern of the Italian Presidents of the so-called Second Republic, who are examples of strong presidents even within a parliamentary context, or if there is a substantial continuity.

In particular, a call for new elections – even if it is unrealistic – would be the most negative result for the President because it would demonstrate his inability to find a political solution, not to mention the fact that with the current electoral rules, a replication of the same political impasse is the most likely outcome. The formation of a political government, namely a coalition government of any type, may prove to the opposition parties that the President is responsible. Or in other words, his capacity as mediator among parties, who themselves remain the real decision-makers. Finally, the formation of a caretaker/technocratic government or a government of the President may prove that Mattarella can impose his will on political parties, making his strength clear.

Six on weeks from the vote, two rounds of consultations have taken place. According to data published by Istituto Cattaneo, since 1994 only 2 governments have required more than 20 days to be formed: Berlusconi I in 1994 and Letta’s government in 2013. Moreover, on only four occasions have 2 rounds of consultations been needed to find an agreement (Dini, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, and Letta) and Letta’s was the only post-electoral government. Besides, it is well known that in pParliamentary systems government formation can require a lot of time, such as in the Netherlands or in Belgium, not to mention the formation of the recent Grosse Koalition in Germany or even certain Italian governments during the so-called First Republic (Cossiga I, Andreotti II, Craxi etc.). However, this is the first time that, even after a second round of consultations, nothing has really changed from the day after the elections.

Briefly, the situation appears to be the following: The Five Star Movement claims the premiership for Luigi Di Maio and has declared that it is open to forming a coalition with either with the PD or The League. Matteo Salvini also claims the premiership, since he represents the largest party in the largest coalition. However, within the right-wing coalition the League and Forza Italia have different preferences with regards the identification of potential allies. The League wants to form a coalition with the M5S, while Forza Italia probably prefers a coalition with the PD, since Silvio Berlusconi’s comment during the traditional press-conference at the Quirinale about the M5S as an anti-democratic and populist force. The challenge is that The League doesn’t seem ready to let go of its traditional allies to form a government with the M5S alone. However, Salvini has proven that he can cooperate with the M5S in the parliamentary arena, especially during the election of the Speakers of the Chambers. Finally, from the very beginning, the PD has declared that it is unavailable as a coalition partner and will remain in the ranks of the opposition. The truth is that, even within the PD, the situation is not so clear. The faction close to the former leader Matteo Renzi strongly supports this position, but other political factions, as well as the radical left, seem to be more open toward the M5S.

As a consequence, Mattarella decided to follow a traditional path confirming his attitude of caution. In other words, he decided to avoid the concrete possibility of a failure by giving a political pre-appointment to a candidate within the League or within the M5S, who would have to find a majority in Parliament by his/her own. Instead, the President has preferred – consistent with tradition – to give an explorative mandate (mandato esplorativo) to the President of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati (FI). In the next few days, the appointee is going to report to the President if she is able to find a possible majority in Parliament and a possible PM. If this attempt does not succeed, only two alternatives remain: a government of the President or new elections.

The situation is even more complex for Mattarella given he was elected without the support of the two largest parties: the Five Star Movement and The League. And even Silvio Berlusconi’s party cast a blank ballot during the presidential elections. This means that, this time, it may be more difficult for these actors to accept a government of the President.

The open question is: will Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp? Or, can he prove to be a strong President notwithstanding his proverbial discretion?

Romania – An Underused Presidency?

Can the president of a semi-presidential republic build a politically independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament? The question continues to instil both scholarly and general interest debates. Recent political developments in Romania have once again brought to the public eye the matter of whether a president can actively and constructively contribute to government formation, the policy making process and agenda setting. And should s/he do so? In the present text I discuss what tools the current president has chosen to use from his ‘toolbox’, and what he stays away from.

  1. The Newest Government Formation

On 29 January 2018, Iohannis nominated his third prime-minister from the Social Democrat Party (PSD) in the course of approximately one year. The exclusive prerogative of nominating the prime-minister shines a spotlight on the president. The government was once again formed without his own National Liberal Party (PNL), prolonging a period of cohabitation. His supportive part of the public expected the president to lead the opposition in extensive negotiations for an alternative government formation. However, he quickly accepted the proposal of the parliamentary majority. Bargaining duration was of one day only. Consequently, he not only contradicted public expectations, but also some of the most recent empirical studies claiming that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success (Savage, 2017; Anghel, 2017). For the time being, the president has chosen not to instrumentalize his constitutionally prescribed role in cabinet formation to influence its outcome.

Iohannis shows a loose connection to his party (PNL), from whose ranks expectations of support and leadership have always existed. The PNL itself has a weak performance in the role of the main opposition party, which could incentivize the president’s doubts regarding its coalition potential or ability to assume governance.  Coupled with what his supporters perceive as a disengagement from public life, this might bring into question the interest of the president in pursuing a second mandate.

  1. Veto Power

The president of Romania has the right to veto legislation on constitutional grounds by reference to the Constitutional Court or for any other grounds by returning the bill to parliament. MPs may repass a bill through ordinary majority, and the president cannot veto it a second time. The table below shows the number of times president Iohannis made use of this prerogative (see Koker, 2017 for a comparison with the veto use in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). The third column shows how many laws passed with his consent. When comparing figures, we could infer a working relationship between parliament and president, and a consensus oriented elite. Most of the laws sent back to parliament have actually undergone a process of re-examination and have not been repassed in their exact initial form.

The major source of tension between the president and the parliament is the set of laws on justice reform supported by the government and the majority of MPs. In the proposed bills, the president’s own institutional role in the anti-corruption fight has been watered down. Iohannis has constantly shown a different approach to the government’s plans and even joined street-protests against a government ordinance that would have decriminalised some forms of public office abuse. He is expected to use this ‘tool’ and veto the justice laws once they reach him for promulgation. This prospect, coupled with some anticipation of a severe societal backlash, has so far influenced the government’s actions and is delaying a resolution.

President Klaus Iohannis and PM Sorin Grindeanu (18/01/2017) Iohannis appeared unexpectedly during a cabinet meeting where an emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code was to be discussed. PhotoSource: A3 Press

The same issue related to anti-corruption prompted the president to use two more of his executive attributions: calling for national referenda and taking part in the cabinet sessions when matters related to national security or foreign policy are discussed. Iohannis successfully prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code by unexpectedly attending a would be decisive cabinet meeting in January 2017. He also announced his (unfulfilled) intention to call for a national referendum concerning this amnesty bill, should it not be withdrawn. Iohannis’s use of formal presidential ‘tools’, in the context of recurring mass street protests, has so far delayed the government’s plans to reform the justice laws.

  1. Informal Powers

Most investigations on the powers of the president in multi-party systems agree that the president has a formally more or less limited role, in accordance to the Constitution.  Scholars have so far provided few inquiries into the informal aspects of presidential authority. The few studies that exist are focused on the USA and showed how presidents rely on their electoral legitimacy and visibility to influence the policy process via their public positions and symbolic actions (Strauss and Sunstein, 1986; Ashley and Jarmer, 2016). We should expect it to be the case for any directly elected president, and expand our research agenda.

In the case of Romania, the president’s public appearances are an underused tool. He is reactive in his (e.g) public statements, does not engage in unscripted dialogue with media representatives and mostly limits his activities to technical or ceremonial appearances. His priorities appear locked in preserving the status quo in the justice system, and does not appear willing to set other directions to the public agenda and use his own electoral legitimacy to get people to think about new issues or believe in particular actions. Three years in his (five year) mandate, we could conclude that informal powers are not among his preferred tools of action.

Conclusion

When compared to years of presidential activism by former president Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014) and the symbiotic relationship he had with his Liberal-Democrat Party (PDL), we can conclude that the mandate of president Klaus Iohannis turned Romania away from a path of increased presidentialization (Samuels, Shugart 2010) and party presidentialization (Passarelli, 2015).

The present text acknowledges that formally, a major effect of the president on the political life is conditional on the inclusion of his or her own parliamentary party in the cabinet. Institutionally, he or she has a limited number of tools to use as effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the willingness of presidents to use informal powers (symbolic actions, visibility, leadership abilities, electoral legitimacy, and a working relation with their own party) may not also condition the final output. The use of informal powers by popularly elected presidents in presidential and semi-presidential systems[i] to affect government formation, policy making and agenda setting would benefit from further empirical research.


[i] This blog also suggested that even presidents who are not directly elected can make a constructive contribution in government formation. See the case of Germany.

Germany – The unexpected leadership role of President Steinmeier in coalition talks

The results of the German federal election of 24 September 2017 shook up the country’s party system more than ever before. Both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic and Social Union (CDU/CSU) and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), registered significant losses, while four smaller parties – polling between just 8.9% and 12.6% – also entered the Bundestag. While far from unexpected, this result has created a particularly difficult bargaining environment for coalition talks. Amidst the new parliamentary arithmetic, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on an expected leadership role and could influence the formation and party composition of the next German government more than any of his predecessors.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) meets with SPD leader Martin Schulz | image via bundespraesident.de

Already hours after the first results were announced, SPD leader Martin Schulz declared that his party – having achieved the worst result since 1949 and without possibility to form a left of centre coalition with Greens and LINKE – would not renew its coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and become part of the opposition. Given that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for first time after just missing the 5% threshold in 2013, is universally shunned by the other parties, the ‘Jamaica’ option seemed the only possibility to form a majority government. Named after the combination of parties’ traditional colours (CDU/CSU = black, Green Party = green, FDP = yellow) this would have created a coalition which has hitherto only existed on local level. While CDU/CSU and FDP have governed together on both federal and state level and CDU/CSU and Greens have recently (if only sporadically) started to cooperate on state level, the economically liberal FDP and left-leaning Greens seemed unlikely bedfellows. Formal coalition talks between the three parties only started a month after the election, yet collapsed two weeks ago after the FDP withdrew its participation. Since then, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD) has taken an unusually active role in managing the coalition talks and encouraging parties to find a solution to avoid snap elections.

Since 1949, coalition formation in Germany has been exclusively dominated by parties. While the president formally proposes a candidate for chancellor to parliament after elections, presidents have always proposed the candidate chosen by parties once coalition talks were concluded. Only if the president’s candidate fails to gain a majority can the Bundestag attempt to elect its own chancellor with a majority. If in the end parliament fails to elect a majority candidate (which the president has to appoint), a final vote is held and it is at the president’s discretion to appoint a candidate who has only gained a relative majority of votes.

As leader of the largest party, Angela Merkel appears to be the only serious candidate for chancellor. However, she has repeatedly voiced her opposition both to leading a minority government and to triggering snap elections (a likewise complicated process; see below). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Jamaica talks, president Steinmeier unusually strongly appealed to parties to act responsibly and continues to hold publicised meetings with leaders of all parties. Especially his meeting with former co-partisan Martin Schulz seems to have had an effect as the SPD leader has now softened its stance on retreating to the opposition benches. However, he faced an immediately backlash from the party’s youth wing; the SPD is also likely to once again hold a ballot on any new coalition among its members.

There is no deadline for president Steinmeier to nominate a candidate for Chancellor, yet once he does the pressure is on parties to build a functioning (majority or minority) government. It is unlikely that Steinmeier will start the process before parties have made significant progress towards a new coalition, yet this possibility – together with the German constitution’s obsession with stability – gives him the upper hand. Once appointed, a chancellor can only be removed by the ways of a constructive vote of confidence (i.e. when a new Chancellor is elected with a majority) – even if a chancellor loses a vote of confidence and asks the president to dissolve the Bundestag, the dissolution remains at the president’s discretion (the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself). After previous dissolutions were heavily criticised due to the fact that sitting chancellors only feigned a loss of confidence, It is unlikely that Steinmeier will readily agree to such a move. Last, Steinmeier is in the rare situation that his five-year term only ends after the next regular federal elections and he is thus less bound by considerations about his re-election (which will partially rely on electors from the German states in any case).

It is thanks to this combination of factors that president can currently take on this (unexpected) leadership role in party coalition talks. While the old government is only provisionally still in post, he almost has a legitimacy advantage over the yet unformed government and can use his position to actively shape public opinion as well as increase pressure on political parties.

Overall, this sheds a new light on the role of the German president and highlights the value of the office. While scholarship (including my own) have so far rather focussed on the interference of presidents in day-to-day politics and resulting complications and ineffectiveness, the example at hand shows how presidents – even if only vested with reserve powers – can become guarantors of stability.

Marcelo Jenny: Austria – Legislative election results leave the president little leeway in government formation

This is a guest post by Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck.

Like many elections the results of Austria’s legislative elections on October 15th were a mix of expected and surprising elements. Among the surprising bits was a strong increase in electoral turnout from 74.9 %in the last legislative elections of 2013 to 79.4 %on Sunday. This is also well above the 74.2 %turnout in the final round of Austria’s presidential elections in December 2016, when the former long-time chairman of the Green party, Alexander van der Bellen, won against rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and was sworn in in January 2017 as the country’s first president not belonging to one the traditional government parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) or the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP).

The president will be particularly hurt by the fate that befell his former party shortly after it celebrated its biggest ever electoral victory. Frustrated by intra-party conflict with young activists and senior MPs, who failed to be renominated as candidates, its female party leader resigned and was followed by two women as co-leaders but could not stop the Green’s downward slope in the polls. The Greens dropped from a vote share of 12.4 % in the last election in 2013 to 3.7 % and, thereby, also out of parliament while the new party ‘List Pilz’ led by renegade Green MP Peter Pilz, parliament’s most senior MP, successfully crossed the 4% threshold with a vote share of 4.4 %.

Final vote and seat sharesfor the parties will be announced on Thursday after the last small batch of postal votes has been counted, but only minor changes are expected to preliminary results published by the Ministry of the Interior (https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/).

Preliminary results of the Austrian legislative elections | Austrian Interior Ministry https://wahl17.bmi.gv.at/

The happy winner of these elections is the ÖVP’s young party leader Sebastian Kurz (just 31 years old) who came into office in spring of this year, rebranded the party within weeks and successfully translated his personal popularity into a 31.5 % vote share (24.0% in 2013). He jumped from heading the third largest party in the polls to becoming leader of the largest parliamentary party. The SPÖ was relegated to second place with 26.9 % (26.8 in 2013), while the right-wing FPÖ came in third by a small margin with 26.0 % (20.5). The liberal party NEOS remains in parliament with 5.3 % (5.0 in 2013).

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz is on course to become the youngest leader of a government worldwide. Most observers expect the ÖVP to form a coalition with the FPÖ, and even if he wanted president Van der Bellen will be unable to do much about it. By political convention the president tasks the leader of the largest party with forming a new government. President Van der Bellen has not done that yet. He will talk with the leaders of the five parliamentay parties first. By convention the current government resgined after the election and has been asked by the president to keep serving until the new government is sworn in.

How long it will take to form a new government coalition is among the most speculated topic right now, but once Kurz returns to the president’s office equipped with a coalition agreement with the FPÖ, few expect Van der Bellen to take a stand against it. The electorate has decisively moved to the right in this election and the ÖVP’s appetite for a renewal of the coalition government with the Social Democratic Party is at an all-time low. An alternative coalition between SPÖ and Freedom Party would have a nominal parliamentary majority but the Social Democratic Party is deeply split on that idea, making such an outcome very unlikely.

In the coming weeks and perhaps months Van der Bellen will be closely watched and compared at each step with his immediate predecessor Heinz Fischer (who served the last two terms 2004-2016) and most of all with another former president, Thomas Klestil, who strongly opposed the formation of Austria’s first coalition government between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party in 2000 due to its anti-European stance. Klestil expressed his opposition to including the FPÖ in government very publicly and refused to accept two of its ministerial candidates. Reactions from other EU member states were likewise strongly negative and even triggered sanctions against Austria. Eventually, everybody emerged bruised from this episode.

The times have changed and nobody expects something similar to happen again this time around. Eurosceptic parties are more widespread today and Sebastian Kurz’ restrictive position on immigration, very similar to the position held by the FPÖ, is also popular among Central and Eastern European governments. Taking the current domestic and international context into account, president Van der Bellen’s leeway in making a personal imprint on the next government is very small.

Marcelo Jenny is Professor for Political Communication and Electoral Research at the University of Innsbruck. His research focuses on electoral behaviour, election campaigns and party competition, parliamentarism, content analysis and sentiment analysis as well as political communication.

How Do Minority Presidents Manage Multiparty Coalitions?

This is a blog post by Svitlana Chernykh based on her recent article with Paul Chaisty published in Political Research Quarterly (Online First). The full article can be found here.

Although the concept of coalitional presidentialism is not new, until recently, the question of how presidents form and manage their coalitions has been explored primarily in the context of Latin American presidential democracies. However, we know little about how and whether these theories travel outside Latin America. In “How Do Minority Presidents Manage Multiparty Coalitions? Identifying and Analyzing the Payoffs to Coalition Parties in Presidential Systems” we use original quantitative and qualitative data to analyse how minority presidents manage their multiparty coalitions to achieve legislative support in Ukraine.

Why Ukraine? With few exceptions, the country has been governed by multiparty cabinet coalitions since 1996 and thus offers rich macro-level data. Ukraine is also a difficult case with which to test institutional hypotheses. Many scholars of Ukrainian politics have questioned the applicability of notions of coalitional behavior to the country and have suggested that coalitional solutions to the problems of limited legislative support are difficult to operate in the Ukrainian context. Finally, presidential coalitions in Ukraine frequently contain cabinet parties as well as parties that do not have cabinet representation. This allowed us to explore the non-cabinet strategies that presidents used to manage the support of coalition parties.

Portfolio Allocation and Cabinet Coalition Discipline in Ukraine

In the first part of the paper, we test a now well-established hypothesis in Latin American literature that cabinet portfolio payoffs to coalition allies raise the level of legislative support for presidents. Our dependent variable is coalition discipline. It is measured as the percentage of legislators belonging to cabinet parties who voted in favour of bills introduced by the executive branch. Our main independent variable is the level of cabinet coalescence or the level of fairness in the distribution of cabinet posts among coalition members [1].

We find that cabinet coalescence has a positive and statistically significant effect on cabinet coalition discipline in Ukraine. To put it in substantive terms, an increase in cabinet coalescence by 10 percent increases cabinet coalition discipline by 2.4 percent. Thus, the dynamics of coalitional presidentialism in Ukraine are similar to those that we find in Latin America. The presidents who compose their cabinets more proportionally can expect a higher degree of satisfaction from allied parties and thus higher levels of discipline.

Managing Parties Outside of the Cabinet 

However, Ukrainian presidents also rely on the support of parties that do not receive portfolio payoffs. As the figure below shows, the number of non-cabinet coalition parties is significant in the Ukrainian case. In fact, the inclusion of non-cabinet parties was crucial in giving each president minimum winning majorities or near majorities.

Figure 1. The number of Ukrainian parties in cabinet and floor coalitions, 1996–2011.

 

How did the presidents in Ukraine secure their support? What were the motivations behind these parties’ decision to join the coalitions? To answer these questions, we interviewed 50 legislators, of whom 60 per cent were members of the coalition in 2012. We designed an interview sample and a number of structured and semi-structured questions to help us explore whether the perceived benefits of coalition membership differed significantly between members of coalition parties that had and did not have cabinet representation.

As figures 2 and 3 show, that the motivation to support the president differed between coalition parties that were members of the cabinet and those that were not. Non-cabinet coalition parties were significantly likely to identify extra-cabinet strategies such as patronage, budget payoffs, and informal favours when asked about strategies that the president used to form the coalition (figure2).

Figure 2. Percentage of non-cabinet and cabinet coalition party members who identified the importance of extra- cabinet benefits (patronage, budget resources, and informal favours) in the formation of coalitions.

We find a similar pattern when analysing the responses to a structural question, which asked legislators to choose the first and second most important reason why a political party would decide to join a presidential coalition from a list of options (figire 3). Members of the cabinet party were significantly more likely to identify policy influence and cabinet positions than the members of non-cabinet parties within the floor coalition. In contract, members of non-cabinet parties were more likely to mention budget influence and especially the informal exchange of favours than members of cabinet parties.

Figure 3. Percentage of non-cabinet and cabinet coalition party members who selected as the first or second most important reason why a political party might choose to join a presidential coalition.

Therefore, on the one hand, the Ukraine case validates extant analysis on the effects of cabinet management on legislative behaviour. This suggests that coalitional presidentialism is not simply a unique Latin American phenomenon and gives us good reasons to expect similar dynamics in other regions of the world. Given the increasing preponderance of minority presidents in new democracies, this presents the opportunity to compare a diverse range of presidential cases across other parts of Europe as well as other regions including Africa and Asia.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian case also highlights the multivariate nature of the strategies that presidents deploy to maintain their legislative support. This adds a new dimension to the extant literature, which has mainly focused on the tools deployed by presidents at the cabinet level. By distinguishing between cabinet and floor coalitions, it is possible to identify parties that are motivated to join presidential coalitions by reasons other than cabinet portfolios. This finding highlights the need to consider the entire “toolbox” of resources that presidents can use to maintain their coalitional support [2]. 

 

[1] Amorim Neto, Octavio. 2002. “Presidential Cabinets, Electoral Cycles, and Coalition Discipline in Brazil”, in: Scott Morgenstern and Benito Nacif (eds), Legislative Politics in Latin America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 48–78.

[2] Chaisty, Paul, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy J. Power. 2014. “Rethinking the ‘Presidentialism Debate’: Coalitional Politics in Cross-Regional Perspective.” Democratization 21: 72–94.