Tag Archives: government formation

Republic of Macedonia – Problems of government formation

In a blog post in December 2016 about the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Macedonia[1] I already chose a pessimistic tone about a swift and stable coalition formation. The events since then have confirmed this pessimistic outlook. In the following I will briefly describe the problems preceding the election results and constitutional provisions regarding government formation. This is followed by an analysis of the coalition talks and the current crisis following President Ivanov’s decision not to agree to the formation of a new social-democratic government under a new Prime Minister, the Social Democrat Zoran Zaev.

On December 11, 2016 the Republic of Macedonia held parliamentary elections – after rescheduling two times (KAS 2016). The European Union had forced the different political groups to settle their conflict with the Pržino Agreement (European Commission 2015) and the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Gruevski was accused of being responsible for spying endeavors, allegedly using the information in the tapes to enhance his economic status and his personal political power. To further stoke up the conflict President Ivanov even pardoned some public figures accused in the wiretapping scandal – a decision he later revoked (see e.g. Casule 2016).

The parliamentary elections were supposed to solve this crisis but resulted in a narrow win of 51 seats (in the 120 seats parliament) by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and its chair, the former Prime Minister Gruevski. They were closely followed by the oppositional Social Democrats (SDSM) with 49 seats (Sekularac/Casule 2016). Art. 90 of the constitution stipulates a 10-days deadline within the president must ask the representative of the winning party to hold coalition talks. President Ivanov did just that and Gruevski had 20 days to organize a coalition majority to win the investiture vote in parliament. But the negotiations with the three ethnic-Albanian parties did not result in any coalition agreement with Gruevski. Instead Zoran Zaev and the Social Democrats could find support with the three minority parties and agreed on a coalition. But President Ivanov did not give Zaev the constitutionally required mandate for a new government (Verseck 2017).

President Ivanov based his decision officially on – what he calls a threat “of the unity of the country as the ethnic Albanian parties want greater rights for their community and a broader use of the Albanian language” (Dzhambazova 2017). This is a particularly odd claim as the ‘leading’ Social Democrats within this coalition are still mainly ethnic Macedonians. But further reasons that were listed that demands made by the Albanic minority parties concerning the official language and the status of the minority are allegedly unconstitutional (Verseck 2017). These are perceived – by some – as treats to the unity of the nation and an interference by another country.

Prior to the start of the coalition talks, these parties were determined to strengthen their claim on enhancing minority rights and better representation of Albanian demands. Among these demands were a constitutional amendment to recognize both Albanian and Macedonian as bilingual languages and “’equal participation’ in the country’s army, security, intelligence and judicial branches and a say in negotiations with Greece regarding a dispute over the country’s name.” (Testorides 2016) It is not clear how much of these demands will be met by the Social Democrats but Zaev presented his platform during a news conference. During this he explained that part of the coalition agreement was the “official use of Albanian and of other languages of ethnic minorities” (Marusic 2017). He also confirmed that he had met with constitutional experts and got their opinion on different aspects of a new language law. The overall sentiment was his intent to inform the reeling parts of the Macedonian population about his ideas.

Most observers agree that President Ivanov’s decision to withhold the mandate for government formation was, as Florian Bieber put it for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “an effort to ‘ethnicize’ a party conflict” (RFE/RL 2017). Even Federica Mogherini (Foreign Policy Chief European Union) has cautioned President Ivanov and reportedly asked him to “scale down the rhetoric” (Dzhambazova 2017). Her valid fear is that this inter-state conflict might turn into something large, affecting the whole – geopolitically sensitive – region. At the same time the Russian Foreign Ministry has declared its support for President Ivanov’s decision (Dzhambazova 2017).

Others have argued in a similar direction highlighting the instrumentalization of this political conflict. Not least, a lot of representatives within the VMRO-DPMNE have a lot to lose when facing an actual investigation and/or prosecution. This is something we can expect as soon as they lose power. What President Ivanov declared as necessary to guarantee the unity of the nation was called a “coup” (The Economist 2017) by the Social Democrats. Both sides seem to be determined to stand their ground: former Prime Minister Gruevski has called the ‘people’ to defend their state on state television (N1 TV 2017), opposition leader Zaev at the same time called for a peaceful transfer of power (Marusic 2017).

The influence of the European Union at this critical stage will be decisive, it is however unclear what strategy official EU representatives will pursue: today, March 22, Johannes Hahn (Commissioner European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations) will head to Skopje giving his input on the solution of the crisis (Hahn 2017). This will most probably be one of many attempts that might even lead to another round of parliamentary elections.

Casule, Kaev (2016): Macedonian president pardons 56 in wiretap scandal, U.S. raps move.  April 13, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-wiretap-usa-idUSKCN0XA1ZB (last accessed June 5, 2016)

Dzhambazova, Boryana: Macedonia sinks deeper into post-election limbo, in: http://www.politico.eu/article/post-election-limbo-deepens-macedonian-stand-off-gjorge-ivanov/ (last accessed March 19, 2017)

European Commission (2015): Agreement in Skopje to overcome political crisis. July 15, in:
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/hahn/announcements/agreement-skopje-overcome-political-crisis_en (last accessed June 5, 2016).

Hahn, Johannes (2017): Twitter Feed, https://twitter.com/eu_near/status/843796060745162752 (last accessed March 20, 2017)

KAS (2016): The Republic of Macedonia’s 2016 Parliamentary Elections Handbook, in: http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_21036-1442-61-30.pdf?161201152443 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Marusic, Sinisa Jakov (2017): Zaev Unveils Platform, Vows to Respect Macedonia’s Constitution, in: www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-s-zaev-reveals-new-govt-platform-03-10-2017 (last accessed March 19, 2017)

N1 TV (2017): Gruevski: Država napadnuta, potrebno je da je narod odbrani, in: http://rs.n1info.com/a236089/Svet/Region/Gruevski-Drzava-napadnuta-potrebno-je-da-je-narod-odbrani.html (last accessed March 19, 2017)

RFE/RL (2017): http://www.rferl.org/a/macedonia-analysis-albanian-law-political-crisis-gruevski-zaev-ivanov-vmro/28358253.html

Riedel, Sabine. 2005. Die Erfindung der Balkanvölker. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Sekularac, Ivana/Casule Kole (2016): Macedonia’s nationalists win election: official results. December 25, in: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-macedonia-election-result-idUSKBN1412L2 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Testorides, Konstantin (2017): Macedonia’s Ethnic Albanians Want Nation Declared Bilingual. January 7, in: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/macedonias-ethnic-albanians-nation-declared-bilingual-44621387 (last accessed January 16, 2017)

Verseck, Keno (2017): Wahlfälscher, Erpresser, Provokateure, in: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/mazedonien-machtkampf-droht-die-gesamte-region-zu-erfassen-a-1138223.html (last accessed March 19, 2017)


[1] In this post the constitutional name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ is used (as it is accepted by the majority of UN member states). For the Greek-Macedonian naming dispute, see e.g. Riedel (2005, 141ff.)

Romania – Social Democrats’ landslide victory in parliamentary election brings about another spell of cohabitation


One year after country-wide anti-corruption protests forced Victor Ponta’s Social-Democratic government out of office, the PSD won a landslide victory in the general election held on December 11. The Social-Democrats have topped the polls in each general election held since 1990 and formed the government each time a centre-right coalition was too weak or too divided to coalesce around a common leader. This time, though, their historic 46% of the vote might bring along an outright parliamentary majority – a first in Romania’s post-communist electoral history – after the redistribution of unallocated mandates. However, despite the clear election results, a political crisis might still be looming on the horizon. During the electoral campaign, President Iohannis vowed not to nominate a convicted politician as prime minister, a situation which includes the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year.

Election results

The Social-Democrats are followed by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) with a distant 20%. Since the local elections held in June, the party has lost about 10% of the voters’ preferences. The election outcome is all the more disappointing for the PNL, as one year ago the party could count on 35% of the public support according to opinion polls. However, instead of calling early election when the PSD government was ousted, President Iohannis chose to appoint a technocratic government led by former commissioner Dacian Cioloş. Some of the PNL’s eroding support was captured by the Save Romania Union (USR), a new anti-corruption party set up only six months ago, which won around 9% of the vote.

Apart from the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), two new parties also managed to cross the 5% national threshold: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which is the merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC) led by former prime minister Călin Popescu Tăriceanu; and former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013 (the other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election).

None of the 44 independent candidates who stood for election across the country’s 42 constituencies managed to obtain an electoral mandate. A couple of newly-formed ethno-nationalist parties also run unsuccessfully, proving that xenophobia and far-right extremism have not found fertile ground in Romania. That said, the election winners were able to capitalise on growing anti-EU sentiments. Turnout to vote was just 39.5%, the lowest on record since 1990. The full allocation of seats in the two parliamentary chambers is yet to be determined.

Chamber of Deputies (330 seats)
Party % Vote share %Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.55 +9.14
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.04 -4.23
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.83 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.19 +1.82
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.34 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.79 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.05 -0.2
Ecology Party 0.91 +0.12
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.87 New
Senate (136 seats)
Party % Vote share % Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.71 +12.19
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.42 -7.99
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.88 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.25 +1.14
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 6.0 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.64 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.95 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.18 -0.29
Ecology Party 1.1 +0.31
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.95 New

The electoral campaign

Several factors contributed to the PSD’s stunning victory. The new electoral legislation, as well as the laws on political parties and campaign financing adopted by the parliament in 2015 played a significant role. A previous post discussed the change in electoral rules, from the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections to the closed-list proportional system with moderately low-magnitude districts, which was employed until 2004. The new law on party financing capped campaign budgets for individual candidates to 60 gross average salaries, severely restricted the range of electioneering activities – such as street advertising and the dissemination of electoral gifts – and increased the parties’ dependence on state budget for campaign spending. These regulations favoured the two big parties, the PSD and the PNL, and limited the ability of newer parties to make themselves known outside the big cities. Under these circumstances, door-to-door canvassing and online campaigning became an essential part of campaign strategies. These techniques were also skilfully used by USR, due to its strong ties with civil society and its popularity among educated voters who are more likely to use the internet for political information.

The depersonalisation of the electoral campaign was another factor that enhanced the Social-Democrats’ chances (or at least prevented them from haemorrhaging support as in 2014, when the centre-right electorate mobilised against Victor Ponta and handed over the presidency to Klaus Iohannis). The campaign lacked the usual debates between party leaders and PM candidates and the clash of political programmes and policy proposals. Learning the lesson of the 2014 presidential election, the PSD refrained from making any nominations for prime minister, although everything pointed to its current leader, Liviu Dragnea, as the party’s first choice for the PM post. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his endorsement for the prime ministership ahead of the election would have been an easy target for the centre-right parties, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

On their side, PNL and USR chose to associate themselves with the record of the technocratic government, praising its efficiency in the reform of central and local public administration. Both parties tried to lure PM Cioloş into their ranks. When the premier turned down their offer, the two parties ended up endorsing his political platform and nominating him for a second term as head of government. The move backfired for two reasons. On the one hand, it showed that PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions, a weakness that also cost the party the defeat in the race for the mayor of Bucharest in the June contest. In fact, PM Cioloş was reluctant to even take part actively in the campaign. On the other hand, it allowed the PSD to associate the centre-right parties with the mishaps of the Cioloş government and its refusal to consent to populist public spending measures passed by the PSD parliamentarians in the eve of the electoral campaign. Moreover, just a few days before the general election, PSD presented plans for next year’s budget, which included proposals for a national reindustrialisation programme and consistent wage increases for public sector employees. This generous stance on boosting social spending and tax cuts was contrasted with PM Cioloş’ firm position on containing the budget deficit, despite Romania’s GDP growth by 6% this year.

Although President Iohannis refrained from getting too involved in the campaign, he did make three notable interventions. First, he tried to force PM Cioloş into joining the PNL ranks by announcing that he would not appoint an independent prime minister after the December poll. Faced with the premier’s refusal to join a political party, the president backed down saying that Cioloş could in fact continue in office if political parties endorsed him for a second mandate. The second time President Iohannis showed off his constitutional role in PM appointment, he ruled out designating a criminally prosecuted or convicted politician, regardless of that person’s parliamentary support. Then, less than a fortnight before the election, he prohibited officials with a criminal record to take party in the formal celebrations organised for Romania’s National Day on December 1. As a result, several high-ranking PSD and ALDE politicians, including Liviu Dragnea and former PM Popescu-Tăriceanu, were denied access to high-visibility events organised by the Presidency. Arguably, these interventions anticipated the President’s intention to make active use of his formal powers in government formation and to prevent the PSD leader from taking over as prime minister.

Towards a new government and another period of cohabitation

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the Social-Democrats and their smaller ally ALDE are likely to reach a sizeable majority. Consequently, the PSD will be granted the first chance in nominating a new prime minister candidate. While so far no official proposals have been made, senior PSD figures have strongly endorsed their party leader for this role. However, not only has President Iohannis vowed to deny appointment to convicted politicians, but a 2001 law also forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government posts. Nevertheless, PSD insists that constitutional provisions, according to which the president must appoint a candidate for the PM post following consultations with the party holding the absolute majority in Parliament, should take precedence in this case. As Liviu Dragnea is unlikely to allow a political rival to capitalise on his electoral success, the conditions for a new constitutional crisis seem in place. Its resolution might once again depend on the decision of the Constitutional Court, or, as several PSD members suggested, could lead to another attempt to impeach the president.

Either way, Romania seems headed towards a new period of cohabitation. It will be interesting to see what role President Iohannis will choose to play in this situation. Will he attempt to become the leader of the opposition, like Traian Băsescu in 2007 and 2012? So far there have been few signs of the president’s willingness to take an active role in the confrontation with political parties. That said, the presidential elections scheduled for 2017 could provide a strong enough incentive to capitalise on the eventual eroding popularity of the centre-left government.

Lithuania – A surprise victory of the Union of Peasants and Greens

This is a guest post by Dr Raimondas Ibenskas, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. raimondas-isbenskas

The second round of the Lithuanian general election on the 23rd of October resulted in a surprise victory of the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union. Having received only one seat in the previous election in 2012, this party scored 56 seats (40% of the total) in the Lithuanian parliament Seimas. Its victory notwithstanding, the party faces a challenge of forming a majority government. Neither the Social Democrats, the leading party in the outgoing centre-left government, nor the main opposition party, the conservative Homeland Union, seem to be keen on joining the coalition government with the Peasants and Greens.



Another major surprise of the election was the poor performance of the incumbent parties. The Social Democrats, despite leading in opinion polls throughout their term, came only distant third in the election after the Peasants and Greens and the Homeland Union, while the Labour Party was diminished from 29 seats in 2012 to 2 in 2016. The electoral decline of the Order and Justice party was more modest, although the party came perilously close to not reaching the 5 percent electoral threshold required for obtaining representation through the PR tier of the electoral system. The electoral losses of government parties could at least partially be attributed to multiple corruption scandals related to some of their politicians. They have also likely been hurt by the major welfare reform implemented shortly before the election. The liberalization of labour relations in the new labour code adopted as part of the reform was negatively perceived by the electorate and openly opposed by trade unions.

The Union of Peasants and Greens was the main beneficiary of this dissatisfaction. The party existed as a minor political force since the early 1990s and was a government coalition partner in 2004-2008. In the 2008 and 2012 parliamentary elections it did not cross the 5 percent electoral threshold, but some of its candidates were elected in single member districts. Despite its name, and somewhat similarly to the coalition between agrarian and green parties in Latvia, the party is socially conservative. On the economic dimension, it can be placed to the left of the centre, thus providing an attractive alternative for the supporters of centre-left government parties. Somewhat ironically, the party is led by one of the wealthiest people in Lithuania Ramūnas Karbauskis, an owner of the Agrokoncernas Group, which was worth an estimated 55 million Euros in 2016. Although elected as an MP, Karbauskis ruled out the possibility of becoming Prime Minister by arguing that his knowledge of foreign languages was insufficient for this position.

Two factors played a crucial role in propelling the Peasants and Greens to the position of the strongest party in Lithuania.  First, they managed to attract popular independent Saulius Skvernelis, a Police Commissioner General in 2011-2014 and Minister of Interior in 2014-2016. Although delegated by the Order and Justice Party, he kept his distance from this party and declared in March 2016 that he would be running in the parliamentary election with the Peasants and Greens. Although he did not formally join the party, he was its most visible leader during the election campaign, obtained the highest share of individual preference votes in the PR tier and also won a seat in a single member district in the capital city of Vilnius. While the addition of Skvernelis and several other prominent politicians or personalities provided the party with the image of newness, it may also lead to internal divisions and conflicts. A sign of the things to come was the indication from Karbauskis after the election that his party’s nominee for Prime Minister’s position may not necessarily be Skvernelis, as generally stated during the election campaign; an MEP and long-term insider of the party Bronis Ropė was put forward as an equally likely candidate.

Second, the Peasants and Greens also benefited from the mixed electoral system of Lithuania. Although they gained only 19 seats in the PR tier, thus coming only close second to the Homeland Union, 37 out of 42 of their single member district candidates won seats in the second round of the election (including 2 candidates that ran as independents in their single member districts but were on the party’s list). Being perceived as an attractive second choice for the supporters of most other parties, the Peasant and Green candidates had an advantage over the two major parties – the Homeland Union and the Social Democrats – that did well in the majoritarian tier of the electoral system in most previous elections.

In the aftermath of the election the latter two parties were indicated as potential coalition partners by the Greens and Peasants. Although a coalition with either of them would be a majority one, the Social Democrats may prefer to stay in opposition following their defeat while the Homeland Union insists that any coalition should also include their long-term partner Liberal Movement. The latter, being both economically and socially liberal, and having recently experienced a major corruption scandal involving its former leader, has been ruled out as a coalition partner by Karbauskis. Karbauskis also repeatedly excluded the possibility of the cooperation with the ideologically quite similar Order and Justice party by considering the latter as tainted by corruption allegations. A coalition with the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance would be more feasible, but it would not provide the Peasants and Greens with parliamentary majority. Finally, a single-party minority government of the Peasants and Greens is another possibility, although it was considered as unlikely by some observers.

The strategic situation in parliament therefore suggests that government formation will be an arduous process with an uncertain outcome. Additionally, the Peasants and Greens will have to deal with President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who in 2012 did not shy away from an (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent the inclusion of the Labour Party in the coalition government. Grybauskaitė, although formally independent, is also quite close to centre-right parties, especially the Homeland Union. Although after her first post-election meeting with Karbauskis and Skvernelis she declared that the responsibility for forming a majority coalition government falls on the Peasants and Greens and that she will not initiate “artificial” coalitions, she also indicated that she will actively shape the selection of ministers. The Peasants and Greens only need to look at the experience of the Labour Party, whose multiple ministerial candidates were rejected by President after the 2012 election, to know that this may prove as an important challenge to putting together a new government.

Raimondas Ibenskas is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. His research interests lie in the field of comparative politics with a specific focus on political parties and party systems. The main strand of his research examines key, yet under-studied aspects of instability of political parties, such as party splits, mergers, and electoral coalitions, in both Western and Eastern Europe.

Bonnie N. Field – Forming a government in Spain: The influence of Spain’s first experience with mass democracy

This is a guest post by Bonnie N. Field, Professor & Chair, Department of Global Studies, Bentley University

Field-Bonnie Left lr-1

Spain has been struggling to form a government since the December 2015 parliamentary elections transformed its party system from one that had been dominated by the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and conservative Popular Party (PP) to one in which there are four significant national parties, including newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos, along with a variety of regionally-based parties, none of which has a majority of seats in parliament. After failing to form a government, new elections took place in June 2016, which, to date, have not produced a new government. The difficulty of forming a government is related to the parties’ calculations about the likely costs and benefits—in terms of political support from voters, achieving their policy priorities and attaining political offices—of supporting or not distinct governments. The rules for government formation and censure affect this calculation.

The rules that Spain adopted in its 1978 constitution are dramatically different than those in place during its first mass democracy, the second republic (1931-36), a coup against which led to a brutal civil war and decades of authoritarian rule under Francisco Franco. The current constitution, adopted during its transition to democracy, gives parliament a significant role in government formation, while simultaneously making it difficult for parliament to remove the government. In contrast, the 1931 constitution gave the president of the republic a critical role in government formation and censure. At the same time, parliament did not have a formal role in government formation yet it could more easily remove the government. Spain’s current rules are in part a reaction to the experience of governmental instability during the second republic.

Spain’s Parliamentary Monarchy: Government Selection and Termination

According to the 1978 constitution, to form a government, the monarch nominates a candidate for prime minister after a round of consultations with the political parties in parliament. Following a parliamentary debate, the candidate is subject to a formal investiture vote in the Congress of Deputies, the lower and more significant chamber of the bi-cameral parliament. The prime ministerial candidate, and it is only the candidate that is voted upon, must receive the absolute-majority support of the total number of deputies (≥ 50% + 1 yes votes) in a first-round vote. If an absolute majority is not attained, a simple majority of more yes than no votes suffices in a second-round vote forty-eight hours later. This means that a sufficient number of parliamentarians must cast their vote in favor of the candidate or abstain, which favors the candidate in the second-round, in a highly visible, public vote, if a government is to form. In other words, parties must clearly reveal their positions, and face the positive or negative consequences of their choices.

But, it is not only the formation rules that matter. Parliaments in parliamentary democracies can remove governments in a vote of no confidence. Yet Spain, in adopting a constructive vote of no confidence in its 1978 constitution, established a high threshold for removing the government. The constructive vote of no confidence requires that an absolute majority of parliamentarians vote to remove the government and simultaneously agree on a new prime minister. Therefore, in selecting the government, parliamentarians are cognizant that the existing rules make it very difficult to remove a government once it is formed.

Spain’s Second Republic: The President’s Role in Government Selection and Termination

Unlike in the parliamentary monarchy today, the president was the head of state during the second republic. The 1931 constitution stipulated that parliament would elect the first president through an absolute majority (first round) or plurality (second round) vote. Subsequently, the president would be elected jointly by parliament and by electors—equal in number to the members of parliament—who are popularly elected. The latter provision, which occurred in practice only in 1936, makes it an interesting hybrid between a parliament-selected and a popularly-elected president.

The second republic parliament did not give itself a formal role in government formation. According to the constitution, the president of the republic “freely names and removes” the prime minister, and, on the latter’s instructions, the government ministers. While many of the governments that formed between the approval of the constitution and the outbreak of the civil war called a confidence vote to demonstrate they had parliamentary support, legally the government was presumed to have the confidence of parliament unless or until it formally withdrew it (Vintró Castels 2007). With a highly fragmented parliament, and more parties than in Spain’s parliament today, the president in practice had great influence over the composition of the government. The rules also eased government formation because parliamentarians did not need to agree before the government formed.

Once formed, governments of the second republic could be removed more easily than is the case today. The constitution gave the president the power to “freely” dismiss the prime minister, and stipulated that the president must dismiss the government if parliament withdrew its confidence in it, making the government separately responsible to both institutions. The unicameral parliament could censure the government or one of its ministers with the support of an absolute majority of its members, in contrast to today’s constructive vote of no confidence.

After the approval of the 1931 constitution, the parliament selected Niceto Alcalá Zamora to be president of the republic. The role of the president in the selection and dismissal of the government was often controversial (Juliá 1995; Linz 1978; Villaroya 1975). Amongst others, he has been criticized for engaging in extensive consultations prior to selecting the prime minister, which extended far beyond the individuals and parties in parliament; yet he refused to consult with anti-Republican political forces. He fostered the formation of governments that included his friends and excluded key party leaders. He withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Azaña when Azaña still had the confidence of parliament in 1933. He very broadly interpreted his constitutional authority to include making nominations that differed from the preferences of the majority of parliament, especially after the 1933 elections produced a victory of the political right. Additionally, after 1933, he attempted to shape the government’s objectives through “presidential notes” that accompanied the nomination of the government.

President Alcalá Zamora also dismissed parliament on two occasions during his term. While constitutional, the constitution also stipulated that the new parliament would assess the necessity of a second dissolution during a president’s six-year term. If parliament found the president’s dissolution unnecessary, the president would be removed from office. In April 1936, parliament removed President Alcalá Zamora from office after it deemed the second dissolution unnecessary. After a brief interim presidency, Manuel Azaña was elected president in May. Shortly thereafter, in July, the civil war began.

The experience of the second republic shaped numerous aspects of Spain’s current democracy. Government instability, as indicated by the 17 governments that existed between the approval of the 1931 constitution and the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, led the designers of Spain’s current constitution to adopt institutions that they believed would foster government stability. These provisions included a parliamentary investiture vote to select the government and a constructive vote of no confidence. Yet, combined with the new party system, these rules have made it more difficult to form a government.


Julía, Santos. 1995. “Sistema de partidos y problemas de consolidación de la democracia,” Ayer 20: 111-139.

Linz, Juan J. 1978. “From Great Hopes to Civil War: The Breakdown of Democracy in Spain.” In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, eds. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).

Villaroya, Joaquín Tomás. 1975. “La formación de Gobierno durante la Segunda República,” Revista de Estudios Políticos 204: 49-94.

Vintró Castells, Joan. 2007. La investidura parlamentaria del Gobierno: perspectiva comparada y Constitución española (Madrid: Congreso de los Diputados).

Ukraine Elects New Prime Minister

On 14 April 2016, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to appoint Volodymyr Groysman to the post of Prime Minister. Groysman replaced Arsenij Yatsenyuk, who served as Prime Minister since 2014 Maidan revolution. Yatsenyuk handed his resignation to Parliament on 10 April, just two months after surviving a vote of no-confidence. The election of the new Prime Minister put an end to Ukraine’s “premiership saga,” which paralysed the country for the past three months.

At 38, Groysman is Ukraine’s youngest prime minister ever with quite a distinguished resume. At 28, he was elected mayor of Vinnytsia, becoming the youngest mayor in the country. His performance as mayor earned him high praise and a re-election for the second term. In 2014, Groysman briefly served in Yatsenyuk’s cabinet. He was later elected to Parliament on the electoral list of Bloc Petro Poroshenko and for the last 18 months served as the Chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament. Groysman is known for his ability to de-escalate conflict and negotiate compromise. But most importantly, the new Prime Minister is a close ally of the President, frequently referred to as his confidant and loyal follower.

As the cabinet reshuffle is behind us, the question on everyone’s mind is how likely the new government is to resolve political and economic problems facing Ukraine, given how unsuccessful the previous two cabinets have been. When considering answers to this question, experts have pointed out some important differences between Groysman and Yatsenyuk. For instance, although a close confidant of the president and a member of the president’s party, unlike Yatsenyuk, Groysman has no party of his own to back him up. The composition of the new cabinet is also more political and includes far fewer technocrats than the previous government.

It is important to note, however, that the expectations for the Yatsenyuk’s cabinet were initially very high. Although, he himself compared his tenure to kamikaze mission, noting that all the reforms that was necessary to adopt were bound to carry extremely high costs. Whether because of the unfavourable reforms or lack thereof, Yatsenuyk was proven right. His approval ratings plummeted to single digits in 2015. During the last opinion poll in February 2016, 73.4% of Ukrainians said that the situation in Ukraine was developing in the wrong direction. This is the highest number since October 2009.

Thus, the new Prime Minister will have a range of problems to deal with. During his acceptance speech, Groysman identified corruption, ineffective governance, and populism as three main issues that posed threat to Ukraine, in addition to war in the East. When the opposition openly expressed its discontent before the vote, Groysman simply replied – “I will show you what leading a country really means.”

A very determined statement but it might be a bit difficult to implement. Although a majority of 257 deputies voted for Groysman, only 206 of the votes came from Bloc Petro Poroshenko and People’s Front, two ruling coalition parties. The rest of the votes came from two parliamentary groups, Revival and People’s Will, as well as a number of independent MPs. This means that Groysman’s government will need to rely heavily on other parties to govern. His ability to negotiate compromise will come very handy in the current political situation in the country.

Coalition Politics in Ukraine

Over the past two years, Ukraine has rarely been absent from the world’s headlines. Today, yet again, the country finds itself in the midst of a political crisis, the worst since 2014. After a failed no-confidence vote to remove the Prime Minister, the governing coalition collapsed in mid-February. Ukraine has 30 days to form a new coalition and 60 to form a new government or face an election.

On 16 February 2016, the Parliament of Ukraine held a no-confidence vote to remove its Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The vote failed when only 194 MPs supported the motion, far short of the required 226. Even though the Prime Minister survived the no-confidence vote, the ruling coalition collapsed just days after. Batkivshchyna, the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, officially left the coalition the day after the vote. It was followed by Self-Reliance, the second party in two days to exit the ruling majority. Both parties took with them 45 MPs, officially depriving the coalition of its majority.

The President and the political parties are currently in the middle of the coalition negotiations in efforts to form a new majority. The current Prime Minister seems to have agreed to step down once the new coalition is formed. But his party, the People’s Front, will keep a number of important cabinet positions, including the interior and justice ministries. In addition, the party also demanded that the new coalition agreement include adoption of lustration law.

After weeks of speculations, Volodymyr Groysman, the current Speaker of the Parliament, seems to be at the top of the candidate list to replace Yatsenyuk. Although, Natalia Jeresko, the current Finance Minister, has also been discussed as a potential candidate. But Bloc Petro Poroshenko and the People’s Front party alone cannot form a majority coalition. Thus, it is the potential third coalition partner, who can make or break the new agreement. It has been announced that Batkivshchyna agreed to join the new coalition. However, the latest reports suggest that the deal is far from done. Although Batkivshchyna is the smallest party in parliament, it is still likely to use its bargaining position to press for more demands.

As we know, presidents have an entire toolbox at their disposal when it comes to forming new coalitions.[1] It is easier and cheaper to negotiate with parties as opposed to individual MPs. However, two former coalition partners, Self-Reliance and Radical Party, refused to participate in the negotiation. But the current parliament also includes 47 non-affiliated deputies, who could potentially end up in the middle of the negotiations.

The latest political infighting not only threatens much needed flow of foreign aid, including the disbursement of $1.7 billion loan from the IMF, but also can derail Ukraine’s prospects for European integration. The timing for a political crisis is never good but it is especially bad at the moment, when the Netherland is preparing to hold a referendum on Ukraine-EU Association agreement. The Netherlands is the only EU country yet to ratify the agreement. If a Dutch voter was hesitant before, she is likely to be even more cautious now after witnessing the recent political crisis in the country. Ukraine should be careful not to repeat the events of Yushchenko’s presidency, when the coalition infightings had disastrous political and economic consequences for the country.

[1] Chaisty, Paul, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy J. Power. 2014. “Rethinking the ‘presidentialism debate’: conceptualizing coalition politics in cross-regional perspective,” Democratization 21 (1): 72-94.

Slovenia – From Milan Kučan to Borut Pahor: Presidents during government formation

Although Slovenia’s constitution provides only a limited amount of constitutional power to the president, these presidents have established a – at times – powerful role in politics. The Slovenian President is directly elected with an absolute majority in the first round (Art. 103). Slovenian Presidents do not participate in cabinet meetings, they hardly have any competences for times of crisis, yet a countersignature – e.g. by the prime minister – is not stipulated in the constitution. Without competences in the legislative process (no legislative veto and no legislative initiative; Art. 91 and 88), the president gains power mainly through the nomination and appointment procedure for the prime minister. In addition, Slovenia is also one of the prime examples for the influence of the behavior and role interpretation of the first incumbent on the latter role of presidents. Thus, in this post, I will bring these two perspectives together and outline the role of the presidency within the process of constitution making throughout 1991 and describe presidential behavior in the nomination process of prime ministers based on two examples.

Presidential power or rather the perception of presidential power is nicely illustrated by the following observation: “[…] in Slovenia the presidency depends very much on the charisma, political style and ambitions of the person holding the office” (Krašovev and Lajh 2008, 217; see also Cerar 1999). The role interpretation of the first incumbent after the end of the communist rule – President Milan Kučan – depended on these three ingredients. This can already be seen in the circumstances of the constitution-making process after 1989. The transition and the constitution-making process were characterized by intense elite negotiations (Kitschelt et al. 1999, 39) and a strong and dominant role of the oppositional forces, especially after the first free election in April 1990 (Töpfer 2016). Hence, the constitution-making process was driven by an expert group chaired by Peter Jambrek, meeting at Podvin Castle. Next to Peter Jambrek, I could confirm the names of Tine Hribar, Franci Grad, Matevž Krivic, Ivo Perenič, Miro Cerar, Lojze Ude and Tone Jerovšek as participants in Podvin (Slovenska ustava je stara 2012). This elite-driven process was – at least concerning the presidential institution – a highly strategic power struggle. Several authors (among them e.g. Krašovec and Lajh 2008; Töpfer 2012) have convincingly argued that the elite group in Podvin, consisting of members or supporters of the governmental coalition Demos (which was in name and in character the democratic opposition in Slovenia), wrote a tailor-made constitution. Yet, not to be misunderstood, this tailor-made constitution narrowed down the role of the first incumbent and still considered representative of the communist nomenclature, Milan Kučan. He had already been elected president since April 1990 at the time of the constitution making. In December 1991, the new constitution was adopted by parliament. The constitution established one of the weakest – yet directly elected – presidents in Europe. The only important power resource is the presidential role in the nomination and dismissal of the prime minister. According to Art. 111 of the constitution, the president has the first say in the nomination of the prime minister, in case the nominee does not gain the necessary majority in parliament, the president has the right to nominate again – the same candidate or somebody else within 14 days. In case the second vote fails, the president has the right to dissolve parliament and call for early elections, except parliament manages to elect another candidate as prime minister within 48 hours. Art. 116 and Art. 117 further stipulate the provisions concerning the dissolution of the assembly based on a constructive vote of no-confidence (similar to e.g. Germany).

One episode that illustrates the use of this competence is the nomination of Prime Minister Drnovšek by President Kučan in 1996, which was at the same time a decisive moment for the democratic development of Slovenia. Using his constitutional power in the nomination procedure of the prime minister, the president proposed Janez Drnovšek. Yet, the equal distribution of parliamentary seats would have allowed for a different decision. Consequently, Drnovšek needed a second round of votes due to a lacking majority. He was again nominated by the president (Krašovec and Lajh 2008) and finally passed the investiture vote of parliament, although only as a minority government (Lukšič 2010, 746). This power struggle, the steadfast commitment and Kučman’s activity in times of crisis, in this case the question of “[…] political continuity of centre-left governments” (Krašovec and Lajh 2008, 216), was also considered to be a commitment to democratic consolidation. Furthermore, in exceptional political situations, such as the unclear majority constellation after the 1996 parliamentary elections, Slovenian Presidents gain more influence and use their at other times very limited power resources.

This is most certainly counterbalanced by a clearly restrained role in everyday politics. “Interventions by the president in day-to-day decision-making processes have so far been only sporadic and rarely problematic, at least from the viewpoint of the majority of the electorate” (Krašovec and Lajh 2008, 216). This behavior is not only observable for Kučan in the 1990s, but also more recently for example for President Borut Pahor (president since 2012). As president he used his competences in the nomination and dismissal of the prime minister to influence the date of the general elections (see Bucur 2014). In this exceptional political situation, the otherwise restrained role of the president turned into the nucleus of the political game. It is certainly no coincidence that the politically experienced and influential, not to mention highly connected Borut Pahor used this path and showed the potential possibilities of the constitutionally weak presidential institution of Slovenia. Pahor was the former Prime Minister of Slovenia, the former President of Parliament of Slovenia and is, since 2012, the President of Slovenia (President of the Republic of Slovenia 2014). Pahor also recently initiated a constitutional amendment to change the nomination procedure of cabinet ministers. This initiative puts forward the idea that the president should be able to directly nominate cabinet ministers and not only confirm the selection of the prime minister. Based on the reports of the constitution committee it seems that this initiative was controversially discussed and is since then stuck in the committee (Parliament Slovenia 2016). It will be thus interesting to see if the constitutional competences will be expanded with this important element.

This brief view on two episodes of presidential influence show neither Milan Kučan nor Borut Pahor shy away from using their limited formal powers and creatively expand it in times of crisis. However, despite these two example were decisive moments in Slovenia’s recent political history, the otherwise limited amount of competences will not allow for these episodes to become something more frequent. No matter how charismatic Slovenian Presidents are, or how favorable the parliamentary majority might be, the limited constitutional power reinforces the power disparities to the benefit of prime minister and cabinet and to the detriment of the president.

Bucur, Christina. 2014. “Slovenia – How a “weak” president played a key role in the timing of a general election.” Accessed September 11, 2014. http://presidential-power.com/?p=1642.

Cerar, Miro. 1999. “Slovenia.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 232–59.

Kitschelt, Herbert, Zdenka Mansfeldova, Radoslaw Markowski, and Gabor Tóka, eds. 1999. Post-Communist Party Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krašovec, Alenka, and Damjan Lajh. 2008. “Semi-presidentialism in Slovenia.” In Elgie and Moestrup, Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe, 201–18.

Lukšič, Igor. 2010. “Das politische System Sloweniens.” In Die politischen Systeme Osteuropas, edited by Wolfgang Ismayr, 729-772.

Parliament of Slovenia. 2014. Homepage. Accessed March 23, 2016. https://www.dz-rs.si/wps/portal/Home/deloDZ/seje/evidenca?mandat=VII&type=pmagdt&uid=F30B8242D0B88C68C1257E7A00421F65

President of the Republic of Slovenia. 2016. Homepage. Accessed December 19, 2014. http://www.up-rs.si/up-rs/uprs-eng.nsf/pages/Zivljenjepis?

Slovenska ustava je stara 21 let. 2012. December 23. Accessed January 28, 2015. http://www.rtvslo.si/slovenija/slovenska-ustava-je-stara-21-let/298665.

Töpfer, Jochen. 2012. Transformation in Slowenien und Makedonien. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Töpfer, Jochen. 2016. “Slovenia.” In Fruhstorfer and Hein, Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems. VS Springer.

Ireland – The problems of government formation

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University


The Irish general election of 26 February 2016 has thrown up an inconclusive result which has made government formation extremely difficult. A month on from the election we know that when the Dáil reconvenes for the second time since that election (today 22 March) a new government will not be formed. The new Dáil originally met on Thursday 10 March and with no new government or Taoiseach elected on that day a caretaker Fine Gael Labour government led by a caretaker Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny continues in office. The intervening two weeks have seen no substantial progress made on forming a government and in that context we can expect that the caretaker government will continue in office for some more weeks yet.

The result of the general election continued the trend of austerity governments in Europe being rejected by their electorates. The two party coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour elected in 2011 with a massive majority of 30 seats in the 166 seat parliament was roundly rebuffed by the Irish voters. Fine Gael’s vote fell from 36.6 per cent in 2011 to 25.5 per cent in 2016 and they lost twenty six seats since 2011 falling to 50. Their coalition partners Labour did even worse collapsing from a record high vote of 19.6 per cent in 2011 to a record low of 6.6 per cent while recording a crushing loss of thirty seats going from thirty seven to just seven.

The main beneficiaries of these catastrophic losses for the government were the main opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a plethora of independents ranging from those on the far left of Irish politics to a number of former members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil known colloquially as gene pool independents.

Fianna Fáil the party which has dominated governance in the Irish state since it first entered government in 1932 performed a Lazarus like resurrection in the 2016 election. Dumped unceremoniously out of office after the economic crash by an angry electorate in 2011, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 17 per cent in that election down from 41.5 per cent in the previous 2007 election. They also lost a barely believable 58 seats going from 78 in 2007 to just 20 in 2011. Many (but not the present writer) predicted that Fianna Fáil was in terminal decline and would no longer be a major force in Irish politics. But despite being somewhat becalmed in opinion polls for the past twelve months on between 17 and 19 per cent of the vote Fianna Fáil had an excellent campaign and ended up polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning 44 seats, just six behind Fine Gael. In fact the 2016 general election results mirrored the 2014 local election results giving lie in an Irish context at least to the view that second order elections are meaningless come a general election.

This was nevertheless Fianna Fáil’s second worst general election since the foundation of the Irish state. Just over three decades ago the three main parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour received 94 per cent of vote. Now it stands at barely 55 per cent and the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is less than 50 per cent. As recently as 1977 Fianna Fáil received over 50 per cent of the vote on their own. The stability of the party system that was the hallmark of Irish politics since the foundation of the state was originally diluted by the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 and has surely been finished off by the Fine Gael result in 2016.

For their part Sinn Féin won 13.8 per cent of the vote, up 4 per cent since 2011, and increased their seat total from 14 in 2011 to 23 in 2016. Yet while this result on the surface looks impressive there can be little doubt that Sinn Féin, running on an anti-austerity agenda will be ultimately disappointed that both their vote and seat tally did not increase more substantially, particularly given the levels of dissatisfaction the electorate clearly felt towards the governing parties.

The fragmentation of Irish politics and the anti-party sentiment that has been pervasive within Irish society since the Troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived to bailout the Irish state in November 2010 was crystallised in 2016 by the rise of independent candidates who won 23 seats and received seventeen per cent of the vote. We can also add in the new Social Democrats party into this independent mix as their three existing TDs, all independents prior to the party’s formation in July 2015, were re-elected and they managed to have no other candidate elected. The People Before Profit – Anti Austerity Alliance can be included here as well as party cohesion has never been a strong point for those of the far left of Irish politics.

Given that Fine Gael were 30 seats short of being able to govern and Fianna Fáil 36 seats, as the new Dáil contains 160 seats, down from 166 in 2011, government formation has proved exceedingly difficult since the election. The only plausible coalition option is one between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil yet for that great Rubicon to be crossed in Irish terms will take a great leap. The antipathy both parties feel for each other is very great indeed. The alternative of a minority government led by either main party and tacitly supported by the other aided by help from like-minded independents and smaller parties seems far-fetched at this stage. The difficulty here is that any Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil led minority government which doesn’t have some sort of binding agreement by both parties would be very difficult to make work. Such a government would most likely fall and pretty quickly at that as it simply couldn’t govern effectively knowing that the main opposition party could bring it down at any opportunity. An added difficulty here is that the third main party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin, refuses to have any input into government formation at all, seemingly content to grow in opposition while those in government wither.

But government formation and the difficulties therein were not on the minds of the Irish voter when they went to the polls on the last Friday in February. The RTE exit poll showed that just nine per cent of voters viewed government stability as the most important issue when casting their ballot. Further data from that exit poll shows that just 13 per cent of voters viewed a Fine Gael Fianna Fáil grand coalition as their preferred governmental option. Only 15 per cent of Fine Gael voters and 20 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters wanted it when they went to the polls and it’s most likely probably even less now given Fianna Fáil’s resurgence and Fine Gael’s retrenchment.

In a previous post I wrote on the limitations of the role of the President in the Irish system. One of the few substantive powers the Irish president does have is the absolute discretion to refuse a dissolution of Dáil Eireann – Article 13:2:2 of the Irish Constitution Bunreacht Na hEireann. There has been much talk in the Irish media of the possibility of a second election in the next short number of months if a new government cannot be formed. In that context it might yet fall on President Michael D. Higgins to play a far more central role in government formation in Ireland if those TDs elected to Dáil Eireann cannot agree on a new government. By the power vested in him by the Constitution he will be fully entitled to refuse to dissolve the Dáil and to thus insist that some form of government be formed. These are strange days in Irish politics and they could become even stranger in the fraught weeks ahead.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

Latvia – Party conflict and presidential initiative in government formation

ON 11 February 2016, the Latvian parliament voted in a new government under the leadership of Maris Kučinskis. Over the last years, I have written about Latvian president Andris Berzins’ activism in government formation on several occasions (see my previous posts on Latvia). Today’s blog post discusses the process of formation of the most recent government as well as the president’s role. While it differs from previous posts in so far as with Raimonds Vējonis there is a new president, there are some interesting similarities in the president’s response to party tactics and the preference for a prominent position of his (former) party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZSS).

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

After heading two Latvian governments since the beginning of 2014, Prime Minister Lajmdota Straujuma (Unity) resigned from office on 7 December 2015 after. A decrease of support for her leadership among parties and potential government reshuffle had been rumoured since late October following her dismissal of non-partisan transport minister Anrijs Matiss (and failure to quickly reappoint a successor), but intensified in the week preceding her resignation in conjunction with discussions about the 2016 budget and the upcoming congress of her Unity party. President Raimonds Vējonis was clearly dismayed by the developments and openly criticised government parties for failing to work to together better and avoid a collapse of the government.

Immediately after Straujuma’s resignation, parties and media began to speculate about potential successors. Although president Vējonis met with all parties to discuss proposals for the new government, it was universally acknowledged that Unity as the largest coalition party would lead the next government (the social-democratic Harmony Centre party holds the largest share of seats parliament, yet it is routinely shunned by other parties due to its affiliation with the sizeable ethnic Russian minority in the country). Even though Unity chairwoman Solvita Āboltiņa was part of her party’s delegation to the talks with the president and had even suggest herself as the new prime minister weeks before Straujuma’s eventual resignation, it soon became clear that she lacked sufficient support among Unity’s previous coalition partners. Both the National Alliance and – more significantly – the ‘Greens and Farmers Union’ (ZSS), which is not only the second largest coalition party but also the former party of president Vējonis, signalled that they would not be happy with Āboltiņa as prime minister. Thus, her party colleague, interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis – who had also been endorsed by Straujuma as a potential successor – emerged as Unity’s new potential candidate. However, as divisions within Unity widened, Kozlovskis announced only two days later that he would not be available for the role. Tensions between coalition parties increased when Unity refrained from offering any other candidates for prime minister except Āboltiņa (albeit only unofficially) and National Alliance and ZSS repeated their opposition to a government led by the Unity chairwoman.

Towards the end of December, particularly the ZSS was able to maneouvre itself into an advantageous position as it announced that it would not be in a coalition with either of the two smaller opposition parties, ‘Latvia from the heart’ and ‘Latvian Association of Region’. Either one could have replaced the National Alliance in the coalition and increased the ZSS share of portfolios. However, the support of both would have been needed to form a coalition of Unity and National Alliance without the ZSS. Furthermore, The fact that the ZSS had a former co-partisan in the presidential office meant that they could be relatively sure to be included in the new government. Although Vējonis refrained from openly taking sides, he publicly criticised Unity for failing to propose a(n agreeable) candidate for PM. Eventually, ZSS even announced to present its own candidate by late December to put pressure on Unity which responded by formally proposing Āboltiņa. After the ZSS eventually away off from formally proposing a candidate and merely flouted two names and Unity once again failed to agree on a potential candidate in addition to Āboltiņa, president Vējonis eventually announced that he would approach potential candidates himself in the new year.

The first candidates – finance minister Janis Reirs from Unity and Mayor of Valmiera, Janis Baiks (affiliated with Unity via a local party) – both declined to be nominated and other potential Unity candidates were unequivocally opposed by both ZSS and the National Alliance. Although Vējonis met with another potential Unity candidate, he eventually nominated ZSS’s nominee Maris Kučinskis on 13 January 2016, disregarding any potential opposition from Unity regarding this candidacy. The remainder of the government formation process can be described as relatively ‘uneventful’ with regard to negotiations between parties and the president’s involvement. However, the latter was largely predicated by the fact that Vējonis was hospitalised with a heart condition and operated on shortly after announcing Kučinskis’ nomination. The government then passed its vote of investiture in parliament on 11 February 2016.

The pattern of involvement by president Vējonis is quite similar to cabinet formation under his predecessor. Here, too, parties disagreed on the candidates for prime minister and/or the choice of potential (additional) coalition partners until the president took the initiative and rejected all candidates formally proposed by parties (which also tended to lack support among other potential coalition parties) and then approaching candidates on his own initiative. Overall, however, Vējonis appears to have been less active, leaving parties more leeway (yet not necessarily more time) in proposing candidates and sorting out their internal differences before taking the initiative himself. Furthermore, although Vējonis would have been in a position to force a cabinet under the leadership by his own ZSS (aided by the party’s generally advantageous position; see above), he gave Unity a second chance after the nomination of Āboltiņa failed to garner any support from the ZSS and the National Alliance. This leads to the question of whether the president is actually necessary/desirable in situations like these and if these were not better solved by parties alone. In this instance, a strongly partisan president (irrespective of party affiliation) might well have significantly delayed the formation of a government by nominating candidates without support from other parties. Vējonis tactics of waiting for the field of candidates to thin out naturally, gauge parties’ support for the various nominees and only take the initiative when deadlock likely saved Latvia a further month of fruitless negotiations. Furthermore, by maintaining the current coalition which elected him last year, his activism will likely not result in a significant decrease of support come the next presidential elections.

The composition of new Latvian government is available at: whogoverns.eu

Romania’s technocratic government: high expectations and challenges ahead

On November 4, Romania’s prime minister stepped down following huge protests triggered by a tragic accident at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 60 people. This was the second time since 2012 that a head of government was toppled by street demonstrations. However, while the 2012 protests targeted the far-reaching anti-austerity measures imposed by the government, this time around the protesters’ anger was directed against the entire political class without any discrimination among political parties. The result was the formation of Romania’s first technocratic government.

New format for government formation talks

Under pressure for many months over accusations of plagiarism and corruption but without direct responsibility for the terrible accident, PM Ponta’s prompt resignation after the first day of protests was seen as the easy way out for himself and the ruling party. During the consultations with political parties convened by the head of state, the opposition led by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) called for early elections, while the ruling Social Democratic Party  (PSD) favoured a technocratic government.

As the magnitude of the protests only seemed to intensify after PM Ponta’s resignation, the president also invited civil society and protesters’ representatives to join the government formation talks, an unprecedented development in Romania’s post-communist politics. The president’s initiative to decentralise government formation by opening up the negotiation process from party leaders to civil society bears out the extent of his liberty of action under critical circumstances. His decisional power was further increased by the political parties’ deliberate and voluntary retreat from decision-making: after two rounds of political consultations, only the social-democrats made a concrete proposal for the PM post.

Eventually, the head of state announced the formation of a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş. The new government won the investiture vote by a large majority on November 17, having the support of both former ruling PSD and the opposition groups. His team includes experts from the European Commission staff, diplomats, and professionals from the private and non-profit sectors.

As a purely technocratic government, the first of its kind in post-communist Romania, Cioloş’ cabinet attracted attention due to the elements of “deliberative democracy” that marked its beginning and the dangers that the “rule of experts” poses to democratic governance. How big a change does the new government really represent in Romanian politics?

Non-partisan ministers in Romanian cabinets

To start with, a formally independent prime minister is not a novelty in post-communist Romanian politics. In fact, Cioloş is the fifth non-partisan prime minister since 1989. After the 2012 protests, President Băsescu also opted for a politically non-affiliated head of government, who fell to a no-confidence vote less than three months after taking office. Neither of them was a stranger to high-office politics at the moment of appointment. Like PM Ungureanu, Cioloş joined the centre-right government that came to power after the 2004 elections. He came to office in 2007 as a minister of agriculture supported by the PNL. In 2010 he was nominated for the European Commissioner post by former President Băsescu’s Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). As a former commissioner and current advisor to the EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, close to the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, and a reputed Francophile, PM Cioloş seems to enjoy the support of both internal and external decision-makers.

Similarly, non-partisan ministers are far from a rare occurrence in Romanian cabinets. Due to the extensive politicisation of top civil servants, more or less visible connections between expert appointments and political parties are not difficult to uncover usually. In fact, a few ministers in Cioloş’ cabinet have also been quickly linked to both social-democrats and national liberals. However, a more interesting test of the technocratic nature of the new government could focus on the extent to which the new junior ministers are experts as well, or if political parties are able to control these appointments proportionally with their legislative strength and policy interests.

Challenges and possible effects

The new government’s performance could have far-reaching consequences. The period of time it can avail of to leave its mark is relatively short, as both local and general elections are scheduled for 2016. Many challenges ahead require more than limited action to be overcome. For example, the 2016 budget must meet the EU fiscal targets, while accommodating the extensive fiscal relaxation measures approved by the former social-democratic government during 2015. Among the government’s top priorities is the fight against corruption, which could nevertheless jeopardise its support in parliament.

Nevertheless, a good economic performance, such as marked improvements in the absorption rate of EU funds, could start rebuild the people’s confidence in public institutions. The technocrats’ efficiency might also force political parties to revisit their recruitment patterns for executive office in the future. A first test has already arrived, as the newly appointed Minister of Interior faces plagiarism charges – a common accusation among the ministers in the former government, including the former prime minister. How quickly PM Cioloş acts on this issue is seen as a test of his strength and liberty of action.

The unprecedented wave of protests might also trigger changes in the party system. New organisations emerging from a revived social society could finally break the old parties’ monopoly over Romania’s political scene. Alternatively, anti-system feelings could fuel the emergence of populist parties, which have been largely absent from the Romanian political landscape so far.

Arguably, President Iohannis played a key role in the unfolding of events that followed PM Ponta’s long awaited resignation. Unsurprisingly, his authority and approval ratings will be affected by the performance of the government that he presented as a new beginning in Romania’s politics.