Tag Archives: illiberal democracy

Poland – 3 years into his presidency, Duda’s role still remains unclear

After three years in office, the position of president Andrzej Duda within the current political situation in Poland continues to be somewhat unclear – swinging between unflinching support for the governing party and legitimising force for its policies, and presenting himself as the defender of the rule of law. With a number of crucial elections coming up over the next year, the way in which he positions himself vis-a-vis the ruling party may be crucial to the success of his (former) party and, in turn, to ensuring his own re-election in 2020.

“3 Years in Office” – Promotional video on the website of the Official Website of the President – prezydent.pl

It has been varied summer for president Duda. In July, his initiative to hold a referendum on a new constitution (the date was to coincide with the centenary of the independence declaration in November) was eventually rejected by the Senate as almost all senators of his own party (Law and Justice – PiS) abstained and the oppositional Civic Platform (PO) voted against the plans. Although Duda’s motivation for the referendum was never particularly clear, the rejection can be seen as a defeat for the president – the cushioning of the rejection through mass abstentions may have been an olive branch extended to the president by the party leadership, but it could also merely have been an attempt to save face and not give the public the impression that parliament and president were actively working against each other.

A few weeks later, Duda experienced a success when he vetoed amendments to the European Parliament election law that would have effectively reduced the number of parties able to win seats to two – the governing PiS and the main opposition party PO. While the government (arguably rightfully) argued that the current system was too complicated, it is clear that it aimed to alter the rules of the game to the degree to its advantage in every possible way. Given that a 3/5 relative majority in the Polish Sejm (lower house) is needed to override the veto, the government will have to come up with a new solution or drop the bill. For Duda, the veto was in any case strategic – while he may not need to fear a strong contender from the left in his fight for re-election, his chances for re-election would be greatly increased if the smaller right-of-centre parties that swept up much of the protest vote in the most recent parliamentary elections (led among others by the surprisingly third-placed presidential candidate Andrzej Kukiz) supported him.

Nevertheless, these incidents stand in contrast to Duda’s other behaviour. After he vetoed parts of the government’s controversial judicial reform last year, he later signed bills after some cosmetic changes that gave him slightly more say in the appointment of judges. Recent events, too, highlight that he is only too happy to continue quietly notarising the changes made by the government. As part of the reforms, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges was lowered from 65 to 70, sending 40% of judges into retirement. While the legality of immediate retirement of current judges is questionable and still being considered by the European Court of Justice, Duda already announced vacancies for the positions in question. Importantly, this includes the 65 year-old president of the court who – according to the constitution – serves a six year-term that would only end in 2020. On Tuesday, the president then announced that he had approved the applications of five Supreme Court judges to remain in their positions for another three years (a new prerogative given to him) – incidentally, these are those that had previously been positively evaluated by the reconstituted National Judiciary Council and thus close to the regime (even though some of their applications apparently failed to follow conventional standards), while no action was taken on applications of others (they are assumed to be rejected, but this is not entirely clear).

In October and November 2018 Poland will hold local and regional elections, which will provide a first test for the ruling party with regard to the elections to the European Parliament in spring 2019 and the parliamentary election in 2019. It can be expected that Duda, if he is active in the campaigns at all, will support his (former) party – nevertheless, as Duda also needs to start on building momentum for his own re-election campaign, it is quite likely that we will some more occasional disagreements with the government. Such incidents should however be seen as largely strategic – until now, Duda has now shown that he substantially disagrees with the Hungary-style ‘illiberal democracy’ that the government is introducing.

Hungary – Legislative vetoes by president Áder: Irrelevant activism?

There is no doubt that Hungarian president Janos Áder is a close ally and supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his illiberal politics. Interestingly, however, he has used and continues to use his legislative veto power with surprising frequency. Overall, this runs counter to existing explanatory approaches and might thereby shed new light on the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy.

Hungarian president Janos Áder – image via wikimedia commons

When Janos Áder was elected president, he promised to depart from the rubber stamp-attitude to legislation exhibited by his co-partisan precedessor Pál Schmitt (who not only failed to use his veto power during his two years in office, but has also publicly declared he would sign every bill the Fidesz majority in parliament passed). Opposition politicians welcomed (albeit cautiously) his declaration that if parliament passed a hundred good bills he would all sign them into law but if parliament passed a hundred bad bills he would use his veto against all of them. Nevertheless, given that the Hungarian president’s veto can be overridden by simple majority (unless the original bill required a higher majority to be passed, e.g. organic law) and presidents are obliged to sign bills that were passed again (even if changes were introduced during the veto/reconsideration process), it was clear that such activism would need to be amplified by use of the personal ties between Áder and his long-time friend Orbán.

Already early on in his first term, Janos Áder seemed to follow through on his promise – in his first year in office alone, he sent 11 bills back to parliament for reconsideration. Even his predecessor Lászlo Sólyom, who found himself in cohabitation with all governments during his five year-term in office and vetoed almost frantically in comparison to his own predecessors, took almost three years to veto as many bills. Although clearly in friendly relations with the government and parliamentary majority, Áder had vetoed 28 bills by the end of his first term last year (only four less than Sólyom who – as mentioned above – was in cohabitation the whole time) and vetoed three more since his re-election.

These number may not be high in comparison to other presidents in the region, particularly those elected by popular vote, yet they present a challenge to established explanations of presidential activism that others and myself have proposed. If presidential activism is primarily determined by the institutional structure (most prominently direct/indirect elections) and the political environment (the partisan composition and strength of parliament and government vis-a-vis the presidency), we should see comparatively fewer vetoes in the case of Janos Áder.

Additional explanatory variables that I found to be important in the case of president Lászlo Sólyom (2005-2010) also do not seem to apply here. For once, there is no personal antipathy between president and prime minister and more than two thirds of bills vetoed were prepared by ministries (i.e. not private members bills which have typically been of lower quality). Furthermore, after the government initially incorporated changes proposed by Áder into bills as part of the review process, all 12 vetoes issued since the 2014 parliamentary elections were overridden. Thus, presidential vetoes are not (or are no longer) an easy way to let the government fix problems with bills that were previously overlooked.

At the same time, Áder’s veto activity does also not quite fit into the pattern (if one can speak of such) of democratic window-dressing in the Polish case. Despite international outcry and serious flaws in bills Áder has not used his veto to stop (at least temporarily) the crackdown on public media, the ‘Lex CEU‘ or legislation that benefitted Fidesz politicians and their associates in other ways. While he used his veto on a number of other bills that were controversially discussed domestically, his opposition appears to be lacking in enthusiasm.

Thus, Áder’s use of presidential vetoes remains somewhat enigmatic. The fact that neither existing explanatory approaches nor the logic of presidential activism visible in other regimes can account for it should prompt a re-examination of how we imagine the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy. Áder’s (ostensibly) irrelevant activism could point towards a further concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and/or to the fact that his actions are directed towards other constituencies that have yet to be uncovered.

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A full list of presidential vetoes in Hungary is available here (in Hungarian).