Tag Archives: institutional conflict

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in an intra-institutional tug of war

Nobody would have anticipated that a short, two-day long, scuffle between President Grybauskaite and prime minister Skvernelis that unfolded in early January would result in an intense intra-institutional tug of war a few months later, and that this intra-instutional infighting would widen to include the country’s parliament, Seimas, and Mr. Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Framers and Green Union Party, which holds a majority of seats in the Seimas. 

Conflicts between prime minister and the president came into the open in April. Skvernelis and Grybauskaite not only continued their escalation regarding potential reevaluation of Lithuania’s relations with Russia that began in early January (more on that below), but their first major confrontation involved a disagreement regarding Minister of Agriculture Markauskas’s political fate. According to the Agency Investigating Financial Crimes (FNTT), Markauskas had made illegal financial gains, which also included payments from the EU funds, while utilizing his neighbor’s arable land, allegedly without the latter’s consent. Based on FNTT’s information, presidential advisors called Markauskas into the presidential office and “ordered [the minister] to resign.” Since the agriculture minister refused, Grybauskaite decided to increase pressure on prime minister by using the media and by making their disagreement public. In her press communiqué she alluded to the prime minister’s continued reluctance to fire the compromised minister indicating that Skvernelis was “dependent [on receiving guidance from his political party higher-ups] and unable to make autonomous decisions.” Following the same communication pattern as the president, the prime minister gave a terse response to Grybauskaite also using local media outlets. “I’m the head of the government. I understand my responsibilities and duties regarding my cabinet members and would not evade them, but at the same time I will not succumb to the pressure by the president or anybody else. It will be my decision, and I will also bare the brunt of it,” declared the prime minister. Skvernelis reminded the president that it was his constitutional prerogative to accept resignation of his cabinet ministers and that he would not be pressured by anybody, not even the president, as to the decisions he would make or when they would happen. Not only did the prime minister show resentment toward Grybauskaite’s public pressure to fire the agriculture minister, but also he was equally irritated that the president sought to usurp the prime minister’s decision-making duties.  

The next political battle between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis ensued in late April when the president rejected the prime minister’s candidate, Mr. Danelius, to the post of the justice minister. Several senior parliament members and attorneys did not find president’s explanation of Mr. Danelius “clashes of interests” sufficiently credible and justifiable to reject his nomination. The conflict between the president and prime minister intensified as political analysts speculated that the presidential rejection signaled Grybauskaite’s “payback” to Skvernelis for his refusal to force the compromised minister of agriculture into an immediate resignation (even if the minister eventually resigned). 

Almost in a tit-for-tat manner, the prime minister further accelerated his conflict with the president when he decided to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several Lithuanian ambassadors for discussions about Lithuanian-Russian relations as well as Lithuania’s bilateral relations with the other EU Eastern Partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova). Although the prime minister’s office claimed that it had no intention to introduce any foreign policy revisions, the president perceived Skvernelis’ moves as another intrusion into her “sphere of influence” and promptly expressed criticism and disapproval. After the meeting with the foreign minister and ambassadors, the prime minister announced through the local media that his and Grybauskaite’s positions fully align, and that the purpose of the meeting was for him to hear directly from the ambassadors on how they evaluate situation in the countries where they reside. Allegedly, at least with regards to Lithuanian-Russian relations the prime minister decided to de-escalate existing tensions with the president. 

It appeared that Grybauskaite was winning the ongoing intra-institutional battles with prime minister as her favored outcomes were realized: the Minister of Agriculture ended up resigning (although not as quickly as the president preferred); she also made the prime minister suggest another candidate for the post of the justice minister; and “new” foreign policy initiatives regarding Lithuanian-Russian relations after Skvernelis’ consultations with ambassadors resulted in no changes. But then a political bombshell exploded. 

On April 28th and throughout early May, Lietuvos rytas, one of Lithuania’s major newspapers, published a series of articles about Grybauskaite’s electronic correspondence from an obscure email account tulpes@lrpk.lt with Mr. Masiulis, the former leader of the Liberal Movement (LS) political party, who since 2016 had been implicated in a major political corruption investigation. Published correspondence dated from 2014-2016 period and discussed a variety of politically sensitive issues such as potential candidates to the Prosecutor General’s office; the 2016 parliamentary elections and who the president would like to be chosen as prime minister; the role of LNK TV channel and particularly journalist Tomas Dapkus who voiced strong criticism about Grybauskaite’s preferred candidates for the Prosecutor General’s office; warnings about Skvernelis’ political ambitions and the president’s description of him as a “dangerous populist.” Interestingly, the timing of leaked correspondence between Grybauskaite and Masiulis coincided with the conclusion of the investigation of his political corruption case and the filing of a lawsuit by the Prosecutor General’s office against Masiulis and the Liberal Movement party he headed until 2016. 

As soon as the email correspondence became public, conflict between Grybauskaite and the ruling Framers and Green Union Party (LVZS) in parliament, particularly its leader, Mr. Karbauskis and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister, spiraled. Immediately LVZS MPs called for investigations into Grybauskaite’s activities, electronic correspondence, and the legality of her actions. Several parliamentary members and political commentators began hinting at the possibility of president’s impeachment, claiming that Grybauskaite’s emails not only directly tied her to Masiulis’ shady political dealings, but also exposed her to potential influences from MG Baltic, one of Lithuania’s largest industrial and medial conglomerates that sought political favors in return for provided financial support. Additionally, the president’s email messages, according to Skvernelis’ suppositions, reflected her alleged “pressure on the media.” This was derived from one of president’s emails written to Masiulis in which she asked him to “send her message” to the head of MG Baltic Darius Mockus, asking Mockus to “restrain his hound” [here, reference is made to journalist Dapkus who, in president’s view, “was speaking nonsense” about her proposed candidate to the post of the Prosecutor General and, as it became known, had direct contacts with MG Baltic top management that owns LNK station where Dapkus works). Additionally, Karbauskis claimed that president’s emails, if proven to be authentic, were not only scandalous, but also reflected unacceptable and potentially illegal political actions by the president.

Within a couple of days Grybauskaite gave a public interview in which she presented her interpretation of events, specifically answering questions pertaining to her correspondence with Masiulis. Although she did not deny using the tulpes@lrpk.lt email address and acknowledged that she had sent emails and text messages to Masiulis from this address, she claimed that she could not confirm the authenticity of these emails. Grybauskaite claimed that her correspondence with Masiulis was neither saved nor found on any of her office’s servers.  She also expressed a belief that the primary reason behind the publication of her electronic correspondence with the former LS leader was to politicize the current lawsuit against Masiulis, and she expressed concern that their correspondence may be used as evidence by the defense.  However, the president expressed her satisfaction that the fight against corruption had made a major breakthrough as three significant political corruption lawsuits were recently filed with the courts by law enforcement agencies, and that the public would get a better understanding as to how much influence large companies and powerful interest groups had amassed in the past decade over the country’s political system. 

Her political opponents, especially Karbauskis, dismissed the president’s “calculated” explanations about the emails’ “disappearance, “ suggesting he was inclined to ask parliament’s IT to check parliament servers in order to “discover” Grybauskaite’s emails that were sent to Masiulis, who was a MP until 2016. Karbauskis also stated that Grybauskaite’s sudden and active presence in the public eye and the media indicated the use of diversionary tactics as the president was allegedly trying to divert public attention from her scandal and towards Karbauskis’ Agroverslas company and potentially unconstitutional links between his business interests and his current lawmaking activities. Indeed, Grybauskaite during her interview alluded that investigations launched in parliament and led by Karbauskis’ party members could be perceived as “selective,” suggesting that she saw no political will shown by LVZS to achieve greater transparency in investigating how businesses interests (including Karbauskis’ own agricultural conglomerate) influence politics. After several terse public exchanges between the presidential office and the parliament that continued in May and June—for instance, Karbauskis announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until the new president gets elected next year—the parliament adjourned for summer recess with neither Karbauskis nor Skvernelis showing any apparent intensions to pursue president’s impeachment.  

Although Grybauskaite vehemently denied any involvement in any corruption cases, she felt it was necessary to launch a media campaign to present her side of the story. Despite her efforts to defend herself, political damage that the latest political scandal will have on her, her reputation, and, ultimately, her legacy is inevitable albeit the extent of it is too early to tell. Some prominent politicians voiced the opinion that Grybauskaite should resign as she had clearly compromised herself and could no longer serve as the moral leader of the country. Others expressed the opinion that because of her involvement in the latest political scandal Grybauskaite had killed off her chances to successfully run and be selected for a high-ranking post in the top EU governing structures. Moreover, headlines about impeachment produced a negative effect:  as expected, her public approval ratings experienced a significant fall within days of political scandal’s eruption and appear to be falling nearly two months later. More disconcerting for Grybauskaite, however, is what will happen after the parliament’s summer recess. Karbauskis has already hinted that he is not only determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, including Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair,” but he is expecting the president to respond to his ultimatum regarding the authenticity of her emails. The presidential office stated that Karbauskis’ intention to investigate Grybauskaite’s emails amounts to an open political vendetta and violates the Constitution. 

As regular and numerous media headlines about ongoing political tug of war between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis and, more recently, between Grybauskaite and Karbauskis suggest, her last year in office may be an ongoing fight for her reputation, fending off one political scandal after another as the “reigning in” of the president will likely continue. The winner of these intra-institutional wars is unclear at the moment. However, it is safe to assume that this is probably not how Grybauskaite anticipated she would spend her last year in office.

Timor-Leste – Mr. President, how does democracy work in Timor if there is no opposition?

That question was posed by American congressmen when they met President Ruak in August 2015. Ruak’s latest speech before Timor-Leste’s National Assembly showed a president who had become increasingly critical of the government of national unity (GNU), accusing former prime ministers Marí Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmão of abusing power for private gains. Tension runs high between the president and government.

The GNU was formed in February 2015 when Rui Araújo member of Timor-Leste’s single opposition party FRETILIN replaced Gusmão as prime minister. The GNU includes all political parties so Timor-Leste’s parliament does not have an opposition party. In the GNU Gusmão is minister of infrastructure and Alkatiri president of the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse.

In my last post I described the tug-of-war between the president and the GNU over the 2016 state budget. The president vetoed the law because, in his opinion, the budget disregarded the needs of the poor. Parliament simply ignored the president’s objections and voted unanimously for a law identical to the one the president vetoed. Following the budget talks, Gusmão’s CNRT party sent a “divorce” letter to PD, one of the coalition parties, excluding them from the coalition for lack of “political loyalty”.

In a recent confrontation, parliament tried to reverse the president’s decision not to reappoint the commander of Timor-Leste’s defence force General ‘Lere’ Anan Timur. According to deputies of the parties CNRT, FRETLIN and Frenti-Mudança – together holding 57 seats in Timor-Leste’s 65-member National Assembly – the president’s decision was unconstitutional and threatened to impeach the president.

Article 86 of the Constitution of Timor-Leste reads that ‘It is incumbent upon the President of the Republic to appoint and dismiss, following [emphasis added] proposal by the Government, the General Chief of Staff of the Defence Force (…)’. So, the prime minister needs the president’s signature to ratify the appointment of an army chief. In this way, the constitution forces an agreement between both leaders on the commander of the armed forces.

Timor-Leste’s constitution contains many of such ‘power sharing constructions’, in particular, in the area of defence and foreign policy. Power sharing may lead to a power struggle when there is a poor relationship between the president and prime minister. Defence and foreign policy issues are, therefore, more likely to generate institutional conflict.[1] All in all, parliament did not start impeachment proceedings against the president and compromise candidate, Pedro Klamar Fuik, was appointed Timor-Leste’s new defence force commander.

The president explained his decision in a fiery speech before Timor-Leste’s National Assembly, arguing that the government used the debate about Lere “to get to the president of the republic”. In the same speech he compared former prime ministers Gusmão (2007-2015) and Alkatiri (2002-2006) to the Indonesian dictator Suharto, saying there was “widespread discontent” among the public that their families were benefiting from lucrative government contracts. “President of the Republic had received complaints concerning privileges granted to our brothers Xanana’s and Marí’s family members and friends within regarding contracts signed with the State,” he said. “[There is] widespread discontent over the granting of privileges. Suharto was overthrown by his family. Too many privileges!”

The president concluded that the formation of the GNU should have brought political stability and economic prosperity. Instead, he stated, “they [Alkatiri and Gusmão] do not use unanimity, mutual understanding to solve political and economic issues but use it for purposes of power and privilege.” In protest against the president’s speech, Gusmão returned his medal, awarded to him by President Ruak in 2015.

Growing political tensions may be related to the upcoming elections. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for March/April and July 2017, respectively. President Ruak will run for prime minister, leading the newly formed Peoples Liberation Party, which will challenge the nation’s most established political parties, Gusmão’s CNRT party and FRETILIN led by Alkatiri. President Ruak is expected to run on a joint ticket with former army chief Lere who will run for president.

The relationship between President Ruak and the GNU looks set to only deteriorate.

[1] Lydia M. Beuman, Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation (London: Routledge, 2016).

Portugal – Institutional conflict may trigger snap elections

Tensions are mounting between the ruling centre-right coalition and the Constitutional Court after the latter recently rejected three measures proposed by the government in the 2014 national budget. Opposition parties have called on President Cavaco Silva to dissolve parliament and call for an early general election because of the government’s recurrent breaches of the constitution and alleged attempts to influence the court’s decisions.

Over the last few years, the Constitutional Court has reviewed the legality of various austerity measures agreed with the “Troika” – European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – in return for the €78 billion loan package granted to Portugal in May 2011. Indeed, over the past three years the Court has struck down nine such measures.[1] The Court’s latest rejection of three fiscal measures[2] has forced the government to search for alternative measures to ensure the state’s deficit falls to 4 per cent of the GDP this year and 2.5 per cent next year, as required by the Troika. On 12 June Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque announced that the government would forgo the final instalment of €2.6 billion due under the international bailout programme because the Court’s decision prevented the government from complying with the conditions set out in the programme. Portugal officially exited the international bailout programme on 17 May 2014.

The Court’s latest rejection of the austerity measures has intensified the already strained relationship between the government and the Constitutional Court. On 5 June, during the closing of a conference rather ironically titled “Democracy and new Representations”, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), fanned the flames by saying that the Court needed “better judges” who should be subject to “greater scrutiny”. The Prime Minister also called for the Court for issue a “political clarification” regarding its decision. So far, the court has refused to do so on the grounds that “it does not need to tell the government how to govern”.

The Constitutional Court comprises thirteen judges. Ten judges are appointed by parliament – five by the ruling coalition, and five by the main opposition party – the Socialist Party (PS). The other three judges are co-opted from other courts according to a selection made by those judges already elected.

The government’s negative attitude towards the Court has enraged Portugal’s main opposition party, the Socialist Party (PS), which has called for the President’s to intervene to maintain “their regular functioning.” Smaller opposition parties such as the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist party (PCP) have called for early elections.

Meanwhile, the PS has itself become embroiled in a fierce leadership battle. Following its poor performance in the May European Parliament (EP) elections, the mayor of Lisbon, António Costa, has (once again) announced his readiness to run for the PS leadership, thereby challenging the incumbent party leader António José Seguro. While the PS won the most votes (31.47%) in the EP elections, the results were worse than expected. After three years of austerity, the PS just received 123,435 more votes than the ruling coalition (PSD/CDS-PP), which came second with 27.71% of the votes. The PS is to hold a leadership election on 28 September.

Amidst institutional tensions, opposition parties have been urging President Cavaco Silva to intervene to resolve the “political crisis”. So far, the President, affiliated to the ruling PSD party, has remained silent. Ironically, snap elections might work in favour of the ruling coalition. According to the latest polls, electoral support for the PS has further declined since the EP elections.

[1]The Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional two provisions of the 2012 budget law and four of nine austerity measures introduced in the 2013 national budget law. On 30 May 2014, the Court rejected another three measures proposed by the government in the 2014 national budget.

[2]The three measures included cuts to public sector wages, pensions and health allowances.