Tag Archives: nonpartisan presidents

Non-partisan presidents

There is a wide agreement among political scientists that political parties fulfil a crucial role in democracies. They nominate candidates, coordinate election campaigns, aggregate interests, formulate and implement policy proposals, and manage government power. Yet various democracies around the world have experienced non-partisan presidents.

The website worldstatesmen.org is a unique data source which provides us with information about the party affiliation of presidents. According to its founder, Ben Cahoon, non-partisan presidents are “those who were not affiliated with a political party at the time of taking office.” Here we are interested in presidents of presidential and semi-presidential systems. So, presidents of parliamentary regimes are excluded from our list. The chart below provides an overview of the number of non-partisan presidents in consolidated democracies[1], sorted by continent.

Number of non-partisan presidents in presidential and semi-presidential democracies between 1990-2013


Source: World Statesmen: http://worldstatesmen.org/

We found the highest number of non-partisan presidents in Europe. In total 18 non-partisan candidates were elected president in European consolidated democracies between 1990 and 2013. It should be noted that all non-partisan presidents were elected in third, or better, fourth-wave democracies.[2] Indeed, we did not find any non-partisan president in the so-called bastions of democracy in Western Europe. In addition, all of these new democratic states adopted a semi-presidential system.[3]

In Asia we found four non-partisan presidents. Three of them were elected in semi-presidential Timor-Leste. The other was elected in presidential South Korea.

In Africa, three non-partisan presidents were elected: one in a presidential democracy, Benin, and two in semi-presidential regimes, namely São Tomé and Príncipe and Mali. In South America two presidential democracies, Bolivia and Ecuador, have experienced a non-partisan president. The only country that experienced a non-partisan president in North America was Guatemala, a presidential democracy. In Australia/Oceania all countries have adopted a parliamentary regime. These non-partisan presidents have been excluded from our list.

All in all, out of a total of 223 presidents who were elected between 1990 and 2013, 29 (13%) presidents were not affiliated to a political party. In Europe 26% of all presidents were non-partisan.

What do these numbers tell us? They demonstrate that the election of a non-partisan president is a relatively rare phenomenon in all continents but Europe. In Europe, more than a quarter of the elected presidents is non-partisan. The election of a non-partisan president may affect crucial matters like democratic representation. To be sure, non-partisan presidents are not accountable to a political party during their time of office. Worse still, when such presidents do not wish to get re-elected, they are free to act according to their own wishes. Yet, their existence has been largely ignored in the literature. More research is therefore needed on the effect of non-partisan presidents on the quality of democracy.

[1] A democracy is considered consolidated if it scores at least 5 on the Polity IV scale for five or more consecutive years.

[2] Doorenspleet, R. (2005) Democratic Transitions: Exploring the Structural Sources of the Fourth Wave. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

[3] The web site “The semi-presidential one” provides a list of countries with a presidential and semi-presidential constitution.

Timor-Leste – Veto Behaviour of Nonpartisan Presidents

Timor-Leste became formally an independent state in May 2002. Since independence and excluding two interim presidents, the country has had three presidents – Xanana Gusmão (2002-2007), José Ramos-Horta (2007-2012), and Taur Matan Ruak (2012-).

Article 85c of the constitution of Timor-Leste empowers the president to veto any bill. The constitution makes a distinction between bills created by the government (projetos de lei) and parliamentary bills (propostas de lei). Vetoes against government bills are absolute and cannot be overridden by parliament. Parliamentary bills vetoed on constitutional grounds require a two-thirds majority of the deputies present to be overridden (art. 88.3). A political veto can be overridden by the parliament with an absolute majority (art. 88.2).

President Gusmão (2002-2007)

In the presidential elections Gusmão ran as an independent. However, his candidature was publicly supported by virtually all (opposition) parties except for FRETILIN, the party that held a majority of seats in the parliament. The relationship between President Gusmão and Prime Minister Alkatiri, the leader of FRETILIN, was one of ‘conflictual cohabitation.’[1] Between May 2002 and June 2006 when Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned President Gusmão vetoed 3.2% of legislation (4 laws), the Tax Law (2002), the Immigration and Asylum Law (2003), the Freedom of Assembly and Demonstration Law (2005) and the Penal Code (2006).

In July 2006, José Ramos-Horta, an ally of the president, was appointed interim prime minister until the 2007 legislative elections. The composition of the cabinet and parliament remained largely unchanged.[2] During Ramos-Horta’s prime ministership, the president vetoed 8.3% of legislation (2 laws), the Law on Pension for Former Deputies (2006) and the Law on Pension for Former Officials (2007). So, the president vetoed more laws but a lower percentage of laws under ‘cohabitation’ than when the president and prime minister (but not his ministers!) were political allies.

President Ramos-Horta (2007-2012)

Like his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ramos-Horta ran as an independent in the 2007 presidential elections. His campaign was backed by all political parties bar FRETILIN and KOTA, which backed the FRETILIN candidate Francisco Guterres (Lu-Olo).  The veto rate under President Ramos-Horta was 7.9% (4 vetoes), the Law on Precedence in State Protocol (2010), the Land Law (2012), the Expropriation Law (2012) and the Real Estate Fund Law (2012).

President Taur Matan Ruak (2012-)

On 16 April 2012, the former commander of Timor-Leste’s defence force was elected president. Also Ruak was elected as an independent, but was supported by the National Congress for Timorese Construction (CNRT), the ruling party of the incumbent prime minister and former president Gusmão. So far President Taur Matan Ruak has promulgated 49 laws and has not vetoed any bill.

What explains the different veto behaviour of the three presidents? Situations like cohabitation or divided executive that are often hypothesised to explain variation in veto behaviour have little explanatory power in Timor-Leste given that all presidents have been formally nonpartisan. To be sure, leading scholars hold that cohabitation cannot emerge in democratic regimes where presidents are nonpartisan.[3] However, Timor-Leste demonstrates that non-partisans are unpredictable. The veto activity of, in particular, Ramos-Horta, indicates that his apparent partisan leanings did not guarantee his unwavering loyalty to the prime minister’s party.

[1] Beuman, L. M. (2013) ‘Cohabitation in New Post-Conflict Democracies: The Case of Timor-Leste’, Parliamentary Affairs, 1-23. doi:10.1093/pa/gst016.

[2] Prime Minister Ramos-Horta took charge of the defence portfolio and entrusted his previous portfolio of foreign affairs to José Luís Guterres, a fervent Alkatiri opponent. All other cabinet ministers who had served under Alkatiri were reappointed to Ramos-Horta’s new cabinet.

[3] Samuels, D. J. and Shugart, M. S. (2010) Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers. How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.