Tag Archives: president

Marcelo Jenny – Austria’s President Van der Bellen speaks up

This is a guest post by Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Marcelo Jenny from the Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Innsbruck

Austria belongs to the semi-presidential regime type and the head of state has some strong constitutional powers, but after his election the current president Alexander Van der Bellen has conformed to the familiar role model of Austrian presidents. Of beeing seen as an impartial political authority in reserve by staying away from the day-to-day tug of war between the government and the parliamentary opposition parties. As a consequence the president may be absent from the political news sections for extended periods of time. When Van der Bellen made news with statements on issues of international and domestic policy several times in a row, some started to take notice.

Van der Bellen has been in office since January 2017, after a thrilling election year 2016 that ended with a final win over rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in a repeated run-off ballot. The Constitutional Court had annulled the first run-off vote due to voting irregularities. Coming from the most left party in parliament, the Greens, Van der Bellen managed to project himself as a centrist candidate against Hofer who came from the most right party in parliament. Last year’s legislative elections in autumn brought in a right-wing coalition government between the People’s Party led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hofer’s Freedom Party. Van der Bellen swore in his previous rival Hofer as the new Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

In their presidential campaigns both had been very critical of the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), stating that as president they would not sign the treaty. CETA was and still is very unpopular in Austria. Van der Bellen announced last week that he would not sign the free trade agreement after its ratification by the national parliament in June. He clarified that he would not sign now, but rather wait until the European Court of Justice issues a verdict on CETA’s compatibility with European Union law. He is on constitutional safe ground, but it is also a reminder of the president’s political views. The previous government coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) signed the treaty, against the opposition of Freedom Party and Greens. The current government parties ÖVP and FPÖ, plus the liberals party NEOS, followed through with parliamentary ratification. The SPÖ now in opposition has strongly come out against the treaty, the Freedom Party now unwillingly backs it.

A step deeper into the thicket of domestic politics was Van der Bellen’s recent statement of support for upholding a tradition of social partnership in social and economic policy law-making. The government had just pushed through a controversial law increasing working time flexibility. The bill by-passed the usual process of pre-parliamentary review by interest groups and experts. While interest groups representing business, traditonally politically close to the two parties currently in government were happy with the new law, the labour union federation and the chambers of labour, close to the Social Democratic opposition, came out strongly against it and organized a demonstration of about 100,000 people (which is extraordinary by Austrian standards). The president was later joined by some ÖVP Land governors who also expressed unease about the government’s rushed, controversy-inducing style of policy-making.

The most recent and strongest statement of disapproval with the government came with Van der Bellen’s criticism of FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky, a Member of the European Parliament, two days ago. Vilimsky demanded the resignation of EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accusing him of being an alcoholic, which led Bellen to call Vilimsky respectless and foul-mouthed. The president also critized the government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for remaining completely silent on the issue. Austria currently holds the EU presidency. Representatives from the Freedom Party’s representatives then doubled down on their criticism of Juncker and called on Van der Bellen to return to a position of political impartiality.

The episodes of Van der Bellen speaking up might have come together by coincidence and the media attention the president gets is perhaps an unintended consequence of Federal Chancellor Kurz’s media strategy of making himself rare. It remains to be seen whether Van der Bellen will be frequently drawn into political disputes in the future. Yet they remind us of the new political constellation Austria is in with a leftist president facing a right-wing coalition government.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Social turbulence for the Cypriot president

N. Anastasiades was reelected in the February 2018 presidential elections enjoying a strong majority over his opposition: 56% to 44%. Following a very intense electoral campaign where all major policy issues were harshly contested, the result was thought to have given the current president space for implementing his policies both in internal affairs and the Cyprus problem. However, this assessment proved short-sighted and failed to grasp the complexities of Cypriot politics.

Immediately upon his reelection and in a period of just five months the new government has been confronted with a number of problems that created an atmosphere of social turbulence. All these contested issues touch upon fundamental aspects of the government’s policy. Currently, these issues include the economy and the education system. Before these, it was the medical doctors of the public sector that collided with the government over the character of the health system on the island, whereas a couple months ago hundreds of environmental activists protested in various parts of the island against government decisions favouring big developments (skyscrapers) on the coasts of Cyprus, as well as in environmentally protected areas incorporated in the EU’s Natura 2000 network.

In the economy, Cyprus experienced once again the fear of a bail-in, similar to that of March 2013; this time the focal point was the Cyprus Cooperative Bank (CCB). CCB has a 110-year history in Cyprus and is currently a large, systemic bank (the third largest bank in Cyprus). The CCB focuses on retail banking, serving some 400,000 Cypriots with more than 30% of the total deposits. Given the problems faced by this bank the government decided, back in September 2013, to inject money and put it under its total share capital control. Since then, it has become very obvious that the right-wing government of N. Anastasiades favoured the privatization of the CCB but was unable to do so in its first tenure because of the reactions of the opposition and other social actors.

Eventually, and despite the opposition’s resistance, the government began the process for privatizing the CCB, while also making it clear that they preferred another local bank (Hellenic Bank) to take over. Some misguided (some say targeted) statements by government officials and rumours for a forthcoming bail-in unless the parliament authorized the privatization of the bank resulted in a bank run from the CCB. Withdrawals totalled €1.9 billion in the first three months of 2018.

The deal, as it was negotiated, would have led to the Hellenic Bank acquiring the “good part” of the CCB (deposits and assets) and for the government to take over the “bad part” (i.e., the non-performing loans). This deal has generally been viewed as very favourable for Hellenic Bank, but bad for the Cyprus tax-payer. As pointed out by the press (and also the opposition), the deal could prove to be very expensive for the central government and ultimately for the tax-payer. The government issued Development Bonds totalling €3.35 billion to bolster the ‘good part’ of the CCB, raising the public debt to GDP ratio from 97.5% to approximately 120%. In addition, the government has agreed to protect the assets of the Hellenic Bank by providing guarantees which could eventually be very costly if exercised. Furthermore, the government has agreed to make redundancy payments to the 1000-plus employees of the CCB who are expected to be laid off as a result of the deal.

Notwithstanding the positive vote that the (scant) majority of the parliament gave to the government’s bill on this issue, criticism has been very strong by most political parties (even those that supported the legislation). Most of the criticism has targeted the Minister of Finance whose resignation was demanded; the president and his overall economic policy was also targeted as one that favours big capital. A protest was also organized by a civil society group, the Movement Against Foreclosures, in the capital city of Nicosia and was backed by some of the opposition parties.

And while the fire from this issue was still burning another one lit up. This time it was the teachers associations of primary and secondary education that protested against government decisions. Thousands of teachers, parents and students gathered outside the education ministry in the sizzling heat to demand the resignation of the Education Minister. The pretext for the row focused on a cabinet decision to abolish exemptions from teaching hours for trade union activities and extra-curricular activities, and fewer hours for teachers with many years of service. However, the teachers were quick to introduce wider issues relating to the overall government policy towards the pubic character of the education system in Cyprus. Protestors chanted ‘give up’ and ‘hands off education’ in front of the ministry. According to most sources it was the most massive demonstration held in Nicosia in recent years gathering thousands of protestors. The unions have threatened to strike in September if the problems are not solved.

Demonstrations and opposition to government policies by various parties, unions and social groups reveal important underlying social tensions and show that the president has a difficult path to cross in his second and final term. His policies favouring a smaller state will probably be at the heart of discussions and it must be taken for granted that they will provoke strong opposition. With the negotiations for the Cyprus problem expected to resume in the fall, the government cannot operate in such a tumultuous environment. A more consensual approach will be probably sought in the forthcoming days and weeks.

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.

Latvia – How should the President be elected?

In Latvia, the President is elected by Parliament in a secret ballot. Members of Parliament have no obligation to reveal which candidate they support. Article 36 of the Constitution of Latvia states: “The President of the Republic of Latvia shall be elected by secret ballot by a majority of not less than 51 members of the Parliament”.

Over the past few years, there have been discussions initiated both by State presidents, the media, and society about the election process for the State president. Should the president continue to be elected by a secret ballot or an open ballot in parliament, or should the president be directly elected?

Currently, the vote on the President is the only secret vote in the Parliament. All other votes – on laws, the election of officials, such as the Speaker of the Parliament, the Prime Minister, the judges of the Supreme Court and the judges of the Constitutional Court, the State Auditor, the President of the Bank of Latvia, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission and other officials – are open.

The current President of Latvia, Raimonds Vejonis, was elected on June 3, 2015, in a secret ballot with 55 votes “FOR” and 42 votes “AGAINST”. At that time Vejonis stated that he was ready to support the direct election of the President.

In June 2017 President Vejonis suggested that President should be elected by a popular vote and invited the Parliament to amend the Constitution accordingly. He urged MPs to ensure that the 2019 Presidential election would be held by popular vote.

The idea for a direct Presidential election has been discussed for some time. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority of the 100 elected parliamentarians.

At the same time, 11,483 people have signed the public initiative portal Manabalss.lv (my voice) to change the way the State president is elected. The proposal is to reword Article 36 of the Constitution in the following way: “The President of the Republic of Latvia shall be elected by open vote with no less than 51 majority of the Parliament members”. The idea is that the Presidential elections in Latvia would be more open and transparent, that voters could find out how their elected members voted and who is responsible for the result.

MPs of the Unity, National Alliance and Harmony parties, support the initiative, while MPs from the Greens and Farmers Union and Latvia From the Heart are against.

From February 2015 until April 2017 there was a working group in Parliament looking at the possible extension of the mandate of the President and the evaluation of the election procedure. Composed of a single representative from each party in Parliament, the main conclusion of this working group is that the current procedure for the election of the President should be changed. The President of Latvia should be elected by the people of Latvia in direct, general, equal and secret elections.

On June 12, most of the members of Parliaments’ Legal Commission (5 votes “FOR”, 3 votes “AGAINST”) supported the amendments to the Constitution proposed by the opposition party, the Association of the Regions of Latvia, which stipulates an open ballot for the election of the President by parliament. The representatives from the Unity and the National Alliance “For All Latvia” – “Fatherland and Freedom” / LNNK, supported the amendments, while most of the members of the Green and Farmers’ Union did not vote.

On June 20, President Vejonis said, in effect, that an open ballot was not open enough. The President pointed out that, even before an open vote, political parties agree on how they will vote, and it is not possible for each MP to express an individual opinion, because of party loyalty.

The debate is ongoing and this will be followed up in future posts.

Claudia Generoso de Almeida and Benja Satula – Only one man for two jobs: the leadership transition in Angola

This is a guest post by Claudia Generoso de Almeida – Researcher at the Center for International Studies of the University Institute of Lisbon (CEI-IUL) – and Benja Satula – Law Professor and Coordinator of the Center for Research in Law at the
Catholic University of Angola (UCAN)

Since the legislative elections on 23 August 2017, Angola has been experiencing a new political era. Power transferred from the incumbent President José Eduardo dos Santos (JES), the second-longest serving president in Africa, to Joao Lourenço (JLO), the former defense minister.

For the first time since independence, the two sources of power – the presidency and the MPLA party – are not controlled by the same person, as JES still holds the ruling party leadership. This watershed moment in the country’s political history has stimulated the debate on the so-called dual power (poder bicéfalo) and on the cohabitation of these two strong men. However, this “two strong men” situation will not last long. JES will no longer be the MPLA leader after the party’s Extraordinary Congress, which is already scheduled for September of this year. The process of leadership transition in Angola shows us the puzzling relationship between strong presidents and strong parties in presidential and dominant party systems in Africa.

Angola’s two sources of power: the party and the presidency

Angola is ruled by the MPLA, a former liberation movement which has been shaping the political trajectory of this oil-rich country since its independence in 1975. The MPLA was able to consolidate its hegemonic power with “uncompromising mastery” and with a close symbiosis between the party and the state, despite the long civil war (1975-1991; 1993-2002).[1] Today, the country has a dominant party system, as the MPLA has won every election since the end of civil war in 2002 with more than 60% of the votes.[2]

The country not only has historically dominant party, but also a president with reinforced powers. Until 2017, the two leaderships (party and presidency) have only known two names: Agostinho Neto and, after his death in 1979, JES. The end of the war through MPLA’s military victory combined with an economic boom based on oil prices allowed JES to create a parallel neopatrimonial state gravitating around his presidency and Sonangol, the state-own oil company. This gave the president the power to control and distribute state resources and revenues to his entourage, in particular his family members. Nevertheless, this Big Manruler still needed the party to ensure and strengthen his power, which happened in 2010.

The presidential power boost: the 2010 constitution

 On 21 January 2010 the National Assembly, which was dominated by the MPLA,[3] passed – with the boycott of the main opposition party (UNITA) and subject to severe criticisms – a new constitution, which extended the president’s formal powers. Angola no longer has a semi-presidential system, but rather a presidential one. The president is now not only the head of state and the commander-in-chief of the Angolan Armed Forces, but also the head of the executive, as the post of prime minister was abolished.[4]Moreover, this constitution allowed JES to legally remain head of state until 2022.

One of the great changes within this constitution is that the president is no longer directly elected. Instead, the person that heads the list of the party or coalition of parties that receives the most votes in the general election will automatically become president.[5]Although the president “controls everything“, there is one very important detail to keep in mind: the president depends on the support of the majority party which selects him as the head of the party list, and consequently owes obedience to the party and to the party’s leader. In short, the party leadership is very important to the state leadership.

The presidency plus the party:  the superpower formula or the only way to govern?

Under the current MPLA statutes, the party has a great influence on the executive. In fact, it is the party that establishes and is responsible for guiding and monitoring the government programme.[6] Also, the composition of the president’s executive team and the appointment to other positions in the state administration need the endorsement of the party’s Political Bureau, which is chaired by the party’s president.[7]

As the MPLA has itself acknowledged, the party is experiencing an unprecedented and historic moment: a leadership transition while the current party president is still alive. According to some anonymous sources, this transition has been anything but smooth: 1) JLO was not JES’ first choice as a successor[8], 2) JES attempted to revert to the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections, 3) JES was almost absent during JLO’s electoral campaign, 4) JES’ last acts of governance, in particular to control the security sector[9], 5) JES tried to interfere with the composition of the new executive team and with the appointment of provincial governors by the new president, and finally 6)  JES intended to postpone the Extraordinary Congress to April 2019 to supposedly supervise the preparation of the local elections, which caused discomfort within the party.

All of these aspects consolidated the fear of a dual power (Bicefalia), which would hamper JLO’s governance, and there was a need to remove JES from the party presidency as soon as possible in order to reconfigure the party chessboard in favor of the new president and to empower his capacity of action. However, this removal has been helped by JES’ own promise and with the MPLA’s insistence that the president keep his word. In March 2016, JES publicly announced his intention to leave active political life in 2018. This announcement was made during a period of a severe economic crisis, low popularity levels of both the president and the MPLA, and with a president who was distant from the party.

Surprisingly, JLO, as the new MPLA head-of-list candidate for the 2017 elections, was enthusiastically received by the population, especially thanks to his speeches against corruption. This enthusiasm increased as soon as the new president started to govern. Indeed, the so-called JLO “bulldozer” made a great deal of changes in several strategic areas, affecting JES’ close circle.[10]

“The September Spring”, but still a dangerous hegemonic logic of power

The leadership transition started with the 2017 elections and will culminate in September of this year with the consecration of the MPLA Vice President JLO as the new MPLA president during the VI Extraordinary Congress, as announced on the 25th of May at the end of the 2nd Extraordinary Session of the MPLA Central Committee. In this Extraordinary Congress, there will be no competition, only a leadership succession.

However, this unique moment in the political history of Angola shows us the primacy of a dangerous hegemonic logic of power – only one man for two jobs (presidency and party) – and the lack of checks and balances. Contrary to several cases such as in the ANC (South Africa), in the MPLA as well in the FRELIMO (Mozambique), the leadership transition started first at the state level and then culminated at the party level. This reminds us of the importance of controlling the dominant party, which in turn has a symbiotic relationship with the state.

The “September Spring” is awaited with great expectations by both MPLA militants and Angolan society: will it constitute a real change, or will it be the same old thing? Will JLO restore semi-presidentialism and/or promote intraparty democracy? Well, for now, JLO seems to need the power that is provided by the state and party leaderships to govern with minimum constraints for two mandates and leave a legacy.

Notes

[1]See Christine Messiant, 2007, “The Mutation of Hegemonic Domination: Multiparty Politics without Democracy,” in Angola, the Weight of History, edited by Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal, 93-123, London: Hurst, and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, 2015, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the civil war, London: Hurst.

[2]2008, 2012, and 2017 elections.

[3]The MPLA had 191 of a total of 220 parliamentary seats.

[4]Art. 108 of the constitution. The president also appoints the judges of the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and the Court Audit (art. 119).

[5]Art. 109 of the constitution.

[6]Art. 86 (3) (k) of the MPLA statutes (2017).

[7]Art. 86 (3) (b) of the MPLA statutes (2017).

[8] JLO was the MPLA’s general secretary between 1998 and 2003, and he was removed from office due to his public declarations on JES’ announcement in 2001 of his non re-election to the presidency in the second multiparty elections. JLO then declared that JES should keep his word and leave power voluntarily.

[9]The presidential decree of 11 September 2018 determined on that same date the beginning of the term of office of the commander general of the National Police and the chief of intelligence service and military security until 2025.

[10]In Angola’s central bank; in the diamond sector (Endiama); in the oil sector, removing JES’ daughter Isabel dos Santos from presidency of the state oil company Sonangol; in the police and security sector, replacing the chiefof police and the headof the intelligence service; and in the media sector (TPA, RNA, Edições Novembro, and Angop), putting end to the contracts with Semba Comunicação, a company whose partners are both sons of José Eduardo dos Santos. Also, José Filomeno dos Santos, JES’ son who has been head of the national sovereign wealth fund since 2013, is accused of the looting of US $500 million from Angola’s central bank.

Tunisia – Sliding back towards presidential authoritarianism?

From its independence to the January 2011 uprising, presidentialism in Tunisia was synonymous with dictatorship. Indeed, former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali had both concentrated power in their own hands, with the legislative and judiciary branches acting as extensions of this power. In the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution, the interim government and later the elected constitutional assembly opted for a semi-presidential system. Indeed, nearly all political parties agreed that such a system was essential to decentralize executive power in order to prevent the return of an authoritarian presidentialism. However, in the last few years, the current President, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, has been arguing that a lack of centralized executive power is preventing Tunisia from progressing both in its political reforms and its economic development. Could this be an early sign that Tunisia is slipping back into a form of authoritarianism?

Presidential authoritarianism: Bourguiba and Ben Ali

After years of civil unrest and guerilla warfare, Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, a member of the nationalist New Constitutional Liberal Party (commonly known as Neo Destour), became prime minister following elections held in the last days of the French protectorate. Bourguiba quickly enacted measures to solidify his position. After setting up special courts to prosecute former collaborationists and his enemies in the nationalist movement, Bourguiba maneuvered to oust the Bey and head of state, Muhammad VIII al-Amin by pressuring the national assembly into declaring a republic and then assumed the title of president. During Bourguiba’s rule, dissent was stifled. Bourguiba stressed that Tunisian democracy was to be an expression of national unity. Opposition parties were barely tolerated and Tunisia’s bicameral legislative body, comprised only of Neo Destour members, was but a rubber stamp parliament. Indeed, after serving three five-year terms as president, Bourguiba was named “president for life” by this parliament in 1975. Bourguiba’s presidency ceased only when, in 1987, prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali summoned a group of medical professionals who officially declared the ailing president mentally and physically incapable of exercising his duties

As the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the prime minister would succeed the president in the case of the latter’s death or severe illness, Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba as president of Tunisia following what was to be called the 1987 “medical coup”. Initially, Ben Ali cultivated the image of a political reformer keen on introducing a more representative democracy in the nation. Indeed, his political rhetoric relied on terms such as democracy, further economic integration with Europe, as well as individual freedoms and rights. Seemingly in order to prove his good will in these matters, in 1988 Ben Ali introduced a constitutional amendment abolishing the lifelong presidency and capping term limits to two five year mandates. However, as the years went by, it became clear that Ben Ali was only interested in democracy as a façade. Indeed, while a few seats were set aside for opposition parties in parliament, Neo Destour members constituted its vast majority. Further constitutional amendments only confirmed the authoritarian nature of Ben Ali’s regime: in 1997, a third term was added to the previous two-term presidential limit; and in 2002, term limits were abolished altogether, ushering in a de facto return of the lifelong presidency.

The January 2011 revolution and the Essebsi presidency

In January 2011, Tunisians went to the streets demanding freedom, dignity and equality. Moreover, one of the protesters’ staunchest demands was the departure of Ben Ali from the presidency. After a few weeks of public unrest, Ben Ali fled the country with his family, being granted political asylum in Saudi Arabia. A new interim government was established, with former Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannushi becoming pro tempore president. The neo Destour party was formally dissolved. One day after being appointed president, Ghannushi resigned and was succeeded by Fouad Mebazaa. The interim government quickly announced elections for a constituent assembly, which were held in October. The constituent assembly later announced, in December, that during the transition period, which was to end when Tunisia had a new constitution, Moncef Marzouki was to succeed Mebazaa as president.

The new constitution of Tunisia of 2014 limits the mandate of a president to two five-year terms and imposes checks from the legislative, judiciary and part of the executive branches on the office of the presidency. Indeed, under the new system, the direction of the government is explicitly assigned to the Prime Minister, who is responsible before the legislative branch. The first president to be elected under the new constitution is the incumbent, Beji Caid Essebsi (sworn in in December 2014), with Mehdi Jomaa as Prime Minister. It soon became apparent, however, that Essebsi had a view of the presidency that was closer to that of Bourguiba. Nowadays, despite the strong presence of the islamist Ennahdha party in parliament and their apparent commitment to upholding the gains of the 2014 constitution, Essebsi is busy building a personality cult and has repeatedly complained to the press of the inadequacies of the 2014 constitution. Indeed, in a 2016 interview with the national daily La Presse, Essebsi laid out his plan to eventually amend the constitution to disentangle the “interwoven powers” of the executive branch in order to concentrate them in the office of the presidency. A major factor in government inefficiency, he added, was the “independent constitutional bodies”, that is, the independent agencies mandated by the constitution to monitor elections and combat corruption. Moreover, Essebsi, following the example of Bourguiba, has extended the powers of the presidency. On one hand, he has begun acting as an arbitrator in legislative affairs, making the Prime minister a simple instrument through which presidential prescriptions are applied; on the other hand, he has yet to set up the Constitutional Court, which was supposed to have been operational by January 2015.

Conclusion

Tunisia’s new constitution was designed to prevent the return of authoritarian presidentialism. However, “the strength of a constitution depends on the political determination to breathe life into the letter and the spirit of it”1. With the Tunisian economy still weak seven years after the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians understandably feel that further political and economic reforms are urgently needed. If these are not undertaken soon, there is a definite chance that the electorate, in desperation, will agree with president Essebsi that the current constitutionalist regime needs to be overhauled to bolster the powers of the presidency.

Notes

  1. Thierry Brésillon (2017). Tunisia: towards the restoration of personal power [online at orientxxi.info]

The author would like to thank Alessandra Bonci for her advice on writing this blog post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential Influence over Government Formation Process: Towards a Classification

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

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

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

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

Table: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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