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Martial Law and Presidential Powers in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Serhiy Kudelia, Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor University

Since November 28, 2018 ten oblasts (provinces) in Ukraine have been operating under the provisions of the ‘martial law.’ President Petro Poroshenko introduced it in response to violent seizure of 3 Ukraine military vessels and arrest of 24 sailors by Russian coast guard ships in the Kerch strait. The Ukrainian parliament’s confirmation of the president’s decree followed a day of bargaining during which he agreed to limit the duration of the law to 30 days and restricted its operation only to the provinces neighboring Russia or Russia-controlled territories (such as Transnistria).

Some viewed the exercise of legislative checks on the desires of the president as an example of Ukrainian “messy democracy” at work since the longer duration of the ‘martial law’ or, rather, a ‘state of siege’ would have interfered with the formal start of the presidential campaign and delayed the election now officially scheduled for March 31, 2019. Since then president Poroshenko has sent mixed signals about his intentions. On one hand, he has resolutely dismissed the possibility that ‘martial law’ would be a pretext for canceling election suggesting that it would only be to the benefit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other, he also admitted that ‘martial law’ could be extended as long as Russian aggression continues – setting a very low bar for its possible renewal given ongoing Russian interference in Donbas and occupation of Crimea.

And there is a strong incentive for the president to do so. With the presidential election just four months away only 10% of respondents indicated in the recent poll that they were willing to vote for him in the first round. Also, every second Ukrainian says that they will not vote for the incumbent president under any circumstances. Losing the re-election bid will become not only a political setback for Poroshenko, but represent a personal threat. Over the last few years he was the target of multiple corruption allegations by former political partners and activists. Hence, the loss of power raises the risks that the new institutions established during his presidency may ultimately turn against him.    

 If the president ultimately chooses to demand the extension of the ‘martial law’ and, hence, postpone the election, he is likely to succeed in imposing his preference on the parliament. As I showed in my recent article in Post-Soviet Affairs, Ukraine’s premier-presidential model still allows the president to overpower the parliament on key issues, such as the composition of the cabinet and the tenure of prime minister. Without any formal powers to dismiss the government, three Ukrainian presidents operating under premier-presidentialism successfully achieved a turnover of three governments (in 2007; 2010; 2016) and only one attempt of government replacement by the president failed (2008). In all successful cases Ukrainian presidents had an advantage over other actors in informal powers that allowed them to reach well beyond the establish constitutional limits on their formal power. As long as they had a decisive say over the security apparatus and the courts, presidents could use their informal leverage to achieve favorable outcomes in confrontations with the legislature and the cabinet.

The new emergency powers granted to president Petro Poroshenko extend into three broad spheres and reinforce his informal authority. The first area is the relationship between citizens and the state. Based on the presidential decree the head of state can unilaterally limit some of the fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens guaranteed under the twelve articles of the Constitution. Among them are the rights to privacy and confidentiality of personal data, freedoms of speech, movement and assembly and ownership rights. The president can now rule to expropriate personal property, ban rallies or demonstrations, introduce curfews or restrict individual movement.

The second sphere is the intra-executive relationship with the cabinet and prime minister. The law on the ‘State of Siege’ allows the president to supersede prime minister informing regional executive administrations if they get transformed into military administrations. In this case the heads of military administrations are selected by the president on recommendation of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. He also acquires the full authority to decide on the structure and the staff of the local executive (Art. 4, Sec. 5). This, in effect, excludes the government from exercising any serious influence over the local governments.

The third sphere is the functioning of democratic institutions, particularly media and elections. The law allows the president acting through local chiefs and military commanders in each province to “regulate” the functioning of media outlets, influence its programming and close them down in case of the violations of ‘martial law’ requirements (Art. 8, Sec.11-12). It also unequivocally bans holding any elections or referenda on the national or local levels for the duration of the ‘state of siege’ (Art. 19). The key institutions of accountability of the authorities would thus either become suspended or seriously circumscribed in their operation.

Together these ‘emergency powers’ give the president broad discretionary powers over citizens, state officials and politicians. They also elevate the status of the presidency above other state institutions with the Commander-in-Chief now having a final say on key national matters. The new arsenal of informal powers improves president’s chances of persuading the parliament to extend the ‘state of siege’ beyond the initial 30 days if he chooses to do so.

The extension of the ‘martial law’ may serve a number of purposes. It enables the president to start informal bargaining with the current front runners, particularly Yulia Tymoshenko, on security guarantees following his likely exit. It also allows to shift the focus away from economic problems and increase the salience of national security issues int he campaign. Over the last two weeks Poroshenko frequently appeared in army uniform meeting military personnel and planning defense operations. Finally, martial law may serve as an elite coordination instrument that can help, for now, to prevent potential defections from his party to stronger contenders.

Since the imposition of the ‘martial law’ anywhere in Ukraine automatically prohibits removal of the president, the government and the parliament (Art. 10), Poroshenko will find many allies in key positions of power interested in minimizing the uncertainties related to the upcoming electoral cycle. This strategy, however, can only be a temporary solution for the ruling elites. If Poroshenko decides to choose existing security threats as a justification for extending his power his legitimacy at home and abroad will inevitably suffer creating the potential for even greater instability than following President Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014.

Ukraine – Parliament Declares Martial Law

On Monday, November 26th, the Ukrainian parliament approved presidential decree “On Institution of Martial Law in Ukraine.” The measure was passed with 276 votes in favour during an extraordinary session of parliament. The decree was put forward by President Poroshenko on advice of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine in response to Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 sailors in Kerch Strait on Sunday.

Before the martial law was approved, the President was forced to compromise on a number of points. First, the initial decree requested that martial law be introduced for 60 days. Lawmakers only agreed to 30 days. It came into effect at 9am on November 28 and will be in place until December 27. Initial proposal also suggested that martial law would be introduced on the entire territory of Ukraine. But per the approved law, it will cover only 10 regions and territories along the Russian boarder, the Sea of Azov and the Black sea.

Second, lawmakers insisted on the relaxation of the proposed limits on the rights and freedoms of citizens. To reassure the citizens, the Parliament voted not to debate the martial law proposal in closed session but instead the debate was televised on national TV. On his website, the President insisted that the decree was proposed mainly as a security measure and assured that he did not intend any restrictions to citizens’ rights. The President also noted that neither partial nor full mobilization was envisioned unless the conflict escalates further.

Finally, during the Parliamentary session, lawmakers demanded assurances that introduction of martial law will not affect the holding of presidential elections early next year. Only 5 minutes after the Parliament voted in favour of martial law, it approved a law officially setting the date of the next presidential election for March 31, 2019.

These recent political events generated two main concerns. First, of course, comes the issue of security, territorial integrity, and independence of Ukraine. Russia has denied any wrong-doing. However, other countries and international organizations have supported Ukraine. During a press conference, NATO’s chief stated that “there is no justification for the use of military force against Ukrainian ships and military personnel” and demanded that ships and sailors be immediately released. Concerns about what the attack and declaration of martial law could mean for the security in the region are high. President Poroshenko was careful to insist that “martial law does not mean declaring war. It is introduced with the sole purpose of boosting Ukraine’s defense in the light of a growing aggression from Russia.” He also noted that it did not mean that Ukraine either gave up or was not amenable to diplomatic solutions to the crisis, insisting that Ukraine will continue to comply with the Minsk agreement and all other international obligations.

Second, what impact will the introduction of martial law have on the political situation in the country, especially on the upcoming presidential elections? The opposition has accused the President of using martial law to divert public attention from his failing popularity. Some even expressed concerns that martial law will allow the possibility of postponing or cancelling the election complete. According to opinion polls, only 5-10 percent of citizens were ready to vote for him in the last couple of months. Less than 15 percent trusted the President. However, other presidential candidates have similar low levels of support and trust. For instance, 75 percent of those surveys did not trust Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main candidates running for president next year.

The next couple of months will be critical for Ukraine and its President. On the one hand, it will be important to secure territorial integrity of the country and avoid escalation of the crisis. On the other hand, the President will need to ensure that he keeps his word and that free and fair elections do take place as scheduled on March 31, 2019. In the words of the recent Foreign Policy dispatch: “Martial law is a test. Will Ukraine’s democracy pass?”

Bumps in the road for Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera

In a previous post, I described how in the few months since inauguration day (March 11th, 2018), Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera had been successful at exploiting the weaknesses and political differences of the legislative opposition. A couple of months later, some things have changed.

It seems President Piñera enjoyed a rather short “honeymoon”. In August, he carried out his first cabinet reshuffle in an effort to calm down critiques aimed at some of his ministers. However, Piñera did not foresee that appointing politician and writer Mauricio Rojas as Minister of the Cultures would trigger a brief, yet intense, backlash against the latter. Mauricio Rojas was widely criticized for comments he made years earlier against the History and Human Rights Museum inaugurated by former President Michelle Bachelet in order to honour the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, which the newly appointed minister labelled as a montage and a farce. As a result, Rojas was forced to resign just 96 hours after being appointed.

As expected, the Piñera administration did not come out of the situation looking good. Rojas’s remarks were well known and the reactions against them would not have been hard to anticipate. This was a serious mistake by Piñera and his advisors, whom the President keeps very close. Furthermore, not only did this event fail to silence critics of the cabinet, but in fact steered the public debate toward topics such as human rights and the Pinochet dictatorship, which the right-of-centre ruling coalition has never felt comfortable discussing in public. All of this occurred just weeks before Chile’s September 11th, which remembers the military coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973, and the 30thanniversary of the referendum that voted Pinochet out (October 5th, 1988).

In addition to lower-than-expected economic growth, these events have weakened Piñera’s popularity. More importantly, La Moneda does not seem to control the agenda as it did until last April. Moreover, the President’s bill for the 2019 Public Budget is not off to a smooth start, since the ruling coalition does not hold a majority in Congress. Piñera will have to struggle and bargain a little more than he might have expected in order to get his budget bill approved.

On the other hand, the legislative opposition, although still fragmented and disorganized, has begun to show some signs of recovery. For instance, most of the critiques against ill-fated Minister Rojas came from the left-of-centre, which made Piñera pay for appointing him. Likewise, part of the opposition sought to initiate a constitutional accusation against three Supreme Court justices, who have voted to free several criminals sentenced for human right violations. Some in the Left denounced La Moneda for meddling in the voting and siding with the judges. Even though votes in favour of this initiative ultimately fell short in an apparently small victory for the Piñera administration, it seems that at least part of the opposition have set their political differences aside in order to curb the President’s influence.

Since March 2018, Chile’s Congress has been more diverse and has more legislators who do not belong to the two traditional electoral coalitions. While greater difficulties were expected in the coordination and maintaining of discipline in legislative parties, particularly among new ones, this does not seem to be the case yet. Just days ago, a report by Oñate and Toro (2018) of Demodata came out, which looked at congressional behaviour in the Chamber of Deputies between March and September 2018. The results show that members of the newly-formed leftist conglomerate, Frente Amplio, have higher levels of both party and coalition loyalty than any other group in the legislature. Moreover, these findings suggest that Piñera, in addition to lacking a majority in Congress, has also to deal with a disciplined legislative opposition, even more so than the right-of-centre ruling alliance parties of Chile Vamos.

Notwithstanding this strengthening of the Left, there are still many barriers the legislative opposition need to overcome should they desire to counterbalance La Moneda’s power. The constitutional accusation failed because the Christian Democrats and Radicals did not side with the rest of the opposition. Also, even though the last few months have been harder-than-anticipated for La Moneda, the political scenario is certainly not hostile towards Piñera. The President is relying on improving the country’s economic situation. Having campaigned on “recovering” the economy following the Bachelet administration and emphasizing his business acumen, the hope for a more dynamic economy is perhaps one of the main reasons why Piñera won, and what people are expecting from his presidency. The next few months will tell if Piñera can make good on his promises.

Ukrainian Parliament Appoints a New Central Election Commission

Last week, after a 4-year delay, Ukrainian Parliament appointed 14 new members of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The process of replacing CEC commissioners whose terms expired has started more than 2 years ago. After years of failed attempts, the appointment of new commissioners has been determined to be one of the main tasks on the agenda of the 9th session of the Ukrainian parliament.

According to the Law on the Central Electoral Commission, Parliament appoints and dismisses 15 members of the CEC on the proposal of the president. Their term in office is 7 years. The size of the commission was increased to 17 on September 18, 2018. The president is supposed to take the proposals of political parties into account during the nomination process. The terms of 12 of the 15 commissioners expired in 2014, and another member reached the end of his 7th year in office in 2017. With quickly approaching presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, the policy-makers have agreed that the issue could no longer be postponed and had to be addressed as soon as possible.

Many have argued that the old CEC have long lost its credibility. Its members have been nominated by the Party of Regions led by President Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted in 2014. Furthermore, since 2016, its chairman has been under investigation for receiving illegal bribes. Given the salience and importance of the composition of the commission, the process of appointing a new CEC in Ukraine has been on-going for a couple of years now. The first attempt to replace the commission was made in June 2016 but at the time the process stalled.

On January 23, 2018, the president dismissed members of the Central Election Commission and signed a motion for the appointment of the new CEC. He followed it with a proposal of 14 new members in February. However, the Parliament failed to vote on the presidential proposal during its 8th session. Earlier this month, the president expressed his frustration on Facebook, writing that “the Verkhovna Rada should consider my presidential submission, which has been in parliament for more than a year, and elect a new composition of the CEC.”

On September 20, the Parliament successfully approved 14 new members of the CEC. The new partisan composition of the Central Electoral Commission is as follows:

Bloc Petro Poroshenko – 6 members

People’s Front – 3 members

Revival – 1 member

Batkivshchyna – 1 member

Self-Reliance – 1 member

People’s Will – 1 member

Radical Party – 1 member

Svoboda – 1 – remained in her post (until 2021)

UDAR – 1 – remained in his post (until 2021)

1 seat is currently vacant and is expected to be given to the Opposition Bloc

The members were proposed by political parties in proportion to their representation in Parliament. The only odd seat is the one which remained with UDAR. The party merged with the Bloc Petro Poroshenko in 2015.

The new CEC will organize the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and will play a critical role in ensuring that elections are conducted in a free and fair manner.

The Czech Republic – Babiš’ new cabinet and symptoms of illiberal democracy

On 12th July 2018 the lengthy government formation process that had been taking place since the 2017 parliamentary elections finally came to an end. The second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

The protracted government formation process was a consequence of several factors including:

  • the fragmented Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 elections,
  • the presence of an anti-establishment, left-wing party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and an anti-establishment right-wing party (the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement),
  • a police investigation and other controversies in relation to the dominant figure of the largest parliamentary party, ANO 2011, Andrej Babiš, who was at the same time the only real candidate for prime ministership,
  • the reluctance of most of the other parties to collaborate with ANO 2011,
  • the role of President Miloš Zeman, who consistently supported Babiš as the new prime minister and who allowed no room for an alternative cabinet excluding Andrej Babiš.

The right-wing and liberal parliamentary parties ruled out the possibility of joining ANO 2011 in a new coalition, although Babiš called on the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to establish a two-party majority coalition. At the same time, however, Babiš did not want to seek support from the KSČM and SPD, two strongly Eurosceptical parties, undermining the hitherto Czech consensus on its clear pro-Western orientation. Thus, at first, Babiš attempted to form a minority ANO 2011 cabinet that was appointed by Miloš Zeman in December 2017. Not surprisingly, this cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

In line with the constitution, Babiš’ cabinet remained in office as an acting cabinet until a new cabinet could be appointed. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the winner of the 2013 elections (and major loser of the 2017 elections), was now encouraged as well as tempted to join Babiš’ cabinet for fear of being marginalized in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the party lacked a charismatic leader in contrast to Babiš, as well as clear and credible policies on a number of issues. The party, which found itself in a major leadership and policy crisis, faced a major dilemma. On the one hand, joining the government would bring it at least short-term benefits. On the other hand, joining the cabinet appeared highly risky. This is because, first, Babiš is still under police investigation due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. In addition, the European Anti Fraud Office’s report (which was leaked to the press) confirmed that Babiš was directly involved in the fraud. Second, Babiš, the Minister of Finance in the 2014-2017 cabinet, skilfully communicated with the media to claim credit for government successes, while shifting blame on the social democrats for government failures

The ČSSD was badly divided on the issue of whether to join the cabinet with ANO 2011. The February party congress gave no definitive answer to this question, although party leaders were inclined to support the government option, and the party decided to hold an intra-party referendum. Even before the referendum result was announced, the ČSSD had embarked on negotiations with ANO 2011. President Zeman, who still has considerable influence over the ČSSD, encouraged the party to join Babiš’ cabinet. The referendum result gave the party a green light to carry on the negotiations with ANO 2011. However, the first round of talks ended in failure in April, as ANO 2011 proved unwilling to allow the ČSSD to take the seat of the Ministry of Interior, an important position controlling the police and indirectly affecting the investigation of Mr. Babiš and his alleged EU subsidy fraud. The ČSSD leaders, the party chairman Jan Hamáček and his deputy Jiří Zimola, visited President Zeman, who – according to some journalists – advised the ČSSD to insist on their requirements (including the position of the Minister of Interior).  Zeman was strongly interested in the success of the government formation with Mr. Babiš as Prime Minister, given the fact that he had consistently supported this option since the 2017 elections. The negotiations between the ANO 2011 and ČSSD resumed and both parties agreed on a minority coalition cabinet that was appointed by President Zeman in June 2018. In addition, Andrej Babiš negotiated an external support for the coalition provided by the KSČM.

The reputation of the newly appointed cabinet was tainted by the resignation of two ministers when the media found out that their university master’s theses were plagiarized. However, the most significant event was Zeman’s refusal to appoint a ČSSD nominee for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Poche. Zeman argued that Poche, currently an MEP, held a pro-immigration policy, which was unacceptable for Zeman, Babiš, and majority of the Czech population. Commentators speculated that this publicly announced reason was a mere pretext for the real cause of the refusal: President Zeman was resolved to demonstrate his power over the ČSSD and his influence over the cabinet as a whole. Babiš, having no interest in complicating the government formation whatsoever, did not insist on Poche and accepted Zeman’s position.

There has been a political as well as academic debate as to whether the Czech president has the right to refuse the Prime Minister’s nominee for a minister. There is a consensus that the president has no such right, but given the fact that Prime Minister did not push for Poche and did not wish to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court, there is no way to force Zeman to appoint Mr. Poche. Instead, both President Zeman and the Prime Minister Babiš expect another nominee from the ČSSD camp. Although this move was an act of political humiliation for the ČSSD, its leaders have so far been unable to suggest a solution and the ČSSD’s chairman Jan Hamáček temporarily took the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs alongside the position of the Minister of Interior. The ČSSD announced it would solve the problem only after the October municipal elections. As stated above, the second Babiš cabinet won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, so the Czech Republic finally has a fully-fledged cabinet after some 10 months.

In terms of President Zeman’s power over the government formation process, he undoubtedly played an important role. Whereas in the case of the first (unsuccessful) Babiš cabinet, Zeman’s role can be assessed as a notary, perhaps even regulator (given Zeman’s clear preferences and active support for Mr. Babiš), his role increased with the second Babiš cabinet and he can be classified as “co-designer”, because Zeman openly, consistently and strongly insisted that Babiš would be the new prime minister, blocking any alternative cabinets. In addition, he rejected the appointment of Mr. Poche. Also, the Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Toman (although formally a ČSSD member), was clearly Zeman’s man demonstrating the president’s influence over the cabinet.

Against the background of the government formation process, one should not overlook less noticeable, yet highly important, trends in the Czech politics. First, the Communists gained a direct influence over the government for the first time after 1989. (Mr. Babiš was also a Communist Party member as well as a registered co-worker of the Czechoslovak Secret Police before 1989). The KSČM remains outside the government, but provided its support for the cabinet in the July vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for a couple of policy requirements including passing a law on referendums, an increase in the minimal wage or the taxation of Church restitution. (The law on Church restitution was approved in 2012 in order to compensate for the nationalization of Church property after the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia). In sum, KSČM’s direct influence on the cabinet has a great symbolic importance putting to an end one of the major constants of the post-1989 politics.

Second, whereas in the post-1989 era a strong pro-Western consensus, including the EU as well as NATO membership, prevailed both in the Czech society and political elites as the only reasonable and legitimate foreign policy, this consensus is currently being undermined, especially by the KSČM, the SPD and also by Miloš Zeman, who is well-known for his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policy. Andrej Babiš, is, however, a pragmatic politician advocating a firm Czech membership in the EU, yet also pursuing a strict anti-immigration policy.

Third, clear illiberal tendencies (both in terms of rhetoric and actions) have appeared in the Czech Republic, thus resembling other countries in the region (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary). Notably, President Zeman can be blamed for this negative trend: Zeman is known for flattering the authoritarian regime in Russia and China, attacking the independent and quality media, attending the KSČM’s party congress, and sympathizing with xenophobic forces in the Czech Republic. To be sure, other actors responsible for the illiberal tendencies can be mentioned, two parliamentary parties, KSČM and SPD, and the Prime Minister Mr. Babi, who has tried to remove some checks and balances, e.g. by proposing the abolition of the upper parliamentary Chamber and who is the de facto owner of a huge business and media empire.

The Czech Republic is currently awaiting October municipal and Senate elections. The municipal elections in large cities, as well as the Senate elections, are considered to be a test of public support for the major parliamentary parties (which are almost non-existent in most of smaller municipalities) and in turn for (il) liberal democracy in the country.

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.