Tag Archives: Presidential powers

Romania – President postpones anti-corruption referendum

Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation between centre-right President Iohannis and PM Grindeanu of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) seems to contain all the key ingredients of high inter-executive conflict: a tense relationship between the president, the cabinet and the parliament fuelled by mass anti-government demonstrations, referendum threats, and the ever present warnings of presidential suspension.

For several weeks in January and February 2017, Romania has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1989. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest government plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions. The government maintained that the amnesty and pardon measures were necessary in order to get the Criminal Codes in line with recent Constitutional Court rulings, reduce prison overcrowding, and prevent sanctions from the European Court of Human Rights due to the poor quality of detention conditions. However, the avoidance of transparent public debate on such important issues and the use of nearly clandestine means to pass draft decrees were perceived as attempts to reverse the anti-corruption fight led by the country’s national anticorruption directorate (DNA) and its chief prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kövesi.

President Iohannis has played an active role during the protests. Since the beginning of his new cohabitation with a Social-Democratic government, the head of state singled out the continuation of the anti-corruption fight as one of his priorities for the rest of his term. Thus, as soon as the new ministers’ took office in early January, he warned them against trying to pass amnesty and pardon legislation that would potentially undermine Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. Then he prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree regarding the pardon of certain detainees and the amendments to the Penal Code by showing up unexpectedly at the cabinet meeting held on 18 January. The government’s plan to commute some sentences was also criticised by members of the judiciary, including the General Prosecutor and the Supreme Council of Magistracy (CSM).

On 22 January, the president joined protesters in Bucharest, who demanded that the government abandons the emergency ordinance and other plans to weaken the rule of law. Critics said his involvement in the protests was a flagrant violation of his constitutional role as a mediator between political actors. The following day, the head of state took another step forward in his confrontation with PM Grindeanu’s cabinet and announced his intention to put the government’s amnesty bill to referendum. Under Article 90 of the Romanian Constitution, the president can call a consultative referendum on a “matter of national interest”. The parliament needs to be consulted, but obtaining its approval is not mandatory. However, as the Constitution does not allow organising polls on fiscal matters, amnesty, or pardon, the referendum topic was transformed into the continuation of the fight against corruption and the integrity of the public office.

PSD leader and Chamber of Deputies Speaker Liviu Dragnea reacted by announcing that the government also plans to hold two new referendums in spring: one on the definition of traditional family, which would effectively translate into a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples; and the other one on removing immunity for elected officials, including the head of state. Proposals to hold the government and the president’s referendums on the same day were also made.

As it is known, the cabinet went ahead and adopted the controversial emergency ordinance 13 (OUG13) that decriminalised official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (€45,000) in a late-night session cabinet meeting on January 31. The decree also reduced penalties for corruption offences such as abuse of office, conflict of interest, and negligence at work. Following a week of mass anti-government protests that took place across the country on an unprecedented scale, the emergency ordinance was repealed on 5 February before it went into effect. Soon afterwards, the justice minister responsible for the decree stepped down as well. Nevertheless, some protests have continued since then because people are not convinced that the government has given up plans to free corrupted officials.

On 7 February, after the joint legal committees of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate gave a unanimous favourable opinion for the organisation of the referendum, President Iohannis reinforced his commitment to call the referendum as soon as the parliament provided a final response. However, since the parliament approved unanimously the referendum request on 13 February, the president has delayed giving details about the date or the referendum question. More recently, he announced that he has not abandoned the idea of the referendum, but he intends to use it as “insurance policy” in case the government attempts another attack on justice.

The decision to postpone the referendum is motivated by the fact that the street protests alone were successful in forcing the government to repeal the graft decree. In other words, calling the referendum now would be a wasted opportunity to hold the Social-Democrats accountable for an action that has already been reprimanded by the civil society. As the amendment of the Criminal Codes has moved into the parliamentary arena, the referendum threat could be better used as a bargaining tool to ward off future attempts to weaken the criminal law or attack key institutions of the judiciary like the DNA.

There is also the concern that, in the absence of a mobilising question, the referendum could fail because of low voter turnout. The participation threshold for the validation of a referendum has undergone several changes since 2007, when the first referendum to impeach President Băsescu was called. Currently, turnout must surpass 30% of the registered electorate and at least 25% of the votes must be valid for a referendum to be passed by the Constitutional Court.

Recent events suggest that new clashes between the government and the head of state on anti-corruption issues may be imminent. For example, the PSD leader of the legal committee in the Senate proposed several amendments to the pardon draft bill adopted by the Grindeanu cabinet that pardoned corruption crimes like passive and active bribery, influence peddling, and abuse of office. Under pressure from Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and his party leader Dragnea, the senator accepted to withdraw the controversial amendments but only after their debate in the committee. Similar attempts to weaken the anti-corruption legislation cannot be ruled out.

The new Justice Minister is also mounting pressure on the DNA chief prosecutor and the general prosecutor. His attack comes after a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court, which found that the DNA had gone beyond its duties in the investigation on how the government drafted and adopted the controversial OUG13. Moreover, according to the Court decision, the DNA disrupted the normal functioning of the Government and the relationships that must exist between the judicial, executive and legislative. Promptly, the Justice Minister promised to evaluate the activity of the anti-corruption directorate and the public ministry, going as far as to suggest that the general prosecutor Augustin Lazăr and the DNA head Codruţa Kövesi should step down before he makes a decision.

However, the removal of the general prosecutor and the DNA head from office cannot be attained without the president’s agreement, who is unlikely to co-operate on the matter. In fact, following the justice minister’s statement, the president declared himself satisfied with the activity of both chief prosecutors. Coincidently, though, a draft bill introduced by the Senate Speaker Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu that aims to change the system of key nominations in the judiciary is now under debate in the legal committee. While currently the head of state appoints and removes chief prosecutors on the proposal of the justice minister and the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), under the new law the appointment and removal of top prosecutors would be decided only by the CSM.

The ruling PSD-ALDE coalition might also entertain the option of suspending the president. The possibility was first evoked in December 2016, when President Iohannis turned down PSD’s first nomination of Sevil Shhaideh as prime minister without motivating his decision. Since then, the president recidivated and angered the leaders of the ruling coalition on a number of occasions – for example, when he showed up unexpectedly to chair the cabinet meeting on 18 January;  when he joined anti-government protesters; when he asked the CSM and the Ombudsman to notify the Constitutional Court about the conflict between the government and the judiciary and challenge the constitutionality of OUG13; and when he delivered a harsh speech in parliament on 7 February. Consequently, on 8 March, the parliament adopted a political declaration that accused President Iohannis and the CSM of “abuse of law” and “usurpation” of the parliament’s right to hold the government accountable. Both the president and the CSM had filed complaints to the Constitutional Court about OUG13 that were eventually dismissed by the Court. The parliament’s act does not have any immediate consequences, but it was interpreted as a way of putting pressure on the president and the judiciary and even as a first step towards suspending the president.

Thus, given the multitude of tactics that ruling Social-Democrats can deploy to get their way with passing the controversial changes to corruption laws through parliament, the president might not need to wait a long time before he decides to play the referendum card. The role that the opposition parties will play in this process remains to be seen. The National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) continue to be divided, searching for strong leaders and a clear vision of how to react to current events. The two parties were only able to co-operate in calling a no-confidence vote against PM Grindeanu’s cabinet, which was easily defeated on 8 February. Both parties will be electing their leadership in the national congresses that will take place in May (USR) and June (PNL). In the meantime, former PM Dacian Cioloş has taken the first step towards establishing a new political party and seems to have abandoned plans to join either PNL or USR.

Côte d’Ivoire – Analysis of presidential powers in the new constitution

Have the president’s powers increased significantly in Cote d’Ivoire’s new constitution, adopted by referendum on October 30, 2016, threatening to usher in a dictatorship? Or is the new constitution balanced and likely to bring stability to the country? The new fundamental text inaugurating the country’s third republic since independence in 1960 was passed by an overwhelming majority of votes – 93.4 percent. At 42.4 percent, voter turn-out was, however, well below the 52.9 percent turn-out in last year’s presidential election.

The opposition, led by former President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), called for a boycott of the vote, alleging the new constitution will vastly increase presidential powers and allow the president to effectively nominate his successor thanks to the introduction of the position of vice-president. Also, a new, indirectly elected Senate with a third of its members to be appointed by the president will serve primarily as a means of presidential patronage, according to critics. The constitutional revision process was furthermore criticized by the opposition and some civil society groups for being rushed and not inclusive enough [see previous blog by Grant Godfrey on the reform process here]. Presidential supporters have dismissed these claims, arguing the new constitution reflects priorities and concerns collected through widespread consultations and will contribute to bringing peace to the country. Specifically, they argue the vice-presidency will help avoid problems of succession as happened at the death of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993.

Ironically, changes to nationality requirements for presidential candidates in Article 35, the most controversial article of the 2000 constitution, were hardly debated. Instead, it was the elimination of the upper age limit for candidates in the new Article 55 which was most controversial. Opponents claim this change will pave the way for President Ouattara who is currently 74 to stand again for reelection in 2020. The claim is dismissed by the presidential majority with reference to the two-term limit enshrined in the constitution and to repeated statements by Ouattara himself that he does not intend to run for a third term.

So what does a close comparison of presidential powers in the new and the old constitution from 2000 reveal? How much has changed? Below I compare various components of the president’s power, using the scale developed by Shugart and Carey (1992).[1] Specifically, I discuss whether there has been an increase in the president’s legislative and non-legislative powers. I also look at transitional provisions of the new constitution.

Table 1. Presidential powers in Côte d’Ivoire, using Shugart and Carey’s scale

  2000 2016
Package veto 2 1
Partial veto (right to veto part of a bill) 3 2
Decree (authority to make law without delegation) 0 0
Exclusive introduction of legislation (reserved policy areas) 0 0
Budget (authority over annual budget bill) 1 1
Referendum (right to initiate referenda) 4 4
Total legislative powers 10 8
Cabinet formation 4 4
Cabinet dismissal 4 4
Censure (assembly power to dismiss cabinet) 4 4
Assembly dissolution 0 0
Total non-legislative powers 12 12
Total 22 20

Contrary to expressed opposition concerns, the president’s legislative powers have actually decreased, according to Table 1. This is because it now only takes an absolute majority of legislators to override a partial or package presidential veto, in contrast to a two thirds majority as required in the 2000 constitution. Shugart and Carey’s scale does not take into consideration presidential powers of appointment of senators. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the ability to appoint a third of the Senate in the new constitution does provide the president with a powerful patronage tool and can increase the presidential majority in both houses combined; however, in the event of irreconcilable disagreement between the two houses of the legislature, it is the lower house (Assemblée Nationale) that prevails (Article 110).

Presidential powers to initiate a referendum have remained unchanged. However, constitutional amendments can now be adopted by a two thirds legislative majority, without the need for approval through a popular vote (Article 177). In that sense, the president’s powers to avoid a referendum have increased.

Non-legislative presidential powers are significant, but have not changed with the introduction of a vice-president. The president has full authority to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet; though the national assembly may organize hearings and commissions of inquiry, its oversight powers are restricted to making recommendations to the government. The legislature cannot censure the cabinet or individual ministers. On the other hand, the president cannot dissolve the national assembly ahead of the end of its five-year mandate. Combined, the president’s legislative and non-legislative powers were and remain significant, higher than for most of the Latin American presidential constitutions discussed by Shugart and Carey (ibid.).

In an apparent effort at avoiding the potential for divided government and gridlock, a transitional article (Article 182) provides for an only four-year mandate for the legislators to be elected at the end of 2016. The next presidential election in 2020 will thus coincide with the start of a new legislature, increasing the chances for presidential and legislative majorities to coincide. Transitional provisions also address the selection and powers of the first vice-president to take office after the constitution enters into effect. Specifically, the first vice-president will be appointed by the incumbent president, Ouattara. Should Ouattara die, be impeached or chose to step down before the end of his term, the vice-president would take over for the rest of the presidential term. However, in such an event, transitional Article 180 would limit this first, non-elected vice-president from exercising full presidential powers, notably from appointing a new vice-president and prime minister, and from initiating constitutional reform.

So to conclude, presidential legislative and non-legislative powers as measured by Shugart and Carey (1992) have not increased in the newly adopted constitution of Côte d’Ivoire. They were high and have been marginally reduced. However, President Ouattara does have new appointment powers (the vice-president, senators) at his disposal as the country transitions to a new constitution – powers which can be used for positioning a preferred candidate for succession and for cementing the presidential majority.

How the combined, significant powers of the Ivorian presidency are wielded over the remainder of the current presidential term and beyond will be of crucial importance for the consolidation of the country’s nascent democratic institutions.

[1] Matthew S. Shugart and John M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Powers are measured on a scale from 0 to 4, with 4 being the highest.

Azerbaijan – A New Constitutional Reform: Towards a Monarchical Presidency?

On 26 September, citizens of Azerbaijan were called to vote in a constitutional referendum. The constitution, approved in 1995, was already amended in 2002 and 2009. While the current amendments concern numerous topics (including civic liberties and right of assembly), some of them specifically concern the President’s role. It is proposed:

  • To amend Article 101.1 of the current constitution, which would extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
  • To introduce a “First Vice President” and a “Vice President”, chosen and appointed by the president. In the case of the president’s inability to perform his role, the First Vice President would take over. Currently, this “second-in-charge” function is a prerogative of the prime minister
  • To remove the minimum age limit to run for President (currently, it is 35). Similarly, the minimum age for parliamentarian is lowered from 25 to 18.
  • To introduce the right for the President to dissolve the parliament. This is in the event that the parliament votes no confidence to the government twice in a year or refuses the suggested appointees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the Central Bank’s main board.

In order to maximise the inclusivity of the voting process, polling stations have been established in Azerbaijani embassies. Remarkably, everything is ready in Ankara, Teheran and Riyadh.  However, notwithstanding the vocal support of the ruling party, the opposition has expressed its grave concern over the proposed changes.

While President Ilham Aliyev has not personally commented on the proposed amendments, pro-government voices have openly endorsed them. MP Siyavus Novruzov, who is the deputy executive secretary of the ruling ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, has defined the proposed amendments as necessary to enhance national security and reform of the state administration[1]. Emil Huseynli, head of the ‘Support for Youth Development – Dushunje’, declared that the various changes, including the strengthening of the presidential office, will foster the sustainable development of the country. Referring to the relaxation of the age limits, he commented that: this “will create an opportunity for the political activity of literate, prospective young people.” However, the opposition thinks that this amendment is specifically designed to favour a semi-monarchical transfer of power and, henceforth, that the children of the president would likely be the main beneficiaries of this “political opportunity”. Notably, it has been observed that Heydar Aliyev, the only son[2] of the presidential couple, will be 27 in 2025 (the most likely year for a presidential election). If his father decides to run for the presidential office in 2018 and to step down after that, the young Heydar would be an extremely probable “new” candidate. Other possible scenarios are the election of Heydar to parliament or the appointment of a member of the presidential family as vice-president[3]

In addition to being concerned about the future implication of these changes for the Aliyev family, the opposition is worried about the immediate effects of a “reinforced presidency”. Arif Hajili, the leader of Musavat party, bluntly declared that: “They [the state authorities] are not even able to explain to their citizens why we need these changes to the Constitution. They believe they can create a second North Korea here and rule in the same style[4]. Similarly, the prominent lawyer, Fuad Agayev, commented that: “An analysis of the document indicates that, if adopted, it will have an adverse impact on human rights, civil rights and freedoms, as well as power-sharing”.  This kind of apprehension is also shared by some international observers. Chris Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a concerned letter to Ilham Aliyev. At one point, it stated clearly that: “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” Lastly, some observers expect the referendum to be rigged.

In September various well attended protest rallies took place in Baku. The main argument is that the only aim of the referendum is to reinforce Aliev’s rule. “No to monarchy!” and “No robbery!” were the main slogans chanted[5]. Additionally, in the attempt to generate an international response, some Human Right Defenders asked to Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to submit the proposed amendments to the Venice Commission[6]. The main points of concern they raised were: the massive empowerment of the presidential office, the authoritarian climate the referendum takes place in, the non-consultation of the parliament, and the absence of public debate[7]. In addition to the Azerbaijani Human Right Defenders, on 5 September the PACE Bureau also asked the Venice Commission to give an urgent opinion.

In response, on 20 September the Venice Commission issued a “Preliminary Opinion on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution”. In the context of widespread concern on different matters, including the repression of dissident opinions, the Venice Commission expressed clear worries about the amendments in relation to the presidency. More specifically, it noted that, back in 2009, the removal of the two-term limit to re-election had already strengthened the power of the president. In the light of that, it said that: “the modification to Article 101 which extends the Presidential mandate for longer than is the European practice, coupled with the previous removal of the two-term limit, concentrates power in the hands of a single person in a manner not compatible with the separation of powers”. In addition, the Venice Commission expressed its concern about the president’s powers to dissolve the parliament, to call early elections, and to appoint a vice-president who, in practical terms, would be an unelected second-in-command.

Even though the voting has yet to be finalised, the rejection of the proposed amendments seems highly unlikely in contemporary Azerbaijan. Henceforth, in the face of domestic and international concern, the presidential office, which is already remarkably strong, will be further reinforced. Unfortunately, this seems to be a prelude to a further consolidation of the authoritarian tendencies in the country.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri court approves referendum on constitutional change’, 26 July (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] In addition to him, the president has two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.

[3]Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘It’s time for the United States to act on Azerbaijan’, September 9 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Arif Hajili: Usurpation of Power Will Not Save Aliyev’. 18 September (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Jamil Hasanli: Aliyev does not get tired to pervert the Constitution’. September 17 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] The role of the Venice Commission, with reference to the constitutional referendum in Armenia, has already been discussed in this blog.

[7] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘The report of “Musavat” about the referendum campaign’. 5 September (retrieved through LexisNexis).

Romania – President Iohannis’ contested performance and a brief assessment of his exercise of constitutional powers

An article recently published in the German weekly Der Spiegel has called into question President Iohannis’ 15-month record as head of state. The verdict is unequivocal: when it comes to saying the right thing or taking the right action, Romania’s new president is a political “dilettante”. What about the use of constitutional powers? Is President Iohannis’ record lagging behind his predecessors’ when it comes to interfering in cabinet affairs, influencing legislative outcomes, and coordinating foreign policy? This post takes stock of the way in which President Iohannis has been using his constitutional powers since he was elected in November 2014.

President Iohannis was elected on an anti-corruption platform. He was widely expected to support the DNA anti-corruption agency after he put pressure on MPs to reject a bill on amnesty and pardons for prosecuted politicians. Nevertheless, his image as a supporter of the anti-corruption fight was dented at the end of 2015, when a final court ruling concluded that one of the several properties he owns in Sibiu was illegally acquired. The negative echoes of this affair continue in 2016, as the president has challenged the court ruling at the Supreme Court.

President Iohannis’ image as a committed supporter of anti-corruption policies suffered another blow in February 2016. This time around, the president criticized the approach taken by tax administration agency ANAF over the eviction of TV stations founded by Dan Voiculescu – a businessman and former leader of the Conservative Party who was sentenced to ten years in jail in August 2014 for fraudulent privatization and money laundering.

One of the president’s latest actions that caused uproar was to strip MEP Laszlo Tokes, the ethnic-Hungarian dissident priest who triggered the 1989 Revolution in Timişoara, of the “Star of Romania” order. In this case, though, the president’s discretion was minimal, as he was following a court ruling that validated the decision taken by the ‘Star of Romania’ National Order to withdraw the distinction granted to Tokes.

Given this wave of negative judgments stirred by President Iohannis’ alleged missteps and having in mind the two major electoral tests scheduled later this year, one might ask about the extent to which the head of state understands to take advantage of the constitutional powers that allow him to influence political outcomes.

Cabinet politics and inter-executive relations

President Iohannis’ first year in office was marked by the cohabitation with the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). During most of 2015, the relationship between the president and the prime minister was as conflictual and counter-productive as it had been during President Băsescu’s last two years in office. President Iohannis questioned several key government policies and repeatedly called on the prime minister to resign after a criminal investigation was launched against him. In this context, it is worth remembering that the president can suspend cabinet members from office only when a criminal investigation is launched against them for acts committed in office (article 109). As the charges against PM Ponta dated back to past activities as a lawyer, his continuation in government office could only be decided by the parliamentary majority or his party.

President Iohannis stepped up to his role in government formation when PM Ponta resigned in November 2015 amid mass protests triggered by a tragic accident at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 64 people. The Constitution grants the head of state considerable discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, who has to face a vote of investiture in parliament (article 85). President Iohannis’ influence was boosted by the delicate context and the fact that most political parties refrained from nominating their own candidates for the prime minister post. Under these circumstances, the president appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş. While a technocratic government was certainly the outcome of negotiations between the president and the main parliamentary parties, the fact remains that non-partisan cabinet ministers and technocratic governments are usually seen, for good or bad reasons, as strong indicators of influential presidents. [1]

Legislative powers

President Iohannis has not refrained from using his legislative veto powers. Between January 2015 and March 2016 he asked Parliament to re-examine 20 bills and forwarded several others to the Constitutional Court. Some of the re-examination requests sparked new conflicts with the government, such as the veto on the Forestry Code and the Fiscal Code. Legislators were also constrained to amend a controversial bill on special pensions for MPs. However, the president was criticised for missing the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the amended bill, especially after the Constitutional Court ruled that a similar law on special pensions for local elected officials was unconstitutional.

The institutional dialogue between the presidency and the parliament seems on the rise as well. Since December 2014, President Iohannis has already addressed MPs six times. A marked increase compared with his predecessors – President Constantinescu (1996-2000) addressed MPs only one time, President Iliescu (2000-2004) 5 times, and President Băsescu (2004-2011) 17 times. [2] Certainly, the mere number of presidential speeches in parliament does not say much about their substance and impact. At least occasionally, though, the president has raised important policy issues. For example, as early as February 2015, he asked legislators to consider changing the local elections bill to bring back the two-round voting system for mayors – almost a year before the Liberal Party declared it matter of outmost urgency ahead of the local election scheduled for June 2016.

Foreign policy

One particular area in which President Iohannis seems to have taken a step back is that of foreign affairs. Other commentators have noted the president’s apparent lack of visions and strategies for foreign affairs, which is surprising given the extensive agenda-setting powers that the Romanian constitution grants the head of state in this domain. Other signs point in this direction too. For example, during President Băsescu’s time in office, there were huge disputes between the president and the PM as to who should represent Romania at EU summits. While President Iohannis continued to deny PM Ponta the right to attend EU meetings, he delegated PM Cioloș, a former EU Commissioner, to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels in December 2015. PM Cioloş also attended the EU-Turkey summit and the informal meeting of the European Council members on 7 March, as President Iohannis paid an official visit to Israel and Palestine.

This aerial view on President Iohannis’ record so far suggests that the head of state does not shy away from using his formal powers. Held against the standard of his predecessor, however, he certainly looks less assertive, slow to act, lacking communication skills and willingness to take the extra mile and overall unconvincing of having a long-term political project and leadership strategy. In other words, a dilettante. Here lies a paradox, though, as other commentators have noted – Iohannis is criticised for not talking and acting as his predecessor, President Băsescu, who attracted huge criticism for his personal and political behaviour.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that, as in most other parliamentary and semi-presidential European democracies, the Romanian president’s powers in policy-making are limited. Moreover, the presidential sphere of action shrinks even further in the absence of a supporting majority in parliament – which has not happened in Romania since the onset of cohabitation in 2012. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the head of state succeeds in overhauling the political system through democratic means. The president and the entire political class are nevertheless bound to face two important tests in 2016, with local and general elections scheduled in June and November respectively.

[1] See Octavio Amorim Neto and Kaare Strøm. 2006. Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 36:4, 619–43.

[2] See Mihaela Codrina Levai and Camelia Tomescu. 2012. Atribuţiile Preşedintelui Romȃniei în raport cu Parlamentul – aspecte teoretice şi practice. Revista Transilvană de Ştiinţe Administrative, 30:1, 84–105.

Finland: weak presidents and the power of speech

Literature on semi-presidentialism is full of examples of constitutionally weak presidents using the strategy of ‘going public’ to influence politics. This applies certainly to Finland. Stripped of direct legislative powers and most weeks enjoying a fairly empty calendar, recent office-holders have actively resorted to more indirect avenues of influence. The current President Sauli Niinistö meets various political actors from foreign leaders to domestic interest groups and gives interviews and speeches. The impact of these activities is essentially impossible to measure, but surely they are motivated by re-election and/or policy influence.

Two high-profile annual speeches are particularly relevant here: the New Year’s speech and opening of the annual session of the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature. The latter speech took place last Thursday. In his speech Niinistö, who was elected in 2012 as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, focused on the refugee situation. Niinistö questioned whether the international agreements on asylum-seekers were outdated, and offered the opinion that ‘the flow of immigration into Europe and Finland is largely a case of migration rather than a flight from immediate danger’. Niinistö’s views were particularly welcomed by the populist and anti-immigration the Finns Party, with the leader of the party’s parliamentary group, Sampo Terho, declaring that ‘the President’s speech was a real piece of statesmanship’ and that it was ‘the most significant and the best presidential speech in my lifetime’.

Media covered the speech widely, with the main newspapers and TV channels basically just reporting what the president had said. Some more liberal organisations and individuals were clearly agitated by Niinistö’s words, and comments spread quickly in social media, but politicians’ response was in line with established behavioural norms. Apart from some individual left-wing MPs that defended the value of international rules and cooperation in solving the refugee problem, most ministers and parliamentarians either praised the speech or at least did not criticize it. This reflects the usual practice: while the speeches of prime minister and other cabinet ministers are scrutinized carefully, with obviously the opposition parties in particular attacking the government, the president’s speeches seem to be beyond public criticism. This may in part be explained by the fact that the president has so limited powers, but more likely it reflects the political culture where the president, as the head of state, is both respected and above party politics.

Whether one agrees with Niinistö’s world-view or not, the question we should ask is are such presidential addresses needed anymore? If you ask the public, the answer would probably be yes. Another benefit is that they can contribute to public debate, especially if the speeches are on topical and divisive issues. The refugee crisis is definitely topical and also an issue where the ideologically heterogeneous government – bringing together the Centre Party, the National Coalition, and the Finns Party – has really failed to articulate a coherent policy line. But problems are also easy to see. President’s speeches, particularly as they seem to focus on policy areas outside of his jurisdiction, can lead to misperceptions of presidential powers. Here we need to remember that Finland was a strongly president-led society until the 1990s, and many people may not understand the current division of powers between the government and the president. The refugee crisis is of course indirectly linked to foreign policy which the president co-directs together with the government. Immigration, however, belongs to the competence of the government as does EU policy. Considering that any effective solutions to the crisis probably require European level measures, it is thus more important to know the position of the government – and particularly the preferences of the prime minister and the minister of the interior – that ultimately decides these matters and represents Finland in EU bargaining.

More importantly, it can be argued that such high-profile addresses are a thing of the past. In the Cold War era, the whole society had good reasons to listen carefully to the president. Vested with significant powers, his preferences genuinely mattered. Before the Internet, the public did not have access to as varied sources of information as today, and these kinds of traditional communication methods were more prominent in shaping societal debate. Nowadays anyone can find easily a wealth of information on matters like the refugee crisis, and hence the standard argument about the president being an ‘opinion leader’ seems rather outdated. It is perfectly understandable that in the United States the president’s State of the Union address is important: the president has significant policy-making authority and the speech enables him to outline his legislative and foreign policy priorities. In countries where the president is weak, no similar justification exists. Obviously the president is free to give as many interviews as he likes, but are these types of high-profile ‘institutionalized’ speeches really needed anymore?

Bulgaria – President Plevneliev’s second bid for a voting rules referendum

The Bulgarian president’s power to propose referenda is relatively weak. This, however, did not stop President Plevneliev from seeking a referendum on voting rules in 2014. The opposing Socialist-led majority in parliament eventually defeated his campaign. The president has nevertheless pledged to resume his efforts to trigger a national poll in 2015, following last year’s snap election and the formation of the centre-right coalition government led by PM Borissov’s GERB.

The head of state has a rather marginal involvement in the procedure for the calling of national referenda. While he or she has the right to put forward a proposal for a popular poll, the constitutional power to decide on the holding of a national referendum belongs entirely to the National Assembly (article 84). Under the new referendum law, which limits considerably the subject matters that can be put to a popular vote, one-fifth of all MPs, the government, one-fifth of all municipal councils, or a citizens’ initiative committee that gathered at least 200,000 signatures can also ask the Parliament to consider a referendum proposal. Additionally, a national referendum must be held if so demanded by a petition signed by at least 500,000 citizens (article 10).

If the parliament votes to hold the referendum, then the president must schedule the poll on a date that is not earlier than two months and not later than three months from the parliament’s decision (article 14). To be valid, a referendum also requires a higher turnout than that registered at the previous general election and the support of at least half of the voting participants (article 23). This means that any referendum held before the next general election needs a higher turnout than 51.05 per cent, which was recorded at the October 2014 election. If both conditions are met, then the Parliament must amend the law accordingly. However, if the turnout is lower than this threshold, but higher than 20 per cent of registered voters, then the Parliament only needs to discuss and vote on the referendum matter (articles 23-24).

President Plevneliev has taken different approaches to introduce his two bids for a voting rules referendum. He first brought this proposal into public debate in January 2014, following many months of street protests against the ruling Socialist-led coalition and just a few weeks ahead of a parliamentary vote on a new election law.

In a televised address to the nation, the head of state proposed a referendum on three aspects that were meant to increase the accountability of politicians and restore public trust in political institutions: the direct election of at least some of the 240 MPs who are currently chosen from semi-open party lists, and the introduction of compulsory voting and e-voting. Given the president’s opposition to the government’s new Election Code, which he also vetoed several weeks later, the referendum proposal was interpreted as routine infighting between the government and the head of state.

Shortly after the National Assembly overturned the president’s veto and turned down his referendum proposal, a petition supported by more than 560,000 signatures was brought to the parliament. The petition called for a poll on the same three questions and the signatures had been gathered with support from GERB, the main opposition party. Eventually, the number of valid signatures fell short of the 500,000 threshold that would have made it mandatory for MPs to call a referendum, but was still large enough to require a debate in the parliament. However, given that GERB was the only party to support the president’s call, the citizen initiative was easily rejected by the ruling parties in June 2014.

The president’s second attempt to trigger a voting rules referendum is currently on-going under different circumstances. The October 2014 snap election brought to office a new centre-right coalition government led by GERB, the party that supported president Plevneliev’s candidacy in 2011. This political change allowed the head of state to take a more conciliatory route to re-introduce the referendum on the political agenda.

Voting rules featured as one of the five major themes proposed for discussion during the President’s “Month of Political Consultations” with parliamentary parties. This consensual framework of discussion has allowed the president to re-launch the referendum initiative as an all-party agreement, even if the Socialist party is still opposing vehemently this idea. Thus, addressing the parliament following the conclusion of political talks, President Plevneliev underlined not only his firm intention to propose a new referendum, but also the all-party consensus to have this poll held alongside local elections, which are scheduled for the next October or November.

The details of the procedure to be followed – whether a parliamentary vote on the president’s referendum proposal will suffice or if the route of a citizen initiative needs to be taken again – will be determined in the coming weeks. In the meantime, small parties are also trying to take advantage of this process to initiate further changes that could end the big parties’ monopoly over the initiation of referenda. For example, a bill tabled by the left-wing ABV, one of GERB’s small coalition partners, proposes that 150,000 signatures should be enough for the parliament to consider a referendum initiative, while the number of signatures required for calling a referendum should be reduced to 300,000. Additionally, ABV argues that the participation threshold should be lowered to 40 per cent of the eligible voters and supports the introduction of a mixed-member proportional system.

Who fires ministers in semi-presidential systems?

This post summarises the main arguments in Cristina Bucur’s article, “Cabinet ministers under competing pressures: Presidents, prime ministers, and political parties in semi-presidential systems”, Comparative European Politics, 23 February 2015, advance online publication, doi:10.1057/cep.2015.1.

How much control do presidents, prime ministers (PMs) and political parties exercise over cabinet members in semi-presidential systems? This is a challenging question, as the formal and informal powers of presidents and PMs vary considerably among the countries included in the semi-presidential category.

One way in which this variation can be systematized is Shugart and Carey’s (1992) differentiation between premier-presidential and president-parliamentary forms of semi-presidentialism, depending on whether the president can dismiss the cabinet. In president-parliamentary regimes, both parliaments and presidents have the formal power to dismiss the government. In premier-presidential systems, presidents are not granted any constitutional powers to dismiss individual ministers or the cabinet collectively and PMs are formally in charge of the government’s operation.

Whether the executive is unified or divided, in other words whether the president is a member or an opponent of the parliamentary majority during cohabitation situations (Duverger 1996), can also make a difference for ministerial durability and the relative influence of presidents, PMs and political parties over cabinet composition.

A strong presidency can loosen the party–government relationship in semi-presidential systems (Schleiter and Morgan-Jones 2009). According to Samuels and Shugart (2010), this course of action is more likely to take place during periods of unified government, provided that the president is a de facto party leader. Under these circumstances, the prime minister becomes an agent of the president. This argument is supported with consistent evidence that presidents who lacked formal dismissal powers have been able to fire PMs from their own party or coalition. However, principal–agent relations change during cohabitation, when the president opposes the parliamentary majority. Under these circumstances, the president lacks both formal powers and partisan authority over the cabinet.

The article extends this argument for the case of cabinet members. Two tests are carried out. The first one asks whether the president’s apparent ability to reverse the agency relationship between parties and their minister-agents during unified government strengthens his or her control over cabinet composition. The second one looks at whether the shift from a presidential to a prime-ministerial model of government during cohabitation increases the ability of PMs and parties to fire cabinet members.

Empirically, the article focuses on ministerial turnover in the Fifth French Republic across two governments: the 1997–2002 cohabitation government led by PM Lionel Jospin and the 2007–2012 government formed under PM François Fillon after Nicolas Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) won the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

France is a good case for this study for several reasons. First, the French convention of ministerial autonomy reduces the individual ministers’ accountability to the parliament while making their position highly dependent on the president and the prime minister (Thiébault 1994). Second, the 1958 Constitution provides conditions for both presidential and prime-ministerial leadership (Elgie and Machin 1991). Although a shift from presidential to prime-ministerial leadership does occur from one scenario to the other, constitutional experts argue that both actors participate in decision-making about cabinet composition, albeit to much varying degrees under unified government and cohabitation (Carcassonne 2011). Third, although ministers-party links have weakened considerably under the Fifth Republic compared to the Fourth Republic, cabinet members are expected to be less autonomous from their parties during periods of cohabitation. One can therefore test the extent to which the expected increase in party influence over the government under cohabitation affects the length of ministerial tenure.

The data on the tenure of ministers draws on personal characteristics and political experience at the moment of appointment and on individual indicators of performance while in office. Three categories of events are used as measures of individual performance. The first one consists of resignation calls. The second one records public evidence of conflicts between ministers, presidents, PMs, and party principals. This data is collected from over 23,000 newspaper articles selected from LexisNexis. The third category of events experienced by ministers is that of individual reshuffles.

The analysis confirms some of the initial expectations. Presidential pressure is strongly associated with a decrease in the length of ministerial tenure during unified government but not under cohabitation. Prime-ministerial and party control over cabinet composition increase during cohabitation. However, prime-ministerial influence over ministerial removal varies less than expected across the two executive scenarios. This result supports the view that intraparty ties become more restrictive under cohabitation, when the prime minister acts as a party agent, than during unified government, when parties have no ex-post control mechanisms for a directly-elected president (Samuels and Shugart 2010). Moreover, ministerial durability strengthens during cohabitation, confirming the veto-player theory’s expectations that the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making should gear the system towards the status quo (Tsebelis 2000; Leuffen 2009).

These findings highlight two aspects of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. First, intraparty politics is shown to influence considerably the extent of prime-ministerial control over cabinet composition. Future work could examine how party leadership positions and different ways of selecting party leaders affect the agency relationship between parties and their agents in government and the accountability of cabinet members to presidents and PMs.

Second, the variation in ministerial durability under conditions of unified government and cohabitation draws attention to the asymmetrical relationship between voting behaviour and executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. Voters assign executive decision-making responsibility to the president during unified government, while holding the prime minister responsible during cohabitation (Lewis-Beck 1997). Thus, cohabitation occurs as a result of voter dissatisfaction with the president’s status quo. However, the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making during cohabitation may limit the prime minister’s ability to change the status quo markedly. Conversely, a vote in favour of the status quo during unified government may be followed by cabinet instability as executive decision making is concentrated in the hands of the president. More research on the factors based on which voters assign decision-making responsibility to the president and the PM under unified government and cohabitation could clarify the relationship between voting behaviour and outcomes of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems.

References

Carcassonne, G. (2011). La Constitution. 10th ed. Paris: Seuil.

Duverger, M. (1996). Le système politique français. 21st ed. Paris: PUF.

Elgie, R., and Machin, H. (1991). France: The Limits to Prime-ministerial Government in a Semi-presidential System. West European Politics 14(2): 62–78.

Leuffen, D. (2009). Does Cohabitation Matter? French European Policy-Making in the Context of Divided Government. West European Politics 32(6): 1140–60.

Lewis-Beck, M. S. (1997). Who’s the chef? Economic voting under a dual executive. European Journal of Political Research 31(3): 315–25.

Samuels, D., and Shugart, M. S. (2010). Presidents, parties, and prime ministers: how the separation of powers affects party organization and behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schleiter, P., and Morgan-Jones, E. (2009). Party government in Europe? Parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies compared. European Journal of Political Research 48(5): 665–93.

Shugart, M. S., and Carey, J. M. (1992). Presidents and assemblies: constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébault, J.-L. (1994). The Political Autonomy of Cabinet Ministers in the French Fifth Republic. In M. Laver and K. A. Shepsle (eds.) Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 139–49.

Tsebelis, G. (2000). Veto Players and Institutional Analysis. Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 13(4): 441–74.

Romania’s third cohabitation: old habits die hard

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” – the famous line in Giovanni di Lampedusa’s celebrated novel seems to illustrate well political practices in Romania’s successive periods of cohabitation.

The election of Klaus Iohannis, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL), as Romania’s new president in November 2014 meant that the cohabitation between a centre-right head of state and the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) could continue at least until the 2016 general election.

Following the high level of institutional conflict that characterized the relations between the head of state, the government, and the parliament during the two periods of cohabitation that occurred during outgoing President Băsescu’s time in office, the onset of the third cohabitation was met with high hopes for a smoother relationship between state institutions. A constitutional reform has also been suggested as a necessary step for the clarification of the roles and powers that the two members of the Romanian executive possess.

So far, though, apart from a different style of communication, few changes seem to have marked the relationship between political actors and their use of constitutional powers and political strategies. Three aspects related to the head of state’s relationship with the prime minister and his party, and the practice of variable parliamentary majorities lend support to this early conclusion.

President-prime minister relations

First, President Iohannis’ account of intra-executive relations bears out his preoccupation for the institutionalization of communication channels between the presidency and the government during cohabitation. In a recent interview, he underlined quite thoroughly the administrative boundaries which separate the institutional collaboration between the presidency and the government during cohabitation from the political role that the head of state is called on to play when a new majority forms in the parliament.

The interview followed shortly the president’s decision to nominate a political ally and PNL MEP as the new chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). While the proposal still needs to be formally approved by the parliament, Klaus Iohannis used it as an example of the compromises, negotiations, and formal approval that such appointments require from both the President and the Prime Minister. In this context, he emphasised the purely administrative character of this kind of institutional relations, excluding any political collaboration with PM Ponta because of their different ideological differences.

President Iohannis’ careful distinction between the administrative and political nuances of the president-prime minister relationship may be explained by the failure of previous mechanisms designed to foster intra-executive cooperation during cohabitation.

The “Agreement of Institutional Collaboration between the President of Romania and the Prime Minister of the Government”, signed by President Băsescu and PM Ponta after the 2012 general election, is a case in point. More details about this unusual document can be found here and here. While lacking any constitutional or legal basis, this agreement represented the two parties’ commitment to respect the rule of law and safeguard their institutional collaboration following the 2007 and 2012 constitutional crisis that resulted in the president’s suspension by the parliament. One of the reasons why the “cohabitation pact” failed to take root and was condemned by allies of both parties alike had to do with its perception as a tool of political bargain that threatened to blur the lines of political and ideological rivalry. Hence the new head of state’s distinction between administrative channels of communication within the dual executive and the political role that the President can resume playing as soon as he has the parliamentary majority on his side.

President-own party relations

Second, President Iohannis seems in a good position to maintain control over his former party. Following his resignation as PNL leader, Klaus Iohannis successfully promoted his preferred successor to the leadership of the National Liberals. Afterwards, he has been able to designate political allies to key positions in state institutions, such as the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Recently, the president criticised in no ambiguous terms the upper chamber for refusing to grant anti-corruption prosecutors permission to officially indict a PNL senator.

Changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections

Third, unlike the first two periods of cohabitation, which began as a result of changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections, the latest cohabitation started with an election but looks certain to conclude before the end of the legislature.

The sequence of cohabitation periods in Romania illustrates the impact that presidential elections may have on the balance of forces in parliament, despite their disconnection following the 2003 constitutional revision.

In 2004, the pre-electoral coalition formed by the ruling PSD and the Conservative Party won a plurality of votes and seats. However, the Conservatives switched sides to participate in a centre-right coalition after Traian Băsescu won the presidential race and nominated the leader of the National Liberals as prime minister.

President Băsescu’s time in office was marked by the occurrence of two periods of cohabitation that were triggered by changing majorities outside general elections: first in 2007, when President Băsescu’s Democratic Party walked out of the coalition government with the National Liberals; and second in 2012, when the ruling coalition, which included the president’s party, lost a no-confidence vote and was replaced by a PSD-PNL coalition government.

Finally, 2015 looks likely to see a social-democratic splinter group supporting a no confidence motion against the incumbent PSD-led cabinet in exchange for participation in the next coalition government with the National Liberals and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). These are the circumstances President Iohannis referred to when he highlighted the political role the head of state is called on to play when a new majority is formed in the parliament. When these conditions are met, the President noted, he will be ready to appoint his government, led by the National Liberal Party.

Therefore, despite differences in time sequencing, the practice of changing legislative majorities outside general elections remains the driving force behind the alternation of unified government and cohabitation in Romania. Moreover, despite changing the style of institutional collaboration within the dual executive, President Iohannis seems well adapted to the practice of manufacturing ideologically heterogeneous parliamentary majorities outside elections. Overall, taking into account his current authority over the PNL, there is little to suggest a decrease in the Romanian president’s influence over the political system in the short run.

President Obama and the Enduring Debate over War Powers

Last week, President Barack Obama officially asked Congress for authorization to pursue a military campaign against the Islamic State, the radical terrorist group waging war in Iraq and Syria. In the draft joint resolution sent to both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Obama requested a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would give him authority to use military force against the Islamic State or affiliated groups though with specific limits—the AUMF would only be in effect for three years, and it would prohibit Obama or his predecessor from deploying troops for “enduring offensive ground combat operations” (as in, no new ground war in Iraq). According to Obama, congressional approval of this AUMF would provide a show of support on the world stage that the United States is “united in our resolve to counter” the Islamic State.

However, despite seeking congressional approval for his actions, the U.S. military has already been involved in the fight against the Islamic State. Since August 2014, the U.S. has led an international coalition (including both Western and Arab nations) in an air campaign to fight the Islamic State as well as providing support on the ground for local fighters. The first airstrikes authorized by Obama occurred in Iraq, and those airstrikes expanded to Syria in September 2014. Obama has relied on previous AUMFs passed by Congress in 2001 (which dealt with military force in Afghanistan) and 2002 (which authorized the Bush administration to invade Iraq) for authority to fight the spread of the Islamic State. While both AUMFs were specific in some regards, both also provided wide latitude to the president, in his role as commander-in-chief, to fight terrorism around the world and thereby protect the national security of the United States.

With this and numerous other situations in recent decades, it becomes obvious that many ironies abound regarding the issue of presidential war powers. While Congress, as specified in Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, has the specific and enumerated power to “declare” war, the president, on the other hand, serves as commander in chief and has the implied power to “make” war. Yet, Congress has not officially declared war since December 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Of the more than ten conflicts in which the U.S. has participated since 1945 (including the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), not one was sanctioned by a congressional declaration of war. Instead, all have been initiated by presidents. As many scholars have noted over the years, members of Congress in recent decades became more concerned with re-election than making tough decisions (like declaring war) over which they could lose votes, and as a result, they willingly relinquished the legislature’s power to declare war. American presidents, for their part, willingly seized the power not specifically granted to them by the Constitution, thereby enhancing their ability to pursue foreign-policy objectives with few political impediments.

In an attempt to clarify this constitutional ambiguity over war powers, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 (and also overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto of the bill). The War Powers Resolution requires the president to consult with Congress prior to engaging troops in military operations, but it also simultaneously recognizes a presidential power to respond to exigent circumstances without notification when such notification would compromise the integrity or effectiveness of the necessary military action. The net effect of this concession was an acknowledgment in all but word of a presidential power to declare war through a statutory loophole. While the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution remains to be seen more than forty years after its passage (as the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue), every president since Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) has relied on this war powers loophole to begin or augment U.S. military action in various parts of the world.

Now that Obama has officially asked Congress for this new AUMF, political wrangling over the issue will begin in earnest. And here, ironies abound as well. Some Democrats are already complaining that Obama has asked for too much authority and that Congress should limit this president or any future president’s ability to wage war. There are some hawkish Democrats that will support Obama on this issue, though their support has wavered for their party’s president in the past over domestic issues (like health care reform and environmental issues).While on most other issues Obama can rarely count on Republican support for his initiatives, he may eventually find more votes from Republicans to grant him this specific authority to fight the Islamic State. However, even then, some hawkish Republicans (including Senator John McCain) have cautioned that Obama’s draft AUMF does not go far enough, should not include a time limit, and that defeating the Islamic State will take more than targeted airstrikes and support for local fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria (leaving open the option for a new ground war in the region).

Recent polling has shown a majority of Americans (though not in overwhelming numbers) support Obama’s actions against the Islamic State, and while that support seems consistent across partisan lines, Americans are still wary of new military action anywhere in the Middle East. This issue will also undoubtedly remain an important topic of debate throughout the 2016 presidential election, and any current member of Congress who plans to run will need to justify his or her vote to potential voters (just as numerous presidential candidates did in both 2004 and 2008 for their support, or lack thereof, for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003).

While it may take Congress a few months to debate, amend, and pass this new AUMF, Obama will likely spend time in his remaining months in office waging at least a limited war in the Middle East. This despite the fact that he ran for office in 2008 with promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus nation-building efforts on domestic, as opposed to international, priorities. The bottom line is that as with many aspects of a president’s tenure in office, he must be reactive to events that are for the most part out of his control.

Selena Grimaldi – The President of Italy: from veto player to first in command?

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

Foto Selena

In this post Selena Grimaldi summarises her article ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?‘, Contemporary Italian Politics, (2015), DOI: 10.1080/23248823.2014.1002247

This paper is part of a special issue for the review “Contemporary Italian Politics” edited by myself and Elisabetta De Giorgi (Nova University) on the transformation of the Italian political system in the last 20 years.

Starting from Arend Lijphart’s masterpiece (1999) we try to (re)locate Italy in the context of contemporary democracies. More specifically, we analyze those aspects which have changed from the 1990s on, namely the reforms of the electoral system, the transformations in the party system, and the evolution of the relationship between the government and parliamentary opposition. Furthermore, we explore the variation in the distribution of decision-making power among national, supranational and subnational (regional) bodies and the new role of the President of the Republic as an increasingly important counterbalancing power.

My piece, in particular, is an attempt to consider presidential involvement in the decision-making process and whether it marks a change from the consensual model of democracy to the majoritarian one. Following this path, the first point is to understand whether the activity of presidents in parliamentary systems can be added as an explanatory variable in assessing a possible change from one model of democracy to the other. In fact, the role of heads of state in parliamentary democracies is not taken into consideration by Lijphart, even though recent studies have shown that they can be treated as checks and balances as in the case of presidents in presidential systems (Nikolenyi 2011; Jacobs 2012).

As many scholars have suggested, I tried to combine Lijphart’s and Tsebelis’ (2002) approaches to support the claim that presidents in parliamentary democracies should be included in the second dimension of the Lijphartian scheme when they prove to be real institutional veto players. According to Tsebelis (2002), there must be agreement on the part of a number of actors – or veto players – for a policy to change, and therefore he distinguishes between two types of veto player: the institutional and the partisan.

Italy is not the only parliamentary democracy in which the Constitution gives the President certain countervailing powers to the government or parliament and more specifically it is not the only case in which presidents have actually influenced the policy process. In Germany, for instance, some presidents have intervened in the policy process both with veto powers and with moral suasion (Grimaldi 2012). As a consequence, the president in parliamentary democracies can be an institutional veto player, despite not being a collective complex institutional body like a constitutional court, and despite the absence of complex constitutional features such as federalism and bicameralism. Moreover, in line with Tsebelis’ findings, I argue that when the president acts as a veto player influencing policymaking, the democratic system is pushed closer to consensualism.

However, during Italy’s Second Republic, the President has not just been an active countervailing actor to the government, contributing to dividing and spreading power, but he has stood in for the government in situations of crisis and deadlock, becoming a sort of deputy chairman. Indeed, the President has contributed to enlarging the role of the executive more than the legislature in Italy with the formation of technocratic cabinets, and he has sometimes taken or influenced foreign policy decisions which, strictly, should be in the government’s domain. Therefore, when the President acts as a decision-maker or deputy chairman, Italian democracy is pushed closer towards majoritarianism.

The second important step is to divide presidential powers in two categories in order to verify when and to what extent Presidents of the Second Republic act both as veto players and as deputy chairmen. This distinction comprises both formal powers – clearly identifiable in the Constitution – and informal powers, which are linked to praxis and which have become more visible and frequent in recent years, such as moral suasion and media surveillance.

Moreover, in order to explain the enlargement of Presidential powers from the 1990s on, I have considered five variables: two systemic variables, namely the power of the parties and the strength of the cabinets, and two reputational variables, i.e. the level of presidents’ public support and their international networks, and the level of approval of the PMs.

At this point, I can say that my initial expectations are confirmed: presidents act as deputy chairmen especially when parties and cabinets are weak, but they act as veto players when cabinets are stronger and relatively stable. However, this is not the whole story.

On the one hand, It is true that when parties and/or cabinets were weak, presidents acted as deputy chairmen by appointing PMs or deciding whether or not to dissolve Parliament, as in the cases of Prime Ministers Amato, Ciampi and Dini, appointed by President Scalfaro; and Prime Minister Monti was appointed by President Napolitano. However, their capacity to make decisions relating to government formation, notably by suggesting certain ministers, and foreign policy also relies on other factors and particularly on their public support and international networks. The appointment of the Minister of International Affairs Ruggiero (2001) suggested by Ciampi and that of the Minister of Economy Padoan (2013) suggested by Napolitano are the clearest examples. In both cases, presidential influence was effective because of the presidents’ high levels of public support. In other words, the government could not oppose the suggestion of such popular Presidents. Moreover, presidents are able to directly influence foreign policy when they have strong domestic support and when they are assured of international recognition through their foreign contacts. This was precisely the case of Ciampi in dealing with the Iraq war and that of Napolitano with the Libyan war.

On the other hand, presidents act as veto players especially in opposition to strong cabinets. Presidents use formal powers, notably vetoes on legislation, messages to the Chambers, and the authorisation of government decrees, to control the longer-lasting cabinets. However, informal powers such as moral suasion and media surveillance are linked to the personal capacities of each president, in particular their ability to build approval for themselves and their communication skills. Actually, Presidents were effective in using informal powers when their popular support was relatively high.

My research points out that there is no one clear path followed by the Presidents of the Second Republic, and this makes it difficult to say if they further strengthened the consensus or the majoritarian principle. Both Scalfaro and Napolitano acted as a veto player and as deputy chairman, whereas Ciampi was the only one who mainly acted as a veto player and consequently mainly strengthened the consensus principle. Indeed, not only did Ciampi use formal and informal powers to control government policies and actions, but he also chose constitutional judges and life senators who could credibly oppose the government in office. However, his role of deputy chairman was not completely negated as he successfully influenced the nomination of Minister Ruggiero and an important foreign-policy decision in the Iraq war.

In conclusion, the involvement of the President in the decision-making process is an important factor in explaining the apparent change from a consensual to a majoritarian model of democracy in Italy, even though this inclusion may complicate the picture as presidential influence is not linear in pushing democracy towards the consensual or majoritarian side. The President’s intervention contributes to making Italy a mix, as certain decisions relating to government formation and foreign policy reinforce the majoritarian principle, whereas the president’s controlling actions reinforce the consensus principle.

References:

Grimaldi S. (2012), I presidenti nelle forme di governo. Tra Costituzione, partiti e carisma, Roma, Carocci.

Lijphart A (1999), Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven-London, Yale University Press.

Jacobs K. (2012), The more vetoes the better? The ambiguous relationship between veto players and democratic reform in consensus democracies. Working group on democracy. Innovative democracy working paper series Vol. 1, issue 5.

Nikolenyi C. (2011), When Electoral Reform fails: The Stability of Proportional Representation in Post-Communist Democracy, «West European Politics», vol. 34, n.3, pp. 607-25.

Tsebelis G. (2002), Veto Players. How political institutions work, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Selena Grimaldi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova. Her research interest is in Leadership Studies in Comparative Perspective, with particular attention to the role of presidents in parliamentary democracies. She has published several book chapters and articles on this theme, including the most recent: ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?’, in Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015.