Tag Archives: referendum

Romania: the strategic use of referendums. Power to the people (later)!

by Veronica Anghel, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS Europe and Institute for Central Europe, Vienna

Spontaneous anti-government protest followed the result of EU elections and referendum on justice  under the eye of the gendarmerie. Bucharest has witnessed several large scale  protests that resulted in clashes with police forces  ©Marius Tudor

In broad strokes, we may identify the purpose of referendums as a useful tool to enhance democracy and citizen participation in policy outcome ( e.g. Bowler et al. 2007) or a populist weapon to mobilize supporters for electoral gains (e.g.Nemčok and Spáč 2019). Considering the increase of the use of referendums during the past decades (Qvortrup 2018), we are further motivated to better understand elite incentives to resort to this tool. In this text, I introduce the case of Romania as a study into the strategic use of this electoral institution by the executive branch– whether government or presidency. The Romanian case comes in support of the latter strand of scholarship and emphasizes how a referendum reveals its main use for the initiating actors to spread their message and gain popularity while the actual act of popular vote is irrelevant and has rather limited ability to shape policy outcome.  

During the past legislative year (2018 – 2019), the tool of referendum was used twice. In October 2018, Romanians voted to narrow the constitutional definition of family from a ‘marriage based on the union of spouses’ to ‘marriage between man and woman’. The governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and coalition partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) organised the referendum faced with a petition in favour of the constitutional change signed by 3 million citizens and supported by the Orthodox Church. Turn-out did not reach the 30% quorum needed. From the 21,1% of voters who turned –out for the referendum, over 90% supported the change.  This figure represents about 3,5 million Romanians. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition in a display of anti-government protest. This strategy was less as a show of solidarity with the human rights demands of the LGBTQ community than an oppositional stance.  President Klaus Iohannis, the most vocal contender of the government, nevertheless turned out to vote in the referendum. In a largely conservative country, it is of little worth to antagonise potential voters.   (see European Values Study and The Romanian Group for the Study of Social Values for useful data-bases). In this case, the motivation to organise the referendum lacked on all political sides, but mitigating potential loses not to have it became paramount.

The lack of interest in this issue was evident from the start. The PSD led cabinet set up a helpful legal context for the referendum to pass (lower threshold, two day voting process) and counted on the conservative values of the electorate and the involvement of the Orthodox Church to take effect. However, in a country where voter turn-out has constantly decreased in the last 30 years – averaging 40% – main parties’ ability to mobilise their active electorate is key for any election outcome. This requires willingness to invest significant financial and human resources and see potential gains out of such a feat. The dominant PSD calculated a lower investment return for this referendum and had no incentives for party activism compared to their usual display of organisational force during local and legislative elections. However, not organising it was a risk the government was not willing to take. The Orthodox Church has always served as an ally for the PSD. As in many Eastern European countries, politics and religion have an interdependent relationship. Incumbent politicians who associated their image with the church benefit from public acclaim and a positive standing with the well organised ecclesiastical network. The referendum had no actual effects over policy outcome and it did not lead to greater debate regarding same-sex marriage.

The second referendum was triggered by President Klaus Iohannis and organised on May 26th together with elections for the European Parliament. According to the Romanian semi-presidential constitutional system, the president has little formal powers to constrain the government or the parliament (see a previous blog post). Mr. Iohannis decided to use one of his prerogatives in response to what he considered ‘an assault through emergency ordinances on the justice system’ led by the PSD – ALDE governing coalition. In a country which witnessed massive anti-corruption and anti-justice reform protests, all association with this issue is electorally beneficial.  

Citizens were asked two yes/no questions: whether they agree to prohibit granting amnesty and pardons for sentences of corruption and whether they agree to outlaw issuing emergency ordinances regulating crimes, punishments and the reorganization of the judiciary. The results showed great support in favour of limitations to government led justice reform. Despite the complexity of the questions, their actual meaning was less debated. The underlying message was rather understood as a separation between those in favour of ‘tough justice’ vs. ‘lenience for corruption’. The referendum results are thus mostly symbolic. It is highly unlikely to see written into law the outcome of the vote.  They reconfirm the anti-corruption sentiment of Romanians who in recent years have often mobilized in protest to stop the governing elite from delivering self-serving justice reforms. 

The electoral gains of anti-government parties were far greater. With six month to go before the presidential elections in December 2019, front-runner and incumbent Klaus Iohannis benefited from an early electoral platform. Calling for this referendum gave him the opportunity to participate in rallies for the EU elections organised by his party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), despite the constitutional ban for the president to engage in partisan politics. The ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric primarily benefited newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) – PLUS 2020 Alliance and their leader and presidential hopeful Dacian Ciolos. USR – PLUS received 22% of the vote, a significant feat for a new comer. Mr. Ciolos is now also in the run for the same anti-government votes of enraged citizens. Similar to Mr. Iohannis, he will also employ an anti-corruption, anti-establishment strategy in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

In the first case, the exercise of the referendum was a way to fend off unwanted criticism and mostly employed a ‘nothing to lose strategy’. It failed as a result of lack of party mobilization in its favour, despite a favourable social values milieu. The second referendum benefited from heavy mobilisation on a salient issue. Regardless of the technicality of the questions, the mobilising message was perceived. Electoral gains were at the core of both of these decisions, while neither referendum will shape policy outcomes.

Guinea headed towards controversial constitutional change

It appears to be official. For months rumors have been swirling that President Alpha Condé was planning a constitutional referendum to adopt a new constitution and by the same token remove presidential term limits. Condé, who is 81 years old, is currently serving his second five-year term which will end next year. According to Guinea’s 2010 constitution, “no one may exercise more than two presidential mandates, consecutive or not.” The constitution also provides that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic may not be made the object of a revision.” So, logically, the only means of amending the presidential term limits is through the adoption of a brand new constitution.

On June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guinea reportedly issued a note to the country’s diplomatic representations across the world, confirming the government’s intention of submitting a new constitution to a referendum, and laying out the reasons for this initiative. The official reasons for the adoption of a new constitution include among others:

  • That the 2010 constitution was elaborated and adopted by a transitional council and not submitted to a popular vote;
  • That the roles and responsibilities between the president and prime minister are not clearly defined in the existing fundamental text;
  • The cumulatively short duration of legislative sessions during the year;
  • The need to reformulate the articles governing the constitutional court; and
  • The absence of a more elaborate bill of rights, including environmental, defense and women’s and children’s rights.

Interestingly, the note does not make reference to changing presidential term limits. However, revising term limits for the incumbent president is among the changes supported by Conde’s ruling RPG which include the following:

  • Replacing the prime minister with a vice-president;
  • Replacing the existing economic and social council with a senate;
  • Increasing the number of legislators and allowing for independent candidates;
  • Facilitating greater gender equity in elected positions;
  • Reducing the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 years of age; and
  • Allowing the incumbent president to run again.

Guinea’s opposition parties are, not surprisingly, less than thrilled with plans to change the constitution and allow President Condé to run for a third term. A coalition of opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions have come together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), in an effort designed to counter initiatives to change the constitution.

In the context of West Africa where countries have been gradually consolidating mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of executive power, notably through presidential term limits, Guinea would be rowing against the tide. Currently, President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the only president serving more that two terms in the subregion. Moreover, Togo just recently reintroduced presidential term limits – though they will not apply retroactively to the sitting president. In The Gambia, ongoing debates on constitutional reform are centered on entrenching, not eliminating presidential term limits. Even in Mauritania, not otherwise known for a stellar democratic record, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down at the end of his second presidential term, following presidential elections held on June 22.

Guinea is headed towards turbulent times, with presidential elections on the horizon for October 2020. Given the country’s history of violent demonstrations, significant loss of life is to be feared should the referendum to change the constitution proceed. Even if term limits are not revised, the adoption of a new constitution can reset the term limit counter, as we saw President Abdoulaye Wade argue in Senegal when he ran for a third term in 2012. Tensions in Guinea over the constitutional change debate have already boiled over with deadly consequences. At least one person was killed in clashes between police and demonstrators against a third term in the south-eastern city of N’Zerekoré earlier this month. As the announcement of the constitutional referendum becomes official, more violence is likely to follow.

Poland – President Duda pushes forward with constitutional referendum idea

Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.

President Andrzej Duda (middle) attends a sitting the Polish Senate – image via wikimedia commons

Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.

The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.

Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.

The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.

Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.

Ukraine and NATO – President Promises a Referendum

In the beginning of February, in an interview with a German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, President Poroshenko announced that he would hold a referendum on Ukraine’s membership in NATO during his presidency. Citing increasing support for the alliance among the population of the country, the President confirmed that he would do everything in his power to join the North Atlantic Alliance if the Ukrainians vote for it.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Poroshenko paid particular attention to strengthening Ukraine’s relationship with the international organisations and alliances, with a particular focus on the EU and NATO. Visa free regime with the EU was one of Poroshenko’s headline campaign promises. And although it has taken two years longer to achieve than the president had hoped, the EU seems to be set to introduce a visa free travel for Ukrainian citizens in June.

However, a closer affiliation with NATO, even though might be desired by the majority of the Ukrainian population, might be even more difficult to achieve for the president. Poroshenko, however, does not seem to be dismayed by the challenging task ahead. In the interview, the president cited a quickly rising support for the alliance among the Ukrainian population: “Four years ago, just 16 per cent [of Ukrainians] supported NATO membership. Now it is 54 per cent.”

However, even if NATO referendum will pass, joining the North Atlantic Alliance may still prove difficult for Ukraine. It has been reported that, although supportive of the country, NATO is not keen on admitting it as a new member and is cautious not to provoke Russia. A very similar situation surrounded Poland, when it joined the Atlantic Alliance in 1999 but no Russia response followed. However, Russia made its position clear on the question of Ukraine joining NATO in 2008, when it threatened to target its missile on Ukraine if it joined the Atlantic Alliance.

NATO member fees have also been the topic of the controversy recently. During the recent visit of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the US, President Trump reportedly presented her with a £300bl dollar bill. Whether Ukraine would be able to cover its fee membership if admitted is also a question.

Nonetheless, the question of Ukraine membership in NATO is not new. An online petition, which collected 25,000 signatures, asking for a referendum on NATO membership was previously submitted to the president in August 2015. And even though the referendum, of course, will not directly result in Ukraine joining NATO, holding a referendum would not only fulfil President’s pre-electoral promise to do so but also show the support for the alliance in the country.

Bolivia – Evo Morales Contemplates Fourth Term

Last March, I wrote about the defeated referendum in Bolivia to overturn the existing restrictions on term limits. President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. Although Morales had significant popular support and the overwhelming support of the legislature to hold the referendum, the defeat appeared to signal a definitive limit to his presidential aspirations and that seemed to be the end of that.

Rumblings from Evo Morales and his government appear to suggest however, that this is not the end of that. At a rally for supporters of his MAS party, at which Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz spoke, Morales announced his intention, contrary to the results of the referendum and Bolivian law, to seek a fourth term as president and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign (with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum), he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata. Zapata held a position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which had been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. Zapata has since been charged with corruption. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. President Morales however, now states that the Bolivian electoral court should nullify the results of the referendum because it was overshadowed and unduly tainted by these allegations. The government even released a documentary in cinemas, El Cártel de la Mentira (Cartel of Lies), which challenges the veracity of these allegations and attacked the president’s critics.

It is difficult to see how Morales and the MAS will get around the current legal restrictions. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1] In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. The Colombian Constitutional Court however, thwarted his efforts. Rafael Correa in Ecuador initiated a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

If Morales does succeed in reversing the referendum result and running for office in 2019, this would suggest Bolivia is dangerously close to a form of competitive authoritarian, regimes described as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety. Nicaragua and Venezuela are both already viewed as exemplars of these hybrid regime types. Watch this space to see if Bolivia will join them.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Czech Republic – President Zeman and the ‘Czexit’ referendum question

The result of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom on 23 June has created waves across and beyond the British Isles and the European continent. As many still tried to come to terms with the UK’s (almost) inevitable withdrawal from the European Union, several representatives of populist and fringe parties across Europe already called for similar ‘exit’ referenda for their own countries. The Czech Republic is particularly interesting in this regard as it was Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka who was first credited with floating the possibility of a ‘Czexit’ in February this year but then publicly distanced himself from the possibility. Now, president Miloš Zeman has reignited the debate by calling for a public vote on EU (and NATO) membership of the country.

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © hrad.cz

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © 2013 by hrad.cz

The UK referendum on EU membership has given rise to many calls for a similar votes in other countries. Far-right and populist leaders and presidential hopefuls, such as Marine Le Pen, have already called for a ‘Frexit‘ referendum in France and other variations of ‘-xit’ referenda in their countries. Although the anti-EU sentiment is most strongly represented in parties of the (far) right, demand for referenda has also come from the left and ideologically less defined populist actors, most prominently from Czech president Milos Zeman.

Shortly after the results of the UK vote broke, Zeman declared that – although in favour of EU membership – he would do everything for citizens feeling otherwise ‘to express themselves’, also with regard to NATO membership (a demand already made in February 2016 but quickly forgotten). Support for EU membership and trust in the EU institutions in the Czech Republic tends to be below average in comparison to other member states, yet is far from ranking lowest in the table. In the last year, criticism of and dissatisfaction with the EU has primarily been associated with the refugee crisis and the EU’s decision to impose quotas on its member states. The populist movement ‘Dawn’ recently submitted a motion to debate the possibility of a Czexit referendum in parliament and the election of an MEP of the eurosceptic fringe Party of Free Citizens (SSO) in 2014 indicates that there is a part of the electorate that responds to anti-EU rhetoric.

Nevertheless, the Czech president does not possess any power to call referenda at will (a power reserved for only few presidents around the world) – the Czech constitution also only mentions referenda in a clause inserted to allow for the EU accession referendum in 2003 (in which case a special organic law was passed to allow for the referendum – the only one held in the Czech Republic to date). Furthermore, the government has made it clear that it opposes any public vote on EU membership. A Czexit or even a referendum on the Czech Republic leaving the European Union thus seems unlikely. Nevertheless,  EU membership (and to a lesser degree NATO) membership presents a political cleavage which could be successfully mobilised in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (2017 and 2018, respectively), particularly in conjunction with the refugee crisis. After Zeman’s approval had dropped sharply a year ago due to his position in the Ukraine crisis and a series of gaffes, his ratings have since improved and stabilised once again around 57-58% over the last months. By calling for a EU referendum yet supporting membership at the same time, Zeman could thus try to dance at two weddings at once – attract Eurosceptic voters (who will probably vote for a fringe candidate in the first round but could prove decisive in a potential runoff) while not losing too many mainstream voters.

The do-over the Austrian presidential election might provide a first test of how such a tactic might work out. Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer initially suggested that the Austrian people should be given a say over further EU integration and in his campaign greatly benefited from anti-EU sentiment related to the refugee crisis. Following statements by his decidely pro-EU challenger, Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens), last week he was however forced to acknowledge that it would disastrous for Austria if the country left the EU. In order to maintain the momentum of his campaign and keep the anti-establishment vote, Hofer must nevertheless try to balance pro- and anti-EU voters which could – if successful – provide a template for Zeman and the Czexit referendum question.

Poland – As referendum is thwarted by low turnout, new president tries to shake up rules of the game

On Sunday, 6 September, poles were called to the urns for the second time this year to vote in a referendum on three largely connected questions. The only common denominator was that the referendum itself was a remnant of the presidential campaign during which incumbent (and now ex-president) Bronislaw Komorowski – shocked by only placing second in the first round and the sizeable vote share won by anti-establishment candidate Pawel Kukiz – tried to sway voters by promising them to decide on said three questions. Just as Komorowski’s bid for re-election failed, so did the referendum as only 7.80% voters made their way to the polling stations. At the same time, Komorowski’s successor Andrzej Duda is trying to shake up the political scene in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in October which – after the president – might also remove the government of the Civic Platform from power.

Results of the Polish referendum on 6 September 2015

Question % Yes
Are you in favour of the introduction of single-member districts in elections to the Sejm? 78.75
Are you in favour of maintaining the current system of state funding of political parties? 17.37
Are you in favour of introducing the principle that uncertainty about the interpretation of the tax code should be resolved in favour of the taxpayer? 94.51
Turnout: 7.80% (outcome invalid/not binding; threshold 50%)

In the referendum, voters were asked whether they favoured the introduction of single-member electoral districts for parliamentary elections to the Sejm, the lower and politically significant chamber of the Polish parliament (Poland currently uses preferential voting in multi-member districts; elections to the Senate are already being held SMDs). The reason for this question is the fact that one of Pawel Kukiz’ (admittedly few) campaign promises was the introduction of such a system – officially to increase accountability of deputies towards voters. The two other questions were likely aimed to pander to the general public. The public financing of political parties has long been a subject of debate in Poland. The Civic Platform – Komorowski’s former party – even did not formally register as a party for several years, thus making them unable to claim state subsidies, to demonstrate their opposition to state financing of political parties. The last question referred to the interpretation of tax law in favour of the taxpayer; however, the Sejm already passed a bill to that effect on 10th July (i.e. after the referendum was already scheduled and Komorowski lost the run-off to Duda) so that it’s only function now would have been to remind citizens of the government’s ‘good deeds’.

The low turnout which eventually rendered the outcome of the referendum invalid had been expected by many analysts and politicians. The outcome also stresses the fact that Poles – while voting for Pawel Kukiz in suprising numbers (20%, the best result of a third-placed candidate in Polish presidential elections) – did not actually want the introduction of SMDs. Kukiz political movement ‘Kukiz 15’, once predicted to win as many as 20% of votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections has recently dropped to just 6% in the polls and the results of the referendum might well have delivered its death sentence. Interestingly, the fourth-placed presidential candidate, far-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke (4.40%), and his newly formed party KORWIN have also failed to gain significant support – the latter is currently predicted to receive between 2-3% of the vote. Last, fifth-placed candidate Magdalena Ogórek, rumored to aim for a safe list place rather than the presidency during the course of the campaign, has disappeared from the political scene and will not run for parliament.

While other parties might struggle to enter parliament or will at least experience significant losses, ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS) the party of president Duda has been leading in the polls for months. Yet Duda’s first month since taking office has not been without controversy. During his first official foreign visit to Germany, Duda tried to propose a new format for talks about the Ukrainian crisis which was quickly panned and its necessity questioned by all parties involved. While the Polish has a formal role in foreign and defence policy, his initiative was also generally negatively received as overstepping established boundaries between governmental and presidential responsibilities. It later emerged that Duda had also told his German counterpart Joachim Gauck that he did not consider Poland to be a state where everybody was treated equally, triggering another wave of criticism. Duda’s latest gaffe – although it is likely that this was planned in order to appeal to the PiS core electorate – was when he refused to shake hands with Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz during the commemorations of the outbreak of the WW II in Danzig.

Up to this point, Duda has is far from being a non-partisan president but his actions are almost reminiscent of PiS’ last president Lech Kaczynski and the 2005-2007 period when PiS-led governments led to Poland’s increasing isolation in foreign affairs and the questionable use of administrative resources and the judicial system against political enemies. Most recently Duda’s request to the Polish Senate for another referendum – to be held on the same date as the parliamentary elections and covering question ranging from the state retirement age and the management of state forests to the school starting age and thus mostly relating to changes introduced by the current government – was still denied. Nevertheless, the fact that letters still sent to his predecessor were sent back with a stamp ‘This person does not work in the Presidential Office’ rather than answered, shows how quickly Duda and his people have changed the character of the institution.[1] Duda has already declared that he will campaign on behalf of his party in the forefront of the parliamentary elections in late October, but (as always in Polish politics) it is too early to tell how his activism will impact on its electoral fortunes. On the one hand, PiS might benefit form the coattail effect; on the other hand, the Civic Platforms recently announced decision to co-opt several well-known conservative and left-wing politicians on its list might still sway voters in the other direction.

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[1] Interestingly however, the head of the important legal and institutional department and the presidential office’s longest serving employee, Andrzej Dorsz, who under Lech Kaczynski had still been banished to head the archive, has so far remained in his place.

 

Gary Murphy – Referendum on the minimum age of the President of Ireland

This is a guest post by Professor Gary Murphy of the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland

gary_murphy

The decision by the Irish people to overwhelmingly endorse same-sex marriage in the referendum on 22 May 2015 generated headlines all across the world and induced extraordinary scenes of celebration rarely seen in democracies after popular votes whether at general elections or referendums. As the first country to introduce same sex marriage by dint of popular vote in a referendum that meant so much to so many, Ireland took a decision after a robust debate where both political parties and civil society groups ran vigorous campaigns. The result was a citizenry which took an informed vote.

If only the same could be said for the other referendum. How the Irish people ended up voting to change the age of eligibility for running for president from 35 to 21 will go down in history as one of the great mysteries of Irish politics. And yet when in future years those assessing this referendum analyse it, they will note that the turnout at 60.51 per cent was extremely high for referendums; the eleventh highest of the thirty five referendums that have taken place since the constitution was introduced in 1937. There is one simple answer for this high turnout and that is that it was held in conjunction with same-sex marriage referendum which itself had a turnout of 60.52 per cent. 1,949,725 voted in the same-sex marriage referendum and 1,949,438 people voted in the presidential age referendum. High turnout, however, should not be mistaken for high interest.

Changing the constitution in any democracy is a serious business and theoretically speaking the Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour went through a very deliberative process before deciding to propose that the Irish Constitution be amended. The reality is completely different.

The proposal to reduce the age of eligibility for President from 35 to 21 was one of 19 recommendations that came from the Constitutional Convention. This convention was charged by the government with considering a variety of aspects of the constitution to ensure that it best reflected Ireland in the twenty first century and with making recommendations to the Oireachtas on future amendments to be put to the people in referendums.

The convention was an initiative of the government whereby in 2012 it established a decision-making forum of 100 people, made up of 66 citizens, randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, and the independent chairman. It heard evidence from a range of experts and engaged in serious debate on nine specific issues mandated by the government. None of these included the age of eligibility for president, although the convention did also have the power to debate other potential constitutional amendments. On the presidency the convention was asked to initially discuss whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five. It ultimately decided to reject such a view by 57 votes to 43. It also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a one-term presidency, but it did substantially endorse a proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates.

Currently the situation whereby candidates can get on to the presidential ballot is rather byzantine and is dominated by the political parties. A candidate must either get the backing of twenty member of the Oireachtas, which consists of 166 members of Dáil Eireann (the lower house) and 60 members of Seanad Eireann (the upper house), or four of the country’s 31 city and county councils. On the proposal that eventually found its way on to the ballot paper of reducing the age of eligibility from 35 to 21 the convention voted 50 to 47 to endorse such a position. Given the narrowness of this vote the question must be asked as to why the government then decided to put this question to the people above others which were overwhelmingly approved by the convention. For instance the government initially agreed to put the convention’s proposal that the voting age in general elections be reduced from 18 to 16 to a referendum in but later reversed this decision arguing that other referendums should take priority.

And these priorities seemingly included the referendum that even the constitutional convention itself was pretty much split on. Giving citizens who are resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections was one of the nine priorities suggested by Dáil Éireann when it approved the establishment of the constitutional convention to consider various reforms to the then seventy five year old document. But once the convention did indeed suggest that Irish citizens resident outside the state should be given the right to vote in presidential elections, it was reckoned by the government to be too radical and so instead it plumped for the rather innocuous proposal to reduce the eligibility age of the presidency.

In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. In that context reducing the age of eligibility was deemed by the government as being the perfect referendum accompaniment to the controversial same-sex marriage proposal; a safe proposal dressed up as a significant reform where the government could frame the change in the constitution as being indicative of inclusion and equality for a younger generation. Thus the proposal to amend the constitution, one of the gravest decisions a government can make, was decided upon by the Irish government who then decided not to bother campaigning on it.

The Tánaiste and leader of the Labour party, the junior partner in the coalition government, Joan Burton suggested during what campaign there actually was that the referendum was the result of a recommendation from the constitutional convention which had delivered its final report in March 2014. This of course was not only incorrect but also highly misleading. It was the government which decided to have this referendum. The Labour party then took the even more bizarre decision to declare it was staying neutral on the issue and would not campaign on it which was to in effect treat the constitution with disdain and contempt.

The major coalition party Fine Gael ran a campaign so desultory that it can hardly even be described as that and none of the opposition parties did anything beyond make the most rudimentary appeals to their supporters to vote yes. Ultimately the only real campaigning on a government proposal to amend the constitution was done by a number of youth advocacy groups. There was no real organised opposition to the proposal. A number of individuals were vocal on the issue but taking to Twitter to complain about the paucity of the campaign as a whole, one ‘no’ advocate, the public affairs consultant Gerard Howlin, was forced into asking whether only he and two others could be bothered to advocate a ‘no’ vote. One of those two others was my Dublin City University colleague Prof Colum Kenny who enthusiastically campaigned for a ‘no’ vote issuing no fewer than 37 press releases to the media and making numerous appearances in the print and broadcast media. And yet despite the individual nature of the ‘no’ campaign the proposed amendment was defeated by 73.06 per cent to 26.94 per cent with all 43 geographical constituencies voting no; the largest defeat for a referendum proposal since the constitution was introduced in 1937.

Writing just a day after the results were declared it is difficult to offer anything but the considered view that the reason 1,412,602 people voted against the proposal was simply because no convincing case was made that they should change their constitution. The Irish people are on the whole quite protective of their constitution. They are not opposed to changing it and doing so quite dramatically as in the same-sex marriage vote. They do need persuading, however, that it needs changing. Since 2002 they have twice rejected European treaties and in 2013 they rejected a populist proposal to abolish the second Oireachtas chamber, the Seanad, when the government again failed to make the case that it was necessary. On the same day that the Irish gave an overwhelming yes to same-sex marriage they also reminded their government that they know that changing the constitution is an important matter. It is something their government certainly needs reminding of.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University where he has worked for the past two decades. He has published extensively on the politics of modern Ireland. His latest book, a major reinterpretation of modern Ireland, entitled A brief history of continuity: Ireland since 1987 will be published by Manchester University Press later this year. He is a prominent contributor to political debates in Ireland in the print and broadcast media.

Slovakia – Low turnout thwarts anti-LGBT referendum

On Saturday, 7 February, Slovakia held a referendum on three questions pertaining to same-sex marriage with the aim of further restricting LGBT rights in the country. The referendum was initiated by the Christian right-wing organisation ‘Alliance for the Family’ (Aliancia za rodinu) after it gathered more than 400,000 signatures (50,000 more than required, ca. 8% of all citizens).[1] Despite being supported by the Catholic Church and a great number of other religious and civil society organisations, the referendum eventually failed to succeed due to low turnout.

Questions and result of the same-sex marriage referendum in Slovakia, 7 February 2015

Question Yes No Invalid
1 Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? 94.50% 4.13% 1.36%
2 Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children? 92.43% 5.54% 2.01%
3 Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the children or their parents don’t agree? 90.32% 7.34% 2.33%
Registered voters: 4 411 529

Turnout: 21.41% (referendum not valid as turnout below 50%)

Source: http://www.volbysr.sk/en/data.html

The ‘Alliance for the Family’ was formed in late 2013 with the aim of enshrining the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and strengthening the ‘traditional family. In April 2014 started to collect signatures for their referendum initiative after having been supported by the Slovak Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as a number of other churches and religious groups (the Catholic Church even had a letter in support read out during Sunday worship). Parties and political leaders on the other hand were hesitant to support the referendum – the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) was the only party to openly call for voting in favour of all questions, whereas others only asked their supporters to participate in the referendum without indication of how to vote.

Likewise, political leaders were hesitant to affiliate themselves with either side, careful not wanting to scare off potential voters (parliamentary elections will be held in March 2016) as well as not to worsen relations with the churches and grass-roots organisations. Prime Minister Robert Fico, leader of the left-wing SMER party, hinted at being in favour of some form of same-sex unions. However, in June 2014 (and thus while signatures were still being collected) the Slovak parliament – with the votes of Fico’s SMER which holds almost 2/3 of the seats – changed the constitution to re-define marriage as being a man and a woman (a move rumoured to be a deal with the KDH to push through further judicial reforms). President Kiska (independent, politically centre-right) initially declared that he would vote yes on the first two questions and no on the third, yet tried to relativise his statements after public criticism.

Presidents and referenda have difficult history in Slovakia. In 1997, president Michal Kováć and the government clashed over the scheduling of a referendum on NATO entry and inclusion of a question on introducing popular presidential elections. Kováć’s successor, Rudolf Schuster, on the other hand announced a referendum initiated by the opposition which called for the shortening of parliament’s term in 1999. Not only to avoid conflict, but certainly also to remain a more impartial position, rresident Kiska decided to put the questions before the constitutional court – a right the president only gained as part of the 1999-2001 constitutional reforms. In the end the Constitutional Court decided to exclude a fourth question from the ballot, judging it as unconstitutional.[2]

When the results started to come in, it soon became clear that the results of the referendum would be invalid due to low turnout – only the Námestovo Electoral District recorded slightly more than the 50% turnout that would have been necessary. Eventually, only 21.41% of voters cast their vote (i.e. only little more than twice the number of signatures submitted) which mirrors not only Slovak citizens’ turnout in the six previous referenda (only the 2003 referendum on EU entry achieved the required turnout) but also general voter apathy in the country. The referendum as such thus presents a dilemma for Slovak politics. Despite attracting much international criticism (most notably from Amnesty International), it is Slovakia’s first publicly initiated referendum and the ‘Alliance for Family’ is the largest civil organisation since the ‘Public Against Violence’ (the Slovak counterpart to the Czech ‘Civic Forum’) which toppled the Communist regime 25 years ago. Although the Alliance has thus managed what few others have managed to do – namely unite a not insignificant part of the public on a single issue and force it on the national agenda – its failure might eventually lead to even greater voter apathy.

It is not clear to what extent the results of the referendum can be interpreted with regard to the parliamentary elections next year. Superficially, it might appear that the KDH as the only party which actively supported the referendum might benefit (it with 8.8% it was the second largest party in the last elections), yet the parties on the political right in Slovakia are traditionally splintered and so are their support bases. It is thus unlikely that a single party may gain in a more multi-faceted electoral setting. The transformation of the Alliance into a new party is also unlikely – on Sunday representatives re-asserted their claim to be ‘citizen’s activists’ and not wanting to become politicians.

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[1] In the end 390,000 signatures were judged to be valid.
[2] The fourth question read: ‘Do you agree that no other form of cohabitation shall be awarded the special protection, the rights and the obligations which by legal norms are awarded to husbands and wives as of 1 March 2014 – in particular the recognition, registration or documentation as a form of cohabitation before public authorities, and the possibility of adopting the child of the other parent?’

See also: Croatia – Referendum criticised by the president and prime minister passed with large popular support

Croatia – Presidential election to be decided in runoff between centre-left incumbent Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic

Presidential elections were held in Croatia on 28 December 2014. Incumbent Ivo Josipovic of the ruling Social Democratic Party ran for re-election and had three challengers. He finished the race almost neck and neck with Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the candidate supported by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union. As none of the candidates passed the 50% threshold, a run-off will be organized on 11 January 2015.

The Croatian Electoral Commission reported a turnout of 47.14%, slightly higher than in 2009, and the following results:

  • Ivo Josipovic (Social Democratic Party, SDP) – 38.46%
  • Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ) – 37.22%
  • Ivan-Vilibor Sincic (Zivi Zid) – 16.42%
  • Milan Kujundzic (Croatian DawnPeople’s Party, HZ) – 6.30%

Due to the limited powers of the head of state, the presidential contest was regarded as a key test for political parties before the 2015 general election. A severe economic crisis during which Croatia’s economy shrunk for six consecutive years has dented the popularity of both SDP and President Josipovic. Grabar-Kitarovic – NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy since July 2011, a former Ambassador of Croatia to the United States (2008 – 2011) and minister of European Integration (2003-2005) and Foreign Affairs (2005-2008) – has particularly focused her campaign on economic issues and constantly challenged President Josipovic’s ability to deal with the deep economic and social crisis.

The presidential election also drew attention to the good performance of the new populist parties set up by 25-year-old activist Ivan-Vilibor Sincic and Milan Kujundzic in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

The Croatian presidency is nowadays seen as a largely ceremonial institution, after the 2000 constitutional amendment shifted considerable power from the presidency to the parliament. Under the 1990 Constitution, the head of state had the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister (Art. 98). Moreover, the government was responsible to both the parliament and the head of state (Art. 111).

Under the 2000 Constitution, the president has been constrained to nominate as candidate for the Prime Minister position the person who enjoys the support of the majority in the parliament after the distribution of seats (Art. 97). Moreover, the cabinet is solely responsible to the legislature (Art. 114). Thus, although the President retains some influence over the process of government formation and may be able to decide on the organization of early elections under certain circumstances (Art. 109-111), the head of state’s involvement in the making and breaking of governments has been considerably diminished.

Thus, among semi-presidential states, Croatia is classified as a president-parliamentary sub-type between 1991 and 2000 and as a premier-presidential sub-type since 2001.

Despite the decrease in the extent of presidential powers, the 2000 Constitution does grant the head of state several prerogatives that are not negligible. Although lacking the power to veto legislation, the President has the right to challenge parliamentary bills to the Constitutional Court before signing them into law (Art. 88). Additionally, he or she has an important say in the formulation and execution of foreign policy (Art. 98), is the commander of the armed forces (Art. 99), and has exceptional powers during the state of war (Art. 100). The president also has the right to initiate constitutional changes, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (Art. 142-144), and to call for a referendum at the government’s proposal and with the counter-signature of the Prime Minster (Art. 86).

Both candidates who will contest the runoff on 11 January promise to increase the influence of the presidency over internal politics. Ivo Josipovic has pledged to initiate a constitutional amendment so that citizens can ask for any subject that is supported by at least 10,000 signatures to be debated in parliament. Additionally, he is supporting the adoption of a mixed electoral system and a territorial reform that would reorganize Croatia’s 20 counties into 5 to 8 regions, for which he would be ready to call for referenda.

While Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is against any modification of the Constitution, her presidential programme includes a wide range of social and economic measures. She promises to strengthen the rule of law, to protect the rights of the members of the armed forces and war veterans, to promote economic growth, and to solve the economic crisis for which she holds the centre-left government and President Josipovic responsible. However, she has not indicated the means through which she would be able to push these reforms given the absence of presidential powers over these domains.

Ultimately, the ability of either candidate to enforce their electoral promises after the 11 January poll depends not only on their formal powers but also on their relation with the government and the parliamentary majority. If Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic wins the presidency, then her influence on the political system might be limited during the period of cohabitation with the SDP-led government that would ensue until at least late 2015, when the next general election is scheduled. However, cohabitation might not be avoided after the next parliamentary election even if Ivo Josipovic wins the presidential runoff, as current polls show SDP losing ground in favour of a new left-wing rival, while HDZ remains the most popular party in the country.