Tag Archives: semi-presidentialism

Burkina Faso – Interesting constitutional innovations

It’s here – Burkina Faso’s new draft constitution. The constitutional review commission presented the results of its deliberations on January 10th. The 92-member commission — with representation from the ruling MPP-party, opposition parties (including the CDP of former President Blaise Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) — was officially seated on September 29, 2016 by President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. The commission is charged with proposing a new constitution that will institute the country’s Fourth Republic.

So what is in this proposed new constitutional text? What are its key provisions in terms of presidential power, executive-legislative relations and term limits?

First of all, the intent is to keep a semi-presidential regime, with a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to the legislature. The president must appoint a prime minister “from within the legislative majority,” after consulting with that majority (Article 66). Those provisions are the same as in the current constitution from 1991, last amended in November 2015 by the National Transition Council.

Interestingly, Article 56 of the new draft constitution specifies that in the event that the prime minister is backed by a legislative majority which does not support the president, “both have to determine by consensus major policy orientations in the greater interest of the Nation.” Article 56 continues: “In the absence of consensus, it is the Government [i.e. the prime minister and cabinet] that determines and conducts the policy of the Nation.” This is an innovation compared to the current constitution.

In other words, in the event of a conflictual cohabitation between a president and a prime minister from opposing parties, executive power would swing to the prime minister. On the other hand, the president would retain the power to dismiss the prime minister “in the higher interest of the Nation” (Article 66), as is also currently the case. As in the present constitution, a new prime minister and cabinet would require legislative approval within 30 days of being appointed (Article 87), through a vote on the government’s policy statement.

The president’s power of initiative to dismiss the prime minister would keep Burkina Faso in the camp of president-parliamentary regimes, per Shugart and Carey’s (1992) definition. The president may also dissolve the legislature and call for new elections (Article 70), but cannot do so again till 12 months have passed since the last dissolution (same as today’s constitution). Conversely, it would only take 25 percent of legislators to initiate a censure vote against the government (Article 115), as opposed to 30 percent in the current constitution.

The president would keep his reserved policy domain, in the area of defense policy. The head of state is the commander in chief and appoints the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. The president is thus responsible for determining the strategic orientations of the national defense policy and for chairing the National Defense Council (Article 72). This would be a significant power to retain, in the event of cohabitation.

The proposed constitution maintains presidential term limits at two 5-year terms. It was the attempted removal of this term-limit provision which brought about a popular uprising that led to the fall of former President Compaoré in October 2014. An absolute majority of votes is required to win the election, with a run-off if no candidate is able to secure such a majority in the first round (Article 57). An important innovation is the “locking” (‘verrouillage’) of presidential term limits by including them among those intrinsic democratic elements of the constitution (listed in Article 192) that cannot be changed (along with the republican and lay nature of the state, multipartism, and the integrity of the national territory). Another interesting novelty is the introduction of term limits also for legislators (a maximum of three 5-year terms, Article 101). Furthermore, a deputy may serve a maximum of two terms as president of the national assembly (Article 107).

Finally, changing the constitution without recourse to a referendum would become more challenging: it would require a 4/5 legislative majority of members of parliament (Article 190) to pass changes without the need for a popular vote, compared to 3/4 of the members of the legislature as is currently the case.

Next steps: the draft constitution will be discussed in popular forums to be held in all 13 regions of the country and also shared with the diaspora in countries with a significant concentration of Burkinabe immigrants.  The text will thereafter be given to the president for comment and then finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. It will be interesting to see if the proposed innovations – notably with regards to the division of executive powers in the event of disagreements between president and prime minister from opposing parties – will survive in the final version.

Romania – The politics of the fourth cohabitation

Less than a month after the general election held on December 11, a new government formally took office in Romania. As anticipated, a two-party coalition was formed between the Social Democratic Party (PSD), represented by 221 MPs in the 465-seats bicameral parliament, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which holds 29 seats. The Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which won 30 seats in the election, signed a parliamentary support agreement with the ruling coalition but decided to stay out of government. Counting in the support of the 17 representatives of the national minorities, the government majority is only 13 seats shy of the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. The two ruling parties also seized the top legislative posts: PSD’s chairman Liviu Dragnea claimed the leadership of the Chamber of Deputies, while the Senate presidency went to the ALDE leader and former prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu.

While little time was spent on PSD-ALDE coalition negotiations, President Iohannis’ involvement in government formation delayed the appointment of a new prime minister and came close to triggering a new constitutional crisis. The Constitution grants the head of state some discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, but the final decision on the approval of a new government rests with the parliament. The president’s actual influence on who gets the PM post depends on political context and is usually limited to situations when either a presidential majority exists in parliament or a deep political crisis opens a window of opportunity for the head of state to put together a “crisis-solving” government. The latter scenario took place in November 2015, when President Iohannis appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş after the then PSD government led by PM Ponta stepped down amid country-wide anti-corruption protests. As the National Liberal Party (PNL) together with the other centre-right groupings barely control 36% of the parliamentary seats in the current legislature, the head of state seemed to have hardly any leeway in the exercise of his PM appointment powers.  However, President Iohannis found a way to hinder PSD’s efforts to dictate the formation of the post-election government.

First, he used a 2001 law that forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government as a legal ground to bar PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea from becoming prime minister on account of a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud he received in 2015. Dragnea admitted he was unable to claim the PM post for himself “for the time being”,  but made it clear he had a free hand from the party to make appointments to cabinet and hold the executive accountable for its actions. Consequently, his first nomination for the PM post was Sevil Shhaideh, a PSD member without a personal power base in the party but one of his longstanding collaborators and loyal supporters. President Iohannis rejected Shhaideh’s nomination without formally motivating his decision. Her Syrian husband’s ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was however seen as the main reason for the president’s unprecedented move to turn down a PM nomination. The PSD-ALDE coalition reacted with threats to initiate the proceedings for the president’s impeachment. This episode ended with President Iohannis’ acceptance of the Social Democrats’ second proposal for prime minister. Sorin Grindeanu, a relatively unfamiliar figure for the general public despite having been a minister in the PSD government ousted in November 2015, presented his cabinet and won the parliament’s investiture vote held on January 4 with 295 votes against 133.

PM Grindeanu’s cabinet profile: “politics is made elsewhere”

 Ministerial portfolios in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet are distributed among the two parties in strict proportion with their legislative seat-shares.

While most members in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet have some experience in national or local politics, few of them are high-profile politicians. About half of the ministers, including PM Grindeanu and deputy PM Sevil Shhaideh, have held posts in previous PSD cabinets. They occupy more or less the same portfolios they held before, despite having left few notable traces in their respective domains. Some of them come from local public administration (Sorin Grindeanu and Sevil Shhaideh fit this profile as well). Only half of the ministers were selected from among the sitting parliamentarians and not many of them have been key figures in their party’s national or local organizations. Moreover, despite PSD’s heavy criticism of the previous government’s technocratic nature, three of the cabinet members have no formal political affiliation. Additionally, several ministers are involved in corruption investigations or other controversies. As a matter of fact, PSD’s governing programme does not contain any references to continuing the fight against corruption.

Arguably, the ministers’ lack of personal notoriety makes them more susceptible to direct party control. The prime minister himself is better known as a local politician, due to his recent election as president of the Timiş City Council, despite having been a deputy in the 2012-2016 legislature and a minister in PM Ponta’s last cabinet. Although a longstanding PSD member, Sorin Grindeanu has never held a key position in the party’s national executive. That said, it is not unprecedented for a prime minister not to be a party leader as well. For example, PM Ponta stepped down as PSD leader in July 2015, after prosecutors from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) opened a corruption investigation against him (ironically, he was succeeded as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, who had already received a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud). Even in the French Fifth Republic, where control over the party machinery is often thought a prerequisite for the exercise of key executive roles, Lionel Jospin willingly resigned as leader of the Socialist Party before taking office as prime minister in 1997 (also at the beginning of cohabitation with President Chirac). In these cases, though, the prime ministers’ political authority over their governments’ actions and even on their parties was not questioned. This is hardly the case with PM Grindeanu, who lacks a personal power base in the party. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find another example of a prime minister stating that his cabinet has a purely administrative role, as “politics is made elsewhere”.

All important decisions following the general election have been announced by PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea, including the formal presentation of PM Grindeanu’s list of ministers. In fact, he repeatedly stated that the government is directly accountable on the party line and that he will personally monitor each minister’s performance. Dragnea has also taken over announcements concerning the steps taken by the government to fulfill the generous promises of the Social-Democratic programme, such as the swift elimination of the income tax for small pensions. Thus, as leader of the main governing party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea possesses all essential tools to control and speed up executive actions, acting as the country’s most powerful politician.

President Iohannis’ role in the fourth cohabitation

Although this is Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation, it is the first time that a general election brought it about. There are good chances it will also be Romania’s longest cohabitation to date, as the next presidential election is not due before late 2019. Therefore, one can only speculate about the role President Iohannis will choose to play from now on, especially if he intends to run for a second mandate. Granted, it is too early to tell if he will attempt to redefine his role as the leader of the opposition, like his predecessor did in 2007 and 2012. However, there are signs he might be willing to take a more active role in the confrontation with the ruling coalition.

For example, the head of state delivered a tough speech at the government’s swearing-in ceremony on January 4. On this occasion, he picked holes in the governing programme for not specifying how it will manage to keep the budgetary deficit under 3%, while making populist promises to increase salaries and pensions and cut down the VAT. He also hinted at the ministers’ inability to answer basic questions related to the governing programme during the parliamentary hearings, which were cut down to only 30 minutes for each minister.

Notable among the president’s latest actions were also his blasting comments on the Ombudsman’s decision to challenge the law banning convicted persons to join the government to the Constitutional Court. In fact, the Ombudsman’s action is generally seen as a blatant attempt to ease Liviu Dragnea’s future accession to the prime ministership. The president made similar harsh remarks several days later, when he warned the government against attempting to pass a law on amnesty and pardon of convicted or prosecuted politicians. He also pledged support to the DNA’s internationally recognised anti-corruption fight and vowed to use his veto powers against legislative and executive actions directed towards the weakening of anti-corruption legislation.

Whether such pledges can still pay off electorally – a view the latest polls did not seem to support – or have any political effects in the face of PSD’ solid parliamentary majority remains to be seen. For the time being, the PSD-ALDE majority has just engineered the government’s ability to govern through emergency ordinances that do not require the president’s approval while the parliament has convened for an extraordinary session.

Rui Graça Feijó – Semi-Presidentialism in Portugal: Towards Co-Government?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

As 2016 was approaching its end, a popular political commentator-cum-humorist claimed that the major novelty of the year was the apparition on the scene of “Costelo”, suggesting that PM António COSTa had fused with PR MarcELO Rebelo de Sousa (MRS) in one single political entity. With all the exaggeration that all caricature implies, this joke struck a sensitive chord. In this post I wish to explore one side of this joke: what is driving the new PR to make it plausible?

In an earlier post, I suggested that the 2016 presidential elections had heralded a new era in Portuguese semi-presidentialism, reinforcing both the role of Parliament and the Presidency (see my post of 25 July 2016). The reasons for the resurgence of the presidency are manifold. First of all, the new PR is a reputed constitutionalist who wrote many pieces on the subject of presidential power, and he can be quoted expressing a view on presidential competences that goes beyond what others have expressed. Even if he is not known for the firmness of his positions which tend to evolve (and more than thirty years have elapsed since he first commented on the 1982 constitutional revision), there is a coherent background to the claim that presidential powers derived from a direct election without party mediation (as is his case) transcend a literal reading of the constitutional word and require the contemplation of a “material constitution” in Sartori’s sense that encompasses established practices, precedents, and even public expectations that do not run contrary to the formal law. Secondly, MRS was also a popular pundit who entered everybody’s home every Sunday evening expressing reputedly common sense ideas on political events, and was acutely aware that his predecessor, Cavaco Silva, had sank the popularity of the presidency to its record lowest levels – he left office with an overall negative rating of -13 points according to the regular barometer published by the weekly Expresso, the only president to have ever recorded negative ratings (some have been credited with +70 or more). The plummeting of popularity impaired his capacity to intervene on the political arena, as his failure to stop the novel convergence of the parliamentary left clearly demonstrated. For this reason, MRS, an expert on media communication, set himself the goal to reverse such course and dispute with former president Mario Soares (and to a lesser extent, Jorge Sampaio) the championship of popularity – and therefore increase his room for manoeuvre. It must be stated that he has been very successful in such endeavour, Eurosondagem barometer crediting him with circa +70 positive against -13 negative ratings. He has championed what he labels “a presidency of affections”, stepping down from a pedestal erected by Cavaco to mingle with the people. Few persons in the country do not possess a “selfie” with the president smiling in their midst. And for everybody, the president is “o Marcelo” – addressed by his first name preceded by the definite article that instils even more familiarity. The question to be raised is: what does the PR use his power for?

For one, he uses his power in line with other presidents have done. The strongest traditional competence is le pouvoir d’empêcher: to use his veto powers. Marcelo has done it on a few occasions (e.g., on bank secrecy, changes in the status of metropolitan transport systems, and on surrogate motherhood – one bill he later signed after being amended in parliament in line with some of his suggestions) – none being critical for the survival of the parliamentary convergence sustaining the PM, almost all of them destined to send a signal to his conservative constituency.

If his “reaction powers” have not exceeded what might be expected, the use of “action powers” has proved to be somewhat more controversial. One of Marcelo’s idiosyncratic features his is alleged hyper-activism which brings him to issue comments and public statements on everything that goes under his nose – take for instance a note on the presidency’s official site expressing condolences on the passing of the English pop star George Michael, with no known special relation with Portugal. Other instances are politically more relevant, although not always coherent. For instance, Marcelo criticized the new salaries of the public commercial bank’s administrators (in tune with popular sentiments) but promulgated the law that allows them (arguing with the need to secure a “professional solution”).

In a political and institutional system in which the function of the president is distinct from the executive branch entrusted to the PM and his government, and is rather derived from Benjamin Constant’s notion of “pouvoir moderateur”, it is not a novelty that presidents have expressed their desire to “contribute” to political solutions that pertain to the realm of the executive. Mario Soares famous “open presidencies” were expressions of his agenda setting powers with important consequences in his so called “magistracy of influence”. Jorge Sampaio’s more subtle workshops of experts also set the tone for the intervention of the PR. Cavaco Silva boasted of having introduced amendments to a third of all bills brought before him (maybe in the memoirs he is currently writing he will explain this in detail). In all these instances – that constitute precedents for a PR who is thirsty of prominence – the presidential intervention was kept within the framework of separate powers, not invading the executive prerogatives. Will this hold true for Marcelo?

Fernando Pessoa, the modernist poet, coined the term “President-King” to allude to the brief term in office of Sidónio Pais during the First Republic – a charismatic figure that fell assassinated one year after seizing power in a coup and making himself elected by “universal” suffrage. This term was not supposed to evoke the 19th century constitutional monarchs who exercised a “moderating power” in Constant’s vein, but rather to the authoritative figure of an elusive, undisputed leader of yesteryear. This epithet has recently been retrieved in discussions about Marcelo’s self-ascribed role in national politics. In other words, several commentators and constitutionalists like Vital Moreira (an expert on presidential powers) fear he is mobilizing his enormous popularity and stepping on a thin line that defines the separation of powers. One recent example can be briefly discussed.

An important theatre company announced it was closing down after 43 years, suggesting that differences with public policies (dependent on the government) were to blame for the decision. Marcelo decided to attend their last performance, and the Minister for Culture felt compelled to follow him. Before the performance started, on stage, and with TV crews broadcasting the event, Marcelo debated with the minister the solution for this case.

Previous public decisions of presidents that allegedly interfered with the government competences were all carried through contacts with the PM – never directly with a minister, let alone in full public view. That was the case, for instance, with Jorge Sampaio who withdrew political confidence from one military chief and one minister, forcing the PM to propose their replacement, and who opposed the deployment of Portuguese troops in the Iraq war but did not debate the issue with the Minister for Defence but rather with the PM.

Even if Marcelo’s view was not upheld by the Minister for Culture and the closing down of the theatre company could not be avoided, this episode signals the willingness of the PR to use all the instruments in his toolbox to advance his own agenda, grounded on his capacity to capture the popular sympathy. He did so on other occasions with more success. Two examples: Marcelo publicly stated he would veto a presumed government attempt (inscribed in the Socialist Party manifesto and the government official programme) to reform the metropolitan areas governing bodies – prompting the PM to abandon his electoral compromise. He also made it known he supported the continuation of important “Public-Private Partnerships” (and therefore of significant private sector interests) in the health sector. The Minister for Health agreed to give PPPs a new chance in conflict with the parliamentary left that supports the integration of all public hospitals in the NHS.

There will be no constitutional court to set the limits to the PR’s initiatives. This will rather depend on the political relation of forces – and the force on the president’s side sits with his capacity to mobilize public opinion. That will be the critical factor determining if he succeeds in imposing a share of executive competences at a time when the right of centre is facing severe partisan difficulties to sustain a modicum of influence after a turbulent four and a half years in power. The fact that Marcelo was elected on a rather “independent” platform with the ill-disguised antagonism of PSD and CDS leaderships, with whom he entertains cold relations as his agenda is perceived to be distinct from theirs, enhances his stance and the chances that he will leave a new imprint in the political system.

The Portuguese system is not grounded on the centrality of the presidency to advance political agendas, as one could argue to be the case in France. Carlos Jalali has stressed that the premiership is the most coveted job for active politicians, and political parties are organized round this fact. For this reason, the notion of “cohabitation”and the parallelism with France that it entails is somewhat misplaced to grasp the dynamics of the Portuguese situation. The tense relations between the president and the leadership of his political family’s parties prevents one from considering his intervention as the surrogate for those who sit in the parliamentary minority, or to be strictly articulated with their strategies. Rather, it requires a new form of approach that considers at once the fact that the president has a personal agenda and that he intends to press for its implementation through what I suggest to call “co-government”on the limits of his constitutional powers, and clearly more aggressive than all other presidents after the revision of the Constitution in 1982.

Presidential power and the Austrian presidential election

In April 2016, I was asked by the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, to provide some general thoughts on presidents and presidential power in the run up to the first round of the presidential election there. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was expected to do well and I was asked about how the role of the president might change if he won. The article in Die Presse summarised my thoughts and is available in German here. With the re-run run-off election due to be held on 4 December and with the FPÖ likely to win, here is the full transcript of the comments I returned. They seem as relevant now as before except that the traditional situation in Austria is perhaps even more likely to change if Hofer is elected than was envisaged in April. Given the context of the election, if he wins he may wish to flex his presidential powers. Moreover, the presidency itself is also perhaps more likely to be the subject of controversy.

  • Which of the powers of a president have the greatest political significance in your view?

Presidential powers are always dependent upon context, particularly the party political context. For example, the power to dissolve parliament seems like a really important constitutional power. However, if the president’s party is poorly placed to do well at the election or if an election has been held only recently and another election is not going to change the situation, then the power to dissolve the legislature becomes almost a dead power. In effect, the president cannot use it. The same goes for the power to call a referendum. Presidents tend to call referendums when they know they are going to win them. If they are worried that they will lose, then they rarely risk calling one in the first place. So, the power in effect disappears.

Two important powers are the power to appoint and dismiss the PM. The power to appoint the PM seems very important. However, as before, often presidents have little choice. The election may have returned a party or coalition with a legislative majority. The party or coalition is likely to have its own Chancellor candidate. So, the president can often do little more than choose the PM that the parties have already agreed on. Only if there is a very fragmented party system, or if the government collapses and there is no clear alternative PM can the president exercise a personal influence. Clearly, this circumstance can arise, but it usually rare. By contrast, the power to dismiss the PM can be important. This situation can allow the president to take the initiative, especially if the PM is unpopular. The risk is that it brings the president into conflict with the parties in the legislature. Indeed, this power is one that is not recommended for young democracies.

  • Do you agree with the view that the actual power of a president depends on whether he controls (or is able to neutralize) parliament? Is it true that in a semi-presidential regime, a weak parliament is the precondition for a strong president?

Again, the exercise of power is a mix of constitutional powers and political context. France is the classic example here. In 1958 the constitutional powers of parliament were greatly reduced and by the mid-1960s the president was established as the main political leader of the country. So it looks as if a weak parliament was a necessary condition for a strong president. However, in France presidents have tended to be backed by a presidential majority in parliament. This majority has been loyal. The majority has not wanted to use any of parliament’s remaining powers to block the president. Even when the majority has been opposed to the president during periods of cohabitation, power has simply shifted to the prime minister. Parliament has not become any stronger. So, yes, the constitution matters. Parliaments can have more or less powers in that regard. However, the relationship between presidents and parties is equally if not more important. In practice, a weak parliament is often the result of a particular party political context, just as much as if not more so than the constitutional situation itself. Of course, the flip side can occur too. If the party political context is confused, then parliament can become strong, usually viz. the PM and government, though, rather than the president. That said, if parliament uses it power to vote down a government, then the president can be called upon to make a choice about a new government.

  • If you assess the constitutional powers of the Austrian president, could he – given different political circumstances – become as strong an institutional figure as the French president? What would be necessary for this to happen?

Austria is a very unusual case. Iceland is perhaps the only other country like it in terms of the presidency. In both countries, the powers of the president are strong relative to most other semi-presidential countries. For example, the Austria president probably has more constitutional powers than the the French president. The Austrian president can dismiss the PM and government, whereas the French president, according to the constitution at least, cannot. In practice, though, the situations in the two countries are reversed. In Austria, the president is a pure figurehead and has almost always simply executed the decisions that the government and parties have wanted. True, some presidents have been more willing to criticize the government than others, but none has used their powers independently. By contrast, the French president is seen as the leader of the presidential majority in parliament. This means that the president has usually been able to appoint a loyal prime minister who will carry out the president’s wishes with the backing of the majority. As the leader of the majority, the president has also had the de facto power to change the PM even though this is not in the constitution, whereas the Austrian president has not exercised that power, even though it is in the constitution.

For the situation in Austria to change, the political context must change. Up to now, parties have not chosen candidates who are likely to see the presidency as an active institution. This can be seen in the age and profile of previous presidents and presidential candidates. They have tended to be elderly figures, who have often had an important party career in the past but who are no longer senior party decision-making figures. Alternatively, they have been largely independent figures who have been adopted by political parties. In neither case have they had the party political authority to act independently. In this context, it is not surprising that they have been figurehead presidents. Moreover, there is also the historical factor in Austria. This has weighed against the desire for an active presidency. However, the political context can always change. If the president were to come from outside the governing parties, then this could change the situation. The new president might feel that s/he has a mandate to act. Also, if there was now a mood for a more active presidency to address the country’s difficult issues, then a new president might feel justified in using his/her powers.

Let’s go back to the Icelandic case. Here, it was very common to hear that the president’s powers were lost. The president was a pure figurehead. Nothing would change that. Powers would never be used. However, during the financial crash the president vetoed government bills on two occasions, leading to two referendums. Suddenly, the powers that some people had assumed had been lost came back. In fact, they had never gone away. It was just that the political context had changed and now the president was in a position to use them. The context in Austria may change too.

  • Is there any institutional aspect or authority that makes the Austrian president extraordinary in comparison with other European presidents (e.g. the right to freely choose the prime minister?

Other countries have this power. For example, the French president has the power to nominate the PM freely. It is worth noting that in contrast to some countries the Austrian president does not have long list of clearly defined executive powers. If the new president wanted to be more active and if the president was from a party that was not in government, there may be the potential for the constitutional powers of the president and government to be disputed. In this event, the courts might be called upon the interpret the constitution. This has happened previously in countries like Romania and Poland. So, the presidency could become a source of constitutional debate. Again, though, this would require a change of political context.

  • Do you think that directly elected presidents are (ceteris paribus) more powerful/influential than indirectly elected presidents, or are other factors (such as the configuration of the party system or the authority of the office-holders) of greater significance?

Direct election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a strong president. It is true that directly elected presidents tend to be more powerful than indirectly elected ones. For example, the directly elected French and Romanian presidents are more active than the indirectly elected German or Latvian presidents. That said, there are some very weak directly elected presidents. Austria is one case. Ireland and Slovenia are others. There are also times when indirectly elected presidents have been influential in countries like Italy. So, direct election is not a guarantee of power. Moreover, if we look at Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which changed their constitution and shifted from an indirectly elected president to a directly elected president, we see that the role of the president scarcely changed pre- and post-direct election. In other words, direct election has not made much difference to the exercise of presidential power in either country.

Again, what matters in the mix of the constitutional situation and the political context. The combination of a directly elected president, an important set of constitutional powers, and a political context where the exercise of those powers is seen as both legitimate and desirable can lead to a very influential president. In practice, that combination of factors has been relatively rare in post-war Europe. France is the obvious case where they have combined on occasions. In most cases, though, even when there has been a directly elected president, then either the president has not enjoyed very many powers, or, more usually, the party political context has not been particularly conducive to the exercise of those powers at least in the long-term.

Moldova – Presidential election Round 2 between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu

The Republic of Moldova is a small country, penned in between Romania and Ukraine. It holds the sad title of being the poorest nation in Europe. And sure, one reason to engage more thoroughly with Moldova is the unquestionable wine culture; yet even more important is its geopolitical position in between two influential poles (the European Union and Russia) and its fascinating constitutional development since its independence in 1991. The constitutional choices made throughout the last 25 years cover variations of executive-legislative relations rarely found in the post-soviet area: in an earlier blog post I described it as a ping pong game (see Fruhstorfer 2016). At the moment the game is back to a semi-presidential system with a directly elected president. In this post, I try to offer a brief overview of the campaign and an analysis of the second round of the presidential election in Moldova.

One of the important slogans of the presidential campaign was in this or similar style “Viitorul Moldovei este alături de o Rusie puternică“ (Moldova’s future is with a strong Russia). This slogan illustrates the choice that was proposed to the people of Moldova. The two frontrunners after the first round of the election were generally described as the embodiment of this choice. Igor Dodon of the Party of Socialists (PSRM) plays the pro-Russian role and promised – among other things – to call for a referendum to withdraw from the European Union trade agreement. Maia Sandu played the clear role of an outspoken supporter of Moldova’s integration into the European Union.

But next to these candidates, who faced each other also in the second round, there are several other important actors that in one-way or another are of interest for the understanding of these elections. I would like to mention them briefly: First, Renato Usatii, who was no candidate in this presidential election. This is mainly related to the constitutional court decision to abolish the 2000 constitutional amendment and re-establish the direct election of the president. In this decision the court excluded some provisions. Most importantly it did not return to the age limit for running as president as stipulated by the 1994 constitution. This means the court showed great judicial activism and thus presumably excluded Usatii from running for president. In his place, Dumitru Ciubasenco (a journalist and self-proclaimed opponent of Plahotniuc’s oligarchic regime) ran as candidate for Our Party (he received only 6% of votes during the first round).

Another candidate, Andrei Năstase, withdrew his candidacy shortly before the election in support of Maia Sandu. Some argue that he was forced to do so by external pressure (i.e. the United States of America), but Năstase claimed he wanted to help in building a strong anti-Dodon coalition led by Sandu. The presidential bid of Marian Lupu, the chairman of the Democratic Party (Tass 2016) took a similar road, he also withdrew in support of the pro-EU candidate Sandu.

After the first round of the presidential election, during which only 49% of eligible citizens cast their votes (Rusnac 2016), none of the candidates received the necessary absolute majority. 48.3 % votes for Dodon and 38.4 % for Sandu (Rusnac 2016). These two candidates were then also the choice that represented itself to the people of Moldova: voting for Igor Dodon from the Party of Socialists (PSRM), an outspoken Putin fan, who campaigned for closer ties with Russia (BBC 2016) or voting for the pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu. Dodon won with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Sandu). The voter turnout for the second round (53.54%, see BBC 2016) increased, which I initially assumed would lead to a better chance for Sandu to win the election. So why did Igor Dodon win?

There are several reasons and we have to analyze each of them very carefully in further research: Yet for this post I will suggest that the following aspects played an important role.
First, the campaign for the second round was – although brief – dirty, revengeful and consisted merely in the smearing of candidates. But Dodon also managed to paint a slightly different picture of his ties with Russia than during the first round. This obviously was intended to gain the support of more moderate voters. It is also astounding that an anonymous ambassador for a EU member state revealed, “Dodon had privately told diplomats his party would not jettison the EU accord“ (CBC News 2016).

But still, Dodon (Minister of Economy during the ruling of the communist party 2006-2009) was running a smear-campaign. He attacked Sandu, her integrity and her past as member of the ruling elite (she was Minister of Education 2012-2015). He even tried to associate her with the devastating billion-dollar heist that left the country’s monetary system in peril (as far as the evidence suggest this allegation is unsubstantiated and she even demanded a more thorough investigation, see Brett et al. 2015).

Furthermore Dodon was supported by traditional media, had a much stronger ground game and was even supported by the Moldovan Orthodox Church (RFE/RL 2016). The support of the church is a particularly interesting element in this election as it points to an increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on Moldova (a phenomenon which can be observed in a variety of post-soviet countries). It is also worth noting that parts of the church leadership also engaged in the smear campaign against Sandu.

Similarly, the media support for Dodon might seem surprising as one of central figures in Moldovan politics and owner of a large media group is Vlad Plahotniuc, vice chair of the pro-EU Democratic Party (PDM). His role is mysterious. Some argue that he did not declare his support for Sandu publicly (see RFE/RL 2016), although some reports suggest otherwise (Popsoi 2016). Either way if Sandu had his support it was not necessarily helpful for her campaign; some labeled the support “toxic“ (Popsoi 2016). What is even more unexpected is that traditional media largely owned by him seem to have been more inclined to support Dodon. Some reports even claim that Dodon used Plahotniuc’s private jet during this campaign, but I cannot confirm this information with reliable sources.

As in many semi-presidential systems, also the Republic of Moldova now faces a period of cohabitation. It is unclear how confrontational this one will be. Prime Minister Pavel Filip from the Democratic Party (PDM) suggested a pragmatic working relationship. Thus, it remains to be seen if the future actually holds a Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon cooperation or if we will observe a further perpetuation of the conflict between the government in favor of EU integration and a head of state in favor of close ties with Russia.


BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite, in http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
CBC News (2016): Moldova elects a new president, who is seen as friendly to Putin, in http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/moldova-presidential-election-dodon-sandu-1.3849499, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Back to the future: The abolition of the parliamentary system in Moldova, in http://presidential-power.com/?p=4588
Popsoi, Mihai (2016): Russia Scores Symbolic Victory in Moldova’s Presidential Election, in:  https://moldovanpolitics.com/2016/11/14/russia-scores-symbolic-victory-in-moldovas-presidential-election/, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
RFE/RL (2016): Moldova Presidential Election Headed For Runoff, http://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-presidential-election-close-contentious/28082659.html. October 31 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Rusnac, Cornelia. 2016. “Moldovan Presidential Election Goes to Runoff“, ABC News, In. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/moldovan-presidential-election-runoff-43185557 [accessed October 31, 2016]
TASS (2016): Moldova’s opposition candidate drops out of presidential race, in http://tass.com/world/908914. October 26 [accessed November 15, 2016]


Constitution of the Republic of Moldova. Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Moldova_2006?lang=en. (accessed July 13, 2015)
Constitutional Amendment. 2000. Law No. 1115-XIV of July 5, 2000. Monitorul Oficial al R. Moldova, No. 88–90 July 28, 2000. Chișinău, July 28.
Constitutional Court of Moldova. 2016. Curtea Constituţională a restabilit dreptul cetăţenilor de a-şi alege Preşedintele. March 4. http://www.constcourt.md/libview.php?l=ro&idc=7&id=759&t=/Prezentare-generala/Serviciul-de-presa/Noutati/Curtea-Constitutionala-a-restabilit-dreptul-cetatenilor-de-a-si-alege-Presedintele. (Accessed March 6, 2016)

Presidential elections in Moldova

In this post, I examine the first round of presidential elections in Moldova. The election was held on October 30 – for the first time in 20 years as direct election. After the surprising ruling of the Moldovan Constitutional Court in March 2016 the country returned to a semi-presidential system by abolishing the constitutional amendment of 2000. Hence, the direct election of the Moldovan President is nothing completely new. And it is probably also not surprising that the cleavages and the areas of tension remained the same as during the last direct presidential election of Petru Lucinschi in November 1996. In the following, I will first briefly describe the important constitutional amendments and decisions concerning the direct election of the president. This is followed by an overview of the campaign preceding the election, and the results. The two frontrunner during the campaing – Igor Dodon of the Party of Socialists (PSRM)  and Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party – will also face each other in the runoff election on November 13 (this also means to stay tuned; this post will have a follow-up after the second round of the elections in two weeks).

Until recently Moldova was one of the few parliamentary systems with a not directly elected president in the post-soviet space. A constitutional amendment to the 1994 constitution abolished the direct election of the president and significantly reduced the presidential power (see Fruhstorfer 2016). This 2000 amendment was however not uncontroversial and was rather the culmination of an enduring conflict between President Lucinschi and several prime ministers. The amendment was intended to solve this conflict and to put the president in a clearer position and strengthen the power of the prime minister and the parliamentary majority. Yet this did not have the intended effect and resulted in further constitutional conflicts. In particular the constitutional provision that a president needs a three-fifth majority in parliament to be elected, led to several deadlocks over the years. This specific majority was also the reason why the constitutional court declared the 2000 amendment unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016). According to Art. 141 on the amendment of the constitution, amendment laws can be “submitted to Parliament on condition that the Constitutional Court issues the appropriate recommendation supported by at least 4 judges”. But the constitutional amendment procedure did not correctly follow these rules. In particular the text of the amendment initiative changed between first and second reading in parliament. The initial draft included the more reasonable 51 votes (out of 101) majority (Digi 24 2016) to become elected president of Moldova.

Thus, for 20 years the president was not directly elected and political actors struggled with the increased majority provision. But the issues that triggered the 2000 amendment are not solved by a return to the constitutional provisions of the 1994 constitution. I wrote in an earlier Blog post on the constitutional court decision that “the 1994 constitution failed to establish a clear separation of competences, especially favoring presidential dominance.” (Fruhstorfer 2016a) And although 20 years have passed, a lot of the struggles that tormented the country in the 90ies are still on the table and became important issues in the 2016 presidential campaign.

This campaign was – as in a variety of other countries in the region – dominated by two topics: first, the orientation towards the European Union or a return to Russian influence and second, the fight against corruption. Whereas the first issue is one of the dominant features, it is also generally pretty vague. Yet, the two frontrunners after the first round of the election have issued rather clear ideas what their plans on this issue are. Igor Dodon of the Party of Socialists (PSRM) who is consistently labeled as pro-Russia promised to call for a referendum to withdraw from the European Union trade agreement. Instead he plans to work closer with the Eurasian Customs Union. Maia Sandu on the other side is an outspoken supporter of increasing ties with the European Union. Her platform Action and Solidarity, now labeled Action and Solidarity Party, promises instead „to build a European Republic of Moldova“ (Program 2016). Concerning the second issue, corruption, also both candidates promise to fight it once and for all. This is mostly with reference to the many political scandals – most severely the 1 billion USD theft and the arrest and involvement of a number of political actors, among them former Prime Minister Vlat Filat. Already in her manifest, Sandu and the Action and Solidarity Party declare: „Minciuna a devenit o normă“ (Lying has become a norm) (Manifest 2016). And they promise to fight corruption with a new sincerity. This is seconded by Dodon, who declares himself outside the corrupt elite. But newspaper reports outside of Moldova paint a different picture about the actual wealth and involvement of Dodon in different enterprises and possible schemes over the last years.

These issues dominated the campaign throughout the summer. In particular the orientation towards the European Union or Russia shows how divided the country is (both in terms of regions that opt for different ties but also youth against elderly). Despite the intensity of the campaign, the turnout of election is rather low. According to Associated Press, only 49% of eligible citizens cast their votes (Rusnac 2016). This number is particularly low among young people and seems to hurt Sandu more than Dodon. Dodon received 48.3 %, hence did not get the absolute majority. Sandu received 38.4 % of votes (Rusnac 2016).  Based on these results it will largely depend on the voter turnout on November 13, 2016 who will become the next president and in which direction the Republic of Moldova is going to head.

Digi 24 (2016). Surpriză totală în R. Moldova: Președintele va fi ales direct de popor, decide Curtea Constituțională, March 4. http://www.digi24.ro/Stiri/Digi24/Extern/Europa/Surpriza+totala+in+R+Moldova+Presedintele+va+fi+ales+direct+de+p. (accessed March 7, 2016)
Fruhstorfer, Anna. 2016a. Back to the future: The abolition of the parliamentary system in Moldova, In. http://presidential-power.com/?p=4588
Fruhstorfer, Anna and Michael, Hein. 2016. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems? Comparing Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe, in (ibid). Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe.
Fruhstorfer, Anna. 2016. “Constitutional Politics in Moldova.” In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Edited by Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein. Springer VS.
Quinlan, Paul D. 2002. “Moldova under Lucinschi.” Demokratizatsiya 10(1): 83–103.
Rusnac, Cornelia. 2016. “Moldovan Presidential Election Goes to Runoff“, ABC News, In. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/moldovan-presidential-election-runoff-43185557 [accessed October 31, 2016]

Constitution of the Republic of Moldova. Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Moldova_2006?lang=en. (accessed July 13, 2015)
Constitutional Amendment. 2000. Law No. 1115-XIV of July 5, 2000. Monitorul Oficial al R. Moldova, No. 88–90 July 28, 2000. Chișinău, July 28.
Constitutional Court of Moldova. 2016. Curtea Constituţională a restabilit dreptul cetăţenilor de a-şi alege Preşedintele. March 4. http://www.constcourt.md/libview.php?l=ro&idc=7&id=759&t=/Prezentare-generala/Serviciul-de-presa/Noutati/Curtea-Constitutionala-a-restabilit-dreptul-cetatenilor-de-a-si-alege-Presedintele. (Accessed March 6, 2016)
Manifest.2016. In, https://unpaspentru.md/manifest/#. [accessed October 30, 2016]
Program. 2016. The program of the political party „Action and Solidarity Party“, In. https://unpaspentru.md/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PROGRAM_PAS_EN.pdf. [accessed October 30, 2016]

Jorge M. Fernandes and Carlos Jalali – Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism after the 2016 Elections

This is a guest post by Jorge M. Fernandes (University of Bamberg, Germany) and Carlos Jalali (University of Aveiro, Portugal)

The famous dictum attributed to former British PM Harold Macmillan, ‘events, dear boy, events’, helps explain the evolution of Portuguese semi-presidentialism during President Cavaco Silva’s second term in office (2011-2016). In a recently published article in South European Society and Politics, we make an an appraisal of the evolution of semi-presidentialism in Portugal over the ten years of Cavaco’s tenure in power and shed some light on the election of his successor – Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

After being comfortably reelected in January 2011, with a 30 percentage point advantage over the second most-voted candidate, the political and economic situation of the country presented Cavaco with a difficult conundrum. The EU/ECB/IMF bailout that lasted from April 2011 until May 2014 placed important constraints on policy-making in Portugal. On the one hand, the president could give vent to popular dissatisfaction with the bailout’s austerity – and use his formal and informal powers to voice bottom-up disagreement with the government’s policies. However, this risked introducing difficulties into the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which could spark the wrath of the international creditors. On the other other hand, by staying idle, Cavaco faced the risk of unpopularity in public opinion.

Cavaco’s decision to give his tacit support to the implementation of the MoU had an important negative impact in his popularity, which, in turn, curbed his political influence. In the final months of his second mandate he was a lame-duck president, with increasing difficulties to use his non-formal powers. For example, in the turbulent government formation process following the October general elections, Cavaco Silva’s influence, or lack thereof, curtailed his capacities to liaise a deal between the two main parties, the Socialists and the Social Democrats, to form a grand coalition. Rather, a sub-optimal solution, from Cavaco’s perspective, was reached: a Socialist minority government with the tacit support of the extreme-left Communists and Left-Bloc.

Typically, Presidents have been the most popular political figures in Portugal, enjoying support levels above party leaders and other office-holders. Figure 1 depicts Cavaco popularity between 2011 and 2016. In January 2012, a sharp drop in popularity hurt Cavaco’s political influence after his public statements on how austerity would have a negative effect on his personal finances and how difficult it would be for him to pay for his personal expenses. Overall, at the end of his mandate, the institutional figure of the Presidency had its prestige and influence severely eroded due to Cavaco’s unpopularity in office.

Figure 1: Evaluation of President Cavaco Silva’s performance, 2011-2016 (balance between positive and negative evaluations)


The 2016 presidential election took place against this backdrop. In addition, the months leading to the presidential election had witnessed the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in Portuguese democracy, with a difficult government formation process. The presidential election had 10 candidates, an unprecedented figure since Portugal held presidential free and fair elections in 1976.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the right-wing candidate supported by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, seemed poised to win the election, with his high levels of popularity garnered over decades as a political pundit in a popular television show. On the left, a myriad of candidates was trailing Marcelo’s lead in the polls, fighting for an opportunity in the second round. Sampaio da Nóvoa, a highly respected academic figure, earned the support of some of the founding fathers of Portuguese democracy in the Socialist Party. The candidate lacked, however, name recognition by median voters, which would have a negative impact on his result. Maria de Belém, a former Socialist minister, launched her bid to the presidency urged by a faction within the Socialist party. The Socialist party and the Prime Minister chose not to endorse any of the candidates. The Communists presented Edgar Silva, a former priest with low public visibility, while the Left Bloc put forth Marisa Matias, an MEP and a rising star in the party. In addition to the mainstream candidates, there were five independent candidates, looking to build upon the anti-party sentiment and to surf the discontent wave grassing in Portugal.

The campaign had a remarkably low mobilization. The hollowing of the presidential campaign resulted from the perception of the irrelevance of the president’s role, ensuing Cavaco’s choice not to help mitigate austerity and to give his (at least) tacit support to the bail-out measures. For all its problems, the role of the president in the political system was not debated during the campaign. Instead, candidates chose to have a personalized campaign, depoliticizing most of their campaign actions, focusing on personal contact with the population and in making a character judgment of the candidates. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the leading candidate in the polls, followed this strategy strictly in the hope that this would deflate the importance of the elections, allowing him to be elected in the first round.

On January 24th, 48.66 per cent of registered voters went to the polls to elect a new president, the lowest turnout in odd-numbered presidential elections, which have traditionally been more competitive for their importance in selecting a non-incumbent president. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won 52 per cent of vote, with a catch-all coalition. To be sure, his score surpassed the aggregate score of his supporting parties (PSD and CSD), just three months before, by adding 15.1 to the share of those two parties. Sampaio da Nóvoa came second with 22.9 per cent of the votes, falling just 2 percentage points short of forcing Marcelo into a second round, a remarkable feat for an unknown academic figure. Marisa Matias came third, with 10.1 per cent of the votes, yielding the best presidential score in the history of the Left Bloc. In contrast, the Communists had a grim electoral result, with their worst result ever, with just 3.9 per cent. Maria de Belém, the other candidate from the Socialist area, scored just 4.2 per cent, an extremely bad result for the former Health minister. Surprisingly, for all Portugal’s economic woes, anti-system candidates had very modest scores, totaling 6.84 per cent of the vote for 5 candidates.

What can we expect from a Marcelo presidency? On the surface, President Marcelo differs little from his predecessor. Both Marcelo and Cavaco Silva were previous leaders of the PSD; both had the backing of the PSD and the CDS; and both won their presidential elections on the first round with a margin of 30 percentage points over the second-placed candidate. Yet his first months in office suggest that Marcelo is trying to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor’s legacy. Indeed, in this initial period President Marcelo has actively courted public opinion, cultivated a supra-partisan stance and avoided tensions with the Socialist government of António Costa. This contrasts sharply with how Cavaco Silva’s presidency ended: an increasingly withdrawn and unpopular political figure, perceived by the left as a partisan president and unable to forge the consensus he sought between PSD, PS and CDS – most notably, in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections. President Marcelo thus appears to seek to re-establish the presidency after a period of hollowing out of the presidency which also shaped the presidential elections of 2016.

However, the end of Cavaco Silva’s presidency does not solely differ from the initial Marcelo presidency: it also stands in stark contrast from the initial period of Cavaco Silva’s own presidency. Then, just as with Marcelo, Cavaco Silva was an overwhelmingly popular president (with an average balance between positive and negative evaluations of +52.8 per cent throughout 2006) who maintained an ‘above party’ stance and avoided friction with a Socialist government – indeed, so much so that prime minister Sócrates told President Cavaco in December 2006 that ‘we like working with you’. Cavaco’s undoing was largely the result of a deteriorating economic, social and political situation that culminated in a bailout. Marcelo – who is widely reputed as a master political tactician – will need all his tactical nous to avoid repeating Cavaco’s fate, not least as Portugal’s economic, social and political situation remains uncertain and precarious.

Rui Graça Feijó – A New Configuration for Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Recent elections (legislative in October 2015, presidential in January 2016) have changed the political landscape in Portugal. This piece aims to assess their impact upon the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

The Portuguese government system has been basically stable since its adoption in 1976. Only once (1982) has there been a constitutional revision that addressed the distribution of powers among state organs. No significant institutional change has occurred since then. Politically, however, the story is more complex.

The 1987 elections returned the first single party majority. This gave the PM a prominent position, which has been characterised as the “presidentialism of prime minister” (Moreira 1989). Marina Costa Lobo (2005) has suggested that the “presidentialization of politics” manifested itself in the enhanced role of a PM who had been anointed with a direct mandate. After 1987, a non-written rule existed whereby the election of parliament was combined with a parallel “election” of the PM, reducing the room for decisions for president and parliament, as if being the leader of the largest party was a sufficient condition for acceding to the premiership. Only one PM failed to meet this criterion (Santana Lopes after Barroso left for Brussels in mid-term), and this was credited with weakening his legitimacy. This rule contrasted with the previous practice (the first parliament saw 4 different PMs). The rationale was that it would counteract the instability of the first years of constitutionalism and offer accrued legitimacy to the leader of the largest party in the context where a new government did not require a positive vote of investiture.

After the 2015 legislative elections President Cavaco appointed a PM who was the leader of the winning (but minority) coalition. The left majority in the House brought this government down. For the first time, the “winner” of an election was defeated in parliament at the beginning of his term. The president reluctantly appointed the leader of the second largest party to form a government with a majority of seats. This was a major novelty. Back in 1982, after PM Balsemão resigned, President Eanes refused to appoint Vitor Crespo who had the support of the majority, and dissolved the House. In 1987, when Cavaco’s minority government was defeated in the House, President Soares refused to appoint the socialist leader, even though he was supported by a majority and called early elections instead. Only in 2004 did President Sampaio accept a new PM without fresh elections – but he made a point of placing the government under special scrutiny and four months later he dissolved parliament. All these instances suggest a critical point in the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism: disposing of majority support in parliament is not a sufficient condition for a PM to be appointed or to remain in office as the notion of “popular election” supposes. It takes the political will of the PR to nominate and maintain the PM in office. This embodies the principle of double responsibility of the PM vis-à-vis parliament and the president (one that is central to president-parliamentary sub-types of semi-presidentialism)

The 2015 elections were held when presidential powers were curtailed as he was serving his last six months in office. Faced with a situation he politically opposed, Cavaco considered alternatives that included keeping the defeated PM as a caretaker until fresh elections could be called, or resurrecting the “governments of presidential initiative” that had been the hallmark of President Eanes’ first term – not unlike solutions found in Italy (Monti) and Greece (Papademos). In the end, he bowed to the parliamentary majority and European pressure on budgetary matters. One of his legal advisers, António de Araujo, claimed that a new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism was emerging: a “parliamentary semi-presidentialism” (2016). However, this may be a hasty conclusion.

For one, Cavaco’s term was coming to an end. If he had still been in office on the day new elections would have taken place, there is no doubt that he would have dissolved the parliament. Secondly, Cavaco imposed strict limits on the government’s programme that were not related to institutional considerations (as President Sampaio had done in 2004), but that related instead to the right-wing agenda he espoused. Finally, the new President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who was formally supported by PSD and CDS, was elected on a right of centre platform that was politically different from the one espoused by the coalition with the benediction of Cavaco in the previous legislative elections: he has made it known that he intends to exercise all the powers the constitution bestows upon the head of state, distancing himself both from “minimalist” positions that Cavaco is supposed to have upheld and from the conditions he imposed. Even if Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is not known for the consistency of his positions over time, as far back as 1984 he wrote:

A few months after the constitutional revision the president had the opportunity to exercise three fundamental powers: the power to dismiss the government, the power to refuse the appointment of a prime minister proposed by the parliamentary majority, and the power to dissolve the Assembly of the Republic […] against the opinion of the majority of the Council of State (1984: 57)

This is the view he most certainly still holds of his powers. It came as no surprise that he said he would “review” his support for government in the fall of 2017 when local government elections will be held. This means he has not relinquished any of his prerogatives, including those that refer to the survival of government.

A new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism is thus emerging: both directly elected institutions – parliament and president – have their roles enhanced. The “election” of the PM has lost its importance. It is clear that more than depending on direct popular support, the PM responds politically both to the President of the Republic and the Assembly of the Republic, and both organs are keen to exercise their full competences. Without implying an institutional modification, these developments amount to a new model for Portuguese semi-presidentialism, where the PM is no longer the only central figure.


Araujo, António. 2016. “Semi-presidencialismo de assembleia”, in Público, 13 January

Lobo, Marina Costa. 2005. “The Presidentialization of Portuguese Democracy?” in Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (eds), The Presidentialization of Politics, Oxford, OUP

Moreira, Adriano. 1989. “O regime: presidencialismo do primeiro ministro” in Mario Batista Coelho (ed), Portugal: o sistema politico-constitucional 1974-1987. Lisboa, ICS

Sousa, Marcelo Rebelo. 1984. O Sistema de Governo Português, antes e depois da revisão constitucional. Lisboa, Cognitio (3rd edition)

Can authoritarian regimes be semi-presidential?

This is a post by Robert Elgie and Sophia Moestrup based on their recent edited book, Semi-Presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia

There is now a large body of work on the effect of institutional variation in democracies. This work includes the standard debate as to whether regime types have a good or bad effect on democracy as a whole. For example, is presidentialism perilous for democracy (Linz 1990; Cheibub 2010)? However, it also includes debates relating to a much broader set of outcomes, including the effect of regime types on public policy within consolidated democracies (Weaver and Rockman 1993). For instance, is presidentialism associated with the supply of more public goods than parliamentarism (Shugart 1999)? At the same time, there is also now an almost equally large body of work on non-democracies. Some of this work aims to identify different types of non-democracies. For example, we might wish to distinguish between on the one hand authoritarian regimes where political competition is outlawed and on the other competitive authoritarian regimes where competition takes place but where it is managed in a way such that it does not threaten the survival of the regime (Levitsky and Way 2010). Why is that some non-democracies remain purely authoritarian, whereas others have competitive elements to them?

A feature of this work on non-democracies is that it rarely, if ever, investigates the effect of constitutional regime types. This point applies to presidentialism, parliamentarism and semi-presidentialism. The difference between the work on democracies and non-democracies in this regard seems to be based on a simple assumption: whereas institutions can have a profound effect on outcomes in democracies, they do not matter at all in non-democracies. The ultimate logic of this argument is that it makes no sense to label non-democracies according to the institutional forms that can be found in democracies. To put it another way, countries that are not democratic cannot be semi-presidential.

This line of argument is flawed. The distinction between presidential, semi-presidential and parliamentary democracies is the result of a taxonomic exercise. My recent article in Democratization outlines the scholarship in this regard. Such taxonomic classifications are derived from a reading of country constitutions. Almost all countries, including non-democracies, have a constitution. Certainly, some of these constitutions are unusual. For example, during Muammar Gaddafi’s autocratic rule in Libya the country was formally run according to the highly idiosyncratic Green Book. Most, though, take a form that is recognizable in terms of the presidential, parliamentary, semi-presidential taxonomy. This means that almost all non-democracies can be classed as constitutionally presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential. Indeed, if they are constitutionally semi-presidential, then they can be further classed as either president-parliamentary or premier-presidential. Thus, in this sense non-democracies can be taxonomically semi-presidential.

In fact, the argument, or at least the implicit assumption, that non-democracies cannot be semi-presidential is usually based on the same flawed logic that was present in much of the literature on semi-presidentialism in the 1990s and 2000s, but that, hopefully, we have now moved beyond. If we were to understand semi-presidentialism as the situation where a country has a president with quite considerable powers, but where there is also a prime minister with some political authority too, then, in practice, the set of semi-presidential countries in non-democratic regimes would indeed be empty. Typically, authoritarian and competitive authoritarian regimes are governed by a single, powerful political leader, often holding the office of president. It is misleading to think of semi-presidentialism in this way. At root, the concept is taxonomic. There is no democracy criterion in the definition of constitutional regime types. In other words, the process of taxonomic classification does not have to be confined to democratic countries, not least because there is a bigger and even more contested debate as to what constitutes a democracy in the first place. Given the process of categorizing constitutional regime types is a taxonomic exercise and given that exercise does not include a democracy criterion, then it is perfectly reasonable, when the constitutional criteria apply, to classify certain authoritarian regimes as semi-presidential.

Even if it is conceded that non-democracies can be constitutionally semi-presidential, perhaps the argument then reverts back to the position that institutions simply do not matter in non-democracies and, therefore, are not worth studying. This may be true, but this is an empirical question that is at least worthy of investigation. At the heart of the study of constitutional regime types is the idea that variation in the organization of the executive and executive-legislative relations has consequential effects. While it could be the case that in unequivocally authoritarian regimes loyalty to the leader is so absolute that institutional arrangements are merely a façade, it is at least plausible to suggest that in certain competitive authoritarian regimes institutional variation may make at least some difference (Gandhi 2008). For example, if the ruling party is factionalized and the president’s support base is weakening, perhaps the threat of a breakaway group having enough support to lodge a no-confidence motion may be more than just idle talk. In other words, even when democracy is not the only game in town there may be times when institutional arrangements can matter. If so, then it is worthwhile studying them.

Overall, we can dismiss the idea that non-democracies cannot be semi-presidential and we can at least entertain the idea that in some non-democracies under certain conditions institutional arrangements may generate particular resources and/or constraints that may help to shape political outcomes.


Cheibub, José Antonio (2010), Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gandhi, Jennifer (2008), Political Institutions under Dictatorship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levitsky, Steven and Lucan Way (2010), Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shugart, Matthew (1999), ‘Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and the Provision of Collective Goods in Less-Developed Countries’, Constitutional Political Economy, 10: 53–88.

Weaver, R. Kent, and Bert A. Rockman (1993), ‘Assessing the effects of institutions’, in R. Kent Weaver and Bert A. Rockman (eds.), Do Institutions Matter? Government Capabilities in the United States and Abroad, Washington DC, The Brookings Institutions, pp. 1-41.

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?


Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.