Tag Archives: semi-presidentialism

Lee Savage – How do president’s influence coalition bargaining in semi-presidential systems?

This is a guest post by Lee Savage in the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London. It is based on his article in European Journal of Political Research.

Presidents in semi-presidential systems usually have a constitutionally prescribed role in the government formation process. Often, this is limited to the ability to appoint either a formateur or candidate for prime minister who will then go on to form a cabinet which must maintain the confidence of the legislature. In some countries, such as Bulgaria and Ireland, even the power to appoint a prime minister is limited by constitutional requirements to select the leader of the largest party in the legislature.

Even though the constitution may define a limited role for presidents role in government formation, they can still exert influence over the cabinet that eventually takes office. Previous research has shown that presidents can influence the composition of the cabinet by increasing the proportion of non-partisan ministers that are appointed. In some circumstances, presidents can also increase the likelihood of a cabinet leaving office prematurely. In new research, I have shown how presidents influence the coalition formation process itself by decreasing the duration of bargaining negotiations.

The duration of the government formation process can have significant consequences for a state. For example, the 541-day bargaining process experienced by Belgium between 2010 and 2011 resulted in the legislature’s failure to pass a budget which, in turn, led to an official rebuke from the European Commission. However, it is notable that there are few examples of protracted coalition bargaining processes in semi-presidential systems. But is this a result of presidential influence, and if so, then how is this influence exerted when cabinet formation is usually the preserve of the legislature in semi-presidential democracies? I argue that the influence of presidents on the duration of coalition bargaining is a result of first, the extent of their constitutional powers and second, their partisanship.

Presidential powers and coalition bargaining

The constitutionally-mandated powers of the president increase their legitimacy to intervene in the government formation process. More powerful presidents are seen as possessing greater legitimacy to act in the eyes of other actors in the process, specifically, the legislative parties. This legitimacy to act decreases the duration of the coalition bargaining process by reducing its complexity. More powerful presidents place implicit limits on the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors in the process. Presidents with stronger non-legislative powers, such as the power to appoint the prime minister, dissolve the cabinet, or dissolve the assembly can intervene directly in the process of government formation. The legislative parties will seek to propose a cabinet that is more acceptable to the president and reduce the likelihood that they will use their dissolution powers.

Presidents with stronger legislative powers also reduce the complexity of the bargaining process. Presidents are co-executive actors in semi-presidential systems and will govern alongside the cabinet as both try to satisfy the policy preferences of their voters. Rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will understand this and seek to limit their proposed cabinets to the set that can govern in relative harmony with the president. If a cabinet is appointed that has a completely divergent legislative agenda from that of the president then it increases the likelihood of conflict between the president and the legislature. Presidents can use their powers of veto or delay to disrupt the government legislation, or generally act to impede the cabinet’s legislative agenda as was the case during the period of cohabitation in France between 1986 and 1988.

In sum, when presidents have greater powers the range of potential governments is reduced to the set that will be more likely to be stable and are able to implement its legislative agenda. The chart below shows the effect that presidential powers have on the likelihood that coalition bargaining will end on a given day. At low levels of presidential powers (those that receive a score of 2 on the Shugart-Carey index) the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner is increased by around 50 percentage points in semi-presidential systems. However, when presidents are more powerful (those that receive a score of 8) the likelihood of government formation ending sooner is increased by 120 percentage points.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on presidential powers.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations.

Presidential partisanship and coalition bargaining

Some studies of semi-presidentialism, particularly those that examine cabinet composition, begin from the premise that the president has both a mandate and preferences that diverge from those of their party. This is apparent in those studies which view the appointment of non-partisan ministers to the cabinet as an indicator of presidential influence. Others have argued that presidents have large incentives to act in a more partisan manner. Party organisations provide campaigning support for presidential candidates and presidents that have a base of support in the legislature are more likely to be able to fulfil the policy preferences of their voters. In some instances, it has been argued that legislative parties in semi-presidential systems have become ‘presidentialised’ with the presidential candidate able to set the agenda for the party as a whole. Following the presidentialisation logic, it can be argued that the president will be more likely to see a cabinet proposal that includes their party as more acceptable than one that doesn’t. Other rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will also concede that such a proposal is more sustainable if it avoids a period of unstable cohabitation.

The complexity of coalition bargaining will therefore be lower when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position in the legislature. When the president’s party is a member of a greater proportion of minimal winning coalitions the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors is more easily identifiable. Therefore, when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position, the duration of coalition bargaining will be reduced.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations


The chart above shows the effect of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party which is measured by the Shapley-Shubik Index (the SSI indicates the proportion of minimal winning coalitions in the legislature to which the president’s party is pivotal). As is clear from the chart, the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner rather than later increases along with the bargaining power of the president’s party. To give an example of this relationship, in Poland, the first government to form after the inauguration of the SLD president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was an SLD-PSL coalition that took just 12 days to negotiate in 1996. The SLD’s bargaining power was 0.41 on the SSI at the time, meaning that it was a pivotal player in around 41 percent of possible coalitions. Following the 1997 general election, the SLDs bargaining power was reduced to 0.22 and government formation lasted 40 days resulting in the formation of an AWS-UW coalition.


The results of my research point to the systemic influence of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining. Presidents with greater powers can wield more influence over cabinet formation and other parties in the system adjust their own behaviour and expectations to account for presidential preferences. A further implication of the study is that presidential partisanship matters. Contrary to some studies which assume presidents are almost non-partisan actors, the results presented here indicate that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success.

Thomas Sedelius and Jonas Linde – Democracy and Government Performance: Parliamentarism, Premier-Presidentialism, President-Parliamentarism, and Presidentialism

This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, and Jonas Linde, University of Bergen. It is a summary of their co-authored article that was recently published in Democratization. The full text article is free to download here.

Do semi-presidential regimes perform worse than other regime types? Following the classical argument once raised by Juan J. Linz (1990; 1994) that presidentialism and semi-presidentialism are less conducive to democracy than parliamentarism, a number of studies have empirically analysed the functioning and performance of semi-presidentialism. With the notable exception of Elgie (2011), however, there is a lack of large-N studies where democracy and government performance are actually measured across the two subtypes of semi-presidentialism (premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes). Robert Elgie’s systematic and comprehensive study offers several important findings on the performance of two types of semi-presidentialism, but it does so in isolation from parliamentary and presidential regimes. Our study is an attempt to address this gap in the literature.

By using indicators on regime performance and democracy from a dataset containing 173 countries, we examine the performance records of premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes in relation to parliamentarism and presidentialism.

Guided by Linz’s argument on the “perils of presidentialism”, and by Matthew S. Shugart and John M. Carey’s (1992) proposition that president-parliamentary regimes are more perilous to democracy than other regime types, we test three basic hypotheses.

H1: Parliamentarism performs better than other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance.

H2: Premier-presidentialism performs better than president-parliamentarism and presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.

H3: President-parliamentarism performs on a par with, or worse, than presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.

For measuring democracy, we select four frequently used indicators: Freedom House’s index of civil liberties and political rights and Polity IV combined, Polity IV on its own, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, and the Executive Constraints indicator from Polity IV, which refers to the extent of institutionalized constraints on the decision-making powers of chief executives. For measuring government performance, we use the Government Effectiveness indicator from the Worldwide Governance Indicators, the Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, the Empowerment Rights Index from CIRI Human Rights Data Project, and the Human Development Index from UNDP.

Following a series of descriptive reports, we run some basic multivariate analyses with a conventional set of controls including GDP/capita, population size, ethnic fractionalization, proportional representation, and different world regions.

Overall, our findings do not support the proposition that parliamentarism performs better than all other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance (H1). Rather we observed a pattern where premier-presidentialism performs almost as good – and on some measures even better – as parliamentary regimes. Neither the measures of democracy nor the measures of government performance show significantly better records for parliamentary regimes than for premier-presidential ones. This indicates that a parliamentary constitution with an indirectly elected president does not necessarily go along with better political performance than a premier-presidential one with a popularly elected but weak or medium weak president. Thus, to the extent that we think about semi-presidentialism in terms of premier-presidential regimes, we have reasons to question strong propositions about the “perils of semi-presidentialism”.

However, the picture certainly looks different with regard to president-parliamentary regimes. While premier-presidential regimes are closer to parliamentary regimes, president-parliamentary regimes display performance records more similar to pure presidentialism, and it performs even worse on most indicators (H2, H3). When it comes to the level of democracy, the only regime type to perform significantly worse than the parliamentary one – on four separate measures and with conventional controls – is the president-parliamentary regime type. The differences in terms of government performance are less pronounced. Although there is a tendency of slightly poorer performance by presidential-parliamentary regimes also in terms of government performance, and significantly so on one indicator, our results demonstrate that the type of constitutional system seems to affect democracy more strongly than government performance.

Shugart and Carey’s general recommendation to stay away from the president-parliamentary form of government certainly finds support in our data. In our study, we mostly refrain from making claims about causal mechanisms behind the observed pattern. However, we allow some general comments on the importance of presidential powers in relation to the four regime types. We show how variation in presidential powers follow closely the four regime types – weakest among the parliamentary regimes and strongest among the president-parliamentary regimes. We know that case studies on e.g. post-Soviet countries where the system has shifted from president-parliamentary to premier-presidential constitutions provide additional support to the negative impact of president-parliamentarism on democracy. For instance, Elgie and Moestrup (2016) show that reduced presidential powers and a shift to a more balanced semi-presidential system have been associated with better democracy records in e.g. Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. A general trend among the post-Soviet countries is that the presidents have used their control over the administration to curb the opposition and thereby directing the trajectory of constitutional developments in their own favor. The outcome has been increased power of already powerful presidents – a straight road to the consolidation of autocracy.

Our study is limited to the extent that it draws on cross-sectional data only, and we acknowledge the need for more sophisticated analyses. In addition, the study can make no valid claims of having disentangled endogeneity challenges regarding institutions and political outcomes. Yet, we reveal a general pattern with regard to the four regime types on performance. Based on our findings, we claim that democratic performance is likely to be better with a parliamentary or premier-presidential form of government. If the most positive accounts about semi-presidentialism are relevant, such as executive flexibility, power-sharing, and a uniting president, those are most likely to be identified under the premier-presidential form of government. Our data give no support for general recommendations to avoid dual executives or popularly elected president with limited powers.

Finally, and well in line with more recent scholarship, we argue that discussions about the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism should include the distinction between its sub-categories as well as considering dimensions of presidential power.


Elgie, Robert. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Elgie and Sophia Moestrup (Eds.). Semi-Presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Linz, Juan J. “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 1 (1990): 51-69.

Linz, Juan J. “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference?” In: Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. (Eds.) The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 3-87.

Shugart, Matthew S. and John M. Carey. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Thomas Sedelius is Associate Professor in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research covers semi-presidentialism, political institutions, transition, democratisation, and East European politics. His work on semi-presidentialism has appeared in journals such as Democratization, Government and Opposition, and East European Politics, and also include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.

Jonas Linde is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, Norway. His research has dealt with different aspects of political support, perceptions of corruption, quality of government, e-government and post-communist democratization. Linde’s works have been published in journals such as Governance, European Journal of Political Research, International Political Science Review, Political Studies, Government Information Quarterly and Government and Opposition.

France – Macron and Cohabitation: Don’t Worry About It

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron topped the poll at the first round of the French presidential election. This was in line with the polls, but it marked a shift in established French politics. Since 1981, elections have been won by candidates of the mainstream left or the right. These candidates have either immediately dissolved the legislature and returned a supportive majority, or they have won such a majority at the legislative elections that since 2002 have been held a month after the presidential election. The bottom line is that French presidents since 1981 have effectively begun their term in office with majority support in the legislature.

Macron is different because he is a centrist. He is also different because he does not have an established political party backing him. His movement is called en Marche! (or On The Move!). Macron is likely to win the second round of the presidential election. However, he has not yet chosen en Marche! candidates for the legislative elections that take place on 11 and 18 June. There are 577 seats to be elected at these elections. This has led to fears or speculation that Macron will not win a legislative majority in the June elections. Worse, it has led to claims that Macron would immediately be faced with a period of cohabitation. In this context, it is worth thinking a little about what is meant by cohabitation and why Macron is unlikely to have to worry about it.

Cohabitation is defined as the situation where the president and prime minister are from different and opposing parties and where the president’s party is not represented in the cabinet at all. France provides the archetypal examples of cohabitation. Here, it has occurred three times – 1986-88, 1993-95 and 1997-2002. Cohabitation occurs because a party or coalition opposed to the president has an absolute majority in the legislature. This forces the president to appoint a PM and government that has the support of that majority and, therefore, that is also opposed to the president. The president is alone in the Council of Ministers without any supporters.

In this context, it is also worth thinking a little about what cohabitation doesn’t involve. It isn’t the situation where the president has formed a governing coalition that includes his supporters, perhaps including the prime minister, but where relations with the legislative majority are difficult, and where the president is unable to pass legislation in exactly the form that she wants. In other words, a weak, constrained, or even legislatively emasculated president is not necessarily a cohabitation president.

Cohabitation, therefore, is a very specific situation. It is clearly observable. Here is a list of all cohabitations that have ever occurred.

So, assuming Macron is elected president on 7 May, will he face a period of cohabitation six weeks later following the legislative elections? Matthew Shugart has convincingly argued that he will not. I agree. No period of cohabitation has never occurred when a presidential election has been followed by such a quick honeymoon legislative election. (In Portugal, the January 1991 presidential election was followed by the October 1991 legislative election. So, it is questionable whether this was a honeymoon election at all. Also, there was cohabitation prior to the presidential election, after the presidential election, and the legislative election confirmed the period of cohabitation. So, the political context was very different. A similar point applies to the Czech Republic after the January 2013 presidential election.) Cohabitation just doesn’t happen under the circumstances that will soon occur in France. So, don’t worry about it.

This is not to say, though, that any future President Macron will necessarily be supported by an en Marche! majority in the Assembly. French political history suggests various scenarios are possible in this regard.

The 1988 presidential election provides one possible scenario. Then, President Mitterrand dissolved the legislature immediately after his re-election. The Socialist party and their allies were returned with only a relative majority, but the divided opposition meant that the socialists were nonetheless able to govern effectively for the next five years without forming a coalition.

A further scenario is the one that occurred in 1958. This was the founding legislative election of the new Republic. It was before France had direct presidential elections. So, the context was very different. However, it did follow the referendum on the Constitution in September 1958, which was effectively a plebiscite on de Gaulle. At the November 1958 election the gaullist party was returned with only a relative majority. However, other deputies who were returned under a different party label were willing to support de Gaulle. My understanding is that some of these deputies were given the support of the gaullists at the election itself. So, they owed their election at least in part to de Gaulle. The government was a coalition, but the coalition also had the support of other deputies within the Assembly. Macron has promised to stand en Marche! candidates everywhere, but if he is not able to select 577 of them between 7 May and the elections, he may simply endorse existing right and left-wing deputies. With a cohort of en Marche! deputies and the support of these others, he is likely to reach a working majority. Even if he does stand candidates everywhere, he is still likely to endorse candidates of other parties at the second ballot of the legislative election in constituencies where his en Marche! candidates have been defeated. This could be difficult for Macron to manage and maintain, but it will not be cohabitation.

The other scenario is more straightforward. Macron may simply form a coalition with other parties. The Socialist party is likely to splinter after the election. There are also centrist and centre-right parties such as the UDI and Modem. With his en Marche! deputies, Macron may be able to build a coalition along the lines of the one forged by President Giscard d’Estaing in the mid-1970s. This could also be problematic to keep together in the long run, but it is not cohabitation.

So, parliamentary politics after the June legislative elections in France will be interesting and could be difficult for Macron, but commentators should not unduly worry about cohabitation occurring. Certainly, commentators should stop labelling something as cohabitation that isn’t.

Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić: the old and new strongman of Serbian politics

In this post, I examine the first and because of the results also final round of presidential elections in Serbia. The election was held on April 2 and Prime Minister Vučić won in this first round with predicted 54.9 % of the votes (with Sasa Jankovic coming as second with 16.2%) (see for the results Rudic 2017). This election comes roughly one year after the early parliamentary dissolution and the ensuing snap elections also won by Vučić. In the following, I will first briefly describe the process between the parliamentary and presidential elections, the campaign and motivations that might have driven Vučić’ candidacy. This is then followed by an assessment of the consequences of the results for the political process and the democratic development in Serbia.

In March 2016, the Serbian President – then Tomislav Nikolić – dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) and called for early elections (the third in four years). The reasons for the dissolution that I described in an earlier blog post discussing the parliamentary elections apply surprisingly well again and show the motivation why Vučić ran as candidate for the presidency.

Similar to the snap parliamentary elections last spring, the run for president by Vučić is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One main motive for the 2016 snap election was pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016). But considering the results of the early parliamentary elections, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. The SNS lost 27 seats in parliament and was far off by the projected +50% result (Pavlović 2017, 55). Even more important was a newly emerging opposition that was virtually non-existent or heavily discredited prior to the 2016 election. As Prelec (2016) has pointedly argued: “Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia”. This opposition consists now of an even more diverse group ranging from far-right to progressive movements. But still 48.2 percent of the votes guaranteed Vučić and the SNS a strong position, albeit within a coalition government he formed with some delay in August 2016. Many observers, including me, assumed that the new and old Prime Minister could continue his “domestic and foreign policy course [..] enacting the political and economic changes required for membership in the European Union, while simultaneously seeking closer relations with Russia.” (Brunwasser 2017)

But then something unexpected happened. Several viable candidates outside of the SNS influence emerged and made the presidency suddenly a possible veto point for Vučić’s plans of political leadership. Among possible contestants the most promising where Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli (an alias used by a satirical campaign) and the former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.  Vučić’s solution to the problem was running for president by himself. Next to the obvious threat of a loss of power Boban Stojanović, Fernando Casal Bértoa (2017) named 2 further reasons why he decided to do so, “the temptation of ‘illiberal democracy’” and “little significant change in terms of his [Vučić] capacity to influence policy or exert power”. In particular, the second argument needs some clarification. Contrary to what a variety of outlets reported, we should be careful when we characterize the presidency in Serbia as “largely symbolic” (Brunwasser 2017). Depending on the party majorities and the actors occupying the main posts within the executive, the assessment of intra-executive relations varies dramatically. One example would be the comparative case of the presidency of Boris Tadić. During his first term – also a period of cohabitation – he was often described as inactive. This however changed dramatically when his Democratic Party (DS) won the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary election. In his double role as chair of the party and president of the country he wielded enormous political influence and clearly dominated intra-executive relations. Mirko Cvetković as Prime Minister was however highly respected and his term and cabinet broke for a short time the unfortunate tradition of frequent cabinet reshuffles and snap elections.

After Sunday’s election and the landslide victory of Vučić, we can expect a similar development for Vučić’s presidency, when it comes to the part about the president’s dominance over the prime minister. He will influence the political landscape more than his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. Vučić will also aim for stability but this stability will actually mean something entirely different: stabilizing in this case will result in an even firmer and more authoritarian grasp on power in his bid for even more. Shortly after the election results were published, demonstrations against Vučić started all across Serbia and the organizers in several cities announced that they plan to continue their protest against election fraud, partisanship of media outlets and Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies.


Brunwasser, Matthew (2017): Serbia’s Prime Minister Projected to Win Presidency, Consolidating Control, in: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/europe/serbia-aleksandar-vucic-president-elections.html

Pavlović, Dušan (2017): Serbian Presidential Elections, in: Contemporary Southeastern Europe, in: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/sites/default/files/papers/pavlovic_serbian_elections_2016.pdf

Prelec, Tena: Serbian parliamentary election 2016: A gamble that almost backfired, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/04/26/serbian-parliamentary-election-2016-a-gamble-that-almost-backfired

Rudic, Filip (2017): Vucic Wins Serbian Presidential Elections, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vucic-wins-serbian-presidential-elections-04-02-2017-1
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2017): Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/04/serbias-prime-minister-just-became-president-whats-wrong-with-this-picture/?utm_term=.8cdfe26a5d7e

Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2016): There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

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]
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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.
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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)
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