Category Archives: Estonia

Estonia – New government takes office but cracks in coalition are already visible

On 8 April, more than five week after the parliamentary elections on 1 March, Estonia’s new government passed its vote of confidence in parliament and was formally appointed by the president on the next day. The government continues the cooperation of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ Reform Party with the Social Democratic Party; yet the coalition now also includes the ‘Isaama and Res Publica Union’ (IRL). The coalition talks did not proceed without difficulty and some observers doubt that the coalition will hold for the whole length of the legislative term.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (centre left) and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (centre right) with the new cabinet | © Office of the Estonian President 2015

The elections of 1 March saw not only unexpected vote losses for all major parties but also two previously unrepresented parties enter parliament. Although the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas emerged as the clear winner (finishing 3 seats before its main opponent, the Centre Party), it lost 3 seats which – together with the 4-seat loss of its coalition partner – meant that a third party would need to be included. While both the IRL (the Reform Party’s coalition partner 2007-2014) and the newcomer ‘Free Party’ on their own would have been able to contribute the required number of seats for a majority government, Rõivas soon announced that coalition talks would be held between all four parties. The idea for such a super-sized coalition seems to have originated in talks between Rõivas and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves has generally not played a very active role in coalition negotiations and rarely interfered in day-to-day political decision-making, yet now unusually vocally suggested that the new government should have a ‘broad parliamentary basis’. Ilves surely remembered the more than fragile coalition between Reform Party, IRL and Social Democrats which was characterised by continuous disagreements eventually leading to the exclusion of the Social Democrats from the government. On the other hand, the inclusion of the ‘Free Party’ would have enhanced the position of the Reform Party with which Ilves has formed strong bonds while in office vis-a-vis the other coalition partners.

Eventually, the ‘Free Party’ left the coalition negotiations prematurely after its calls for more direct democracy and tax increases found no resonance with the other parties. Yet negotiations between the remaining three parties did not go smoothly either. Similar to the first edition of the three party coalition, the Social Democrats found themselves opposed by the two other parties an many issues and although not all of them have been resolved in the coalition agreement, the fact that their veteran politician Eiki Nestor was made speaker of parliament was one of the key elements in securing their support for the government.

Overall, the government hardly had a smooth start. First disagreements concerning the Cohabitation Act (i.e. legalisation of same-sex marriage passed in the last legislature) surfaced immediately after its inauguration and the abstention of Social Democrat deputy Jevgeni Ossinovski in the cabinet’s vote of confidence caused a further scandal. The ministerial line-up was also subject to some public criticism as the number of women in the government dropped from six to only two. This is particularly relevant as Estonia which was recently named as having one of the biggest gender paygaps in the EU. The coalition agreement, too, only includes little on how to remedy this problem. Therefore, some experts and prominent party representatives have already questioned whether the coalition would be able to survive the full legislative term.

Last, the period of government formation was overshadowed by the illness of Tallinn mayor and Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. Following a streptococcus infection, Savisaar’s leg needed to be amputated and he remains in a critical care unit. As Savisaar has been party leader since the early 90s, the party is still in a phase of re-orientation. Compared to previous coalition talks – during which Savisaar demanded that his party be included in the government – the Centre Party (which due to its russophile position has no chance of being included in any coalition despite its size) remained largely silent during the coalition talks.

_____________________________________________________________
Cabinet Composition – Rõivas II

roivas 2015 allocation

Prime Minister – Taavi Rõivas, 35, Reform Party
Minister of Foreign Affairs – Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Internal Affairs – Hanno Pevkur, 38, Reform Party
Minister of Defense – Sven Mikser, 41, Social Democrats
Minister of Education and Research – Jürgen Ligi, 55, Reform Party
Minister of Justice – Urmas Reinsalu, 39, IRL
Minister of the Environment – Marko Pomerants, 50, IRL
Minister of Culture – Indrek Saar, 42, Social Democrats
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure – Kristen Michal, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Entrepreneurship – Urve Palo, 44, Social Democrats
Minister of Rural Affairs – Urmas Kruuse, 49, Reform Party
Minister of Finance – Sven Sester, 45, IRL
Minister of Health and Labour – Rannar Vassiljev, 33, Social Democrats
Minister of Social Protection – Margus Tsahkna, 37, IRL
Minister of Public Administration – Arto Aas, 34, Reform Party

Estonia – Ruling Reform Party wins election but coalition loses parliamentary majority

On Sunday 1 March Estonia held regular parliamentary elections. The Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, which has dominated the country’s political scene for the last decade, once again managed to win the election. Yet as both the Reform Party and its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, lost several seats, they will now have to look for another party to stay in power – potential options include a revival of the cooperation with the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) together with which they held power between 2007 and 2009 and the newcomer ‘ Free Party’.

EST election 2015

The topics of the election campaign were dominated by the Ukraine crisis and economic issues. The Reform Party, the Social Democrats as well as the IRL were particularly keen to stress the former as well as their commitment to NATO and EU. This was not only due to the general salience of the issue among voters, but also in order to distance themselves (and discredit) the Centre Party. The party is generally considered ‘ Russia-friendly’ and the main, albeit unofficial, representation of Estonia’s ethnic Russians. Despite the unwillingness of the Centre Party’s leader, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar (who has led the party since the early 90’s), to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine/Crimea the party came head-to-head with the Reform Party in the latest polls and eventually even gained a seat. Nevertheless, the Centre Party is regularly shunned by other parties (quite similar to the Harmony Centre in Latvia) and has no chance of participating in the new government. The Centre Party also differed from other parties by vocally opposing the current 20% flat tax system – although the Social Democrats also called for a progressive tax system, they are more likely to give up these demands if it means that they can stay in government.

After only four parties were represented in the last parliament, two new parties now entered the Riigikogu – the liberal-conservative ‘Free Party’ and the national-conservative/populist ‘Conservative People’s Party’ winning and eight and seven seats respectively. Due to its anti-immigration and eurosceptic policies, the latter is unlikely to be able to cooperate with any party in the parliament. The ‘Free Party’ however, might hold the key to keep Prime Minister Rõivas in power (see below). It is noteworthy that about 30% of voters cast their vote via the internet which constitutes a new record since e-voting was introduced in 2005. Furthermore, in contrast to other Central and East European countries turnout remained stable and even increased slightly from previous years.

It is almost inevitable that president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who since his first election in 2006 has been particularly close to the Reform Party (despite being a former leader of the Social Democrats), will ask Taavi Rõivas to form another government following customary exploratory talks. A continuation of the coalition between the Reform Party and the Social Democrats appears to be a done deal, yet it remains to be seen which party will contribute the additional six seats required for a majority. In terms of ideological closeness, the most natural coalition partner for the Reform Party would be the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), yet given their seat share might be able to make greater demands. Furthermore, the last coalition between the three parties broke down due to disagreements (Reform Party and IRL continued as a minority government) which Rõivas will be keen to avoid.  The ‘Free Party’ on the other hand is also still compatible with the current coalition parties might – also due to its smaller seat share and resulting weaker leverage – be a more likely choice as coalition partner.

____________________________________________________________________________
More information (in Estonian) on the website of the Estonian Electoral Commission:
http://rk2015.vvk.ee/

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

******************
A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
******************
Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Presidents and Paupers II: How much do CEE presidents earn?

Presidential salaries – particularly during and after the European financial crisis – have been a hotly debated topic in a number of European republics and several office holders have voluntarily taken a pay cut. Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the earnings of Western and Central and Eastern European presidents or my old blog (presidentialactivism.com) which proved to be highly popular and generated some media attention. The posts which are reproduced here today and tomorrow try to answer the questions How much do presidents actually earn? Did the crisis have an impact on presidential salaries? And how do their earnings relate to other factors?

gasparovic_basescu

The rich and the poor

For this post I collected data on presidential salaries including lump sums that are paid on a monthly basis without being designated for a specific function. The numbers presented below are however exclusive of benefits such as housing, allowances for hiring personal staff, use of cars/planes etc. The former type of benefits varies greatly between countries and these benefits are very difficult to compare (especially when one also includes allowances for spouses). However, one can say that in general those presidents who earn more also receive more additional benefits. Unfortunately, this does not apply to pensions. All data – except salary of Czech president Zeman – relates to the last quarter of 2012.

presidential salaries & average income_bar chart_newThe bar chart shows that in absolute terms Slovak president Ivan Gasparovic is the top earner among the Central and East European presidents. With currently € 9,172 per month Gasparovic receives almost six times more than his Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu (who earns a meagre € 1,529). Even though the differences in the national gross average monthly income are not as large, they are still visible. Slovenia is front-runner with € 1,546 while Bulgaria trails behind with less than a quarter (€ 384). The average presidential monthly salary is € 5,118, the gross average monthly income in Central and Eastern Europe is € 776.

Presidential salaries in perspective

When setting presidential salaries in perspective, the national average income is obviously the best reference value. When ranking presidential salaries as % of the national average income the order changes (although only the Slovenian and the Bulgarian president jump several places). Front-runner is once again Slovak president Ivan Gasparovic who earns 1167% of the national average income (although he now has to share the first place with Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite) and Romanian president Basescu, too, remains in his [last] place with his salary being only 335% of the national average income. Although in fourth place in the absolute ranking, Slovenian president Borut Pahor is now in the second last place – his otherwise upper-midrange salary (€ 5,419) is only 3.51 times more than the national average. On the other hand, while Bulgarian president Plevneliev’s € 2,356 is less than half of his counterparts’ average income, it is still 614% of what his fellow citizens earn. On average, CEE presidents earn 667% of the national gross average income.

Presidential salaries as % of national average income_newBoth bar charts do not necessarily suggest that a higher presidential salary is a function of a higher national gross average salary. Nevertheless, the scatter plot below shows that there is still a weak positive correlation (R=0.4187) between presidential salaries and the average income of their voters. Slovenia is the clear outlier – even before the 17% salary cut, the president earned considerably less than one could have expected from the national gross average income.

presidential salaries_scatterplot_new

What about power and elections?

Another interesting point of comparison for presidential salaries are presidents’ actual powers and their mode of election. To start with the latter: popularly elected presidents earn more than their indirectly elected counterparts. While the popularly elected heads of state in CEE earned € 5,375 (680% of the national average income), indirectly elected presidents earned € 4,519 (608% of the national average). Of course, there are only three indirectly elected presidents in the sample and the average would have looked a little different half a year ago when Vaclav Klaus was still the (indirectly elected) Czech president and earned up to €12,715 a month.

Looking a the relation between presidents’ powers and their salary, there is no obvious direction. The correlation between the adjusted presidential salary (as % of national gross average income) and the score on Metcalf’s (2000) revised measurement scheme is only R=0.15.

presidential salaries and powers_new

__________________________________________________________
This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 19 July 2013.

Comparing inaugural addresses of Central & East European presidents: Putting the country first?

Presidents’ inaugural addresses are usually eagerly awaited by journalists and citizens alike as the new office-holders regularly use them to ‘set the tone’ for their term in office. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), inaugural addresses are usually held in parliament (also due to the fact that half of the president are elected there by the deputies and not by popular vote) and while presidents’ words receive their fair share of media attention, they can hardly measure up to the inaugural speeches of the U.S.-American president.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev during his inaugural speech on 19 January 2012 © Office of the President of Bulgaria

comparison of presidents’ inaugural addresses from Washington to Obama on the website of the New York Times shows that since president Harry Truman ‘America’, ‘country’ or ‘nation’ have consistently ranked among the most-used words in presidents’ inaugural speeches. Political circumstances also left their mark, yet these only came second to the overall trend of presidents putting their country first in their speeches. This article gave the motivation to conduct a similar comparison among the presidents of the CEE EU member states. Given the pattern in inaugural addresses of US presidents, one should expect that presidents in CEE will also predominantly stress their respective country/nation in their speeches. Yet, speeches should at least party reflect current political problems or the incumbents’ ambitions for their term in office, too.

For this blog post, I have created word clouds reflecting the number of times certain words have been mentioned. While there are more sophisticated techniques in Political Science to analyse the frequency of words and their meaning, the visualisation is a very good method to give an overview (in the very literal sense of the word) of what  presidents stress in their first speeches to the nation. As historic inaugural addresses are often not available in English translation, I have limited my comparison to the currently serving presidents.

General patterns

Surprisingly (or not), in almost all of the inaugural addresses of CEE presidents (except the one by Václav Klaus, but I will come back to him later) the respective ‘country name’ / ‘country adjective’ / ‘nation’ / ‘people’ belong to the most frequently used words. It is particularly prominent in the speech of Bronislaw Komorowski held in the wake of the Smolensk air crash in which his predecessor, Lech Kaczynski, tragically died. More than the other presidents, Komorowski stresses Poland/Polish/Poles in all varieties of the word, while ‘Smolensk’ is mentioned only rarely (you can find it in the upper right corner).

‘Europe’/’European’ is also mentioned in several addresses but features particularly prominent in the inaugural speech of president Ivan Gasparovic who was inaugurated only shortly after Slovakia’s accession to the EU (in fact, ‘Slovakia’ is mentioned less often than ‘European’). Traian Basescu (inaugurated in December 2004) also mentions ‘European’ and ‘integration’ with above-average frequency. Another variation of this pattern is Borut Pahor’s repetition of the word ‘crisis’ which also – but not exclusively – relates to the European currency crisis.

Furthermore, several presidents – especially those elected by popular vote – bring in more ‘policy’ content. Bulgarian president Plevneliev often mentions ‘security’, ‘economy’/ ‘economic’ and ‘energy’ and his Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaite, mentions ‘courts’, ‘policy’ and ‘interests’ while also addressing a very wide range of other issues.

There are three inaugural addresses which in my opinion and for one or other reason stand apart from the others speeches. I present my comments on these below.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – Estonia and only Estonia

Inaugural address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia, 09/10/2006)

Inaugural address of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia, 09/10/2006)

The inaugural speech of Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves stands apart because in no other speech one word – ‘Estonia’ – is mentioned with such a high relative frequency that it figuratively dwarfs the other content. The high frequency of ‘people’ and ‘state’ paired several references to ‘independence’/’independent’ makes this speech relatively apolitical. Given Ilves’ foreign policy background and the fact that he understands his role as being mostly as being above petty politics (plus, the office only provides him with very limited agency), it is not surprising  that what we see here is rather a statesman’s speech than the outline of a political programme. Nevertheless, the sheer dominance of ‘Estonia’ makes this one of the most interesting word clouds.

Janos Áder (Hungary) – Uncompromisingly supporting compromise

Inaugural speech of Janos Áder (10/05/2012)

Inaugural speech of Janos Áder (10/05/2012)

Hungarian president Janos Áder’s speech on the other hand is also clearly influenced by the political circumstances at the time of his election. The dominance of the word ‘compromise’ demonstrates Áder’s attempt to make a new start as president and build a bridge to the opposition (in fact, his speech was very well received by commentators and politicians from all parties alike). While his Polish colleague Bronislaw Komorowski appeals to national feelings to call for ‘cooperation’, Áder’s choice of words presents him as a pragmatist with a more practical approach to reconciling political divides (the frequency of ‘respect’ also supports this image). Of course, ‘Hungary’/’Hungarian’, ‘country’ and ‘nation’ are also mentioned very frequently and the speech thus still conforms to the general pattern.

Václav Klaus (Czech Republic) – I want the political

Inaugural speech of Václav Klaus (Czech Republic, 07/03/2003)

Inaugural speech of Václav Klaus (Czech Republic, 07/03/2003)

As always, there is one exception to every rule and when it comes to presidents in CEE this is usually Czech president Václav Klaus. Even though ‘country’ is still mentioned relatively frequently ‘Czech’ or ‘Republic’ are not. Interestingly, the words ‘want’ and ‘political’ are mentioned most often (and this even though wordle filters many often used verbs such as want to make the word clouds easier to interpret). Of course, this result leaves room for much speculation – especially as it fits Klaus’ image as a power-hungry politician surprisingly well.

Conclusion (albeit a short one)

Havel inauguration speech_word cloud

As mentioned above, word clouds are not the most sophisticated (or indeed particularly valid) means of analysing inaugural addresses and the above analysis is too superficial to reach definite conclusions. Nevertheless, it is interesting that a trend among US presidents is also visible in the EU member states of Central Eastern Europe. The (manifold) exceptionalism of Václav Klaus does not fit the general pattern (his predecessor Václav Hável also mentioned ‘country’ and ‘nations’ more frequently than Klaus) but raises the question in how far his successor will conform to the trend and put his country first or use his inaugural address to set his own priorities.

___________________________________
This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 Janurary 2013.
A list of links to CEE inaugural speeches can be found here.

Presidential term lengths and possibilities for re-election in European republics

I recently read up on the amendments made to the Czech constitution to allow for popular presidential elections and stumbled across Art. 57 (2) – ‘No person may be elected President more than twice in succession’ (which already applied to indirectly elected presidents) and wondered how it looks in other European republics and how it relates to term length. The results of my study of each country’s constitution are summarised in the bar chart below.

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit |photos via wikimedia commons

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit | photos via wikimedia commons

Term length

Term length is relatively uniform across European republics – in all but six countries a president’s term is five years. Exceptions can only be found in Iceland and Latvia (4 years), Austria and Finland (6 years), and Italy and Ireland (7 years). Interestingly, all presidents serving terms of six or seven years are popularly elected; yet, so is the president of Iceland who is only serving a four-year term.

Presidential term lengths and re-election provisions in the EU member states_presidentialactivism.com

Term limits

A limitation to two consecutive terms can be found in twelve out of 22 European republics, i.e. a former president who has already served two consecutive terms could theoretically be re-elected for a further two consecutive terms after ‘taking a break’. In Latvia, the constitution states that an individual may not serve as president longer than eight consecutive years (which equates to two terms in office). In Portugal, the constitution specifies that a president who has already served two consecutive terms can only be re-elected as president after a break of at least five years. In other countries with a limit of two consecutive terms no such provision exists.

In seven out of the ten remaining republics, presidents can only be elected for two terms – irrespective of consecutiveness. In Malta, a president can even only be elected for one term (although the constitution is rather imprecise on the subject). In Iceland and Italy, there are no regulations on re-election. While it is the norm in Iceland that presidents serve several terms – since 1944 all presidents have served at least three consecutive terms (the current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is in his fourth term at the moment), Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is the first Italian president to be re-elected.

___________________________________
This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 August 2013.

Who’s in charge when the president is gone? Acting presidents in European republics

The premature termination of a presidential term – be it by impeachment, resignation or death of the incumbent – is generally a rare phenomenon so that the respective regulations belong the constitutional provisions that are applied least often in political practice. Nevertheless, in recent years a number of European republics had to activate these stipulations, often for the first time. This post compares the regulations on acting presidents in European republics and discusses the consequences for the separation of powers and potential for conflict.

Acting German Federal President, Speaker of the Federal Council and Minister-President of Bavaria Horst Seehofer in 2012 | © German Presidential Office

The resignations of German Federal Presidents Horst Köhler in 2010 and Christian Wulff in 2012 presented the first instances in which speakers of the Bundesrat had to take over presidential duties. Similarly, the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński in 2010 was the first event in post-1989 Poland that required the Sejm Marshal (speaker of the lower house) to temporarily fulfil the role of president. In Romania, the two impeachment attempts against president Traian Basescu in 2007 and 2012 also meant that the speaker of the Senate acted as president while the population was consulted in referenda. On the other hand, when Slovak president Schuster needed to receive specialist treatment in an Austrian hospital in 2000, the speaker of parliament and Prime Minister fulfilled his duties in tandem.

The above examples show that European republics show a great variation in who becomes acting president. In fact, Bulgaria and Switzerland are the only European republics with a functioning vice-presidency (although due to the collegial nature of the Swiss executive its position/relevance differs significantly) [1] and In the remaining countries it is not always obvious who takes over presidential duties in the case of presidential impeachment, resignation or death. The default option is to temporarily devolve the function to a representative of parliament (in all but Bulgaria, Finland and Switzerland representatives of parliament are involved), yet even here differences exist that have consequences for the division of power.

In France, Germany, Italy and Romania the speaker of the second chamber of parliament. As – except for Italy – the government is not responsible to the second chamber this arrangement guarantees a mutual independence of acting president and other institutions. Even though Austria and Poland also have bicameral system, presidential duties here are performed by the speakers of the first chamber and thus by politicians that are more prominent in everyday politics and usually belong to the governing party. In Austria this is partly mitigated by the fact that the speaker and the two deputy speakers perform this role together, yet in Poland the stipulation proved to be controversial – not only because the generally more political role of the Polish Sejm Marshal but also because of the fact that acting president Komorowski was the government’s candidate in the presidential elections. In the Czech Republic, likewise a bicameral system, presidential duties are also fulfilled by the speaker of the first chamber, yet in cooperation with the Prime Minister.

Map_of_EU_presidents away2_

Countries with unicameral systems cannot generally choose a more independent political candidate, yet as the examples of Iceland and Ireland show it is still possible to create less political alternative by pairing them (among others) with the Chairman of the Supreme Court in multi-member committees that jointly fulfil the position of acting president. Estonia shows another way of ensuring independence of the speaker of parliament as acting president in a unicameral system. The constitution foresees that speaker of parliament temporarily gives up their function to act as president and a new speaker is elected for that period to maintain a clear separation of powers.[2] Last, only Finland and Malta place the role of acting president in the hands of the Prime Minister which is even more exceptional when considering the great differences between the two political systems.

The comparison above has shown that variations in who becomes acting president do not vary according to the mode of presidential election or presidential powers and their origin often predate the current political system. An example for this are the regulations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia which both based their regulations on constitutional drafts that still were still designed for the countries’ functioning within a federal Czechoslovakia. Once the break-up was agreed and quick adoption of new constitutions was needed, the presidency was merely added and the actors that previously represented the republic at federation level became the designated acting presidents (Slovakia only introduced a co-role for the speaker of parliament in 1998 as it turned out that the constitution did not transfer enough power to the Prime Minister as acting president to maintain a functioning state after parliament failed to elect a new president).

The question of who is in charge when the president is gone might appear relatively insignificant at first glance given the rarity of early terminations of presidential terms or long-term absence of presidents during their term. Nevertheless, the different stipulations strongly affect the degree to which the presidency can or is likely to still fulfil its function as check-and-balance on other institutions while it is vacant. While this becomes more relevant the longer there is a vacancy in the presidential office, it still changes the balance of power within a political system already in the short term and therefore merits attention. For instance, during the one month that Slovak president Rudolf Schuster spent in hospital in Austria in 2000, Prime Minister Dzurinda and National Council speaker used their position as acting presidents to veto three bills to which Schuster had previously declared his opposition. Only shortly afterwards, the government majority passed the bills again and thus made sure that Schuster could no longer veto the bills or request a review before the constitutional court.

_____________________________________________________
[1] The Cypriot constitution also institutes a vice-presidency which is reserved for a Turkish Cypriot while the post of president is to be held by a Greek Cypriot. Initially a Turkish Cypriot vice-president served alongside a Greek Cypriot president, yet the vice-presidency has been vacant for about 50-40 years. The start date of the vacancy is difficult to establish – while Turkish Cypriots have not participated in government or parliament since the 1963 crisis, the title of vice-president appears to have been used by Turkish Cypriot leaders until the coup d’état in 1974.
[2] Estonian members of government are also required to give up their place in parliament upon appointment and another MP enters parliament in their place for the time of their appointment.

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.

Estonia – New government under leadership of EU’s youngest Prime Minister formed

Until Andrus Ansip resigned his resignation in early March, his intention was to pave the way for a successor. However, after his designated successor, EU Commissioner Siim Kallas, dropped out Ansip’s Reform Party switched plans and asked President Ilves to appoint 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas to head the new government. While Rõivas is not the youngest Prime Minister in Estonia’s recent history and has been tipped as the new Reform Party leader, the extent of his authority over the party and the cabinet is unclear.

President Ilves (left) congratulates Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas on his appointment | photo © Raigo Pajula via www.president.ee

When Andrus Ansip announced his resignation as Prime Minister he had been in office for almost nine years (making him longest serving Prime Minister in the EU). The reasons for his resignation was to pave a way for a new leader that would Ansip’s centre-right ‘Reform Party’ into the 2015 parliamentary elections. The designated successor was EU Commissioner Siim Kallas (himself Prime Minister 2002-2003) with whom Ansip – pending approval by the European Parliament – hoped to switch places. However, only shortly after the plans were made public, Kallas was faced with media reports about alleged wrongdoings during his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank. The allegations that he had signed guarantees that did not appears were known for several years and not judged as particularly grave by experts given economic situation at the time. However, Kallas’ reaction to the reports – aggressive denial followed by partial admission – was not well-received and only increased pressure, so that he eventually withdrew his candidacy.

At the same time, the Reform Party held talks with both its current coalition partner, the conservative ‘Pro Patria & Res Publica Union’ (IRL), and the Social Democratic Party, with which they had formed a coalition 2007-2009. However, they soon opted to form a new coalition with the latter.

After Kallas’ resignation, the most likely candidate was Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. It has also been alleged that Ansip’s original plan to let Paet become Prime Minister, while Kallas would become a member of the European Parliament and eventually become Estonian president in 2016. After Paet delined, Justice Minister Hanno Pevkur still seemed a more obvious choice but party leadership chose to put forward 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas, MP since 2007 and Minister of Social Affairs since December 2012. Even though Rõivas has been described as a ‘dark horse‘, he has already gained some experience as chairman of the Finance and European Affairs committees in parliament. Despite his young age, he is also not the youngest Prime Minister yet – Mart Laar was only 32 when he became the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister in 1992.

Shortly after parliament approved of Rõivas and his government (he received 55 votes and thus 3 more than the coalition majority), it was announced that he would also take over the leadership of the Reform Party from Ansip. The question is how much actual authority Rõivas will have over the party as well as the government. There are not only several stronger and more experienced candidates (and thus potential intra-party rivals), but the Reform Party has lately seen its position in approval rating drop behind the Social Democrats and the IRL which could weaken his position.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves appears to have played no role in the process of government formation. Being indirectly elected, Ilves has made clear on several occasions that he felt he should not be involved in domestic politics too much. Furthermore, as a former chairman of the Social Democrats and due to the close affiliated he developed with the Reform Party throughout his term in office, he probably does not have any objections against the policies that the new government will implement. As the government includes many experienced politicians, too, there are also no formal reasons of why he would have needed to interfere in the process of government formation.

The role of Estonian presidents in government formation is in any case very limited and apart from presidents’ unwillingness to charge Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar with forming a government on several occasions (despite a large seat share, he would not have been able to form a coalition) there has not been any notable presidential activism in the matter. Therefore, it only seems natural that Ilves left it to parties to find a successor for Ansip and voiced no public objections against appointing Rõivas.

_______________________________________________________________

Cabinet composition Rõivas I

Rõivas portfolio allocation & seat shares

Prime Minister: Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party; 34, male)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Urmas Paet (Reform Party: 39, male)
Minister of the Interior: Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party; 36, male)
Minister of Defense: Sven Mikser, (Social Democrats; 40, male)
Minister of Education and Research: Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democrats; 28, male)
Minister of Justice: Andres Anvelt (Social Democrats; 44, male)
Minister of Environment: Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform Party; 38, male)
Minister of Culture: Urve Tiidus (Reform Party; 59, female)
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure: Urve Palo (Social Democrats; 41, female)
Minister of Foreign Trade and Entrepreneurship: Anne Sulling (Reform Party; 37, female)
Minister of Agriculture: Ivari Padar (Social Democrats; 49, male)
Minister of Finance: Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party; 54, male)
Minister of Health and Labour: Urmas Kruuse (Reform Party; 48, male)
Minister of Social Welfare: Helmen Kütt (Social Democrats; 52, female)