Category Archives: Iceland

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Indriði H. Indriðason – The 2016 parliamentary election in Iceland

This is a guest post by Indriði H. Indriðason from the Department of Political Science at University of California, Riverside

The 2016 Icelandic parliamentary election was an early election.  The release of the Panama papers in April 2016, in which three ministers, including the Prime Ministers, were named, the Prime Minister resigned following popular protests and his replacement announced that an early election was likely to be called in the fall (for details see  In August, October 29 was finally announced as the date for the election.

The 2016 election garnered an unusual amount of attention in the international media. The main reason was the strong showing of the Pirate Party in the polls leading up to the election with the Pirates becoming a regular at the top of the polls starting in April 2015 with about 35% support and occasionally breaking the 40%.  Given the emphasis the Pirate Party, which has held three seats in parliament since 2013, on transparency and corruption, it is perhaps tempting to credit the Panama Papers with the party’s popularity.  However, while the party received its best poll results (43.6%)immediately after the papers’ release, the party’s rise in popularity began much earlier or in the first half of 2015.  Moreover, the Pirate Party’s popularity declined substantially in subsequent polls – to around 27-28%.  While the Pirates were undoubtedly the story of the election, it is still a story that has a lot of questions unanswered.  First, it is not clear what the source of the Pirates skyrocketing popularity in the first months of 2015 was.  While it is fairly clear (or at least plausible) that support for the Pirates is related to anti-establishment attitudes rooted in the financial crisis of 2008 that does not explain the timing.  Similarly, the Pirate Party’s MPs deservedly received credit for their in work in parliament but, again, it cannot explain the timing itself.  Second, as hinted at above, why did the Pirates’ popularity decline following the release of the Panama Papers?  A priori, one would have expected the Pirate Party to be poised to gain from such a scandal.  One possible explanation is that the Pirate Party’s support in the poll was in part a form of a protest vote against the established parties but with the emergence of a serious political scandal some respondents moved from simply expressing their general dissatisfaction to support parties that might be seen as more credible challengers to the government parties.

More generally, one might ask how the Pirate Party ended up with only 14.5% of the vote after having polled above 40% only half a year earlier – a spectacular loss of support by any measure.  Some of this loss – about 10 percentage points – occurred in the month after the Panama papers’ release but the party’s loses in the polls continued at a fairly steady, albeit lower, rate from that point.  One explanation is that the Pirate Party’s success inevitably attracted the attention of the established parties – before the party’s rise in popularity, the established parties could comfortably ignore the Pirates but, with its rising popularity, the established parties turned their swords against the party.  Another explanation has to do with the Pirate’s platform.  The Pirates started out essentially as a populist party, i.e., targeting the established parties for a lack of transparency and corruption and, more generally, portraying the political system as broken.  Thus, initially, its campaign was much more focused on highlighting problems than providing concrete policy proposals or solution (except maybe wanting to adopt the `new constitution’ drafted by a constitutional council in 2011).  However, as the election drew closer, the party found itself forced to respond to criticisms that it was a party without clear policies by clarifying their policy positions – it tends, however, to be much easier to identify problems than agreeing on what constitutions an appropriate solution and in adopting clearer policy positions the party may have alienated some of those sympathetic to the party.  Other factors may also have played a role.  The Pirate Party’s small parliamentary faction took the position to abstain on legislation that it was unable to study in sufficient detail and eventually came under fire for abstaining on a vote on controversial legislation on agricultural production and subsidies.  Similarly, the results of one of the party’s primaries were invalidated – while being in line with the party’s procedures it created an opportunity for the party’s opponents to cast a doubt on its commitment to democratic procedures.  Finally, the Pirate Party took the unprecedented step of trying to form a pre-electoral coalition with the other opposition party – a move that has been seen by some to have hurt the party’s electoral fortunes, and benefited the government parties, by turning the key question facing voters whether they actually wanted a government (probably) led by the Pirates.


The fact that Pirate Party only came in third in the election – after the Independence Party and the Left-Green Movement – does not detract from the party’s achievement.  The Pirates nearly tripled their vote share from the previous election, which brought their seat share from three to ten seats.  Thus, the Pirates claimed a victory – justifiably so, although it was substantially smaller than the polls had suggested.  However, the Pirates were not the only ones to claim victory.  The Independence Party also claimed a victory, emerging as the biggest party with 29% of the vote.  While 29% of the vote was not an outstanding result for the party in a historical context it was an impressive outcome considering that the party faced a challenge from a new pro-European conservative party, Revival (Vidreisn), but the Independence Party had been divided over the issue of EU membership.  Revival won 10.5% of the vote – making it one of the best performances of a new party in Icelandic history.  Finally, the Left-Green Movement also staked a claim on being the winner of the election, coming in second with 17.9% (up from 10.9% in the previous election).  There were also notable losers. The Progressive Party – that headed the coalition with the Independence Party – experienced one of the greatest losses in Icelandic electoral history. It won 11.5% of the vote, losing over half of its vote share from the 2013 election. The Social Democratic Alliance – which was the largest party in the 2009 election with 30% of the vote – was decimated and one only 5.7% of the vote.  Overall, the 2016 election represents a major change in Icelandic party politics and may well mark the end of the traditional four-party system (Independence Party, Progressive Party, and two parties on the left).  More immediately, it is difficult to see which parties will form a coalition government together.

The parties’ claims to be the ‘winner of the election’ were, of course, closely tied to the possibility that the president might overlook the biggest party in appointing a formateur and appoint instead the leader of the party that was perceived as the winner of the election.  The fact that none of the ‘usual’ coalition had a majority in parliament has, naturally, made these considerations all the more important.  Revival, however, appears to be in prime position with the option of forming a coalition to the left or the right.  Neither is straightforward.  A coalition on the left would have to be a five party coalition – negotiating such a coalition might be challenging although the Pirates have suggested that they might consider acting as a support party in such a coalition.  It is, however, fairly certain that the Pirate Party will expect some policy concessions in exchange for its support. A coalition on the right is similarly complicate as it would involve the Independence Party and some third party in addition to Revival.  Forming a three party coalition should in principle be easier but it is complicated by the fact that the Progressive Party is somewhat unlikely third party in such a coalition for at least a couple of reasons.  First, having led the incumbent coalition, the electoral results can easily be read as a rejection of the Progressive Party and its government.  Reforming the incumbent coalition with the support of Revival – however appropriate that may sound – is unlikely to be generate a lot of good will among voters.  Second, the Progressive Party is probably the party most opposed to joining the EU (having withdrawn from the accession negotiations during its term in office).  While the Independence Party is at best (or worst, depending on one’s point of view) Euroskeptic, Revival owes its existence to the demand for a pro-European, center-right party.

When this is written little progress appears to have been made in forming a coalition.  The President of Iceland did opt to appoint the leader of the biggest party, the Independence Party, a formateur on November 2.  No formal negotiations between parties have taken place but the current formateur has met with the leader of the other parties to explore the possibilities.  One sign that forming a coalition will be difficult is that an oversized coalition of the Independence Party and the Left-Green Movement along with Revival and Bright Future (a centrist, social democratic party) appears to be one of the options being consideration – but it may also signal the desperation of the Independence Party as it has few other options.  A three-party coalition of the Independence Party, Revival, and Bright Future does have a bare majority in parliament but Bright Future, in particular, appears uncomfortable with joining what would essentially be a center-right coalition.  Thus, bringing in the Left-Green Movement would shift the balance of power within the coalition to the center.  The obvious difficulty with forming such a coalition is that it brings together parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum – although such coalitions are not unprecedented in Icelandic politics.  But perhaps the point of entertaining the Independence Party’s advances is not forming a coalition with the Independence Party but simply to strengthen the bargaining position of the Left-Green Movement in preparation for negotiations between the parties on the left?

Indridi H. Indridason – The presidency in Iceland

This is a guest post by Indridi H. Indridason from the University of California at Riverside

For most part of its history Iceland has functioned as a ‘regular’ parliamentary system despite having a semi-presidential constitution. For sixty years, since gaining independence in 1944, the president’s role was basically that of a figurehead and the extent of the president’s political actions was, at best, that of managing the coalition formation process. It has been suggested that the president occasionally had preferences over the outcome of the negotiations and sought to influence the coalition formation. It is, however, not clear that the president has had much of a role as a formateur in the formation of governments.

Things changed, however, with the president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson refusing to sign legislation on the ownership of the media into law in 2004.  According to the constitution, if the president declines to sign legislation into law it is referred to a referendum.  In this instance, however, the government opted to withdraw the legislation.  The question whether the president had a right to independently exercise the authority to refer legislation to a referendum was hotly contested. While the 26. clause of the constitution is clear in requiring the president’s signature being required, the debates largely focused on clauses 11 and 13 which state, respectively, that the president is not responsible for the actions of the government and the president lets the ministers exercise his power.  Whatever the intent of the authors of the constitution, the constitution was clearly sufficiently ambiguous on the role of the president for Grímsson to recognize, and grab, a politically opportune moment to redefine and expand the powers of the presidency – the government had sought to pass the legislation with little debate in Althingi against the will of the opposition parties and the legislation appeared to have limited popular support.  By 2010, when Grímsson next refused to sign legislation, there was far less debate about the constitutionality of the president’s actions – thus, intentionally or not, the Grímsson presidency has transformed the office of the president.

Recent events, however, suggest that Grímsson has embraced the more political role of the presidency.  Early April, the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland’s Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson (Progressive Party) had failed to disclose his family’s offshore accounts as well as his wife being one of the foreign creditors of the Icelandic banks that collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. The revelation lead to massive (on an Icelandic scale) protests in front of Althingi and pressures on Gunnlaugsson and his government to resign mounted.  Support for Gunnlaugsson’s continued prime ministership within the other coalition party, the Independence Party, appears to have, understandably, declined – further increasing the pressure on Gunnlaugsson to resign.  Despite these pressures, Gunnlaugsson appears to have been determined to stay in office.  Following a meeting with the leader of the Independence Party, Gunnlaugsson requested a meeting with President Grímsson.  What exactly transpired during the meeting is not completely clear.  President Grímsson claimed PM Gunnlaugsson asked whether he would be willing to dissolve the government and call an election.  Gunnlaugsson, on the other hand, claims that he simply presented the president with what he perceived to be the only two options in the circumstances; for the government to stand united against the opposition’s no confidence motion or to resign.  What appears to be clear is that a formal request to dissolve parliament was not made and the claims made by both actors reflect their own, possibly selective but certainly entertaining, accounts of a private discussion.  President Grímsson’s, interpretation that a request for dissolution had been made appeared, for example, to rest on his observation that the Prime Minister was accompanied by ministerial staff carrying a briefcase that presumably contained a formal request.  It is also important to note that the right of the President to refuse the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve parliament is not uncontroversial – for the same reasons as the President’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, Grímsson’s insistence on having refused to the Prime Minister’s request could be interpreted as part of his agenda to imbue the office of the President with real political powers.

Whatever the case may be, it appears clear that PM Gunnlaugsson wanted to present the Independence Party with an ultimatum, i.e., either its members support continued cooperation in government under Gunnlaugsson leadership or Althingi will be dissolved and an election called.  At the time, the latter option may have seemed unattractive to the Independence party as two of its ministers were also implicated in the Panama Papers scandal and the party’s chances of being in government following an election may also have appeared slim.

The Progressive Party’s threat of dissolution, however, never materialized as President Grímsson informed the PM that he would not dissolve parliament and, moreover, called a press conference after the meeting to announce his decision.  The President’s refusal to left Gunnlaugsson in a very weak position and, in effect, forced him to resign – although later that day the prime minister’s offices issued a press release to the foreign press indicated that the PM was merely stepping aside temporarily.  Thus, it remains to be seen whether Gunnlaugsson plans to return as prime minister (he remains a member of parliament) and, if so, whether he will be successful in doing so.

Having flexed his political muscle, Grímsson decided to go back on his decision to not seek re-election. Possibly as he may have perceived his changes of a successful bid having improved by his role in the removal of the prime minister – even though it fell short of the demands of the protesters, most of whom would have liked to see the government removed and an election called.  But one might also question the causal relationship here, i.e., it is also possible that Grímsson flexed his political muscle because he had already decided that he wanted to run for re-election or recognized that the political fallout from the Panama Papers opened a window of opportunity for him to hang around for a bit longer. Things, however, took an interesting turn when former Prime Minister Oddsson announced his candidacy – incidentally Oddsson was Prime Minister when President Grímsson first referred legislation to a referendum, thereby forcing Oddsson to withdraw the legislation.   Shortly after Oddsson announced his candidacy, President Grímsson withdrew his candidacy – perhaps because he considered his chances of reelection reduced by the Oddsson’s candidacy or, possibly, because he considered his candidacy increasing the chance of Oddsson being elected.

While there is no longer any doubt that the president can use his powers to refer legislation to a referendum, views on the role of the president remain divided, i.e., many voters hold the view that the president should be `above’ politics.  Thus, in some sense the election is, explicitly or implicitly, about what role the president ought to play.  However, as it stands, the leading candidates don’t offer clear alternatives in this regard. From the viewpoint of a political scientist the election would have been far more interesting if Grímsson had not withdrawn his candidacy as his candidacy would clearly stood for the option representing a political president.  Instead, the two leading candidates have indicated that they would consider referring legislation to a referendum.  However, the question about the powers of the presidency is also reflected in another issue, i.e., the question of constitutional reform.

A constitutional council, charged with drafting a new constitution, was established in 2011.  A consultative referendum was held on the draft constitution, in which voters expressed substantial support for the constitution and several of its provisions (although voter turnout was very low by Icelandic standards).  However, the amendment of the constitutions was never brought to a vote in parliament but constitutional reform remains a part of the political discourse.  The two leading candidates do have opposing views on constitutional reform, which is of some significance as the role of the president is probably one of the key issues in the constitutional reform debate.  While it is not clear that the constitution drafted by the constitutional council will be the basis of future reform proposals it is worth nothing that although the draft constitution doesn’t remove the president’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum, the significance of this power is reduced significantly by other proposed amendments.  In particular, the draft constitution has a provision whereby 10% of the voters can refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, in instances in which there is popular opposition to legislation, it is likely to be referred to referendum regardless of whether the president takes action or not.  Indeed, one might argue that the provision actually reduces the president’s powers further.  As it stands, once legislation lacking majority support among voters has been passed by Althingi – i.e., the only circumstance in which the president has the ability to decide on the fate of the legislation – the president effectively has to power to turn that legislation into law, i.e., against the will of the majority of voters. The president may also be able to leverage this ‘negative power’ into a positive one – i.e., by bargaining for unrelated legislation in exchange for his signature.  When voters can demand a referendum, this power is removed.

The question then is whether the election will be fought in terms of the future of semi-presidentialism (or the form it will take in Iceland).  That seems somewhat unlikely, the same issues were at stake in the 2012 election and the constitutional form of government received fairly little attention – and it was certainly not focused on close consideration of the political implications of expanding or constraining the powers of the president.  However, even if the campaign is not dominated by discussions of the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism, it doesn’t mean that the election will not have implications for the future of semi-presidentialism in Iceland.

Indridi H. Indridason was on the faculty at the University of Iceland from 2003 to 2007 and was the chair of the department of political science for two years. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. His research is in the areas of comparative political institutions and applied game theory with focus on electoral systems, electoral behavior, coalition formation, and cabinet management strategies. Among his current research projects are i) the determinants of coalition bargaining outcomes including policy outcomes and portfolio allocation, ii) strategic coalitional voting, and iii) the effects of extremist parties on the policy platforms adopted by other (more moderate) parties. His recent work has been published in journals such as American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Economics and Politics, and Journal of Theoretical Politics.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

…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.


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 I: How much do Western European 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 ( 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?

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the highest paid president in Western Europe (if you do not count the Chairman of the Swiss Confederate Presidency) | photo by GuentherZ via wikimedia commons

Presidents’ absolute salaries in comparison

Given different regulations about salaries, lump sums and other benefits it is difficult to establish universally how much presidents actually earn. For this post I tried to ascertain (accurately, I hope) presidents’ yearly gross annual income exclusive of benefits. However, I decided to include so-called 13th/14th salaries as these are part of the taxable income and many presidents were either entitled to receive those or were recently deprived of them (see more under the penultimate subheading). Although the national gross average income would certainly be easier to interpret as a point of reference, I had chosen the 2012 GDP per capita for the sake of reliability. I was also not able to find reliable data for Cyprus (please leave a link in the comment section if you know a reliable source).

Western european presidents_absolute annual salary_presidentialactivism.com_

The bar chart shows that there is a huge variety in presidents’ salaries in Western Europe. The top-earner is the Swiss Federal President, i.e. the chairperson of the seven-person collegiate presidency that is elected ‘President of the Confederation’. Members of the Federal Council receive €360,358 annually, the president receives an additional €9,735 (i.e. 370,093 annually). The runner-up and top earner among the ‘normal’ presidents – the Swiss-type collegiate presidency is worldwide unique – is the Austrian president. Current incumbent Heinz Fischer receives a gross annual salary of €328,188 which consists of 12 regular monthly salaries + two additional monthly salaries (not benefits) of €23,442 each. George Abela, the president of Malta,, on the other hand earns the least with just €56,310 and thus almost six times less than the Austrian counterpart. The average presidential gross annual salary is €191,149, the average GDP per capita (2012) is €30,860. There are only few presidents who earn a similar absolute gross yearly salary, although this looks different for relative yearly salaries.

Setting earnings into perspective

Absolute numbers are always present a somewhat distorted image in cross-country comparisons, which is why it is good to set presidents’ gross annual income into perspective. As mentioned above, I use the respective country’s GDP per capita from 2012 as a point for comparison.

Western european presidents_relative annual salary

There is a lot of change of positions when comparing absolute and relative gross annual income. While the Maltese presidents is still the lowest paid democratically elected head of state in Europe with 350% of the GDP per capita, previous front-runner Switzerland is with 606% of the GDP/capita only 12 percentage points above the Western European average. Greek president Karolos Papoulisas – in absolute earnings rather on the lower end of the spectrum – now finds himself in third position as his annual gross salary is more than eight times more than the GDP per capita (and this even though his salary had already been halved last year – more on this below). The top-earners in relative terms are by far the presidents of Italy and  Austria. Their gross annual salary amounts to almost nine times more than the nominal GDP per capita.

Western european presidents_scatterplot

The correlation between GDP per capita and presidential salaries is surprisingly high (R=0.8) and Switzerland is the only real outlier. The plot also shows that Finnish president Niinistö earned less than one could have expected from the GDP per capita – even before his salary cut.

The crisis and its consequences

The crisis has certainly taken its toll on presidential salaries in Western Europe as several presidents experienced a pay cut or voluntarily cut their own salary. French president Hollande cut his salary by 30%, Irish president Higgins voluntarily waived 23.5% of his salary, Finnish president Niinistö waived 20%. In Greece, parliament cut the president’s salary by 50% (and abolished a €6,240/month  representational allowance) after president Papoulias had suggested it. Papoulias had previously already waived his salary for a whole year as well as his right to a 13th and 14th monthly salary. Cypriot president (who could not be included in this ranking because of missing data) also waived his additional monthly salaries and cut his salary by 25% after his predecessor had already seen a 20% salary cut.

On the other hand, German president Gauck and Austrian president Fischer recently saw an increase in their income. In 2012, Gauck’s gross yearly income went up from €199,000 to €217,000 while Fischer receives has a modest €411 more in his bank account every month since the beginning of this year (this increase also applies to his two additional monthly salaries so that overall the gross yearly income went up by €5,754). At least in the case of Germany, this increase should not be seen too controversial. The president’s earnings are still rather average (see also scatter plot above) and had not been increased for almost a decade (furthermore, the salary is indirectly tied to the income of federal clerks).

Powers and mode of election

With relation to presidential powers and the mode of presidential election, the results contrast those from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the absolute results depend on whether Switzerland is included or not. Directly elected presidents have a gross yearly income of €183,355 (573% of the GDP per capita), while indirectly elected presidents (Switzerland included) earn €202,061 (664%) and thus more in absolute and relative terms. However, if one excludes Switzerland (which might be sensible due to the exceptionalism of the Swiss collegiate presidency) the gross yearly income is only €160,511 (703% of GDP per capita) which in absolute numbers is less but significantly more in relative terms.

When it comes to the relationship between presidential powers (measures taken from Siaroff 2003) and presidential income the correlation is R=0.0002 and thus non-existent.

***Sources (click on the country names)***

This post first appeared on on 1 August 2013.

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

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 on 22 August 2013.