This post was co-authored by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius.
Despite almost three decades of empirical research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister and her cabinet on the other. Our new book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership, published in the Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics series, breaks thus new ground by exploring how intra-executive coordination works (and does not work) in three European countries with roughly similar constitutional frameworks – Finland, Lithuania, and Romania.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with select informants (primarily ministers and civil servants from the offices of the president and the prime minister with long-standing experience of intra-executive coordination), official documents, as well as secondary material such as politicians’ memoirs, the purpose of our book was to go beyond cohabitation and constitutional powers and to dig deeper into the relations between the two executives. Our basic premise was straightforward: the less there is formal, regular coordination between the two leaders, the more there is space for presidential activism. Formal coordination mechanisms in a sense tame or constrain presidents – and should overall contribute to smoother intra-executive relations.
When deciding on our case selection, we wanted to compare countries that have sufficiently similar constitutional regimes but display variation regarding the socio-economic context and the dynamics of party politics. The presidents of Finland, Lithuania, and Romania enjoy broadly comparable constitutional prerogatives, although the Finnish presidency is vested with somewhat weaker powers. However, the difference lies not so much in constitutional rules as in the socio-economic context. Finland is an old democracy known for its political stability and low level of corruption. The constitutional reform process that culminated in the new unified constitution of 2000 was an orderly, calm process based on broad party-political consensus. Lithuania and Romania, in turn, are much younger democracies that needed to rapidly adopt new constitutions in the heated circumstances of the early 1990s. Their party systems tend to be less stable, with political parties often vehicles for the personal ambitions of individual politicians. Both countries, particularly Romania, have also had serious problems with corruption. Not very surprisingly, Finns tend to trust their political institutions whereas Lithuanians and Romanians do not (at least no to the same extent).
Our main findings need to be understood in the context of these rather fundamental societal differences. In Finland the politicians and legal experts responsible for amending the constitution opted for formal coordination instruments that essentially force the president and the prime minister to cooperate regularly. The Finnish president chairs the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and meets both the prime minister and the foreign minister on an almost weekly basis. But perhaps even more important is the legacy of Urho Kekkonen, who ruled the land with an iron hand for quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981. There was a shared understanding among the political elites that the balance of power had shifted too far in favour of the president. There was thus the political will to significantly reduce the powers of the president, but also a recognition of the need to bind the president to governmental decision-making. In Finland it is still perceived inappropriate for the president to become involved in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the cabinet and the Eduskunta. This applies particularly to government formation, as one of the key factors contributing to the position of Kekkonen was his ability to basically dominate government formation processes, cherry-picking prime ministers and vetoing ministerial candidates and even the inclusion of whole parties in cabinets. Finnish presidents do not criticize the prime minister and the cabinet publicly. Disagreements do occur, but they are mainly handled behind the scenes without public conflicts.
In Lithuania and Romania, on the other hand, it is certainly both legitimate and appropriate for the president to interfere in matters that constitutionally belong to the competence of the government. The transition to democracy in the early 1990s provided a critical juncture in terms of institutional design. Both countries opted for a stronger presidency than in Finland and, more importantly, decided against specific rules about intra-executive coordination mechanisms. Neither country utilizes ministerial committees that would enable regular exchange between the president and the government. Even though the president meets the prime minister often, the frequency of such bilateral meetings is very much dependent on individual office-holders. Both countries also offer evidence of communication breakdowns, with the president or the prime minister simply refusing to talk to one another. Crucially, it is the president that holds the initiative regarding interaction with the prime minister or the government. The level and forms of intra-executive coordination are thus very much determined by the president. Lithuanian and Romanian presidents have adopted even quite confrontational stances, unleashing harsh attacks on the government.
An interesting dimension is party politics, or the role of political parties in facilitating or hindering presidential influence. In all three countries the president as the head of state is not formally a member of any party, but here we see notable variation. Romanian presidents are quite openly involved in the work of their parties: the presidents have attended various party congresses, maintain in general close ties with their parties, and even campaigned in favour of their parties in parliamentary elections. In Lithuania such party ties are much weaker, although we must remember that two of the three presidents, Adamkus and Grybauskaitė, were elected into office as independent candidates. In Finland the non-involvement of presidents in party politics is strictly observed. Future research should examine more closely how presidents use their parties or friendly legislative majorities to achieve policy goals. The Lithuanian and Romanian examples illustrate how ‘outsider’ presidents, such as Constantinescu and Iohannis, have found it much more difficult to shape politics than incumbents that have long experience from party politics.
Our analysis indicates the buffet table of strategies available for presidents to wield influence. Apart from using their constitutional prerogatives, presidents make active use of informal channels: they meet with individual politicians, including party leaders, hold important public speeches that typically enjoy wide media coverage, and establish close links with various interest groups and citizens’ associations. Again such activities are not regulated by any laws. Previous research has very much focused on visible actions – presidential vetoes or the role of the president in forming and dissolving cabinets. These are clearly important dimensions that deserve to be examined, but influential presidents may not need to veto bills or reject governments. Given favourable circumstances, not least a friendly prime minister and a legislative majority, presidents can achieve a lot without leaving any public trace of her actions. This is why we deliberately relied heavily on interviews with people in key positions. If we want to understand how individual presidents behave, one simply must talk to such informants and identify how presidents seek to influence politics.
An important and so far under-researched theme is the role of presidential staff. In Finland the size of the presidential office is very small, and hence the Finnish president is strongly dependent on preparatory work carried out by the government. In Lithuania and particularly in Romania the presidential palaces have generous staff levels, meaning that the presidents have, if required, the capacity to look into policy questions in much more detail and to prepare various political documents. A striking and perhaps also a surprising finding concerns the portfolios that the staff focus on. Most of the staff working for the Lithuanian and Romanian presidents deal with policy areas that fall under the competence of the government – economic policy, education, social and health affairs, culture etc. Importantly, these persons follow developments in the ministries and the legislature, maintain active links with interest groups and other shareholders, and in general try to generate support for the positions and initiatives of the president. Future research on political leadership should therefore pay close attention to advisors and other staff, including of course also in the office of the prime minister.
Intra-executive coordination is most institutionalized and regular in foreign and security policy. Finland uses a specific ministerial committee in foreign and security policy that meets around twice a month and brings together the president, the prime minister and other cabinet members. Lithuania and Romania utilize national security councils that meet less often but are convened to discuss various topical matters related to security policy. While there have been some public disputes or disagreements between the president and the government in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania, normally the goal of speaking with one voice in foreign and security policy is achieved. There is routine, day-to-day administrative interaction between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, and in all three countries the president meets the foreign minister on a regular basis.
The findings are thus in line with our theoretical expectations. The more there is formal and regular coordination, the less space for presidential activism – and vice versa. And in line with institutional theory, our book illustrates path dependency and the stickiness of initially adopted courses of action. We also provide further evidence of some of the negative features often associated with presidents and semi-presidential regimes. Most of the intra-executive conflicts or tensions in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania result from actions of the president. At the same time we must underline the exploratory nature of our research. Our analysis covered only three countries, and thus the number of individual presidents in our data set was small. Various presidential activities – from public speeches, party links, to ties with various stakeholders – could be subjected to much closer examination and be linked to data on intra-executive conflicts or legislative vetoes. Finally, our research design and data should not be understood as criticism of more quantitatively oriented studies. However, an in-depth understanding of presidential behaviour and how the two executives work together is not possible without reaching ‘behind the scenes’ and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of intra-executive coordination.