Category Archives: Lithuania

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in a continuous intra-institutional tug of war (Part 2)

 

The spring political season ended up on a low note for President Grybauskaite. Not only her relations with prime minister soured from the beginning of the year and continued to deteriorate into late spring, but she also became involved in an almost personal political warfare with Ramunas Karbauskis, leader of the ruling Lithuanian Framers and Green Union Party (LZVS), which presently holds the majority of seats in the parliament.

As the parliament was about to adjourn for the summer recess, Grybauskaite had “the last word” in closing the unusually tense political season. Carrying out a constitutionally mandated duty, she gave her pre-last State of the Nation address in the parliament (Grybauskaite’s second term will end next year in July, so her last annual address will be in June 2019).  There was a wide expectation among political analysts that her speech would mostly, if not exclusively, focus on the lingering political scandals and ongoing political corruption cases that turned into an open political warfare among various domestic political actors: major political parties, their leaders, coalition partners, the government, and, indirectly, even implicating the president herself. Although Grybauskaite devoted nearly half of her speech to “the party system crisis” and how the political infighting is “getting worse” as well as pointed out that the country was unable to rid itself of pervasive political corruption for the past 25 years, the president also issued a call for all “warring” parties to cooperate for the sake of Lithuania’s and its peoples’ wellbeing. [1]

Grybauskaite’s appeal for cooperation, however, will face three major challenges that are almost insurmountable given her political “baggage” and the mere ten months she has left until the end of her second, and final, term in office. Firstly, it is hard to imagine that regardless of her extended olive branch the squabbling political parties would suddenly accept Grybauskaite as a neutral mediator and conciliator. The reason for this is because president’s sympathies allegedly rest with the Fatherland Union (Conservatives)-Christian Democratic Party (TS-LKD), currently in opposition in the parliament. TS-LKD is seeking to fend off political corruption accusations voiced by Karbauskis and by his LZVS party’s members. In September, the LZVS has restarted the process of creating parliamentary commissions to investigate past political corruption cases that have already been undertaken by other government agencies. The launch of LZVS-initiated parliamentary commissions is also opposed, on constitutional grounds, by the president (to note, no parliamentary commission will be created or existing one tasked with probing into potential corruption cases in the agricultural sector, which is where Karbauskis made his financial fortune that allowed him and his party to achieve political success in the 2016 parliamentary elections).

Secondly, Grybauskaite’s track record of having tense and, at times, deeply conflictual relations with every government during her two terms—no matter whether it was led by the TS-LKD, social democrats, Labor, or the current farmers-green party coalition—does not add to the sincerity of her call or makes it credibile that she really aspires to pursue cooperation. Furthermore, her indirect hints in the 2018 national address of “a new corporate savior rising from the waters of disappointment” (allegedly referring to Karbauskis’ agricultural conglomerate and its potential “savior” role that it will propagate during three elections—municipal, presidential, and the EU parliament—that will be held in 2019); or in her description of the present LZVS-dominated parliament that “is turning into a shooting gallery for attacks against freedom and democracy, with random shots taken only to ban and penalize;” or in president’s description of the legislative branch productivity record, which “after a long period of vegetation” had suddenly overfilled its political agenda “[…] with very urgent issues, which are but trivial in the life of [Lithuanian] people,” while ignoring such major social problems as “social exclusion, emigration, Lithuania’s declining competitiveness, children’s literacy or preparations for referendum on dual citizenship.”[1] Such criticisms, although present in almost all of her previous presidential addresses, do not sound as peacemaking inclined nor do they suggest the burying of the intra-institutional war hatchet. On the contrary, the latest presidential address signaled Grybauskaite’sintentions to continue on a confrontational politics path.

Thirdly, cooperation suggested by Grybauskaite would be possible if parties were eager and willing to collaborate. However, neither Grybauskaite (as discussed above) nor Karbauskis have thus far shown any signs of willingness to resolve their political disagreements. It has to be noted that at the end of the legislative spring session Karbauskis claimed that he was fully determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, especially those involving TS-LKD party, as well as Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair” as soon as the parliament resumes work in September. Furthermore, he announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until a new president gets elected in 2019.[2]

It is, therefore, not surprising that when Grybauskaite tried to bring different warring parties—prime minister, the speaker of the parliament, and the leaders of two major political parties in parliament (namely, LZVS’Karbauskis and TS-LKD’G. Landsbergis)—together for an informal working dinner at the presidential palace in early September, Karbauskis refused to participate. He claimed that he had never received a formal invitation from the presidential office and even if he had, he would have declined to participate because he “did not find conversations in such a format useful.” “If the president has questions, and I also have questions, then [our] questions can be discussed in meetings with the Board of the parliament, at commissions’ meetings, and in other official formats that exist,” stated Karbauskis.[3] Grybauskaite cancelled the working dinner as it became clear that presidential efforts to smooth a tense political situation and lingering confrontations would bring no tangible results. Visibly, chances that these two political actors will be eager to cooperate appear rather slim.

Political analysts seem to agree that Karbauskis has two political strong suits over the president at this juncture in time. On the one hand, Grybauskaite has less than a year left in office and is primarily preoccupied with her political legacy and how it maybe impacted by the ongoing political squabbling, while Karbauskis certainly has a much longer political future (probably expecting that his party will be reelected in the 2020 parliamentary elections). On the other hand, building on political advantages he currently has, Karbauskis appears to have a desire to show off as to “who is who” (or “who is more important in Lithuania”) as he visibly enjoys the political limelight and a favorable political constellation. Apparently Karbauskis estimates that no matter the amount of criticism that Grybauskaite directly or indirectly voices about him, the LZVS, and his party’s political initiatives in the next ten months of her presidency and that whatever will be the intensity of such presidential criticisms that they will not have any profound political consequences either for him personally or for the LZVS.

Frustrating as it maybe for Grybauskaite however, she faces a precarious political situation at the moment. Indeed, other than public pronouncements in the media and issuance of staunch warnings for Karbauskis to not cross “certain red lines,” for the time being Grybauskaite is forced to concede. She has (informally) resigned from a peacemaker role, delegating it to the speaker of the parliament.[4] And yet, despite the futility of presidential efforts to move political parties and the parliament beyond political bickering, Grybauskaite appears to be determined to oppose Karbauskis and the LZVS’ initiatives to create new parliamentary commissions for as long as it takes. Her latest salvo came in a form of a staunch public warning to the current ruling majority as the president announced that she “would not be silenced” by Karbauskis or by anybody else.[5] It is becoming clear that political warfare and intra-institutional battles will continue into the foreseeable future, and, possibly, until Grybauskaite leaves office.

Notes:

[1] D. Grubauskaite “State of the Nation Address.” Available athttps://www.lrp.lt/en/speeches/state-of-the-nation-address/-2018/30194.

[2] “R. Karbauskis atrėžė D. Grybauskaitei: į prezidentūrą iki rinkimų kojos nekels.”Available at https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/lietuvoje/2/213639/r-karbauskis-atreze-d-grybauskaitei-i-prezidentura-iki-rinkimu-kojos-nekels.

[3] “Jų susodinti prie bendro stalo nepavyko net Grybauskaitei: nekelia kojos ne tik į Prezidentūrą” Available at https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/ju-susodinti-prie-bendro-stalo-nepavyko-net-grybauskaitei-nekelia-kojos-ne-tik-i-prezidentura.d?id=78983123.

[4] “Prieš naująjį politinį sezoną Grybauskaitė perspėja: yra tam tikros raudonos linijos, kurių peržengti negali joks politikas.” Available at https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/pries-naujaji-politini-sezona-grybauskaite-perspeja-yra-tam-tikros-raudonos-linijos-kuriu-perzengti-negali-joks-politikas.d?id=78950091.

[5] “Grybauskaitės kirtis valdantiesiems: manęs nutildyti nepavyks.” Available at  https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/grybauskaites-kirtis-valdantiesiems-manes-nutildyti-nepavyks.d?id=79053675.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite in an intra-institutional tug of war

Nobody would have anticipated that a short, two-day long, scuffle between President Grybauskaite and prime minister Skvernelis that unfolded in early January would result in an intense intra-institutional tug of war a few months later, and that this intra-instutional infighting would widen to include the country’s parliament, Seimas, and Mr. Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Framers and Green Union Party, which holds a majority of seats in the Seimas. 

Conflicts between prime minister and the president came into the open in April. Skvernelis and Grybauskaite not only continued their escalation regarding potential reevaluation of Lithuania’s relations with Russia that began in early January (more on that below), but their first major confrontation involved a disagreement regarding Minister of Agriculture Markauskas’s political fate. According to the Agency Investigating Financial Crimes (FNTT), Markauskas had made illegal financial gains, which also included payments from the EU funds, while utilizing his neighbor’s arable land, allegedly without the latter’s consent. Based on FNTT’s information, presidential advisors called Markauskas into the presidential office and “ordered [the minister] to resign.” Since the agriculture minister refused, Grybauskaite decided to increase pressure on prime minister by using the media and by making their disagreement public. In her press communiqué she alluded to the prime minister’s continued reluctance to fire the compromised minister indicating that Skvernelis was “dependent [on receiving guidance from his political party higher-ups] and unable to make autonomous decisions.” Following the same communication pattern as the president, the prime minister gave a terse response to Grybauskaite also using local media outlets. “I’m the head of the government. I understand my responsibilities and duties regarding my cabinet members and would not evade them, but at the same time I will not succumb to the pressure by the president or anybody else. It will be my decision, and I will also bare the brunt of it,” declared the prime minister. Skvernelis reminded the president that it was his constitutional prerogative to accept resignation of his cabinet ministers and that he would not be pressured by anybody, not even the president, as to the decisions he would make or when they would happen. Not only did the prime minister show resentment toward Grybauskaite’s public pressure to fire the agriculture minister, but also he was equally irritated that the president sought to usurp the prime minister’s decision-making duties.  

The next political battle between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis ensued in late April when the president rejected the prime minister’s candidate, Mr. Danelius, to the post of the justice minister. Several senior parliament members and attorneys did not find president’s explanation of Mr. Danelius “clashes of interests” sufficiently credible and justifiable to reject his nomination. The conflict between the president and prime minister intensified as political analysts speculated that the presidential rejection signaled Grybauskaite’s “payback” to Skvernelis for his refusal to force the compromised minister of agriculture into an immediate resignation (even if the minister eventually resigned). 

Almost in a tit-for-tat manner, the prime minister further accelerated his conflict with the president when he decided to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and several Lithuanian ambassadors for discussions about Lithuanian-Russian relations as well as Lithuania’s bilateral relations with the other EU Eastern Partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova). Although the prime minister’s office claimed that it had no intention to introduce any foreign policy revisions, the president perceived Skvernelis’ moves as another intrusion into her “sphere of influence” and promptly expressed criticism and disapproval. After the meeting with the foreign minister and ambassadors, the prime minister announced through the local media that his and Grybauskaite’s positions fully align, and that the purpose of the meeting was for him to hear directly from the ambassadors on how they evaluate situation in the countries where they reside. Allegedly, at least with regards to Lithuanian-Russian relations the prime minister decided to de-escalate existing tensions with the president. 

It appeared that Grybauskaite was winning the ongoing intra-institutional battles with prime minister as her favored outcomes were realized: the Minister of Agriculture ended up resigning (although not as quickly as the president preferred); she also made the prime minister suggest another candidate for the post of the justice minister; and “new” foreign policy initiatives regarding Lithuanian-Russian relations after Skvernelis’ consultations with ambassadors resulted in no changes. But then a political bombshell exploded. 

On April 28th and throughout early May, Lietuvos rytas, one of Lithuania’s major newspapers, published a series of articles about Grybauskaite’s electronic correspondence from an obscure email account tulpes@lrpk.lt with Mr. Masiulis, the former leader of the Liberal Movement (LS) political party, who since 2016 had been implicated in a major political corruption investigation. Published correspondence dated from 2014-2016 period and discussed a variety of politically sensitive issues such as potential candidates to the Prosecutor General’s office; the 2016 parliamentary elections and who the president would like to be chosen as prime minister; the role of LNK TV channel and particularly journalist Tomas Dapkus who voiced strong criticism about Grybauskaite’s preferred candidates for the Prosecutor General’s office; warnings about Skvernelis’ political ambitions and the president’s description of him as a “dangerous populist.” Interestingly, the timing of leaked correspondence between Grybauskaite and Masiulis coincided with the conclusion of the investigation of his political corruption case and the filing of a lawsuit by the Prosecutor General’s office against Masiulis and the Liberal Movement party he headed until 2016. 

As soon as the email correspondence became public, conflict between Grybauskaite and the ruling Framers and Green Union Party (LVZS) in parliament, particularly its leader, Mr. Karbauskis and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister, spiraled. Immediately LVZS MPs called for investigations into Grybauskaite’s activities, electronic correspondence, and the legality of her actions. Several parliamentary members and political commentators began hinting at the possibility of president’s impeachment, claiming that Grybauskaite’s emails not only directly tied her to Masiulis’ shady political dealings, but also exposed her to potential influences from MG Baltic, one of Lithuania’s largest industrial and medial conglomerates that sought political favors in return for provided financial support. Additionally, the president’s email messages, according to Skvernelis’ suppositions, reflected her alleged “pressure on the media.” This was derived from one of president’s emails written to Masiulis in which she asked him to “send her message” to the head of MG Baltic Darius Mockus, asking Mockus to “restrain his hound” [here, reference is made to journalist Dapkus who, in president’s view, “was speaking nonsense” about her proposed candidate to the post of the Prosecutor General and, as it became known, had direct contacts with MG Baltic top management that owns LNK station where Dapkus works). Additionally, Karbauskis claimed that president’s emails, if proven to be authentic, were not only scandalous, but also reflected unacceptable and potentially illegal political actions by the president.

Within a couple of days Grybauskaite gave a public interview in which she presented her interpretation of events, specifically answering questions pertaining to her correspondence with Masiulis. Although she did not deny using the tulpes@lrpk.lt email address and acknowledged that she had sent emails and text messages to Masiulis from this address, she claimed that she could not confirm the authenticity of these emails. Grybauskaite claimed that her correspondence with Masiulis was neither saved nor found on any of her office’s servers.  She also expressed a belief that the primary reason behind the publication of her electronic correspondence with the former LS leader was to politicize the current lawsuit against Masiulis, and she expressed concern that their correspondence may be used as evidence by the defense.  However, the president expressed her satisfaction that the fight against corruption had made a major breakthrough as three significant political corruption lawsuits were recently filed with the courts by law enforcement agencies, and that the public would get a better understanding as to how much influence large companies and powerful interest groups had amassed in the past decade over the country’s political system. 

Her political opponents, especially Karbauskis, dismissed the president’s “calculated” explanations about the emails’ “disappearance, “ suggesting he was inclined to ask parliament’s IT to check parliament servers in order to “discover” Grybauskaite’s emails that were sent to Masiulis, who was a MP until 2016. Karbauskis also stated that Grybauskaite’s sudden and active presence in the public eye and the media indicated the use of diversionary tactics as the president was allegedly trying to divert public attention from her scandal and towards Karbauskis’ Agroverslas company and potentially unconstitutional links between his business interests and his current lawmaking activities. Indeed, Grybauskaite during her interview alluded that investigations launched in parliament and led by Karbauskis’ party members could be perceived as “selective,” suggesting that she saw no political will shown by LVZS to achieve greater transparency in investigating how businesses interests (including Karbauskis’ own agricultural conglomerate) influence politics. After several terse public exchanges between the presidential office and the parliament that continued in May and June—for instance, Karbauskis announced that he would not set his foot into the presidential palace until the new president gets elected next year—the parliament adjourned for summer recess with neither Karbauskis nor Skvernelis showing any apparent intensions to pursue president’s impeachment.  

Although Grybauskaite vehemently denied any involvement in any corruption cases, she felt it was necessary to launch a media campaign to present her side of the story. Despite her efforts to defend herself, political damage that the latest political scandal will have on her, her reputation, and, ultimately, her legacy is inevitable albeit the extent of it is too early to tell. Some prominent politicians voiced the opinion that Grybauskaite should resign as she had clearly compromised herself and could no longer serve as the moral leader of the country. Others expressed the opinion that because of her involvement in the latest political scandal Grybauskaite had killed off her chances to successfully run and be selected for a high-ranking post in the top EU governing structures. Moreover, headlines about impeachment produced a negative effect:  as expected, her public approval ratings experienced a significant fall within days of political scandal’s eruption and appear to be falling nearly two months later. More disconcerting for Grybauskaite, however, is what will happen after the parliament’s summer recess. Karbauskis has already hinted that he is not only determined to resume parliamentary investigations of political corruption cases, including Grybauskaite’s “email-gate affair,” but he is expecting the president to respond to his ultimatum regarding the authenticity of her emails. The presidential office stated that Karbauskis’ intention to investigate Grybauskaite’s emails amounts to an open political vendetta and violates the Constitution. 

As regular and numerous media headlines about ongoing political tug of war between Grybauskaite and Skvernelis and, more recently, between Grybauskaite and Karbauskis suggest, her last year in office may be an ongoing fight for her reputation, fending off one political scandal after another as the “reigning in” of the president will likely continue. The winner of these intra-institutional wars is unclear at the moment. However, it is safe to assume that this is probably not how Grybauskaite anticipated she would spend her last year in office.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite on an extended “vacation”?

The extent of visibility that Grybauskaite commanded both internationally and domestically before joint Russian-Belorussian military exercises “Zapad 2017” carried out in September was quite unprecedented. Since then, for the past six months or so, Lithuanian president appears to have almost completely “disappeared” from political engagements apart from occasional ceremonial duties and a minor clash with prime minister she had in early January, which appears to have soured their relationship.

The new year began with a short, two-day long, scuffle between the prime minister Skvernelis and Grybauskaite, when the former made an unexpected announcement during a radio interview calling to revive an intergovernmental commission between Lithuania and Russia. The prime minister suggested that it would be a practical move, based on Lithuania’s economic and national interests, and would be a beneficial step to open dialogue in such areas as trade, energy, logistics, agricultural products, transportation, and Lithuanian language teaching in Kaliningrad. “We are a unique EU state as we don’t have any—and let me reiterate—absolutely no contacts of any kind with the [neighboring] state [here, Russia], while other [EU] states, including our Baltic neighbors, are actively engaged in economic dealings,” claimed Skvernelis. Prime minister insisted that the current bilateral situation could not be viewed as a normal state of affairs. Skvernelis suggested that a revival of an intergovernmental commission would be highly beneficial for Lithuania’s economy concluding that “open and principled conversation is better than no conversation at all.” Indeed, Lithuania is rather unique in this regard as it is the only EU state that maintains no contact on any official level with Russia since the latter’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014. 

Since Skvernelis’s initiative clearly broke with the official foreign policy direction established and maintained by Grybauskaite, her office issued a staunch retort to the prime minister. “Lithuania’s position remains consistent and is based on principles, meaning, we seek mutually beneficial and respectful relations with all our neighbors. When Russia will change its aggressive policy towards the [neighboring] states, when it returns occupied territories, and when it cedes violating international law by meddling into other countries’ elections, then we will be ready to start a closer cooperation,” announced Grybauskaite. Such a presidential response suggested that a revival of intergovernmental commission would neither be possible nor desirable unless Russia met established “preconditions.” Furthermore, Grybauskaite indicated to the prime minister that his initiatives were not welcomed, that such proposals were irresponsible from the national security standpoint, and that as a head of state in charge of foreign policy she had no intention of changing the status quo that Lithuania finds itself in with Russia.

Skvernelis softened his stand a little bit the following day, when he announced that his and president’s views on Russia were the same and that they both “held almost similar principles [toward Russia].” Thus, there would be no need to find some sort of compromise between his suggestion and the presidential response on this issue. He also pointed out that he was not advocating for any reset in bilateral relations. “Friendship and partnership are two separate things,” he indicated. Grybauskaite countered this by saying that prime minister shows a large degree of naiveté by assuming that “economic relations with this country [here, Russia] can be separated from politics.”

Some political analysts suggested that the prime minister had badly miscalculated with such a spontaneous initiative, which he did not coordinate either with the presidential office or the minister of foreign affairs, and, in the end, was surely destined to suffer a bitter defeat from Grybauskaite. After all, since her arrival to the presidential office in 2009, Grybauskaite has trounced everybody eager to challenge her “absolute” rule in foreign affairs. Actually, it was not the first instance when Skvernelis publicly hinted about his discontent for being sidelined in decision-making on EU matters and about Grybauskaite’s “unilateralism” in foreign policymaking. For instance, in late December of 2017, he pointed out during a radio interview that “certain political decisions are made without any knowledge by, or information being shared with, the government. […] Voting in the UN showed that there was no collaboration [between the government and the president]. Furthermore, the government did not [even have a chance] to debate this matter.” Skvernelis appeared to be dissatisfied with a lack of cooperation shown by Grybauskaite on such a politically charged issue as voting in the UN, which pertained to Lithuania’s unexpected voting in favor of the resolution that condemned the US formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Potentially this spontaneous initiative regarding revival of Lithuanian-Russian intergovernmental commission was some sort of payback by prime minister, even if an unsuccessful one. 

Still others thought that Grybauskaite’s several months long absence in the public eye allowed Skvernelis to feel emboldened and eager to play a more prominent role in the foreign policy making of the country. After all, the president was absent in political arena since September 2017, and after a short January scuffle she had with Skvernelis, Grybauskaite disappeared once again from the public eye until Lithuania’s centennial celebration on 16 February. Although her reappearance for the centennial celebration was purely ceremonial and celebratory in nature, she ended up being criticized for garnering too much attention for herself, for sidelining other high ranking state officials (i.e., in particular the speaker of the parliament and prime minister) and for not inviting other Lithuanian officials to meetings with visiting foreign heads of states and EU’s highest officials. It may not be surprising that that same month (February), prime minister felt comfortable to be daring and provocative when he issued another snarky public supposition that Grybauskaite’s occasional criticism of his government inability to implement several laws could be viewed as a smoke-and-mirror tactics to actually cover up and compensate for both her and her office’s inactivity.

Meanwhile, Grybauskaite’s several months long absence prompted some analysts to suggest that the president has engulfed on an extended vacation of sorts. Surprisingly, her involvement in recent discussions on domestic issues such as taxes, tax reform, economics, and pensions reform—long considered as Grybauskaite’s primary areas of expertise—did not become more noticeable on the president’s agenda until after critical reviews of her inactivity became a matter of political debates. 

Likewise, president’s very limited involvement was evident in the most recent domestic crisis that unfolded in March. For the first time the country’s parliament had blatantly disregarded a Constitutional court decision and failed to remove a member of Parliament who violated Lithuania’s Constitution and parliamentary oath by concealing secret contacts with a KGB officer. Grybauskaite’s comment was communicated through a press statement in which she stated: “By trampling Constitutional Court’s decision and by ignoring state’s national security interests, the parliament has shamelessly discredited itself.” Such presidential detachment in the face of what one may consider a constitutional crisis is puzzling, particularly in light of an extensive work that Grybauskaite carried out to achieve greater transparency in governing structures and to fight nepotism and endemic corruption, especially in the country’s courts system. 

Despite Grybauskaite’s efforts to counter a growing number of unflattering public views, stipulations continue that president has lost her “steam,” that she does not have any new or exciting ideas, and that she clearly lacks determination to advance necessary changes and reforms. One prominent political commentator even suggested that time maybe right to institute a one-term presidency and to initiate necessary constitutional changes to that effect. In the meantime, speculations in the local media and by politicians continue to abound that Grybauskaite is already much more focused on finding a cushy position, allegedly in the EU structures, rather than being actively engaged in important domestic political matters and economic issues.

When European presidents abused presidential term limits

The abuse of presidential term limits is rife. In Uganda deputies voted only last month to abolish the age limit for presidential candidates. This decision paved the way for President Museveni to stand for a sixth term, the two-term limit there having already been scrapped in 2005.

In Europe, here meaning the member-state countries of the EU plus Iceland and Switzerland, presidential term limits are not subject to abuse. However, Europe has not always been exempt from practices typically associated with the abuse of presidential term limits. Indeed, there have been examples of presidential terms limits being abolished, ‘grandfathering’ clauses being introduced, and term lengths being extended to suit particular presidents.

In five European countries, presidential term limits have been abolished at some point. In these cases, the process of abolition was often associated with the manipulation of presidential term lengths as well.

  • In France, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was directly elected as president in December 1848. With the constitution allowing only a four-year non-renewable term, he staged a coup in December 1852, soon becoming Emperor Napoleon III.
  • In Lithuania, the 1926 coup led by Antanas Smetona was followed by a new Constitution in 1928. In the new Constitution, presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished, leaving President Smetona constitutionally secure in power.
  • In Portugal, a presidency was established with the 1911 Constitution following the abolition of the monarchy. In 1933 Salazar’s so-called Estado Novo constitution extended the president’s term to seven years and abolished term limits. Salazar himself didn’t serve as president, but the abolition of presidential term limits was part of his strategy for securing power in the regime at that time.
  • In Austria, President Hainisch stepped down in 1928 because he was term limited. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Miklas. In 1933 Prime Minister Engelbert Dolfuß effectively ended democracy by shutting down parliament. In 1934 a new Constitution was passed in which presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished. President Miklas benefited from the change, though he was allowed to do so because he was such a docile figure that he posed no threat to the authoritarian regime.
  • Finally, in Czechoslovakia the 1948 Constitution included a term-limit clause. The 1948 Constitution was drafted before the Communists fully assumed power that year. In 1960 a new Constitution was passed, leaving in doubt the Communist nature of the regime, and term limits were abolished as part of the reform.

‘Grandfathering’ is where a particular individual is exempt from a general rule. In the case of presidential term limits, it means that the Constitution includes a term-limit procedure, but a particular individual is exempted from such limits and, in effect, serves as a president for life. There are two historic cases of ‘grandfathering’ in Europe, both in Czechoslovakia.

  • In the 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution, the text stipulated a seven-year term with a two-term limit. However, it also stated that these provisions did not apply to the first president. This was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. President Masaryk reminded in power until 1935 when he resigned on health grounds.
  • In the 1948 Czechoslovak Constitution, there was also a clause stating that the term-limit provisions did not apply to a particular person, this time to the second president of the Republic. This was Edvard Beneš. He had succeeded Masaryk, becoming the second President of the Republic, only to be forced from power after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He returned in 1945 and was president in May 1948 when the Constitution of that year was promulgated. However, Beneš opposed the Communist takeover and he resigned in June 1948, effectively making the ‘grandfather’ clause a dead letter.

In effect, then, the abuse of presidential term limits in the countries in the sample here ended in the early post-war period. This is partly because in the post-war period most European democracies have had figurehead presidents, leaving little incentive to abuse term-limit provisions. More importantly, the abuse of term limits is endogenous to the abuse of the rule of law more generally. In other words, the abuse of term limits is a symptom of a democracy in decline, rather than the cause. Given democracy in Europe has remained strong, term limits have been respected. We only have to look at a European country outside the sample here, Belarus, to see how term limits were abused when democracy itself was abolished.

It is worth noting, though, that in four European countries in the sample, there are currently no presidential term limits. They are Cyprus, Iceland, Italy, and Malta. In addition, two democracies previously operated for long periods without term limits – Finland from 1919-1990 and France from 1875-1940 and again from 1958-2008.

The absence of term limits has led to some ‘long’ presidencies, even when countries have been unequivocally democratic. In Finland, President Urho Kekkonen was in office from 1956-1982 and in Iceland four presidents have served for three or more terms, with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson holding the presidency from 1996-2016.

In Iceland, Italy, and Malta, there are figurehead presidents. So, there is little call for the introduction of presidential term limits. Cyprus, though, has a presidential system. No Cypriot president has been elected for more than two consecutive terms since Makarios III, even if a number of presidents have stood unsuccessfully for a third term. Even so, the introduction of term limits is regularly part of the political debate. Indeed, a bill to this effect is due to be debated in the legislature very soon.

Overall, in European democracies presidential term limits are, almost by definition, safe from abuse as long as the rule of law remains in place. However, in the past term limits have been abused and more recently some European democracies have witnessed ‘long’ presidencies in the absence of a presidential term-limit clause.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius – Where rules are lacking, presidents prevail: Explaining presidential influence in Lithuania

This is a guest post by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’ that will be published in Government and Opposition

Despite more than two decades of 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 (PM) and her cabinet on the other. With some exceptions, even country studies have not probed the regular interaction between the executives. Our fresh case study of Lithuania seeks to partially fill that gap.  As part of a comparative project on semi-presidentialism granted by the Swedish Research Council, we use official documents and interviews with key civil servants and ministers for examining in detail how executive coordination has worked in Lithuania since the early 1990s (Raunio and Sedelius 2017).

Our research was driven by two inter-related questions: how does coordination between the president and PM actually work and how institutional design influences the balance of power and level of conflict between the two executives. The basic premise was that institutional design is related to the level of conflict between the cabinet and the president, and that conflicts over policy, legislation or appointments are manifestations of coordination problems. By institutional design we mean those rules, organizational arrangements and conventions that structure routine coordination between the two executives.

Challenging previous accounts of the Lithuanian case, our article argues that the existing modes of coordination facilitate presidential dominance. Absent of written rules or otherwise strong norms guiding intra-executive coordination, Lithuanian presidents have clearly enjoyed a lot of discretion in designing their own modes of operation. The transition period from authoritarian to democratic rule presented the opportunity to set rules about coordination, but there was insufficient political will for constraining the presidency through more precise legal rules or regular cooperation mechanisms. In line with institutional theory, the adopted approach has become the appropriate course of action, with each new president bringing her own staff, personality and leadership style into the equation. The presidents also have the power of initiative regarding cooperation, with forms and levels of intra-executive coordination essentially always determined by the president. For example, while joint councils or ministerial committees might facilitate better coordination, presidents do not need such bodies. As one of our interviewees put it: ‘Presidents that have enough powers do not create such councils, they do not need such kind of institutions, they just arrange ad hoc meetings despite the fact that it is not foreseen in any law.’

The obvious challenge stemming from lack of rules is that power is very much ‘up for grabs’, particularly given the Lithuanian personality-centred political culture which favours strong leadership and presidential activism. As another of our informants expressed it: ‘one side might ask “where is it written?” and another can argue “where is it forbidden?”’ There is a rather broadly shared expectation, especially by citizens, that the president is the ‘political authority’, and the successive presidents have repeatedly leaned on their popular support to intervene in questions falling under the government. Presidents have also essentially hand-picked various prime ministers and have forced PMs and other ministers to resign. Like in other semi-presidential regimes, much depends on party politics, with periods of cohabitation reducing the influence of the president and bringing about a more strict division of labour between the executives. At other times, such as when the current president Dalia Grybauskaité entered office in 2009, the economic and political conditions facilitated subsequent assertive presidential behaviour.

Another example of a ‘power grab’ is EU policy. Constitutionally European affairs are the domain of the government, with the PM leading Lithuanian integration policy. The cabinet is thus responsible for coordinating EU matters and for preparatory work ahead of the Council and the European Council. During the presidency of Adamkus the president participated in those European Councils which featured foreign and security policy while the PM would cover other matters. Often both executives would attend the summits. Grybauskaitė in turn participates in the meetings of European Council, even though constitutional provisions about division of labor clearly suggest that the PM should represent Lithuania. Again, this power of interpretation shown by Grybauskaité and bending rules in her favour can be explained by lack of formal regulation. The constitution, secondary laws, or the rules about domestic EU coordination do not detail who should represent Lithuania in the European Council.

Our article also highlights the role of advisors. The size of the president’s office may be small, but, interestingly, the staff of each president has comprised mainly policy advisers in areas falling under the competence of the government – including social policy, economic policy, education, culture, religion etc. Such advisors can be important for the presidents, not least through forming contacts with political parties and MPs, individual ministers and ministries or civil society stakeholders.

However, we should not exaggerate the powers of the Lithuanian president. The balance of power between the Seimas, the government and the president ensures that the president can achieve very little alone – and this in fact explains the strategic behaviour of the president and her advisers. Despite the lack of rules, intra-executive coordination does exist and in most instances conflicts are avoided. This applies particularly to foreign and security policy – an issue area that is both highly salient in Lithuania and where the president and the government constitutionally share power. Also the perceived role of the president as a ‘constructive statesman’ constrains the incumbents. But while Lithuanian semi-presidentialism has functioned by and large smoothly, the personality-centred politics commonly found in Central and East European countries does create favorable conditions for presidential activism. While one might argue that institutional flexibility has served Lithuanian politics quite well, the apparent lack of constitutionally regulated coordination between the two executives can prove a profound challenge during a long-term political and economic turmoil.

References:

Raunio, Tapio and Sedelius, Thomas (2017): Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania. Government and Opposition   https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.31.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite’s Anti-Zapad campaign

Lithuanian President Grybauskaite identified the joint Russian-Belorussian military exercise Zapad-2017, which took place on the borders of the three Baltic States and Poland, as one of the most important events of 2017. In and of itself this military drill was nothing new since Russia carried out similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, and the Kremlin had announced that it plans to continue drills every four years. However, a yearlong public relations campaign launched by Grybauskaite against Zapad 2017 and alleged Russian aggression was quite unprecedented, especially if compared to Zapad 2013 and 2009 drills that produced no such presidential reactions.

Starting in February, when she met with US Defense Secretary James Mattis, Grybauskaite declared that Zapad 2017 exercises were a clear demonstration of Russia’s preparations for warfare with the West. Lithuanian President’s first accusation of the Kremlin’s “demonstrative preparation” for war on the West quickly made headlines in the American press. “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe,” proclaimed Grybauskaite to Foreign Policy.

Anti-Zapad/Russia campaign continued through the summer and peaked in September as Grybauskaite used high-level meetings to highlight Lithuania’s “aggressive neighborhood.” For instance, during May and July meetings between the heads of state of Central and Eastern European countries and President Trump, Grybauskaite informed Trump of specific threats and challenges faced by Lithuania and of country’s imperative defense needs. Regional threats from the East, especially Russia, topped Grybauskaite’s agenda following her official visits to Estonia and Ukraine. She also talked about threats posed by Russia’s drills during a U.S. Congressional delegation visit in Lithuania and while meeting with NATO and U.S. European Command generals alleging that “[Russia’s] attempts to redraw states’ borders by force.” It was probably not surprising that her 2017 State of the Nation Address identified Zapad 2017 drills as one of the top threats to Lithuania’s national security.

As the official date of military exercises (September 14-20) approached, major Western news outlets became the primary focus of Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad/Russia pronouncements. In a Wall Street Journal article Lithuanian president observed, “We see a very, very large scale offensive exercise that demonstrates hatred against the West.” Grybauskaite also expressed country’s trepidation to Reuters. “We are worried about the upcoming ‘Zapad 2017’ exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force [on our borders] that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West.” Then, in her interview with CNBC Grybauskaite suggested that there was a “very large” probability that part of Russia’s equipment, including troops, would be kept in Belarus after the military exercise. “Russia is still very, very unpredictable, and it has proved this unpredictability with its activities in occupying Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia. History teaches us that we need to see and watch and prepare for the activities of Russia,” she said.

Her scathing criticism of Russia, however, was reserved for the international audience in a speech she delivered at the UN.

“As we speak [September 19, 2017], around one hundred thousand Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ on the borders with the Baltic States, Poland and even in the Arctic. The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West. […] the Zapad exercise is just one symptom of the Kremlin’s inability to finally end its hatred towards the West.

Despite Russia’s special responsibility to protect international peace as permanent member of the Security Council, it violated the UN Charter by attacking Georgia, illegally annexing Crimea, and directly participating in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s arsenal does not stop at conventional weapons. Russia continues to meddle in elections of other states, conducts cyber-attacks and uses its ‘sputniks’ to spread fake news and destabilizing propaganda.”

Not surprisingly, the Russian delegation walked out the General Assembly hall before Lithuanian president’s speech.

Although her UN speech received a positive evaluation in the local media, several Lithuanian MPs criticized Grybauskaite over the chosen timing of her visit to the UN. One MP stated that the Lithuanian President has “[…] trumpeted to the entire world the message about possible military invasion of Lithuania, so it is utterly bizarre to learn that when the threat may be at its highest, the Lithuanian head of state, who is also constitutionally carries the duties of the commander in chief, decides to leave the country and not somewhere nearby, but heads as far as over the Atlantic.” Another MP rushed to introduce a resolution mandating all high-ranking state officials to remain in the country during the drills. In her defense, Grybauskaite claimed that “an opportunity to go the UN and to address two hundred nations from its rostrum to draw attention to the problems of our region today when the whole world thinks only about conflicts with North Korea” could not be missed. Additionally, the president’s press office claimed that Grybauskaite was “the only leader of the states directly exposed to the threats by Zapad who has a possibility to present the situation directly to the Secretary-General during the Assembly.”

Anticipating that her leaving the country at the time when Lithuania, according to her, would be facing the gravest threat, Grybauskaite suddenly expressed a marked restraint in her public pronouncements, unexpectedly announcing that she saw “no threats” associated with the drills because the country was well militarily prepared and suggested that Zapad 2017 would be beneficial for Lithuania in the future as such drills would allow to identify potential security gaps. She also urged the public to “[…] not get frightened, because this is what the goal of the Zapad exercise is: to frighten us, to break our will to defend ourselves so that we are paralyzed and can do nothing in our state.”

Arguably, Grybauskaite’s concerns about Zapad’s impact on Lithuania’s national security had some merit. First, the president and defense ministry were deeply concerned about the scope and size of the military involved in the drills. According to the official numbers provided by Russia, only 12,700 soldiers were involved, but Western defense analysts and Lithuanian military intelligence officials claimed that the numbers were closer to 100,000. Moreover, since the exercises were directly on the border with Lithuania, increased risks due to potential provocations could not be ruled out. The second concern was build on fear that a “little green men” scenario in the aftermath of similar smaller drills, resulting in the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, could plausibly unfold in the Baltic. “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been particularly concerned about Russia repeating its strategy in Crimea on our soil,” reasoned Grybauskaite.

Despite some justifiable merits to raise awareness around the world about aggressive Russian actions, Grybauskaite’s anti-Zapad campaign cannot be considered as an astounding success. Over the span of a year, her position swung from one extreme: Russia is a threat, it hates the West, and may go to war with NATO and occupy Lithuania, to another extreme: Zapad and Russia are not a threat, Lithuania is militarily ready and will not be frightened or intimidated. The message was clearly inconsistent. Furthermore, this campaign had local and international repercussions.

Domestically, presidential pronouncements of how dangerous Zapad 2017 would be for Lithuania and agitation build up by top policymakers that alleged occupation scenario was nearly imminent led to heightened public anxiety. Local media, building on public presidential pronouncements, also fanned public panic flames with headlines such as “Grybauskaite claims that Russia’s military exercises is a demonstration of its readiness to fight war with the West;” “Nearly half of the Lithuanian population perceives Russia as a threat;” “Discovery of a Zapad drill scenario: Lithuania is given a role of an aggressor with a strange name;” “Russia tops the list of greatest threats to Lithuania’s national security;” and “Save yourself, if you can: Grybauskaite departs to the US during Zapad-2017 military drill.” Even former chief of country’s internal security agency expressed a view that “manipulation of public feelings in the name of security [was] totally unacceptable.”

Local analysts eventually had to admit that worries about the extent of Zapad’s threat were clearly exaggerated by Grybauskaite, government officials, and several other MPs, who, instead of showing restraint when addressing both national and international audiences, chose to advance the “apocalypse is coming” message. Presently, no policymaker issued an apology for causing public anxiety; rather, they “credited” the Kremlin with sowing public panic.

Since the anticipated apocalyptic scenario did not materialize, the bigger concern now for the President is the potential of a negative impact anti-Zapad campaign may have on Lithuania’s credibility internationally and on Grybauskaite’s legacy. The danger is that any future “crying wolf” type campaigns voiced on an international stage by top Lithuanian officials may be ignored at best or completely brushed off as groundless at worst, depriving the next Lithuanian president of valuable future opportunities to communicate to the world about serious threats faced by the country. The anti-Zapad campaign could also tarnish Grybauskaite’s foreign policy legacy. To control potential damage, she is already suggesting a new “military Schengen” project, which would facilitate and free the movement of military equipment among the EU member states and could potentially continue enhancing European security by ensuring air defense and rapid deployment of NATO support into the region. It is unquestionably a tall order for her to succeed in fulfilling this project, given that she merely has a year and a half left in office.

New publications

Robert Elgie, Political Leadership: A Pragmatic Institutionalist Approach, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Robert Elgie, ‘The election of Emmanuel Macron and the new French party system: a return to the éternel marais?’, Modern & Contemporary France, pp. 1-15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09639489.2017.1408062.

Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius, ‘Shifting Power-Centres of Semi-Presidentialism: Exploring Executive Coordination in Lithuania’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-24, 2017 doi:10.1017/gov.2017.31.

António Costa Pinto and Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds.), Presidentes e (Semi)Presidencialismo nas Democracias Contemporâneas, Lisbon, ICS, 2017.

Rui Graça Feijó, ‘Perilous semi-presidentialism? On the democratic performance of Timor-Leste government system’, Contemporary Politics, Online first, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/Ah3Y2e6RJFCwnbA4BRze/full

Special issue on Perilous Presidentialism in Southeast Asia; Guest Editors: Mark Thompson and Marco Bünte. Contemporary Politics, Papers available Online first at: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=ccpo20.

Jung-Hsiang Tsai, ‘The Triangular Relationship between the President, Prime Minister, and Parliament in Semi-presidentialism: Analyzing Taiwan and Poland’, Soochow Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, Iss. 2, (2017): 1-71.

Nicholas Allen, ‘Great Expectations: The Job at the Top and the People who do it’, The Political Quarterly. doi:10.1111/1467-923X.12447.

Farida Jalalzai, ‘Women Heads of State and Government’, in Amy C. Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Farida Jalalzai (eds.), Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Across the Globe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Aidan Smith, Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency’, London: Routledge, 2018.

Special issue on Protest and Legitimacy: Emerging Dilemmas in Putin’s Third Term, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 3, Summer 2017.

Marcelo Camerlo and Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo (eds.), Government Formation and Minister Turnover in Presidential Cabinets: Comparative Analysis in the Americas, Routledge, 2018.

Michael Gallagher, ‘The Oireachtas: President and Parliament’, Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 6th Edition, Routledge, 2018.

João Carvalho, ‘Mainstream Party Strategies Towards Extreme Right Parties: The French 2007 and 2012 Presidential Elections’, Government and Opposition, pp. 1-22, 2017, doi:10.1017/gov.2017.25

Sidney M. Milkis and John Warren York, ‘Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Executive-Centered Partisanship’, Studies in American Political Development, 31(1), 1-23. doi:10.1017/S0898588X17000037.

Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud, ‘Regime Development and Patron–Client Relations: The 2016 Transnistrian Presidential Elections and the “Russia Factor”’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 25, Number 4, Fall 2017, pp. 503-528.

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of this blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

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References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics  on the Palgrave website.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Lithuania – A surprise victory of the Union of Peasants and Greens

This is a guest post by Dr Raimondas Ibenskas, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. raimondas-isbenskas

The second round of the Lithuanian general election on the 23rd of October resulted in a surprise victory of the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union. Having received only one seat in the previous election in 2012, this party scored 56 seats (40% of the total) in the Lithuanian parliament Seimas. Its victory notwithstanding, the party faces a challenge of forming a majority government. Neither the Social Democrats, the leading party in the outgoing centre-left government, nor the main opposition party, the conservative Homeland Union, seem to be keen on joining the coalition government with the Peasants and Greens.

outcome-of-the-lithuanian-parliamentary-election-2016_

 

Another major surprise of the election was the poor performance of the incumbent parties. The Social Democrats, despite leading in opinion polls throughout their term, came only distant third in the election after the Peasants and Greens and the Homeland Union, while the Labour Party was diminished from 29 seats in 2012 to 2 in 2016. The electoral decline of the Order and Justice party was more modest, although the party came perilously close to not reaching the 5 percent electoral threshold required for obtaining representation through the PR tier of the electoral system. The electoral losses of government parties could at least partially be attributed to multiple corruption scandals related to some of their politicians. They have also likely been hurt by the major welfare reform implemented shortly before the election. The liberalization of labour relations in the new labour code adopted as part of the reform was negatively perceived by the electorate and openly opposed by trade unions.

The Union of Peasants and Greens was the main beneficiary of this dissatisfaction. The party existed as a minor political force since the early 1990s and was a government coalition partner in 2004-2008. In the 2008 and 2012 parliamentary elections it did not cross the 5 percent electoral threshold, but some of its candidates were elected in single member districts. Despite its name, and somewhat similarly to the coalition between agrarian and green parties in Latvia, the party is socially conservative. On the economic dimension, it can be placed to the left of the centre, thus providing an attractive alternative for the supporters of centre-left government parties. Somewhat ironically, the party is led by one of the wealthiest people in Lithuania Ramūnas Karbauskis, an owner of the Agrokoncernas Group, which was worth an estimated 55 million Euros in 2016. Although elected as an MP, Karbauskis ruled out the possibility of becoming Prime Minister by arguing that his knowledge of foreign languages was insufficient for this position.

Two factors played a crucial role in propelling the Peasants and Greens to the position of the strongest party in Lithuania.  First, they managed to attract popular independent Saulius Skvernelis, a Police Commissioner General in 2011-2014 and Minister of Interior in 2014-2016. Although delegated by the Order and Justice Party, he kept his distance from this party and declared in March 2016 that he would be running in the parliamentary election with the Peasants and Greens. Although he did not formally join the party, he was its most visible leader during the election campaign, obtained the highest share of individual preference votes in the PR tier and also won a seat in a single member district in the capital city of Vilnius. While the addition of Skvernelis and several other prominent politicians or personalities provided the party with the image of newness, it may also lead to internal divisions and conflicts. A sign of the things to come was the indication from Karbauskis after the election that his party’s nominee for Prime Minister’s position may not necessarily be Skvernelis, as generally stated during the election campaign; an MEP and long-term insider of the party Bronis Ropė was put forward as an equally likely candidate.

Second, the Peasants and Greens also benefited from the mixed electoral system of Lithuania. Although they gained only 19 seats in the PR tier, thus coming only close second to the Homeland Union, 37 out of 42 of their single member district candidates won seats in the second round of the election (including 2 candidates that ran as independents in their single member districts but were on the party’s list). Being perceived as an attractive second choice for the supporters of most other parties, the Peasant and Green candidates had an advantage over the two major parties – the Homeland Union and the Social Democrats – that did well in the majoritarian tier of the electoral system in most previous elections.

In the aftermath of the election the latter two parties were indicated as potential coalition partners by the Greens and Peasants. Although a coalition with either of them would be a majority one, the Social Democrats may prefer to stay in opposition following their defeat while the Homeland Union insists that any coalition should also include their long-term partner Liberal Movement. The latter, being both economically and socially liberal, and having recently experienced a major corruption scandal involving its former leader, has been ruled out as a coalition partner by Karbauskis. Karbauskis also repeatedly excluded the possibility of the cooperation with the ideologically quite similar Order and Justice party by considering the latter as tainted by corruption allegations. A coalition with the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance would be more feasible, but it would not provide the Peasants and Greens with parliamentary majority. Finally, a single-party minority government of the Peasants and Greens is another possibility, although it was considered as unlikely by some observers.

The strategic situation in parliament therefore suggests that government formation will be an arduous process with an uncertain outcome. Additionally, the Peasants and Greens will have to deal with President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who in 2012 did not shy away from an (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent the inclusion of the Labour Party in the coalition government. Grybauskaitė, although formally independent, is also quite close to centre-right parties, especially the Homeland Union. Although after her first post-election meeting with Karbauskis and Skvernelis she declared that the responsibility for forming a majority coalition government falls on the Peasants and Greens and that she will not initiate “artificial” coalitions, she also indicated that she will actively shape the selection of ministers. The Peasants and Greens only need to look at the experience of the Labour Party, whose multiple ministerial candidates were rejected by President after the 2012 election, to know that this may prove as an important challenge to putting together a new government.

Raimondas Ibenskas is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. His research interests lie in the field of comparative politics with a specific focus on political parties and party systems. The main strand of his research examines key, yet under-studied aspects of instability of political parties, such as party splits, mergers, and electoral coalitions, in both Western and Eastern Europe.