Category Archives: Europe

Poland – President Duda pushes forward with constitutional referendum idea

Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.

President Andrzej Duda (middle) attends a sitting the Polish Senate – image via wikimedia commons

Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.

The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.

Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.

The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.

Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.

Ukraine – Ex-Presidents and their Legal Troubles

A few weeks ago, on the pages of this blog, we posted an article about Peru’s ex-presidents and their legal troubles. Today, we continue the series with a follow up on Ukraine and ex-presidents’ troubles there.

In March 2018, EU prolonged sanctions against the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates, including President’s son, two former Prime Ministers, and Yanukovych’s chief of staff. EU accused the former President and his inner circle of misappropriation of state funds and froze their assets shortly after the president fled the country in February 2014. Estimated to be tens of billions of dollars, access to funds was blocked on the territories of 8 EU countries.

Yanukovych successfully challenged the sanctions during their first year, from March 2014 to March 2015, as EU did not have enough evidence of embezzlement at the time. However, the sanctions were re-instated starting from March 2015, followed by a recent extension for another year, until March 2019. Yanukovych and his son filed appeals in 2016 and 2017 to be taken off the EU sanctions listing. Both appeals have been dismissed and sanctions were upheld. Nonetheless, the President and his son continue to maintain their innocence and deny any involvement in corruption or other wrongdoings.

In the meantime, the court hearing for Yanukovych’s treason case in Ukraine also continues. The trial started a year ago, in May 2017. The ex-president is charged with state treason. The punishment ranges from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment. The current President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, was called to testify in February 2018. However, his testimony  ended prematurely as the judge accused the lawyers of the defense of intentionally asking questions unrelated to the criminal investigation. And in the latest development, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, requested to testify in the case. However, due to fear of persecution, he agreed to appear in court only via a video conference. It is estimated that the investigation and trial will go on for several years.

Despite all the corruption problems in Ukraine, Yanukovych is the only president currently either on trial or on the run. That said, another ex-President, Leonid Kuchma, has experienced his fair share of legal troubles. In addition to being accused of corruption and vote-rigging, in 2011 he was indicted by court for his alleged involvement in the 2000 murder of a Ukrainian journalist. However, Kuchma managed to rehabilitate his image and turned into a respected diplomat in 2015, helping Ukraine negotiate during the crisis with Russia.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has been quoted saying that every Ukrainian president is worse than his predecessor. This may explain the low trust Ukrainians have in the executive office and their readiness to go to the streets to demand responsible politics. With the upcoming election next year, the Ukrainians surely hope that the current president will prove Zbigniew Brzezinski wrong.

France – President Macron’s European Window of Opportunity: Double or Quits?

On the first anniversary of his election as President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron can make a credible claim to have imposed a new style and rhythm on French politics: characterized by a vertical chain of command, a distrust of intermediaries (parties, trade unions, interests) between the President and the People; a robust form of political expression, based on an explicit rejection of left and right and organized political parties, and a routine dismissal of the ‘old world’. The enterprise has encountered a measure of domestic success, it we are to believe Macron’s poll ratings after one year in office (more popular in various surveys at this stage than Sarkozy or Hollande). The drive to reform France domestically during the first year has, in part, been a function of restoring the country’s good name on the European level, by demonstrating the capacity to undertake reforms, to withstand the street and to overcome the usual veto players (the railway strikes are particularly symbolic in this respect). The claim that ‘France is back’ requires the nation getting its own house in order. From the outset, there has been an explicit linkage between domestic and European politics. But are domestic styles and remedies transferable to the European scene? The first year of Macron’s presidency is rather inconclusive in this respect.

That Macron has made an impact is not open to doubt. In recognition of his contribution to the ideal of European Union, he was awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize in May 2018, the first French president to have been thus honored since, in 1988, former President Mitterrand and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl were joint recipients of the award. The Charlemagne Prize was awarded mainly in recognition of the 2017 campaign itself, where Macron had been the only candidate explicitly endorsing enhanced European integration. Through his election in May 2017, Macron was widely credited with stemming the rise of populism after the Brexit referendum, at a critical juncture in European history – shortly before Germany, Austria and Italy would each in their own way call into question the reality of a new European consensus. Be that as it may, Macron’s activism in favour of a new European deal contrasted very starkly with the inaction of predecessors Chirac (after the 2005 referendum defeat), Sarkozy and Hollande. Macron’s European vision was articulated in four key speeches: at the Acropolis in Athens in August 2017, at the Sorbonne University, Paris, in September 2017, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and at Aix-la-Chapelle (Germany) in May 2018.

As in domestic politics, once elected President Macron enjoyed a seemingly favourable concatenation of circumstances in Europe. Quite apart from the moral credit of being elected as the only explicitly pro-European candidate in the French presidential election, Macron’s capacity to articulate a European vision contrasted with that of France’s main neighbors and partners. The self-exile of the UK via the BREXIT process presents challenges and opportunities for France, but in the short run it removed a competitor, notably in the field of European security and defense policy. Macron’s dynamic leadership contrasted with the running out of steam of that of Chancellor Merkel, with the Federal elections of September 2017 being followed by five months of coalition bargaining before a chastened CDU-CSU alliance finally agreed to renew its coalition agreement with the SPD. In some respects, the withering of Angela Merkel, after over a decade of uncontested European leadership, presents challenges for Macron but it also allows the French President to re-claim to a certain leadership role in Europe. The traditional Mediterranean countries that looked to France for leadership, or at least alliance – Spain and Italy – were both in a state of stasis (Rajoy confronted with the Catalan crisis in Spain; Italy having to manage the inconclusive election of March 2018, marked by the rise of the League and the 5 Star movement). Both countries were ill-placed to launch European initiatives. At the same time, the hardening of relations with several of the countries of central and eastern Europe – though dangerous in some respects – provided Macron with an opportunity to deliver on one of his domestic commitments (the reform of the posted workers directive). In this confused European context, Macron diagnosed a window of opportunity for European reform in a manner consistent with French preferences.

His European vision was central to his speech at the Sorbonne (September 26th 2017), renewing with a repertory not really seen since Mitterrand in the 1980s and early 1990s. In his Sorbonne speech, the French President called for a European relaunch, characterized by: a more integrated foreign, security and defense policy; more EU-wide defense procurement; measures to tackle the democratic deficit at the EU level (reforms of the European parliament, the introduction of EU-wide constituencies for the European elections; a new democratic dialogue across Europe); procedures for differentiated integration, where groups of member-states could engage in ‘enhanced cooperation’ in specific areas; and a Europe that ‘protects’ its citizens (reforms of the posted workers’ directive) and its industries (from Chinese assault, notably). The most ambitious EU proposals related to the governance of the euro-zone. Macron argued in favour of the creation of a Euro-zone Super-minister, with a separate dedicated budget, and the transformation of the European Security Mechanism into a fully pledged European Monetary Fund, all to be supervised by a new Euro-zone parliament. These positions were a powerful restatement of French preferences: namely, to ensure political supervision of the governing mechanisms for the euro (the Super-minister), to facilitate transfers from richer countries (especially Germany) to poorer ones, in the name of economic convergence and solidarity, and to endow the EU with new fiscal resources. Macron’s European en même temps reconciled a staunch belief in the merits of European integration with a recognition that it was essential to renew the citizenship compact after a tough decade of economic reform. The substance of the new European grand bargain reflected French preferences in other fields also. His call for there to be a Europe-wide consultative process – the EU conventions, modelled on his own practice (les marcheurs) – was given a polite reception in Brussels and in most European countries.

Ultimately, the limits of the Macron enterprise lay in the need to build the necessary coalitions (first and foremost with Merkel) and to demonstrate the economic success of the French model. In a rather predictable construction, Macron looked to the Franco-German relationship to assume a central role; the terms of which tied the success of the window of opportunity to developments in Germany, France’s main political partner, though figures published recently saw France retroceding to the 4th place in terms of economic exchanges with Germany. For months, the Macron proposals were met with a constrained, polite silence from Germany. After the German elections of September 2017, the CDU-CSU-SPD coalition agreement which eventually emerged (in March 2018) was potentially more favorable to Macron’s grand bargain than the alternative failed Jamaica coalition (the CDU, CSU, FPD and the Greens).

The reception of the Macron agenda in Brussels and other EU capitals has been mixed. The CDU-SPD coalition agreement, published in March 2018, did not mention the Euro-zone minister. It soon became apparent that the temperature in the new Merkel-led coalition was lukewarm to the French proposals. It is difficult to see the Germans allowing further mutualisation of euro-debts, or agreeing to more fiscal transfers within the Euro-zone – and even completing the banking union is fraught with angst. In the context of the rise of the AFD in 2017, the Germans have other priorities: ensuring more pan-European solidarity in relation to migration and refugees in particular. Moreover, the new German coalition is divided on issues of European solidarity and a more integrated EU defense policy, matters of great concern to French President Macron. Macron’s call for there to be EU wide lists for elections to the European parliament was specifically rejected by the European parliament. His proposal for creating a euro-zone parliament, which echoed that of his predecessor Hollande, faced hostility from Berlin, as well as from the European Commission, for whom the European parliament already provides a democratic oversight of EU institutions. And his call for a separate budgetary chapter for the euro-zone economies – if understandably well received amongst the euro-zone ‘sinners’ in southern Europe – provoked eight northern EU states led by the Netherlands to publish their own rebuttal of the roadmap and to restate the importance of respecting the rules of euro membership.

Does this episode demonstrate the victory of style over substance? Such a judgement would be a harsh one. At the very least Macron has restored France’s seat at the table; there has been a credible restatement of the Franco-German relationship and its role in driving major new policy initiatives (the ‘roadmap’ agreed by Macron and Merkel in March 2018). The real issues are now being played out. The European Commission’s draft budgetary perspectives 2021-2027 – represent a direct challenge to traditional French priorities in agriculture – by advocating cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy. The proposed creation of a modest budgetary line for the euro-zone would appear to fall well short of Macron’s proposals for a very substantial budget to oversee transfers to the poorer Eurozone members as a measure of solidarity. Macron’s European credibility will be tested in the European council meeting of June 28th and 29th, the last meaningful occasion to provoke a European awakening before the 2019 European elections. Whatever the outcome this summit being billed as historic, there are obvious questions to be asked in relation to the goodness of fit between domestic and European leadership styles. There is arguably no office more capable of expressing an idealistic European vision than that of the French presidency, especially as personified by Emmanuel Macron. Rather paradoxically, however, the ‘vision thing’ might appear as counter-productive in European arenas, insofar as a holistic and non-negotiated vision has to confront the realities of EU bargaining and the continuing attraction of alternative narratives of the future of Europe.

Estonia – Reforming the presidential election: A neverending story?

Estonia has debated the way in which the presidency should be elected since its creation by the constitutional convention in 1991-1992, After several unsuccessful initiatives and cosmetic changes throughout the years, the failure to elect a president in 5 rounds of voting in 2016 finally appears to have given the reformers sufficient momentum. Nevertheless, to date neither the new system nor the way it will be introduced is clear and there is still a minor chance the process will come to naught, thus continuing the ‘neverending story’ of presidential election reform in Estonia.

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

The Estonian constitutional assembly debated the presidency at length. After many drafts for the new constitution included a powerful and popularly elected presidency, the assembly eventually chose a strongly parliamentarian draft that included an indirect presidential election by parliament and an electoral college. To appease the public and some critics of the constitution, the first presidential election was however held by semi-popular vote: The public voted on candidates in the first round and the Riigikogu (the unicameral parliament) then decided between the two frontrunners. Since 1996, Estonian presidents have been elected through an entirely indirect process. There are three rounds of voting in the Riigikogu in which an absolute two-thirds majority (68/101 deputies) is required to elect a president (n.b. the third round just includes the two frontrunners from the second round). Failing that, the election is handed to the Valimiskogu (electoral college) consisting of the 101 members of the Riigikogu and roughly 2.3 times as many representatives of local councils (sending 1-10 councillors each based on population size). The Valimiskogu then has two rounds to elect a winner with an absolute majority. Thereby, the first round automatically includes the candidates from the third round in the Riigikogu and can include newly nominated candidates; the second round once again only includes the two frontrunners.

Since the constitutional assembly, there has been sizeable support in the Estonian population to introduce popular elections. Former presidents Lennart Meri (1993-2001) and Arnold Rüütel (2001-2006) called for popular elections and proposals were floated again and again. However, they were never supported by a majority of parties and were regularly voted down or shelved given more pressing political problems. One of the most important factors in this appears to be politicians’ idea of Estonia as a parliamentary republic which would be thrown out of balance by introducing a popularly elected president. To date, the only successful change to presidential election procedures happened in 2010, yet had little substantive effect. Up until then, local council did not follow a coherent set of rules when selecting their representatives for the Valimiskogu. The amendment supported by all parties bar the Centre Party (which stood to lose the most) now stipulated that there was only to be a single round of voting on the representatives. Officially, this was to ensure that larger parties would not be able to claim a disproportionate share of electors. Nevertheless, as only the city councils of Tartu and Tallinn send more than two electors (4 and 10, respectively), this was rather an attempt to curb the Centre Party’s traditionally large influence in these councils.

The failure to elect a successor for president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) in five rounds of voting – the election had to be handed back to the Riigikogu after voting in the Valimiskogu remained inconclusive – finally gave reformers sufficient momentum, albeit only in combination with an impending territorial reform that would reduce the number of local councillors by half if the current system was kept. However, two reform attempts were necessary to start the process. An initiative to introduce direct presidential elections with a two-round run-off was proposed by the Centre Party in early 2017 but was withdrawn soon after. Only after further negotiations between government parties were new proposals worked out and are currently debated in coalition working group.

Should a reform in fact take place, then a direct presidential election appears out of the question – despite the Centre Party’s insistence, its coalition partners just cannot be persuaded to even consider the proposal. Likewise, it appears that the ratio of local electors vs Riigikogu deputies will remain the same if not increase (ratios of 2:1 to 3:1 are currently debated). This would of course mean that local municipalities would send more electors than before – likely a minimum of two (instead of one). Furthermore, there seems to be more and more support to transfer the whole election to the Valimiskogu (only one out of five elections was completed in parliament in any case). The latter proposal was already once presented by president Lennart Meri in the late 1990s, yet was torn apart by media and politicians alike. The voting procedure, too, is likely to change – a preliminary draft foresees a maximum of five rounds of voting with the worst performing candidates being consecutively eliminated and a relative majority requirement in the last round (n.b. this is similar to the Latvian system).

These proposals for change go above and beyond the simpler solutions suggested after the 2016 election debacle, e.g. merely removing the absolute majority requirement from the last round of voting in the Riigikogu. Apart from the fact that all proposals are still at a draft stage (and include some controversial changes unrelated to the election procedure, e.g. a limitation of incumbency to a single seven-year term instead of two consecutive five-year terms), there are still some hurdles facing their implementation. An absolute majority of votes is necessary to the change the constitution and it is not guaranteed that the government coalition will be able to persuade the rest of the Riigikogu (including some of its own deputies) of the reform proposals. Furthermore, the presidential election law will need to amended as well. Thus, it remains to be seen whether there will be a substantive change after all or whether this will simply be another chapter in the neverending story that is presidential election reform in Estonia.

Turkey – First Concurrent General Elections under the New Presidential System

Concurrent presidential (first round) and legislative elections are to be held, one year earlier than the original date, on 24th of June, for the first time since the adoption of presidential system in a highly debated referendum in April 2017. A majority runoff system will be used for presidential election and the D’Hondt system with a 10 percent national threshold will be used for legislative elections.

There are two major election alliances. The ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its partner the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) formed an alliance called “Cumhur/Public”. The main opposition party, the CHP (the Republican Peoples Party), formed an alliance called “Millet/the Nation” with 3 other parties (İyi Parti/the Good Party, Saadet Partisi/the Happiness Party, Demokrat Parti/ the Democratic Party). The pro-Kurdish HDP (the Peoples Democracy Party) has not participated in any of the alliances so far but remains an important player despite the fact that its leaders and many of its MPs are currently in jail.

The ruling party and its partner favoured concurrent elections and changed the electoral rules in order to avoid divided government. According to the new system, each partner in an alliance needs to pass the ten percent national threshold if the total votes are higher than the threshold. This is a great incentive for smaller opposition parties to join an alliance to pass the national threshold in the legislative election. Each party can have their own list under the umbrella of an alliance. The total number of seats that each alliance gets will be decided by looking at their total votes. After the total numbers of seats are known, they will be distributed by party according to their portion in the total votes by the D’Hondt method. According to this system, the more votes remain under the threshold the larger the share of the biggest party within the total numbers. Accordingly, the main opposition party’s (the CHP) strategy to include other three opposition parties into the alliance aims to make the ruling party’s share more proportionate.

As for the effect of concurrent elections together with the majority runoff system generally, the results of legislative elections echo the results of the first round of presidential elections in presidential systems (1). Research shows that the majority run off system encourages a larger number of candidates at the first ballot in the attempt to gain a better bargaining position in coalition building at the second round as well as increasing the number of parties in the assembly (2). In that respect, the majority runoff system encourages coalitions before the election, especially before the second round (3). On the other hand, concurrent elections lower the effective number of parties in the assembly (4). Creating friendly majorities in assemblies still depends on the party system’s level of fragmentation (5). For instance, in a country where the political party system presents signs of polarised pluralism (6) (highly fragmented and ideologically polarised political parties) concurrent elections tend not to produce a solid majority in the parliament. The higher the level of fragmentation, the lower the possibility of a single party majority in the assembly. In such situations, presidents face uncompromising opposition in assemblies which can lead to a constitutional crisis such as in Guatemala and Peru in the 1990s (7). In both countries the presidents (Serrano and Fujimori respectively) ordered the military to close the assembly and arrest the opposition leaders. In Peru Fujimori succeeded whereas in Guatemala Serrano was abandoned by the military and removed from office. Either way the result was not supportive of democracy.

Concurrent elections can help to lower the possibility of divided government and strengthen elected presidents only under the right conditions, such as high popularity of a single strong presidential candidate. The Turkish case seems to confirm this general wisdom. The ruling party’s strategy is to win the much-needed support from its smaller partner in order to win the presidential race in the first round as well as alienating and pressuring the leaders and members of the HDP in order to push the party below the threshold in legislative elections. Meanwhile all the parties in the opposition alliance are running their own candidates in the first round of the presidential race and have decided to support whoever reaches the second round. Their strategy is to push the presidential election into a second round and win a majority of the assembly.

This situation encourages certain outcomes. First, there is the likely increase in the number of parties represented in the parliament. It is highly likely that President Erdoğan’s coalition will gain fewer assembly seats than at present and might even lose its majority in the assembly.

Secondly, there may be more coalitions under then presidential system than previously because of the majority runoff system. Despite the fact that President Erdoğan defended presidential system for not needing coalitions, he has been forced to form a coalition with the MHP in the first round. Whichever alliance wins, it is clear that there will be coalitions in both the legislature and the executive.

Thirdly, the pro-Kurdish HDP seems to be treated as an “anti-system party” (8). Its ideology has been alienated and it has a polarising effect on other electors. For that reason, other opposition parties have refrained from being in a coalition with it. However, the HDP may yet the key to victory for both alliances since the polls are showing a close race.

Notes

1. J. M. Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices on the Performance of Presidential Regimes.” Journal of Social Science and Philosophy 11, no.1 (1999), p. 97, and F. Nunes and M.F. Thies, “Inflation or Moderation? Presidential Runoffs Legislative Party Systems, and Coalitions.”, p.9 . Available at http://felipenunes.bol.ucla.edu/runoff.pdf, accessed 20 March 2015.

2.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p. 95; Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”, p. 8-9.

3. Nunes and Thies, “Inflation or Moderation?”,p. 26.

4.Ibid., p. 18.

5.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices” p.101.

6.G. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems a Framework for Analysis, ECPR Press, 2005 , p. 117-118.

7.Carey, “The Impact of Constitutional Choices,” p.96.

8.Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, p. 118.

Armenia – In the wake of a colour revolution? Domestic and international context

April 2018 in Armenia was marked by massive grassroots protests, the resignation of the newly-nominated prime minister, and complex political negotiations.

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who formerly served as President for a decade, resigned on April 23, after 11 days of massive protests. While resigning, Sargsyan said: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” MP Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk Bloc, emerged as the undisputed leader of these recent protests. On May 1, the failure of the National Assembly to nominate Mr Pashinyan as provisional Prime Minister has led to a new wave of intensified protests.

While most analysts were surprised by the resignation of Sargsyan and the beginning of a new political process, elements of continuity can be observed, both at domestic and international level. First, the grassroots protests against Serzh Sargsyan’s extended term in office were sudden, but can be traced back to December 2015, when a controversial constitutional reform was approved. Second, while Russia has taken a non-interventionist stance, all actors involved are fully aware of the importance of the “big brother”.

Some protests? Business as usual! (or not?)

Armenia is a peculiar case in the post-Soviet space. While Freedom House classifies the country as a “partly-free regime”, Armenians have often taken to the streets against unpopular provisions, such as the increase in bus fares in 2013, the pension reform in 2014[1], and the increase in electricity prices in Summer 2015 (known as ‘Electric Yerevan’). Against this background, it is not surprising that people closely scrutinised the manoeuvring of their political leaders.

In December 2015, following a referendum, a constitutional reform was approved[2]. As a result, most executive prerogatives were transferred from the President to the Prime Minister. While the promoters of this reform repeatedly remarked that a parliamentary system would prompt the full democratisation of the country, the public debate focused on whether this reform was an ‘ad-hoc’ mechanism to extend the rule of (then) President Serzh Sargsyan, who was serving his second and last presidential mandate. Rather than ending after the referendum, these allegations were the subject of further discussion, notably at the parliamentary election in 2017. Throughout this time, Serzh Sargsyan assumed an ambiguous position, neither confirming nor denying his intention to stay in power. In March 2018, when Sargsyan’s transition to the premiership seemed almost certain, MP Nikol Pashinyan announced that massive protests would follow any such development. He said: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2018, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[3].”

On April 11, the ruling Republican Party (HHK) officially confirmed that Serzh Sargsyan would be nominated (and therefore elected) prime minister. While initially a limited number of people took to the streets, soon numbers added up, and thousands of people participated in the rallies, during which there were numerous clashes between the police and protesters. On April 22, after a meeting with the now prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan and some of his closest associates were taken into custody. However, Mr Pashinyan was released the following day and shortly after Prime minister Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation. As required by the law, the government resigned on the same day and first Deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, was named acting PM.

However, the rallies did not stop, as Mr Pashinyan, backed by numerous supporters, aimed to become the provisional prime minister, so to supervise the preparation of free and fair elections. It was feared the ruling party HHK would manipulate any transitional process, by using administrative resources to reconsolidate their power.

On May 1, due to the opposition of the Republican Party, Pashinyan failed to be elected provisional Prime Minister. As things stand, a new parliamentary debate has been scheduled for May 8. As per the Armenian constitution, if the National Assembly is again unable to select a premier, this impasse would automatically lead to the dissolution of the legislature and snap elections. As a reaction, Pashinyan called for ‘Nationwide Civil Disobedience’. In the words of Pashinyan: “The peaceful revolution goes on (…) We’re not going to let them steal our victory”.

Nikol Pashinyan’s background is particularly remarkable. While other status-quo challengers in the region, first and foremost former President of Georgia Saakashvili, were previously Cabinet members[4], Pashinyan used to be a political prisoner. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years for his role as an organiser in the anti-government protests of 2008. However, as a result of an amnesty, he was released the following year[5].

Big brother is (discretely) watching you

While the aforementioned dynamics are undisputedly domestic, all parties involved need to take into account the international environment, first and foremost Russia. As of 1999, Armenian foreign policy has been characterised by complementarity, which implies a diversified foreign policy within the leeway granted to it by Russia[6]. While some external observers have interpreted the protests as anti-Russian, Nikol Pashinyan, formerly known for his Russian-sceptic positions, has shown his awareness of the geopolitical constraints faced by his country.

When the protests started, some external observers said that they might be the prelude to an anti-Russian turn in Armenia. Former Georgian President Saakashvili, who framed the events as an anti-Russian uprising, unambiguously said that: “This is a very black day for Vladimir Putin. First, the West threatened him and imposed sanctions against him, hitting his oligarchs, and now they are squeezing the scope of his influence.” Similar comments were made by members of the Georgian parliamentary opposition[7]. Analogously, some Ukrainian media drew parallelisms between the current events in Armenia and the Maidan protests in 2014, which resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government[8]. For instance, journalist Ihor Solovey wrote that: “The street has won, and Russia has lost”, and therefore Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation should be understood as a “Russian foreign police failure[9].

Despite this reading of events, Russian officials clearly refrained from making an alarmist comments, as if to emphasise that the Kremlin was not planning to interfere. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists that Yerevan was: “Not going down the path of destabilisation“. Additionally, he specified that Russia hoped for: “Consensus among all the forces representing the Armenian people“. Similarly, Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, praised Armenia on Facebook for: “Not becoming divided, and maintaining respect for one another, despite definite disagreements“. Looking at the media coverage, Kremlin-friendly channels mostly ignored the events in Armenia until the resignation of Prime Minister Sargsyan and after that they commented on the festive attitude at the rallies. In some cases, it was openly said that the happenings in Yerevan were something completely different from Maidan[10].

This conciliatory attitude by Russia must not be confused with lack of interest. Russian officials and politicians made sure to keep their channels open with all the parties involved. On April 25, Putin had a conversation with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. The same week, while Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian met his Russian counterpart Lavrov, another meeting took place between some Russian diplomats and Nikol Pashinyan, who understands very well that a successful transition cannot happen without Russian support.

Previously, Nikol Pashinyan and his Yelk Bloc adopted clear Russo-sceptic positions. Notably, in Autumn 2017, they proposed a legislative initiative to the Armenian National Assembly which would have created a commission on withdrawal of Armenia from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to Pashinyan, membership in the EEU harmed the growth of Armenia, as it restricted its opportunities for international trade[11].  Additionally, he also made security-related considerations, calling the deepening military ties between Armenia and Russia “humiliating”, just at the Kremlin was also reinforcing its military-strategic cooperation with hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan[12].

Despite these unequivocal declarations, the prospect of becoming Prime Minister has made Pashinyan play down his former Russo-sceptic attitude[13]. In the immediate aftermath of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Pashinyan made it clear that the revolution was a domestic affair and that there was no geopolitical reversal on the agenda. Thus, during a press conference on April 24, Pashinyan declared that:  “We’re not going to make any sharp geopolitical movements. We’re going to do everything in the interests of Armenia“.  This point was made again, and emphasised, during a rally in Gyumry (April 27), where a Russian military base is located. On that occasion, Pashinyan bluntly said that: “We are no enemies to Russia,” and that he would not take Armenia “down the path of unwise [decisions] and adventures.”

Notes

[1] Loda, C., 2017. The European Union as a normative power: the case of Armenia. East European Politics33(2), pp.275-290.

[2] This blog has covered the constitutional reform as of 2015, analysing its detailsthe pre-vote dynamics, and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian pundit eyes reasons, future of ‘velvet revolution’”, April 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] ARMINFO News Agency. 2011. “Nikol Pashinyan released”, 28 May (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University), p. 3.

[7] However, other Georgian politicians spoke about the importance to maintain good relations with Armenia, regardless of the recent development [BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. “Some in Georgia see Armenian developments as blow to Russia”, April 24 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[8] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[9] BBC Monitoring Kiev Unit. 2018. “Ukrainian media hail victory of ‘Armenian Maidan’”, 24 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[11] “Armenian National Assembly discusses legislative initiative on withdrawal from EEU”, 3 October (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Hot debates in Armenian Parliament over creating the United Group of Armenian-Russian troops: Block Yelk considers the document humiliating and “vassal””, 4 October (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[13] Providing a full account of the Russo-Armenian relationship/dependency goes beyond the scope of this post. For more insights, refer to: Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University),

Czech Republic – The President and a protracted government formation process

Although the 2017 parliamentary elections took place some six month ago, the Czech Republic still lacks a fully fledged cabinet. The country is currently run by a partisan caretaker cabinet led by Andrej Babiš, the leader of the largest parliamentary party, ANO (“ANO” means “yes” in Czech). His cabinet, which was appointed in December 2017, failed to receive a vote of confidence in the January 2018 parliamentary vote. In line with the Constitution, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to carry out governmental functions until a new cabinet is appointed. At the same time, he gave Mr. Babiš a long time horizon (until the end of June) to form a new cabinet which would enjoy parliamentary confidence. Given the strong presidential powers in the government formation process, President Zeman (along with Andrej Babiš) became a central figure of this process.

As far as the government formation negotiations are concerned, there is a paradox. ANO is a pragmatic centre-oriented populist movement that lacks a clear ideological profile. Instead, it is characterized by bowing both to the right and to the left and flexibly changing its policies. This flexibility gives ANO a great coalition potential. Indeed, ANO has been able to negotiate with almost all parliamentary parties. That said, ANO has failed to win support for its minority cabinet or generate a majority coalition cabinet. This puzzle can be explained by the very fact that Mr. Babiš, the leader and also the de facto owner of the ANO movement (ANO is a prime example of a business-firm party), faces a number challenges, including a police investigation of his business, his past co-operation with the former Communist secret police, and allegations of instructing political journalists of the media he owns. In addition, Andrej Babiš finds himself with a considerable clash of interests, because he is the owner of the Agrofert group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the country, owing various agricultural, food processing, and chemical companies. Agrofert is also the largest beneficiary of various state subsidies. Most parties are willing to co-operate with ANO, if Mr. Babiš stays outside the future cabinet. However, ANO insists that Mr. Babiš is its only candidate for the role of prime minister, which is understandable given the fact that ANO comes close to the ideal of one-man party.

Andrej Babiš can also rely on almost unconditional support from President Miloš Zeman. This pragmatic alliance between Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš (including their political styles, policies and rhetoric) brought thousands of people onto the streets of many cities across the Czech Republic in spring 2018. The protesters showed their anger with both figures and also with the rising importance of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the legal and ideological successor of the former Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The party has recently increased its influence upon the executive, because it is likely to support Babiš’s future cabinet. The party has not been in government since the 1989 Velvet revolution and no cabinet has so far been reliant on the votes of the Communists. This stable feature of the Czech politics seems to be coming to an end. In symbolic terms, this shift can be illustrated by the fact that Miloš Zeman attended the KSČM party congress in April 2018, whereas his two predecessors in the presidential office, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, never did so.

The most probable shape of the future cabinet appears to be a minority coalition by ANO and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), supported by KSČM, which is the option that was also supported by Miloš Zeman. ČSSD is heavily influenced by Miloš Zeman, who was the social democratic PM between 1998 and 2002 and who encouraged the party to join an ANO-led coalition. The party is still badly divided on the issue of joining the coalition with ANO. However, in spring 2018 the party’s congress elected its new chairman and vice-chairmen, who are supportive of co-operation with Mr. Babiš on condition that ČSSD would get four seats in the cabinet plus the Ministry of Interior to keep an eye on “neutral” police investigation related to Babiš’ alleged fraud of a two million euro EU subsidy. ČSSD also insists that if a government member (in fact M. Babiš) is convicted of a crime by a court, he will be obliged to resign from the cabinet. Mr. Babiš eventually accepted the former condition, but he strongly rejects the latter.

Andrej Babiš has also considered a minority ANO cabinet supported not only by KSČM, but also by a radical-right wing populist movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (SPD) led by a political entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, whose party has called for a “Czexit” (i.e. Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the EU), has pushed for a Czexit referendum, and has a strong anti-immigration rhetoric, which has made its critics call the movement “fascist”.  However, the idea of the ANO-led cabinet supported by SPD and KSČM was eventually rejected by ANO’s leading figures.

When it comes to the most important events of the second Zeman’s term, one can identify a consistent pattern. He keeps polarizing the Czech society. In his inaugural speech, he harshly attacked Czech quality media, including the Czech television, which is generally considered one of the most reliable sources of information in the Czech Republic and which is modelled on the BBC. Furthermore, Miloš Zeman has kept supporting Russia and Vladimir Putin. This peaked at his speech in the Council of Europe towards the end of his first mandate in October 2017. At that time he said that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and that European countries should look for alternative solutions to the crisis, such as Ukraine getting financial compensation for Crimea from Russia, or free deliveries of crude oil or natural gas. Such a position clearly diverges from the government’s position and displeased Ukraine.

In March 2018 the Novichok nerve agent was used to try to kill former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. British representatives have accused Russia of this act. Russia denied the allegations and argued that the nerve agent could have been produced in the Czech Republic. Although Prime Minister Babiš dismissed the Russian claim, Miloš Zeman asked the Czech counter-intelligence service to look for the Novichok agent. This led to a couple of Czech parliamentary parties to accuse Zeman of high-treason and of serving the interests of Russia against the interest of the Czech Republic. In relation to the Novichok scandal, a large number of (not only) European countries, including the Czech Republic, expelled Russian diplomats, but Miloš Zeman did not support this move.

Another controversy over Zeman’s foreign policy was also related to Russia. In spring 2018 Zeman lobbied the Minister of Justice for the extradition of Yevgeniy Nikulin to Russia, who had filed for his extradition on the grounds of a petty online theft. The suspected Russian hacker was, however, extradited to the United States, where he was charged with hacking American firms such as LinkedIn and Dropbox. The media speculated that Nikulin might have some details on Russia-sponsored cyber-attacks on the USA. As a reaction, Zeman’s chancellor to the president, Vratislav Mynář, called the minister‘s decision “unlawful”.

President Zeman also supports Chinese political and economic interests in the Czech Republic. Many observers were taken aback by Zeman’s decision to make Ye Jianming,  Chairman and Executive Director of CEFC China Energy Company Limited (a giant Chinese finance conglomerate with alleged links to Chinese secrete services), his official economic advisor in 2015. Although Zeman highly appreciated Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, they remain only marginally important for the Czech economy. Moreover, Ye Jianming was detained by the Chinese authorities. Ye’s detention in China was probably ordered directly by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. In the past, several CEFC’s representatives were accused of bribery and CEFC was criticized for risky investment projects.

Although these events have clearly cast doubt on Miloš Zeman’s foreign policy, he remains highly popular as some 50% of population trust the President. As for his use of presidential powers in the last six months, Miloš Zeman has respected the dominant position of the caretaker government and has not pushed the limits of his competences. There has been almost no conflict between the president and the government. President Zeman still retains the control over the government formation process. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Babiš will be successful in creating a new cabinet. Even if he fails for the second time (i.e. the Chamber of Deputies will not pass a motion of confidence in his cabinet), the power to appoint a new prime minister passes from the president to the Speaker of the Chamber of Depuites, Radek Vondráček, an ANO member.

Romania – Constitutional Revision May Follow. LGBT Rights under scrutiny

Source: Adevarul.ro / Gay Pride at the Romanian Arch of Triumph. Number of attendees has usually been in the hundreds since the first manifestation of 2004.

In recent years, Romanian political elites and electorate have engaged in a debate over the right of sexual minorities to establish a legally recognized family. This is a tense subject in a country with traditionalist social values. The matter has involved in different ways large parts of the public, the governing coalition, the presidency and the Constitutional Court and is on its way to becoming the subject of a national referendum. It has also been used as a political tool by the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and junior coalition partners, the Alliance of Liberal Democrats (ALDE) to pursue a diminished involvement of the president in the organisation of referenda and to substantiate their place as conservatives on the social dimension of ideological positioning. In the present text, I explain the context in which the prospect of ‘same-sex’ marriage has gathered more attention than ever before, some effects it has had on party life and its potential side-effect in diminishing some powers of the president.

3 million citizens and a gay couple

Two contrasting events have challenged Romanians’ social values in the last decade. A gay couple comprised of American and Romanian citizens married in Belgium and requested the recognition of their marital status in Romania together with all the ensuing legal rights. This would include residence rights for the American citizen. The couple started their quest for recognition in 2013 and has still not received a decision from the Romanian authorities. The matter has currently been submitted by the Romanian Constitutional Court to the European Court for Human Rights. An opinion is expected on how to deal with a marriage that is not accepted according to organic law in Romania without breaching the right for free movement on EU territory and the right to family life and privacy of all citizens according to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

During this debate, it has become apparent that the constitutional provision defining a family as being ‘founded on the mutually agreed marriage between husbands’ (Romanian Constitution, Art. 48) is a source for conflicting interpretations on who the husbands could be. Consequently, an NGO named ‘The Coalition for the Family’ gathered 3 million signatures to initiate a referendum to change the understanding of family into ‘mutually agreed marriage between a woman and a man’. In their quest, they had the support of the state wide network of Orthodox churches. This latter initiative was endorsed by 2/3 of the members of the Chamber of Deputies and the governing coalition who announced that a referendum on this issue will be organised in the spring of 2018. Considering the large scope of disapproval for LGBT rights in Romania, chances are that the popular vote will lead to a change of the Constitution. The movement to change the Constitution has now become synonymous with ‘anti- LGBT rights’.

No country for gay (wo)men

From right to left, political elites have been united in their defence of what is now being called ‘the traditional family’, blurring already confused ideological identities even further. PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea, declared from the initial stages of this debate that his party would back the proposal to change the Constitution. In early April, he also announced that PSD will organise a large march of support for this proposal. Junior coalition partner ALDE is also in support of this change, similar to center – right legislative partners, the Democratic Union of Hungarians In Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) declared itself in favour of a restrictive definition of the family. The quest of the ‘Coalition for the Family’ was also endorsed by the parliamentary Popular Movement Party (PMP) as the preferred Christian-Orthodox path to society building.

The smaller opposition party, centre – left newcomers Save Romania Union (USR), went through its own internal struggle on what side to choose. Following a decision not to support the change of constitution – an exclusive choice among parliamentary parties – the USR founding chairman resigned in protest. The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, had a reserved position on the matter. He declared himself in favour of supporting the rights of all minorities, making more acceptable references to religious and ethnic minorities, thus allowing ambiguous interpretations.

In short, all parliamentary parties, except (most of the) USR, support the elimination of a possible interpretation of the Constitution that marriage between same – sex partners is acceptable. The referendum is a safe bet for the governing coalition and a platform for self-promotion. In the short and medium run, the ‘same-sex marriage’ debate serves to further dilute the identification of an opposition to the current government’s policies. A more progressive stance on this matter has not been actively picked up by any party.(1) No politician seems willing to risk the estrangement of a largely conservative electorate.

Organising referenda, the fast – forward way

To organise the referendum to change the Constitution, decision – makers have to overcome another legalistic hurdle. The current legislative majority passed an amendment to the ‘Referendum Law’ that would allow it to arrange such proceedings without any potential contestation and delays from the presidency.  The Constitution (Art. 150) states that the power to call for referenda lies with the president at the government’s proposal, 1/4 of MPs or 500 000 citizens. However, the current ‘Referendum Law’ calls for an individual new law for every such instance, providing the date and scope of a plebiscite. As do all laws, this would reach the president for promulgation. S/he could then contest it once or send it for revision with the Constitutional Court, thus delaying the process. The amended law would no longer demand a new piece of legislation for the organisation of a referendum, thus circumventing the intervention of the president and expediting the process. The possibility to so change the ‘Referendum Law’ is now being analysed by the Constitutional Court.

Conclusion

PSD chairman Dragnea announced that the ‘referendum on the definition of family’ would be carried under the amended ‘Referendum Law’. Eliminating the president from the organisation of a referendum can be read as a depletion of his institutional leverages of power.  Apart from its immediate effect on delivering a faster resolution to the demands of traditionalists, this change to the law would bring PSD another point in its battle with the president.

All in all, the foci of conservatism will receive long term satisfaction. With this pragmatic move, PSD has underwired its collaboration with the Orthodox Church, while keeping opposition parties in silent approval and the president disarmed.


  1. The small non- parliamentary Green Party is the sole to endorse rights for the LGBT community.

Selena Grimaldi – Italy: Will President Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp?

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi of the University of Padova.

There is no doubt that President Sergio Mattarella was chosen in order to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano’s presidency. The first years of his term confirm this idea, in particular his sober leadership style and his self-restraint are in line with the typical President of a parliamentary system who tries to embody the unity of the nation rather than performing an active role in the day to day politics.

The differences with his predecessor are not simply related to their opposite political culture but also to their different visions of the presidential role. In fact, Mattarella has claimed to be the Guardian of the Constitution and an impartial arbiter of the political game, whereas Napolitano asserted his right to intervene to solve problems over party gridlock and meltdown.

This striking difference is recognizable even considering how Napolitano dominated international relations and how deeply he exploited the mass media to communicate his thoughts and vision in comparison to Mattarella. In a very rough attempt to empirically prove this, the number of interviews given by Mattarella and published in the Quirinale webiste from 2015 to 2018 was counted, and it appears to number only seven.

The polls also show that this self-restraint has probably negatively affected the trust people have in the presidential institution. Currently, the President remains broadly trusted by citizens, even though the percentage trusting him decreased from 49% in 2016 to 46% in 2017 according to Demos & Pi. In other words, a President who has been generally silent on most issues seems not to correspond to the citizens’ preferences and probably to the peculiar Italian political circumstances that emerged just before the beginning of Mattarella’s term. That is to say, the critical elections of 2013 that completely changed the dynamics of political competition.

The result of the elections of March 4 confirms that the tripolar competition that first emerged in 2013 is not a contingent but a stable feature of the Italian political system. The only relevant novelty is related to the changing power relations among parties. In particular, in 2013 three parties gained a similar quota of votes; the Democratic Party (PD) (25.4), Forza Italia (21.6) and the Five Star Movement (M5S) (25.6), and both the centre-left coalition and the centre-right coalition could not form a government alone, which pushed them to form a Grand Coalition. In 2018, among these parties, only the Five Star Movement has increased its score, becoming the first party with 32.6% of the votes. The PD is the loser, obtaining a result under 20% of the vote and in the centre-right coalition there has been a reversal of the balance of power, since the League (now without any reference to the North) gained 17.4% of the votes, whereas Forza Italia obtained 13.9% of the vote. Therefore, the final result makes it impossible for both M5S to govern alone, as well as for the centre-right coalition, which gained 37% overall.

In this party gridlock, President Mattarella is expected to act as “the second engine” of the system by finding a solution to government formation and preventing the possibility of new elections. This government formation process is a unique opportunity to understand if Mattarella’s style is simply connected with his personal attitude or if it is indeed a sign of a weak presidency. In other words, if there is a clear departure from the pattern of the Italian Presidents of the so-called Second Republic, who are examples of strong presidents even within a parliamentary context, or if there is a substantial continuity.

In particular, a call for new elections – even if it is unrealistic – would be the most negative result for the President because it would demonstrate his inability to find a political solution, not to mention the fact that with the current electoral rules, a replication of the same political impasse is the most likely outcome. The formation of a political government, namely a coalition government of any type, may prove to the opposition parties that the President is responsible. Or in other words, his capacity as mediator among parties, who themselves remain the real decision-makers. Finally, the formation of a caretaker/technocratic government or a government of the President may prove that Mattarella can impose his will on political parties, making his strength clear.

Six on weeks from the vote, two rounds of consultations have taken place. According to data published by Istituto Cattaneo, since 1994 only 2 governments have required more than 20 days to be formed: Berlusconi I in 1994 and Letta’s government in 2013. Moreover, on only four occasions have 2 rounds of consultations been needed to find an agreement (Dini, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, and Letta) and Letta’s was the only post-electoral government. Besides, it is well known that in pParliamentary systems government formation can require a lot of time, such as in the Netherlands or in Belgium, not to mention the formation of the recent Grosse Koalition in Germany or even certain Italian governments during the so-called First Republic (Cossiga I, Andreotti II, Craxi etc.). However, this is the first time that, even after a second round of consultations, nothing has really changed from the day after the elections.

Briefly, the situation appears to be the following: The Five Star Movement claims the premiership for Luigi Di Maio and has declared that it is open to forming a coalition with either with the PD or The League. Matteo Salvini also claims the premiership, since he represents the largest party in the largest coalition. However, within the right-wing coalition the League and Forza Italia have different preferences with regards the identification of potential allies. The League wants to form a coalition with the M5S, while Forza Italia probably prefers a coalition with the PD, since Silvio Berlusconi’s comment during the traditional press-conference at the Quirinale about the M5S as an anti-democratic and populist force. The challenge is that The League doesn’t seem ready to let go of its traditional allies to form a government with the M5S alone. However, Salvini has proven that he can cooperate with the M5S in the parliamentary arena, especially during the election of the Speakers of the Chambers. Finally, from the very beginning, the PD has declared that it is unavailable as a coalition partner and will remain in the ranks of the opposition. The truth is that, even within the PD, the situation is not so clear. The faction close to the former leader Matteo Renzi strongly supports this position, but other political factions, as well as the radical left, seem to be more open toward the M5S.

As a consequence, Mattarella decided to follow a traditional path confirming his attitude of caution. In other words, he decided to avoid the concrete possibility of a failure by giving a political pre-appointment to a candidate within the League or within the M5S, who would have to find a majority in Parliament by his/her own. Instead, the President has preferred – consistent with tradition – to give an explorative mandate (mandato esplorativo) to the President of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati (FI). In the next few days, the appointee is going to report to the President if she is able to find a possible majority in Parliament and a possible PM. If this attempt does not succeed, only two alternatives remain: a government of the President or new elections.

The situation is even more complex for Mattarella given he was elected without the support of the two largest parties: the Five Star Movement and The League. And even Silvio Berlusconi’s party cast a blank ballot during the presidential elections. This means that, this time, it may be more difficult for these actors to accept a government of the President.

The open question is: will Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp? Or, can he prove to be a strong President notwithstanding his proverbial discretion?

Alenka Krašovec – Is recent history about to repeat itself in Slovenia? Early elections and new parties

This is a guest post by Professor Alenka Krašovec, Chair of Policy Analysis and Public Administration at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

On the evening of 14 March 2018, PM Miro Cerar announced at a press conference that he would submit his resignation to parliament. He did so just a month before the normal termination of his government’s term and after President Borut Pahor had already consulted with representatives of parliamentary party groups about the date of regular parliamentary elections. Pursuant to Slovenia’s Constitution, the PM’s resignation meant the fall of the government. Consequently, an early election is being held.

In 2011 an early election was also held. This election was won by the List of Zoran Janković – Positive Slovenia. In 2014, another early election was held due to the resignation of PM Alenka Bratušek. This election was won by the Party of Miro Cerar. So, this is now the third early election in a row.

In 2014, PM Alenka Bratušek resigned after her defeat in an internal battle over the party leadership with the party’s founding father Zoran Janković, who wanted to take back the leadership of Positive Slovenia. In 2018, however, PM Cerar resigned for different reasons.

In the press conference on 14 March, PM Cerar explained that what pushed him over the edge was the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the 2017 September referendum on the Law on the Construction and Management of the Second Rail Track of the Divača to Koper Railway Line. This is a big infrastructure project (worth EUR 1 billion) to build a 27 km line designed to speed up freight traffic between the city of Divača and Slovenia’s state-owned Adriatic seaport at Luka Koper. The law was opposed by the civic initiative, Taxpayers Don’t Give Up, led by Vili Kovačič and was supported by the main opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party. Most controversial was the proposed path for the second track as well as its management as proposed by the government.

At the referendum, which was held in September 2017, the law was supported. However, the referendum’s initiator challenged the result before the Supreme Court, arguing it was unfair of the government to use public funds to advocate a particular position (in favour of the law) and that instead it should have presented arguments for and against. The Constitutional Court declared that parts of the Law on Referendum and Popular Initiative as well as the Law on Election and Referendum Campaign were unconstitutional because they allow the government to participate in the campaign using public funds. The Court held a public hearing at which PM Cerar also participated and several hours later it decided to cancel the referendum result and order a new referendum to be held on the same question.

This is the specific context in which PM Cerar resigned. However, the PM and his government were also facing a wave of strikes and protests by public sector workers demanding not only an end to the austerity measures introduced to cure the financial and economic crisis, but a salary increase amid the good economic results. In the press conference, PM Cerar also criticised his coalition partners, claiming that in several cases they had erected obstacles to urgent reforms, in particular the reform of the healthcare system.

Due to the PM’s resignation, President Pahor has become more heavily involved in the political process than usual. In Slovenia, the President does not hold a discretionary right to dissolve parliament, but he is obliged to do so in certain constitutionally-defined instances. One such instance is if the PM resigns. When the PM resigns, the President has the right to propose a candidate for PM. In the second or third round of voting in parliament, a parliamentary party or group of MPs can do the same. However, if no candidate is proposed, the President must dissolve the parliament and set a date for new elections. In 2018, President Pahor immediately announced that he would not propose a candidate for PM. The parties did not propose a candidate either. So, the President called elections for 3 June.

Apart from being the third early election in a row, the 2018 election may see the confirmation of another trend in recent Slovenian politics – the rise of new parties. For more than a decade after the democratic transition, Slovenia was one of the few post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries with a relatively stable party system. This was despite not having very demanding requirements for the establishment of a new party and an electoral system that favoured new parties. Even though new parties were common, none ever received more than 10% of the vote.

In 2011, however, a party that had emerged just before the elections, the List of Zoran Janković – Positive Slovenia, actually won the election with 28.5% of the vote. The story was repeated in 2014, when the Party of Miro Cerar, which again was formed only just prior to the election, won with 34.5% of the vote. What is more, in 2014 Positive Slovenia was unable to pass the electoral threshold.

A new party may again do well in the 2018 election. In the presidential election in autumn 2017, Marjan Šarec – the mayor of a small town close to Ljubljana – seriously challenged the incumbent president, Borut Pahor. Now, Šarec with the support of his local party (Lista Marjana Šarca) may also make a mark at the upcoming parliamentary election. According to the opinion polls, his appeal for a ‘new politics’ has assured him and his party a leading position. In June, we will see whether or not recent history repeats itself in this aspect too.