Category Archives: Europe

Portugal – On the presidential use of veto powers

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has just entered the second half of his five-year term in office, providing us with the opportunity to review the way in which he has used his powers to define a specific role for the presidency. In this piece, my attention will be centred on the use of veto powers.

Veto powers are generally associated with the “pouvoir d’empêcher”, that is, the power to limit the action of the government or of its parliamentary support basis. As such, it is often assumed that its use reflects an opposition between the president and the government or the parliamentary majority. However, the political use of veto powers is somewhat more complex than this simple assertion[1]. In order to grasp the full extent of this power and its political implications, one ought to begin by reviewing the pertinent constitutional provisions.

The Portuguese Constitution of 1976, revised in the definition of presidential competences in 1982, determines in section 136 that presidents have the power to promulgate or veto legislation emanating from the government (decree-laws) or parliament (laws). In the case of decree-laws, the presidential veto is final, although the government may decide to reintroduce the same issue by means of a law voted in parliament. By contrast, vetoes applied to parliamentary laws can be superseded if some requirements are met: as a general rule, parliament must approve the vetoed bill by an absolute majority of MPs; in the case of “organic laws” (i.e., designed to lay the foundations for strategic decisions, such as the organic law of the National Health Service), external relations, limits to economic sectors (private, public, co-operative), or electoral matters, then a 2/3rds majority is required. Sections 278 and 279 deal with the possibility of presidents requesting the Constitutional Court for a decision on the constitutional conformity of any piece of legislation. If deemed unconstitutional (even if only in a specific section), then the president must veto such bill on these grounds. In this instance, the law is returned to parliament and it is either rectified by simple majority or ratified by a majority of 2/3rds of MPs (the president being obliged to sign it if ratified).

This constitutional framework should now be read in political terms. For instance: it is clear that minority governments tend to use decree-laws in order to circumvent the need for an absolute majority in the House, and seldom use the facility of transforming the legislative rule into a parliamentary law. By contrast, calling for the intervention of the Constitutional Court gives presidents an opportunity to request a 2/3rds majority which is not necessarily easy to obtain, and thus represent a very strong power of opposition. Finally, the constitutional framework does not prevent presidents from informally returning legislative acts without a formal veto assuming the prime minister will introduce some changes deemed necessary to obtain presidential agreement. All these instances suggest that the use of veto powers has a strong political nature, and that choices are present when a disagreement emerges between the president and the authors of the legislative act. Presidents may opt for stronger or softer ways to deal with such disagreements

In a recent and thorough study of the relations between Portuguese presidents and governments, Vasco Franco proposed a classification of the different circumstances in which veto power is exercised [2]. Franco proposes two ways to look at presidential vetoes. First, he suggests that vetoes may fall in three categories:

a) “constitutional” or “juridical” (when they are supported by a declaration of the Constitutional Court);

b) “political”, when it is (i) freely exercised by the president; (ii) not on grounds of constitutional non-conformity; (iii) based on an appreciation of the contents and/or the opportunity of the legislative initiative; and (iv) accompanied by a written message to the parliament or the government; and

c) “transitional” which takes place when a president actually vetoes legislation that is pending at the time of the election of a new parliament, or the appointment of a new government – in which case there is no judgement as to the merits but only to the opportunity of the acts. Although this could be considered as a form of “political veto”, it ought to be distinguished because presidents who use them – and there are plenty of examples[3]– do not necessarily pass a negative judgement on the essence of the legislative act, but rather a willingness not to limit the options of the newcomers.

In addition, Franco considers the meaning or sense of the veto, having as a reference the interests of the government. Presidential vetoes on acts emanating from parliament can thus be considered as

(i) “cooperative” in cases where a different majority was formed to approve the bill in opposition to the parliamentary basis of the government – a circumstance that may occur when the country has a minority government;

(ii) “neutral” when the veto “is irrelevant vis-à-vis the interest of the government”; and

(iii) “conflictual, when the president uses his power to oppose directly the interests of the government.

This sort of classification is important, as it defies the simple reading of veto powers as a manifestation of opposition between the president and the government. In political terms, the constitutional competence can have different readings

Turning now to President Marcelo’s two and a half years in office, the most significant aspect of his use of the veto power is that so far he has never asked the Constitutional Court for advice (both in advance of vetoing a law, or subsequently, as was often the case before him). Two reasons may explain this behaviour. Firstly, Marcelo is a professor of constitutional law, and therefore he feels very comfortable with his own reading of the problems involved in the appreciation of each bill. Self-confidence is thus a critical element to be born in mind. Secondly, the current government and parliamentary majority seem to have been careful in avoiding the course of action pursued by its predecessors, which turned the Constitutional Court into a central political player in the years 2011-2015.

Be that as it may, President Marcelo vetoed 10 bills in the last 30 months. In all instances, he issued  a “political veto”. By doing this, he offered the current government and political majority ample room to introduce changes that allowed them to overcome the presidential veto without the need of a 2/3rds majority. Nine of those ten bills have subsequently been approved after the introductions of changes suggested by the president without the need to negotiate with the opposition. This is a highly significant political stance which highlights the willingness of Marcelo to distance himself from the government on issues where he disagrees with the current majority and is closer to the values of the centre-right politics of the original political family that he respects (such as the bill on surrogate mothers or the framework for political parties’ financing) without attacking the government by trying to use “constitutional” vetoes. At the same time, he captures a centrality in the political process that had moved away from the presidency to the Constitutional Court in the years before his term.

Apart from the ten formal vetoes, by August 2018, Marcelo had returned 18 bills to the prime minister – but none to parliament. Those bills seem to have remained in a kind of limbo, as the government does not seem to have found ways to sidestep the objections of the president. Again, this form of behaviour is destined to lower potential tension between president and prime minister, and is in line with the fact that Marcelo has so far refrained from using the mechanism of a “constitutional” veto.

Many voices on the right of the political spectrum, including several in the party to which Marcelo still belongs and of which he was leader from 1996-1999, complain bitterly that he does not join in the condemnation of the left-wing government’s strategic options. However, Marcelo’s stance is the one that better suits the political culture that grants presidents with a “moderating power” and does not view them as party-based elements in the parliamentary game – a stance that was forged during Mário Soares and Jorge Sampaio terms with public applause. The very high rates of popularity of Marcelo indicate that this stance has been equally well received by the Portuguese, the consequence of which is the enlarged room for presidential intervention. Veto powers used with discretion may not be, after all, a symbol of political clashes but rather a means to implement some sort of co-governance.

Notes

[1]For a subtle discussion of veto powers as a symbol of political opposition, see Paulo José Canelas Rapaz, “O ‘veto politico’ do Presidente da República Portuguesa (1986-2013): uso e variáveis políticas”, in António Costa Pinto & Paulo José Canelas Rapaz (eds), Presidentes e (Semi)presidencialismo nas Democracias Modernas. Lisboa, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais,2017: 193-216

[2]Vasco Seixas Duarte Franco, Semipresidencialismo em Portugal: poderes presidenciais e interacção com o governo (1982-2016). PhD dissertation in Political Science, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2018

[3]President Ramalho Eanes used this form of veto on 32 cases that were pending in 1985 when prime minister Mário Soares was replaced by Cavaco Silva; President Sampaio used this in 18 instances in 2002 when prime minister Guterres was replaced by Durão Barroso; and again 33 times when prime minister Santana Lopes was replaced by Socrates

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.

Moldova – Cohabitation as an inter-executive struggle with dashes of judicialization

By the end of September, the President of the Republic of Moldova was again the center of a political standoff that has been the bane of the country for quite some time. For the fourth time since October 2017, the constitutional court suspended the President (Igor Dodon from the PSRM, Party of Socialist of the Republic of Moldova) temporarily. Three of these four times were due to the refusal by the President to appoint ministers elected by parliament. This newly found instrument of temporarily getting rid of the president as a veto player has profound institutional and legal ramifications and questions the power of this directly-elected president. To address these issues, this post presents the constitutional court’s involvement as a case of “judicialization” (see e.g., Hirschl 2008) of core political questions. This form of judicialization is not necessarily comparable to judicialization under democracy, as it only emphasizes the involvement of the court in “key political issues” (Mazmanyan 2015, 200) and not a transfer of power from parliament to the court. The refusal of the President to appoint a cabinet member is, at its core, a decision of checks and balances and should not be influenced by the judiciary. In the following, I will describe the constitutional background and process of suspending the president with its most recent recurrence in September 2018 as well as the short and long-term implications arising from this power struggle.

The 1994 Moldovan constitution established a semi-presidential system, more specifically a premier-presidential system. The presidency enjoys an array of de jure power tools and also ceremonial responsibilities. Among the important instruments to discipline the fragmented parliamentary parties is the president’s right to dissolve parliament after two failed investiture attempts. Furthermore, and this is of importance here, the president appoints the cabinet after a parliamentary vote of confidence and also after a cabinet reshuffle upon the proposal of the prime minister (Art. 98) (see Fruhstorfer 2016). This provision is particularly important, as it was initially introduced as part of the 2000 constitutional amendment that formed a parliamentary system. Parts of this amendment (in particular the election of the president) were declared unconstitutional in 2016. The original 1994 constitution allowed the president much less involvement in the process by only being able to accept the oath of newly elected cabinet members. Thus, the 2000 amendment clarified and increased the power of the president, a provision that was not changed in the process of declaring parts of the 2000 amendment unconstitutional. There was no specific constitutional provision that stipulated how many times the president can refuse the appointment. Yet the January 2018 ruling of the Constitutional Court de facto amended the constitution. In their ruling on the second temporary suspension, the court specified that the president can only decline a proposal for a cabinet appointment once and must appoint a possible second candidate. Failing to do so is a violation of presidential duties (Constitutional Court 2018). Failing to fulfill these duties is then the justification for a temporary suspension. And indeed, the constitution envisions this occurrence, but the procedure of including the constitutional court is highly unusual, as it is the sole prerogative of parliament (Art. 89).

The way temporal suspension was and is used in Moldova comes close to the observation Mazmanyan (2015, 208) offers for the post-soviet area in general: “The record of judicial involvement in post-Soviet politics shows that higher courts get meaningfully activated only in situations witnessing a true political competition and uncertainty about the winner in the competition.” This form of judicialization is however a new trend in Moldova, the constitutional court was until recently the example of a non-politicized court among the countries in the post-soviet region. With the now fourth decision of temporally suspending the president – in case he does not follow suit – the court embraces a trend of incidental decision making (Mazmanyan 2015, 208) in competitive political situations. This intervention exposes the court to the danger of being exploited and manipulated by political forces and facing the challenging time when “judicial involvement in politics is more often than not a byproduct of political pressure or manipulation of constitutional law and of the constitutional judiciary” (Mazmanyan 2015, 200). It is unclear whether the often claimed “direct political instruction” of political forces (read Vlad Plahotniuc, chairman of the PDM, Democratic Party of Moldova) applies in Moldova. In any case, the decisions made by the constitutional court since March 2016 indicate a problematic politicization of the judiciary that decides on political issues and uses its rulings to overcome political competition. This was seriously criticized in the most recent report of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI 2018).

What seems like an “inter-institutional deadlock” (Popșoi 2017) in a period of cohabitation was long rumored to be only a sham to disguise how Vlad Plahotniuc and President Igor Dodon have consolidated their power with the help of each other. Yet, the political standoff between the government and the constitutional court on one side and the president – at least superficially – on the other side, seems to be a mundane power struggle. Yet, mundane does not make it any less dangerous. The court’s involvement in this power struggle and the following judicialization of key issues of the competition inherent to a premier-presidential system are seriously damaging the political institutions and does not bode well for the future democratic development.

Literature

BTI (2018): Country Report Moldova, in: https://www.bti-project.org/fileadmin/files/BTI/Downloads/Reports/2018/pdf/BTI_2018_Moldova.pdf [last accessed October 8, 2018]

Constitutional Court (2018): Press Release. The President of Moldova may only once decline PM’s proposal of Cabinet reshuffle, in: http://constcourt.md/libview.php?l=en&idc=7&id=938&t=/Media/Noutati/The-President-of-Moldova-may-only-once-decline-PMs-proposal-of-Cabinet-reshuffle/ [last accessed October 8, 2018]

Fruhstorfer, Anna. (2016). Moldova. In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe (pp. 359-387). Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

Hirschl, Ran. (2008). The judicialization of mega-politics and the rise of political courts. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci., 11, 93-118.

Mazmanyan, Armen. (2015). Judicialization of politics: The post-Soviet way. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 13(1), 200-218.

Popșoi, Mihai. (2017). Moldovan President Igor Dodon Suspended by the Constitutional Court. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/10/25/moldovan-president-igor-dodon-suspended-by-the-constitutional-court/ [last accessed January 15, 2018]

Making Russia Great Again? Three New Books on Putinism

Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Domestic Security Wars: Putin’s Use of Divide and Rule against his Hardline Allies (Palgrave Pivot, 2018).

Brian D. Taylor, The Code of Putinism (Oxford University Press, 2018).

In recent months, three Western political scientists have published books on the Russian presidency that challenge the conventions of their discipline. Instead of focusing on the institutional, economic, and ideational structures that drive most contemporary political analysis, they place the agents of history at the center of their works, specifically Vladimir Putin and his close associates. That scholars of Russian politics should be focusing their attention on questions of leadership should come as no surprise. As Brian Taylor suggests—with more than a little understatement—in The Code of Putinism, “in the Russian political system, given the prominence of the leader and the weakness of institutional constraints, there is more space for the mentality of the ruling group to play a significant role and drive outcomes” (p. 199).

Attempts to capture the mentality of the Russian leadership can be traced to Nathan Leites’ much-discussed, and in certain circles much-derided, Rand Corporation study of 1951, The Operational Code of the Politburo. Where Leites sought to set out what he called the sources of the “general rules” of conduct of Soviet leaders, Peter Reddaway’s new book, Russia’s Domestic Security Wars, uses case studies of intra-elite conflict to illustrate the implicit “understandings”, or poniatiia, that shape the worldview and behavior of the informal clans competing for Putin’s favor at the apex of the Russian political system. Reddaway’s short and tightly-focused work brings to life the bureaucratic wars between factions in the uniformed services (the siloviki) in Putin’s second presidential term, from 2004 to 2008. In this period and beyond, in Reddaway’s view, Putin acted alternately as observer, referee, and manipulator of the internecine warfare, where the weapons included violence, selective prosecution, corporate raids, and the leaking of compromising materials (kompromat) about adversaries. According to Reddaway, Putin’s “leadership” here was a means of guaranteeing his own personal security as well as “manually steering” the political system writ large.

Brian Taylor’s The Code of Putinism represents a more ambitious and systematic attempt to deduce the patterns of thought and behavior characterizing the Russian leadership under Putin. Taylor’s methodology is distinctly Weberian. While most social science analysis of Russia is grounded in what Weber called instrumental rationality, Taylor highlights the other three influences on human behavior discussed by Weber: “value rationality” (values or ideas), “affect” (emotion), and “tradition” (habit). Eschewing explanations that emphasize “pure, rational pragmatism or the inevitable pull of Russian culture and traditions,” Taylor finds the sources of leadership conduct in Putin’s (and his associates’) belief in great power statism, anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism, and conservatism/anti-liberalism (their ideas); a penchant for control, order, unity/antipluralism, loyalty, and hypermasculinity (their habits); and feelings of respect/disrespect and humiliation, resentment and desire for revenge, and vulnerability/fear (their emotions).

As Taylor recognizes, Putinism as a bundle of interwoven ideas, habits, and emotions was not fully developed in 2000, when Putin assumed the Russian presidency, or even in 2003-4, by which time authoritarianism had been more or less consolidated in Russia. It has instead crystallized over time. Where the habits underpinning Putinism may have changed little, if at all, during Putin’s almost two decades of rule, certain ideas and emotions have become especially prominent and influential since 2011, most notably anti-liberalism, anti-Westernism, and resentment.

If Putinism itself is a dynamic concept in Taylor’s assessment, the country’s organizational landscape is more static, resting as it does on two fundamental pillars: formal state institutions, which Taylor calls collectively hyperpresidentialism, and the informal political networks that penetrate them. Having produced an earlier, path-breaking work on the power ministries and their role in Russian politics, Taylor understands that the conflict among high-ranking political clans is shaped not just by informal poniatiia but by the rules of the state. He pushes back, therefore, against those who would view Russia as a mere kleptocracy or mafia state. While Putin may be operating behind the scenes in the inter-clan battles as the capo di tutte capi, as the occupant of the presidency he must project the majesty of a head of state while publicly navigating a minefield of formal rules and policy challenges that limit his freedom of maneuver. As Taylor argues, no small part of his success in the public realm is due to his ability to substitute performance legitimacy for procedural legitimacy. Putin’s growing mastery of politics in two distinct but intersecting realms has allowed him to occupy a position of visibility and political dominance not seen in Russia for decades.

Michael McFaul’s best-selling autobiography, From Cold War to Hot Peace, does not set out to offer a fully-formed portrait of Putin as leader, but in chronicling his own three decades of democracy-promotion, academic research, and government service in the Russian field, McFaul offers a wealth of evidence about the ideas, habits, and emotions that Brian Taylor finds embedded in the code of Putinism. On first meeting Putin in 1991, when he was Leningrad’s deputy mayor, McFaul found the former KGB officer unremarkable—“careful, unenthusiastic, diminutive—an apparatchik” (p. 17). Lacking the traditional skills of a democratic politician, Putin reached power, in McFaul’s reading, because he was “simply in the right place at the right time” (p. 58), meaning that he was viewed by Yeltsin as the aging president’s best hope of protecting the interests of the Yeltsin family, broadly defined.

In a passage in From Cold War to Hot Peace that speaks directly to the Putinist habit of order as well as the emotion associated with vulnerability and fear, McFaul notes that Putin expressed allegiance to Bashir al-Assad during the Arab Spring “not because he had any deep personal affection for the Syrian leader, but because his removal…would precipitate chaos” (224). From Cold War to Hot Peace also reveals Putin’s emotional response to perceived insults. At Obama’s first summit with Putin in 2009, which McFaul attended as the Russia specialist in the National Security Council, the Russian president not only held forth about “several instances of disrespect from the Bush administration,” but “[f]or each vignette of disrespect or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting.” In McFaul’s words, “[t]his was a guy with a chip on his shoulder” (p. 131). Having been subjected to constant abuse and intimidation by the Russian authorities while he was US ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, McFaul believed that his own career was testimony to the fact that “Putin carries grudges” (p. 72). In McFaul’s view, one of the sources of that resentment was an article that he wrote years earlier with a colleague in Foreign Affairs, an article arguing that rising oil and gas prices, and not Putin’s leadership, explained Russian economic growth.

As an inveterate democracy-promoter, what irks McFaul most about Putin as president are his ideas, and particularly his anti-Westernism and anti-liberalism, to return to the elements of value rationality mentioned by Taylor. If not for a particular historical turn, McFaul insists, someone with very different ideas might have risen to power in Russia. Specifically, absent Russia’s economic collapse in 1998, “Yeltsin might have very well selected [Boris] Nemtsov as his successor, and the world might never have heard of Vladimir Putin….[Nemtsov] had the skills and charisma to have become a successful president—a successful democratic president” (p. 58). Thus, the through line of McFaul’s book supports Brian Taylor’s conclusion: “Russia is authoritarian because Vladimir Putin made it so” (51). In the view of some in Russia, of course, the ideas, habits, and emotions of Putinism have been a godsend. In the words of a Kremlin official quoted in the opening lines of Taylor’s book: “There is Putin—There is Russia. There is no Putin—There is no Russia” (p. 1). In discussing the distinct path of recent Russian political development, the idea of Putin the Indispensable is therefore one of the few points of agreement between many supporters and critics of the Russian president.

Notes

1.) Nathan Leites, The Operational Code of the Politburo, First Edition (McGraw Hill Book Company, 1951). http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a473408.pdf

2.) Although the primary focus is on the siloviki, the conflict spilled over into other sectors, most notably the business community.

3.) In this project, Taylor builds on numerous works already in print, including Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modify? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Richard Sakwa, The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, and the Medvedev Succession (Cambridge University Press, 2011). For an attempt to describe Putin’s “ideology” that was written by a Russian supporter of the president, see Aleksei Chadaev, Putin: ego ideologiia (Evropa, 2006).

4.) See Brian Taylor, State Building in Putin’s Russia: Policing and Coercion after Communism (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

5.) These few paragraphs can’t do justice to the richness of The Code of Putinism, which moves beyond the factors animating Putin’s leadership to an assessment of that leadership. Based on extensive empirical evidence, Taylor concludes that Putin is “misruling” Russia (see especially Chapter 5). This assessment builds on his more targeted analysis of state quality in State Building in Putin’s Russia.

6.) Taylor recounts an incident from February 2000 when Putin was running for his first presidential term and a journalist asked him whether the IMF’s recent actions toward Russia were offensive.  Putin interrupted the journalist and stated: “Anyone who offends us will not last three days” (p. 31).

7.) The italics are McFaul’s.

Ukrainian Parliament Appoints a New Central Election Commission

Last week, after a 4-year delay, Ukrainian Parliament appointed 14 new members of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The process of replacing CEC commissioners whose terms expired has started more than 2 years ago. After years of failed attempts, the appointment of new commissioners has been determined to be one of the main tasks on the agenda of the 9th session of the Ukrainian parliament.

According to the Law on the Central Electoral Commission, Parliament appoints and dismisses 15 members of the CEC on the proposal of the president. Their term in office is 7 years. The size of the commission was increased to 17 on September 18, 2018. The president is supposed to take the proposals of political parties into account during the nomination process. The terms of 12 of the 15 commissioners expired in 2014, and another member reached the end of his 7th year in office in 2017. With quickly approaching presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, the policy-makers have agreed that the issue could no longer be postponed and had to be addressed as soon as possible.

Many have argued that the old CEC have long lost its credibility. Its members have been nominated by the Party of Regions led by President Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted in 2014. Furthermore, since 2016, its chairman has been under investigation for receiving illegal bribes. Given the salience and importance of the composition of the commission, the process of appointing a new CEC in Ukraine has been on-going for a couple of years now. The first attempt to replace the commission was made in June 2016 but at the time the process stalled.

On January 23, 2018, the president dismissed members of the Central Election Commission and signed a motion for the appointment of the new CEC. He followed it with a proposal of 14 new members in February. However, the Parliament failed to vote on the presidential proposal during its 8th session. Earlier this month, the president expressed his frustration on Facebook, writing that “the Verkhovna Rada should consider my presidential submission, which has been in parliament for more than a year, and elect a new composition of the CEC.”

On September 20, the Parliament successfully approved 14 new members of the CEC. The new partisan composition of the Central Electoral Commission is as follows:

Bloc Petro Poroshenko – 6 members

People’s Front – 3 members

Revival – 1 member

Batkivshchyna – 1 member

Self-Reliance – 1 member

People’s Will – 1 member

Radical Party – 1 member

Svoboda – 1 – remained in her post (until 2021)

UDAR – 1 – remained in his post (until 2021)

1 seat is currently vacant and is expected to be given to the Opposition Bloc

The members were proposed by political parties in proportion to their representation in Parliament. The only odd seat is the one which remained with UDAR. The party merged with the Bloc Petro Poroshenko in 2015.

The new CEC will organize the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and will play a critical role in ensuring that elections are conducted in a free and fair manner.

Romania – How much ‘deep state’ and where to find it

Social Democrat Party (PSD) chairman Liviu Dragnea delivered the most important speech of 2018 at a party rally in June. The ‘parallel state’ featured most prominently among his choice of words. ©presidential – power.com / Veronica Anghel

In the 2013 novel ‘A Delicate Truth’, former MI5/6 spy and novelist John le Carré presents the ‘deep state’ as ‘the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.’ The popular writer has constantly known how to position his plots in the palm of contemporaneity. Increasingly, politicians use the scare of the secrecy of the ‘deep state’ for a useful one-dimensional identification of an enemy and conspiracy theorists are slithering from the margins towards the mainstream on the waves of social media. At the same time, political scientists increasingly acknowledge the existence of unquantifiable intervening factors that may alter the predictable outcomes of formal institutions. How much is the balance between democratic institutions affected by the existence of a ‘deep state’ and is there a use to professionally trace its attributes without falling in the traps of literally mystery or legitimize populist discourse?

The ‘deep state’ by any other name…. and where to find it

The most common place to find the ‘deep state’ is in the results of discourse analysis. While politicians can use different names for what it is, they rely heavily on its power to be all encompassing and mobilize electoral sensibilities. In the US, Stephen Bannon announced the White House’s war against the ‘administrative state’, a conception of the ‘deep state’ that pits President Trump not against an economic privileged class, but against clerks and civil servants who are perceived as obstacles against the success of his political platform. Republican Ron Paul referred to such obscure interests as ‘the shadow government’.  This understanding of detrimental networks of authority for representative governance finds its adherents further back in US history. President Theodor Roosevelt announced his own belief in the existence of an ‘invisible government’ that cannot be held accountable by the people.

In Central European politics, reproving the ‘colonizing interests’ of the West – via Western corporations or enabled through Brussels and its EU civil servants – and/or chastising the secret services as enablers for hidden undefined interests are increasingly more common elements of political rhetoric. Such discourses use the logic of a Manichean zero sum game approach – the ‘good’ us against the ‘evil’ others – and incentivize emotional societal division. The Polish Kaczyński administration actively pursued the re-investigation and promotion of the Smolensk tragedy not as a result of faulty rational decisions as shown by a previous report, but of treacherous intrigues sponsored by Russia and other perpetrators that remained nameless. In Hungary, a useful name was at hand, as George Soros was identified as the social – liberal Western capitalist who is an obstacle against the state sponsored return to conservative values and nationalist economy. Consequently, the ‘deep state’ became known as the ‘Soros Army’. Contenders of the Orban regime use the term ‘mafia state’ to identify the structures that run parallel with state institutions and which are run through oligarch proxies of PM Orban and the FIDESZ party. Bulgarian PM Boiko Borisov announced during his first mandate in 2009 his own fight with what he considered is a deep infiltration of organised crime inside the government, working for personal economic interests. Similarly, his contenders claim (ex. here or here) it is PM Borisov and other government leaders with long running ties in the Bulgarian Communist Party who chair networks that result in a ‘state capture’. In other hybrid democracies, such as Turkey, the military is an unaccountable power group that more blatantly and more frequently curbs the power of elected civilians.

In Romania, this inner core of the establishment able to conduct in secret a blurring of public and private interests is branded as the ‘parallel state’. The ‘parallel state’ allegedly represents a consortium of unidentified interests of secret services, foreign – connected NGOs and representatives of different branches of the judicial system linked to former president Traian Băsescu who use state resources for their aims. A quantitative analysis of the most important political speech of the year 2018, delivered by the chairperson of the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, at an assembly of over 150 000 PSD supporters shows that the ‘parallel state’ is at the core of his concerns. At the same political assembly, another PSD leader delivered a speech in English, cheering president Trump’s fight against the ‘deep state’. Mr. Dragnea considers it the main obstacle standing in the way of PSD fulfilling its policy program, while also having the ability to change election outcomes and intimidate state officials through prosecutions. Similar analyses show comparative frequencies of references to the ‘parallel state’ in public discourses of other leaders of the governing coalition. Such concerns are reinforced by junior partner ALDE and senate chairperson, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu. This phrase has become so common use in Romanian politics that even in internal fighting of PSD members, members accuse each other of ‘using the means common to the “parallel state”’. By these, they mean illegal phone – tapping or other types of interception of communications using state resources. This is usually a cause for escalation of tensions and media speculation.

The wide spread use of the scare of an almighty  ‘parallel state’ that reminds of the communist security service is a source of citizens’ erosion of confidence in state institutions and the progress made towards the independence of the judiciary and in the anti-corruption fight. Electorally, this translates into support for the government’s program to reform the justice system. It also leads to steady decrease in voter turn – out as citizens increasingly believe politics is a murky territory their vote cannot affect either way. Lower voter turn –out is a technical advantage for the PSD who relies on a captive electorate.

President Băsescu, the main actor accused of chaperoning this complex system of  interests during his mandate, declared there is no such thing as a ‘deep state’, but affirmed the existence of prosecutors, judges and other persons, from within institutions, but not representing those institutions, who abused and misused power. President Klaus Iohannis altogether denied the existence of anything similar to what the PSD leaders claim exists in Romania.  The identification of this useful enemy that is everywhere and nowhere is a useful campaign tool. But is there anything that can be taken out of the shadows and systematically researched for a better understanding of weaknesses of formal institutions?

The aristocracy of pull or how much ‘deep state’ ?

The study of ‘interest groups’ and the need for their judicial review has been a long running preoccupation of political science (ex. here and here). More recently, post-communist transition theory identified that informal powers and networks that political elites use to their benefit is as an important factor in limiting democratic state building (see Grzymala – Busse and Jones Luong 2002). In such evaluations, the extent of the use of parallel networks of authority and power personalisation make the difference between ‘democratic’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘personalistic’ states. Other researchers claim the tension between formal and informal institutions precedes communist times (see Ekiert and Ziblatt 2012). Disaggregating the state analytically into actors at various levels of the decision-making process and state administration provides insight into the struggle between formal and informal institutions and permits a categorisation that can be used irrespective of time and space:

”In the formal democratic state, informal institutions are largely in accord with formal democratic institutions. In the semiformal state, dual domination signals the deep state’s existence. In the informal state, deep state is converted into the state, the rule, and the norm.” (Soyler 2013)

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) increasingly prove to have multiple centres of informal authority with fluctuating degrees of influence on the process of democratization and state institutionalization. The introduction of democratic institutions – and their intrinsic formalisation of elite relationships -clashes with persistent informal practices. In other words, the formal changes introduced from above met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the source of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage. The widespread acceptance of these informal norm systems caters for whichever presiding force finds its way into loci of state power. By circumventing predictability, their effect is anticompetitive and antimeritocratic, favouring those who are ‘in-the-know’ and have privileged access to politicians. This eases the appearance of one – party state forms of political organisations, regardless of ideological inclinations.

Conclusion: the ‘deep state’ is a puzzle, not the Leviathan    

Consequently, the Romanian ‘deep state’ is much less the conspirator centralized system chaired by any one interest group at any one time, but a fabric of relationships that uses different types of barter as a source of maintaining power among an established political and economic elite. The extent to which this is a part of the decision making process affects the state of democracy as a whole, but cannot controllably and substantially satisfy the interests of any one centralized interest group in the longer run. The ‘deep state’ is not in itself the all-powerful Leviathan, but resembles the timeless aristocracy of pull. It is a complex puzzle of unwritten, informal norms and relations that requires empirical research for a better understanding of power dispersion and agenda setting.

Turkey – Putting an entire state structure under construction

Turkey’s move to a presidential system with the 2017 constitutional amendments came into force following the general elections in June 2018. This move necessitates a transformation of the entire state structure, administrative law, and institutions. Since the foundation of the Republic in 1923 Turkey has not faced such a vast institutional transformation. It would not be wrong to label the new era as “the second republic”.

Since the first Ottoman Constitutional period in 1876, the chosen political system was mostly parliamentary system. The convention system (1920-24), and the semi-presidential system (2014-2018) were briefly tried, but served as transitional periods mostly. A presidential system has never been implemented until now. Therefore, the new presidential republic signifies a big departure in the political history of the country as well as the state tradition. Accordingly, almost the entire state structure has to be adapted to the new system.

In the former republican state structure, the executive branch was dual; there was the council of ministers headed by prime minister, and the president. The ministries were designed hierarchically from the centre towards the periphery under the authority of ministers. Political decisions were made in the council of ministers and parliament. Accordingly, political responsibility to parliament was shared by all members of the council. The political centre was parliament. Ministers were mostly members of parliament. The administration of state institutions was executed in accordance with acts of parliament. Governments needed a vote of confidence from parliament and parliamentary legislation in order to put their program into practice. Political parties holding a majority of seats were also influential over the executive and legislative practice.

Now, the president has replaced the council of ministers. Ministers are not the hierarchical administrative superiors for the lower ranking civil servants. The administrative structure is not designed in accordance with legislation any more. Presidential decrees have replaced legislation to designate ministries, all state institutions, the duties and responsibilities of civil servants etc. Former structures have been abolished by presidential decrees. The president has already issued 15 decrees to reorganise the state. Most of the former bureaucrats and civil servants had to be retired early. The current condition for many state institutions is chaotic. Some of them have been abolished under decree no.703; some of them have been renamed, united under single institution and reorganised Twenty-six ministries have been reduced to sixteen. There are also newly founded offices and policy committees under the presidency. In addition to ministries, there are four specific offices and nine policy committees in ministerial service eras such as health, education and economy that are directly under the presidency. Ten other separate institutions are also directly run by the president such as national intelligence service, the presidency of religious affairs, Turkish sovereign wealth fund.

There are four important characteristics of the new system:

a. It is created to unite, not to divide the state structure. The separation of powers cannot be seen in the structural organisation. Accordingly, hardly any checks and balances are left in the system. State power is organised and united under the presidential office and regulated by presidential decrees.

b. The assembly lost a big chunk of its former powers including a general law-making power in every subject. The assembly does not even have new parliamentary procedures currently. It does not have important permanent committees to engage in checks and balances, or committees of inquiry as in strong legislatures such as the US or Chile.

c. Ministerial offices have also lost their former position. It seems there are superior and parallel offices under the presidency to plan and execute policies. All important decisions are to be made by the president or presidential office. This potentially slows the bureaucracy down to a great degree.

d. The organisational structure resembles a holding company. The president intends to run the state like a company, and eliminate the old bureaucratic elite by creating superior and more loyal inner offices. He even appointed some outsiders like former CEOs or businessmen as ministers.

While the Turkish state structure has been reshuffled, President Erdoğan is having the most difficult time in his political carrier due to the deepening economic crisis. It is hard to predict how Turkey is going to manage to transform its state structure and perform efficiently under such bad economic conditions. It will also test President Erdoğan’s argument that the new system is capable of good management. So far he has managed to put the blame on foreign forces, such as USA for deliberately rising exchange rates and waging an economic war on Turkey, but eventually he will need to tackle the country’s economic problems and get good results under the new system as he promised to his voters.

Poland – 3 years into his presidency, Duda’s role still remains unclear

After three years in office, the position of president Andrzej Duda within the current political situation in Poland continues to be somewhat unclear – swinging between unflinching support for the governing party and legitimising force for its policies, and presenting himself as the defender of the rule of law. With a number of crucial elections coming up over the next year, the way in which he positions himself vis-a-vis the ruling party may be crucial to the success of his (former) party and, in turn, to ensuring his own re-election in 2020.

“3 Years in Office” – Promotional video on the website of the Official Website of the President – prezydent.pl

It has been varied summer for president Duda. In July, his initiative to hold a referendum on a new constitution (the date was to coincide with the centenary of the independence declaration in November) was eventually rejected by the Senate as almost all senators of his own party (Law and Justice – PiS) abstained and the oppositional Civic Platform (PO) voted against the plans. Although Duda’s motivation for the referendum was never particularly clear, the rejection can be seen as a defeat for the president – the cushioning of the rejection through mass abstentions may have been an olive branch extended to the president by the party leadership, but it could also merely have been an attempt to save face and not give the public the impression that parliament and president were actively working against each other.

A few weeks later, Duda experienced a success when he vetoed amendments to the European Parliament election law that would have effectively reduced the number of parties able to win seats to two – the governing PiS and the main opposition party PO. While the government (arguably rightfully) argued that the current system was too complicated, it is clear that it aimed to alter the rules of the game to the degree to its advantage in every possible way. Given that a 3/5 relative majority in the Polish Sejm (lower house) is needed to override the veto, the government will have to come up with a new solution or drop the bill. For Duda, the veto was in any case strategic – while he may not need to fear a strong contender from the left in his fight for re-election, his chances for re-election would be greatly increased if the smaller right-of-centre parties that swept up much of the protest vote in the most recent parliamentary elections (led among others by the surprisingly third-placed presidential candidate Andrzej Kukiz) supported him.

Nevertheless, these incidents stand in contrast to Duda’s other behaviour. After he vetoed parts of the government’s controversial judicial reform last year, he later signed bills after some cosmetic changes that gave him slightly more say in the appointment of judges. Recent events, too, highlight that he is only too happy to continue quietly notarising the changes made by the government. As part of the reforms, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges was lowered from 65 to 70, sending 40% of judges into retirement. While the legality of immediate retirement of current judges is questionable and still being considered by the European Court of Justice, Duda already announced vacancies for the positions in question. Importantly, this includes the 65 year-old president of the court who – according to the constitution – serves a six year-term that would only end in 2020. On Tuesday, the president then announced that he had approved the applications of five Supreme Court judges to remain in their positions for another three years (a new prerogative given to him) – incidentally, these are those that had previously been positively evaluated by the reconstituted National Judiciary Council and thus close to the regime (even though some of their applications apparently failed to follow conventional standards), while no action was taken on applications of others (they are assumed to be rejected, but this is not entirely clear).

In October and November 2018 Poland will hold local and regional elections, which will provide a first test for the ruling party with regard to the elections to the European Parliament in spring 2019 and the parliamentary election in 2019. It can be expected that Duda, if he is active in the campaigns at all, will support his (former) party – nevertheless, as Duda also needs to start on building momentum for his own re-election campaign, it is quite likely that we will some more occasional disagreements with the government. Such incidents should however be seen as largely strategic – until now, Duda has now shown that he substantially disagrees with the Hungary-style ‘illiberal democracy’ that the government is introducing.

Sub-national elections in Russia

Elections for posts at various levels took place in the Russian Federation on Sunday, 9 September. Although the electoral campaigns were largely seen as “quiet and uncompetitive”, there were some setbacks for Kremlin-backed candidates. The same day, nation-wide protests against planned pension reforms resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.

Sunday was a busy day. There were:

  • 22 direct elections for regional heads, including the mayor of Moscow;
  • three indirect elections for regional heads;
  • a set of 16 elections for deputies of regional legislatures;
  • a set of 12 elections for seats in representative bodies of regional administrative centres;
  • four elections for heads of regional administrative centres;
  • and seven by-election races for seats in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level parliament, the Federal Assembly.

This is a difficult time for President Vladimir Putin. In the middle of June 2018, the Government introduced a bill into the State Duma proposing to raise the retirement age for men and women – a move that was met with widespread criticism and anger from Russian citizens. This was reflected in Putin’s popularity. According to the Levada Centre – an independent polling body – Putin had an approval rating of 82% in April 2018. This, however, fell to 67% by July 2018. Support for United Russia – the Kremlin-controlled ‘party of power’ – fell even further. Although Putin made an address to the nation, proposing measures to soften the reform package, popular opposition to the amended initiative remains high.

These conditions made the Kremlin nervous in the run-up to 9 September election day. To be sure, the Kremlin has extensive experience in un-levelling the electoral playing field, through a combination of things like skewed media coverage, harassment of opposition figures, and outright electoral fraud. But there is still some degree of uncertainty. That is natural for a system of “sovereign democracy” or competitive authoritarianism.

Pension reform unease certainly affected the election results. The most interesting electoral results relate to run-off votes in four gubernatorial races. In Khabarovsk Krai, Khakassia, Vladimir Oblast, and Primorsk Krai, no candidate achieved the necessary 50% to secure victory in the first round of voting. This outcome was largely expected for the first three of these four cases. (For an overview of the electoral campaigns in the broader context of Russian politics, see my pre-elections interview for Bear Market Brief.) This will be an important moment to see whether nominally opposition parties – primarily, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) – can join forces to defeat the Kremlin-backed candidates in second-round voting. It will also be an important moment to see whether voters will carry on their pension reform-related protest votes into the second round.

Much is being made of these second-round votes, given their previous infrequency. 2012 saw the re-introduction of direct gubernatorial elections. Although touted by the Kremlin as a key democratic reform, Putin’s team made sure the federal centre retained broad control over who ended up as regional heads. One such mechanism for control is called the “municipal filter” – a means to help block the candidacies of Kremlin-hostile figures. As a result, a second-round gubernatorial vote took place only once following 2012 – in 2015 in Irkutsk Oblast, when the Communist Party (KPRF) candidate, Sergei Levchenko, beat the sitting United Russia governor, Sergei Eroshchenko.

Results for regional assembly elections on Sunday also proved interesting. In three assembly races – in Khakassia, Irkutsk Oblast, and Ulyanovsk Oblast – United Russia came second to the Communist Party (KPRF) in the party-list portion of the vote. Moreover, in 11 of the 16 regional assembly elections, United Russia failed to achieve 50% or above in the party-list vote.

At the same time, even though KPRF achieved a plurality of party-list votes in elections for three regional legislatures, it achieved a majority of seats in none. For example, in Irkutsk Oblast’s regional assembly, of the 45 seats up for grabs, the Communists secured 18, compared to United Russia’s 17 – figures that include seats won both through the party-list and single-mandate-district races.

United Russia’s leadership put on a brave face when the election results became clear. Many of the difficult moments were anticipated, as was the low turnout. But the very public nature of electoral setbacks – regardless of the understandably difficult conditions fostered by an unpopular social policy reform – presents a challenge for the Kremlin. The current political elite – like many other such ruling groups in non-democracies – emphasises the importance of projecting strength as a means of perpetuating its rule. In combination with the country-wide, Navalny-orchestrated protests on 9 September, election results that go against the Kremlin’s wishes weaken that image of invincibility. The Kremlin will, therefore, do everything it can going forward to prevent a fusion of Navalny’s mobilising efforts with those of nominally ‘opposition’ political parties, as well as growing segments of Russian society who are bearing the brunt of difficult economic conditions.

The Czech Republic – Babiš’ new cabinet and symptoms of illiberal democracy

On 12th July 2018 the lengthy government formation process that had been taking place since the 2017 parliamentary elections finally came to an end. The second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

The protracted government formation process was a consequence of several factors including:

  • the fragmented Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 elections,
  • the presence of an anti-establishment, left-wing party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and an anti-establishment right-wing party (the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement),
  • a police investigation and other controversies in relation to the dominant figure of the largest parliamentary party, ANO 2011, Andrej Babiš, who was at the same time the only real candidate for prime ministership,
  • the reluctance of most of the other parties to collaborate with ANO 2011,
  • the role of President Miloš Zeman, who consistently supported Babiš as the new prime minister and who allowed no room for an alternative cabinet excluding Andrej Babiš.

The right-wing and liberal parliamentary parties ruled out the possibility of joining ANO 2011 in a new coalition, although Babiš called on the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to establish a two-party majority coalition. At the same time, however, Babiš did not want to seek support from the KSČM and SPD, two strongly Eurosceptical parties, undermining the hitherto Czech consensus on its clear pro-Western orientation. Thus, at first, Babiš attempted to form a minority ANO 2011 cabinet that was appointed by Miloš Zeman in December 2017. Not surprisingly, this cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

In line with the constitution, Babiš’ cabinet remained in office as an acting cabinet until a new cabinet could be appointed. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the winner of the 2013 elections (and major loser of the 2017 elections), was now encouraged as well as tempted to join Babiš’ cabinet for fear of being marginalized in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the party lacked a charismatic leader in contrast to Babiš, as well as clear and credible policies on a number of issues. The party, which found itself in a major leadership and policy crisis, faced a major dilemma. On the one hand, joining the government would bring it at least short-term benefits. On the other hand, joining the cabinet appeared highly risky. This is because, first, Babiš is still under police investigation due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. In addition, the European Anti Fraud Office’s report (which was leaked to the press) confirmed that Babiš was directly involved in the fraud. Second, Babiš, the Minister of Finance in the 2014-2017 cabinet, skilfully communicated with the media to claim credit for government successes, while shifting blame on the social democrats for government failures

The ČSSD was badly divided on the issue of whether to join the cabinet with ANO 2011. The February party congress gave no definitive answer to this question, although party leaders were inclined to support the government option, and the party decided to hold an intra-party referendum. Even before the referendum result was announced, the ČSSD had embarked on negotiations with ANO 2011. President Zeman, who still has considerable influence over the ČSSD, encouraged the party to join Babiš’ cabinet. The referendum result gave the party a green light to carry on the negotiations with ANO 2011. However, the first round of talks ended in failure in April, as ANO 2011 proved unwilling to allow the ČSSD to take the seat of the Ministry of Interior, an important position controlling the police and indirectly affecting the investigation of Mr. Babiš and his alleged EU subsidy fraud. The ČSSD leaders, the party chairman Jan Hamáček and his deputy Jiří Zimola, visited President Zeman, who – according to some journalists – advised the ČSSD to insist on their requirements (including the position of the Minister of Interior).  Zeman was strongly interested in the success of the government formation with Mr. Babiš as Prime Minister, given the fact that he had consistently supported this option since the 2017 elections. The negotiations between the ANO 2011 and ČSSD resumed and both parties agreed on a minority coalition cabinet that was appointed by President Zeman in June 2018. In addition, Andrej Babiš negotiated an external support for the coalition provided by the KSČM.

The reputation of the newly appointed cabinet was tainted by the resignation of two ministers when the media found out that their university master’s theses were plagiarized. However, the most significant event was Zeman’s refusal to appoint a ČSSD nominee for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Poche. Zeman argued that Poche, currently an MEP, held a pro-immigration policy, which was unacceptable for Zeman, Babiš, and majority of the Czech population. Commentators speculated that this publicly announced reason was a mere pretext for the real cause of the refusal: President Zeman was resolved to demonstrate his power over the ČSSD and his influence over the cabinet as a whole. Babiš, having no interest in complicating the government formation whatsoever, did not insist on Poche and accepted Zeman’s position.

There has been a political as well as academic debate as to whether the Czech president has the right to refuse the Prime Minister’s nominee for a minister. There is a consensus that the president has no such right, but given the fact that Prime Minister did not push for Poche and did not wish to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court, there is no way to force Zeman to appoint Mr. Poche. Instead, both President Zeman and the Prime Minister Babiš expect another nominee from the ČSSD camp. Although this move was an act of political humiliation for the ČSSD, its leaders have so far been unable to suggest a solution and the ČSSD’s chairman Jan Hamáček temporarily took the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs alongside the position of the Minister of Interior. The ČSSD announced it would solve the problem only after the October municipal elections. As stated above, the second Babiš cabinet won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, so the Czech Republic finally has a fully-fledged cabinet after some 10 months.

In terms of President Zeman’s power over the government formation process, he undoubtedly played an important role. Whereas in the case of the first (unsuccessful) Babiš cabinet, Zeman’s role can be assessed as a notary, perhaps even regulator (given Zeman’s clear preferences and active support for Mr. Babiš), his role increased with the second Babiš cabinet and he can be classified as “co-designer”, because Zeman openly, consistently and strongly insisted that Babiš would be the new prime minister, blocking any alternative cabinets. In addition, he rejected the appointment of Mr. Poche. Also, the Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Toman (although formally a ČSSD member), was clearly Zeman’s man demonstrating the president’s influence over the cabinet.

Against the background of the government formation process, one should not overlook less noticeable, yet highly important, trends in the Czech politics. First, the Communists gained a direct influence over the government for the first time after 1989. (Mr. Babiš was also a Communist Party member as well as a registered co-worker of the Czechoslovak Secret Police before 1989). The KSČM remains outside the government, but provided its support for the cabinet in the July vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for a couple of policy requirements including passing a law on referendums, an increase in the minimal wage or the taxation of Church restitution. (The law on Church restitution was approved in 2012 in order to compensate for the nationalization of Church property after the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia). In sum, KSČM’s direct influence on the cabinet has a great symbolic importance putting to an end one of the major constants of the post-1989 politics.

Second, whereas in the post-1989 era a strong pro-Western consensus, including the EU as well as NATO membership, prevailed both in the Czech society and political elites as the only reasonable and legitimate foreign policy, this consensus is currently being undermined, especially by the KSČM, the SPD and also by Miloš Zeman, who is well-known for his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policy. Andrej Babiš, is, however, a pragmatic politician advocating a firm Czech membership in the EU, yet also pursuing a strict anti-immigration policy.

Third, clear illiberal tendencies (both in terms of rhetoric and actions) have appeared in the Czech Republic, thus resembling other countries in the region (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary). Notably, President Zeman can be blamed for this negative trend: Zeman is known for flattering the authoritarian regime in Russia and China, attacking the independent and quality media, attending the KSČM’s party congress, and sympathizing with xenophobic forces in the Czech Republic. To be sure, other actors responsible for the illiberal tendencies can be mentioned, two parliamentary parties, KSČM and SPD, and the Prime Minister Mr. Babi, who has tried to remove some checks and balances, e.g. by proposing the abolition of the upper parliamentary Chamber and who is the de facto owner of a huge business and media empire.

The Czech Republic is currently awaiting October municipal and Senate elections. The municipal elections in large cities, as well as the Senate elections, are considered to be a test of public support for the major parliamentary parties (which are almost non-existent in most of smaller municipalities) and in turn for (il) liberal democracy in the country.