Category Archives: Europe

Finland – modest but important gains for the political left in parliamentary elections

The Finnish parliamentary elections held last Sunday (14 April) received international media attention primarily on account of the anti-immigration and nationalist The Finns Party finishing second, winning just one MP less than the Social Democrats that emerged as the largest party for the first time in the 21st century. Overall, all three leftist parties – the Social Democrats, the Green League, and the Left Alliance – won more votes and seats than in the Eduskunta elections held four years earlier, while particularly the Centre Party suffered a major defeat.

Finland had been governed since the 2015 elections by a centre-right coalition that brought together the Centre, the National Coalition (conservatives), and the Finns Party. The top priority of the cabinet had been the reorganization of health and social services, which would have brought about both a larger role for the private sector in delivering such services (a key objective for the National Coalition) and the introduction of directly-elected regional councils (a key objective for the Centre that wins most of its vote in the rural provinces). The project had run into serious trouble in the Eduskunta, with also some backbench MPs of the governing parties voicing strong criticism and indicating that they might not support the bill. Finally, the project was buried on 8 March, with PM Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party immediately announcing the resignation of his government.

With just over a month to go before the Eduskunta elections, many speculated that Sipilä had resigned in order to focus on the campaign, especially as the Centre was doing so badly in the polls. Sipilä seemed concerned about the Centre losing its core supporters in the rural areas, and hence he defended strongly the increasing use of logging and ‘sustainable use of forest resources’. In fact, climate change and the need to address global warming became arguably the leading topic of the elections, with particularly the left-wing parties advocating bolder measures that were criticized by the political right, not least by the Finns Party. However, apart from climate change the campaign themes ranged from the state of economy and employment (with the governing parties defending their good track record) to immigration, equality, and social security. European integration and foreign and security policy did not feature at all in the debates. Surprisingly the failed social and health care reform package was also by and large missing from the debates.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. This time the Social Democrats captured only 17,7 % of the votes (+1,2 % compared with the 2015 elections, the worst performance of the party after the Second World War) and 40 seats (+6 compared with the situation after the 2015 elections), the lowest-ever share won by the largest party in Eduskunta elections. While the polls had predicted a bigger victory for the Social Democrats, finishing first means a lot to the party and more broadly to the political left in Finland. The last time the Social Democrats won the elections was back in 1999, and hence Finland has not had a social democratic prime minister after the era of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ headed by Paavo Lipponen between 1995 and 2003. The inclusion of Social Democrats in the government is also crucial for the trade unions that received wide-spread criticism during the Sipilä government. Antti Rinne, the party leader and thus also the likely next prime minister, has a trade union background, and this no doubt strengthens the links between the new government and the corporatist actors. Rinne himself has been quite heavily criticized, and again there are question marks over his leadership as still between January and early April the support of the Social Democrats was according to polls around and even above 20 %.

The Green League recorded its best-ever performance, winning 11,5 % of the vote (+3,0 %) and 20 seats (+5). However, the celebrations were nonetheless quite muted, especially as the polls had predicted a larger vote share for the Greens and many party activists surely hoped that the party would achieve the next step of joining the group of large parties in Finnish politics. Pekka Haavisto, a senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, had been appointed as the interim party chair in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. The Greens are in many ways close allies with the Social Democrats, and would thus be a logical coalition partner in a Social Democratic-led cabinet. The Left Alliance also achieved an election victory, winning 8,2 % of the vote (+1,0 %) and 16 seats (+4). Hence the combined seat share of the left-wing parties increased from 61 seats after the 2015 elections to 76 seats (38 %).

International media coverage focused strongly on the Finns Party which finished second with 17,5 % of the vote (-0,2 %) and 39 seats (+1). When interpreting the results, we must pay close attention to the recent history of the party. The ‘new’ version of the Finns Party was established in summer 2017 when Jussi Halla-aho was elected as the party chair. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues and the new leadership also advocates more pro-market solutions than the ‘old’ Finns Party chaired by Timo Soini between 1997 and 2017. The support of Halla-aho’s party increased in the months leading to the elections, but the final result nevertheless took most observers by surprise. Halla-aho himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30596 votes in the Helsinki constituency. Also many other leading anti-immigration figures, such as Laura Huhtasaari, Juho Eerola, and Ville Tavio performed strongly in their respective electoral districts.

The election was at the same time a catastrophe for the Blue Reform, the ‘losing side’ of the Finns Party’s 2017 party congress. The Blue Reform was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many felt that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform thus continued in the cabinet and in the elections tried to defend the achievements of the Sipilä government. It managed to win only 1,0 % of the vote and failed to achieve representation in the Eduskunta, meaning also that the ministers of the party (Soini was not seeking re-election), including the party chair Sampo Terho, were not re-elected.

The two main governing parties, the Centre and the National Coalition, did their best to defend the track record of the cabinet, particularly regarding employment rate. The National Coalition managed considerably better, finishing third with 17,0 % of the vote (-1,2 %) and 38 seats (+1). While party chair Petteri Orpo and the party faithful appeared jubilant, one could also sense disappointment as the National Coalition had won the 2017 municipal elections with 20,7 % of the vote and for a long time it had seemed that Orpo might become the next PM. The National Coalition and the Social Democrats have experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015), and the current prediction is that the new cabinet would be constructed around these two large parties.

The Centre Party in turn captured only 13,8 % of the vote (-7,3 %) and 31 seats (-18), its worst performance in elections held after the Second World War. This was essentially a repeat of the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing took its toll. The market-friendly policies of PM Sipilä clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. If the Centre is not part of the next government (as appears likely), Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils. Sipilä announced his resignation as the party chair after the elections.

Of the smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party received 4,5 % of the vote (-0,3 %) and held to its 10 seats (including the sole representative of the Åland Islands) while the Christian Democrats won 3,9 % of the vote (+0,4 %) and also retained its 5 seats. The final MP is Harry Harkimo, the leader of Liike Nyt (Movement Now) that very much ran an ‘anti-party’ campaign and advertised itself as a new way of making politics.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. While Halla-aho has indicated willingness to make compromises and to take part in government formation talks, it is more likely that the Finns Party will continue in the opposition. In terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the election result will probably not result in any significant changes. The political left is stronger now than four years ago, and this is probably good news for those defending the welfare state and the role of the trade unions. However, concerns about the state of the economy, including reducing public debt, act as a constraint on the new Finnish government regardless of its party-political composition.

Turnout was 72,1 %, or 68,7 % when including enfranchised citizens living abroad. 94/200 (47 %) of the elected MPs are women.

Post-Communist Countries: Policy Diffusion relating to Immunity from Prosecution for Ex-Presidents

Immunity from criminal prosecution for sitting presidents is a common feature of democratic as well as authoritarian regimes.[i]    Shielding presidents from indictment and prosecution is designed to prevent members of the political opposition from weaponizing the criminal process and adding unduly to the already considerable burdens of political leadership.  Besides, in most countries, there is a political remedy for presidential corruption or malfeasance—impeachment—which places the responsibility for the fate of an errant president in the hands of elected representatives rather than prosecutors or judges. 

Less common in presidential or semi-presidential systems is immunity from criminal prosecution for ex-presidents.[ii]  Here the logic is different and more likely to apply in places where democracy has yet to be consolidated.  In these circumstances, immunity for ex-presidents can encourage leaders to leave office at the end of their constitutionally-mandated term without fear of losing their property, their freedom, or their lives.  In a word, immunity lessens the incentive for incumbent presidents to use constitutional[iii] or unconstitutional means to hold on to power.   

In the post-communist world, Russia was the first country to grant broad immunity protection to ex-presidents.  The measure came in the form of a decree issued by Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999, hours after Boris Yeltsin ceded the presidency to Putin, who had been prime minister.   This decree was part of a package of concessions to Yeltsin that facilitated the departure of the aging Russian president.[iv]  Among the decree’s provisions were expansive protections against criminal liability for acts committed while in office as well as protections against being “detained, arrested, searched, interrogated, or personally inspected [lichnyi osmotr].”  Moreover, the decree extended the immunity to a former president’s “residential and office premises, vehicles used by him, means of communication, other documents, luggage, and correspondence.”  However, a subsequent parliamentary statute, adopted in January 2001, eroded immunity guarantees for ex-presidents in Russia by subjecting former leaders to criminal prosecution if both houses of parliament first conclude that the president committed “grave crimes” [tiazhkie prestupleniia] while in office.[v]

In a striking example of legal diffusion and the neighborhood effect, the Russian legislation inspired subsequent laws protecting ex-presidents in 7 of the other 14 post-Soviet states.  In some respects, it was a throwback to the practices of the Soviet era, when Moscow would first develop a piece of model legislation [maket] and then the 15 union republics would adopt local codes with only minor variations from the model.  In the case of the follow-on laws on immunity for ex-presidents in post-communist states, the legislative language was often lifted word-for-word from the Russian model.  In these cases, according to the literature on policy diffusion, what was at stake was not authoritarian learning, competition, or coercion but authoritarian imitation.[vi] 

Because this demonstration effect radiated out to the immediate neighborhood and no further, the post-communist example fits into a pattern of “proximity diffusion” found in other parts of the world, and in at least one region on this very issue.  Many African countries, for example, have adopted common guarantees of immunity for sitting presidents and, in some cases, ex-presidents.  In these African cases, however, the protections may be removed when charges of “high treason” are at issue.[vii] 


As the accompanying chart illustrates, there are some significant variations in the provisions set out in national laws.  In the cases of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, for example, immunity guarantees apply only to the first post-communist president during his lifetime.  In Kazakhstan that is Nursultan Nazarbaev, who since 2010 has had the official title of Yelbasy, or Leader of the Nation; in Tajikistan it is Emomali Rahmon, who sports the even grander-sounding moniker of The Founder of Peace and National Unity—The Leader of the Nation.[viii]  Given Nazarbaev’s unexpected decision last month to resign after 30 years at the helm of Soviet and post-Soviet Kazakhstan, he is now in a position to enjoy the ad hominem immunity that he helped to put in place over the last two decades, an immunity that protects not only Nazarbaev’s person but the property and bank accounts of himself and members of his family living with him.  For his part, Tajikistani President Rahmon enjoys similar guarantees, except that the law covers all family members and not just those living with him, a provision that would seem to protect his grown children, including his oldest son, Rustam, who many view as the likely successor to his father as president of Tajikistan.

Given their traditional positions as the most authoritarian regimes in former Soviet Central Asia, one might have expected Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to have introduced versions of the Russian law on immunity that offered the broadest possible guarantees to an ex-president.  However, in important respects, ex-presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are more vulnerable to criminal prosecution than their peers in neighboring countries, at least according to the formal rules.  First, in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan immunity protections extend only to those actions “taken in connection with the execution of the powers” of president, and thus would arguably not cover all of the actions of a president while in office.  Second, by allowing the authorities to deprive an ex-president “of immunity if a criminal case is instituted in connection with the commission of a grave crime,” Turkmenistan grants considerable discretion to prosecutorial and judicial authorities.  Finally, the Uzbekistani law on immunity for ex-presidents makes no mention of protections for property.

Because many countries in the former Soviet Union’s southern tier do not have ex-presidents—they either die in office or have their titles stripped from them in the wake of popular rebellions —one might argue that parsing the legislation on immunity is a fruitless exercise.  Yet as we noted earlier, Kazakhstan now has its first ex-president; Kyrgyzstan has two, Roza Otunbaeva and Almazbek Atambaev; a former president of Azerbaijan returned to his country after many years in exile, in part because of the extension of immunity to ex-presidents; and courts in Armenia are this week trying to decide whether its constitution’s immunity provisions will protect former President Robert Kacharian.[ix] 

Finally, in Kyrgyzstan there have been attempts over the last year to revise, or eliminate altogether, immunity protections for ex-presidents, an effort prompted by the ongoing feud between former President Atambaev and his hand-picked successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.  Thus, while a country in the throes of authoritarian consolidation like Tajikistan has recently strengthened protections for ex-presidents, Kyrgyzstan is threatening to break with the Russian-inspired model of immunity for former leaders.  The denouement of the year-long campaign in Kyrgyzstan to weaken immunity for ex-presidents will be the subject of my next post for this blog. 


[i] My thanks to Kelly B. Smith of Stetson University and Alexei Trochev of Nazarbaev University for bibliographic assistance on this post.

[ii] In France, for example, two of the three most recent ex-presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been charged with crimes.  Chirac was convicted and Sarkozy has been fighting a five-year long judicial battle to avoid a conviction.  Thomas Prouteau, “Affaire des ‘écoutes’: Nicolas Sarkozy sera-t-il jugé un jour?” RTL, April 9, 2019.  https://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/affaire-des-ecoutes-nicolas-sarkozy-sera-t-il-juge-un-jour-7797391350

[iii] By constitutional means I have in mind extending or adding terms of office.

[iv] О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи, Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 31.12.1999 г. № 1763. http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/14857

[v] Федеральный закон от 12 февраля 2001 г. N 12-ФЗ “О гарантиях Президенту Российской Федерации, прекратившему исполнение своих полномочий, и членам его семьи” (с изменениями и дополнениями). http://constitution.garant.ru/act/president/182948/  See

[vi] See Charles R. Shipan and Craig Volden, “The Mechanisms of Policy Diffusion,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 52, no. 4 (October 2008), pp. 840-857.      

[vii] The countries referencing high treason as an exception are Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo.  These countries are among the 32 jurisdictions where ex-presidents enjoy some form of immunity; these cases are catalogued in the very useful compendium prepared by the Law Library of the Library of Congress. Immunity from Prosecution for Former Presidents in Selected Jurisdictions (Washington, DC: Law Library of the Library of Congress, October 2017).  For a perceptive analysis of immunity for presidents and ex-presidents in African states, see Charles Manga Fombad and Enyinna Nwauche, “Africa’s Imperial Presidents: Immunity, Impunity and Accountability,” African Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2012), pp. 91-118.

[viii] Vladimir Putin has been referred to at times in some Russian media outlets as the leader of the nation, though as yet that is only an informal label. 

[ix] “Armenian court extends ex-president Kocharyan’s arrest for another two months,” ARKA News Agency, March 13, 2019.  http://arka.am/en/news/politics/armenian_court_extends_ex_president_kocharyan_s_arrest_for_another_two_months_/

During the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili reportedly promised President Eduard Shevardnadze immunity from prosecution in order to encourage him to leave office, but I can find no record of legislation enacted that makes good on that promise.  See “Georgia’s Shevardnadze to be given immunity,” rferl.com, February 20, 2004.  https://www.rferl.org/a/1051611.html

Turkey – The Beginning of an End to Turkey’s Competitive Authoritarian Regime

Authoritarian and liberalization appear to alternate regularly in Ottoman–Turkish constitutional history. Moves towards authoritarianism were often motivated by intense power struggles between conservative forces opposing westernization/modernization and favoring political Islam, while reformist/revolutionary forces favoring secularization, democratization motivated changes towards the other end. Authoritarian turns were instigated by one of the three following coalitions: civil forces that came to power in a relatively democratic environment but were not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections; revolutionary civil forces aiming to design a new society, regime, and state based on their revolutionary ideas; or military forces that had no intention of establishing a long military rule, but wanted to design a constitution reflecting their vision of the state. Liberalization turns, on the other hand, come with an alternation in political power (removal and replacement of government by a civil competitor), and are characterized by a return to relatively free and fair political competition.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government is consistent with a civil competitive authoritarian regime, i.e., coming to power in a democratic environment but not willing to hand over political power through free and fair elections and turning increasingly autocratic since the Gezi protests in 2013. However it seems that this regime has run its course and the cycle may turn in favor of liberalization once again, if the local elections on 31st of March are any indication.

Specifically, even though President Erdoğan’s alliance (the AKP and MHP) won %51.6 of the votes, they suffered a loss of 8-9 percent in comparison to previous local elections; more importantly they lost major cities including the capital Ankara. The biggest blow came from Istanbul, the economic centre of the country. According to the first official results the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election with a slim margin of 0.28 despite heavy pro-government media that showcased the polarising rhetoric of President Erdoğan, directly targeted opposition candidates, and systematically pressured the opposition that typified neo-patrimonial award-punishment processes. On April 9, the AKP leader Erdoğan and his alliance have demanded a recount to challenge the outcome, clearly unwilling to accept this loss.

On election night, the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) and Anatolian Agency (official news agency) stopped declaring results for 11 hours at 98.8 percent. The AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım declared his victory with a difference of  3000 votes meanwhile the opposition candidate İmamoğlu announced that he is leading the race according to the official ballot records  and pleaded the Supreme Election Council (the YSK) to carry on with the counting. He had 11 news conferences on the same night and in the end declared his victory, too.  On the following day, the YSK’s official results showed that İmamoğlu won the race with a slim difference. The AKP contested the counting and demanded recounting. Many of the invalid votes and some valid votes have been counted for 10 days, and the result did not change. Now the ruling alliance has demanded a re-election, based on voting irregularities. These claims of voting irregularities were made only when the results of recounting became obvious; perhaps interestingly, the opposition is accused of stealing the metropolitan city but not the smaller municipal divisions and city assembly, the majority of which won by the AKP. It seems highly improbable to cheat in one vote but not the other two as all three votes were cast in a single envelope. The YSK is expected to reach a decision regarding the AKP’s challenge in the coming days

Regardless of the result of this challenge, it seems clear that the AKP and its leader Erdoğan is losing influence on the people in big cities. The economic crisis is eroding support from the working class, and it seems that his polarising rhetoric is no longer effective. Erdoğan made the election a vote of confidence for himself and his regime; it seems that the people of major cities have turned in a vote of no-confidence. Rejecting the ballot results for Istanbul, then, may lead to the loss of the only legitimising factor in Turkey, given that performance legitimacy has completely eroded due to the economic recession. Such a move may shorten the remainder of the Erdoğan rule.

Equally important, economic crisis and end of privatizatio have eroded Erdoğan’s ability to use the neo-patrimonial reward-punishment processes that has maintained the AKP’s hegemony. Offices of mayors, especially the Istanbul metropolitan Mayor, have been chief beneficiaries of such rewards, and they have benefited notwithstanding rife allegations of corruption in the 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul metropolitan city. Loss of big cities ends any additional resources for patromonial rewards and, instead, bring new evidence of corruption.


Christopher Carothers contends four major factors leading to regime breakdown in a recent article on competitive authoritarian regimes.[i] One factor cited is the loss of mayoral elections, where an electorate seeking an alternative to the ruling party may hasten the process when it sees some success at mayoral level, notwithstanding the heavy pressure from the government. Opposition mayors in Turkey, then, share a responsibility of creating an alternative for Erdoğan’s long lasting rule.

Henry Hale in his book on patronal politics explains client organisation, resources and expectations of clients are critical to maintaining a patronal network.[ii] Clients (state elites including judiciary, media networks etc., party elite) monitor and deliver rewards for the patron, and follow patrons when they expect other clients to do so. Problems with organisation and resources influence expectations and expectations determine obedience and follow-through. Patronal relations breakdown when clients see or believe that a patron is no longer able to control the patronal network. Deteriorating political support, emergence of political alternatives, and shortage of reward resources have already fanned impressions that President Erdoğan is unchallengeable. The results of recent elections seems to signal the beginning of an end, even if only a slow end, for the patronal rule of President Erdoğan.


[i] Christopher Carothers, “The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, number 4, October 2018.

[ii] Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective,  (New York: Cambridge Uni. Press, 2015), 31-35.




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Ukraine Holds a Presidential Election

On March 31, 2019 Ukraine held the first round of the presidential election. With 100% of the votes counted, the Central Election Commission announced that Volodymyr Zelensky won the first round with 30.24% of the votes. The current President, Petro Poroshenko, came second with 15.95%. The second round of election is scheduled for April 21, where the political outsider and famous comedian Zelensky will face the incumbent.

Volodymyr Zelensky is a new face in Ukrainian politics. He is a comedian, who is currently starring in a TV show entitled “Servant of the People.” In the show, Zelensky plays a high school teacher who becomes president after fighting corruption. The show is available on Netflix.

The election results were not surprising to the political observers. The pre-election polls have consistently projected a victory for Zelensky in the first round with 25-30% of the votes. Both the incumbent president and Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, have been consistently trailing in the polls behind the comedian.

Zelensky came to the race using primarily social media outlets. One of his campaign members openly admitted that they had only one platform – the internet. Zelensky could be frequently seen on his Facebook page speaking to the voters directly. In one of the videos, he even tries to crowd source his election program. Openly criticizing other candidates and political parties for their lack of distinct programmatic appeals as well as pledge fulfillment, he asks citizens to submit their own suggestions for the policies they would like to pursue and problems that they would like to address.

Zelensky’s lack of political experience or even political program has not fazed the Ukrainian voters. Tired of old-school politicians, the voters seem to want something new and different. Experts have argued that the trend is not unique to Ukraine. Zelensky’s popularity and victory in the first round have been compared to other political outsides who won the executive office in the past couple of years. The list is long and includes US President Donald Trump, Zuzana Čaputová, recently elected president of Slovakia, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron.

Before the second round of elections on April 21, the top two candidates will face off in the presidential debate in front of a 70,000-seat stadium in Kyiv.

In Slovakia, voters elect Zuzana Čaputová the first female president in Central Europe

A novice to national politics, environmental and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová defeated the Vice-President of the European Commission for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič, in a runoff of the Slovak presidential elections. Her victory reflected growing dissatisfaction with the current government, especially with the Smer-Social democracy (Smer), the senior coalition member. The overall results signal a possible realignment on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2020.

Three events in 2018 strongly impacted the political atmosphere in Slovakia and directly influenced the presidential election and its outcome: Firstly, the country was shocked by the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Kuciak’s work focused on the possible corruption involving elected politicians, high public officials, and the criminal underworld. The country experienced a wave of anti-government mass protests, the largest demonstrations since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Secondly, amidst the protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Smer resigned, paving the way for a reconstruction of the three-party government under the Smer-nominated prime minister Peter Pellegrini. Thirdly, president Kiska officially announced in May 2018 that he would not seek re-election. Though Kiska hinted on his continued involvement in Slovak politics, at the time he refused to provide any details, citing the need to complete his mandate as the president above day-to-day party politics.

With Kiska’s announced departure, the presidential contest had no clear favorite. Early opinion polls suggested a host of potential candidates polled just about 10% support, with Miroslav Lajčák, a Smer-nominated Foreign Minister being a front-runner, should he decide to run. Robert Mistrík, a nominee of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), aspiring to become the preferred candidate of the democratic opposition, polled neck to neck with the leader of the extreme-right Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) Marian Kotleba, a controversial Supreme Court Justice Štefan Harabin, the leader of the governing Slovak-Hungarian Most-Híd party Béla Bugár and Veronika Remišová,  the leading parliamentarian of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) grouping. Zuzana Čaputová, nominated by extra-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia, seemed to stand no chance.

However, Lajčák repeatedly refused to enter the presidential race, citing his desire to continue his career in diplomatic service. Smer leader Robert Fico ruled out his presidential ambitions and instead announced his bid in January for one of the nine vacancies at the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the issue became an important issue of the campaign: the outgoing president Kiska declared he would not appoint Fico to the top court; the prospective presidential candidates also had to take a stance concerning the matter.

To maximize chances of a pro-democratic candidate to reach the runoff, OĽaNO and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) did not field any candidate. Also, they attempted to facilitate an agreement among Mistrík, Čaputová and František Mikloško (formerly of the KDH) that whoever of the three had the strongest popular support should get the endorsement of all the others before the first round of the election. Eventually, Mistrík and Čaputová agreed, while Mikloško decided to stay in the race. 

Smer eventually nominated Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission, who led the Smer party list in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Šefčovič, nominally a non-party independent, received substantial financial support from, and public endorsement of, Smer party and its leaders. Even though he has had a relatively liberal and pro-European social democratic record, his campaign had to rely on the more socially conservative support base of Smer. During the party rallies, Fico likened him to an 18-century Slovak folk hero; Šefčovič himself declined to take a clear stance on issues critical of Smer and its leader, and eventually even profiled himself as a champion of traditional Christian values.

The critical phase of the campaign – and Čaputová’s rapid increase of popularity – came with the first televised debates among presidential contenders. She presented herself as a thoughtful, calm and firm voice of social justice, criticizing defects in the rule of law, yet refraining from negative campaign and ad hominem attacks. Her performance seemed to resonate well with the public expectations and the general mood in the country. Robert Mistrík eventually honored their agreement, withdrew from the race, and unequivocally supported her before the first round. As a consequence, Čaputová’s approval ratings quickly reached 40-50%.

Her main opponents concentrated on getting to the second round: Maroš Šefčovič presented himself as an experienced politician, respected at the European scene, ready to lead the country and defend its national interests. Štefan Harabin appealed to disillusioned voters with his outright dismissal of the established political elites: He promised to exercise the presidential powers to the fullest extent, taking an active role in foreign policy to protect the country against what he called the dangers of Islamization and the loss of national sovereignty in the EU. Marian Kotleba of the extreme-right ĽSNS echoed his rhetoric, pointing out that Harabin himself contributed to the erosion of Slovak sovereignty by being a Justice Minister of the government that agreed with the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Čaputova won the first round held on March 16, gaining 40.6%, followed by Šefčovič, who received 18.7%. Harabin and Kotleba gained 14.4% and 10.4%, respectively, followed by Mikloško (5.7%) and the other minor candidates. With two weeks to the runoff, Šefčovič attempted to close the gap by aggressively addressing the supporters of Harabin and Kotleba: The day after the first round he portrayed himself as the champion of traditional Christian conservative values, criticizing Čaputová for her openness to LBGT agenda. He even claimed that he, as the member of the European Commission, actively opposed the Commission-sponsored proposal that would enable the relocation of asylum seekers across the EU countries. Later on, he returned to his previous agenda, stressing his experience and credentials in international politics. Čaputová, on the other hand, stood on her original message. As the favorite, she concentrated on mobilizing her support base from the first round, underlining the result of the contest were open. Her support reached 58.4%; her opponent gained 41.6%. Compared to 48.7% in the first round, turnout dropped to 41.8%, reflecting the fact that many supporters of Harabin and Kotleba did not take part in the runoff. Those who did mostly voted for Šefčovič. Čaputová managed to win over younger, and better-educated voters. Šefčovič’s support base contained mostly older, less educated voters who tend to support Smer.

Čaputová’s victory has significant consequences for the overall political development. Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, the presidential elections was a second nationwide contest that signaled a transformation of Slovak politics towards a tripolar configuration with a significant role played by the anti-establishment, anti-EU and extreme right parties. Even though two pro-European and democratic candidates succeeded, the proportional electoral system to the national parliament will probably ensure an increased parliamentary presence of antisystem, populist and radical parliamentarians. Presidential executive powers are limited. Nevertheless, President Čaputová will be appointing the next prime minister. Given an increasing fragmentation of the parliament and the likelihood that the next coalition government will consist of several parties, the influence of the president in the process will grow.  

A transformation of the Slovak party scene is likely to be further deepened by the announcement of outgoing president Kiska that he will set up a new political party after his departure from the presidential palace. A recent poll indicated some 9% of voters would “definitely” vote for his party and an additional 31% was “likely” to vote for it. Furthermore, a post-election poll also indicated the rise of Čaputová’s party, approaching double-digit numbers. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, the 2019 presidential elections seem to be a prelude to a far-reaching transformation of the Slovak political scene.

Georgia: Judicial independence and The parliamentary majority

Georgia: Judicial independence and The parliamentary majority

The issue of composition of the judiciary is one of the most significant challenges to Georgian politics in recent years. Various reforms have been implemented to the judicial branch, following the Georgian Dream Party’s election to governing power since 2012; however, questions about the independence of the court remain. In particular, the then-new government noted the political biases of judges appointed by the previous government, and pointed to various high-profile cases, including cases involving former high-ranking officials adjudicated at the European Court of Human Rights, where domestic judgements were in favour of these former officials. At that time, the government pledged to appoint qualified and conscientious judges to the judiciary.

In 2018, following the inauguration of the new president, new constitutional rules were put in place for appointment to the judiciary where Justices of the Supreme Court of Georgia were selected by the High Council of Justice instead of the President, and approved by the Parliament for life. Implementation of these rules have degenerated into public debacles.

In one instance, the chair of the Supreme Court – and a key player in discussions on judicial reform with the government – resigned, leaving the government in a lurch.[1] The Georgian President began consultations to select a new chair, but failed to include the majority party in parliament in these discussions. [2] As a result, there was no consensus, and the candidate was not confirmed. [3] The failure to follow the process was severely criticized by the NGO coalition. [4] 

In the most recent instance in December 24, 2018, the Council chose 10 candidates for life to the Supreme Court, per the constitutional rules. The appointments were severely criticized by non-judge members Anna Dolidze[5] and Nazi Janezashvili,[6] who pointed out the lack of transparency of the appointment process. The NGO Coalition[7] and Ombudsman[8] also voiced their objections to the process, and ten Supreme Court justices rejected the appointments. [9] In response, the Parliamentary Chair announced that the selection of the cadets will be conducted in accordance with pre-set procedures and criteria,[10] to be debated in 2019.[11]

The selection of judges has been an issue of contention in parliament since the opening of the Spring parliamentary session 2019. In particular, in accordance to the constitutional rules, the High Council of Justice appointed judges and, in the process, retained a majority appointed by the previous government. Further, according to the latest data, 154 of the 298 judges appointed will serve for life. [12] On average, this may mean that each will remain in court for another 20 years, which may become a significant threat to justice and democracy in Georgia. Eka Beselia, the chair of the Legal Issues Committee of the Parliament, resigned from his position in protest, arguing that the Supreme Court should have as justices those lawyers with high qualification and reputation and who did not serve Saakashvili’s violent regime. Perhaps in an effort to downplay the significance of the party dissension on the issue, the Chair of the Parliament stated that Beselia’s resignation is not related to the issue of judges.[13] Other members of the Georgian Dream have also left the majority party in protest, so that there is no longer a constitutional majority in the Parliament of Georgia.

Of critical importance is the continued debate over procedure and criteria for selection of judges to achieve transparency and open selection of candidates. To these ends, two non-judge members of the High Council of Justice, Nazi Janezashvili and Ana Dolidze submitted an initiative to the Parliament on January 15, 2019, proposing selection based on five basic principles. These include: creation of a consulting group; announcement of the competition for selection of candidates for the judiciary of the Supreme Court; avoid conflicts of interest; open interviews; decision consensus.[14] In line with this initiative, a working group was created by the parliamentary majority to create selection criteria; however, most of the NGOs refused to work in the group alongside judges who had been part of the previous opague selection process that appointed ten justices for life.

Separately, nine MPs proposed an initiative to postpone lifetime appointments till 31 December 2024 in the District (City) and Appeal Court. They argue that there is a transitional provision in the constitution of Georgia that the Supreme Council of Justice can postpone the appointment of judges. In their argument, new judges need to be appointed to the judiciary before the reform of the High School of Justice may be implemented. This proposal was rejected by parliament, for fear that a number of judiciary seats in the common courts will go unfilled, which would paralyze the judicial system. [15]

Meanwhile, former party leader and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has announced a return to politics, following the departure of seven MPs from the Georgian Dream and parliamentary majority. Irakli Gharibashvili took the post of Prime Minister after Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2013, where he had been the Minister of Internal Affairs since 2012. Irakli Gharibashvili resgined on December 23, 2015, but did not explain why; [16] he has stayed on as political secretary of the party. According to Gharibashvili, one of its main missions will be the link between the party as the founders, the new generation, the more coordination, reunification and strengthening of which will work together with other members of the party, “he said, adding that the party should be stronger than in 2012 was. [17] Gharibashvili’s return to the party following the loss of its parliamentary majority may signal an effort in the ruling party to maintain unity. Current events indicate that if the split in the parliamentary majority continues, it would be a major political loss for the party in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Also, political trust in the Georgian Dream has been declining.  

How things will progress is unclear. What is clear is that the independence of the judiciary poses a major challenge for Georgian democracy. Some 20 NGOs and other experts have initiated a petition to call for, among other things: a) the resignations of judges and members of the High Council of Justice to further the reform of judicial appointments; b) the suspension of appointments of judges until reforms are adopted; c) the broader involvement of society in the reform process. Clearly, these are unlikely to be adopted; nevertheless, they do put the demands of NGOs, if not society at large, to the government and the parliament.


Posted on behalf of Malkhaz Nakashidze, 1 April, 2019.

Endnotes:

[1] The resignation letter of the Supreme Court of Georgia and the Chairman of the High Council of Justice Nino Gvenetadze, 02/08/2018, <http://www.supremecourt.ge/news/id/1769>  

[2] President of the Supreme Court chairperson’s resignation, 02-08-2018, http://web2.rustavi2.ge/ka/news/110488

[3] The President of Georgia will not presumably nominate a candidate for the Chairperson of the Supreme Court, 24.08.2018, <https://1tv.ge/news/saqartvelos-prezidenti-uzenaesi-sasamartlos-tavmjdomareobis-kandidats-savaraudod-aghar-waradgens/>

[4] The Coalition Calls on President to Change the Decision to Refuse Chairperson of the Supreme Court Decision 31 August, 2018, <https://www.transparency.ge/ge/post/koalicia-moucodebs-prezidents-shecvalos-uzenaesi-sasamartlos-tavmjdomaris-kandidatis

[5] The President appointed Ana Dolidze as a member of the High Council of Justice, 08.01.2018 <https://www.president.gov.ge/ka-GE/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/prezidentma-ana-dolidze-iusticiis-umaglesi-sabchos. aspx>  

[6] Resolution of the Parliament of Georgia on Nazibrola Janezashvili as the Member of the High Council of Justice of Georgia, june 21,2017, <http://www.parliament.ge/ge/ajax/downloadFile/70043/1093

[7] Coalition for “Independent and Transparent Judiciary” responds to the developments in the court and initiates the campaign “I want Wendo Court” March 01, 2018, <https://www.transparency.ge/ge/post/koalicia-damoukidebeli-da-gamchvirvale-martlmsajulebistvis-sasamartloshi-ganvitarebul-movlenebs>  

[8] Ombudsman demands to stop the process of reviewing judges of the supreme judiciary, 2018-12-26 <http://pirveliradio.ge/index.php?newsid=119158>  

[9] The 10th Supreme Court Judge addresses the Parliament and does not consider their candidates, 21.01.2019, <https://1tv.ge/news/uzenaesi-sasamartlos-mosamartleobis-10-ve-kandidati-parlaments-mimartavs-mati-kandidaturebi-ar-ganikhilon/>  

[10]Parliament will discuss at the spring session of the Supreme Court Judges, 26/12/2018, <https://civil.ge/ka/archives/272474>

[11]The new criteria will be submitted to the Parliament by the renewed list of judges, January 12, 2019, <https://imedinews.ge/ge/saqartvelo/92748/parlamentshi-akhali-kriteriumebit-mosamartleta-ganakhlebul-sias-tsaradgenen>   

[12] https://metronome.ge/story/194983

[13] http://liberali.ge/news/view/42227/gaugebaria-ratom-daukavshira-eka-beseliam-gadadgoma-am-yvelafers–kobakhidze

[14] https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/რას-გულისხმობს-ინიციატივა-უზენაესი-სასამართლოს-მოსამართლეების-შერჩევის-შესახებ-/29710710.html

[15] 20.02.2019, Statement by the Political Council, http://41.ge/new/753-politsabchos-ganckhadeba

[16] https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/premier-ministris-gadadgoma/27445412.html

[17] https://imedinews.ge/ge/saqartvelo/98657/irakli-garibashvilma-qartul-otsnebashi-dabrunebis-mizezi-daasakhela

Germany – Party strategies and the selection of electors for presidential elections, 1949-2017

This blog post is based on an article by Philipp Köker recently published in German Politics.

Indirectly elected presidents and their elections are still an underresearched subject in political science. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of fierce competition between political parties over filling the nation’s highest office (many of these documented on this very blog) that highlight the presidency’s importance. In fact, all parties have a vested interest in determining the next president: Indirectly elected presidents often hold important reserve powers and are thus able to tip the balance of power in one’s favour. At the same time, they are effectively agents of parliament and thus less likely to interfere in the work of their principals. However, indirect presidential elections are also publicly observed events that allow parties to send signals to voters and position themselves for the next legislative elections. Therefore, we need to ask: How do political parties strategically approach the indirect election of presidents? Specifically, what value do parties place on capturing the presidency compared to signalling their voters?

The case of Germany offers a particularly interesting perspective on this question. The German president is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), an electoral college consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of electors nominated by Länder (state) parliaments. There are up to three rounds of (secret) voting in the Federal Convention – in the first two rounds, candidates need an absolute majority of electors to win; in the third and final round a relative majority suffices (to date all but three out of ten elections were held in a single round note that no candidate has ever been elected with less than a majority of votes). Electors are elected by state parliaments using proportional representation and must only satisfy criteria for active suffrage; thus, parties have free reign in who to nominate and their delegations can also include nominees who are not members of state legislatures (extra-parliamentarian electors – EPEs).

As can be seen in the above figure, state delegations since 1949 have always included a substantive share of extra-parliamentarian electors (EPEs). Media reporting regularly focusses primarily on the various celebrities (athletes, singers, writers, actors, and socialites) among the EPEs, but parties also nominate representatives of affiliated organisations (e.g. the Social Democratic Party always nominated the president of the German Trade Union Federation). Thus, EPEs can act as celebrity advocates for political parties and provide an opportunity to strengthen ties with other organisations or reward local campaigners. However, EPEs are not subject to the same kind of political socialisation or institutional pressures as deputies of state legislatures; information on their political preferences is also often limited, so that their voting behaviour is considerably more difficult to predict. Therefore, the share of EPEs in party delegations presents an indicator of the relative importance that parties place on capturing the presidency (fewer EPEs) versus exploiting the process for publicity and reward (more EPEs), and allows for assessing the determinants of their strategic considerations.

My main argument is that parties primarily want to see their chosen candidate elected president (or delay the election by preventing a victory in the first two rounds when their candidate has no realistic chance of winning). Exploiting the media attention of the election and strengthening ties with other groups presents a secondary goal. Both goals are in conflict with each other as the realisation of the primary goal requires high levels of voting unity, whereas the subsidiary goals can most effectively be achieved by nominating the – less predictable – EPEs as electors and risking deviations from party line. Based on these initial considerations, I formulate seven hypotheses on when parties should nominate more/fewer EPEs as part of their state delegation to the electoral college.

In my analysis, I use a new data set on 791 party delegations between 1949 and 2017 and use the share of EPEs as the dependent variable. The results confirm most of my hypotheses, yet also challenge some conventional wisdom about presidential elections in Germany. Scholars and journalists previously assumed that parties will nominate more EPEs when the outcome of the election is clear beforehand and competition is low. However, it appears that competition in the electoral college only played a minor role (if any). Rather, party strategies were influenced by the varying signalling power of the elections, i.e. the way in which the presidential election helped to position them with regard to upcoming legislative elections.

Parties were for instance more risk-averse and nominated fewer EPEs when they were part of the federal government, or when federal elections approached. Both scenarios increased the ‘seriousness’ of the election for political parties: Although research has shown no evidence for presidential coattails in Germany, governing parties should perceive themselves to be under greater pressure to display high levels of voting unity. The same applies to all parties if federal elections approach. In contrast, parties nominated more EPEs when they had a larger support base to reward (likely to include more representatives of other organisations, or because larger parties were rather able to accommodate EPEs alongside their political leaders). Interestingly, although electors are chosen at the state level, the control variables about parties’ membership in state governments and approaching state elections did not show statistically significant effects. While it appears that there is a need for a further differentiation of EPEs (e.g. some members of state governments do not or cannot hold legislative office at the same time), this overall supports my assertion that the nomination of electors is a federal strategy that is implemented at state level.

Unfortunately, there is yet little systematic and comparative research on indirect presidential elections. However, Germany is not the only country to elect their president in an extended electoral college (other cases include India and Italy) and/or includes extra-parliamentarian electors in the process (Estonia and Nepal do so, too). Furthermore, the signalling power / publicity potential of indirect presidential elections is likely to exist in other countries, too. Future research should thus analyse the role of the different compositions of electoral colleges, and assess and to what extent parties in other countries are torn between electoral success and exploiting the elections’ publicity potential.

__________________________________________________________________
This blog post is based on a recently published article:
Köker, Philipp. 2019. Risk vs Reward Strategies in Indirect Presidential Elections: Political Parties and the Selection of Presidential Electors in Germany, 1949-2017.
German Politics, [Online First; DOI: 10.1080/09644008.2019.1590549].
The data underlying this study are available via figshare DOI:
10.6084/m9.figshare.6263060.v1

Cyprus: Creeping populism in view of the forthcoming European Elections

The concept of populism is controversial among scholars as to its analytical validity and utility. However, when populism is approached as a political strategy and style of political discourse that can be very useful in analyzing and understanding developments in political and party systems.

In Cyprus, most analysts agree that populism seems, at present, to be a limited force and has not become a threat to the mainstream political parties yet. However, there are circumstances of creeping populism that might favour the rise of populist actors in the near future. The forthcoming European elections present a good opportunity for this.

The major trends of this creeping populism are summarized below. These trends are repeatedly found in national opinion polls and Eurobarometres of recent years.

  1. There is a strong sense of identification with ethnicity and country.
  2. Turkey and immigration are perceived as the most significant and material threats to peace and security in Cyprus. These issues are among the most privileged ones for populist actors not only in Cyprus but all over Europe.
  3. The perception that ‘ethnic diversity destroys the unity of a country’ is widely held among Cypriots. Again this can be easily directed against immigrants and other minorities in Cyprus and particularly the Turkish Cypriots.

The above (1-3) must be seen in combination with the revival of nationalism in Cyprus society in the context of the Cyprus problem; nationalism is one of the most important ingredients of (right-wing) populism.

4. Very low levels of trust in national institutions. Eurobarometers continuously record very high numbers of people’s distrust towards political parties, national parliament, government, the president, the media, and recently the Cypriot Central Bank and the judiciary. These results indicate a great disappointment among the Cypriot citizens with the entire national political system which can be easily taken up by populist actors. 

5. Economic situation and corruption are the two most important problems faced by Cypriots which again lay the ground for future populist actors. This is coupled with widely held perceptions that socioeconomic changes in recent years have increased the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the underdogs.

6. Most Cypriots believe that corruption among public officials is high and widespread. Corruption is often cited as a pre-condition for the emergence of populism. Corruption issues feature high on populist parties’ campaign agenda and populists often use anti-corruption rhetoric to attract people’s support.

7. Perceptions of political party homogenization are high indicating that most Cypriots consider either all parties being the same or that all big (mainstream) parties are the same. However, they don’t put the small parties in the same frame; they consider small parties to be different. This reveals feelings of protest and anti-establishment politics which could be easily mobilized by a (small or new) populist actor.  

8. Cypriot citizens increasingly favour technocratic solutions sidelining all ideological and political discussions.

The above (4-8) suggest that Cyprus is facing a huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This crisis was intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and the inability of the political parties and the governments to protect the people from the economic crisis. The fact that both the left and the right had governed during the period of the crisis Cyprus (and Europe) went through has made all political forces looking the same. Moreover, all mainstream political parties are accused of having presented no solutions to the problems of the people. Therefore, a strong dichotomy was created between voters in general on the one hand and mainstream parties on the other.

All the above suggest that there are important contextual parameters that could provide a fertile ground for populism to rise. Populism can take both (or either) socioeconomic and cultural characteristics. Some polls when comparing the ideology of those expressing the above positions/feelings on the various issues find that there are stronger positions on all issues held among the nationalists. This is an important indication that shows that the possibility of populism is far bigger on the right than on the left.

The most possible candidate to adopt populist strategies is the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM). ELAM is essentially a branch of the Greek Golden Dawn but they carefully position themselves as nationalists who struggle for their country against the corrupted political and economic elite that has governed Cyprus since independence. According to some recent polls ELAM is a serious contender for the sixth seat of Cyprus in the forthcoming EU elections.

Finland heading for another coalition between Social Democrats and the conservatives?

In Finland the elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. Unfortunately this also means that European elections will definitely be ‘second-order elections’, with the political parties and the media investing their resources in Eduskunta elections and in the government formation talks that follow them.

With just over a month to go, it appears that the Eduskunta election campaigns will be dominated by a single topic – the reorganization of social and health services. It is essentially a deal between the two main coalition parties, Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting directly-elected regional councils (the Centre wins most of its votes in the rural areas of the country) and the latter in turn ensuring a larger role for the private sector in delivering social and health services. However, the process with all its twists and turns has dragged on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the required legislation cannot be approved before the April elections. In fact, the whole package may fail, especially as there is stronger criticism from within the governing parties, with several of their MPs already indicating that they will vote against the laws in the Eduskunta. Recently there has also emerged a wave of scandals concerning nursing homes and other facilities operated by private companies: public authorities have intervened, reprimanding companies for inadequate staffing and overall poor treatment of the occupants, and even enforcing the closure of some of the facilities.

It is perfectly understandable that the project has produced heated debates within and between parties, not to mention in the society at large. Finns are used to a high level of social protection and to health services being delivered mainly by the public sector, with the welfare state regime enjoying strong support among the population. To be sure, municipal councils that are responsible for providing the services have increasingly been purchasing them from private companies, but as the above-mentioned scandals indicate, there are genuine concerns about the quality of social and health services. The government has been arguing that the new system would be cheaper, but economists are not convinced. Also the introduction of directly-elected regional councils would involve a significant transfer of decision-making authority from municipal councils upwards to the regional level, and hence many fear the erosion of local democracy.

Whatever the merits of the planned reform, the timing could not have been worse for the cabinet. The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted by the leading daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat from 14 January to 14 February, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 20,8 % of the vote. If the SDP holds on to its lead, this will be the first time that the Social Democrats are the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. In the 2015 elections SDP captured only 16,5 % of the vote, its lowest share ever in Eduskunta elections. Social Democrats have criticized heavily the planned reorganization of social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering the services. However, for the most part SDP and the other opposition parties have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes. But whether the Social Democrats manage to keep their pole position depends on the final weeks of the campaign and on how the party leader Antti Rinne performs in the main television debates. Rinne just returned from a two-month sick leave, and there is general agreement that his past appearances in such debates have left considerable room for improvement. Rinne has a trade union background, and SDP will no doubt also emphasize employment and other labour market issues in its campaign.

The National Coalition came second in the poll with 18,6 % of the vote. The party is seen as the ally of large private companies, and thus it is logical that leading party figures, including party chair Petteri Orpo, have tried to divert attention to other issues. The Sipilä government has by and large achieved its main goals regarding employment and competitiveness, and the National Coalition has warned about the potential economic consequences of a SDP-led cabinet. While the National Coalition and the Social Democrats are currently fighting hard for the position of the prime minister, the two parties have also considerable experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015).

The Centre Party is in serious trouble, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll predicting the party winning only 14,7 % of the vote. This would be major loss for the party – it emerged victorious in 2015 with 21,1 % of the vote – and in line with the setback experienced in the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing seems to take its toll. The market-friendly policies of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä have clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. Hence it is not surprising that over the past few weeks Sipilä has focused in his speeches on issues close to the heart of rural voters, not least on the question of forest harvesting where Sipilä has defended increased use of forest resources. If the Centre is not part of the next government, Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils.

The third cabinet party is the Blue Reform, formed after the split inside the Finns Party in the summer of 2017. The party has found it difficult to establish an identity somewhere between the hard-line anti-immigration views of the Finns and the mainstream centre-right parties, and according to the Helsingin Sanomat poll its support was only 1 %. The support of the Finns Party has meanwhile been on the rise, with the recent poll giving it 11,4 % of the vote. Party chair and MEP Jussi Halla-aho is surely hoping for immigration and multiculturalism to become the main topic in both the Eduskunta and the European Parliament elections. Here the party may benefit from recent multiple abuse cases involving iimmigrants, with the victims including under-age girls. Halla-aho himself is seeking a return to the Eduskunta in the April elections.

Of the other opposition parties, the Green League appointed Pekka Haavisto, a popular and senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, as its interim leader in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. Under Haavisto the Greens have improved their ratings, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll indicating 13,6 % of the vote. This would mean a substantial victory for the Greens, as the 8,5 % achieved in the 2015 elections was their best-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. Climate change and education are the pet themes of the party, and such topics are likely to appeal to particularly urban, younger voters. The Left Alliance also has a popular party chair, the energetic Li Andersson. Under her leadership, the party’s election manifesto centres around equality, justice, and the need to prevent poverty. In the Helsingin Sanomat poll the party’s support was at 8,7 %. The Swedish People’s Party received 4,3 % and the Christian Democrats 4,0 % of the vote in the Helsingin Sanomat poll.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. The centre-left parties (Social Democrats, Left Alliance, and arguably also Greens) look set to perform much better than four years ago, and this is potentially also good news for the trade unions that have been the target of strong criticism during the reign of the Sipilä government. However, in terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the elections will not produce any significant changes. This applies also to foreign policy leadership which constitutionally is shared between the president and the government. None of the prime ministerial candidates are known for their expertise or interest in foreign affairs questions, and hence the highly popular President Niinistö is likely to retain his strong position in Finland’s foreign and security policy.

Czech President: between Adoration and Impeachment

The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, is an undoubtedly remarkable political figure who frequently faces fierce criticism because of his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy, a staunch support for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, awarding state decorations to other controversial figures, and many other matters. Mr. Zeman’s provocative political style as well as his controversial policies are now well-known abroad.C

Despite these controversies, president Zeman remains a highly popular figure in the Czech politics.[1] The President as an individual person, as well as an institution remains the most trusted figure among top Czech politicians and constitutional bodies. Miloš Zeman as a political person is trusted by 48 per cent of the population, although 46 per cent respondents claim that they do not trust him.[2] The data corroborates one peculiar and at the same time constant feature of the Czech president since his was elected to the office in 2013: his highly divisive political style that tends to polarize the Czech society. Zeman, as a constitutional body, was trusted by 53 per cent of respondents, which is more than other top constitutional bodies. Only local government, local mayors and presidents of regional councils score better as far as political institutions in the Czech Republic are concerned.[3]

Although the president enjoys considerable levels of popular support, Miloš Zeman faces a risk of impeachment. In January 2019, a group of senators have announced their intention to file a constitutional charge against Zeman for gross violation of the Constitution. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that the president will be impeached because of two major factors. First, the Czech constitution makes it procedurally extremely difficult to impeach president. The procedure was changed in 2012, together with the amendment that introduced the popular election of the president.[4] The art. 65 of the constitution allows the Senate, with the consent of the Chamber of Deputies, to file a constitutional charge against the President for high treason, gross violation of the Constitution before the Constitutional Court. In order to approve the filing of the constitutional charge, the consent of a three-fifths majority of the votes of present senators is required. In addition, in order to approve of the charge, the Chamber of Deputies is required to pass it by a three-fifths majority of all deputies. Second, several political parties, notably the Communists (KSČM), the populist right-wing party called Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), but also Prime Minister’s own party ANO 2011 and the Social Democrats do not support the ideas. These parties enjoy a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which makes the impeachment much more complicated and burdensome, as the Chamber may veto the process.

It should be noted that the notion of impeachment is not a novelty in the Czech politics. There were several initiatives to impeach president Klaus and Zeman, but so far only in one case did the charges eventually reach the Constitutional Court. Other initiatives were shipwrecked in the Senate. For example, in 2004, Senator Zdeněk Bárta sought to impeach President Klaus for rejecting to propose a further candidate for judge in the Constitutional Court, thus putting the Constitutional Court in danger of soon becoming unable to pass decisions.[5] In March 2013 the Senate filed a charge against the president Klaus for high treason. The charge included five delicts: (1) inactivity in the process of ratifying the Additional Protocol of the European Social Charter; (2) not accomplishing the ratification process of the Treaty Establishing the European Stability Mechanism; (3) the highly controversial amnesty issued in January 2013; (4) not proposing further candidates for judge in the Constitutional Court; and (5) not respecting a court’s decision to appoint a judge of a district court. However, the Constitutional Court did not decide, arguing that Klaus’s mandate was already over.[6] In Zeman’s case various politicians, notably Senators, have considered Zeman’s impeachment for several years. So far, there were three major initiatives to impeach President Zeman. None of them reached the Constitutional Court. First, in 2015, the Senate was petitioned to trigger impeachment against Zeman for high treason. Petitioners claimed that Zeman’s views on EU’s sanctions against Russia for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in Ukraine indicated that Zeman “acted in the interest of Vladimir Putin’s regime rather than in the interest of the Czech Republic and its allies”. Second, in 2017, Zeman displayed his strong dislike to recall Mr. Babiš, the then Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s cabinet. Zeman’s reluctance to comply with the Prime Minister Sobotka’s request would certainly contradict the constitution (art. 74).[7] However, after a strong pressure, Zeman eventually gave in and accept Babiš’s resignation.[8] Finally and very recently (in January 2019) a group of senators accused Zeman of gross violation of the Constitution. Their charge is not ready yet, but it will likely include a number of accusations. This initiative was triggered by a scandal related to efforts of the president and his chancellor to interfere in the courts. The initiator of the charge, senator Václav Láska, claimed that this scandal was the last straw: “When you take only individual actions of Mr. President, you may come to the conclusion that on their own they are on the edge of Constitutionality…But when you describe 20 such actions together it gives you a ground for a statement that the President does that on purpose, that his intention is to violate the Constitution, that he does not respect the Constitution”.

So, what were other problematic steps of the president that made senators prepare the constitutional charge against the president? Critics argue that Zeman is not defending the Czech national interests, nor his steps are in line with the Czech membership in the EU and NATO and its values, and that the president’s steps in foreign policy clearly contradict Czech foreign policy formulated by the government. Zeman is generally considered a Russian ally and the following cases support the above statement.

Zeman also vociferously defended Russian position in the well-known affair of poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and tended to repeat Kremlin arguments.[9] In 2016, a Russian citizen, Yevgeni Nikulin was detained by the Czech police. Nikulin was considered to be a Russian hacker who had attacked US social networks. Both USA and Russia intensively pressured the Czech Republic to extradite Nikulin. Zeman was lobbying for Nikulin’s extradition to Russia. However, the Czech Ministry of Justice eventually extradited Nikulin to the USA in 2018.

Another scandal is related to Zeman’s fierce criticism of an annual report issued by the Czech Security Intelligence Service (BIS), which among others said that Russian and Chinese spies in the country were working out of their embassies in Prague. Not only that Zeman argued that the BIS failed to provide evidence of specific Russian or Chinese espionage activities, but also he accused the BIS of failing to uncover any Islamic “terrorists” in the Czech Republic. On the top of that, Zeman described the report as “gibberish” or “blather” and the intelligence officers as “bozos.” His clearly pro-Chinese and pro-Russian position was well displayed in at least three other affairs.  In 2018 the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) issued a warning report arguing that Huawei’s products might be misused by China. This report is in line with the fact that growing number of companies, governments and academic institutions have called into question Huawei‘s close links to the Chinese state and its espionage activities. Thus, after an attack on the Czech Security Intelligence Service, Zeman attacked another Czech security institution and criticized the report. He accused NUKIB as well as BIS of having threatened Czech economic interests in China. As usual, his criticism was highly insulting, when he said that the security institutions issued their reports „either out of stupidity or for money“. Zeman argued that China was seeking economic retaliation measures. Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government, as well as opposition politicians, rejected Zeman’s criticism.

These affairs and conflicts, together with Zeman’s constant critique of media, delegitimizing the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tomáš Petříček, who is a clearly pro-Western, pro-European politician, clearly indicate symptoms of democratic erosion in the Czech Republic.[10] In other words, a battle over liberal democratic principles in the Czech Republic started a couple of years ago (Zeman is not the only person to blame for this negative trend). It remains to be seen whether democratic erosion will be sponsored only by the Czech president and two anti-establishment political parties, the KSČM and SPD, or whether other political and constitutional actors become infected with illiberal policies and values.


[1] For details see Červenka, Jan. 2019. Public Opinion on Performance of Miloš Zeman – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[2] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Popularity of Top Politicians – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[3] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Confidence in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation. January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[4] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 94-95.

[5] L. Kopeček, Václav Klaus. Politická biografie (Brno: Barrister & Principal, 2012).

[6] Ústavní soud. “Ústavní soud zastavil řízení o velezradě bývalého prezidenta Václava Klause – aktualizováno.” Brno: Ústavní soud. (Full text is available in Czech only);Brunclík and Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe, 94-95

[7] „The President of the Republic shall recall members of the government if the Prime Minister so proposes“.

[8] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 82.

[9] M. Krejčí, „The Czech President searching for the Novichok in the Czech Republic“. European Values, Kremlin Watch Report, 2018. Full text.

[10] S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt and, How Democracies Die (New York, Crown, 2018).