Category Archives: Europe

Poland – Is the presidency going down the Hungarian path?

Over the last years, I have chronicled (and lamented) the descent of the Hungarian presidency  during the Orbán government from promising check-and-balance into political irrelevance. After an initial phase of constructive presidential activism in which incumbent Janos Áder used his powers in an attempt to improve legislation, he subsequently failed to criticise any of the government’s controversial reforms and used his veto power and right to request judicial review on fewer and fewer occasions. Three years after the election of a Law and Justice (PiS) president and government in Poland, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path. Despite the added legitimacy and independence through a direct electoral mandate, president Andrzej Duda has done little to balance the increasingly illiberal policies of the government. Although he has not remained entirely inactive, his activism is geared towards re-election and democratic window-dressing, rather than becoming a real check-and-balance.

Photo via prezydent.pl

When the 42 year-old MEP Andrzej Duda was elected president in May 2015, it was easy to portray him as little more than a puppet of PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. After the parliamentary election in the autumn of the same year produced an absolute majority for PiS (for which Kaczynski has as of yet not taken an official seat on the front bench), Duda was complicit in the unconstitutional appointment of several judges to the Constitutional Tribunal (having previously refused to swear in judges that had been originally – and legally – appointed) and failed to step in when the government subsequently refused to publish the Tribunal’s judgement on the unconstitutionality of these actions. Up until last summer, president Duda failed to condemn any of the reforms of the Polish government, which resulted in the European Union’s decision to trigger Article 7 (a formal warning an possibility of disciplinary procedures) in December 2017.

In July 2017 president Duda vetoed two controversial judicial reforms that would have given the government near complete control over the judiciary. Nevertheless, as I argued at the time, the vetoes were little more than democratic window-dressing and inevitable due to national and international pressure after it emerged that the Senate had passed bills in different versions than the lower chamber. Duda’s vetoes caused friction with the PiS government and then Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as a number of other co-partisans accused him of hampering ‚improvements’ to the country’s legal system. Nevertheless, it is without question that these reforms will reappear in other forms and Duda will sign them off. The vetoes can merely be seem as an attempt to ‚save face‘ and means to appease critical voters in a bid to secure re-election in 2020.

President Duda’s signature under the so-called Holocaust bill, a law that seeks to punish those who accuse Poland or Poles of complicity in the mass extermination of jews during WWII with up to three years in prison, shows the same pattern of self-interested activism. Duda signed the bill into law but also submitted the bill to the Constitutional Tribunal at the same time. Signing the bill will appease not only the core electorate of PiS but also a the majority of Poles who rightly object to the phrase ‘Polish death camps‘ that is still frequently used to label Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland (the country’s embassies still regularly intervene when the phrase is used in the media). Simultaneously sending the law to the Constitutional Tribunal should be seen as a signal to those voters who fear a limitation of free speech. Nevertheless, a decision from the Tribunal could take 1-2 years and with the law in force, the government can already use it to silence its critics – after the cleansing of public media from critical journalists, it becomes another tool to suppress free speech. Interestingly, the same tactic was used by president Lech Kaczynski (the twin brother of party leader and then Prime Minister Jaroslaw) during the PiS governments in 2005-2007 with the exception that the Constitutional Tribunal was not yet staffed with loyal judges (who are unlikely to pronounce the law unconstitutional).

Thus, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path, albeit with some variation. As Andrzej Duda needs public support to secure his re-election in 2020 he is more active (or at least more visibly) than his Hungarian colleague. Given the greater international attention paid to the situation in Poland compared to the one in Hungary (where the EU clearly failed to step in in time) and stronger domestic opposition, Duda also needs to be active to appease international and national critics. However, overall the Polish presidency is currently failing at its job as a check-and-balance on parliament and government. An altered parliamentary composition following the 2019 legislative elections or even a second term for Duda in 2020 may change the situation, yet for now we may need to declare a ‘presidency lost‘.

Cyprus – Continuity and change after the 2018 presidential election

The 2018 presidential election in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) saw the re-election of incumbent president, Nicos Anastasiades, although in more difficult conditions than five years previously. In 2013, he was elected relatively easily, riding the wave of anti-government feeling at a time of worsening economic conditions and intense critique of the former leftist government. In 2018, the situation was different in many respects. This included the fact that he had lost the backing of his former centrist ally (DIKO) and was supported only by his (rightist) party DISY and because of the standard negative effects of incumbency, particularly after some harsh economic decisions, notably the first ever ‘bail-in’ in the EU, which led to increased economic uncertainty and distress among the population.

However, and despite the above, in last Sunday’s election President Anastasiades won 56% of the vote against 44% for Stavros Malas. This was a very similar result to the 2013 election when the same contesters polled 57.48% and 42.52% respectively. For many people, the result made it seem as if the previous 5 years had not taken place. In analysing the results and identifying the reasons and the consequences, this post must be read as a follow up from my previous post in which I analysed the context within which these presidential elections took place.

The issue in the first round was centered on who would face Anastasiades in the second round and whether there would be any room for cooperation between that candidate and the candidates and parties who failed to qualify. In the end, Malas and AKEL polled 30.24%, which was a lot more than anticipated. Therefore, Malas and AKEL were among the definite winners of the first round. The first round had another winner though: the extreme right candidate Christos Christou, the leader of the extreme neo-Nazi party ELAM, who polled 5.65% (up from the 3.7% that his party scored in the 2016 parliamentary elections).

Anastasiades, though coming first, scored 35.51%, which was much lower than expected. He can, therefore, be ranked among the losers of the first round. However, the definite loser of the first round was Nikolas Papadopoulos, who campaigned mostly on the Cyprus problem and who polled 25.74% (approximately 6% down from the total sum of the aggregate vote of the four parties that supported him). The latter seemed to be an indirect indication that the majority of the voters still support the bizonal bicommunal federation as the most acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem.

Abstention reached 28.12%, almost 10% up from 2013, showing that it is a structural feature of Cypriot electoral behaviour, while at the same time it has not reached its ceiling. Exit polls revealed that abstention was much higher among younger cohorts.

The second round revealed an entirely different setting. There, Anastasiades cruised to victory by a clear margin. Although abstention was a little lower than the first round (26.03%), it was still high by Cyprus’ usual standards. More worryingly, the president-elect was actually voted in by a minority of the electorate. Abstention excluded, Anastasiades’ polled 39.1% of the electorate compared to his 43.4% in 2013 and Christofias’ 44.6% in 2008; these figures do not include those who did not register to the electoral lists, or approximately 30,000 people.

Anastasiades’ election can be explained by a variety of factors. The include, first, the fragmentation of the opposition. They won a majority in the first round, totalling approximately 65%. However, its different constituent parts could not strike an agreement for the second round. This placed Anastasiades in an advantageous position allowing him to maneuver effectively. All the parties and candidates who failed to qualify for the second round decided to support neither of the remaining candidates, which was arguably more damaging to Malas.

Second, Anastasiades’ narrative focused on the need to continue a cautious policy with regard to the economy but a decisive attitude with regard to the Cyprus problem; this combination seemed to appeal to voters more than the narratives of his major opponents, Papadopoulos and Malas. Papadopoulos’ new strategy on the Cyprus problem was ambiguous and unclear, thus causing anxiety and uncertainty, whereas Malas’ association with AKEL reminded them of Christofias’ presidency which was judged as bad, particularly in the economy. Both candidates failed to produce and present a convincing, coherent and applicable programme to the voters.

A third reason lies with Anastasiades U-turn in regard to the Cyprus problem in the last few months. The president adopted a more hard-line position, projecting himself as the only candidate who could assertively defend Greek Cypriots’ rights at the negotiation table. This U-turn enabled him to reach out to the more nationalist voters of his own party (DISY) who had considered him too soft towards the Turkish Cypriots and also of other center right and right-wing parties. The nationalist portion of the electorate in Cyprus remains high and this U-turn proved decisive.

The elections revealed interesting insights with regard to Cyprus’ political and party system, indicating mixed signs of change and continuity. Signs of change have been evident for some time now. Partisan attachments are fading away with younger generations not feeling bound by their families’ choices. Cyprus has been experiencing a process of dealignment for a few years now, but without any realignment except in the case of the extreme right ELAM. Interestingly, their party leader achieved a bigger percentage in the presidential elections (5.7%) than his party did a year and a half back in the parliamentary elections of 2016 (3.7%), which is something that he could potentially capitalise on in the near future. However, increased abstention, protest voting and citizens’ dissatisfaction with the overall workings of the political system indicate the existence of a political vacuum in which new organizations, movements and/or parties could enter.

Another interesting new feature of this election which might be revealing for the future was the inability and unwillingness of political parties to reach agreements and make alliances with each other. This was the first time in Cyprus’ presidential election history that candidates and parties did not seek an agreement between the first and the second round. This was justified by their wish not to water down their positions. This was well-received by part of the media and their supporters, but it could also be a sign of their inability to reach a consensus. Moreover, the intense and polarized confrontation between most of the parties, as well as their divergent positions on several dimensions of party competition shows that most opportunities for cooperation have been severely damaged, which in turn points to the difficulties ahead for the president.

The parties that populate the space between the leftist AKEL and rightist DISY have declared their intention to further enhance their cooperation beyond the mere joint support of a common presidential candidate. Their intention is to create a powerful ‘third pole’ in the party system that will pursue power and policies autonomously. Although this is a difficult task to achieve, given their different political and personal agendas and their internal problems, if they do succeed it could change the nature and format of party politics in Cyprus given the fragmentation of the centrist political space hitherto. At the same time, it will place significant pressure on the new president since he will face harsh opposition from two discrete blocs (left and center).

Signs of continuity are also evident particularly with regard to the effects of bipolarism (left and right). The mainstream parties of both left and right, AKEL and DISY, continue to dominate their respective political spheres and have proven their endurance despite their problems. In this regard, the ‘old’ party system has once again proven powerful enough to absorb the shocks and survive.

What is the future for the president elect? It has been pointed out by many commentators that the president will immediately face numerous challenges and will not benefit from any honeymoon period. These challenges include, inter alia, the possible resumption of the negotiations over the Cyprus problem, difficult decisions in the economy (e.g., privatizations, seizure of properties by the banks and many more), the developments with regard to Cyprus’ natural gas deposits, etc. All these decisions must be made in the context of a polarised and hostile environment, particularly in parliament where president Anastasiades does not enjoy a majority anymore. Although Cyprus is a presidential democracy, the president nevertheless has to achieve consensus or at least a majority in many bills. Both AKEL and the parties of the so-called middle space have declared their intention to oppose the president on all fronts. Achieving consensus will be increasingly difficult from now on.

Overall, President Anastasiades has to walk a very thin line. He was voted in with 21,000 votes less than in 2013. More importantly, 335,000 voters did not vote for him (143,401 who abstained, 12,173 blank votes, 10,778 spoilt ballots, and 169,243 citizens who voted for Malas) compared to the 215,281 who did vote for him. To ignore this arithmetic would be a huge mistake, particularly on high salience issues such as the Cyprus problem and the economy. Moreover, he can no longer blame the previous government.

When European presidents abused presidential term limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Czech Republic – The 2018 Presidential Elections: A Divided Country

Miloš Zeman, the incumbent president of the Czech Republic, has been re-elected. His success is likely to usher in yet another divisive presidency. To date, Zeman’s time in office has been characterized by his provocative style, his contempt for most of the media, an unpredictability in domestic politics, his clearly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy and, consequently, a lack of respect from many EU member states’ representatives.

Despite a number of controversial steps and speeches both in domestic and foreign policy, President Zeman entered the presidential contest as the favourite. In total, eight male candidates challenged the incumbent. Most of them lacked both party membership and political experience, which clearly points to the weakness and low self-confidence of Czech political parties. Indeed, no parliamentary party put up a candidate in the presidential race.

The Czech president is popularly elected for a five-year term. The first election was in 2013. In order to be elected, a candidate must receive more than 50 per cent of the votes cast at the first ballot. If none of the candidates meets this requirement, a second round is held. The two candidates who received the highest number of the votes in the first round are eligible for the second round.

In line with pre-election surveys, President Zeman topped the poll in the first round, followed by Jiří Drahoš. Mr. Drahoš is the former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He entered the contest as the complete opposite to Miloš Zeman. Drahoš lacked political experience, whereas Miloš Zeman often pointed to his long political career that dates back to the 1989 revolution that put an end to the Communist dictatorship. Zeman was the former chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002. By contrast, Drahoš is a non-partisan, portraying himself as an honest and fair man without any scandals and controversies in his career. He was also strongly oriented towards the EU and NATO and was highly sceptical position towards Russia, which he described as a major security threat to the Czech Republic. Most of these policies were also shared by several other candidates, including Pavel Fischer, the former Czech ambassador to France and a close aide to the first Czech president Václav Havel.

Long before the elections, President Zeman divided the Czech electorate. On the one hand, he had a significant pool of staunch supporters. Zeman is a skilful politician with excellent rhetoric (always speaking off-the-cuff), well-prepared arguments in debates and and instinct for the public mood and popular preferences. On the other hand, his foreign policy, vulgarisms, harsh attacks on some media and political parties as well as individual politicians gave rise to a heterogeneous group of fierce critics.

Mr. Zeman won the first popularly-held elections in 2013. Then, he narrowly beat Mr. Schwarzenberg, a popular and charismatic Minister of foreign Affairs in a highly unpopular right-wing cabinet led by Petr Nečas. Following the 2013 elections, and in contrast to his predecessor President Klaus, President Zeman quickly reached a compromise with the Senate over the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, where the terms of a number of judges were soon to expire. President Zeman helped avert this unfortunate situation and together with the Senate appointed largely uncontroversial and respected personalities to the Constitutional Court. President Zeman informally, but significantly meddled in the internal affairs of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally been divided between Zeman’s supporters and his critics at least since Zeman left the party in 2007. For example, his hostile relations with the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka (2013-2017), were often referred to by the foreign media.

It is plausible to assert that Zeman earned his popularity by his almost permanent travelling across the country, visiting regions, speaking to regional and local political leaders, as well as to factory workers, pensioners, students and the like. This patient (and exhausting) strategy helped to create the largely positive image of himself as a popular president who pays attention to ordinary, lower-class or forgotten people in the Czech peripheries. This aspect of Zeman’s presidency together with his deteriorating health (e.g. diabetes, tiredness, limited ability to walk) may explain Zeman’s decision not to run an election campaign. In practice this meant that Zeman did not participate in any of the presidential debates prior the first round of the election. In addition, on most occasions he rejected any requests for media interviews. At the same time, he still enjoyed widespread media coverage. The President was heavily involved in the (still ongoing) government formation process following the October 2017 parliamentary elections and participated in a number of state ceremonies. Moreover, he regularly attended a show called a “Week with the President” broadcast by a private TV channel, which made no secret of the fact that President Zeman was its favoured candidate for the presidential contest. Friendly and uncontroversial questions allowed Zeman to present himself as a clever and responsible statesman. The very fact that President Zeman himself officially conducted no campaign did not prevent his followers and sponsors from making a very efficient, visible and costly outdoor and on-line campaign for President Zeman.

The major disadvantage of Zeman’s challengers (with the exception of the former Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek) was simple, but serious: none of them was a widely known person and above all they needed to let the voters know who they were. Even before the second round, Mr. Drahoš was still a little known (or even unknown) candidate for a significant proportion of voters, which affected the election result.

Only after the results of the first round were announced when Mr. Drahoš did very well, emboldening all the anti-Zeman camp to believe that the incumbent was not invincible, did President Zeman change strategy and agree to participate in two televised presidential debates. Mr. Drahoš tried to attack Zeman, drawing public attention to a series of failures and problems (including lack of transparency in the campaign fund-raising, questionable members of Zeman’s advisory team with close ties to Kremlin and Beijing). Despite Drahoš’ best efforts, observers agreed that President Zeman won the debates.

Results of the 2018 Czech presidential elections:

Candidates Party First Round Second Round
votes % votes %
Mirek Topolánek non-partisan 221 689 4,3 X X
Michal Horáček non-partisan 472 643 9,18 X X
Pavel Fischer non-partisan 526 694 10,23 X X
Jiří Hynek Realisté (“Realists”) 63 348 1,23 X X
Petr Hannig Rozumní (“The Reasonable”) 29 228 0,56 X X
Vratislav Kulhánek ODA (Civic Democratic Alliance) 24 442 0,47 X X
Miloš Zeman SPO (Party of Civic Rights) 1 985 547 38,56 2 853 390 51,36
Marek Hilšer non-partisan 454 949 8,83 X X
Jiří Drahoš non-partisan 1 369 601 26,6 2 701 206 48,63

Source: https://volby.cz/pls/prez2018/pe2?xjazyk=CZ

In the end, Zeman narrowly won the contest (see table above), but the country remains divided. This is exemplified by the fact that the turnout in the second round reached almost 67%, which is the highest in any Czech nation-wide election over the past two decades. The division in the electorate dates back to the 2013 presidential elections and its existence was confirmed by the 2017 parliamentary elections. What is the difference between President Zeman’s followers and those of his opponents? President Zeman found most of his voters in smaller towns and villages in the Czech peripheries, whereas Mr. Drahoš won in Prague, the Central Bohemia region and in most of large cities. It also seems that older voters with lower education and income levels largely voted for Miloš Zeman. Zeman was also able to take advantage of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Czech population. Despite the fact that only a handful of migrants actually settled in the Czech Republic, migration issues and the EU migrant quotas were important themes of the campaign. It also seems correct to argue that Zeman represented nationalist voters, who are sceptical and even hostile to the EU and NATO (although Zeman was careful to advocate the Czech membership of both organizations), and voters with strong anti-party sentiments. To sum up, President Zeman was able to forge an unique informal electoral alliance of the far-left (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which praised the former Communist dictatorship), the ruling populist ANO led by the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, radical right-wing populists (the anti-migrant movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy”, favouring a “Czexit), Eurosceptical right-wing voters, and a significant portion of the Czech Social Democratic Party’s voters. This heterogeneous alliance now holds a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

What can we expect from the incumbent? Mr. Zeman will probably keep pursuing his policies as well as his divisive political style. In his first speech following the election, he attacked Prague voters (in Prague President Zeman got only 31% of the vote). For the next few weeks and months, Zeman’s role in the government formation process will be key. In December 2017 Zeman appointed Andrej Babiš as the new prime minister. Babiš formed a one-party minority cabinet composed of ANO nominees. Yet, his cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in January 2018, mainly because Mr. Babiš is being prosecuted by the police. He has been formally charged with fraud in a case involving a two million euro EU subsidy. Yet, Mr. Zeman and Mr. Babiš have so far supported each other. The former openly sided with the latter in the 2018 presidential contest and Mr. Zeman promised to appoint Mr. Babiš Prime Minister again in February 2018. At the moment, Mr. Babiš leads a caretaker cabinet that resigned in January following the no-confidence vote. However, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to execute its functions until a new cabinet is formed. The media are now speculating that the Social Democrats will  change their leaders following their February party congress and abandon their reluctant approach towards the Babiš cabinet. As a result, Babiš might be able to make a coalition deal with the Social Democrats. The new Babiš coalition could be supported by the Communist Party in order to obtain a parliamentary majority in the Chamber of Deputies. This scenario is also supported by Miloš Zeman. Be it as it may, Zeman has won his last great political battle (the constitution forbids him to run for yet another term) and he will remain an influential player in Czech politics.

Finland – Niinistö re-elected in the first round with 62.6 % of the vote

In the first round of the Finnish presidential elections held last Sunday, 28 January, the incumbent Sauli Niinistö secured his re-election with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. Turnout was 69,9 % (including only those resident in Finland), just below the 70,1 % achieved in the latest parliamentary elections held in 2015.
Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö had announced last May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign, and the party indeed campaigned quite actively in support of Niinistö. Also the Christian Democrats had decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

Niinistö was the clear favourite throughout the campaign. In all surveys conducted since last summer between 60-80 % said they would vote for Niinistö. Contextual factors favoured the president. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the neighbouring area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia became more important, and Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin and other leaders received extensive friendly media coverage. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security, and the unusually high approval ratings indicate that voters appreciated Niinistö’s foreign and security policy leadership. Another, quite different, type of a boost to Niinistö’s campaign came in the form of an announcement in October by the president and his wife Jenni Haukio that they were expecting a baby in February. Niinistö, who turns 70 in August, has also two adult sons from his previous marriage.

As the voters clearly approved of Niinistö’s track record in office, the other ‘mainstream’ candidates found it extremely difficult to challenge him. The constitutional prerogatives of the president are essentially limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government, and the debates largely focused on familiar themes – relations with Russia, the EU and NATO. To be sure, there were some relatively minor differences, with the left-leaning candidates – Merja Kyllönen (Left Alliance), Tuula Haatainen (Social Democrats), and Pekka Haavisto (Green League) – emphasizing global issues and equality, with Niinistö and Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) in turn adopting more ‘realist’ positions. This was most evident in debates concerning relations with China, as two giant pandas donated by China arrived in Finland in mid-January. Nils Torvalds (Swedish People’s Party) in turn was the only candidate openly supportive of NATO membership.

At least some colour and ideological alternatives were brought to the campaign by Laura Huhtasaari (The Finns Party) and Paavo Väyrynen, currently an MEP and a long-standing, popular yet controversial, Centre Party politician who was now running as an independent candidate having been the presidential candidate of the Centre Party in the 1988, 1994 and 2012 elections. Both Huhtasaari and Väyrynen utilized anti-EU discourse, with Huhtasaari in particular also advocating much stronger powers for the president, including the right to dissolve the parliament. Such sentiments are shared by the electorate, with surveys reporting that the majority of the Finns would favour a stronger presidency and that the president should be also involved in domestic politics and EU affairs. The other candidates appeared by and large willing to respect the constitutional division of labour between the state institutions, but essentially all of them nonetheless flirted with the idea of an active president that would also, if needed, intervene in domestic matters.

Turning to the results, appealing primarily to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters, Haavisto finished second with 12,4 % of the vote. This was obviously a clear disappointment, given that six years earlier Haavisto had made it to the second round against Niinistö. The personal popularity of Haavisto combined with the recent rise of the Greens in Finnish politics undermined the prospects of Kyllönen and Haatainen. Kyllönen, an MEP known for her colourful rhetoric, finished with 3,0 % of the vote. The Social Democrats in turn had experienced major difficulties in finding a credible candidate, and Haatainen, known for her expertise in social and health policy, was clearly outside of her comfort zone. Haatainen received a dismal 3,2 % of the vote. This meant that the Social Democrats fared again really badly in presidential elections, with their more high-profile candidate Paavo Lipponen, the prime minister from 1995 to 2003, winning only 6,7 % of the vote in the 2012 elections.

The main excitement in the Centre Party was whether Väyrynen, who had severed ties with his party in the early 1990s over EU membership, would beat Vanhanen who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. The race was indeed quite close, with Väyrynen getting 6,2 % and Vanhanen 4,1 % of the vote. To put it mildly, the outcome was a major embarrassment to Vanhanen and his party. Torvalds received 1,5 % of the vote.

Huhtasaari, the candidate of the populist and anti-immigration Finns Party, won 6,9 % of the vote. Her party had effectively split into two last June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho, convicted in court for hate speech, as the new party leader. Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new party, the Blue Reform, which did not nominate a presidential candidate nor support any of the candidates. Huhtasaari was also the youngest (38) and least experienced of the candidates, having first entered the parliament in the 2015 elections. Hence she clearly performed well, and, together with Väyrynen, the combined vote share of the two Eurosceptical candidates was 13,1 %.

Overall, the results mean more of the same. Niinistö is not in favour of NATO membership, but supports the development of EU’s security and defence policy, bilateral security policy cooperation with Sweden, and maintaining close ties with NATO, views largely shared by the mainstream parties and the public. During his first six-year term Niinistö shared power with cabinets led by centre-right prime ministers, and this clearly contributed to smooth co-leadership in foreign policy. It also facilitated presidential activism, especially since the 2015 parliamentary elections as PM Juha Sipilä has proritised domestic issues such as reviving the economy and the re-organization of social and health services. Hence the results of the next parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2019 and the personality of the next PM will be important in terms of Niinistö’s second term in office.

Ukraine – President Poroshenko and the Anti-Corruption High Court

On 31 December 2017, President Poroshenko used his Twitter account to post a video on the last day of the year. The 1 minute 41 seconds video was a collection of clips with a short text underneath each providing a summary of the greatest achievements of the year. Among the biggest successes, the President named the establishment of the visa-free regime and the association agreement with Europe, the release of 73 hostages held in captivity by Russian-led militants in Donbas, large scale highway works as well as pension, education and medical reforms.

One reform area, however, was absent from the video – a demonstration of achievements in the fight against corruption. Given that corruption is one of the chronic, endemic problems that plagues Ukraine and was the reason for ousting its previous President, it is the reforms in this sphere that Ukrainian civil society is most adamant about.

As we mentioned previously on the pages of the blog, to address the demands for corruption reform the President promised to sign a law launching an anti-corruption court by the end of 2017. On December 22, President’s draft law “On the High Anti-Corruption Court” was registered in Ukraine’s parliament. However, the civil society groups and opposition legislators criticized the President’s draft arguing that it did not guarantee the selection of independent judges.

Civil society groups were not the only ones to disapprove the draft law. Transparency International urged the President to withdraw his draft, rework it and submit a new one, listing several areas where the draft did not adhere to the recommendations of the Venice Commission of October 2017.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also wrote to the President’s office this month expressing concern that the draft law fails to meet the recommendations of the European rights and legal watchdog. Establishing an independent and effective Anti-Corruption Court is one of the reforms required for Ukraine to qualify for the further funding from the IMF, which amounts to $800 million.

Political scientists Robertson and Pop-Eleches call this joint effort between the Ukrainian civil society and the international community to force the country down the road of anti-corruption reforms a “sandwich” model. The model worked effectively in the case of defending the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and other anti-corruption reformers. Whether it will be effective in the case of the Anti-Corruption Court remains to be seen. Recently, the President confirmed that he will amend his legislation to make it more effective.

However, Anders Aslund, a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, is pessimistic about the prospect of the effective reforms in Ukraine. In a recent article, Aslund wrote that the ruling coalition did not seem to be interested in a real independent anti-corruption court or electoral reform even if legislation was under way. Instead, Ukraine’s politicians seemed to be deeply absorbed by the upcoming election scheduled to be held in May 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Moldova – Temporary Suspensions of the President of the Republic

The constitutional choices made in the Republic of Moldova throughout the past 25 years cover an intriguing variety of executive-legislative relations. In the style of a ping-pong game (Fruhstorfer 2016), the idea of going back and forth between a parliamentary and semi-presidential system is a constant theme in the political discussion. At the moment, the game has moved back to a semi-presidential system. This change was not based on a constitutional amendment, but a decision of the constitutional court to declare the 2000 amendments unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016). This decision helped to diffuse the massive protests after a corruption scandal and bank heist in course of which the country lost approx. 1 billion USD (Kottasova 2015, see also Brett et al. 2015). During this crisis, the constitutional court showed an unprecedented level of judicial activism that was, as we will discuss below, no isolated case. It was the start of the Moldovan political elite relying on the constitutional court to help solve inter-institutional conflicts. It is also an example of how a ruling elite tries to preserve its hegemonic status (see Hirschl 2004). To address these issues, this post will briefly describe the chain of controversial decisions of the constitutional court concerning the president since 2016. This is followed by an analysis of the most recent decision to temporarily suspend the president.

The constitutional court and the direct presidential election

In a controversial and surprising decision in March 2016, the constitutional court ruled the 2000 constitutional amendment unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016) and de facto re-established the 1994 constitution and reinstated the direct election of the president. (For an analysis of this court decision, see an earlier post). The first presidential elections under the reinstated 1994 constitutional order took place in November 2016. Igor Dodon won the run-off vote with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Maia Sandu). As in many semi-presidential systems, this led to a period of cohabitation with the government of Pavel Filip. This per se conflictual situation is exacerbated by the constant, yet informal influence of Vlad Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc is a wealthy oligarch, chair of the PDM (Democratic Party of Moldova), and is incredibly unpopular according to recent polls (IRI.org 2017, originally cited by Popșoi 2017). But he managed to transform the PDM that won only close to 16% of the votes in the 2014 parliamentary election into the main political force in Moldova. Right after the election, it was unclear how confrontational the Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon relation might be. Since then, we have seen an “inter-institutional deadlock” (Popșoi 2017), which is, according to a variety of independent observers, only a sham to disguise how Plahotniuc and Dodon have consolidated their power with the help of each other.

The suspension of the president

The activism of the court in recent years has often targeted the presidency, yet the suspension of the president in October 2017 and again in January 2018 added a whole new chapter to the already complicated relations between the president and government. Much of the reasoning behind the motivation of Dodon and Plahotniuc is highly speculative, so it seems useful to describe the facts first.

In October 2017, the Moldovan Constitutional Court suspended the president temporarily. The reason was Dodon’s refusal to appoint Eugen Sturza as Minister of Defense, an appointment process that had already started in December 2016. Early in 2017, the constitutional court had issued an interpretation of Art. 98 of the constitution, whereby the president can only reject the nomination of a cabinet member once (Constitutional Court 2017). Thus, the repeated refusal to appoint Sturza led the government to appeal to the constitutional court again. The court first decided that the refusal to confirm a cabinet nomination is considered a violation of the constitution and can led to a temporary suspension. This suspension was issued by the court and was in force until the acting president (the head of parliament) appointed the new minister.
Yet, the constitutional procedure stipulated by Art. 89 would have been entirely different:

(1) In the event where the President of the Republic of Moldova commits grave offenses infringing upon constitutional provisions, he may be suspended from office by Parliament if two-thirds of the members cast their votes in support of suspension.
(2) The motion requesting the suspension from office may be initiated by at least one-third of the members, and it must be brought to the knowledge of the President without delay. The President may give explanations on the actions for which he is being censured before Parliament.
(3) If the motion requesting suspension from office meets with approval, a national referendum shall be organized within 30 days for removing the President from office.”( Constitution of the Republic of Moldova)

A temporary suspension – not because of health reasons – is thus an invention of the constitutional court that sets a dangerous precedent. Two months later the government again appealed to the court to temporarily suspend the president from office, because Dodon refused to appoint seven new ministers. And again in early 2018, two days after the decision of the court on the second appeal, a third complaint reached the court for another temporary suspension, because the president refused to sign a law banning alleged Russian propaganda. According to Art. 98, the president has only a suspensive veto power, but has to promulgate a law after the initiative is reconfirmed by parliament. However, Dodon refused to promulgate the law and the interim president (again the speaker of parliament) appointed both the ministers and promulgated the law.

Any assessment of the role of the constitutional court, the president and the head of the PDM in this complicated power structure is hardly possible without a partisan reading. Some describe Plahotniuc as a pro-democratic, pro-western figure and the PDM as the main party that guarantees democratic development (RFE/RL 2017). But Plahotniuc is also profiting from East-West tensions, has autocratic tendencies and is accused of corruption (Popșoi 2017a). In any case, he is a main player within the government, although he has no formal governmental role (he is member of parliament and chair of the PDM). Dodon’s role and motivations are less clear. On the one hand, he was the former head of the Socialist Party and has a declared pro-Russian stance. This is a logical explanation for his refusal to promulgate the anti-Russian propaganda law. On the other hand, he cooperated closely with Plahotniuc and the PDM to change the country’s electoral law to a mixed electoral system. This move was widely condemned by international actors (among them most importantly the Venice commission, see Venice Commission 2017). Some observers have even argued that Dodon has reached an informal agreement with Plahotniuc and informally supports the political course to hold his position (see for example Necsutu 2017). Authors have described this as a “political cartel narrative” (Popșoi 2017a) with the aim of a Russia-backed coalition between the Socialists (PD) and the PDM after the upcoming parliamentary elections in November this year.

Beyond the speculation about the motives that led Dodon to comply with the course of Plahotniuc, it is clear that the constitutional court is instrumentalized in allowing the ruling elite to preserve their newly won influence and power. The inter-institutional deadlock is nothing new for the Republic of Moldova and neither is the issue of EU integration vs. close ties with Russia. Neither is necessarily beneficial for democratic development, but both always seemed possible to overcome. Yet, what will have a lasting influence on the downward spiral of Moldovan democracy is the unprecedented involvement of the court in the power struggle that will undermine what is left of the public’s trust in the constitutional court.

Literature

BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Constitutional Court (2017): 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/ [accessed January 14 2018]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Moldova, in: Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Edited by Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Springer VS, 359-387.
Kottasova, Ivana (2015): How to steal $ 1 billion in three days. http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/07/news/economy/moldova-stolen-billion/. May 7 [accessed January 10, 2018]
IRI.org (2017): Public Opinion Survey (2017). http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_moldova_poll_march_2017.pdf. [accessed January 10, 2018]
Necsutu, Madalin (2017): Dodon Response to Suspension Puzzles Moldova’s Socialists, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/dodon-response-to-suspension-puzzles-moldova-s-socialists-01-10-2018 [January, 14, 2018]
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]
Popșoi, Mihai (2017a): Moldovan Politics 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/12/27/moldovan-politics-2017-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/ [accessed January 15, 2018]
Venice Commission (2017): Joint opinion on the draft laws on amending and completing certain legislative acts, in: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)012-e [accessed January 10, 2018]

Cyprus – The 2018 presidential election: A war of all against all

In less than two weeks’ time, the people of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) are going to the polls for the 12th time in Cyprus’ presidential electoral history to elect the 8th president of the Republic (the first elections were held in 1960 when Cyprus gained its independence from Britain). As already mentioned in a previous post, five major candidates will contest the elections with a clear favorite to win: the current right-wing president Nicos Anastasiades. In this short post, I will try to summarize the most basic things that one has to bear in mind with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections in Cyprus.

1. The first round of the elections is scheduled for 28 January 2018 and if a second round is needed (almost certainly), this will take place on 4 February.

2. The President of Cyprus (Greek Cypriot by constitutional provision) is the highest authority in the country with very strong powers in his/her possession, unmatched in any other country of the EU. The president is both head of state and government. The only check on the institution’s power was the Turkish Cypriot vice-president as was envisaged in the London-Zurich agreements that established the Republic of Cyprus (1959-1960). However, the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from all state and government institutions in 1964 following inter-communal clashes and the subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974 mean that the president has concentrated all powers in the office.

3. Presidential elections are held every five years under a majoritarian two-round system, i.e., a successful candidate needs to receive a majority of the votes to be elected. With some exceptions, the rule in Cyprus is that a second round is needed to determine the president.

4. Given the majoritarian system and the absence of a dominant party that has more than 50% support on its own, all political parties and candidates try to strike bargains between them, particularly after the first round has ended.

5. In the past, presidents from all ideological currents have governed, including the self-declared communist AKEL (2008-2013), rendering the elections a matter more of political efficiency than ideology. Cyprus’ EU membership also limits the space for competition based on ideology and clearly distinct between policies and elevates issues of transparency and corruption on the agenda.

6. All types of elections in recent years have been held under conditions of extreme popular discontent towards political actors and very low levels of trust in them. This election is no different, particularly following the 2013 bail-in that saw a significant haircut in bank deposits of many Cypriots and the collapse of the powerful banking system of the country.

7. Apart the current president who is running for re-election (supported by his own party, the right-wing DISY), the other four major candidates are: N. Papadopoulos, president of DIKO and who is supported by an alliance of four parties (center-right DIKO, center-left EDEK, Solidarity Movement and the Greens); S. Malas, an independent who is supported by the left-wing AKEL; G. Lillikas, president of the Citizens’ Alliance; and C. Christou, president of the extreme right National Popular Front-ELAM.

8. The electoral strength of the major parties is as follows: the right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY) 30.69%; the left-wing Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) 25.67%; the center-right Democratic Party (DIKO) 14.49%; the social democrats EDEK, 6.18%; the right-wing, nationalist Solidarity Movement, 5.24%; Green Party, 4.82%; Citizens Alliance, 6.01%; and the extreme-right ELAM, 3.71%. Based on these figures alone and bearing in mind which candidates the parties support, it is likely that that N. Anastasiades and N. Papadopoulos are the favorites to progress to the second round. However, one plus one does not always equal two in politics.

9. It was thought that the inglorious conclusion of the discussions for finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities last July would dominate the campaign. However, the polls indicate that most people are primarily concerned with the economy, with the Cyprus problem coming second. Issues of corruption are also significant in these elections.

10. Programmatic discourse has been de-emphasised during the campaign. This has been complimented by a move towards the personalization of politics and electoral campaigns; this trend has been under way in Cyprus generally in recent times and is not confined to this electoral campaign. Most polls indicate that the personality of the candidate and not party affiliation will play the most crucial role in the voter’s final decision. In turn, this trend enhances the role of the leader at the expense of the party organization. Additionally, the majority of the polls also reveal voter choice is based on whom they perceive as the least bad among the candidates and not the best option.

11. Abstention is expected to reach the highest ever level in any presidential election. In the last presidential elections abstention rose to almost 20% in the second round (17% in the first) and is now expected to climb further. Moreover, approximately 30,000 of the eligible 40,000 voters did not register until the deadline of 18 December 2017; the vast majority of them being persons under the age of 22, which shows an aversion of young people to politics and adds to the abstention rate.

12. The campaign thus far, and with no indication of change going forward, has been one of a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. This is particularly true for the three main candidates, Anastasiades, Papadopoulos and Malas. Accusations are exchanged constantly and on a daily basis between them, as well as between their supporting parties on all issues. For example, Lillikas indirectly accused Papadopoulos of offering him money and public office to withdraw his candidacy and support him. On another occasion, all candidates demanded that the president replace his minister of interior because of his partisan behaviour and partiality while being responsible for the organization of the elections. This polarization between the candidates, in turn, questions their ability to form alliances at the second round and arguably places the strongest candidate (N. Anastasiades) in an advantageous position since the bridges between Papadopoulos and Malas and the parties supporting them seem broken.

13. President Anastasiades has focused on three issues that are believed to be his strongest assets: his strong personality and authority; the fact that he improved the economy, successfully guiding the country’s exit from the memorandum and the crisis; and his ability to strike new and also enhance old international cooperation agreements with neighboring countries. Papadopoulos has highlighted his new agenda/strategy for disengaging from former presidents’ concessions with regard to the Cyprus problem; his reliability with regard to the economy; and his ability to act as a unifying figure between several parties. Malas has campaigned on the freshness that his candidacy brings to political life, and that has no links to the corrupt political and party system. He has also tried to stress the independent status of his candidacy vis-à-vis claims that he is nothing more than AKEL’s puppet.

14. If we believe the polls, President Anastasiades is favorite not only to win through to the second round but also to win at the second round, regardless of who stands against him. The polls suggest that N. Papadopoulos stands a better chances than S. Malas in a possible second round with N. Anastasiades. However, if Anastasiades were not to win, it would not be the first time in Cyprus that the polls got it wrong.

15. Given the belief that N. Anastasiades will win the election, the most significant issue in this election campaign is who will win through to the second round with Anastasiades. This raises the stakes for AKEL as a party and N. Papadopoulos as a person. Both AKEL and Papadopoulos face significant blame-gaming if they fail to win through.

16. The day after the election matters primarily with regard to the new president’s stance on the Cyprus problem and less on his economic policies. The latter point connects the presidential elections in the RoC with the ‘parliamentary’ elections held just a few days apart in the northern, occupied part of Cyprus; these elections took place a few days earlier (7 January 2018). While the elections did not concern the new leader of the community, they were crucial with regard to the parties’ results and their positions both regarding the Cyprus problem and relations with Turkey. A first reading of the results reveals tricky times ahead, since the political parties of the right that are more sceptical and more hardline regarding the Cyprus problem and more receptive of Turkey’s wishes and demands won a majority amidst increased abstention.

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite’s Anti-Zapad campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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